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In the early 1960s several people pegged Bill Bixby as "the next Jack Lemmon" for his looks and a certain charm he displayed on screen. Such a description can turn out to be a curse, but Bixby never attempted to follow Lemmon's career path. Instead he chose television and during his 30-year career Bixby carved out his own place in our entertainment history before prostate cancer cut his life short in 1993.

I had two interviews with Bixby, over the phone in 1965 in connection with his first hit series, "My Favorite Martian," and in person in 1969 when he visited Providence, Rhode Island, to promote his next series, "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." Here are excerpts from the two interviews:

Akron Beacon Journal, July 11, 1965

By JACK MAJOR

You're likely to wonder before the end of this year ...

But Bill Bixby really isn't tired of playing mild-mannered, easy-going, girl-chasing, well-adjusted Tim O'Hara on TV's "My Favorite Martian." He isn't even tired of peddling jokes that are candy-coated (so they won't offend the kiddies, my dear).

So don't jump to conclusions later this year if you see (or hear about) his performance as a bad guy in the movie "Night of the Tiger." [NOTE: The title was changed to "Ride Beyond Vengeance."]

Bixby described his role in the Western as one of the heaviest he has ever seen in a movie.

"The only one that surpasses it for sheer meanness was the role Richard Widmark played in 'Kiss of Death,' " said Bixby. "He pushed an old lady down the stairs in that one."

Bixby jumped at the chance to make the switch from good guy to bad, but the only reason he got the chance was through the stubbornness of Chuck Connors.

"Chuck is the star of the movie," said Bixby, "and he was the one who insisted I get the part of the 'heavy.' Nobody else would have pictured me in the role."

The role gave Bixby a well-deserved chance to blow off steam after being chock-full-of-goodness for two years on his Sunday night television show. (His co-star, Ray Walston, apparently felt a similar need to do something wicked. He was one of the stars in the stupidly smutty film, "Kiss Me, Stupid.")

When Bixby resumes filming "My Favorite Martian" next week he will be raring to go. He isn't anywhere near being tired of his TV success. He says he could go on for several more years.

And it may be a good thing he feels that way. Some think "My Favorite Martian" will be more popular than ever in September. The reason is that the show will be done in color, which will help it against its appropriately titled NBC competition, "World of Color."

The color process is expected to open up new possibilities for Bixby's program which so far has been pretty much restricted to scenes inside the bachelor apartment where newspaper reporter Tim O'Hara lives with his Martian friend.

Scripts have been based on one of two things:

Either the Martian would show off one of his supernatural powers, or he'd get an unusual illness and have to devise a cure.

"We were on the illness kick this season," said Bixby during our phone interview. "Uncle Martin had 32 illnesses in 38 weeks. that would make him the sickest man in the universe."

Next season's episodes will involve a time machine that allows Martin and Tim to go backward and forward in time to get involved with all sorts of people, places and events. The gimmick was introduced in a recent episode that had Martin and Tim helping to get the Magna Carta signed by King John.

It would seem such ideas are food for children's appetites, but according to Bixby: "We took a survey of our audience last year and discovered 52 percent of our viewers are adults."

At the same time, the show's writers and actors keep children in mind while preparing each episode.

"One of our scripts had Martin sticking his finger into a lightbulb socket," said Bixby, "but Ray Walston killed that idea in a hurry. Some kid in the audience might have tried it."

The program occasionally contains a message, but Bixby said the message is aimed at adults. "If we tried to teach the lesson to children, the kids in the audience would resent it. If anything, they'd resist the lesson."

But lessons are kept to a minimum. "The purpose of our show is to entertain. The public gets tired of 'messages.' They turn on their television sets to be entertained. they don't want to think."

It's a fact of life these days. Situation comedy is king.

"Call it corny," Bixby said, "but I've discovered that when a person laughs – that is, at the moment he laughs – he cannot think about anything else. He forgets his troubles.

"That's why I enjoy doing comedy. Getting another person to laugh is the most rewarding feeling I've had."

Bixby was born in San Francisco about 27 years ago and became interested in acting while he was in high school. During his summer vacation from the University of California he worked at a resort near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he organized musical revues for the guests.

He moved to Hollywood after graduation, and while waiting for his Big Break he worked as a desk clerk and then as a lifeguard at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

There he was spotted by a visiting advertising agency executive who asked Bixby if he would pose for automobile ads. Bixby said yes and went to Detroit where the photos were taken. while in Detroit he auditioned for – and won – the lead role in a local production of "The Boy Friend." He starred in the show for four months.

Bixby then returned to Hollywood and began landing small parts in television shows. A year later, in 1962, he became a regular on "The Joey Bishop Show," which put him in line for "My Favorite Martian."

He is aware of the Jack Lemmon comparison, but laughed it off, saying he and Lemmon are worlds apart.

"He starred in 'Under the Yum Yum Tree.' I did one scene and got paid $300."

Bixby felt he might go on to a movie career that would find him playing in both comedies and dramas, citing Lemmon's work in "Days of Wine and Roses."

But Bixby was in no hurry.

"I've been in 76 episodes of 'My Favorite Martian' already, and that's approximately equivalent to doing 26 movies. That's great experience.

"Exposure? Our program is seen all around the world. Each week I'm seen by 200 million people. A movie would have to play every day for a year in cities throughout the world for me to reach all those people.

"I'd have to be nuts to knock television."

 

"Ride Beyond Vengeance" wasn't released until January 1966. As far as I know, it did not fare well at the box office. I saw it on television a few years later. As Bixby promised, his character was bad, but didn't hang around very long.

And predictions that being presented in color would benefit "My Favorite Martian" proved incorrect. The show was canceled at the end of the 1965-66 season. However, Bixby remained busy, even did an Elvis Presley movie, "Speedway" (1968), and soon starred in another series, this one based on a 1963 Glenn Ford-Ronny (later Ron) Howard movie.

 

Providence Journal, October 12, 1969

By JACK MAJOR

He was wearing a navy blue blazer and a striped tie. Had it not been for his Hollywood hair (slightly shaggy, but impeccably styled) and his goggle-like glasses, he would have been the very image of an Ivy League man, the 1950s model.

This was Bill Bixby, television star and cross-country traveler.

"Do I look tired?" he asked, probably hoping I'd say, "Hell, no! You look great ... just great."

He was in Providence – the 26th city he had visited in 28 days – to promote his new ABC television series, "The Courtship of Eddie's Father."

TV stars, no matter how devoted, seldom tackle so ambitious a tour. Surprisingly, Bixby said he originally had planned a longer one.

"I wanted to visit 100 cities," he said. And he sounded serious.

Bixby changed his plans at the last minute and called off the first tour. Official reason: a brief illness. Unofficial reason: he must have come to his senses.

So Bixby reached Providence a month late. Despite his hectic schedule and the four weeks of traveling, he looked fresh. His spirits were high and he was anxious to talk about his show.

Unlike many TV stars, Bixby claimed he isn't using his show as a stepping stone to movies. He likes television. As is.

"To me, television is where it's at. This is THE medium. And don't give me all that stuff about the good old days of 'Playhouse 90.' For every good show 'Playhouse 90' presented, it had nine dogs."

He thinks movies – especially those that rely heavily on sex and violence – are making a desperate attempt to stay competitive with television. While some say movies generally offer more "sophisticated" entertainment, Bixby is likely to substitute the word "sensational."

He called his series of labor of love about love – the love of a widower for his seven-year-old boy. "The love is real," he said. "The relationship I have with Brandon Cruz (his TV son) is very special."

Bixby wants very much for that relationship to be felt by the audience, so the dialogue at the beginning and end of each episode is taken from actual conversations he has with Cruz, and these snippets are dubbed over scene filmed at random at beaches, zoos amusement parks, and other places a father might take his son.

Bixby is a 35-year-old confirmed bachelor who has several ideas about raising children. These ideas will be evident in the series.

"I don't think people should lie to their children, and I won't lie in the series. I think parents should be frank and recognize there are times they can talk with their children on an adult level."

A sampling of the program so far indicates Bixby is sincere. The show has covered familiar ground in an unfamiliar way. "Eddie's Father" is pleasantly low key and apparently geared for smiles and small laughs. It is a refreshing show, though perhaps unlikely to gain a large following quickly.

"We try to put things in perspective," said Bixby. "One of the ideas behind the show, of course, is that my son wants me to remarry, and occasionally he tries to fix me up with ladies he thinks would make good mothers. But this is not going to be a show about a seven-year-old pimp."

Bixby and producer James Komack want to take full responsibility for the show.

"We've succeeded in getting most of what we want," he said. "Originally ABC wanted to put us on in the middle of last season, but we held out. And because he had an early start – we began shooting the series last November – we've been able to work out the bugs. We've got the kind of show we wanted. There'll be no excuse if we fail."

He also said he wanted to do "Eddie's Father" as soon as his earlier series, "My Favorite Martian," was canceled in 1966. "But they said I wasn't mature enough to play a widower."

He aged enough in three years to get the part.

While old enough to be a TV widower, Bixby tries to think young, which is why "Eddie's Father" is screened for young audiences several times before it goes on the air. He even hired a group of UCLA students to act as advisors.

The ultimate decision about lines that may be too corny or trite for today's kids is often left in the hands of young singer-composer (Harry) Nilsson, who provides title and background music for the series.

"If Harry says, 'Change it,' we change it," said Bixby. "Harry is a genius."

Bixby says he wants a series people won't ridicule when they look at it ten years from now. But he wants them to laugh with it now, but only because they see a reflection of themselves and not just another television boob.

 

Bixby pretty much remained in television, doing comedy and fantasy adventures ("The Incredible Hulk"), but his personal life had more than its share of drama and tragedy.

His bachelorhood ended in 1971 when he married lovely actress Brenda Benet, but they divorced in 1980. A year later their six-year-old son died while with his mother at a ski resort. A year after that, Benet committed suicide.

In the late 1980s Bixby was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in 1993.

Bill Bixby on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com)
 

 

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