Mr. Van Patten was never a glamorous performer. He specialized in playing the Everyman, genially muddling through life, his performances earnest and seemingly egoless. Never was this persona more apparent than during his five-season run at Tom Bradford, the patriarch of "Eight Is Enough," a 1970s sitcom based on the life of Tom Braden, a syndicated columnist who, indeed, had eight children. The hour-long drama was a surprise hit when it debuted in 1977. In every episode, in semi-soap-opera-ish fashion, the Bradford clan dealt with some family crisis or other with care and compassion.
New York Times television critic John J. O’Connor wrote at the time, "Tom and Joan Bradford, played engagingly by Dick Van Patten and Diana Hyland, treat their eight children like people, not cute artifacts. In the pilot, one daughter was caught in a drug bust, and their oldest son decided to move away from home. Both developments, however contrived, were treated with an appealing blend of intelligence and humor."
Show co-star Betty Buckley tweeted this response:
Heartsick to hear #DickVanPatten has passed away. Wonderful human being,actor, comedian, Super Dad, beloved friend & role model.
— Betty Buckley (@BettyBuckley) June 23, 2015
Richard Vincent Van Patten was born Dec. 9, 1928, in Kew Gardens, New York. Before he was ten, he was acting on Broadway in the Max Reinhardt spectacle The Eternal Road. The apple-cheeked, blonde Van Patten became one of the most ubiquitous child actors on Broadway in the 1930s and early '40s, appearing in Paul Osborne’s On Borrowed Time, Run Sheep Run, The American Way, The Woman Brown, The Lady Who Came to Stay, The Land Is Bright, The Snark Was a Boojum and, most significantly, the original production of Thornton Wilder’s. The Skin of Our Teeth, in which he played a telegraph boy. As he matured into a teenager, he acting in Decision, Too Hot for Maneuvers, The Wind Is Ninety and O Mistress Mine. He later stepped into the role of Ensign Pulver in the hit production of the wartime comedy Mister Roberts.
Mr. Van Patten became an early star of the new medium of television when, in 1949, he was cast as Nels Hansen in "Mama," a CBS sitcom based on the Kathryn Forbes memoir "Mama’s Bank Account" (the same book that inspired the John Van Druten play I Remember Mama. The show, which ran until 1957, told the story of a Norwegian family living in San Francisco in the 1910s. Like "Eight Is Enough" many years later, the show was a warm-hearted program in which family members helped each other through their problems. It was taped live during its first seasons, and was a ratings success for much of its run.
Dick Van Patten never had much of a film career, but he found a devoted director in Mel Brooks, who sent up the actor's sincere, all-American persona in the satiric films "High Anxiety," "Spaceballs" and "Robin Hood: Men in Tights." (Musical satirist "Weird Al" Yankovic lampooned that same perceived squareness by casting Van Patten in his video spoof of Nirvana’s grunge rock hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit.")
A dogged worker, he logged countless guest spots in a wide variety of television series throughout the '70s and '80s. Later Broadway jobs included Have I Got a Girl for You! (1963), A Very Rich Woman (1965), Lovers and Other Strangers (1968), But, Seriously… (1969) and Thieves (1974). The last, a Herb Gardner comedy directed by Charles Grodin, was the most successful, running nearly a year.