Question: I haven't seen you settle any bets in a while, so I hope this will get you to answer my question, especially since I'm sticking to the rules and telling you what we bet. If I'm right, my wife has to go to an Angels game with me. Didn't Mark Hamill play David on Eight Is Enough before the actor who eventually played him over the long haul did? Please answer soon. Thanks. George T., Fullerton, Cal.
Televisionary: I sense two words in your future, George: Play ball! Hamill did indeed play eldest Bradford child David in the original, unaired pilot for the ABC series, which ran from March 1977 to August 1981. However, after shooting the pilot entitled "Never Try Eating Nectarines Since Juice May Dispense," which stood for Bradford kids Nicholas, Tommy, Elizabeth, Nancy, Susan, Joannie, Mary and David Hamill worked on an obscure sci-fi feature for Fox. He wanted out of his five-year series contract because he had a feeling the movie would be a hit and would spawn many sequels. (I don't really need to tell you the title of the movie, do I?)
EIE producer Bob Jacks tried to convince the actor his future was safer with a hit series than a longshot space picture. When that didn't work, Lorimar, the company producing the show, threatened legal action if Hamill didn't play along. Just before shooting on the first episode was to begin, Hamill knuckled under. But he subsequently banged his face up in a car accident and was released from his contract. The Force ended up being with him, his career as Luke Skywalker was launched, and actor Grant Goodeve stepped in as David Bradford.
Losing Hamill was just one of the misfortunes suffered by the cast and producers of the show, which otherwise presented a rosy picture with its strong ratings. Three days into shooting the pilot, the actor playing papa Tom Bradford was canned by ABC and replaced by former child star Dick Van Patten (I Remember Mama), prompting the director to quit. After the pilot was finished, network execs decided they didn't like the actors playing Nancy and Tommy so they went, too. Then there were the Hamill troubles.
Other, more minor, mishaps made things difficult, too. Lani O'Grady, who played Mary, fell coming out of her dressing room, split her chin on a concrete walkway and suffered a concussion before shooting a kissing scene. ABC and Lorimar had some legal tussles. And all through the short first season (it debuted in March, remember), a credit informed the audience that the show as "based on a novel by Tom Braden." (The 1975 book by Washington columnist Braden was actually an autobiography, not a novel.)
But the biggest and most tragic problem faced by the show wasn't minor at all. Diana Hyland (Peyton Place), who played mother Joan Bradford, had already undergone a mastectomy when she started shooting in early 1977, but was suffering from back pain. She went into the hospital for traction, but when that didn't help, she called producers to her bedside and delivered the news: She had cancer. Hyland toughed it out, suggesting producers tape her voice for telephone scenes, but asked to be sent home in mid-March. In late March she died at the age of 41.
Betty Buckley was brought in to play Abby, a tutor for Tommy (Willie Aames) who became the elder Tom's new wife. But in keeping with EIE tradition, her landing was none too smooth. A stage actress who'd most recently worked in London and New York, she didn't adjust well to the routine of TV shooting. Nor did she love her adopted home. "When I first came to L.A., I felt I lived in a box and got in another box to travel to a larger box and play the mother of the Box Family. I have to go back to New York to see real people," she told TV Guide in 1980. She also hated the changes made to her character after she signed on. She agreed to play a woman named Mitch, who was a high-spirited, independent gal before ABC exec Fred Silverman had the writers morph her into quiet, demure Abby.
It wasn't until Buckley was jogging through Central Park and about 30 kids fell into line behind her, keeping pace and calling out her character's name, that she realized what the role meant to fans. "That got me thinking," she said, "and I said to myself, 'Let's face it, you are the number one American Mom.' I began to take a different attitude toward television. Something changed that day in the park."
And even some of Tom Braden's kids, who resented a show giving all of America false impressions of what they were really like, found something to like about the experience. Elizabeth Braden didn't appreciate the episode where drugs were found in a car occupied by her TV counterpart. Nancy Braden wasn't too happy when Nancy Bradford told her TV dad that she didn't wear a nightgown. And Tommy Braden was humiliated when Tommy Bradford's first date became an exercise in misery. But one can only assume he changed his mind when four attractive girls from a nearby school knocked on the door of the family house to tell him they were all eager to help him give his first date another shot.
Given that it lasted a little over four years, the show obviously made it through the rough spots. Not that its luck ever really changed, though. During shooting for the final season, O'Grady, she of the aforementioned chin-smack, wiped out on her bike, breaking her jaw. It was wired for six weeks. "Can you imagine someone like me not able to talk for that long?" the animated and chatty actress said of the time. "Just terrible. I learned how to listen, though at least a little."
And just as she persevered, George, so must your wife. The Rally Monkey awaits; you and the missus enjoy the game.