Share This Page

TV dad saddened by child actors' fates

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 5:38 p.m.
FILE - This Sept. 13, 1981 file photo shows stars of the television show 'Different Strokes,' clockwise from foreground, Gary Coleman, Conrad Bain and Todd Bridges at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. Bain, who starred as the kindly white adoptive father of two young African-American brothers in the TV sitcom 'Diff'rent Strokes,' died of natural causes, Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, at his home in Livermore, Calif. He was 89. (AP Photo, file)

NEW YORK — Conrad Bain, a veteran stage and film actor who became a star in middle age as the kindly white adoptive father of two young African-American brothers in the TV sitcom “Diff'rent Strokes,” has died.

Bain died on Monday of natural causes in Livermore, Calif., where he lived in a nursing home, according to his daughter, Jennifer Bain. He was 89.

The show that made him famous debuted on NBC in 1978, an era when television comedies tackled relevant social issues. “Diff'rent Strokes” touched on serious themes but was known better as a family comedy that drew most of its laughs from its standout child actor, Gary Coleman.

Bain played wealthy Manhattan widower Philip Drummond, who promised his dying housekeeper he would raise her sons, played by Coleman and Todd Bridges. Race and class relations became topics on the show as much as the typical trials of growing up.

Coleman, with his sparkling eyes and perfect comic timing, became an immediate star, and Bain, with his long training as a theater actor, proved an ideal straight man. The series lasted six seasons on NBC and two on ABC.

In the show's heyday, Bain didn't mind being overshadowed by the focus on the show's children. He praised Coleman and Bridges as natural talents without egos.

But “Diff'rent Strokes” is remembered mostly for its child stars' adult troubles.

Coleman, who died in 2010, had financial and legal problems in addition to continuing ill health from the kidney disease that stunted his growth and required transplants. Bridges and Dana Plato, who played Bain's teenage daughter, both had arrest records and drug problems, and Plato died of an overdose in 1999 at age 34.

Bain said in interviews later that he struggled to talk about his TV children's troubled lives because of his love for them. After Bridges started to put his drug troubles behind him in the early 1990s, he told Jet magazine that Bain had become like a real father to him.

Bain went directly into “Diff'rent Strokes” from another comedy, “Maude,” which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1978.

As Dr. Arthur Harmon, the conservative neighbor often zinged by Bea Arthur's liberal feminist, Bain became so convincing as a doctor that a woman once stopped him in an airport seeking medical advice.

At a nostalgia gathering in 1999, he lamented the fading of situation comedies that he said were about something.

“I think they got off the track when they first hired a standup comic to do the lead,” he said. “Instead of people creating real situations, you get people trying to act funny.”

Before those television roles, Bain had appeared occasionally in films, including “A Lovely Way to Die,” “Coogan's Bluff,” “The Anderson Tapes,” “I Never Sang for My Father” and Woody Allen's “Bananas.” He also played the clerk at the Collinsport Inn in the 1960s television show “Dark Shadows.”

A native of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, Bain arrived in New York in 1948 after serving in the Canadian army during World War II. He was still studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when he acquired his first role on television's “Studio One.”

A quick study who could play anything from Shakespeare to O'Neill, he found work in stock companies in the United States and the Bahamas, making his New York debut in 1956 as Larry Slade in “The Iceman Cometh” at the Circle in the Square.

With his plain looks and down-to-earth manner, he was always cast as a character actor.

It was an audition for a role in the 1971 film “Cold Turkey” that led Bain to TV stardom. He didn't get the part but “Cold Turkey” director Norman Lear remembered him when he created “Maude.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.