Dick Van Patten, star of TV, stage and 10 Chimneys
Most of us know actor Dick Van Patten as the laid-back father in the late 1970’s TV series Eight is Enough. That role is but a moment of an entertainment career that spanned nearly eight decades. Born in 1928, Van Patten made his Broadway debut at seven. His career took a very particular turn in 1946, when he auditioned with 100 other boys for a role in a new Terence Rattigan play, O Mistress Mine. He, Marlon Brando and Roddy McDowell were called back. Lynn Fontanne choose Van Patten.
The play was Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne’s biggest commercial success. It ran four years, including 452 Broadway performances and years on the road. To prepare the young Van Patten for the role, the Lunts asked him to come to Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, Wis. He’s returning to Ten Chimneys to talk about his life as an actor and his new book, Eighty is Not Enough.
In advance of his talk at Ten Chimneys, TCD’s Paul Masterson interviewed Van Patten.
TDC: What prompted you to write your book?
Dick Van Patten: I began acting on Broadway when I was seven and have just kept going. In my nearly 80 years in show business I’ve accumulated a lot of memories. I appeared in dozens of shows, on radio, TV and in movies with wonderful actors and personalities. I have so many stories and love to tell them. People suggested I write them down. So I did. It turned out to be a history of sorts.
TCD: What was it like with the Lunts at Ten Chimneys?
Dick Van Patten: When I got the part in Oh Mistress Mine, the Lunts asked me to come out to Genesee Depot. The part was the biggest juvenile part ever – the role was bigger than Alfred Lunt’s. They wanted to work with me for a week or so before the regular rehearsals began.
TCD: Who else was at Ten Chimneys when you arrived? Were you part of the Lunts’ social scene or just the kid who happened to be there?
Dick Van Patten: It was the Lunts and the servants. I was just the kid. They’d work with me for two hours a day and we ate together. I stayed in Noel Coward’s room. But once the show started I got to know them better. They were like a second set of parents. People don’t know it but Alfred was a great fan of the circus… and he idolized burlesque comedians and got such a kick out of them. When we were on the road, he took me to Barnum and Bailey’s Circus rehearsals and to burlesque clubs. Lynn Fontanne was always good to me but we weren’t as close.
Dick Van Patten: It was an incredible experience. I was never bored. I learned so much watching the Lunts. They talked over each other on stage and no one had ever done that before. They were fascinating people. On and off stage, they were perfection.
TCD: And they must have been impressed with you.
Dick Van Patten: Well, I got good reviews. In fact, I was offered seven-year contracts by two big movie studios. The Lunts didn’t want me to leave. So I stayed with the show.
TCD: Because you were that good?
Dick Van Patten: Maybe, but I think they just didn’t want to train a new actor.
TCD: You moved to California in 1970. Did you ever go back to the stage?
Dick Van Patten: I never got the chance. I moved to Los Angeles for a show and kept getting work. There were the series like Eight is Enough and miniseries, movie roles and specials. I got settled.
TCD: Your career really is the history of modern entertainment. What was your favorite medium?
Dick Van Patten: Lots of actors say they prefer the stage and the live audience. I always enjoyed TV series best. It’s different every week – plots develop, characters develop. It’s always fresh.
TCD: And how do you see today’s Hollywood?
Dick Van Patten: It’s certainly not the same. Things have changed dramatically. In the 40’s and 50’s, here were great plots with twists and turns – and great characters. Theater was the foundation for a lot of actors back then. Now they go directly into film. Today they don’t know how to make movies. They lost the art.
TCD: You’re coming back to Ten Chimneys as part of its Conversation series. What can we expect?
Dick Van Patten: Another memory to add to the collection.
Dick Van Patten will speak on the Conversations Series at Ten Chimneys at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 10. For reservations, call 262-968-4110. For further information, visit the Ten Chimneys website.