Pat Harrington Jr. was a salesman pushing 30 when his big break finally came.
And big it was: A chance encounter with comedian Jonathan Winters in a New York bar got him not a tryout, not a bit role, but the most coveted stand-up gig a young comic could hope for: an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar.
Harrington walked out on that big network stage a complete unknown in 1959 and never held a job outside of performing again.
Though he still looked like a salesman — the Los Angeles Times described him at the time as “belonging to the gray-flannel-suit variety” — Harrington painstakingly built a series of ad-libbing roles on “The Tonight Show” and “The Steve Allen Show” into a six-decade career that included scores of credits for character parts. “That’s extraordinary in Hollywood,” said his agent, Phil Brock.
A decade and a half after his first TV break, Harrington was cast as building superintendent Dwayne F. Schneider on the television sitcom “One Day at a Time.” The role brought him fame and an Emmy and enshrined him in popular memory as the ever-present handyman in T-shirt and vest.
Harrington died in Los Angeles late Wednesday, said his son, Michael Harrington of Los Angeles. He was 86 and suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and complications from a fall.
His television appearances read like a history of the medium: “The Steve Allen Show,” “Make Room for Daddy,” “The Jackie Gleason Show,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “The Partridge Family,” “Love American Style” — all the way up to “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
But it was his performance as Schneider that sealed his image in the public’s mind as the obnoxious super with a heart. “One Day at a Time” was a topical Norman Lear effort that ran for nine seasons beginning in 1975. It struck a national nerve with its touching/comic treatment of a divorced woman and her struggles raising two daughters at a time when single mothers were rare on TV.
Harrington’s Schneider was an exasperating but loving hang-about, constantly in the family’s apartment, perennially with a pack of cigarettes jammed in the sleeve of his T-shirt, the lone male in an all-female home.
The character might have been drawn along more limited comic lines but for the way Harrington played it, said Brock.
“He dug deep … and did his homework,” Brock said. Harrington’s dedication to humanizing Schneider meant that the super’s role deepened as the series progressed, he said.
Schneider steadily gained heart and dimension and became ever more central to the lives of main character Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) and her daughters, played by Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips, Brock said. It was typical of Harrington, who “could be funny, but he also brought meaning to his roles,” he said.
The part won Harrington an Emmy in 1984 for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series.
Daniel Patrick Harrington Jr. was born in New York on Aug. 13, 1929, the son of actor Daniel Patrick and Anne Francis Harrington.
His father, known as Pat Harrington Sr., was a well-known vaudevillian and cafe singer. He was determined that his son not endure the hardship of stage life and saw to it that Pat Harrington Jr. got a master’s degree in political philosophy from Fordham University and a straight job as a network time salesman for NBC, Michael Harrington said.
But the young Harrington had inherited his father’s comic bent. Plus, his son said, he’d grown up a “black Irish” kid in the ethnic maelstrom of Hell’s Kitchen, where a penchant for imitation and improvisation came with the territory.
He did an impression of an Italian character in a bar one night in front of Jonathan Winters, who, according to family lore, grabbed Harrington by the lapels and brought him on “The Tonight Show,” his son said.
Later, when he sought acting roles, Pat Harrington took himself back to school, seeking every kind of formal training he could. Stand-up was fun. But “when you’re acting, you gotta know what you’re doing, this is work,” he explained to a Times reporter at the time.
Harrington had four children with his first wife, Marge Harrington. They divorced in 1985, and he married Sally Cleaver, who survives him.
Some of his working years were lean, his son said. But for the most part, Harrington always worked.
It helped that his improv skills never left him, Brock said. Many of his lines in “One Day at a Time” were his own, thought up on the spot.
But collegiality was the other reason Harrington worked so long, Brock said. Though Harrington’s humor had an “Irish bite,” he “was a gentleman’s gentleman.… Actors wanted to be on set with him.”
Michael Harrington called his father a “dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat who loved the underdog” and said he’d been struck that the family was receiving many tributes from “guys on the crew.”
Harrington is also survived by sons Patrick Harrington III of Tucson and Terry Harrington of Los Angeles, and by daughter Tresa Harrington of Los Angeles.
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