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Dick Van Patten dies at 86; 'Eight is Enough' star, pet food firm co-founder

Actor Dick Van Patten, best known for playing the genial dad on the "Eight is Enough" hit TV series in the 1970s and 1980s, had a long and varied career that started before he could read.

He was signed to a child modeling agency at 3, was on Broadway at 7, acted with the Lunts (beating out Marlon Brando for the part) at 16, and was in the cast of the landmark 1950s TV hit "Mama." He also appeared in several movies and had guest roles on scores of TV shows.

Certainly a successful career, but peanuts financially, compared to his venture into another business. In the mid-1980s, Van Patten, who was an animal lover, co-founded Natural Balance Pet Foods, which grew into one of the most successful brands in the country. The company was sold to food giant Del Monte in 2013 for several hundred million dollars.

"He used to tell me he made more money off the business," said company co-founder Joey Herrick, "than all the acting combined."

Van Patten, 86, died Tuesday at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica. The cause was complications from diabetes, publicist Jeffrey Ballard said.

His last credit was for an appearance on the "Hot in Cleveland" TV series in 2011.

"I loved working with Dick Van Patten," Mel Brooks said in a statement. Brooks cast the actor in "Spaceballs," "High Anxiety" and "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" as well as the short-lived TV series "When Things Were Rotten."

"He could do drama, comedy and had a talent for that rarest of gifts — satire," Brooks said. "Had he been a baseball player he would have been a great utility infielder."

The producers of "Eight Is Enough," which ran from 1977 to 1981, had originally chosen a different actor for the role of the patriarch of a family with eight highly independent children. But ABC president Fred Silverman, remembering Van Patten from "Mama," wanted the actor for his ability to play both comedy and drama.

The show may not have been as edgy as some others of the time, including "All in the Family," Van Patten wrote in his 2009 memoir, "Eighty is Not Enough," but it dealt with real-world family situations.

"The most important recurring theme involved the difficulties of coming of age," he wrote. "There comes a time when children realize that life is not always what it seems."

He was born on Dec. 9, 1928, in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens in New York City.

Show business was not his choice as a boy. That decision was made by his mother.

"My mother was aggressive, the typical stage mother," he told the Boston Globe in 1988. She got him a photo test at the prominent John Robert Powers agency, leading to ads for kids' clothing, bread, toothpaste and other items.

Next she wanted him to conquer the stage.

"I remember how my mom would take me on the subway from Queens to Broadway," he told the Globe. "We'd go to the offices of casting agents. Many doors were slammed in our faces. I was just a boy, but I remember that well."

His Broadway debut was in the World War I drama "Tapestry in Gray" in 1935 with Melvyn Douglas. It flopped, but Van Patten began to enjoy the show business life. At 14 he appeared in the 1942 production of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," which starred the flamboyant Tallulah Bankhead. At one point, Bankhead called him to her dressing room, "and there she was sitting on her chair in front of the mirror — stark naked!" Van Patten wrote. She wanted to tell him to change the delivery of one of his lines.

"For the remainder of the show," he wrote, "I kept thinking to myself, maybe I should mess up the line again so Tallulah would call me back to her."

He also picked up a lifelong fondness for horse races. When asked at school to write a how-I-spent-my summer-vacation essay, he wrote one called "How to Beat the Races." His teacher, not amused, expelled him, and Van Patten never finished high school.

After years on television made him a familiar figure, he was a regular guest on talk shows. While guest hosting "The John Davidson Show" in 1982, he had a conversation over lunch with Herrick, a drummer in the show band. They talked about their love of dogs, and Herrick called him a few years later with a proposal to start a pet food company.

"He would do anything to promote the product," Herrick said, including eating from the can of one of their brands that was made to human food standards.

"I never met anyone who enjoyed life as much as he did," Herrick said.

Van Patten is survived by his wife, Pat; sons Nels, Jimmy and Vincent, who are all actors; his actress sister, Joyce Van Patten; and half-brother Timothy Van Patten, who is a director.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter @davidcolker

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