'Diff'rent Strokes' Dad Conrad Bain Dies at 89

10:06 AM PST 01/16/2013 by Duane Byrge
NBC Television/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

UPDATE: He played the adoptive father of Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges on the sitcom, which aired on NBC and ABC.

Conrad Bain, who starred as Phil Drummond, the rich white businessman who adopts Harlem kids Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges on the popular sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, has died. He was three weeks shy of his 90th birthday.

Bain died Monday night of natural causes at a comfort-care facility in Livermore, Calif., his daughter Jennifer said Wednesday. TMZ first reported the news. 

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Bain, who played in many stage productions during his long career, also was known for his six-year role as Dr. Arthur Harmon, the blundering, conservative next-door neighbor on CBS sitcom Maude

Bain came to stardom relatively late in life. Norman Lear had seen his stage work in the off-Broadway productions of Scuba Duba and Steambath and invited him to Hollywood in 1971 for the role in Maude, the All in the Family spinoff that starred Bea Arthur and ran from 1972-78.

Bain was performing on Maude when he signed a contract with Lear’s company for a show that turned out to be Diff’rent Strokes. The diminutive Coleman, meanwhile, had gained attention for appearing in a number of commercials.

The series starred Coleman and Bridges as African-American brothers Arnold and Willis, who are taken in by patient Park Avenue businessman Drummond and his daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato) to live in their penthouse. The boys’ mom had worked for Drummond, a widower.

The series ran from 1978-86, seven seasons on NBC and one on ABC. Coleman’s line in the show, “What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?,” became a popular catchphrase. Coleman (he died in May 2010), Bridges and Plato (she died in May 1999) all had legal and personal problems after they left the show.

Bain’s other TV credits include such programs as Studio One in Hollywood, The Defenders, Dark Shadows, Grandpa Goes to Washington, The Waverly Wonders and Mr. President as the chief of staff opposite George C. Scott.

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He starred in the 1981 telefilm Child Bride of Short Creek as the head of an Arizona group of polygamists who falls in love with a 15-year-old girl.

In 1970, Bain appeared at the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater in An Enemy of the People and Play Strindberg. The following year, he performed on Broadway in Twigs. In 1975, Bain re-created his Twigs role in a telefilm starring Carol Burnett and Edward Asner.

His movie credits include I Never Sang for My Father (1970), Lovers and Other Strangers (1970), Who Killed Whats'ername (1971), Jump (1971), Bananas (1971), Up the Sandbox (1972), A Fan’s Notes (1972), A Pleasure Doing Business (1979) and Postcards From the Edge (1990).

Conrad Bain and his twin brother Bonar were born Feb. 4, 1923, in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. He attended the Banff School of Fine Arts. To obtain money to pay for drama lessons, he started his own farm.

During World War II, he served as a sergeant in the Canadian Army. Following the army, Bain ventured to New York and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1947, he made his professional debut in a stock-company production of Dear Ruth at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut.

He made his New York acting debut in 1956 in The Iceman Cometh. In 1958, he appeared the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival in Henry IV, Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale. In 1963-64, he performed at the Seattle Repertory Theater in King Lear, The Firebugs, Death of a Salesman and Shadow of Heroes.

He also performed on the stage in such productions as Sixth Finger in a Five Finger Glove, Candide, Dark of the Moon, Lost in the Stars and Family Reunion.

While in New York, Bain starred in many live television productions, including Four Star Theatre, Philco Playhouse and many daytime dramas like The Edge of Night. During the same period, he garnered small roles in such 1968 films as Madigan and Coogan’s Bluff.

More recent TV appearances include Strokes spinoff The Facts of Life, Hello, Larry, The Love Boat, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (as Phil Drummond) and Unforgettable.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1946 a year after marrying Monica Sloan, who had become a nationally known painter in abstract acrylics. She died in 2009. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by sons Mark and Kent.

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