Eight is Enough: The idyllic life of TV’s Bradford family (1977-1981)

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Cast of Eight is Enough TV show-70s-80s
Based on the life of newspaper columnist Thomas Braden and his book of the same name, Eight Is Enough premiered on March 15, 1977, and ran for five seasons before wrapping up in August of 1981. Starring Dick Van Patten as Tom Bradford (the fictionalized version of Braden), the show focused on Bradford and his eight children.

Although declining ratings spelled the end for the show in 1981, it remained popular enough to spawn two reunion movies, which aired in 1987 and 1989.

Eight is Enough cast

Eight is Enough’s fantasy family

By James Brown, Times Staff Writer

As a boy, I genuinely resented the fact my family wasn’t more like “Father Knows Best.” To me, the Andersons — Jim and Margaret (never Maggie) — were fantasyland role models that made everyone’s parents look like Attila and Mrs. Hun by comparison.

They seldom argued. They always said and did the right things whenever Bud, Betty or Kathy got into trouble. They never drank too much or threw things or yelled or spanked the way some parents occasionally did.

Life on “Father Knows Best” was one long pull on an ice cream soda, and a lot of us TV children of the 1950s grew up thinking we’d been dealt a rotten hand. Only later did we learn that life and television were not exactly on the same wavelength.

Even so, I can imagine today’s generation of parents is similarly stumped by the Bradford clan on ABC’s “Eight Is Enough.” The kids are wondering why mom and dad aren’t as patient, wise and understanding as Tom and Abby Bradford -who also seldom argue, spank, yell and all the rest. By the same token, we parents might be taking a second and third look at our 10- year-olds and wondering why they can’t be as cute, cuddly and precocious as young Nicholas Bradford.

Well, we should stop wondering. Because, like “Father Knows Best” a generation ago, “Eight Is Enough” is a family of everyone’s dreams and no one’s reality, a homogenized, sugar-saturated fantasy where all problems are solved, more or less, within an hour, less commercials.

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The problems on “Eight Is Enough” are a bit more complex than Bud losing the keys to the car. Let’s give them that.

During the course of “Eight Is Enough’s” four years, they’ve dealt with the death of the first Mrs. Bradford (Diana Hyland, who died shortly after the series went on the air), Tom Bradford’s remarriage to Abby (Betty Buckley), the divorce of David Bradford (Grant Goodeve), Tommy Bradford’s (Willie Aames) romance with an older woman and untold flirtatious and heartbreaks experienced by the Bradford daughters (Dianne Kay, Connie Needham. Lani O’Grady, Susan Richardson and Laurie Walters).

Eight is Enough cast - living room

The trouble is, we know, beyond a doubt, that everything will work out in the end. There will be a crisis in the clan, followed by some headstrong activity by the Bradford siblings, followed by shouts and sulking about how dad just doesn’t understand, followed by the realization that dad was right all along. Father does know best after all.

Dick Van Patten, who portrays the patriarch of this group, is a skillful actor who’s been asked to play a character right on the edge of sainthood. Tom Bradford is so understanding you want to shake him once in a while just to see if he gets mad. Job would be envious of his patience.

For example, in an episode a couple of weeks back, Tommy Bradford rips into his father with a nasty tirade. In life, the real Tommys of the world probably would have ended up on the other side of the room wearing a welt where their cheek used to be. In “Eight Is Enough,” Torn Sr. hangs his head, speaks every so softly and delivers a wonderfully pertinent, carefully thought out, relentlessly fair and open-minded monologue. And you wonder what parents are up against? Tom Bradford is definitely a tough act to follow.

He can be vulnerable, though. Occasionally.

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In what was arguably “Eight Is Enough’s” finest episode last season, Tom comes into contact with his father (played by David Wayne) who’d run out on the family when he was a boy, and whom he’d never forgiven. For once, the emotions drawn from the conflict seemed genuine. Tom was angry, hurt yet inexorably driven finally to deal with the man he’s hated for so long. Though everyone lived happily ever after, you felt this time the family had been through the mill and that Tom Bradford, like everyone else, could be just as exasperated — and exasperating — as the rest of us.

Sadly, such overtures to real life are few and far between on “Eight Is Enough.” Most of the time, crisis is resolved in a neatly wrapped package where everybody learns, everybody grows and nobody’s late for dinner.

“Eight Is Enough” is family entertainment — and that’s fine. We need television’s escape hatches to blot out the world from time to time. But when it purports to deal with heavyweight topics and then pulls up halfway through, it not only trivializes those issues, but serves to give the more impressionable among us the idea that a stern but loving lecture from dad will wash away all cares.

However, as we discovered from the Anderson clan those many years ago, life doesn’t imitate television.

Cast of Eight is Enough TV show

“Eight is Enough” opening credits: Seasons 1 & 2

“Eight is Enough” show intro: Season 4 onward

The cast of “Eight is Enough”

Dick Van Patten: Tom Bradford
Diana Hyland: Joan Wells Bradford (season 1)
Betty Buckley: Sandra Sue “Abby” Abbott Bradford
Grant Goodeve: David Bradford
Lani O’Grady: Mary Bradford
Laurie Walters: Joanie Bradford
Susan Richardson: Susan Bradford
Dianne Kay: Nancy Bradford
Connie Needham: Elizabeth Bradford
Willie Aames: Tommy Bradford
Adam Rich: Nicholas Bradford

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