While many television stars garner fans and followings, only a few gain respect. While many get by on looks, and some even talent, only a few are genuinely likable. Bill Bixby had looks, talent, respect, and, simply put, was one of the most likable television stars in the history of the medium. The star of five series over twenty years, and an accomplished producer and director, Bix was an everyman whose legacy is fondly remembered to this day.
Examiner’s Note: After recently finding The Incredible Hulk: The Complete Series on Amazon for a staggeringly cheap $28.99, I have been pleasantly revisiting one of the favorite TV shows of my youth, and remembering all too well why this series (1977-1982) worked infinitely better than either of the two recent Hulk movies. Simply put, it is was an emphasis on humanity rather than hardware, and the fact that the star was so … well … likable. I miss Bill Bixby – he was truly one of my boyhood heroes – hence, I decided to profile him here.
Wilfred Bailey Everett Bixby III was born on January 22, 1934 in San Francisco, California. HIs father, Wilfred Jr.,, and his mother, Jane, both worked in retail. Bill attended Lowell High School, where he excelled in debate and drama. After graduating in 1952, Bill attended San Francisco City College, where, to his parents dismay, he majored in theater. Bill would later transfer to the University of California, Berkeley to study pre-law. When he was only two credits shy of graduation, Bill dropped out and beelined for Hollywood to pursue his dreams of being an actor.
Acting work was hard to come by, so Bill made a living as a lifeguard, a bellhop, a model, and commercial actor for companies like Chrysler and General Motors. After a brief sojourn to Michigan – where Bill did industrial film work and made his professional stage debut in the musical The Boy Friend – he returned to Los Angeles and made his first television appearance on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Much acting work followed on shows like The Twilight Zone, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, and The Andy Griffith Show.
In 1963, Bill was hired to costar, along with Ray Walston, in the CBS sitcom My Favorite Martian. The series was very popular, and ran for three seasons before being canceled in 1966. Following this, Bill appeared in a few forgettable feature films, including two with Elvis Presley … okay, so they were Clambake and Speedway, and did little to further Bill’s acting career.
In 1969, Bill was cast as Tom Corbett in the ABC dramedy The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. It regarded a widower raising his young son (played by Brandon Cruz), while trying to balance a career as a magazine editor and figure out where he fit in the world of dating. Bill and his young costar became very close during the show’s three-year run, and would remain so for the rest of Bill’s life. The show would earn Bill an Emmy nomination, see his debut as a director (eight episodes), and give him a wife. Days of Our Lives actress Brenda Benet guest-starred in one episode as a love interest for Bill’s character. The chemistry must have worked because Bill and Brenda would marry on Independence Day 1971. Their son Christopher would be born on September 25, 1974. (Sadly, Bill and Brenda divorced in September 1979. Sadder still, in 1981, six-year-old Christopher Bixby died of a rare throat infection. The following year, Brenda Benet, in despair, took her own life.)
After the cancellation of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in 1972, Bill would guest star on many different series, including Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, Love American Style, Medical Center, Barnaby Jones, and the acclaimed telefilm Steambath.
In 1973, Bill starred in his third series, entitled The Magician, where he played a stage illusionist who also helped solve crimes. The series lasted only one season, but was memorable enough to be influential in later years – shows like The X-Files and Quantum Leap both referenced the series.
After more TV appearances – Ironside, Mannix, Barbary Coast, The Streets of San Francisco, Rich Man, Poor Man, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat (to name only a few) – Bill was handed a script that, from the title alone, he literally had no interest in reading. It was called The Incredible Hulk, and involved physician/scientist Dr. David Banner, who, after being exposed to gamma rays, turns into a green-muscled monster whenever he becomes angry. At the insistence of his agent, Bill read the script and was delighted to find that rather than being a comic book rooted in violence and action, was thoughtful, emotional, morally centered, and a bit sad. The show’s creator, Kenneth Johnson, was also not interested in doing a “comic book,” but when he realized that the show could be a cross between Les Misérables (with a fugitive pursued) and Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, he changed the show from its Marvel origins just enough to place the emphasis on humanity rather than horror. Body builder Lou Ferrigno was cast as the titular green monster. After a couple of TV movies in late 1977, The Incredible Hulk ran for five seasons from 1978 to 1982. From its first airing, Hulk was, naturally, a SMASH. Adding much pathos to the show, was the iconic “Lonely Man Theme” by Joe Harnell, which played throughout each episode, but was especially memorable during the final shots of each show, as Dr. David Banner was walking alone down different highways, forced to move on to the next town. Not long after season 5 began, and with only seven episodes in the can, CBS abruptly yanked the series from its schedule. Despite this, The Incredible Hulk would become a cult hit around the globe (it would play in 70 different countries), and make Bill Bixby a bigger international star than he ever dreamed. Bill played the character as a rather idealized version of himself, and in so doing would become an icon of moral decency … not bad for a kid’s show based on a comic book.
Following the Hulk’s cancellation, Bill would star in the CBS sitcom Goodnight, Beantown, alongside one-time Hulk costar Mariette Hartley. The series ran for two seasons (1983-84) before being pulled.
After a few stints directing series television, Bill would reprise his role of Dr. David Banner in three Hulk TV movies: The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988), The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989), and The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990). While Bill would direct the final two movies, none were of the same quality as the series best episodes (… this is largely blamed on the non-involvenment of series-creator Kenneth Johnson, and that the first two movies seemed more like pilots for other Marvel superheroes, namely Thor and Daredevil). Despite the Hulk’s title-fulfilling death at the end of the last movie, plans were underway for two more films, but … sadly, this was not to be.
In the early months of 1991, Bill was diagnosed with prostrate cancer … a very late diagnosis. After surgery, it was believed that Bill had beaten his cancer. However, it was soon clear to all that, though Bill continued to work as a director on shows like Blossom, his health was deteriorating so fast, he would literally collapse on the set. Tragically, and way too soon, Bill Bixby died on November 21, 1993.
Bill was married three times. To Brenda Benet from July 1971 – September 1979. To Laura Jane MIchael from December 1991 – June 1992. And (for one month, till did them part) to Judith Kilban, October 1993 – November 1993.
Those who knew Bill, loved him.
Those who only got to know him through his screen roles, also loved him.
And all who loved him, mourn him still.
Want to know more? Check out the complete A&E Biography of Bill Bixby posted on TheWordslinger.
Bill Bixby Quotes:
“I’m a loner as a person, but then I always was, even as a child.”
“I have a passion against wasting time, and that’s just what you’re doing if you don’t take time in a group to get to listen to others. Everybody has a quality worth finding if you only make the effort to discover it.”
“A person has got to have the right to be wrong, to make mistakes. You must stick your neck out and try. There is no need to apologize if you try and fail. On the contrary, you can look anyone right in the eye.”
“I would have to agree with the fact that most actors are schizophrenic. They are able to escape in other roles. Of course, many of your own personal manifestations go into that characterization.”
Regarding receiving the pilot script for The Incredible Hulk: “I didn’t even like the title. I wanted to make fun of it because of its name. I told my agent, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ when he suggested I might be interested in it. He said, ‘Read it!’ and so I took it home and thanks to his intelligence, I did read it. Right away I knew this could be done in the style of the monster pictures or the creature films of the 1940s. But one advantage we enjoy over the previous monster pictures is that the Hulk is not evil.”
On working with Brandon Cruz on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father: “The amazing thing is that when we’re working in a scene together there’s never a thought of conscious acting. Our natural affection for one another – the reality of it – is what appeals to the audience.”
“TV is a major force in our lives – a FORCE. It must be handled very carefully, both its censure and its artistic honesty.”
“In show business, you have to realize that everyone, in fact, is a freak, and that’s something they don’t tell you about when you go to acting school. People treat you differently because you happen to be a celebrity.”
Regarding his cancer being tabloid fodder: “I don’t understand how people can be so ungracious and so unkind even in the face of death. They don’t care. There is no respect for life. And I resent that, and I resent the people who do it and make a living off of it, and I think they should examine their own character.”
Regarding returning to work after the death of his son: “Work really was a catalyst by which I was able to maintain a sense of balance, and coming back … I don’t know that you come back. You go on, you endure.”
“[Work] allowed me to put my energies some place and focus them some place and relieve myself for awhile of confronting the traumatic circumstances that were occurring in my life. So work has always been a friend to me.”
“Money doesn’t mean anything because the value of it can be reduced instantly and it’s gone. Possessions don’t mean anything because they can be stolen. But TIME – there’s nothing else of such value that I can see and there’s never enough of it.”
Of playing the role of Tom Corbett on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father: “You know, I’ve never played myself before, I’ve always portrayed some part. The thought scared hell out of me at first, but after three weeks of looking at the daily rushes, I decided … I like that man.”
So did we all, Bill. So did we all.