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For a Hollywood actor who became one of America’s most beloved TV dads on Growing Pains, Alan Thicke was never shy about talking about his ties to his native Canada and how he had prospered working both sides of the border over an almost-50-year career.
That was obvious when The Hollywood Reporter sat down to talk to Thicke on Dec 3 at the Whistler Film Festival for what would be one of his last interviews before his sudden death Tuesday. Told that he’d long been lauded for doing just about everything in show business, Thicke was asked what he still had left to do.
“There’s not much that I haven’t done in my life, but there’s lots of things that I’d like to do better,” he answered, looking and sound hauntingly reflective. “The variety of my career has been the fun of it, and I can thank Canada for that,” Thicke added.
Having grown up in Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario, Thicke recounted cutting his teeth in TV at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the country’s public broadcaster, in the late 1960s. “When I started out, at the CBC in Toronto, there was so little work. It was a different world from what it is now. Now we’re blessed with so much production in so many Canadian cities,” he said.
Thicke attended Whistler to promote his latest movie, the offbeat comedy It’s Not My Fault and I Don’t Care Anyway, in which he plays a self-help guru. “The movie was shot in and around Edmonton. That would have been unheard of in the 1970s,” Thicke said.
At the CBC, he recalled becoming a jack of all trades to get by as a performer. “One week you may be an actor, and the next week you had to be nimble enough to be a TV host,” he recalled. “And the week after that you might have to do some stand-up, or be in an improv company, or write and sing a song somewhere.”
That well-rounded training served him well when Thicke eventually moved to Hollywood. Besides his acting and talk show hosting, he wrote theme songs for a number of successful TV shows, including The Facts of Life and Different Strokes.
Thicke said that he was supportive when his son Robin first came to him as a teen to announce he wanted to pursue a career in music. But his encouragement came with some professional advice.
Said Thicke: “If this is your choice, [this is] what do you need to do: It’ll be like going to school, or becoming a doctor. You better focus — learn to play the piano, start writing songs, pay attention to great lyricists, like great Canadians like Gordon Lightfoot,”
As part of that education, Thicke took Robin to concerts by the Bee Gees, Prince, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and The Beastie Boys, all the time giving him tips from the bleachers. Of course, the father’s faith in his son’s musical potential sprang from more than love, Thicke said at one point.
“It wasn’t only me, as I wouldn’t have trusted in my own biased opinion. Authorities no less expert than David Foster, a lifelong friend of mine, spotted [Robin’s] talent,” Thicke said, referencing Foster, a fellow Canadian musician and famed music producer.
To thank him for the early mentoring, Robin Thicke decided to send Foster a bottle of champagne. The problem was, he was underage.
“I had to intercede and buy the bottle of champagne and ensure it got in Foster’s hands,” the elder Thicke reminisced with a broad smile on is face.
Thicke’s own start in Hollywood in the early 1970s was helped in large part by Saturday Night Live‘s Lorne Michaels, with whom Thicke worked at the CBC during the late 1960s. After Michaels appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, his stateside career was assured, and not long after, Thicke followed him across the border. His hop to Hollywood was also spurred on by a run-in with Len Casey, the then-head of variety at the CBC, after he rejected Thicke’s pitch for a Canadian TV show during one meeting.
“He basically told me, we’re not a goddamn training ground around here. You think this is a good show. Get it on stage. Prove to me we should put it on TV,” Thicke recalled. That failed pitch sealed it for the young Canadian performer, as Thicke resolved to take his ideas for TV to Los Angeles, away from a CBC not willing to develop new talent.
Within months, Thicke was writing for American TV shows hosted by the likes of Glen Campbell and Flip Wilson. “But I’m not bitter, 40 years later?” Thicke said with a hearty laughter.
He wasn’t done with Canada, however, as Thicke, for decades, used his Hollywood experience to hone his skills back home. And that became possible because Canadians have long prized homegrown talent that makes it south of the border, he recounted.
“We’re still the 51st state in (America’s) mind, even though we like to think that they’re the 11th province,” Thicke said. “And that’s OK. There’s motivation there. The fact that you go to the States, now you have some credibility, now you come back to Canada and do some stuff,” he added.
During another moment of the interview, Thicke recalled coming back home at one point to do a talk show out of Vancouver between 1980 and 1983, The Alan Thicke Show.
That effort led to his short-lived U.S. late night show, Thicke of the Night, which didn’t do well against The Tonight Show. But there was one silver lining to his failed talk show: “That show was a dog. However, that was my first exposure on camera in the States. And that led to Growing Pains,” he recalled.
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