‘ Eight is Enough’ star, pet food firm co- founder

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By David Colker david. colker@ latimes. com

Ac­tor Dick Van Pat­ten, best known for play­ing the ge­nial dad on the “Eight is Enough” hit TV se­ries in the 1970s and 1980s, had a long and var­ied ca­reer that started be­fore he could read.

He was signed to a child mod­el­ing agency at 3, was on Broad­way at 7, acted with the Lunts ( beat­ing out Mar­lon Brando for the part) at 16, and was in the cast of the land­mark 1950s TV hit “Mama.” He also ap­peared in sev­eral movies and had guest roles on scores of TV shows.

Cer­tainly a suc­cess­ful ca­reer, but peanuts fi­nan­cially, com­pared to his ven­ture into another busi­ness. In the mid- 1980s, Van Pat­ten, who was an an­i­mal lover, co­founded Nat­u­ral Bal­ance Pet Foods, which grew into one of the most suc­cess­ful brands in the coun­try. The com­pany was sold to food gi­ant Del Monte in 2013 for sev­eral hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars.

“He used to tell me he made more money off the busi­ness,” said com­pany co­founder Joey Her­rick, “than all the act­ing com­bined.”

Van Pat­ten, 86, died Tues­day at Saint John’s Health Cen­ter in Santa Mon­ica. The cause was com­pli­ca­tions from di­a­betes, pub­li­cist Jeffrey Bal­lard said.

His last credit was for an ap­pear­ance on the “Hot in Cleve­land” TV se­ries in 2011.

“I loved work­ing with Dick Van Pat­ten,” Mel Brooks said in a state­ment. Brooks cast the ac­tor in “Space­balls,” “High Anx­i­ety” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” as well as the short- lived TV se­ries “When Things Were Rot­ten.”

“He could do drama, com­edy and had a tal­ent for that rarest of gifts — satire,” Brooks said. “Had he been a base­ball player he would have been a great util­ity in­fielder.”

The pro­duc­ers of “Eight Is Enough,” which ran from 1977 to 1981, had orig­i­nally cho­sen a dif­fer­ent ac­tor for the role of the pa­tri­arch of a fam­ily with eight highly in­de­pen­dent chil­dren. But ABC pres­i­dent Fred Silverman, remembering Van Pat­ten from “Mama,” wanted the ac­tor for his abil­ity to play both com­edy and drama.

The show may not have been as edgy as some oth­ers of the time, in­clud­ing “All in the Fam­ily,” Van Pat­ten wrote in his 2009 memoir, “Eighty is Not Enough,” but it dealt with real- world fam­ily sit­u­a­tions.

“The most im­por­tant re­cur­ring theme in­volved the dif­fi­cul­ties of com­ing of age,” he wrote.

He was born on Dec. 9, 1928, in the Kew Gar­dens neigh­bor­hood of Queens in New York City.

Show busi­ness was not his choice as a boy. That de­ci­sion was made by his mother.

“My mother was ag­gres­sive, the typ­i­cal stage mother,” he told the Bos­ton Globe in 1988. She got him a photo test at the prom­i­nent John Robert Pow­ers agency, lead­ing to ads for kids’ cloth­ing, bread, tooth­paste and other items.

Next she wanted him to con­quer the stage.

“I re­mem­ber how my mom would take me on the sub­way from Queens to Broad­way,” he told the Globe. “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.”

His Broad­way de­but was in the World War I drama “Ta­pes­try in Gray” in 1935 with Melvyn Dou­glas. It f lopped, but Van Pat­ten be­gan to en­joy the show busi­ness life. At 14 he ap­peared in the 1942 pro­duc­tion of Thorn­ton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which starred the f lam­boy­ant Tal­lu­lah Bankhead. At one point, Bankhead called him to her dress­ing room, “and there she was sit­ting on her chair in front of the mir­ror — stark naked!” Van Pat­ten wrote. She wanted to tell him to change the de­liv­ery of one of his lines.

“For the re­main­der of the show,” he wrote, “I kept think­ing to my­self, maybe I should mess up the line again so Tal­lu­lah would call me back to her.”

He also picked up a life­long fond­ness for horse races. When asked at school to write a how- I- spent- my sum­mer- va­ca­tion es­say, he wrote one called “How to Beat the Races.” His teacher, not amused, ex­pelled him, and Van Pat­ten never fin­ished high school.

Af­ter years on tele­vi­sion made him a fa­mil­iar f ig­ure, he was a reg­u­lar guest on talk shows. While guest host­ing “The John David­son Show” in 1982, he had a con­ver­sa­tion over lunch with Her­rick, a drum­mer in the show band. They talked about their love of dogs, and Her­rick called him a few years later with a pro­posal to start a pet food com­pany.

“He would do any­thing to pro­mote the prod­uct,” Her­rick said, in­clud­ing eat­ing from the can of one of their brands that was made to hu­man food stan­dards.

“I never met any­one who en­joyed life as much as he did,” Her­rick said.

Van Pat­ten is sur­vived by his wife, Pat; sons Nels, Jimmy and Vin­cent, who are all ac­tors; his ac­tress sis­ter, Joyce Van Pat­ten; and half­brother Ti­mothy Van Pat­ten, who is a di­rec­tor.

‘ EIGHT I S ENOUGH’ Dick Van Pat­ten, cen­ter back, played the pa­tri­arch of a fam­ily with eight chil

dren in the TV hit that ran from 1977 to 1981. He was on Broad­way at age 7.

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