THE CAREER of BILL BIXBY……..photo: C.Gunthur
Actor Bill Bixby was fond of saying, "My shows are the kind children can watch with their parents without embarrassment. And parents can watch with their children without embarrassment."
A sixth-generation Californian, Wilfred Bailey Bixby was born in San Francisco on January 22, 1934. An only child, he graduated from Lowell High School where he participated in debate clubs. He went on to attend San Francisco City College and then The University of California at Berkeley, majoring in speech and philosophy with intent on a career in law. But after three summers of organizing shows at a resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he decided to try to develop a career in acting. So after a two-year stint in the Marine Air Corps, and giving himself five years to see if his plan would succeed, he moved to Los Angeles.
He got a job at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, first as a desk clerk and then as a lifeguard and pool manager. It was then that a Detroit advertising executive asked if he was interested in working as a model in auto ads and Bill took the offer. Relocating to Detroit for a year, Bill continued to work in automobile commercials and industrial films, while also auditioning for theatre roles. He joined the Detroit Civic Theatre Company and made his professional stage debut in the musical The Boy Friend.
Returning to Los Angeles with enough earnings to allow him to concentrate solely on theatre classes, he enrolled in the Estelle Harmon School for Acting where eventually an agent saw him in a production and signed him. This led to his first television role in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, followed by appearances in The Alcoa Playhouse, Doctor Kildare, The Eleventh Hour and Ben Casey. His dramatic roles grew to include a part in an hour Twilight Zone ("The 30-Fathom Grave") and a guest starring appearance in the debut episode of 1963’s The Lieutenant. But it was his work on The Danny Thomas Show that led to a guest-shot on The Andy Griffith Show and then to a semi-regular role on The Joey Bishop Show.
During this time Bill also appeared on the Los Angeles stage in the National Company of the Fantasticks and also in the comedy play Under the Yum-Yum Tree. He landed two small movie roles as well, one being in the film versions of Under the Yum-Yum Tree, Irma La Douce and in Lonely Are the Brave.
In the fall of 1962 Bill came to interview for a co-starring role in the pilot for the new series called My Favorite Martian. He shook hands with the producer, saying, "Hi, I’m Bill Bixby.." to which producer Jack Chertok replied, "-No, you’re not. You’re Tim O’Hara."
Being immediately cast in the role of Tim O’Hara, the affable and kind-hearted reporter who shelters the Martian anthropologist marooned on Earth, Bill Bixby quickly became a familiar actor to TV audiences in 1963, The character of Tim O’Hara gave Bill a full opportunity to display his talents in comedic timing and physical comedy. My Favorite Martian starred Tony-Award winning actor Ray Walston as the Martian and the two performers created wonderful chemistry in their roles. The popular series lasted three years on CBS.
During the first hiatus from the series in 1964 ,Bill went to New York City to star in the off-Broadway production of Under the Yum Yum Tree. In 1965 he was featured in a dramatic role in the movie western Ride Beyond Vengeance.
After production ended on My Favorite Martian, Bill had a supporting role in the movie Doctor, You’ve Got To Be Kidding and he began taking on guest starring roles on many TV programs including Combat, That Girl, Ironside, and It Takes a Thief.
He appeared on Broadway in February 1967 in The Paisley Convertible. Then during the course of that year, Bill landed supporting roles in two films with Elvis Presley: Clambake and Speedway.
Along with most TV actors of that time, Bill would put in regular appearances on TV game shows, most notably Password, You Don’t Say, PDQ, Hollywood Squares, and visited talk shows of the era such as The Mike Douglas Show, and Dinah’s Place.
In 1969 MGM developed a TV series based on the film The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Appearing in the lead role as widower Tom Corbett, Bill Bixby worked with a cast that included 6 year old Brandon Cruz as Eddie Corbett, Miyoshi Umeki as their housekeeper, Mrs. Livingstone and James Komack as photographer Norman Tinker. The series earned high praise for the sensitive ways in which it dealt with the father/son relationship of Tom and Eddie. Bill developed a rapport with youngster Brandon Cruz that easily translated onto film. In 1971 Bill Bixby received an Emmy nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. He also made his debut as a director with the 1970 episode "Gifts Are for Giving" and subsequently directed 4 additional episodes in the third season of "Courtship" as well as an episode of Room 222.
Concurrent with doing Eddie’s Father, Bill made the ABC TV-movie Congratulations. It’s a Boy! which was, at that time, one of the first in a trend of network films being produced just for television. Bill’s other TV movies included The Couple Takes a Wife and Shirts/Skins
During the hiatus from Eddie’s Father, Bill continued to work in the Kenley "straw-hat" theatre circuit of Ohio, appearing in There’s a Girl in My Soup, and again in The Paisley Convertible. In 1972 he toured for six months in Come Blow Your Horn.
The Courtship of Eddie’s Father was cancelled in the spring of 1972. Around this time, Public Television had created a series called Hollywood Television Theatre which revived a series of plays for TV audiences. Bill Bixby appeared in Big Fish, Little Fish and then had a lead role in the 1973 production of Steambath. During 1972 he continued doing guest starring role in series television including Night Gallery, Medical Center and The Streets of San Francisco, in addition to expanding his career as a television director on other shows.
The Magician, premiering in October 1973,was Bill’s third TV series. The hour long drama followed the adventures of a professional magician, Anthony (Tony) Blake, who would get involved helping various people out of troubled situations. Being a member of the Hollywood Magic Castle Club, Bill Bixby was an accomplished amateur magician and all of the tricks and illusions he performed on the series were done live, without the help of camera tricks. Keene Curtis, Jim Watkins, and Joseph Sirola were also featured in the cast and professional magician Mark Wilson served as consultant to the series which ran one season on NBC. Its final episode, "Illusion of the Evil Spikes" was directed by Bill.
During the subsequent year, Bill Bixby was a regular panalist on the 74-75 syndicated game show Masquerade Party. And in 1975, Bill appeared in a lead role in Disney’s The Apple Dumpling Gang, a well received movie comedy.
Over the course of the next three years, Bill continued making guest appearances on a number of TV series, including the notable mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man in the role of Willie Abbott for which he received an Emmy nomination. He also had a featured role in The Streets of San Francisco, "Police Buff" which earned him an Emmy nomination as well. Bill was also a guest on several TV variety specials, including Married is Better, The John Byner Show and The Family & Other Living Things. He made a comedy pilot for NBC with Barbara Feldon called the Natural Look but it did not develop into a series. His TV movies in 1976 included The Invasion of Johnson County, the pilot for Fantasy Island , and The Great Houdini. Bixby also hosted the PBS Children’s Series, Once Upon a Classic for 3 seasons. During this period he also found time to return to the Chicago stage to perform in the play Sunday in New York.
An avid golfer and accomplished artist (particularly in abstract paintings) Bill Bixby continued to expand his skills in the field of television directing, helming episodes of The Barbary Coast, The Oregon Trail and the TV Movie 3 On a Date. He received a nomination from the Director’s Guild of America for Best Director of a Drama series for Rich Man, Poor Man Book II, episode 3.
It was in 1977 that he was offered the lead role of Dr. David Banner in the TV movie The Incredible Hulk. Convinced that if the material was treated in an adult manner, rather than as a broadly constructed comic-book interpretation, it would be worth the effort to do, and Bill decided that he would be interested in making a commitment to the project.
The TV movie did well in the ratings and the series The Incredible Hulk premiered in the spring of 1978. Set in a different locale each week as Dr. Banner traveled the country in search of a cure for his transformation into the "creature" (played by Lou Ferrigno), the series became a popular hit and ran until 1982 with a total of 77 episodes. During its run Bill Bixby was reunited with actors from his previous series; Brandon Cruz guested on "747" and Ray Walston co-starred in the Hulk episode aptly titled, "My Favorite Magician". The series was tough to shoot, constantly being on location, and Bill had to endure scenes with white-eye contact lenses and make-up to effect the transformation, although it was Lou Ferrigno who had to deal with the longest hours in make-up needed to play the role of the Hulk. Bill Bixby directed only one episode ("Bring Me the Head of the Hulk") during the series.
After the series ended its production run, Bill made the 1981 TV-Movie Murder is Easy. Filmed on location in England it was based on an Agatha Christie mystery story and co-starred Helen Hayes and Leslie-Anne Downes. Later the following year, Bill Bixby hosted a weekly children’s series for the Nickelodean Channel called Against the Odds, which featured biographies of important historical figures.
In 1983 Bill returned to series television for the fifth time in a comedy called Goodnight Beantown, which also co-starred Mariette Hartley. They played co-anchor newscasters of a Boston television station whose sparring on and off the air developed into friendship and respect. The two actors worked very well together. (Ms. Hartley had received an Emmy Award for her role in the 2 hour Hulk episode "Married") and Bill directed a few of the shows. The series was amiably reviewed but ran for only 18 episodes.
Wanting to concentrate now on his directing career, Bill primarily worked behind the camera on such shows as Wizards and Warriors and Sledge Hammer and he came to New York City to direct Rockhopper a pilot for a spy series. However, during this time he did appear in front of the cameras for several TV movies and also as the host of the 1986 daytime anthology series True Confessions, which dramatized real-life crisis of everyday people.
In 1988 Bill took the opportunity to revive the Hulk in a TV Movie, The Return of the Incredible Hulk. It did well in the ratings and was followed in 1989’s The Trial of the Incredible Hulk and then 1990’s The Death of the Incredible Hulk, both of which were directed by Bill Bixby. During 1991 he continued to direct such TV movies as Baby of the Bride and Another Pair of Aces.
Aside from the TV movies, Bill explored the role of being a host or facilitator on a number of live television investigative specials, among which were Exploring Psychic Powers, and The Elvis Files 1 & 2. He also assumed the role of an instructor/host for a 1990 home video (Shoot Like a Pro) in which he demonstrated a variety of methods for using a home camcorder. In addition, Bill guest starred in a two hour 1992 TV movie of Dick Van Dyke’s "Diagnosis Murder" series.
In 1992 he took over as the main director of the TV series Blossom, continuing to work on the series as he battled cancer. At several times during the next year and half, he would share his personal struggle and courage through interviews on talk shows. He continued working as the director of Blossom until five days before he passed away on Nov. 21, 1993.
Having had a 30 year career in the television industry, he remains the owner of many classic roles familiar to millions of people throughout the world. The legacy of his work endures for generations to enjoy.
Text ©1999-2012 JH Harison
Photo: Curt Gunthur TV GUIDE, Canada, Aug 18, 1979
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