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Alan Thicke became the much-lampooned comic template of bland while playing the father on the 1980s family sitcom "Growing Pains" (1985-1992), even as, with much less fanfare, he achieved unqualified Renaissance Man status in American and Canadian television. A household name in his native Canada, Thicke gained a foothold in the U.S. as a comedy writer, cutting his teeth in Hollywood writing for and producing such influential, if short-lived, fare as "Fernwood 2-Night" (syndicated, 1977) and "The Richard Pryor Show" (NBC, 1977), producing pop music TV specials, as well as composing, along with then wife Gloria Loring, a raft of series theme songs, notably that of the NBC sitcoms "Diff'rent Strokes" (1978-1986) and "The Facts of Life" (1979-1988). He returned to Canada to helm a popular, eponymous daytime talk show, though his first U.S. shot at stardom in front of the camera, the syndicated late-night talker "Thicke of the Night" (1983-84), proved a notorious bomb. Yet it also provided a springboard to what would become his signature role in American pop culture, Jason Seaver, head of the Seaver family, on "Growing Pains," leading to a journeyman career as a supporting actor in both TV and film....
Alan Thicke became the much-lampooned comic template of bland while playing the father on the 1980s family sitcom "Growing Pains" (1985-1992), even as, with much less fanfare, he achieved unqualified Renaissance Man status in American and Canadian television. A household name in his native Canada, Thicke gained a foothold in the U.S. as a comedy writer, cutting his teeth in Hollywood writing for and producing such influential, if short-lived, fare as "Fernwood 2-Night" (syndicated, 1977) and "The Richard Pryor Show" (NBC, 1977), producing pop music TV specials, as well as composing, along with then wife Gloria Loring, a raft of series theme songs, notably that of the NBC sitcoms "Diff'rent Strokes" (1978-1986) and "The Facts of Life" (1979-1988). He returned to Canada to helm a popular, eponymous daytime talk show, though his first U.S. shot at stardom in front of the camera, the syndicated late-night talker "Thicke of the Night" (1983-84), proved a notorious bomb. Yet it also provided a springboard to what would become his signature role in American pop culture, Jason Seaver, head of the Seaver family, on "Growing Pains," leading to a journeyman career as a supporting actor in both TV and film. Though most widely remembered as the cheerleading head of a treacle-laden household, Thicke nevertheless could claim one of the most eclectic résumés in show business.
The son of Joan and William Jeffrey, a nurse and stockbroker, respectively, Thicke was born Alan Willis Jeffrey on March 1, 1947 in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Canada, a remote mining community in the north of the province. The Jeffreys divorced in 1953, after which Joan married Brian Thicke, a doctor with two children by a previous marriage, who adopted Alan. With the family's move to equally remote Elliot Lake, a uranium-mining town, Thicke attended the Elliot Lake Secondary School, where his predilection for the arts blossomed, making him popular enough to be named homecoming king his senior year. Graduating in 1965, he went on to attend the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. There, Thicke chose a pre-med curriculum, but, as a diehard football fan, he began harboring aspirations of being a sportswriter, in addition to working as a late-night radio DJ. After graduation, Thicke married actress-singer Gloria Loring and landed a job at the CBC, which gave him a chance to write for a number of shows, among them the long-running variety series "The Tommy Hunter Show" (1965-1992) and a short-lived comedy series "That's Show Biz" (1970), which featured later "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) helmsman Lorne Michaels. In 1973, Thicke pitched a game show called "The Wizard of Odds" (NBC, 1973-74) to the American network NBC and sold it with one of his CBC compatriots, Alex Trebek, on board as host. The show only lasted a season, but it would put Trebek on the radar of U.S. game show producers and eventually yield a long career as the host of "Jeopardy." The ill-fated game show did manage to add both producer and composer credits to Thicke's résumé. The next year, he would write the theme for another new game show, "Wheel of Fortune" (NBC/CBS/syndication, 1975- ), and producers Allan Blye and Chris Bearde would hire him as producer of their Canadian-produced, syndicated variety show "The Bobby Vinton Show" (1975-78). Thicke would go on to establish a comedy/music variety theme to his résumé, working behind-the-scenes on hour-long specials for such talents as Flip Wilson, fellow Canuck Anne Murray, Barry Manilow, Mac Davis, Paul Lynde, Sandy Duncan and Olivia Newton-John.
That imprimatur garnered the attention of über-producer Norman Lear, who brought Thicke onboard as a writer-producer of his offbeat syndicated comedy "Fernwood 2-Night" (1977). A fictional late-night talk show with smarmy Martin Mull and dim Fred Willard as hosts to a raft of uproariously provincial guests from the fictional Fernwood, OH, the show's unique mixture of self-awareness, snarky irony and mean-spiritedness would prove influential on a new generation of comedy shows and spin off to the slightly more showbiz-centered "America 2-Night" (1978). In 1977, he would work with America's top talent in stand-up comedy, taking on the arduous task of translating Richard Pryor's social-minded and definitively blue humor into "The Richard Pryor Special?" (NBC, 1977) and "The Richard Pryor Show" (NBC, 1977), though the latter series only lasted four weeks before poor ratings and NBC's censorious Standard & Practices led to its demise. But between "Fernwood" and "Pryor," Thicke would be pivotal in ushering to American audiences some sparkling new talent as featured or guest players, including Jim Varney, Robin Williams, Tim Reid and Sandra Bernhard. He also contributed to network fare by co-penning with wife Loring the campy theme songs for two new NBC sitcoms, "Diff'rent Strokes" (1978-1985) and its spin-off "The Facts of Life" (1979-1988). In 1980, private Canadian broadcaster CTV lured Thicke back to Canada with a chance to move in front of the camera as host of a talk/variety show, "The Alan Thicke Show" (1980-83). It became the country's best-rated daytime series, and Thicke's cordiality and popularity in the Great White North prompted MGM Television and onetime NBC programming chief Fred Silverman to enlist him for an ambitious attempt to compete in the U.S. with NBC's long-running late-night staple "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" (1962-1992). After a considerable promotional build-up, "Thicke of the Night" premiered in the fall of 1983, and while Thicke remained true to his imprimatur of nurturing new talent - his second-banana was the first African-American to co-host a national show, a young Arsenio Hall - the 90-minute show went hamstrung by NBC's soon-to-be standard, if dubious, practice of warning potential celebrity guests that if they appeared on the competing show, they would get short shrift from "Tonight." In the meantime, his marriage to Loring was deteriorating and, in a double whammy, she filed for divorce on the same day he learned his show had been cancelled.
Thicke branched out, taking a dramatic role as a sleazy photographer in the TV movie "The Calendar Girl Murders" (ABC, 1984), which he later credited for proving his thespian chops to producers. Not long after, he had secured a meeting to pitch ABC on a new show, and while execs did not bite, they suggested he might work for another network project. "Growing Pains" floated the then-rare premise of a two-income household, with Thicke playing Dr. Jason Seaver, a psychiatrist with a journalist wife (Joanna Kerns) in one in a wave of bland "family" sitcoms featuring with-it parents and mischievous-but-squeaky-clean kids. In spite of scathing critical notices, "Growing Pains" ranked in Nielsen's top 20 network for its first four seasons, rising to No. 5 in its 1987-88 year, though much of the spotlight gravitated to young Kirk Cameron, who played the eldest son and quickly became teen magazine fodder. Cameron became an almost de facto producer of the show, much to the chagrin of Thicke, producers and the rest of the cast and crew as they found themselves subject to whims of the newly born-again teen star's Christian fundamentalism. Cameron's missionary zeal reputedly did not stop short of upbraiding cast members about their own impieties, and his continuous nitpicking of writers and producers Dan Guntzelman, Mike Sullivan and Steve Marshall ultimately led to Cameron phoning the president of ABC to complain that the producers were attempting to put pornography on the air. The three producers quit after the show's sixth season and, by end of the seventh, with much of the Seaver family cycle done, and in spite of the improbable addition of an adorable new moppet played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the show's ratings plummeted and ABC pulled the plug.
But Thicke's pop-cultural prominence with as the head of the Seaver clan had a halo effect. He became something of a man-about-town, at one point dating the 17-year-old star of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1992) Kristy Swanson, and in 1992 he married the 1990 Miss World, Gina Tolleson. His Canadian pedigree also made him much-in-demand for celebrity hockey games, during one of which, while skating with NHL greats Stan Mikita and Gordie Howe, Thicke took a vicious elbow, incurring a broken nose - widely attributed to Howe, but Thicke later said it was not clear who delivered the blow. The "Growing Pains" years also led to other on-camera roles, including a raft of made-for-TV movies and guest-starring roles on network shows such as "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) and "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-1996). While some of his work would gibe with his now-established goody-two-shoes ethos - most notably a string of Disney TV films such as family sci-fi comedy "Not Quite Human" and two sequels and "The Trial of Little Red Riding Hood" (1992), which saw him comically playing the wolf - a few parts saw him cast conspicuously against type, as in "The Hitchhiker" (HBO/USA Network, 1983-1991) and "Betrayal of the Dove" (1993), in which he went over-the-top as a foul-mouthed lout plotting against his ex-wife. He split the difference upon returning to series TV in "Hope & Gloria" (NBC, 1995-96), taking a supporting role as preening, self-important talk show host. Thereafter, Thicke's onscreen work went relegated to infrequent TV guest-shots, supporting (with the occasional lead) roles in family fare - such as a series of straight-to-video outings starring ventriloquist Shari Lewis and her puppet Lamb Chop and "Casper Meets Wendy" (1998) - soapy made-for-TV thrillers, and indie features often using Thicke as a gimmick, such as "Demolition High" (1996), "Anarchy TV" (1998), "Hollywood North" (2004) and "Child Star" (2004). He also made his Broadway debut in 1998 playing tap-dancing lawyer Billy Flynn in the musical "Chicago," and later toured with the show.
In 2000, Thicke and the "Growing Pains" cast reunited in "The Growing Pains Movie" (2000), which he produced, and they would do it again four years later in "Growing Pains: Return of the Seavers" (2004). He also leveraged his TV-dad legacy to pen the humorous book How Men Have Babies: The Pregnant Father's Survival Guide (1999), which chronicled wife Gina's pregnancy and featured insights of other celebrity parents - though he and Tolleson would divorce that same year - and he continued to work in words, starting in 2000 to pen a humor column for the Toronto Sun. Though less active on-screen, he occasionally put together stage shows playing Las Vegas and Atlantic City and built a lucrative business as an emcee for corporate and trade-association confabs. In 2005, Thicke married Bolivian-born model Tanya Callau. In 2008, he returned to series TV and the CBC on the comedy "jPod," playing the hopelessly talentless father of a video game designer, but the show only lasted a few months. In 2009, he had another offbeat role as a daffy doctor in the National Lampoon straight-to-video feature "RoboDoc." Also in 2009, he published his second book How to Raise Kids Who Won't Hate You: Bringing Up Rock Stars and Other Forms of Children (2009), with subhead being an allusion to Thicke's son Robin, who had become a successful pop and R&B star.
By Matthew Grimm
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CAST: (feature film)
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"You know, I couldn't watch 'The Tonight Show' for a full year after the cancellation [of 'Thicke of the Night'] because it broke my heart to be reminded of my failure every night and to see somebody who did it so great, namely Johnny." --Alan Thicke in The New York Times, June 20, 1995.
On Dennis DuPree: "It was a character I could have fun with and that's all that mattered." --Alan Thicke in USA Today, June 29, 1995.
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