Much of this week has been focused on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy and I plan to chip in my two cents before the week is out.
However, I want to mark the anniversary of the passing of another notable individual. On November 21, it will have been 20 years since the death of actor/director Bill Bixby. A fixture on American television from the early 1960s to the early 1980s on shows such as My Favorite Martian, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,and The Incredible Hulk, Bixby was only 59 when he succumbed to prostate cancer in 1993.
It was the last of these three shows which introduced me to Bixby as a child in the late 1970’s. I had not read the comic book, but was drawn to how Dr. David Banner transformed into the Hulk to help himself and others fight back against those who would do harm to him and the people he cared about. I also identified with the loneliness and isolation Banner experienced when he would be compelled to leave yet another town after the Hulk made his presence known with intrepid reporter Jack McGee of The National Register (played brilliantly by the late Jack Colvin) in hot pursuit. This despair was brought home at the end of every episode with the playing of the late Joe Harnell’s “The Lonely Man.”
Still, I have to admit that in those days I was more a fan of Lou Ferrigno as The Hulk than I was of Bixby as Banner. Perhaps I was too big a fan of Ferrigno. When I tore my pajama top to shreds one night after watching The Incredible Hulk, my parents prohibited me from watching it.
Indeed, it would be more than 30 years before I saw the show again in re-runs. You will be glad to know that this time around I was able to refrain from tearing articles of clothing. Despite the cheesy disco music and cheesier stunt doubles, The Incredible Hulk still holds up remarkably well.
While I still enjoyed seeing the Hulk throw bad guys around, this time most of my attention was focused on Bixby’s performance. Regardless of the situation, Bixby portrays Banner with dignity, grace, intelligence, and warmth.
Bixby exhibited these qualities when he was offstage as well. Consider this YouTube video I found of Bixby being interviewed in March 1977 in Chicago where he was appearing in a play. Bixby is appearing on a local news program in which the anchor and the reporters are children. The interview is being conducted by a boy probably no older than 12 or 13. The boy is clearly nervous in Bixby’s presence. Undoubtedly sensing this and having experience working with child actors, Bixby is able to put the youngster at ease.
Several things stand out here. First and foremost, Bixby talks to this child with the utmost respect and without a hint of condescension. Bixby approached this interview as he would if he had been interviewed by an adult.
Second, the interviewer asks Bixby if he planned to star in any other TV shows like My Favorite Martian and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Bixby replies that he had a couple of series in the works including a comedy at NBC co-starring Barbara Feldon. The show was called The Natural Look. A pilot was shot, but never went to air. Obviously, this interview was done before Bixby had been approached by television producer Kenneth Johnson about starring in The Incredible Hulk. While it would have perhaps been interesting to see Bixby on-screen with Agent 99, he was wise to give The Incredible Hulk the green light.
Third, Bixby is also asked if he would want his son to become an actor. Bixby replied that he would support his son in anything he wanted to pursue. Sadly, that day would never come. Four years after this interview, his son, Christopher, died of a rare throat infection. He was only six years old. A year after his son’s death, Bixby’s ex-wife Brenda Benet, who was also an actress, would take her own life. (Ironically, Benet would make a guest appearance on The Incredible Hulk playing a psychic who prevents Dr. Banner from committing suicide.)
Despite the loss of his son and of Benet, Bixby managed to maintain his dignity and would do so until the very end. In his final days, Bixby was busy directing episodes of the NBC sitcom Blossom despite tremendous pain from the cancer that had spread throughout his body. He would remain at work until less than a week before his death. In his final interview, Bixby’s determination shone through. He told Entertainment Tonight:
I know there are some people who’ve been told they have cancer. Quit! When the C-word hits their mind they simply stop, they cease to live and give themselves to dying. That’s not my intention. You come and get me, and you drag me away, but I’m not going to contribute to my own death.
During that same interview, Bixby spoke about the legacy he wished to leave. He said, “I would hope that I have left behind something that would leave goodwill and then my life would have been worth something.” For those of us who watched him, Bill Bixby left an imprint that has not receded with time. When he left this world, the void that remained felt like a kick in the gut. I never met Bill Bixby, but when he died it was like losing my best friend.