A tribute today to the late Bill Bixby (Wilfred Bailey Everett Bixby III, 1934-1993). I would describe Bixby as a “likable, light” actor — he was more than up to a wide range of acting chores in the bulk of what he was asked to do in his active television career, bringing a great deal of energy and charm to his performances. You never saw him “stretch”, or try anything deep or heavy, or attempt a character too far outside his own type, but within his limits he was able to carry many a vehicle through the force of his personality. (If I’d been a critic at the time I’d have been tempted to call him “Bill Pixie”). This light touch pretty much made him ideal for television; Bixby was only in a handful of theatrically released movies. But he was industrious, smart and well-liked and he worked in TV a lot. He starred or co-starred in no less than five TV series, had recurring roles in several others, was a constant guest star on still others, and later became a hard-working director. Not only this, as we shall see, he was (literally) a magician!
As a kid in San Francisco, Bixby studied dance, elocution and dramatics, and sang in a choir. Good looks secured him early work as an advertising model. He was 27 when he got his first screen credit on an episode of the TV show Hennesy in 1961. And pretty much instantaneously he became “Bill Bixby” — a tv celebrity at pretty much the same level for the next 30 years.
Initially there were guest shots on shows like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Make Room for Daddy, and The Andy Griffith Show. Then he got a recurring part on The Joey Bishop Show (1962). Then his first series:
My Favorite Martian (1963-66)
The high-strung Bixby was perfect as straight man to martian Ray Walston on this farcical sitcom, which raised his visibility and name recognition considerably.
After the show wrapped, he guested on other shows and appeared in the Elvis Presley movies Clambake (1967) and Speedway (1968). Then came:
The Courtship of Eddie Father (1969-72)
Bixby’s first show where he was undisputed star, not counting his miniature co-star Brandon Cruz. Based on the 1963 Glenn Ford movie, the show updated the story of a widowed dad and his curious son, making it stylish and hip. One nice touch was making the character of the housekeeper Mrs. Livingston a Japanese woman, played by Miyoshi Umeki. And a Latino kid, implying that the mom was Latina. And the theme song was by Nilsson! The show was critically acclaimed and featured some of Bixby’s best acting, as he had to dance around explaining the facts of life to his precocious kid. Since the show was largely about the dating problems of a single dad, it was a case of life imitating art that Bixby met his soon-to-be wife Brenda Benet when she appeared on the series as one of his girlfriends.
On this show, Bixby also made his debut as a director. Bixby was to direct over 120 tv episodes and tv movies over the next 20 years.
While the series ran, Bixby continued to guest on other shows, such as Love American Style (four separate episodes).
The Magician (1973-74)
A little known fact was that Bixby was a serious and accomplished amateur magician, and a member of the Magic Castle. He showcased those skills in his 1973 series The Magician, a crime drama in which he played a professional magician who used his talents to solve mysteries. He actually performed illusions on the show, without trick photography. It was probably too gimmicky for most audiences and lasted but a single season.
Following the demise of The Magician, Bixby continued guesting on other shows, appeared in the comedy western The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man (1976).
The Incredible Hulk (1977-82)
In My Favorite Martian, Bixby had palled around with a little green man; in The Incredible Hulk he turned into a big one. Based on the Marvel comic, it’s undoubtedly Bixby’s best known role. It was ahead of its time in being a serious adaptation of a major comic book franchise (beyond rare at the time) and being aimed at adults as well as children. It may be the first Marvel adaptation to go for the pathos inherent in most of Stan Lee’s scenarios — the superhero as an unhappy man caught in a predicament. Bixby’s David Banner is a drifter caught in an existential hell, but one that tended to benefit others. It owes a lot (I feel) to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Wolfman, but with the twist that the monster Banner periodically turns into only attacks wrong-doers, becoming an inadvertent, if terrifying hero. The titular Hulk was played by wrestler and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno. His version of the Hulk (unlike the one in the comic) did not possess the gift of speech. As portrayed, he reminded me a lot of the versions of Bigfoot that appeared on The Six Million Dollar Man. But I digress. After the series went off the air, there were several Incredible Hulk TV movie sequels: The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988), The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989), and The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990).
Goodnight Beantown (1983-84)
If you think Bixby retired after The Incredible Hulk, you are sadly mistaken. His next venture was Goodnight Beantown, in which he co-starred with Mariette Hartley. This sitcom about a Boston television news team only lasted one season.
After this, he mostly directed other shows, and hosted non-fiction series. From 1983 through 1984 he hosted the show Against the Odds for Nickelodeon, followed by True Confessions in 1997. He also hosted two documentary specials about his old co-star Elvis Presley, The Elvis Files (1991) and The Elvis Conspiracy (1992). His most notable work during his late years was directing 30 episodes of the tv show Blossom (1992-94).
There were several. In 1980 he divorced Benet; their only child, 6 year old Christopher died during a skiing trip the following year. Poignantly, the boy was around the same age Cruz had been when he played Eddie. Benet committed suicide the year after that. In 1990 Bixby remarried, but the next year he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and his second wife divorced him. In 1993 he married Judith Kliban, widow of cartoonist B. Kliban — but he died just a few weeks later. Thus, he went from ubiquitous, to completely out of our lives with great suddenness.
Bill Bixby was just 59 when he passed, too young to have yet completely grown out of the image he’d had for 30 years, a kind of breezy-mannered, good-looking WASP. What would he have been like as an elderly man? Surely nothing like the cheesy make-up he wore in the pilot episode of Fantasy Island in 1977:
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