'Eight Is Enough' Actor Willie Aames Remembers Dick Van Patten: "He Was the Leader of Our Show"

Dick Van Patten - H 2015
AP Images

Dick Van Patten - H 2015

The 54-year-old former child actor reveals he only saw his TV dad get mad once in four years, when a stalker threatened his son's safety: "He loved and adored his family."

Actor Willie Aames had appeared on six TV series before landing the role of Tommy Bradford on ABC's 1970's drama Eight is Enough. But to hear the actor talk about the show and his relationship with the series' patriarch, actor Dick Van Patten who passed away June 23 at the age of 86, the show was professional and personal turning point.

Here the actor, now 54 and a prolific creator of Christian-themed content, recalls in his own words meeting Van Patten for the first time, the late actor's advice for his TV children and the day Van Patten said no to ganging up on ABC for more money.

You expect this kind of news but you never know how it’s going to affect you.

The first time I met Dick was when his son Vincent Van Patten and I were doing The Courtship of Eddie’s Father over at MGM. This was in 1969 or 1970. He was a very, very nice man and they’d all moved out from NYC to start their careers.

On Eight Is Enough, the first scene I did with him was playing touch football in the park. I had replaced the actor who was in the pilot, and there were a lot of comments on set about how much different it was with me, that it was better with me there.  I said at one point, “Hey, give the kid a break, you don’t know what happened. It’s not fair, he did his best.” And Dick said, “Good for you, always say the positive thing.” That was Dick.

He was the most positive, kindest man. I never saw him get angry except when I had a stalker who claimed to know Dick’s son. The guy called the Eight Is Enough set once and claimed he was a friend of Vinnie's. I said, 'Hey, Dick, it’s that guy.' And he got on the phone and tore him to shreds. It was the only time in four years I saw him get angry. There was never an unkind word about anybody. He was the most sincere person I’d every worked with. The only other person I can think of like that is Henry Winkler.

I remember he’d tell us often before shooting a scene, he’d have that smile on the face — 'I want you all to look around and remember this time. These are the good old days. These are great days. So enjoy them.' He was the leader of our show.

We’d been in touch over the years off and on. We’d have dinner or breakfast together when I was in town. Last time I saw him was a few years ago when we did reunion special on the Today show in New York. I hadn’t seen in the last few years. This is exactly what I worried about; that I wouldn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

The thing that people most need to understand about him was that he had the most gratitude of anyone I knew. For the fans, for the networks for allowing us all to have a great life. He was grateful to be a working actor, and a very underrated one at that.

I’ve tried to emulate this in my own life, the way he lifted up his wife and his family. Every day, the first thing he’d say when someone asked, 'How are you, Dick?' was 'I woke up next to Patti Van Patten today. What could be better?' He loved and adored his family. He always had some wonderful thing to say about his wife. He lived such a great example off-camera. 

He was also very smart. At one point on Eight Is Enough, there was a movement on set to gang up on the network [ABC] and demand more money. Eight Is Enough was my seventh TV series at that point. We were all in San Francisco in a car, shooting on location. The idea was the cast would band together and they asked what I thought. I said, 'I think we will all get fired.' We were all working for Lorimar at that point. 'You’re all nuts.'

Dick started to laugh, 'Good for you, Willie. I agree. We keep our mouths shut and enjoy the work while we’ve got it.'