Alan Thicke, who died Tuesday at the age of 69, was widely known for his starring role as Dr. Jason Seaver on Growing Pains — but it was a role he almost didn’t get.
When the role first came up, Thicke was coming off the failure of his 1983 syndicated late night talk show Thicke of the Night — which was meant to rival Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show but ended up being canceled within its first year. His reputation damaged, Thicke was worried the show’s demise might have actually marked the end of his on-camera career.
“Every time I read about it, it was called ‘the ill-fated’ [show],” Thicke recalled in a 2006 reunion interview featured on the first season DVD. “I thought my middle name was ‘ill-fated.’ ”
That didn’t stop Thicke from trying. Already a successful television theme song composer, he was in the ABC executive offices as a writer pitching a new show when network executives brought up Growing Pains.
“They’re like ‘You know, we’ve got this other thing you might be interested in. They’re looking for an Alan Thicke-type,’ ” Thicke explained. “I said, ‘Well excuse me I’ve just been canceled — my show was a national joke and I could be driving zamboni next year for all I know, so if they’re looking for an Alan Thicke type, maybe I could read?’ ”
His persistence paid off, and got him a reading for the show. But there was still one other actor being considered for the role: Bruce Willis.
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“At the time, ABC was interested in a couple of actors and finding the right vehicle for them,” Thicke told Good Morning America in 2011. “Growing Pains was one of the vehicles — I was one of the guys. And the other guy was Bruce Willis. So I guess there would have been a chance that I would have been in Moonlighting and Bruce Willis would have been their dad.”
Since the network wasn’t sure who to put on which program, they scheduled chemistry tests with the men and the potential leading actresses being considered for the role of Maggie Seaver, Jason’s wife. When Joanna Kerns and Thicke were put together, there was instant chemistry — and an instant kiss.
“I remember getting the call and walking into the audition room, and I was simply told to “Go kiss that girl over there — the blonde girl,’ ” Thicke said in the DVD’s season 1 reunion feature. “And so I walked over to [Joanna] and had about two lines together. And then we were intimate.”
The two were both going through divorces at the time — she from commercial producer Richard Kerns and he from Days of Our Lives actress Gloria Loring (whom he collaborated with on themes from The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Storkes). And though there was never romance between the pair off-screen, the affection they had for one another grew into a lifelong friendship.
“We had some chemistry and it worked out,” he said. “And the next thing I remember, the audition takes place in this sort of amphitheater with a bunch of suits in darkness. And then I heard a voice from the top saying, ‘Alan, you sure you want to do this?’ He gave me the job on the spot just for kissing her.”
Getting the gig brought Thicke to tears. “I had just been canceled months ago in the embarrassing debacle I hosted against Johnny Carson. And I was so beaten up and so defeated that as soon as I heard that I got it, I kind of broke down,” he said. “The only call I made was to my sons. I was like, ‘You got to hear what had happened. We’re going to make it.’ Because it was a frightening, desperate time before that. I was worried.”
Growing Pains premiered on ABC in September 1985 and ran for seven seasons and 166 episodes. It made stars out of its cast, especially Kirk Cameron, Tracey Gold, and Jeremy Miller, who together played the Seaver kids.
After its April 1992 series finale, the cast (including Ashley Johnson who joined as daughter Chrissy during the show’s final two seasons) united for two reunion movies: 2000’s The Growing Pains Movie and 2004’s Growing Pains: Return of the Seavers.
The cast was a family on set and off. Thicke’s sons — Brennan, 41, Robin, 39, and Carter William, 19 — would often spend time on set — the older boys sometimes even appearing as background extras in scenes. “My boys felt like a part of the extended family,” Thicke said. “We never ever had a birthday party or Halloween or a special occasion where everybody didn’t come or get invited.”
Thicke, who would also warm-up the audience on taping days, said his own parenting values closely mirrored that of his TV character’s.
“I think as Jason, I was kind of a cheerleader,” Thicke confessed. “He always wanted to see the good in the family and rely on the better instincts of your children — of course, none of which proves to be true in real life. And that’s what made our show funny. I was proud of the role because I did feel it reflected things I would be happy to stand for.”
But mostly, Thicke took the responsibility of maintaining those values for fans well after the show ended — watching his language in public and making sure he was keeping the memory of Growing Pains alive.
“I often hear somebody say, ‘I grew up with you — you raised me, ‘ ” Thicke said at the end of the half-hour special. “A lot of people identified with our stories and the character and how we parented. And I think they genuinely do feel that they were in our family and in our home.”