In the world of classic television sitcom patriarchs, Dick Van Patten surely ranked high on the list of all-time favorite dads. Best remembered for his role of Tom Bradford in the ABC family series Eight is Enough, which ran from 1977-1981, Van Patten died June 23 at the age of 86 from complications of diabetes.
He appeared in dozens of films, television movies and series, guest-starring over the past decade in TV hits such as That ’70s Show, Arrested Development, and Hot in Cleveland.
In a March, 2007, interview, I talked with then 78-year-old Van Patten from his Sherman Oaks’ home while he recovered from a mild diabetic stroke. But he was eager to talk about his careers.
He was gratified to have not only left his mark on the world of entertainment, but he was also proud to see his moniker adoring cans of dog food.
In 1989, he co-founded Natural Balance Pet Foods, the first national pet food company to produce all-natural dog food products. In his early 60s at the time, Van Patten successfully crafted a second vocation at an age when many would be hunting for retirement villas in Florida.
“If you’re healthy and have the energy, it’s never too late to start a new career,” Van Patten told me. “It may even make you feel young again!”
Despite the lack of previous business experience in retail sales, the new career involving pets was the fulfillment of a life-long dream.
“I’ve always loved animals and as a kid, I wanted to own a pet store,” he said, recalling that his childhood home in Queens, NY, was often filled with dogs, cats, lizards, turtles, toads, rabbits and guinea pigs. “I even kept an alligator in a bathtub.”
But Oscar – the scaly reptilian bathroom lodger – eventually outgrew his welcome and was retired to the Central Park Zoo. “When he got to be three feet long my grandmother, who lived with us, made me get rid of him because no one could take a bath.”
Some five decades later, Van Patten was not only a noted actor but owner of one of the largest pet food businesses in the country, with sales that quickly topped $100 million a year.
Balancing a pair of successful careers while in his 70s wasn’t all that difficult, Van Patten said. “The acting didn’t take up too much time, and I’ve always been active and had a lot of energy. I still found time to play tennis and go to the racetrack.”
At the time of our 2007 interview, Van Patten still took an active role promoting his pet food products but the stroke left him with neuropathy and a tingling sensation in his leg.
“It’s annoying and prevented me from playing tennis, which I love,” he said.
Tennis was a life-long passion for Van Patten and his family. His youngest son, Vince, was once ranked in the top 30 professional tennis players in the world.
“I’ve played tennis since I was seven years old, and used to play seven days a week until the stroke,” said Van Patten. “I definitely would recommend tennis to healthy seniors who need more exercise in their lives.”
He also welcomed many major tennis pros on his family’s home court over the years and had faced off against a good many fellow celebrities wielding a racket.
Actor/producer Mel Brooks was a long-time friend and tennis foe of Van Patten, and vividly recalled their many encounters on the court when I talked with him in 2007.
“I hate facing Dick on the other side of the net,” admitted Brooks by phone from his office in Culver City. “He’s a devastatingly cunning player. He can slice the ball and make it bounce in some weird fashion making it difficult to hit.”
“Actually I was a rich man until I met Dick Van Patten,” he added, breaking into what could easily have been part of a script from a Brooks’ film. “He introduced me to the racetrack. He had a horse called Water Zip who would come from way behind, and at the finish line he would still be way behind. I ended up hanging around the racetrack picking up cigarettes butts because I couldn’t afford to buy a pack. I still run into Dick at the track and take a chance on his uncanny ability to pick losers.”
Concluding our interview, Brooks shared a sincere moment that many would agree with today. “But everyone who knows Dick loves him.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers.