Dick Van Patten, a onetime juvenile star of Broadway, radio and TV who played the genteel patriarch on the hit 1970s comedy-drama “Eight Is Enough” and proved his versatility in Walt Disney fare and Mel Brooks parodies, died June 23 in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 86.
The cause was complications from diabetes, said a family friend, Daniel Bernstein.
Billed as Dickie Van Patten for much of his youth and adolescence, he appeared on hundreds of radio shows and in such notable Broadway productions as “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1942), Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning allegorical drama about human folly.
As a child, he developed a precocious interest in horse-track betting, which endeared him to his famously world-weary “Skin” co-star, Tallulah Bankhead. “Miss Bankhead said I was the only child actor she liked because I could read the Racing Form,” he quipped.
Mr. Van Patten moved into television work during its infancy. He was a featured performer as the brother Nels on the warmhearted series “Mama” from 1949 to 1956 about a Norwegian American family in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century; the show had earlier been a hit play and film under the title “I Remember Mama.”
Future movie stars Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon appeared on the show as friends of Nels. During an Army stint, Mr. Van Patten was briefly replaced in his role by the unknown but determined James Dean.
In an interview for the Archive of American Television, Mr. Van Patten recalled of Dean, “This fellow used to follow me around all the time. I would go to play cards, he would sit next to me. He wanted to be an actor so bad. And because I was working all the time, he used to hang around. He was almost like my flunky. I would say, ‘Go get me a pack of cigarettes, go get me a Coke.”
As the sole support of his mother, Mr. Van Patten was released from his draft obligation and sent back to civilian life, and Dean was out of a job. Within a few years, Dean was the biggest star in Hollywood, the emblem of brooding teenage angst, and Mr. Van Patten would spend decades in the show-business wilderness.
Neither a heartthrob nor a conveying threat, Mr. Van Patten became a journeyman TV performer, a familiar round face with piercing blue eyes and a balding pate. He was a welcome presence who nonetheless failed to click in series work, notably as a gluttonous Friar Tuck in Mel Brooks’s reimagining of the Robin Hood legend, “When Things Were Rotten” (1975); Dick Gautier played the clueless leader of the Merry Men.
“I wasn’t worried about unemployment,” Mr. Van Patten told The Washington Post in 1977. “I was getting tired of failure.”
He came into his own as a television star on “Eight is Enough,” which aired on ABC from 1977 to 1981 and was based on a book by syndicated newspaper columnist Tom Braden about raising eight independent-minded children.
As a character named Tom Bradford, Mr. Van Patten played an understanding father who endures widowhood and remarriage as well as the major life developments and crises of his sprawling brood.
It was a choice part, and Mr. Van Patten said he only got the role because a top ABC executive and future network president, Fred Silverman, had grown up “idolizing” him on “Mama.”
“The writers didn’t want me,” he told the Boston Globe. “The production company didn’t want me. For three days they shot the pilot with another actor in the part. Silverman saw the tapes. ‘Scrap them!’ he said. ‘Either use van Patten or the pilot is a no-go!’ He insisted on having me. He said I was neither too goody-goody, nor too heavy. He used his power on my behalf. Lucky, lucky, lucky.”
Richard Vincent Van Patten was born in Queens on Dec. 9, 1928. He began working onstage at 7, and a younger sister, Joyce, followed, pushed by a strong-willed “stage mother.”
“That aggressiveness broke up my parents’ marriage. They were divorced when I was 14. She was obsessed with my becoming an actor,” he told the Globe. “I remember how my mom would take me on the subway from Queens to Broadway. We’d go to the offices of casting agents. Many doors were slammed in our faces. I was just a boy, but I remember that well.”
He never went to high school, instead attending a professional children’s school for many of his formative years. He met his future wife, Patricia Poole, at the school. She became a dancer with the June Taylor troupe. They married in 1954.
Besides his wife and sister, survivors include three sons, actors Nels Van Patten, James Van Patten and Vincent Van Patten, a former world-ranked tennis pro; a half-brother, Tim Van Patten, a noted television director; and several grandchildren.
For Disney, Mr. Van Patten appeared opposite young stars Dean Jones, Kurt Russell and Jodie Foster in movies such as “Superdad” (1973), “The Strongest Man in the World” (1975), “The Shaggy D.A.” (1976) and “Freaky Friday” (1976). Meanwhile, he proved a game farceur in Brooks’s Hitchcock satire “High Anxiety” (1977) as well as “Spaceballs” (1987), his “Star Wars” takeoff, and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” (1993).
Mr. Van Patten, who found time to start a pet food brand called Natural Balance, maintained a prolific TV career through recent years on shows as disparate as “Touched by an Angel,” “Arrested Development” and “Hot in Cleveland.” He also wrote a memoir, “Eighty is Enough.”
He appeared in several “Weird Al” Yankovic videos, such as “Smells Like Nirvana,” and displayed his comic edge to marvelous advantage in a 1989 tennis video called “Dirty Tennis,” which featured Bruce Jenner (pre-Caitlyn) and Nicollette Sheridan.
To defeat an arrogant, super-athletic opponent (Jenner), Mr. Van Patten offered tricks such as distracting garb (bathing suit, hot-orange tank top, black socks) and paying your children’s most alluring friends to sun themselves at courtside. The series also used subtitles to comic effect.
When Jenner says, “You, Dick, are playing great,” he means, “I always hated you in ‘Eight Is Enough.’ ”