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Family Room

Everyone over the age of 40 remembers your show about a single mom performing with her five musical children. The Partridge Family gave us some iconic images, including a colorfully detailed tour bus.
I certainly remember that bus. I'm surprised we weren't all killed. That was a very old bus painted up to look modern. It had no power steering, so it took some strength to drive that thing. When Shirley [Jones] drove, that's when I really thought we were going to die.

Why do you think that sitcom was so popular?
It promoted non-offensive rock music, first of all. Even I liked the music on that show, and I was considerably older, having grown up with Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. So I suspect it had broad appeal for adults as well as kids for the music alone. Then, of course, it was squeaky clean. I can't think of an episode that would have been offensive to anybody. Everybody, I was told, would've liked to have had Shirley as their mother because she was kind of an idealistic mother—a sweet lady, not like the battle-axes that might show up on some sitcoms now.

There have been a couple of TV movies made about that show. Should we believe everything we see on television?
[Hearty laughter] No, not really. There was one that was co-written and produced by Danny Bonaduce, and there was one produced by David Cassidy. The one by David was far more realistic in terms of what really happened. The one from Danny, well, I don't think there was a thing in the movie that ever really happened, with the Partridges or me. But Danny was only 10 years old at the time, and his recollection of things was faulty, yet he went ahead and produced this movie. For example there was this scene in the movie where we're getting off the bus and the kids want me to play this game with them. And I say, "Let's play hide and seek. You go hide and I'll see if I can find you … eventually." But this was a scene in the show. Danny portrayed it like it was something that happened in real life. He sometimes got confused between real life and what was in the script.

What are your memories of your character, Reuben Kincaid?
Reuben wasn't really like me. He was inept. I'm surprised the Partridge Family ever got anywhere with him as their manager. He made a lot of mistakes. Actually, they became famous in spite of Reuben rather than because of him.

I understand that your character was originally supposed to despise children, but TV standards of the early '70s changed that a little.
That was the writer's concept. Bernie Slade, who wrote the script, told me later on, "Y'know, my concept was that Reuben would just hate kids, but networks can't deal with hate, especially when they see the possibility of a hit series on their hands." So they decided that I would just pretend to dislike kids. I had an interesting line to walk. Also at one point in the second year they talked about having Reuben move into the Partridge house in a spare room upstairs. But this was 1971. You didn't have a bachelor moving into a house with a widowed lady and her kids back in that era. That was not approved. The network wouldn't accept that at all.

Prime time sure has changed, hasn't it?
Sitcoms are only as good as the writers who create them. … The kind of things they do in Two and a Half Men could never, ever, ever have been done in 1970. If they did that and it actually got on the air—which it wouldn't—we'd be out of a job the next day. I remember once on Partridge Family, Danny came home and said that something bad had happened to him at school. My line was, "Boy, that's really rotten, Danny." Well, they came in from the network and said, "Change 'rotten' to 'awful.' 'Rotten' is too strong a word to use in prime time."

Yet in spite of the ensuing cultural shift, you have continued to create family entertainment as a principal character on Adventures in Odyssey.
I love to do radio. Radio is a lot of fun. The town of Odyssey is kind of like the town that popped up every 100 years in Brigadoon. It's kind of an innocent town. They have their problems, but certainly innocent compared to other shows that are on today. Parents want their children to listen to clean entertainment, and Odyssey gives them that. Not too many shows on television give them that. They like the wholesomeness of Odyssey and [classic series such as] Partridge Family.

Both of your characters have interacted with children a lot. How are their personalities similar or different?
Bernard gets a little curmudgeonly when the kids come out with certain lines, and you can hear that when he says things under his breath. But he obviously likes kids, or he wouldn't read them Bible stories and do all the things he does for them, whereas Mr. Kincaid would get absolutely exasperated with Danny.

You have to admit, listening to Bernard spar with Eugene can sound a lot like the old fireworks between Reuben and Danny.
Yeah, well, I see what you mean. I think there is a similarity, because I do get exasperated with Eugene, especially when he says things I don't understand. He has a vocabulary that's a little beyond Mr. Walton. Rather than just accept that, Bernard gets a little peeved about it. That's not the case with Danny. Danny just exasperated Reuben with the things he did and said, not because of any intellect, but because he was a kid.

When you think back over your 20 years on Adventures in Odyssey, do you have any favorite episodes or special memories involving Bernard Walton?
We did a series where I took Eugene with me on a trip to Los Angeles to buy a truck. Our journey entailed six episodes, I think. Those were kind of fun because Eugene and I got to interact a lot.

You taught voice-over technique for 12 years. What advice should parents pass on to young people interested in that field?
You really wanna know? Don't do it. It's gotten so overcrowded. I'll give you an example: Animated cartoons that hit the theaters used to be done by professional voice people. Now they're done by Jim Carrey and other big names instead of people who have worked all their lives doing voices. I think that's a shame. It's happened throughout the industry. Back when I did voice work, not many people were aware that good money could be made in that field. But they found out. Now for every job that opens there are at least 100 people vying for it. And they'll do casting in New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles. It's a very difficult field to get into now. Of course, it's nice not to have to memorize lines or get into wardrobe or makeup. And it is the one acting job you can do in your jammies.

Published June 2008