Televisionary: That he did, Paul, though TV history has been kind enough to paper over the failure of the heavily touted, syndicated Thicke of the Night with even more notable talk-show crashes, such as efforts by Chevy Chase, Magic Johnson and, I predict, Jimmy Kimmel. Thicke's much-ballyhooed effort was promoted as a Carson killer, and when it debuted in 1983, some stations even bumped The Tonight Show in favor of Thicke, which was supposed to lure a younger audience. As it turned out, the only thing it lured was a string of bad reviews, and the show didn't last long.
Thicke had enjoyed, among other things, a charmed career in his native Canada and a successful stint as writer-producer of Norman Lear's Fernwood 2-Night. But by the time he started with Growing Pains, he'd not only endured a talk-show crash and burn, he'd suffered the demise of his marriage to Gloria Loring. Suffice to say, he was ready for some life and career rehab. "This series is exactly what I need right now," he told TV Guide in 1986, nearly a year after the show's September 1985 debut. "Not just the fact that it's working, but that it gives order to my life. Other people are producing it and writing it, and I'm happy to let them do all of that. I just show up on time, find the right parking space and get my lines right."
More to the point, it was a process of "learning that everything doesn't always go right," his TV writer-producer brother Todd observed. "Before Thicke of the Night and before his divorce he was a golden boy; he'd always been successful at whatever he was interested in. Then everything crashed down on him. So before Growing Pains came along, he had a rough rebuilding year. He had to deal with being tarnished."
Music writer-producer David Foster was even more blunt than that. "If you had known him before the talk-show troubles and before the divorce, you'd like him a lot better now," he said. "He's still a very hard worker, but he's a lot calmer."
Of course, leave it to the man himself to pin the needle to the post on the harsh-o-meter. "It's not fun to become a running gag for some critics, like a Pia Zadora or a Barry Manilow," he said. "To some, I still am."
(Maybe, but if it makes him feel any better, TV Guide reviewer Don Merrill wasn't among them. Thicke, he wrote, "has found a form that suits his talents, which are considerable.")
Now, this being Hollywood, where massive egos are often more than balanced out by gargantuan insecurities, Thicke wasn't alone in having something to prove. Joanna Kerns, who played wife Maggie on the show, had something to prove, too. Throughout her childhood, she'd grown up in the shadow of her older sister, Olympic gold medalist and sportscaster Donna de Varona. When she was 13, four years after sister Donna won two swimming golds in the '64 Games, aspiring gymnast Joanna tore cartilage in her knee and lost years of training in one quick accident. "At 14 and 15 I considered myself a failure," she said in 1985. "I was a real nervous kid with stomach problems. I was so driven to come up to what she did."
The competitive sparks between the two finally reached its crescendo when when Kerns, who'd set her sights on acting instead, was up for a part on The Mary Tyler Moore show, playing a sportscaster who'd been an Olympic diver but didn't know anything about any other sport. "'You can't do this. They're writing about me,'" Kerns recalled her sister telling her. "We had a big fight about over who had the right to the de Varona name. I finally told her you can take it. I had just gotten married so I became Joanna Kerns. We didn't speak for ages, but eventually decided it was foolish, and now we're supportive of each other."
All in all, I'm betting the success of Growing Pains went a long way toward alleving both actors' self-esteem problems. Insecurity in this town is often insurmountable, but having a series in the top-10 and top-20 Nielsen lists, as the comedy often was during its 1985-92 run on ABC (it claimed the number-74 spot on the list of the top 100 shows of all time) sure helps ease the, well... pain.