On Danny Bonaduce and “Come On Get Happy”

I’m pretty sure this is my sixth Partridge Family related post: I did one on David Cassidy and the show itself; one on Shirley Jones; one on Dave Madden (Reuben Kincaid); one on The Cowsills, who inspired the series; and this one on psychedelic buses. Obviously, I like the show, but I haven’t yet discussed the part of it that would have appealed to me most as a kid watching it in the 1970s.

If David Cassidy was a heart throb to millions of teenage girls, Danny Bonaduce (b. 1959) was a consolation prize for the boys. More than that, he was kind of their champion. It’s hard to calculate such things, but as far as I know, Danny Partridge was the first flip, smart-mouthed kid on television. And because he and his character had the same name, the distinction was blurred about who he was. There seemed to be no difference between Dannys Bonaduce and Partridge. The common denominator was that he gave grown-ups a lot of lip. But in this world of the show, as opposed to the real one at the time, he wouldn’t get a back-hand for a smart remark. Bonaduce has written and spoken about how his father physically abused him back in the day. To a greater or lesser extent, however, that manner of parenting was prevalent to an extent unimaginable to today’s kids. Corporal punishment was the rule, not the exception. Not only parents but teachers, coaches and other authority figures had a free pass to wham you one “for your own good”. Having been on the receiving end of such an approach to instruction, I’m here to tell you it was bullshit. It was just a license to commit torture. I’d have been too terrified to really emulate Danny Partridge’s onscreen behavior, but I’ll bet millions of kids did, seeing as we’ve now reached the excellent state where someone raising a hand to a child is greeted with societal disapproval and, in flagrant cases, legal action.

Bonaduce’s pint-sized rebel image was enhanced by his hippie-ish long red hair and freckles (red heads are also trouble makers, aren’t they?). There’s lots of counterculture figures he reminds me of physically, from David Crosby to Squeaky Fromme. In the era of black rights, women’s rights, gay rights, Bonaduce would have made an excellent poster boy for kids rights. I don’t know if anyone’s ever put it quite like that, but it seems to me a case could be made, if only as an idle rhetorical game such as this.

The comedy interplay between Danny Partridge and Reuben Kincaid was not unlike that of Will Robinson and Dr. Smith on Lost in Space, but the character seemed to antagonize almost everybody. His precociousness extended beyond bold and daring speech to other such theoretically grown-up areas as interest in women, and a penchant for sharp business practices. As for bass playing, it seemed almost like his family chore, like doing the dishes.

Anyway, the popularity of the show was such that Bonaduce also played his character on the animated Saturday morning cartoon shows Goober and the Ghost Chasers (1973) and Partridge Family 2200 A.D. (1974). He also played a distinctly Danny Partridge-esque kid in the made-for-tv disaster movie Murder on Flight 502 (1975). His character has a bad habit of calling in bomb threats to the airport! Bonaduce was able to work pretty steadily at his original schtick through the end of the decade. In later years, most of his parts were self-referential, nostalgic ones, and he has worked a lot in radio. Like many a former child star he’s been engaged in many a peccadillo, but that has been covered amply by others (including Bonaduce himself) elsewhere.

As it happens, about a month ago I caught the terrific 1999 made-for-TV bio-pic Come On Get Happy: the Partridge Family Story (1999). I loved it so much I had to crow about it on social media. Having seen and written about scores, maybe hundreds of Hollywood show biz bio-pics, I was moved to declare this one the most enjoyable one I had seen. It was written by the husband-wife creative team of David Seidler and Jacqueline Feather, whose previous credits had included things like Malice in Wonderland (1985, about the feud between Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons) and Onassis: The Richest Man in the World (1988), and directed by David Burton Morris, who directed And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story the same year. Told from Bonaduce’s point of view, Come On Get Happy doesn’t shy from sordid backstage stuff like his father’s abuse, but still manages to be extremely playful formally, spinning the yarn as though the movie itself were a Partridge Family episode. It has some genuinely hysterical moments. Among my favorite stuff was non-scripted business at the expense of the chronically shy Susan Dey and the youngest two kids (“Chris and Tracy”), who were so young they were practically like performing chimps.

The script is perhaps most unfair to Joseph Bonaduce, Danny’s father, not on the subject of abuse (unforgivable), but in its implication that the man was unsuccessful in television. Joseph was a tv writer who’d had something like 70 scripts produced prior to the advent of The Partridge Family, and was still working regularly into the early 1980s. There was undoubtedly truth in him being frustrated in his career and jealous of Danny’s as a child actor, but the film dialed that up to 11. But the fact that Joseph had written for shows like The Andy Griffith Show and The Ghost and Mrs Muir surely is not irrelevant to Danny’s having been cast on those shows in some of his first acting jobs. (I’ll pre-empt some dork’s quibble: by the time of Danny’s appearance on the former show it had become Mayberry R.F.D.).

Anyway, hats off today to a hippie kid. It’s not every kid who gets to grow up on a pretend Ken Kesey-style acid bus.