Some of my fondest memories from childhood are the days when I was home from school pretending to be sick so I would have the house to myself and could watch endless hours of television with none of my siblings around to argue about what we were viewing. What a joy it was to snuggle under the covers with a bag of potato chips and a can of Tab, my imaginary illness disappearing the moment my mother left for work. This was back in the 1970s, when television was free and offered reruns ranging from Gilligan’s Island to The Twilight Zone. There were also movies, talk shows that didn’t revolve around people trying to figure out who was the father of their babies, and game shows that had more game time than commercial time. Yes, those really and truly were the good old days, especially for someone who learned how to read by memorizing TV Guide.
I especially liked to watch Bewitched, and my favorite episode was the one where Samantha Stevens went back in time to the antebellum south and met a scalawag obviously patterned after Rhett Butler who tried to sweep Samantha off her feet. Jack Cassidy played rogue Rance Butler with his usual half-sneer and dashing manner. A few years later when Gone With the Wind was re-released, I was initially disappointed with Clark Gable’s interpretation of Rhett Butler, since–in my mind–Cassidy’s take on the southern rat was pretty much perfection.
Jack Cassidy excelled at playing such rascally characters. Born in Richmond Hill, New York, in 1927, Cassidy faced an uphill battle from the start. According to superstar son David Cassidy’s autobiography, C’Mon, Get Happy, Jack’s mother gave him to her sister to raise while he was still an infant. That early rejection seemed to be the beginning of a needy, restless personality that was endlessly searching for something that he never seemed to find. While always debonair on the outside (can you recall a role Cassidy played where he wasn’t dapper?), there often seemed to be a sense of desperation behind his eyes. “I know I’m a rat but do you think you could still find it in your heart to love me?,” he seemed to be silently asking, and while it wasn’t always possible to love him, it was nearly impossible to ignore him.
Cassidy began his show business career in the theater, appearing in his first Broadway show in 1943 while still a teenager. Blessed with a distinctive voice, Cassidy remained in the theater through the 1950s and ’60s and won the 1964 Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony Award for his role in She Loves Me, but it was the numerous television roles he played that shared his talent with most people. In sitcoms such as the aforementioned Bewitched and in That Girl (where he played oily Las Vegas talent Marty Haines) to crime shows like The Mod Squad and Columbo, Cassidy commanded the screen and controlled the scene whenever he appeared. He had a way of listening to other people, pausing for a beat and allowing the audience to see his reaction in his eyes before responding that I’ve never quite seen in any other actor. Through his careful listening, Cassidy was able to let the audience in on his intimate feelings without saying a word.
Although he worked steadily throughout his career, the superstardom that son David achieved at age 20 eluded Jack. He received the first of his two Emmy nominations for his portrayal of a hammy TV actor on the short-lived 1967 sictom He & She, and was offered the role of Ted Baxter on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, a role that was supposedly written with Jack in mind. Cassidy would have definitely been a different kind of Ted Baxter than Ted Knight portrayed, edgier and sarcastic as opposed to lovably—and often impossibly—dense. Cassidy guested as Ted’s brother Hal on the series in a 1971 episode, and I always wondered if he regretted turning that role down. Although he was already a well-known and highly respected character actor, playing Ted Baxter would have made him a household name and would have put him on television at the same time as David and Jack’s then-wife Shirley Jones, who were lighting up the tube on The Partridge Family, a feat that would have definitely been another feather in his acting cap. But the choice was Cassidy’s and perhaps he had no regrets over it.
Jack Cassidy died on December 12, 1976 at the age of 49. Although his life seemed to have its share of turmoil, the body of work that he left behind lives on. Jack Cassidy played the archetypal Hollywood blowhard better and more naturally than anyone else ever has but one is left wondering what other kind of roles he might have tackled had he lived. One thing is for sure, Jack would have played each and every one of them with his usual dapper, delightful, devious perfection.
Nell Musolf is a freelance writer who still enjoys pretending to be sick so she can stay home and watch reruns. She blogs at http://schuylersquaredailydrama.blogspot.com/.