Thicke: I got lucky in a purely Canadian way

Special to Alumni Gazette

 

Iconic Canadian actor Alan Thicke, BA’67, best known for playing Jason Seaver on 1980s sitcom Growing Pains, died from a heart attack Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 69. Thicke was playing hockey with his youngest son, Carter, when he suffered the fatal attack.

In a 2011 interview with the Alumni Gazette, Thicke playfully admitted he had no idea what he was doing when he arrived on Western’s campus five decades ago.

Having skipped Grades 4 and 6, he arrived at Western at age 16. Fresh from his small-town life, the 1965 Elliot Lake Secondary School homecoming king admitted to boxing up dirty clothes and mailing them home for his mom to wash and return to his dorm. “I had no skills,” he laughed.

The veteran television star reflected fondly on those initial awkward days. “My time at Western, in retrospect, was a great time, and instrumental in everything I have managed to do in my life,” said Thicke, a Delta Upsilon fraternity member. “But by today’s standards, I would consider it to be simple, protected, naive, simple old Canadian values.”

Thicke’s inherent personable nature could belie a remarkable career. “I got lucky in ways that were purely Canadian,” said the man who hosted Wayne Gretzky’s wedding in 1988.

After Western, he joined the CBC working for Lorne Michaels, who later created Saturday Night Live. “They paid so badly in Canada at the CBC that it turned out to be a great advantage,” he said. “You had to do a bunch of things to make a living.”

In the 1970s, Thicke was part of the leading edge of Canadian entertainers into The States. “Now the place is lousy with Canadians; they are everywhere. It used to be a very small, somewhat exclusive club. Happily now, it is not so much,” he laughed.

He spent his first decade in show business as a writer for icons: Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson, Anne Murray and Glen Campbell. He penned infectious TV theme songs to shows like Diff’rent Strokes, The Facts of Life and Wheel of Fortune. He has hosted numerous radio and television programs – none to more success than CTV’s The Alan Thicke Show and none to more of a failure than Thicke of the Night.

From 1980 to 1983, The Alan Thicke Show became (and remains) the biggest hit in the history of Canadian daytime television. The American late-night entry Thicke of the Night followed, however with less success.

Thicke contended the latter show, which aired from 1983-84 against late-night goliath The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, didn’t translate from its afternoon format in Canada into evening in The States. It died in less than one season.

Months afterward, however, he would be tapped to play Jason Seaver on Growing Pains. That role put him alongside Bill Cosby (The Cosby Show) and Michael Gross (Family Ties) as the iconic television father figures of the 1980s. He is identified by that role, and its ‘wholesome dad’ persona, to this day.

“It sort of saved my life,” Thicke said of the Seaver role. “I was on a dramatically, universally hated talk show when I first went public in The States. I was so happy to recover from that career suicide with a sitcom. I will always be happy for that.”

Ever since, he could pick and choose his work. He made recurring appearances on CBS’ How I Met Your Mother, and worked on film and Internet projects with comedians Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell.

He had roles in many TV movies and feature films including Disney’s Not Quite Human trilogy; The Calendar Girl Murders; Windsor Protocol; Rubdown; Any Place But Home; Obsessed; Betrayal Of The Dove; Ice Angel; Crossroads; and Teddy Bear’s Picnic.

In 2014-15, Thicke and family starred in Unusually Thicke, a reality-sitcom hybrid show that ran for two seasons on the Slice network. In its first season, the show featured Thicke and his son, Carter, returning to Western to shoots scenes for an episode entitled Empty Nest.

In theatre, Thicke received rave reviews opposite Jason Alexander in the Neil Simon/Burt Bacharach musical Promises, Promises and for his Broadway debut as Billy Flynn in Chicago-The Musical

A sought-after emcee, he hosted event specials, including the Emmy Awards and Miss Universe, as well as series hosting gigs, including ABC’s Animal Crack-ups, the Emmy-nominated Pictionary and A&E’s Travelquest.

As a headliner, he played the main Las Vegas showrooms of the Hilton, Desert Inn and Sands, as well as Atlantic City’s Resorts International, numerous cruise ships, and corporate events for Borden, Nestle, Mattel and Baskin-Robbins to name a few.

Thicke was also the author of Lovely Parting Gifts, How to Raise Kids Who Won’t Hate You and How Men Have Babies – The Pregnant Father’s Survival Guide.

He wrote sitcoms for Castle Rock, Warner Bros., and Viacom, and several feature film scripts. He was Executive Producer for the NBC Movie of the Week The Secret She Carried, and penned his nationally syndicated humor column for the Toronto Sun.

Thicke remained connected to Ontario and Western. He supported the Alan Thicke Centre for Juvenile Diabetes Research, a venture launched by Thicke and his father, Dr. Brian Thicke (’56), who still practices medicine in Brampton.

“My Canadianness has always been somewhat unique and special,” he said. “I like that. And Western is part of that.”

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During the 2011 interview, Thicke explained that he had already thought about what he would tell his then-13-year-old son, just entering high school this year, when he was ready to head off to university. His advice, admittedly as candid as it was un-Jason Seaverish, showcased a man who made mistakes, but leaned from every one of them.

“As much as everyone values the academic aspect of going to school, and warns of the dangers and pitfalls of the social possibilities, I come from a more innocent time. I would come down on the other side of that. Your social intercourse and development is extremely important in your university experience. In fact, trying to get it right is really important.

“It has always kind of amused, bemused me that nowhere in our culture are there mandated academic course on socializing. You don’t have to take a course in high school on marriage or relationships or even in psychology (on things like peer pressure, bullying). And then you are thrown into college.

“It would seem to me some sensible information in high school would set you up better for college. At the very least, by time you hit university, there should be a course about that social adjustment. This is the first time most people have been away from home.

“I am not coming down on the side of ‘be afraid and not doing anything.’ I am saying go for it, have your fun and find out what your limits are. Find out what your capacity for alcohol, or sex, or drugs or any of that is. How do you balance that with your studies? Do you know how late you can afford to stay up on a weekend? Or how wasted you can afford to get? Or how much of your time you can afford to spend with your girlfriend and still get the job done?

“I learned a lot at The Ceeps. I should get a degree in The Ceeps. I went there a couple of times. I tried drinking beer and threw up all over southern Ontario and decided drinking wasn’t really for me. Not a religious judgment or value judgment, it just didn’t quite work for me. Consequently, to this day, I am almost a total non-drinker because I was so bad at it.

“University kind of informs your life and future by finding your own balances, navigating your own way, finding your limitations. How much time you need to study might be different than what other people need.

“We seem to get thrown into situations when we start university that are foreign to us. There are so many other areas where you wouldn’t get thrown into the middle of something.”

Thicke is survived by his wife, Tanya Callau, and sons, Brennan, Robin and Carter.