Today is the birthday of the incomparable Jack Cassidy (1927-1976). Growing up in the 1970s, he was one of my favorite character actors. The idea of himself that he seems to have held (and that has been perpetuated by others), i.e. that he was living in the shadow of his wife Shirley Jones, has always been a bit perplexing to me as someone who saw him on television constantly, where he was always cheerful, witty, carefree, and in possession of a larger-than-life, clearly defined public image. Cassidy was both ahead of, and behind his times. He adored John Barrymore (even played him in W.C. Fields and Me), though he unfortunately seemed to model his persona on late Barrymore: one part former thespian, one part drunken buffoon. Clearly talented, not just as a musical comedy star but as a dramatic actor (he won both a Tony and an Emmy), he wasn’t able to garner the prestige that accrued to Barrymore’s reputation — he didn’t have the “great roles” under his belt. Instead, he did guest shots on shows like Columbo, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Night Gallery, Match Game, etc etc etc which is of course how I knew him. The role he generally played,the bombastic, egotistical “star” in a silk robe and ascot, with the pencil thin mustache and pompadour definitely formed one of my first “ideas” of the theatre and inspired me to investigate it. But though he had starred in numerous Broadway shows, and had been a regular on the sit-com He and She (playing a version of the persona just described), in his own eyes, he was always running second to Jones, who had starred in movies like Oklahoma, Elmer Gantry and The Music Man and of course the tv series The Partridge Family, which also briefly made a superstar out of Jack’s son David. Son Shaun would also become a teen idol, but not until a few months after Jack had died horribly in a fire that most people suspect was a subconscious suicide.
Cassidy was also bipolar, alcoholic and bisexual. A complicated individual. Most biographies about him (like the cheesy E! doc below) dwell on that aspect, putting it ahead of what I feel should be the most important part, his career, and what he meant to his fans. At any rate, some good news as regards his memory. In 2005, his “star” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was approved. There is a fundraising effort afoot to raise the money to make that come true (the family are not allowed to put the money up; it’s against the rules). If you’d like to donate, find out how here.
For more about show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc