Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Remembering Conrad Bain

In my 38 years as TV critic for three Canadian newspapers I was always after that elusive angle.
Shuttling to L.A. for the TV Critics' tour twice a year produced rare opportunities to chat up various Canadians who had made it big down there.
Let's see,  I caught up with B.C.'s Alexis Smith at her luxurious Hollywood home (with husband Craig "Peter Gun" Stevens in the background).
At one ABC Hollywood party I managed to sit next to Arthur Hill of Owen Marshall fame --he talked about why Canadians made the best Abraham Lincolns (sorry about that Daniel Day-Lewis).
And an accommodating NBC flack got me at Conrad Bain's table during one network salute to its stars.
Bain died this week at his L.A. home just short of his 90th birthday.
I found Conrad to be a delightful dinner companion and an actor who truly enjoyed his TV stardom.
"I had many years of anonymity before this," he joked. "Fame is better than being unknown I can tell you.
He was born Conrad Stafford Bain in Lethbridge, Alberta, on February 3, 1923.
"I was a twin --my identical brother is Bonar Bain who became a lawyer."
Indeed Bonar once appeared as Conrad's evil twin on an episode of SCTV and Bain joked "If ever I'm sick we can call on Bomar to come rescue me."
Bain said he caught the acting bug in high school "which I took in Calgary. Then I went to the Banff School of Fine Arts. But war duties with the Canadian army intervened. After I was discharged I studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts starting in 1945. There was no place for a young Canadian actor so I became a U.S. citizen in 1946."
In 1947 Bain made his professional debut in a touring version of the Broadway hit Dear Ruth. "I didn't get to Broadway until 1956 in a revival of The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards. I 'went home' to the Canadian Stratford Festival in 1958 and appeared in A Winter's Tale and Much Ado About Nothing."
Bain's TV work began on the live New York based series Studio One in 1952. "I played a doctor and the cast of unknowns included Nancy Marchand . It was all live even the commercials with Betty Furness."
In 1966 Bain joined the original cast of Dark Shadows as Mr. Wells the hotel clerk at  the Collingsport Inn and in 1970 he joined the cast of the daytime soapera the Edge Of Night.
Bain explained the fate of Wells as "He was eaten by a werewolf, poor man."
After roles in such movie hits as I Never Sang For My Father (1970), Bananas (1971) and The Anderson Tapes (1971) he joined the original cast of Maude (1972-78) --and stayed for 118 episodes.
"I had to test with Bea Arthur as my character Dr. Arthur Harmon was to the the conservative opponent to her liberalism. She is a consummate comedienne and we got along wonderfully well."
Bain then jumped to another sitcom Diff'rent Strokes which  ran eight seasons (1978-86) and 179 episodes on NBC.
Bain had several seasons under his belt when I first met him. He was very careful to say he played with the three kid stars as actors only and never tried to usurp their parents' roles.
Well, maybe he should have --he later admitted as much to me and was shocked by their unhappy fates.
 Dana Pluto died of a drug overdose in 1999 aged only 34.
Star Gary Coleman whose growth was stunted by liver disease died of a brain hemorrhage in 2010.
Third kid star Todd Bridges wracked up arrest records before turning his life around.
Bain also played his character of Arthur Drummond on other series: Different Strokes in 1979 and Fresh Prince Of Bel Air in 1990.
And he tried for a third sitcom triumph on the series Mr. President (1987) opposite George C. Scott but it did not return for a second series.
Bain told me "My career is an example of trying and trying and only later succeeding. I thought I'd have a career in drama. But comedy made me a star. In short a lesson for all young actors to just keep at it."

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