Friday, December 4, 2009

80 is Awesome: A morning with Dick Van Patten

Last week I accompanied a colleague from my company on an interview with my friend Dick Van Patten. Here is the article she wrote that appeared on the PETCO Scoop blog.

80 is Awesome: A morning with Dick Van Patten

by Lisa Epstein

I get to do a lot of really cool things working at PETCO. I mean, Chihuahua races? Writing about heartwarming animal stories? Pet-sitting at the office? C’mon, it really doesn’t get much better. But, last week, I got to do one of the coolest things I’ve done yet. I spent a morning with Dick Van Patten. At his house. Just hanging out and listening to his stories.

Me and Dick Van Patten.

Lisa and Dick Van Patten.

Most people know Dick — or Dickie, as I noticed lots of people call him — as the 1970s TV dad from Eight is Enough – or, I don’t know, maybe from his hundreds of other roles and appearances in American television, film and theater over the last 75 years (NBD, right?). And, if you’re a PETCO shopper, you also know him (or, perhaps, only know him) as the face of Natural Balance pet food.

Side note: To be totally honest, as a child of the 80s and 90s myself - Cliff Huxtable and Danny Tanner were my TV dads – until the other day, I really only knew Mr. Van Patten from PETCO and the Natural Balance connection. I mean, I knew he was someone, I just didn’t get how BIG of a someone he was.

So, what was I doing hanging out with not just one of PETCO’s most popular vendors, but an American icon? Well, at a lively 80-years-old, Dick just published a new book, appropriately titled, Eighty Is Not Enough, in which he tells the history of his life as an entertainer. It’s an amazing collection of stories that not only portrays a road map of Hollywood history, but reveals the true character of a really sweet, funny and loveable man. And, there’s one chapter in the book that touches on his life-long love of animals. But here at PETCO, we knew there was more to that part of the story. And I was sent to uncover it.

So, joined by PETCO’s VP of Natural Foods and Innovation, Rick Rockhill, I walked into a warm and welcoming home in LA’s San Fernando Valley (which just happens to be where I grew up) to get a story from Dick Van Patten. And I loved every minute of it.

A photo of Dick with Farrah Faucet from his photo gallery.

A photo of Dick with Farrah Fawcett from his photo gallery.

We were welcomed with open arms, and I immediately felt like I was at home with my own family. Dick’s son, Jimmy, and his wife, Pat, were there. A couple of cousins that grew up with the family and Dick’s publicist, Jeff Ballard, who’s been working for Dick since he was a 16-year-old kid that snuck onto the Eight is Enough set and got Dick’s attention, were all there. And, of course, Dick’s cat, Helon, and Jimmy’s dog, Tyler, were also there. And, it was clear this was like any other day in the Van Patten home. Filled with love and family. Oh, and LOTS of pictures of Hollywood stars. Hundreds of black and white photos of stars that would’ve made my parents swoon. And I counted at least four photos of Farrah Fawcett, who was one of Dick and Pat’s closest friends, and a framed, hand-written letter to Dick from Michael Jackson, another very close friend of the family. (Again, NBD.)

Eventually, we sat around the dining room table (with the mouthwatering smell of Pat’s homemade gravy all around) and started chatting. And I watched Dick’s eyes light up with every story he told. He told me about the “menagerie” of animals he collected as a child. “I loved animals. That’s all I thought of from the time I was 10.” As a boy, he said he was fascinated with pet shops. His dad or aunt would take him to a different one every Saturday. “I wanted to have my own pet shop someday. That was my dream.” He loved going in and looking at all the different animals – and if he had been good all week, he got to take one home. “I had one of everything. Horned toads, turtles, snakes, mice and rabbits and fish.” OH MY! “Even a baby alligator!” You’ll have to read the book for that story, but it’s a good one. And he told me about his dog Skippy, “a total mutt,” and his cat, Beauty. She was his favorite. “I love all animals, but I’ve always been more intrigued by cats. They’re just more discriminating. If you can get a cat to really like you, it’s like a major accomplishment. And cats love me!” And he told me exactly where his life of animal advocacy really began. When he was just a kid, he would rescue stray dogs off the streets in New York. “I couldn’t stand to see an animal all alone and lost. If I ever saw a stray, I would pick it up in my arms and do whatever I could to get it home or save it.”

I also learned about the history of Natural Balance. Dick had been a guest on a popular variety show, when he and the show’s drummer, Joey Herrick, got to talking about their shared love of animals. “He told me about how he rescued cats and dogs. Then he told me he had this idea about making a health food for dogs and he thought I could help.” What Dick didn’t tell me, but his nephew helped explain, was that Joey probably first approached Dick because he was famous and his name alone could have helped any new business get off the ground at the time. Most stars may have told Joey to take a hike. But Dick, being the genuinely nice guy that he was – and an animal lover, to boot – was all in and ready to help. “I shared the idea with a veterinarian friend of mine, and when I saw her eyes light up, I knew we could do it.” And the rest is history. I could tell he loved this particular story and he had a lot of great things to say about PETCO along the way, which is always nice to hear. I think he considers having his product on the shelves of more than 1,000 PETCO stores as his pet shop dream come true, and I definitely got the sense that the Van Pattens consider all of us at PETCO to be part of their family.

I heard lots of other animal stories while I was there. One about a 10-year-old Dick scaring his father half to death with a new snake he’d brought home one night. One about a crazy chimpanzee Dick once made friends with in a Hollywood dressing room and another about a bear he got in a cage with on an old TV show. I heard about his mother-in-law and her house full of cats – a favorite of Dick’s. I heard about Dick’s love of horses and horseracing. Jimmy told a story about Dick saving a horse from being put down after a bad racing injury by offering to buy it for $1 and then nurturing it back to running health again. I heard stories about his work with Actors and Others for Animals and Guide Dogs of the Desert. One thing was clear, I was talking to a man who truly loves animals.

Dick with his son, Jimmy, and Jimmy's dog Tyler.

Dick with his son, Jimmy, and Jimmy's dog Tyler.

Long story not short, I heard a lot that day from a great storyteller, but the best part is being able to tell this story to you. Whether you know Dick as a Hollywood star, or as the guy on your dog’s bag of Natural Balance, there’s a whole lot more to know. I haven’t read all of Eighty is Not Enough (yet!), but I can tell you one thing… after meeting Dick, I think 80 is awesome.

-Lisa Epstein


KathyA said...

What a great article and testimony to Mr. Van Patton!

Jeni said...

Fascinating interview, Rick! Thanks for posting that for us to read it too!

Diane J Standiford said...

I WAS a big 8 is enough fan. (His oldest son (the actor) Grant, lives in Seattle area. I love DVP and I know his book is a real tale. He looks great by the way. Lucky you!


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