Remembering David Cassidy: A Candid Chat About Fame, Fans and Pop

Bobby Bank/Getty Images
David Cassidy

"It's a wonderful thing to have a positive effect on an audience," Cassidy said while reminiscing about being a teen idol.

I first met David Cassidy, the former star of The Partridge Family who died Tuesday, during an interview about two decades ago. Shortly thereafter, we hung out together backstage after he completed a set of bubblegum hits that had thousands of 40-something-year-old women screaming like they were teenagers again.

We spoke on multiple occasions since then and, well before his dementia set in, I caught up with him while he was golfing for an on-the-record interview that continued when he returned home. The interview, though, remained unpublished, until now.

Sorry to interrupt you on the golf course. How’s your game going?

I played nine holes and am six over par. I only missed a couple of putts. Golf is good for my brain. It clears my mind to concentrate on getting a little white ball to go in a hole 500 yards away. It’s a fantastic club where they filmed Caddyshack.

Was it a pain to be typecast as Keith Partridge?

It was for the first 10 or 15 years. But it’s never a problem to become that successful. People thought I didn’t love it just because I didn’t want to do it again. But I did love it. I was blessed, in fact, to have that opportunity.

And you were hired for that role without them realizing you could sing?

They knew I could sing, but the network didn’t care. I had a lot of dramatic credits already, on Bonanza, Ironside and others. But I had to audition several times. They were just casting actors. After the pilot sold, I auditioned for Wes Farrell, the record producer. Thankfully, I passed the audition. And when I started singing on the show, it was a whole other thing.

Do you have a favorite Partridge Family song?

I can’t say for myself, but for most people it’s "I Think I Love You." It’s kind of an anthem for some. They’ll come up to me and say, "I was sleeping, and right in the middle of a good dream, like all at once I wake up." That song was awarded record of the year by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers. It was up against the Beatles. Paul McCartney was sitting there, and there I was, an upstart young punk, beating one of the greatest songwriters in history.

Was the rest of the cast jealous of your music career?

They were young, and really appreciative that we were having that kind of success. Danny Bonaduce was about 11 at the time and he looked up to me as a big brother. There was no dissension, ever, with the cast.

Was it tough to go out in public back then?

I never went out in public after the first three months. It was too ridiculous. It’s not like that for celebrities anymore. Audiences are more sophisticated. They can see stars over and over on video, so they’re more human, more accessible now.

Was there one experience that convinced you to stay out of public places?

So many. I’ll give you an example. "I Think I Love You" was just starting to become a hit, and I was on the cover of every teen magazine. My friend and I were on a road trip — Yosemite and Colorado — in sleeping bags, freewheeling and cool. We hiked for three days in Big Sur, then came out very funky and greasy, and we go into this restaurant. Now, the odds of this happening are a billion to one: But busloads of Girl Scouts and Brownies, about 150 girls ages 7 to 16, pull up.

You’re kidding? That is pretty coincidental that busloads of your demographic would suddenly arrive in a middle-of-nowhere place.

I know. So, they come into the restaurant and I’m in the back, breaking into a sweat and hiding behind my friend. He’s good-looking with long hair, so the girls are looking at him, and we’re the only other two people in the whole place. I knew we had to get out of there. You have no idea. They’d rip my clothes off and my hair out. Soon, we start hearing this buzz from the girls. I can hear them whispering my name. So I start coughing and putting my hand over my face and we start to walk, then run, out of there. But by the time we get in the car we’re surrounded by 50 of them, and the rest are pouring out of the restaurant. We laughed about it. We cried about it. It was surreal.

How did you exist rarely going out in public?

I existed in a very sheltered, small group of friends. I worked 18 hours a day and rarely took a day off. I traveled with my friend, who handled merchandising. I might be the first star to be merchandised — with a poster, lunchbox, cereal. I toured the world and lived a triple-E-ticket life. It was insane, but I stayed grounded.

Did you realize at the time that you were having an impact on pop culture?

My concerts were sellouts. I set a record at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I sold out the Houston Astrodome twice in the same weekend, 56,000 people each time. And Vietnam War veterans told me about this re-entry video they were showed before returning home so that they could catch up on what was going on while they were away. The vets would tell me the video had a lot to do with the women’s movement, and with me. So, yes, I was very aware of the impact.

So there was no mystery to you about how popular you were at the height of The Partridge Family?

None. In fact, a number of years ago an executive at NBC — which wasn’t even our network — showed me my TV Quotient from 1971. It’s this thing that wasn’t supposed to really exist that measured people’s awareness of TV stars. Lucille Ball was No. 1 and I was No. 2. The NBC guy said, "You knew you were successful, now you know what the networks knew." Then he said, ‘You didn’t get this from me."

I imagine you had some girlfriends at the time?

How shall I put this to be politically correct? There were lots of fantastic experiences for a young buck in Hollywood who was given the keys to the kingdom. Next question.

You had some great guest-stars on the show. Any favorites?

Jodie Foster and Richard Pryor. Jodie was about 12, and so talented. She was a wide-open and fun person. And Richard was just about to break it big. I wanted to hang out with him because he was a beautiful human being. Other than John Lennon, he was the purest artist I knew.

You knew John Lennon?

Very well. If I had a mentor, it was John. Talk about an impact! Look at his body of work. "Give Peace a Chance," "All You Need Is Love." He bared his soul and changed the world.

When your brother Shaun was becoming a teen idol in the 1970s, what advice did you give him?

I didn’t offer advice. He chose that path, but quickly realized he didn’t want any part of it. Not that he didn’t appreciate his fans, he just wanted to be a producer, director and writer, and he is very successful at it.

Can modern shows have as much impact as the big shows from the '70s?

No way. Look at American Idol, for example. At its peak, it never got anywhere near the audience we had. And there are 50 people American Idol introduced to the public. With The Partridge Family, all of the attention was focused on a handful of us.

Did it bother you that your music was classified as bubblegum?

That became a condescending term. But a lot of classic stuff from the '60s was bubblegum rock. Look at "Sugar, Sugar." It’s one of the best-selling records in history. Hey, I learned music from the best in the business, and a good record is a good record. There’s no need to categorize it.

Overall, good memories or bad memories of playing Keith Partridge for four years?

If The Partridge Family inspired people, then I’m proud of that. It¹s a wonderful thing to have a positive effect on an audience. I got thousands of letters from kids going through real tough times who said I brought them joy. I can¹t in any way be cynical about that.