Skip to main content

Dick Van Patten: How Tom Bradford helped America’s social changes

Written By | Jun 23, 2015

WASHINGTON, June 22, 2015 – There are those who are good eggs. To millions of fans, young and old, Dick Van Patten, who died today from complications of diabetes, was a good egg.

A quick-witted comedic actor, Van Patten never hit that leading man level, and that was OK because you and I could relate to his smile, acerbic wit and the kindness that showed through his blue eyes.

And his turn as the patriarch of the Bradford blended family helped to ground a country struggling with adapting from the turmoil of the 1960s to the uncertainty of the 1980s.

A recurring theme in that turmoil was the liberation of his five daughters—Lani O’Grady (Mary Bradford), Laurie Walters (Joanie Bradford), Susan Richardson (Susan Bradford, 19), Dianne Kay (Nancy Bradford) and Connie Needham (Elizabeth Bradford, 15)—all of whom gave voice to many of the challenges to girls and young women of the era.

Co-star Grant Goodeve, who played eldest brother David, said in interviews following Patten’s death announcement that the elder actor did not believe the show would be successful. He was wrong. The show’s mix of actors and socially aware plot lines all but guaranteed its success with middle-America viewers.

The show followed a family with eight children that had to deal with the death of their mother after Diana Hyland, originally cast in the role, fell ill after only four episodes. Returning for a second season, Tom Bradford came back into our living room as a widower with eight grieving children.

Through its five-season (1977-1981) run, “Eight is Enough” was led by Van Patten’s charm and understanding. Dating as a widower until finally marrying Abby (Betty Buckley), Tom addressed a lot of his own parental fears. In their very first episode, the show dealt with the arrest of 15-year-old daughter Elizabeth, a problem that many families were dealing with as the world was changing.

Tom Bradford helped us to deal with the loss of a spouse, jobs, his children’s first loves and slightly inappropriate loves—including the second season episode “All’s Fair in Love and War” (November 1977), which had oldest daughter Mary dating the son of a Navy friend who happened to be black. In 1977 on primarily white television, this was a groundbreaking episode.

There were episodes dealing with his liberated daughters moving in with boyfriends, drugs, smoking, career choices and the many other maladies found in the typical family of the era.

Tom supported Abby in her quest to earn her Ph.D. in education while the parents helped oldest daughter Mary become a doctor.

But the show worked due to Dick Van Patten’s ability as a person, and an actor, to exhibit unconditional love under any circumstance. Tom Bradford helped us through a lot as we looked at our own lives through his eyes.

The show launched a few careers, including rocketing Grant Goodeve (David), Willie Aames (Tommy) and Ralph Macchio (Jeremy) into teen idols. Goodeve continued on to star in “TJ Hooker”; he was also a regular in numerous shows, including “Fantasy Island,” “Trapper John, M.D.,” “Murder She Wrote” and most memorably (for this writer) as Rick Pederson on “Northern Exposure.”

Ralph Macchio enjoyed a career in television and film (“The Karate Kid”). Willie Aames continued to do some film and television work and is now a cruise director on Oceania.

Betty Buckley continued acting on television, film and theater. Laurie Walters (Joanie Bradford), now 67, seems not to have worked in TV or film since late 1999. Dianne Kay (Nancy Bradford) now lives in Los Angeles with her husband. Connie Needham is a cancer survivor and dance instructor; she continued to act, most notably in “Fame” as the recurring character Katy Murphy (1982-1983).

Unfortunately, the lessons of Tom Bradford failed to resonate for the all of the Bradford clan.

Lani O’Grady died in 2001 as a result of a drug overdose. Susan Richardson (Susan Bradford) has fallen on seriously bad times, and at the age of 63 she is battling health issues and poverty. Adam Rich played Nicholas, “America’s younger brother.” Since then he has had numerous problems with drug addiction. In 1991 Dick Van Patten bailed Rich out of jail after his arrest for attempting to steal drugs from a pharmacy.


Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin is an award-winning writer and wanderer. She turns her thoughts to an eclectic mix of stories - from politics to sports. Restless by nature and anxious to experience new things, both in the real world and online, Jacquie mostly shares travel and culinary highlights, introduces readers to the chefs and creative people she meets and shares the tips, life and travel information people want to read.