Bill Bixby, television actor, director and producer best known for his starring role as Dr. David Bruce Banner on “The Incredible Hulk,” has died. He was 59.
Bixby, who also starred in the series “My Favorite Martian” and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” died Sunday afternoon at his home in Century City of cancer that had spread through his body during the past year.
His wife, Judith Kliban-Bixby, was with him at the time of his death.
Bixby emerged from the early days of episodic television and seldom strayed far from the small screen either as actor or director.
“I’m perfectly content to be labeled a television performer,” he once told TV Guide. From 1978 through 1982 and in several reunion reprises, Bixby played Banner, a soft-spoken scientist who had accidentally suffered an overdose of gamma rays. Because of that, Banner when angered was transformed into the Incredible Hulk, a raging green beast of a man with white eyes and an impressive array of muscles. The transformed Hulk was played by body-builder Lou Ferrigno.
“We don’t make fun of the characters. That would cartoon it,” Bixby once said of the show. “From the beginning we decided to make it an adult show that kids are allowed to watch, rather than a childish show adults are forced to watch.
“It’s an old-fashioned action-adventure. . . . Let’s kick back and have an enjoyable evening.”
Long before “Hulk,” however, Bixby had become a fixture on television. He starred as the harried reporter Tim O’Hara to Ray Walston’s extraterrestrial in “My Favorite Martian” in 1963 and 1964, and as the widowed father Tom Corbett in “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” from 1969 to 1972.
In other, less successful series, he was cast as Matt Cassidy in “Goodnight, Beantown,” a series about television newscasters in Boston in 1983-84. He also was the illusionist and escape artist with a clouded past in “The Magician,” a panelist on the quiz show “Masquerade Party” and host of the PBS children’s series “Once Upon a Classic.”
He did have one major stage appearance to his credit, “Under the Yum Yum Tree,” and appeared in the musical comedy’s film version. His other films included “Lonely Are the Brave,” “Irma La Douce” and “The Apple Dumpling Gang.”
In the 1970s, Bixby began a parallel career directing various television shows, including the sitcom “Blossom,” and dabbled in producing as well. He was nominated several times for an Emmy and, for “Rich Man, Poor Man,” was nominated for a Director’s Guild award.
“Directing,” he commented, “is my Social Security when there’s no more market for me as an actor.”
His pleasant but commanding voice also served him well as a longtime spokesman for Radio Shack and as narrator of industrial films for General Motors and Chrysler. Bixby was the authoritative host of such television specials as “The Elvis Files” in 1991 and “The Elvis Conspiracy” and “The Marilyn Files” in 1992. (He had co-starred with Elvis Presley and Nancy Sinatra in the film “Speedway” in 1968.)
Bixby was born in San Francisco, the only child of parents who sent him to UC Berkeley, hoping he would become a lawyer or a businessman. But, he said, he asked for “five years, to find out if I have any talent for acting.” Indeed, he did.
His first Hollywood break was in the Midwest--making industrial films for a Detroit auto executive. But the credits helped, and he returned to Hollywood for small parts in popular series such as “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.”
His first continuing role came in 1962 when he played Joey Bishop’s boss on “The Joey Bishop Show.” Next came “My Favorite Martian,” and he never wanted for work again.
He met his first wife, the late actress Brenda Benet, on “My Favorite Martian.” The couple had one son, Christopher Sean, who was 6 when he died of a throat infection in the waiting area of a hospital emergency room.
“My son suffocated while the doctor inside was removing a splinter from the finger of another doctor,” Bixby once bitterly told an interviewer.
Benet, from whom Bixby was divorced, killed herself less than a year after the boy’s death.
Bixby made television shows for children and enjoyed good relations with child actors such as Brandon Cruz, whom he selected to play “Eddie.”
“I’m proud of what I’ve done,” Bixby said in reviewing his body of work in 1979. “My shows are the kind children can watch with their parents, without embarrassment. And parents can watch with their children, without embarrassment. I like that.”
Indefatigable, Bixby not only acted, directed and produced constantly but also was a farmer, growing peaches and 30 other varieties of fruits and vegetables on a farm in the San Fernando Valley. He also was known to personally deliver autographed pictures to children who had written him, and spent one year improving his golf game, reducing his handicap from 17 to 10.
“I am energy-filled,” he said. “I want things to happen. Change is my friend. Boredom is my enemy.”
He even enjoyed late Friday drinks for a few years with actor James Garner, comparing their injuries on Bixby’s “Hulk” and Garner’s “Rockford Files.”
“We’d talk wounds,” he recalled. “He’d point to a laceration on his knee and I’d say, ‘That’s nothing.’ Action shows are always strenuous and you know that as David is the target on the Hulk that there are going to be some injuries.
“I’ve had broken ribs, broken fingers. I have no cartilage any more in my left knee,” he said. “Over 80 shows, the odds are you’re going to get hurt. Remember, the Hulk (Ferrigno) only emerges when David (Bixby) is really threatened.”
Despite his success and frenetic activity, Bixby remained a shy, withdrawn man.
“I don’t go to parties. I’m not good at social events,” he acknowledged. “If I go out, I know I go as Bill Bixby, the actor. That means they want to talk to Eddie’s father, or Tim O’Hara, or the Magician or Dr. Banner.
“I’ve come to accept that,” he said wistfully. “I used to hope that someone would want to talk to me, to Bill, but I’ve learned it won’t happen.”