Most people associate the late Dick Van Patten with the TV series Eight is Enough, or his appearances in a handful of Mel Brooks comedies. But millions of people (including my wife) grew up watching him on Mama, the heartwarming show that began in television’s infancy and remained a mainstay for nine years: nine years of live performances, 44 weeks a year!
Dick was a genial fellow and needed no prodding to talk about this phase of his life. People used to call out to him on the streets of New York—not by his real name but by the boy he played on Mama. No wonder he named one of his sons after that character, Nels.
Hollywood had its version of Kathryn Forbes’ autobiographical stories: I Remember Mama (1948) with Irene Dunne. But the television adaptation came into Americans’ homes week after week, year after year, and made them feel as if the family headed by Peggy Wood and Judson Laire, with Rosemary Rice and Robin Morgan, was part of their lives.
The nearly-forgotten era of live TV was based in New York and relied on the theater community for its talent pool. I sat down with Dick Van Patten one day, some years ago, and asked him about the people he encountered during his long run on Mama.
“I was a teenager, I was in high school, and my friends on that show who all had recurring parts—it’s amazing. You’re going to think I’m exaggerating. My four friends were John Kerr, who became a star, Paul Newman, Jimmy Dean, and Jack Lemmon.”
“Paul Newman was appearing then in the play Picnic. Jack Lemmon was just starting in television and this was one of his first jobs. Jimmy Dean was doing nothing; this was the first thing he got and he was walking around starry-eyed. It’s funny; we were about the same age, and he sort idolized me. I guess I kind of represented the life that he would have loved to have had, because I was working on Broadway at night and doing this TV show once a week. He would come up to me during rehearsals and say, ‘Can I have lunch with you?’ Then he would go to dinner with me and say ‘What are you doing tonight?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to a poker game.’ He’d say, ‘Can I come and watch?’ and he used to come and sit and watch me play poker till three in the morning. I sort of treated him like a flunky; I used to send him out for cigarettes and get me a Coca Cola.
“He was very interested in acting and when we would be rehearsing, he would stand on the side and say to me, ‘You know, I think the art of acting, the whole technique of acting is not to know your lines too well, to just be a little sketchy, so that when you’re talking, you’re sort of thinking of what the lines are.’ And I said to him, ‘That sounds good but I don’t think it’s practical, because the best performances I’ve ever given are when I know the lines really well and I’m really on top of it, and the weakest performances I’ve ever given are when I was a little shaky on the lines.’ So I didn’t agree with him. I don’t know whether he carried that on when he did become a star, but that was his technique. That’s what he used to tell me he was going to do.
“But he was serious and there was a sadness in his eyes, like tragedy written in his eyes. And he was always sort of sad and worried about his acting…and in awe of actors that were working all the time.”
Then another memory sparked in Dick’s mind.
“Doris Quinlan was the producer of the show and [several years in] the Korean War was on and I got drafted. This is when Jimmy Dean was following me around and he says, ‘Dick, please, they’re gonna have to replace you. Please put in a word for me.’ And I went to Doris Quinlan and I said, ‘You know, Jimmy would be a good replacement for me.’ She said, ‘Oh, he’s a very interesting actor, but I don’t think he’s funny.’ I used to do a lot of light comedy in it and she said, ‘I don’t think he can be funny.’ Anyway, I kept going to Doris… I did get drafted and I left the show for one week. Then I got out of the Army because I was the sole support at that time for my mother. I came back and they did hire Jimmy Dean: he replaced me for one week. And he was sick when I came back out of the Army. He tried to act nice—‘Gee, I’m glad you’re out of it, Dick’—but he was really sick [over it].”
I wondered aloud what might have happened had he remained in the role of Nels, and Dick said with a laugh, “He probably never would have become a star. I probably made him a star!”
What about Jack Lemmon?
“Jack had the whole cast to his apartment for a party one night and he played the piano for us; we were all so impressed. He’s a wonderful pianist, you know? But he was very nice and very funny. His big break while we were doing Mama was, they were going to do a revival of the play Room Service. Moss Hart’s brother, Bernie Hart, was going to direct and produce it. He opened up in Room Service and that shot him right out to do Pulver in [the movie of] Mister Roberts and made him a star.
“Paul Newman was also on Broadway working in the play Picnic, so he was sort of established while he was doing the show. That show was an ideal show for Broadway actors to do,” Dick explained,” because we went on from 8 to 8:30 ‘live’ and then they could run right over to the theatre and get to the play they were in.”
For Van Patten, the challenge was making his timely entrance in Mister Roberts.
“I would have a cab waiting for me downstairs, a special cab. I’d get off the air at 8:25. I would run down to the cab and they would shoot me right over to the Alvin Theatre, I would put on the Navy uniform and I was [Ensign] Pulver with Henry Fonda, and I would go out and do the show. There were a couple of times they would hold the curtain ‘til I got there; they had to hold the curtain five or ten minutes longer and the audience would start to applaud because they were anxious to get the show going. But I worked out. I was also in The Male Animal. I was in three plays while I was doing Mama, during the course of the [run]…but it was exciting.”
Live television was not without its perils, of course. Judson Laire played Papa, and there were usually five scenes during each half-hour program. Dick recalled,
“If you were through after the third scene you would leave, because there was no reason to stay because it was a live show. You’d go home, go up to your dressing room and you’d get out. So after the third scene, Judson Laire was through. He leaves, goes down in the cab, and all of a sudden he remembers that he was in the last scene. What a horrible feeling for an actor: it’s like a nightmare, you know? Well, what happened was: we got to the last scene and we realized that Papa had left, he wasn’t there. We’re in the kitchen, so the director, Ralph Nelson, stood outside the kitchen window and yelled papa’s lines, and put on a Norwegian [accent]—‘Yah, sure’—and took all of Papa’s lines. It was so silly, so ridiculous, he was yelling the lines from offstage making believe he was Papa, but anyway, we got through it. Things like that happened all the time on live TV. Poor Judson Laire, it must have taken years off his life.”
One of the things my wife Alice remembers most about Mama was that the family always gathered around the kitchen table to enjoy Maxwell House coffee.
“They never had a commercial in the middle of the show,” Dick confirmed. “it was a wonderful thing; that’s unheard of today, and the cast, Peggy Wood and myself, we were in the commercial. I think it was nice of the sponsor not to interrupt the show. It was a beautiful show. I’ve been in so many shows; that one had something extra. Every show, there was a scene that would make you laugh and then the next page there’d be something sentimental, very touching and you would cry. It was a very well-written show, by Frank Gabrielson.”
Only someone so young could have survived working at this kind of dizzying pace, it seems to me. “I used to go from one job to another. I started at seven years old in theater and used to go from one job to another. I had no idea that this would run for eight years. It was TV; it was all new to me.”
But to the end of his days, Dick was devoted to show business, like his sister Joyce and so many of his children. He told me, “We’re very lucky people, doing something that we really love to do. I feel privileged to have been an actor all my life.” I can’t think of a better epitaph.