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Alan Thicke: A Canadian star to light up the night

From our September 1983 issue, our profile of Alan Thicke, who has died at the age of 69


 

We are remembering Alan Thicke—the actor, entertainer and proud Canadian who died on Tuesday at the age of 69. Here, in this 1983 story from Maclean’s Archives, Gillian MacKay reports on his time at work on Thicke of the Night—the doomed talk-show competitor to The Tonight Show.

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A Canadian star to light up the night

TELEVISION

Gillian MacKay

It was almost midnight by the time Alan Thicke finished taping his last performance of the day at the Metromedia television studios and headed across the back lot to his Hollywood office. Dressed only in black corduroy slippers and a peach velour bathrobe, which revealed a heavy gold chain nestling in his chest hair, he was a walking illustration of the Hollywood law that informality of attire increases in direct proportion to status. Alan Thicke may not yet be a household name in the United States, but in his small corner of Tinseltown the transplanted Canadian reigns supreme as both producer and star of Thicke of the Night, a 90-minute variety series which premiered this week across North America.

Running in the competitive late-night time slot opposite Johnny Carson, Thicke has exceeded even his own reputation for overwork in his bid to succeed where other contenders, like Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett, have failed. In the weeks before the premiere he logged 16to 20-hour days, sometimes sleeping overnight in his dressing room and fuelling his remarkable energy with boxes of doughnuts and pints of Häagen Dazs ice cream. Collapsing in a chair in his shabby, cluttered office, he popped a tablet of vitamin C into his mouth, chewing furiously. “I’m going to die,” he joked wearily. “I’m going to find out the series is a hit and then I’ll die.”

Pitting Thicke of the Night against the legendary Tonight Show is the most dramatic gamble of the fall television season. Certainly, the David and Goliath story has the American press buzzing about the mysterious Canadian who is, according to the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, “as well-known in the United States as the capital of Mongolia.” In fact, the 35-year-old native of Kirkland Lake, Ont., has lived the good life in Los Angeles for 13 years, with a list of television writing and production credits as long as his Bel Air swimming pool. And in Canada, where he was host of CTV’s afternoon talk show, The Alan Thicke Show, he is a celebrity. From 1980 until last week, Thicke’s clean-cut good looks, affable personality and expert understanding of the medium made him the country’s most popular daytime star, with more than half a million viewers. Now L.A.-based Metromedia Television and MGM/UA Television Distribution are investing more than $7 million in the hope that the same magic will at least win a respectable corner of the insomniac kingdom where Carson has reigned for 20 years, if not dethrone him.

Another television legend, Fred Silverman, masterminded Thicke’s assault with Machiavellian finesse. Ironically, in his role as president of NBC, Silverman was instrumental in dissuading Carson from retiring in 1980. Since Silverman’s much-publicized departure from NBC in 1981 to become an independent producer, Thicke of the Night is by far his most ambitious undertaking. The show’s upbeat variety format is based, in part, on Silverman’s contention that the conventional talk show is dead, that “all the questions have been asked and all the answers given.” As the father of all talk shows, with 12 million viewers, The Tonight Show is hardly a corpse. But in Silverman’s view the show’s tired format, aging audience and sagging ratings have created a “vulnerability in the late-night market” which he aims to exploit with a mixture of Top 40 musical acts, zany comedy sketches and celebrity interviews with an offbeat twist.

Thicke of the Night is only one of many attempts to keep North Americans glued to their sets past 10 p.m. Ted Koppel’s hard-hitting news program, Nightline, and the breezy, sarcastic Late Night with David Letterman both have a sizable following. As the latest entry in the fray, Thicke of the Night has 26 weeks to prove itself or become television history. Silverman has spent more than $1 million on advertising and glittering media receptions in a promotional push that he acknowledges is “as important as the show itself.” Hard sell has paid off in an enthusiastic response from such major sponsors as Procter & Gamble Inc. and Johnson & Johnson which have purchased nearly all the show’s advertising spots through next March. And broadcasters have matched the support: 130 stations have picked up the show, including 13 NBC affiliates and two stations that Carson himself owns. Of these, 70 will run the program directly against The Tonight Show, which more than 205 stations carry. In Canada, Ontario’s Global Television Network will air an hour-long version of the show twice a week beginning Sept. 27.

The strong response is all the more remarkable since the stations bought the show without seeing a pilot. Instead, they watched a package of highlights from The Alan Thicke Show and Fernwood 2-Night, a brilliant satire on the talk show genre which starred Martin Mull and won a cult following in its two seasons on air (1977-78); Thicke was both a producer and writer. The show’s backers are therefore selling it as a sponsor’s delight: one to attract the young crowd without putting off the parents. Fernwood’s former creative supervisor, AÍ Burton, now executive producer at Universal Television, predicts: “Thicke will appeal to the folks— the people who watch television a lot and consider themselves average citizens. But he will not lose that other group he knows so well—the young people in the fast lane.”

In terms of versatility, Thicke of the Night is a bit of a throwback to the days of The Ed Sullivan Show where, on a single evening, The Who would smash their guitars and Kate Smith would follow with God Bless America. Thicke describes his brand of mainstream madness as “Monty Python meets Art Linkletter.” The show is as schizophrenic as it sounds. Fans of And Now for Something Completely Different will likely enjoy Thicke’s at-home interview with CHiPs star Erik Estrada, which is drowned out by a shouting match between a cameraman and a Spanish-speaking maid. But the same audience will likely snore through interviews in which Three's Company star John Ritter talks earnestly about learning to listen to his five-year-old son and Wayne Gretzky discusses his endorsement of a new breakfast cereal. Similarly, music lovers who tune in for raucous rock groups such as The Tubes can expect no thrills when Thicke sings the show’s title song. Despite his bid to become television’s first rock V roll talk show host, Thicke looks liks a crooner in the mould of his teenage idol, Bobby Darin, when he parades with his microphone. One crew member whispered, rolling his eyes: “Ed Sullivan may have introduced The Rolling Stones, but he didn’t try to sing like them.”

Thicke may not set the music world on its ear, but he has set a new record for total involvement. Unlike most talk show hosts, Thicke does just about everything on the set but flash the cue cards. Having developed the concept for the show, he oversees the musical production, writes, directs, performs many of the sketches and attends to the most mundane technical details. Thicke owns one-third of the show in partnership with Silverman, in addition to receiving an “extremely generous salary” which he will not disclose but allowed as being between “$3,500 and $7,500” per show. When Thicke belts out such lyrics as “I’m going to make it on my own,” which he wrote, the clichés of pop music have an uncanny ring of truth.

If anyone deserves to make it on his own, it is Alan Thicke. As his crowded resumé attests, he has been a model of drive and versatility. He began his career as a writer with CBC’s The Tommy Hunter Show in 1968 and went on to produce game shows like NBC’s Wizard of Odds. He also wrote more than 30 theme songs for television series such as The Facts of Life and Different Strokes and produced specials for comic Flip Wilson and singers Barry Manilow and Anne Murray. Jack McAndrew, head of CBC variety when Thicke produced and wrote The René Simard Show (1977-1979), says, “For shows with a light and popular touch, he’s one of the best in the business.” While the master of middle-of-the-road television also has ventured onto more subversive byways, such as writing for Richard Pryor and Fernwood, his taste runs more to madcap send-ups of the medium than savaging its cozy illusions. There will be no dark side to Thicke of the Night. Says Fred Willard, who played Martin Mull’s cohost on Fernwood and who will appear often on the new show: “This is good-natured fun, which it should be for a mainstream commercial show.”

Thanks to Silverman’s flair for promotion, Thicke will certainly become a TV celebrity, if only during the brief period of the show’s opening weeks. In addition to inciting excitement about the challenge to Carson, Silverman also has fanned speculation about his personal motives in the affair. While president of NBC, he was forced to capitulate in a much-publicized battle with Carson over salary demands, settling on a package reputedly amounting to more than $5 million annually. After bumping into Carson at a Los Angeles restaurant recently, Silverman gleefully reported that the entertainer tauntingly asked: “You still in business?” Thicke himself was initially reluctant to play up the Carson angle with the press. “I’m not really competition for him,” he said in June. However, as the pressure mounted in the weeks before the premiere and spokesmen for The Tonight Show continued to react to queries about the show with indifference, Thicke changed his tune. “I hear rumours that The Tonight Show would like to kill us, just squash us,” he said. Just before taping the first show, he told the studio audience another “rumour”— that pressure from network executives could prevent his wife, Gloria Loring, who plays the troubled Liz Courtney on NBC’s afternoon soap opera Days of Our Lives, from appearing on his show. Later, he sniffed, “And they say they’re not worried.”

Carson may have some concern, but none as serious as the worries that emerged during the early sessions of Thicke of the Night. The task of assembling a polished and sparkling 90-minute variety program to run five nights a week is a producer’s nightmare. And during the taping of the first shows before a studio audience in August, the lack of preparation was glaringly evident. There was almost no time for rehearsals, scripts were altered minutes before taping and performers wound up ad-libbing many of their lines.

Bright-eyed and at ease before the camera, Thicke displayed an abundance of what one of the show’s three producers, Scott Sternberg, considers his key asset: “the likability factor.” But no amount of charm could compensate for the lack of organization. One day, Thicke had no time to edit the lines on his cue cards and stumbled so badly through his comic monologue that it had to be retaped. Although he did not panic, neither did he pluck triumph from disaster as Carson might have done. Silverman watched it all from the wings with a pained expression. In contrast to the good-humoured and unflappable Thicke, whose work uniform is a Nike tracksuit, Silverman stalked the studio in a seersucker suit, demanding to know why writers were not producing more and why the staff had not swept the floors. On the second day, Silverman erupted when a skit bombed as a result of disorganization and berated the staff at a five-hour production meeting that lasted until 4 a.m. On the third day, however, a beaming Silverman pronounced the show “terrific.” He said with conviction, “I don’t think anyone can say we’re not giving them what we promised.”

Since his early days as a youth in Kirkland Lake, Thicke himself has lived up to his promise. Outgoing but quiet, he was, in his mother’s words, “always an achiever.” He excelled at sports, at school where he was class valedictorian, and at public speaking, for which he won prizes throughout Northern Ontario. As a teenager, Thicke considered pursuing a career as a doctor, a United Church minister and a sportswriter. But at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., where he studied English, he discovered show business. Off campus he worked as a disc jockey at radio station CFPL at night, organized regular talent shows and even sang in the cocktail lounge of the now defunct lroquois Hotel. A publicity photograph at the time depicted a dreamy-eyed 18-year-old dressed in a shiny brocade jacket with black satin lapels, trying to look like Bobby Darin.

After Thicke graduated from university, he moved to Toronto, where he worked for three years as a writer and performer on such CBC shows as Time for Livin' and Good Company. One day in 1970 he saw a poster advertising the U.S.-born singer Gloria Loring, who was appearing at the city’s Royal York Hotel. Thicke, who fancied himself a ladies’ man, pestered Loring with phone calls until she reluctantly agreed to a date. Within a few months they were married, and they still speak about each other in glowing superlatives. Says Thicke: “I knew I would never find anyone more beautiful, talented, honest or maternal. Gloria is as good as it gets.”

During that period, Thicke quit the CBC in frustration and moved with Loring to Los Angeles. CBC executives had rejected proposals Thicke made for a comedy series on the grounds that the network “was not in the business of developing ideas,” as he recalls. Ironically, he was able to use some of the same material on the Emmy award-winning Lokman and Barkley Comedy Hour, where he quickly found a job as a writer. In 1980, after Thicke had spent 10 busy years as a writer and producer, Arthur Weinthal, CTV’s entertainment programming chief, approached him and asked him to audition as a replacement for Alan Hamel as a daytime talk show host. Thicke won out over such high-profile contenders as Brian Linehan. After his first season on the show the audience size jumped 55 per cent, making it the biggest success in the history of Canadian daytime television.

CTV did its best to suppress the more outrageous side of Thicke’s personality, fearing that anything too sophisticated would alienate an audience composed largely of retired people and housewives. Occasionally, Thicke indulged in offbeat humour, but for the most part he conducted his interviews with TV stars, singers, comics and assorted experts in a relaxed, humourous manner that the show’s producer, Paul Block, approvingly describes as “nonthreatening.” While his perennial good nature made the show seem dull to some viewers, Block, who ranks Thicke in a league with talk show greats Steve Allen, Jack Paar and even Carson, bristles at such criticism. By way of rebuttal, he points to Thicke’s interview with actress Morgan Fairchild, during which she recounted how she had simulated making love for a part in a TV movie. Says Block: “The reenactment of her heavy breathing was so torrid that Alan picked up the water pitcher and poured it over his head. Now I hardly call that bland.”

For all Block’s support, Thicke and CTV have not parted on friendly terms this season. Thicke received 16 job offers, including a chance to host a primetime variety show on CBS. After he chose Thicke of the Night he offered to host a half-hour weekly variety show of his own design for CTV as well. The network turned him down, and Weinthal now refuses to comment on the matter. For his part, Thicke is bitter about the rejection. “Where else in the world would you spend three years building up a star and then let him slip through your fingers?” he asks. Thicke’s show on Global basically will be a shorter version of the U.S. program, with occasional different segments for the Canadian audience. With celebrity guests like Gretzky, Gordon Lightfoot, regulars including Montreal singer Cécile Frenette and a large contingent of Canadians on the production staff, the show will have little trouble meeting domestic content regulations established by the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission.

South of the border, Thicke and his wife, who also earns a hefty six-figure salary as one of America’s most popular soap opera stars, enjoy the standard rewards of making it in Hollywood: a fulltime housekeeper, a Porsche, a Mercedes and a Lincoln in the driveway. Their large ranch-style house is perched high in the hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley. But busy careers and frequent appearances at charity benefits—particularly in support of research on juvenile diabetes, which their eight-year-old son, Brennan, contracted four years ago—leave them little time for staring at the view. Except for playing road hockey with Brennan and their other son, Robin, 6, or splashing in the Jacuzzi, Thicke’s notion of fun is working at home in his studio. Although he rarely loses his temper, Thicke is quietly demanding about everything in his life. He insists on seven-day work weeks for his staff and instructs his housekeeper in how to cook his bacon and eggs. Says Loring, unquestionably his match as a strong, vivacious personality: “Living with him is like a constant EST seminar.”

Although Thicke’s penchant for heavy gold jewellery and shirts unbuttoned to the navel creates a superficial impression of slickness, in fact he radiates a small-town friendliness which continues when the cameras stop rolling. The emotional support of his family is vital to Thicke. “I need to know that I always have that vine to grasp as I swing through the jungle,” he says.

Thicke of the Night may be an easy favourite with his family, but the first few weeks will put its popularity to the true test. The lavish promotion and dramatic buildup of the battle with Carson will ensure that millions tune in at the start—if only to see what all the fuss has been about. Thicke is fully aware that he faces enormous pressure to live up to his advance billing. “All the attention has been great, but it is a bit premature,” he says. “I’m not so stupid as to think I am the Messiah.” If Thicke is worried about the public verdict, he gives no sign of it. “The worst I can do is fail and go back to my Jacuzzi and lick my wounds,” he reflects lightly. Whether he succeeds or fails, there is no question that Alan Thicke will be entertaining for years to come.

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