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Working With James Dean and Jack Lemmon: Dick Van Patten on Live Television

Working With James Dean and Jack Lemmon: Dick Van Patten on Live Television

 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.

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