Alan Thicke -- who died Tuesday at age 69 -- was among the last of TV’s great renaissance men, although self-deprecating and wise to the ways of Hollywood fame, he would have probably taken exception to the word “great.” But Thicke did -- and did well -- quite simply everything there was to do in show business.
Writer, author, musician, host, talk show host, producer, and composer he was also an actor on stage and screen. He wasn’t a Long Islander, but played one on TV. He graced many series, most recently “This is Us” and “Fuller House,” in that other enduring Thicke role, the cameo walk-on, which inspired either applause, or wonder simply for who he once was: Alan Thicke.
Thicke was one of TV’s most Famous Dads, and inspired a string on others to come, most notably Bill Cosby. He was an ‘80s TV icon, when words like “icon” seemed suspiciously like hyperbole. In Thicke’s case, it was not.
As renaissance man, Thicke found his way in front of a camera for nearly 50 years, beginning back in the late ‘60s when he started out on Canadian TV (as you also know, he was among Canada’s most famous TV exports, along with William Shatner and Michael J. Fox). Canadian TV could only take him so far and by the ‘80s, this Hollywood transplant found his way onto “The Love Boat,” and then in 1985, to the show that would define both Thicke and an entire genre, “Growing Pains.”
Set in Huntington, but taped in LA, it was one of just a handful of sitcoms that found in a fictional Long Island a middle America that was both safe and recognizable. In the ambit of New York City, it was part of a sitcom tradition that stretched back to “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (New Rochelle). The big city was out there, just over the horizon. But the Seaver household on that leafy unnamed street in that leafy suburb was an oasis. Thicke, as the wise, congenial Dr. Jason Seaver -- even named for a local New York hero -- was the master if not quite commander of this realm.
It’s easy to forget now that “Growing Pains,” as the title indicated, was really about the children, most notably Kirk Cameron (Mike Seaver) and Tracey Gold (Carol Seaver). Dr. Seaver and spouse Maggie (Joanna Kerns) were the lion tamers.
“Growing Pains” typecast Thicke who -- by talent and inclination -- simply refused to be typecast. Before his “Pains” run, he was already world-famous, because he had the audacity to take on Johnny Carson with his short-lived “Thicke of the Night.”
“Thicke” was a remarkable feat, and a presumptuous one, for it assumed that there were actually people out there who didn’t want to go to bed at 11:30 with Johnny Carson. “Thicke” was hampered from the start, however, and the fight was hardly a fair one. His show landed on a weaker-than-network station lineup, and could hardly match “Tonight” guest for guest. But as host, Thicke was affable and a good listener.
He was also -- that word again -- self-deprecating. As an actual talk show style, this was almost unheard of. Viewers were used to authority (Mike Douglas) or inherent star power (Merv Griffin), or edginess (Phil Donahue). Thicke tended to laugh at himself on occasion, which tended to disarm those who may have expected otherwise: As guest Marvel founder Stan Lee once told him, “You’re making me feel incredibly comfortable out here.”
Thicke made everyone feel incredibly comfortable.
His singular career could have gone in many directions, and actually did, but “comfort” seemed to be a defining characteristic. He and first wife Gloria Loring, whom he met on the set of “Days of Our Lives,” in which they both appeared, wrote the theme songs for “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Facts of Life.”
Of course you remember the lyrics:
“When the world never seems
to be living up to your dreams
it’s time you started finding out
what everything is all about.
You take the good, you take the bad,
you take them both and there you have
The facts of life, the facts of life ...”
He also wrote perhaps the best-known bars of music in the Western world -- the theme of “Wheel of Fortune.”
Thicke was what’s called a “jingle man,” too. Working for ad agencies, he would size up a product, then produce a few bars of music that seemed to exactly match what the product was. If that sounds easy, you try writing a theme song for floor wax.
He was hugely successful in the pursuit, too.
Thicke also worked in a part of this business that launched careers as diverse as Andy Rooney’s or Woody Allen’s -- as joke writer for the powerful and already famous. Richard Pryor was one of his bosses, and so was Bill Cosby and Johnny Cash.
He by all accounts, a pretty good TV writer, certainly a facile one. Norman Lear discovered the talent, and hired him for the innovative, and cutting “Fernwood 2-Night” in the late ‘70s.
Thicke could have settled for that lucrative career, but “instead of being able to do anything particularly well, I did a bunch of things and did ‘em OK,” he once said. “ It gave me variety and something to do every day. My career has been different just about every day. That’s what my reward has been.”
Thicke was well-liked in Hollywood. Given the nature of Hollywood, that was another singular accomplishment.
Perhaps one reason was that disposition -- always sunny, and humane.
Asked as he often was in recent years about former co-star Kirk Cameron’s remarks disparaging homosexuality, he told fellow Canadian talk show host, George Stroumboulopoulos “I don’t share Kirk’s feelings about religion or same-sex marriage or about a lot of things he proselytizes about. But I respect free speech and I respect and understand why he would go there.” On “Pains” he “had no privacy. He was living a very unusual life for a 15 year old. No one can relate to that unless they’ve gone through it. He internalized, and pulled back and found solace in religion. That could happen to any child actor, and God bless them for finding that, because so many of them had tragic outcomes.”
As it turned out, America’s favorite TV dad -- already wise, and funny -- also happened to be compassionate.
Thicke tweeted something a few years ago which today is -- naturally trending. It was this: “Live life so completely that when death comes to you like a thief in the night, there will be nothing left for him to steal.”
He credited that to an “anonymous” writer. But surely Alan Thicke was the one who wrote it. He certainly lived it.