An affable and professional performer on both stage and screen, actor Conrad Bain permanently entered the cultural lexicon as the rich, but caring father Phillip Drummond who takes in two orphaned African-American boys on the iconic sitcom, "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC, 1978-1986). While his career may have been viewed by some as limited to that one particular show, Bain actually enjoyed a lengthy career that spanned four decades and included notable success on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" and Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." Throughout the 1960s, Bain amassed a résumé filled with small parts and uncredited appearances, but he was finally given the chance to shine with a supporting turn opposite Gene Hackman in "I Never Sang for My Father" (1970). The following year, he appeared with Sean Connery in "The Anderson Tapes" (1971) and Woody Allen in "Bananas" (1971), while starring alongside Red Buttons in the comedy "Who Killed Mary What's 'Er Name?" (1971). On television, Bain put his comic skills on fine display as the conservative foil to Bea Arthur on the classic sitcom, "Maude" (CBS, 1972-78), a role he played for the series' entire six-year run. He immediately followed with "Diff'rent Strokes," only to see his career stall as part of the show's so-called curse that greatly affected his onscreen children Todd Bridges, Dana Plato and Gary Coleman. Regardless, Bain achieved immortality thanks to endless reruns that perpetually introduced him to new generations of audiences as the quintessential TV dad.
Born Conrad Stafford Bain in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada on Feb. 4, 1923, he was one of two identical twin boys born to wholesaler Stafford Bain and his wife, Jean. His brother, Bonar, followed him into the acting business and portrayed his evil twin "Hank" in a 1981 episode of "SCTV Network 90" (CBC/NBC, 1981-83). Both boys were avid sportsmen in their youth, but Conrad discovered acting as a high school freshman and attended the Banff School of Fine Arts to learn his craft. World War II interrupted his studies, but after serving his country in the Canadian Army, he headed for New York City to pick up where he had left off at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1946, he became a naturalized American citizen, just two years before graduating from the Academy.
For most of the 1950s, Bain was a stage actor in both the United States and Canada. He made his Broadway debut in the 1956 revival of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," with Jason Robards in his award-winning turn as Hickey. Later, he was a regular at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival, as well as in productions on both U.S. coasts. His television debut came in a 1956 production for "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958), but he would not return to either the small or silver screen for another half-decade. In films and on television, he was frequently cast in small roles as polished professional men with some degree of authority, including a lawyer in his film debut "The Borgia Stick" (1967) and a Madison Avenue advertising man in the Clint Eastwood thriller "Coogan's Bluff" (1968). From 1966 to 1968, he played Mr. Wells, the desk clerk at the Collinsport Inn, on "Dark Shadows" (ABC, 1966-1971).
Bain's roles gradually increased over time in films like the compelling family drama "I Never Sang for My Father" (1970), starring Gene Hackman, and Sidney Lumet's classic crime thriller "The Anderson Tapes" (1971), which starred Sean Connery as a career criminal plotting an ambitious heist. That same year, he had a small part in Wood Allen's audacious screwball comedy "Bananas" (1971) and played against type to portray the heavy alongside Red Buttons in the forgettable comedy "Who Killed Mary What's 'Er Name?" (1971). But throughout the 1970s, television eventually proved to be his steadiest source of work, starting with his supporting turn as Dr. Arthur Harmon, the stiff, conservative neighbor and comic foil to Bea Arthur's "Maude" (CBS, 1972-78). Though largely a target for Arthur's vinegary zingers, the role was a showcase for Bain's laidback comedic touch and gifted timing. When the series was abruptly canceled in 1978, however, Bain immediately moved to the series that provided him with the greatest exposure of his career.
Like "Maude," "Diff'rent Strokes" was created by producer Norman Lear and was built on the amusing but treacly notion of a successful white businessman (Bain) who takes in the two African-American children (Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges) of his late black housekeeper. Though the humor was intended to come from the culture clash between Bain's uptown world and the urban background of the boys, "Strokes" soon hinged on the eerily adult talents of Coleman, who, though playing an adolescent, was really a teenager due to a kidney ailment. The show was remarkably popular for most of its lengthy run, but the emotional and legal troubles suffered by its young male stars and his onscreen daughter Dana Plato - who would go on to die at age 35 from a drug overdose in 1999 - overshadowed its simple charms both during its run and for years after. Bain was largely immune from the fallout that arose from his co-stars' personal issues, which included drug and weapons charges against Bridges in the early 1980s. However, the actor later remarked in interviews that he struggled to talk about his troubled TV children's lives because of how painful the subject matter was for him. However removed he seemed to be, after Bridges turned his life around in the early 1990s, the young actor told Jet magazine that Bain had become like a real father to him.
After "Diff'rent Strokes," Bain stepped away from screen acting to focus on theater. There was a final attempt at a TV series with "Mr. President," a political comedy starring George C. Scott as the commander-in-chief and Bain, again playing nice as his kindly Chief of Staff. It failed after one season, and after a supporting role as Meryl Streep's grandfather in Carrie Fisher's semi-autobiographical comedy feature "Postcards from the Edge" (1991) and a one-shot reprisal of his "Strokes" role alongside Coleman on "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" (NBC, 1990-96), Bain was, for all intents and purposes, retired. In 2010, Conan O'Brien affectionately lampooned him during his comedy tour in a humorous song titled "The Girl Who Looked Like Conrad Bain." The actor also made headlines by publicly praying for his onscreen son Coleman's recovery after the diminutive star fell into a coma after taking a fall at his Utah home in May. Coleman would pass away the following day, leaving only Bain and Bridges as the sole survivors of the integrated Drummond family. On Jan. 14, 2013, the beloved TV dad passed away of natural causes at age 89 in Livermore, CA.
Cast (Feature Film)
Became naturalized U.S. citizen
Made stage debut in Connecticut production of "Dear Ruth"
Made TV debut on "The Hospital" episode of "Studio One in Hollywood" (CBS)
Off-Broadway debut, a Circle-in-the-Square revival of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh"
Joined Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival; acted in "A Winter's Tale," "Much Ado About Nothing," and "Henry IV, Part I"
Landed recurring role on "Dark Shadows" (ABC) as innkeeper Mr. Wells
Made feature acting debut with minor role in crime drama "Madigan"
Joined ensemble cast of feature adaptation of the play "Lovers and Other Strangers"
Landed minor role in Woody Allen's "Bananas"
Co-starred with Bea Arthur and Bill Macy on Norman Lear's comedy series "Maude" (CBS), played conservative doctor Arthur Harmon
Cast as Manhattan millionaire and adoptive father Phillip Drummond opposite Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges on "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC, ABC)
Played a presidential aide on short-lived sitcom "Mr. President" (Fox)
Final film role, played the grandfather in "Postcards from the Edge"
Returned to Broadway after 18 years with "On Borrowed Time"
Reprised Phillip Drummond role with guest appearance on series finale of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (NBC)
Final TV appearance, played a priest on an episode of "Unforgettable" (CBS)