Dick York After ‘Bewitched’

A Facebook friend mentioned Bewitched’s Dick York in a post; I replied with a comment, which Greg Hatcher saw, and he thought it should be a post here. His reasoning, which I agree with, is that there are often rumors and assumptions about celebrities, especially ones who leave a role and drop out of the public eye, and those assumptions are often unflattering. In the example at hand, someone commented “I thought he was an alcoholic? I could be totally wrong. —also he was absolutely hilarious, yes. This is just an explanation that flew my way some years ago.”

So if one can set the record straight, it’s a good idea. As it happens, I can do that in this case. So, let’s set the record straight and dispel some rumors about why Dick York left Bewitched and pretty much disappeared from Hollywood.

As anyone with access to Wikipedia or the IMDB can tell you, Dick York (the funny Darrin) left Bewitched because of severe and increasing back pain that often incapacitated him, a souvenir of an accident while shooting They Came to Cordura with Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth in 1959. As York explained, “Gary Cooper and I were propelling a handcar carrying several ‘wounded’ men down the railroad track. I was on the bottom stroke of this sort of teeter-totter mechanism that made the handcar run. I was just lifting the handle up as the director yelled ‘cut!’ and one of the ‘wounded’ cast members reached up and grabbed the handle. Now, instead of lifting the expected weight, I was suddenly, jarringly, lifting his entire weight off the flatbed-180 pounds or so. The muscles along the right side of my back tore. They just snapped and let loose. And that was the start of it all: the pain, the painkillers, the addiction, the lost career.”

He toughed it out and finished the film without seeking proper medical care (“when you’re young, you think you’re bulletproof and nothing will hurt you,” he explained), and his back did not heal properly. He did some memorable roles in movies and TV after the accident, including playing the jailed teacher in Inherit the Wind,  but by the time he got to Bewitched, he was pretty limited in his physical activities due to chronic pain. His physical limitations made his role on the show a dicey proposition, since he often had to spend a day hanging from a tree or doing some other insanely physical thing every time Samantha twitched her nose. The show wore on him, and finally, after collapsing on set in the middle of filming, he ended up in the hospital. Producer William Asher visited him there, prepared to reluctantly fire him if he had to, but York told him he wanted to quit, sparing both of them the discomfort. Dick Sergent took over as Darrin.

York got addicted to painkillers after that, took to his bed and ballooned up to over 300 pounds and lost all his teeth, but after living that way for a year and a half, he went cold turkey and kicked it, something he credited his wife for carrying him through. He did a few guest spots on some TV shows in the early ’80s, and then retired.

Dick York in 'Inherit the Wind'
Dick York as Bertram Cates, the schoolteacher prosecuted for teaching evolution, in ‘Inherit the Wind’

That’s the story as Wikipedia has it, mostly extracted from York’s autobiography and a few interviews with people involved. But that’s not the whole story.

Come with me to 1982 or thereabouts. It was one of those too-perfect, too-precious, straight out of a coming-of-age movie setups. A group of young Hollywood hopefuls, mostly college-age, had rented a slightly shabby Victorian house in a fading neighborhood on the fringe of Hollywood, near Wilton Place north of Sunset, where they intended to collaborate on their various projects. One of them, speaking by phone to his mother, explained the plan, to which she responded, “so you’ll all live there, and work together in a creative manner?” Immediately the young man yelled “CREATIVE MANOR!” and so the house was christened. Somehow word about their in-home acting class got passed from Creative Manor to one of the guys in the community theater group of which I was part, and a bunch of us signed up. The price was right (cheap, like $10 a week or something), and taught by Dick York.

Dick York

Once a week, we’d make the schlep from Azusa to Hollywood to do improv and scene work. About a dozen or more of us would gather in the parlor at Creative Manor and listen to Dick, hunched and scraggly with a sparse gray beard, but still flashing those same intense eyes under that heavy brow, as he sat in a recliner and told us his unvarnished thoughts while his wife Joey (actually Joan, but known to everyone as Joey, Dick’s nickname for her) watched and smiled and said nice things to everyone. It shocks me to think that I’m now seven years older than he was when he taught that class; he seemed so much older than 54. The fourteen years between Bewitched and our acting class had taken a toll on him. But for as much as his body had been wracked by injury, addiction, and tobacco (he was a three-pack-a-day man), his mind was every bit as sharp and direct as it had ever been.

Dick took what he called a “gestalt” approach to acting, talking about how the whole is greater than its parts and how everything is connected to everything else, and that the subtext conveys a lot more honesty than the text, if you take the time to ferret it out, and that an actor has to bring everything into the performance; the spoken and unspoken, the mental, emotional and physical, the past and possible future of the character, and create a complete and complex real person to inhabit.

To give you a sense of how abstract and esoteric his approach was, our textbook for the class was Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa. Now, granted, this academic treatise on semantics is pretty brilliant, dissecting as it does the origins of English, the significance of shades of meaning, and how one’s vocabulary influences one’s thought processes. Reading it will make you smarter, and I highly recommend it if you can slog through it. While all of that is true, it takes a particular kind of mad genius to see this book as an acting textbook. But guess what, it is. (Hayakawa’s other book, Choose the Right Word, is a lot more approachable, and also full of helpful advice about the shades and nuances of English, and I think it’s a must-have for anyone who wants to write or speak for public consumption).

Language in Thought and Action by S.I. Hayakawa

Dick was, as might be expected of someone who went through what he did, a bit gruff of manner, but a big-hearted guy who was generous with his time and advice, and a pretty good storyteller. Only once did I ever see him get really angry.

Two of the guys in the class (I think their names were Mike and Steve, so that’s what we’ll call them), Mike and Steve, brought in a videotape they’d shot of themselves doing a scene they wrote. Steve was a somewhat physical guy, having worked as an escape artist at one point, and the scene involved a conflict between the two of them that escalated into a fight and ended with both of them tumbling down a flight of stairs. The clip ended, and they stood beside the TV, smiling and self-satisfied, happily waiting for comments on their performance. Dick stood up and roared. He was not having any of it. He told them it was beyond stupid that any serious actor would risk his health and career doing stunts. He told them if they wanted to do stunts, they could get the hell out of his class and go do stunts until they ended up in wheelchairs, and told the rest of us that if a director ever asked us to do anything that looked even a little bit dangerous, we should refuse, walk off the set if necessary, and call in the Screen Actors Guild if we had to. “Actors do not do stunts! Your body is the only instrument you have in this job and you cannot afford to break it!”

It was pretty obvious to everyone that Mike and Steve had pushed a button; Dick’s anger and regret over the on-set accident that nearly destroyed his life was not far below the surface, but it only broke through when he saw somebody taking stupid risks and thoughtlessly endangering themselves. He didn’t want anyone to ever go through what he had. He really wanted to hammer home that point about being young and thinking you’re bulletproof. That was the only criticism I ever saw him give that was entirely negative and devoid of nuance. And they had it coming.

Dick York was an original thinker with a unique approach, and I learned a lot from him, not only about acting, but thinking and formulating sentences. I still have my copy of Language in Thought and Action, a book I wish was required reading for politicians. (S.I. Hayakawa served as Senator from California from 1977 to 1983.)

If you want a sense of how Dick thought and spoke, I recommend his autobiography, The Seesaw Girl and Me. (The “seesaw girl” of the title was Joey; they first met as child actors when he was 15 and she was 12, and she was there through all the ups and downs of his life.) He took a unique approach to writing this book; instead of sitting down and typing it, he dictated the whole thing into a tape recorder as an extemporaneous monologue in about a week, jumping around in time and place, stitching together a stream-of-consciousness tapestry of the events of his life, from a desperately poor Depression-era childhood in Chicago to becoming a child actor and singer in radio, then a TV star, and back to desperate poverty, but never without hope and purpose.

The Seesaw Girl and Me

Like the man himself, his life story is a gestalt exercise that has to be taken as a whole. His prose is often oblique, a non-linear story that only makes sense when one reaches the end. If you only knew Dick York from TV, it’s a revelation. If you knew him in person, it’s a surprising and welcome visit from an old friend. In either case, it’s Dick York, every bit the man he was, without any Hollywood gloss to hide the rough spots.

A couple of years after that class ended, Dick and Joey moved out of LA; they went to Michigan in 1985 after Joey’s father died, and stayed to help her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. In 1986, Dick was diagnosed with emphysema, so they stayed in Michigan, in the small house that had been Joey’s mother’s. After he was housebound and dependent on an oxygen tank, Dick started a nonprofit called Acting for Life, and spent the rest of his days working the phones to raise money and lobby for assistance for homeless people, right up until he died in 1992.

One of the other people in the class was my friend Michelle, whom I’ve known since high school. Since Dick and Joey lived in Covina, which is right next to Azusa, she often drove them to the class and back, so she spent a lot of time with them. I reached out to her on Facebook:

I noticed a very thin man who looked familiar. His face was sooo familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, what I saw didn’t make sense. He was very thin and haggard. Then I heard him speak and it clicked. That emaciated, haggard man was Samantha’s long suffering original husband Darrin, Dick York! He was very open and friendly in the old Hollywood, “honey”, “darling”, “baby”, “sweetie” kind of way, but you always felt it was genuine. He truly enjoyed being with you. My husband was excited that I met Dick York and couldn’t wait to meet him. When he did, Dick drew my startled husband in for an enthusiastic bear hug and soundly kissed him on the cheek, exclaiming how wonderful it was to meet him! Dick probably threw in a “darling”, “sweetie” or “baby” in there too. My husband was left a bit rattled, but pleased, he hadn’t expected such an exuberant greeting.

Dick never went anywhere without his beloved wife, they were inseparable. They truly adored each other and thoroughly enjoyed being around young people. Dick and his wife were devout Catholics and had five children. He always spoke with such reverence about the great blessing of his wife and children. Together he and Joey were one of the most upbeat, joyous couples I have ever known.

The freethinking creative atmosphere of Creative Manor was great! What a surreal and incredible summer that was. I was able to leave the mundane of the San Gabriel Valley for the glamour of Hollywood and this crazy Victorian home full of creative people. I would swing by a sad, basic apartment complex not far from where I lived to pick up Dick and Joey and we would travel to the enchanted Hollywood acting workshop.

The class was enlightening and gave me confidence. One exercise I remember vividly – I was Eve and, one of the Creative Manor residents, his name now long gone from memory, played Adam. I was to entice him to take a bite out of the apple. I did everything I could think of; I wheedled, I cajoled, I seduced – but Adam could not get out of his head and react to me… he was stuck on “I’m not supposed to eat this apple.” So he fought it – there was no scene, there was no give and take, it was me up against an unreactive wall. I found a way to end the unsatisfactory scene and turned to Dick for a critique. He struggled for words but it broke down to “Michelle did everything possible to get you to take a bite out of that apple, you did nothing. You were not in the scene, you did nothing to contribute to the success of the exercise.” He was much more generous than that, but I do remember he told me I did a wonderful job and, in nicer words, that “Adam” was a schmuck for not allowing the scene to unfold. I felt vindicated, I was not a failure for not convincing Adam to bite the apple.

[Jim: God, I remember that scene! It was my setup. We weren’t doing freestyle improv, there was a plotline the actors were supposed to follow, similar to the way later movies like Spinal Tap were done; in this case, the plot was about hypocrisy. The actors were specifically told that Eve DOES NOT seduce or entice Adam at all; he sees her eat the apple, thinks “hey, she didn’t die,” and when she hands over the apple, he eats it without hesitation. And then, when God enters and asks what happened, Adam immediately throws her under the bus: “She did it, it was all her fault! She tempted me, I couldn’t help myself! And it’s your fault for making her!” Aaaand Scene. Simple, right? The whole thing could have been clever and funny and three minutes long. Instead, “Adam” (damned if I can remember the guy’s name; he was one of those nondescript dark-haired soft-chin guys with glasses and a cable-knit sweater, the guy who plays one of the unnamed slightly-nerdy frat members in an ’80s college sex-farce comedy, you know the type), anyway, “Adam” got so caught up in figuring out what he personally would have done in Adam’s place that he completely abandoned the given storyline and crawled up his own ass in metaphysical analysis paralysis, bringing the exercise to a crashing halt and leaving Michelle to do everything but tap-dance to try to move him the hell along and end the damn scene already. It was excruciating to watch and had to be a hundred times worse to be stuck in. Dick was way too gracious to the guy.]

While Dick never talked about his time on Bewitched much, he did let us know a little secret. Samantha never twitched her nose. She was actually wiggling under her nose. Go ahead…try it. Yep, everyone was convinced she wiggled her nose because that is what we expected. Another bit of convincing acting. He also mentioned how awkward love scenes could be, you are under the covers with private bits covered up, but there would be no escaping if the actor got too ‘excited’ by his role. He said he would apologize in advance if he got ‘excited’ and apologize if he didn’t! Definitely an awkward situation! He struck me as the kind of actor who was considerate and cared about the other actors’ comfort and feelings.

On our drives into Hollywood, we had casual chats about many things. He talked a little about his health issues, mentioning his emphysema and heart problems. He talked about having to wear a nitro patch and Joey couldn’t touch it or it would cause her blinding headaches. His concern was always for his wife. Joey, in turn, doted on Dick and took care of him, she made sure he had all his medications and was not wanting for anything. They really made a perfect couple. I really think they were just happy to be alive and together. Somehow when you reach the depths of pain and addiction that he had gone through, you really appreciate the good days that much more. I live in Seattle and we have the bluest sky you’ve ever seen – that is likely because we have a lot of grey and when the blue comes out, it is crisp, clear and spectacular! Upon reflection, I feel that is what Dick and Joey were appreciating, the blue sky of being alive, after all the fighting to get there. It didn’t matter that they lived in a tiny, shabby apartment in a suburb of LA, but that they were together to enjoy every breath together. If they could share their knowledge and joy with a bunch of 20-somethings all the better. The world is definitely a much better place because Dick and Joey York lived in it.

Dick York in 1986.

So now you know. Dick York was not fired from Bewitched because of drugs, he didn’t end up a drunk or an addict. He didn’t die forgotten in an alcoholic haze or strung out on narcotics. He never stopped fighting, never gave up, and he left the world better than he found it. Even when confined to his house with an oxygen tank tethered to his face, he spent his last days trying to help people he’d never met.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one old has-been actor with a hose up his nose could help millions of people?”

And that was Dick York.

5 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    The only thing I recall hearing about why York left Bewitched was that he had died – but that was my brother pulling my leg when I was a little kid watching the reruns, after I asked him why the husband on that show was suddenly a different guy. I only figured out that that was a lie a few years later in the early ’80s when I saw York in a guest appearance on some TV show. I’d never heard any rumors about him being an alcoholic and/or drop-out or whatever.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this – it must have been cool to get to know and get pro tips from a genuine movie and TV veteran. And it sounds like he was a stand-up guy, and it makes me sad that he had so many health problems.
    Great, great post.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Always a fan of the show and I saw something, when I was in high school, that mentioned he was suffering from emphysema and just assumed that was the reason he left; then, a little later, saw an interview where he mentioned the back problems. I always liked his work, especially when I was older and saw Inherit the Wind, where he is holding his own with two powerhouses, in Spencer Tracy and Frederick March (and Gene Kelly). York really grounded the wilder aspects of Bewitched and did much to make the relationship seem real (not that Elizabeth Montgomery wasn’t balancing the fantastic and the mundane, but he had to play straight man, which is far tougher). Heck of a cast on that show, with great character actors from an assortment of disciplines.

    Glad to hear more positive stories about his life after, as too much print, air, and bandwidth are taken up with the salacious and negative about people, not just celebrities.

    You know, until I was double checking the book you mention, I have always merged S.I Hayakawa with actor Sessue Hayakawa, even when the former was US Senator from California. Johnny Carson would make jokes about Hayakawa and I would hear someone say something about the actor, in relation to his being stereotyped as villains in movies and put 2 and 2 together and got 17.

    These days, I’d be happy if politicians read a damn book, period.

  3. In case you’re wondering how Language in Thought and Action could possibly be an acting textbook, here’s the short version:

    1. Acting starts with thought. If your thinking is right, your actions will be right and your character will be believable.

    2. Much of our thought, especially in regard to performance, is verbal, basically talking to your self inside your head.

    3. The more clearly and precisely you can think, the more clear and precise your performance will be.

    4. The more you understand the origins of English and the ways that vocabulary influences thought (HOW you think about a subject affects WHAT you think about it), the more effectively and specifically you can tailor your internal monologue to produce the emotional response needed for the role.

    It’s right there in the book’s title, “Language in THOUGHT and ACTION.” What is acting? Thought and Action.

    If you’re an actor, buy the book and learn to think in character.

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