December 06, 1993 12:00 PM

WITH HIS CHOIRBOY SIMILE AND PUPPYISH gaze, Bill Bixby, who died on Nov. 21 at 59, long ago entered the pantheon of TV’s Mr. Nice Guys. How could you not like somebody who sheltered an ex Ira-terrestrial Ray Walston in My Favorite Martian? Who sagely brought up a motherless little boy in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father? Or who, as a mild-mannered scientist, struggled to rein in his mean, green alter ego in The Incredible Hulk? In a career spanning more than three decades, Bixby played all those roles with panache. Walston, for one, praises his former costar’s light-hearted style. “I believe that was the reason people liked him—instantly and completely,” he says.

But in later years, while a TV director—most recently on NBC’s Blossom—Bixby surprised friends and fans alike with the sheer ferocity of his battle against prostate cancer. First diagnosed in April 1991, the disease spread despite surgery, chemotherapy and the use of an experimental drug called suramin. At times, Bixby was in such agony that, he admitted, “My prayer was that I would die in my sleep.” But ultimately he decided not to go quietly, announcing to the fates, “You’re going to have to take my life from me.”

Last winter, Bixby began dating widowed artist Judith Kliban, 44. On Oct. 3, the couple married—he for the third lime—near San Francisco. Then he returned to work on the L.A. set of Blossom, where he reveled in the support of cast and crew, whom he called simply “my family.” But on Nov. 15, the day before the sitcom’s Tuesday-night taping, he became so weak he had to direct rehearsal from a sofa, and Kliban drove him home to their town house in nearby Century City. There, six days later, Bixby slipped peacefully into a coma and died. “I’m happy his suffering is finished,” says Kliban. “I prayed for some extra time, but what we got was really intense and quite fabulous.”

“He was really so happy [in his final days],” says Bixby’s old friend, comedian Dick Martin, who is planning a memorial service. “I think he was just starting to live. It was too early for him to go. Much too early.”

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