Talking with Alan Thicke
by Frank Sanello
“Growing Pains” has an unusual premise for a situation comedy. The hit ABC show, which is its fifth year on the network, focuses on a psychiatrist who practices at home, his TV journalist wife and their four children.
Alan Thicke plays the psychiatrist, and his occupation gives the show a chance to explore subjects you don’t often find on sitcoms. “Growing Pains” has won numerous awards for episodes dealing with teen suicide, cocaine abuse, racism and drunk driving. As the show’s resident shrink, Thicke’s character deals with those subjects in a responsible way.
Thicke, 42, was born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario. He never planned to become an actor. He started out as a stand-up comedian, with hopes of becoming a rock star.
Moving to the United States in the late 1960s, he turned to gag writing and created material for Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Kenny Rogers. He received two Emmy nominations for scripting the talk-show spoof “Fernwood 2-Night.”
Thicke tried his hand at hosting a genuine talk show, “Thicke of the Night,” in 1983. Its disastrous reception by the public and critics made it one of the most notorious flops in TV history. But within months of that cancellation, Thicke was signed to “Growing Pains,” which was an immediate hit.
Q. Have you talked with psychiatrists to research your role on “Growing Pains”?
A. Not specifically. But we must be doing something right because the American Psychiatric Association named me Media Personality of the Year for my portrayal. Specifically, the award was for an episode in which I dealt with a threatened teen suicide.
The writers consult with psychiatrists on key programs where my professionalism is important. We also have a doctor on the set, as a consultant in case I have a specific question for him. I want to make sure my words and actions are appropriate. For instance, if a patient breaks down and cries, do you hug her? Do you touch her? What physical relationship is appropriate?
Q. Do you prefer the episodes that have broad comedy or the ones that deal with serious issues like teen suicide and cocaine abuse?
A. Well, I’m glad we’re doing comedy as opposed to a current-affairs show. But I’m also glad that at least once a year we try to deal with a sensitive issue in an enlightening way.
On the other hand, it’s important that we don’t abuse our primary mandate — which is to entertain. At the same time, it’s important that we not ignore our platform when we’re reaching 40 million people a week. To ignore that fact, when you have a chance to touch organs other than the funny bone, would be a waste… I think we’ve struck a nice balance between comedy and social messages over the past four years.
Q. How old was your son when you found out he had diabetes?
A. Brennan is 14 now, and we found out when he was 4. He was exhibiting classic symptoms. The biggest adjustment for us was psychological. As a parent, you don’t want to do anything to hurt your child — so you may tend to over-indulge and overexcuse him (because of his illness). But then you’re doing a disservice to him. You’re always balancing a fine line.
All children need discipline and a sense of direction that discipline gives them. But at the same time, you keep telling yourself, “This child has suffered enough.” It gnaws at you. There’s a tendency to not want to deny or discipline a child who is already being “disciplined” by his pancreas.
Q. Why haven’t you remarried since divorcing soap opera star Gloria Loring in 1984?
A. I just haven’t found the “sequel.” I’d like to get married, but, honestly, it takes a few years to get your life in order. I don’t want to do it badly. I would hope my next marriage is forever. It’s taken me three or four years to get my life in order. It’s only this year I’ve been able to start thinking about being a responsible partner in a relationship. Now, all I have to do is find another responsible person!
Q. I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a thousand times: Why did your talk show fail?
A. I’d be happy to take the bulk of responsibility for its failure. The show ran too long at 90 minutes. We were on a shaky group of syndicated stations instead of a network. We were trying to do too many innovative things. I think a lot of Arsenio Hall’s success comes from the fact that his show has the same format as Johnny Carson’s. Our format was wildly alienating.