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Thursday January 17, 2013

Dad on TV's Diff'rent Strokes liked comedy to tackle real issues

Alberta-born star got his break on Maude after auditioning for Norman Lear for another part

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Conrad Bain, the Canadian-born actor who played the kindly white adoptive father of two African-American brothers on the 1980s sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, has died.

He was 89.

Bain died Monday of natural causes in Livermore, Calif., according to his daughter, Jennifer Bain.

The show that made him famous debuted on NBC in 1978, an era when television comedies tackled relevant social issues.

Diff'rent Strokes touched on serious themes but was known better as a family comedy that drew most of its laughs from its standout child actor, Gary Coleman.

Bain played wealthy Manhattan widower Philip Drummond, who promised his dying housekeeper he would raise her sons, played by Coleman and Todd Bridges.

Race and class relations became topics on the show as much as the typical trials of growing up.

Coleman, with his sparkling eyes and perfect comic timing, became an immediate star, and Bain, with his long training as a theatre actor, proved an ideal straight man.

The series lasted six seasons on NBC and two on ABC.

Conrad Stafford Bain attended high school in Calgary, deciding on his life's work after being stage manager in a high school production of Our Town.

A native of Lethbridge, Alta., Bain arrived in New York in 1948 after serving in the Canadian Forces during the Second World War.

He was still studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when he acquired his first role on television's Studio One.

A quick study who could play anything from Shakespeare to O'Neill, he found work in stock companies in the United States and the Bahamas, making his New York debut in 1956 as Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh at the Circle in the Square.

In 1958, he performed at the Stratford Festival in Southwestern Ontario, in productions of The First Part of Henry IV (playing Northumberland and Sheriff), Much Ado About Nothing (playing Antonio), and The Winter's Tale (playing Antigonus).

It was an audition for a role in the 1971 film Cold Turkey that led Bain to TV stardom.

He didn't get the part, but Cold Turkey director Norman Lear remembered him when he created the comedy Maude.

During the heyday for Diff'rent Strokes, Bain didn't mind being overshadowed by the focus on the show's children.

He praised Coleman and Bridges as natural talents without egos.

But Diff'rent Strokes is remembered mostly for its child stars' adult troubles.

Coleman, who died in 2010, had financial and legal problems in addition to continuing ill health from the kidney disease that stunted his growth and required transplants.

Bridges and Dana Plato, who played Bain's teenage daughter, both had arrest records and drug problems, and Plato died of an overdose in 1999 at the age of 34.

Bain said in interviews later that he struggled to talk about his TV children's troubled lives because of his love for them.

After Bridges started to put his drug troubles behind him in the early 1990s, he told Jet magazine that Bain had become like a real father to him.

Bain went directly into Diff'rent Strokes from Maude, which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1978.

As Arthur Harmon, the conservative neighbour often zinged by Bea Arthur's liberal feminist, Bain became so convincing as a doctor that a woman once stopped him in an airport seeking medical advice.

At a nostalgia gathering in 1999, he lamented the fading of situation comedies that he said were about something.

"I think they got off the track when they first hired a standup comic to do the lead," he said. "Instead of people creating real situations, you get people trying to act funny."

Before those television roles, Bain had appeared occasionally in films, including A Lovely Way to Die, Coogan's Bluff, The Anderson Tapes, I Never Sang for My Father and Woody Allen's Bananas.

He also played the clerk at the Collinsport Inn in the 1960s television show Dark Shadows.

Bain married artist Monica Sloan in 1945. She died in 2009. He leaves children Jennifer, Kent and Mark.

Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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