article (c) 2002 by Mark Rathwell
name was Wilfred Bailey Bixby the Third, but to his millions of
fans, he was simply known as Bill Bixby. During his thirty year
career in television, he struck a chord with two generations of
television viewers, playing characters who were gentle, kind and
caring. Bixby was an accomplished actor and also an accomplished
director. Off-camera, his life faced incredible obstacles, but he
faced them with a determination that inspired millions.
Bixby was born on January 22nd 1934 in San Francisco, California.
The young Bixby was an energetic child who loved the spotlight.
In school, he was an average student but excelled in drama. His
aunt had been an aspiring actress and encouraged her nephew to pursue
acting as a career.
parents were not as enthusiastic as he was about his ambitions to
become an actor. They encouraged Bill to pursue post-secondary education
to become a professional such as a doctor or lawyer. Bill Bixby
enrolled in a pre-law program at Berkeley but dropped out a few
credits shy of graduation. Bixby enlisted in the military for a
brief time and, upon completion of his term, decided to try a career
in acting. At first, succeeding was difficult. Bixby took a job
as a lifeguard at a hotel while trying to make ends meet. Some advertising
executives noticed the young lifeguard and his first big break came
when they whisked Bixby back to Detroit to appear in commercials
for General Motors and Chrysler. The young actor had appeared in
a string of commercials and plays by the time he made his way back
to Hollywood. To further hone his skills, Bill enrolled in the Estelle
Harmon school of acting.
began to break into television in the early 1960a, landing guest-starring
roles on THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW.
His big break came when he landed the role of “Tim O’Hare”
on the CBS comedy, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, in 1963. For three seasons,
he played opposite Ray Walston to the delight of millions of viewers.
The cancellation of the show in 1966 didn’t slow Bixby down.
He starred with Elvis Presley in the movies, CLAMBAKE and SPEEDWAY.
On a personal level, he was considered one of Hollywood’s
most eligible bachelors. Bill dated Bat-Man star, Yvonne Craig,
but eventually settled down with Brenda Benet, a young actress whom
he’d met a few years earlier at a beauty pageant.
1969, Bixby took on the role of Tom Corbett, the single father in
THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. Viewers warmed up to his
role of the sensitive single father and the show became a ratings
hit. While on the set, Bixby developed a bond with his young costar,
Brandon Cruz. This bond fostered Bill’s desire for a family
and, in 1971, he and Brenda were married. Bixby also expanded his
talents by directing some episodes of the popular series. However,
in 1972, ratings started to fall and the network canceled the series.
Once again, Bill refused to sit still and gave an acclaimed performance
in the television production of STEAMBATH.
Bixby’s life changed in the fall of 1973 when Brenda and and
Bill welcomed a son, Christopher Bixby, to the world. Bixby now
had a child of his own and Christopher became the apple of Bill’s
eye. In 1973, he took another run at network television, starring
in the television series, THE MAGICIAN. Bixby relished the role
of Anthony Blake, a magician who found himself in assorted adventures.
As a magic enthusiast himself, Bixby performed all of his own magic
tricks. However, the show was expensive and didn’t attract
the viewers that the network wanted. The series was canceled after
one season, but again, Bixby was resilient. He starred in the Disney
motion picture, THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG, in 1975. He directed episodes
of CHARLIE’S ANGELS and the series BARBARY COAST. In 1976
received a nomination for his directorial work on the miniseries,
“RICH MAN, POOR MAN.”
1977, Bixby surprised many viewers by taking the starring role of
Dr. David Banner in the television series, THE INCREDIBLE HULK.
The CBS series was an adaptation of a Marvel Comic book about a
scientist who transforms into a raging green monster with superhuman
strength whenever he loses his temper. Bixby initially had concerns
over assuming the role but was impressed with producer Kenenth Johnson’s
pilot script. When the pilot movie aired in the fall of 1977, the
ratings were strong with children and their parents tuning in. A
second movie aired a few weeks later and then THE INCREDIBLE HULK
became a regular series in the spring of 1978. Millions of viewers
tuned in every Friday night to watch David Banner’s adventures.
While successful, THE INCREDIBLE HULK was also a grueling, expensive
production. Bixby was allergic to the makeup used for the scenes
in which David transformed into the Hulk and the contact lenses
he had to wear for the “White Eyes” sequences were uncomfortable.
Location shoots and extensive special effects scenes meant that
Bixby spent a lot of time on the set, filming episodes. This began
to take a toll on his marriage, which intensified when Brenda began
work on the soap opera, THE DAYS OF OUR LIVES. In 1979, they separated
and in 1980, she filed for divorce. The divorce was bitter and Bixby
ended up giving up custody of Christopher.
March of 1981, Bill Bixby was dealt a devastating blow. While on
a ski trip, Christopher Bixby began to have trouble breathing. His
mother rushed the boy to a hospital where Christopher died tragically
from cardiac arrest, caused by Acute Epiglottitis. The coroner’s
report listed Christopher’s death as one that could have been
prevented and Bixby was both devastated and furious. Bixby struggled
to go back to work on the set of THE INCREDIBLE HULK. After shooting
wrapped for the season, he rented a house on the ocean and secluded
himself for several months, struggling to deal with his pain.
turned out that 1982 wasn’t much better. THE INCREDIBLE HULK
was still earning solid ratings for CBS, but the production costs
had gone up significantly and CBS canceled the series after five
seasons. But that seemed trivial compared to the other tragedy Bixby
faced. Bill’s ex-wife Brenda, became so despondent over Christopher’s
death that she took her own life in April of 1982. Bixby was crushed
by the tragedy.
1983, Bixby gave network television another shot with the CBS series,
GOODNIGHT BEANTOWN, a comedy about a news crew in Boston. The series
failed to attract a mainstream audience and was canceled after one
season. In 1984, he directed the M*A*S*H* spinoff series, W*A*L*T*E*R*
and briefly looked at reviving THE INCREDIBLE HULK in a television
movie that would also have featured THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (a CBS
series from 1977-1979). With costar Lou Ferrigno busy shooting movies
in Europe at the time, the project was shelved.
1986 and 1987, Bixby directed episodes of the David Rache comedy,
SLEDGEHAMMER. In 1988, he reunited with Hulk producer, Nicholas
Corea, to produce THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS. The 2-hour TV movie
aired on NBC to mammoth ratings and a new movie, THE TRIAL OF THE
INCREDIBLE HULK, was ordered. Bixby took over the directorial duties
from Corea and moved the production to Vancouver, British Columbia.
While working on the picture, Bixby met Laura Michaels. The two
dated, fell in love and married in 1990. That year, saw Bixby producing
his final Hulk adventure, THE DEATH OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK.
In 1991, while directing several TV movies, Bixby began to notice
pain in his hip and back. At the urging of friends, he went to the
doctor for a physical and ended up not leaving the hospital. He
was diagnosed with having prostrate cancer and underwent immediate
surgery to remove the organ. The cancer, however, was spreading.
Bixby tried numerous experimental treatments but none of them had
any long term success.
coped with his illness the way that he coped with other tragedies
- by throwing himself into his work. Upon returning home from shooting
a number of television movies, Bixby was shocked to learn that Laura
was gone from their home. After one year of marriage, the stress
of Bixby’s illness proved too much and she filed for divorce.
Worse, Bixby received notice that his cancer was terminal.
1992, Bill Bixby was hired to direct the second season of the television
comedy, BLOSSOM. While he tried to remain optimistic and energetic,
he was also in constant pain. Bixby decided to take his fight against
cancer public and to draw attention to the disease. He gave touching
interviews and received thousands of cards from fans around the
world. His visits to other cancer survivors brought significant
joy. In 1992, he met Judith Kliban, the widow of a famous cartoonist.
The two developed a deep, spiritual bond. In October of 1993, despite
knowing that Bixby’s cancer was terminal, the two married
in San Francisco overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
this time, his weight had dropped to 135 pounds and Bixby was directing
BLOSSOM lying down on a couch. His pain was increasing and cast
members became increasingly worried about his health. Finally, after
collapsing on the set, Bixby realized his strength was failing and
retired to his home to spend his final days. Six days after leaving
the set, Bill Bixby slipped into a coma and passed away at the age
of 59. On November 21st, 1993, the world mourned the news that one
of television’s most enduring and likable actors had passed
on. During his last few days, Bixby isolated himself with his wife
because he didn’t want to feel pity from friends and colleagues.Bill
Bixby’s ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean. In 1971,
he had done the same thing with his father’s ashes and in
1981, had done the same thing with the ashes of his son, Christopher.
Bill Bixby brought joy to two generations of television viewers.
And though his life was filled with challenges, the determination
with which he faced them inspired millions. His untimely passing
in 1993 will never overshadow his tremendous body of work which
will remain on air for decades to come.