You know you’re from Sacramento when the passing of Dick Van Patten feels like the loss of a local.
Van Patten died in Santa Monica on Tuesday at age 86, following a showbiz career that spanned more than 60 years. While the comic character actor played a variety of roles over the decades, including Dr. Wentworth in the Mel Brooks classic “High Anxiety,” he’s perhaps best remembered, especially around Sacramento, as the warmhearted patriarch Tom Bradford in TV’s “Eight is Enough.”
Airing on ABC from 1977 to 1981, “Eight is Enough” was set in Sacramento, with Van Patten playing a newspaper columnist for the fictional Sacramento Register. When not cranking out copy from his den or the newsroom, his character was raising eight offspring of various ages, managing the inner-family conflicts and hijinks that inevitably came their way.
The show’s mix of comedy and drama resonated early on with audiences. Anchored by Van Patten, it won “favorite new TV dramatic program” and “favorite overall new TV program” at the 1978 People’s Choice Awards. The program also spawned a number of teen heartthrobs and fixtures in Tiger Beat magazine, including Willie Aames and Grant Goodeve. “Eight is Enough” also provided Ralph Macchio an early role before he launched to stardom as “The Karate Kid.”
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But for viewers living in Sacramento at the time, the show’s biggest star was perhaps the city itself. Many felt civic pride seeing Sacramento serve as the setting for the popular program, its inclusion an affirmation of the town’s appeal, long before the Kings or farm-to-fork provided national exposure.
Van Patten’s character was based on Thomas Braden, a journalist and father of eight who penned the autobiography “Eight is Enough” in 1975. According to Sandra Brice, an associate producer on the show, the writers felt Sacramento would be an apt setting for the series, given Braden’s background in California journalism and politics.
Van Patten, the father of three sons, once said the role was a natural fit.
“Tom Bradford was very much like me,” Van Patten told the Academy of American Television in 2013. “His family came first. His career was second. It was the same with me.”
“Eight is Enough” also spawned at least one local myth, namely that the two-story house on the show was in Sacramento. That traditional Colonial-style home was memorably featured in the show’s opening credits, the backdrop as the family attempted a human pyramid on the front lawn.
The house certainly looks like one found in Land Park or the “Fab 40s” of East Sacramento, but that was just TV magic. “It was in Burbank, California,” Brice said about the “Eight is Enough” house. Location scouts likely visited the Capital City, she said, then “got a (house in Burbank) that was similar to the (ones in) Sacramento neighborhoods.”
Audiences around the country, meanwhile, tuned into the happenings at the Bradford family home, watching members of the clan work out their weekly issues. But “Eight is Enough” was no retread of “The Brady Bunch.” The show tackled issues not usually seen on a prime-time network show: the complicated dynamics of blended families, suspicions of infidelity, the death of a spouse, and issues surrounding birth control.
The more serious subject matter was balanced with comic relief, often provided by Adam Rich, who played Nicholas, the kid brother with the perpetual bowl-shaped haircut. Van Patten also inspired laughs, giving the show its core charm. With “Eight is Enough,” he created a genial, every-dad kind of character and showed terrific range in the role. The character of Tom Bradford was a widower, a wordsmith with a political bent and unabashed family man. That wasn’t far off from Van Patten’s own personality.
“He was a very quiet and jovial kind of man,” Brice said. “With all those kids, both in scripts and real life, there was always some kind of drama going on. In both cases, if it was his real life or the breakfast table on the screen, he was this really calm center.”
Sacramento has since received more attention from Hollywood productions. East Sacramento, for example, was part of the opening sequence of 1999’s “American Beauty,” which won the Academy Award for best picture. More recently, “The Mentalist” on CBS featured a plot line that included the fictitious California Bureau of Investigation in Sacramento.
But with Van Patten’s passing, it’s worth remembering his work on “Eight is Enough,” as well as a show that gave Sacramento a starring turn on TV.
“It was pretty unique,” said Lucy Steffens, film commissioner for Sacramento. “‘Eight is Enough’ is the only sitcom that was ever set here.”