Too Close for Comfort: 1980-1985
Based on the British series Keep It in the Family, Too Close for Comfort exploited the comic tension between blustering dad Ted Knight and his grown daughters, who lived in a flat downstairs. It may have been a farce, but producer Irma Kalish says it reflected a trend in society: “Families were growing apart and kids were leaving home earlier. I think viewers were trying to hang on to the good old days.”
She had spent 20 years touring the country in musical theater when “my manager said I needed television exposure to help my stage career,” says Nancy Dussault. After a reading with Ted Knight, who had been impressed by her Broadway performance in 1977’s Side by Side by Sondheim, Dussault was offered the part of his wife. Her amiable relationship with the prickly actor made her “a calming force,” says the show’s coproducer Austin Kalish. “Ted had such a dominant personality, and Nancy was really the mother to everybody on the set.” When Too Close ended, Dussault followed her TV spouse to The Ted Knight Show, After he died of urinary tract cancer in 1986 (“a shock,” she says), Dussault returned to theater work in L.A., where she lives with her husband of 15 years, director Valentine Mayer, 53. Last year, at age 62, she released her first CD, Heart and Soul, a collection of cabaret songs. She currently teaches in UCLA’s theater program. “Professor?” says Dussault. “It still sounds funny to me. I feel like I’m acting.”
Deborah Van Valkenburgh
Unlike Lydia Cornell, who played her blonde sexpot sister, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, who was cast as the brainy brunette, rarely got recognized, even when Too Close was at its peak. “I come from a large family of people who don’t wear a lot of makeup,” she says. “So when I was just kind of walking around, I didn’t look the way I did in the show.” Van Valkenburgh, 47, says that she didn’t realize how popular Too Close was until it was named best new comedy at the 1981 People’s Choice Awards—”and people were running at us with cameras on the street.” The attention had little effect on her. “Deborah never had a big ego,” says Cornell. “I always admired her for that.” After Too Close, Van Valkenburgh returned to theater, where she got her start. When not on the road performing, the actress, who lives in L.A., spends time with independent film director Jon Shear, 40, her companion of 10 years. “It doesn’t appear like a high-profile sort of life,” she says. “But it’s good. I’ve had a taste of so much.”
Jim J. Bullock
Before it was cool to be gay on TV, Too Close’s Monroe had viewers very, very curious. “The producers would call me in and say, ‘We’re getting letters asking if Monroe is gay—you know he’s not!’ ” says Jim J. Bullock, 45, who played the offbeat character. “And I’d say, ‘What do you mean? What can I do?’ They eventually did give me a girlfriend, but by that point Monroe was Liberace.” The actor was openly gay himself, although Ted Knight “refused to believe it,” says producer Austin Kalish. Monroe made Bullock a breakout star. “I bought the house in the Hollywood Hills, got the manager, got the publicist, lived off the fat of the land,” he says. After the series, he took a seat on Hollywood Squares for three years and in 1989 joined ALF for its final season. Then the work dried up. “It didn’t seem like people wanted to see me,” says Bullock, who by the early 1990s had spent all his savings. In 1996 a syndicated talk show that he hosted with Tammy Faye Bakker Messner ended, and his lover of six years, phone company executive John Casey, died of AIDS-related complications. (In 1984 Bullock learned he is HIV-positive but claims he has never had symptoms.) “Nothing mattered after that,” he says. “I floated around stunned and got into the party scene.” Arrested last year for possession of crystal meth, Bullock was sentenced to 18 months’ probation. “I had to reevaluate my life,” he says. Now working onstage, Bullock is back on track. In March he won an L.A. Drama Critics Circle award for his role in the musical comedy revue When Pigs Fly.
She arrived in Hollywood from Colorado with only a U-Haul behind her and a dream ahead. At the audition for the role of Ted Knight’s sexy but naive daughter, “the other actresses wore these skintight T-shirts. I went in with this virginal flowered dress,” recalls Lydia Cornell, 43. “Lydia became TV’s new darling blonde,” says costar Nancy Dussault. “It was hard for her. After a while she would start showing up late. Everybody was on her case.” Cornell had clashes with Knight, with whom she says she had a “love-hate relationship.” The network pressured her too. “ABC was promoting me as a sex symbol,” she says. “They used to measure my underwear. It had to be a certain number of inches from the calf to the panty line! I was a piece of meat, but I was so grateful for a job.” After the series, Cornell dated Prince Albert, Lorenzo Lamas and the late playboy Dodi Fayed. “I was drinking champagne and cocktails every night,” she says, until “I crashed and burned.” But with the birth of her son Jack in 1994, she stopped being a party girl. “I wanted to be a good mother,” says Cornell, who shares child-rearing duties with the boy’s father, Jim Mulholland, 48, a comedy writer. In addition to caring for Jack, Cornell says she has spent much of her time writing a novel. But last year she began acting again, playing a psycho mom in the upcoming TV series Black Scorpion and a heroin addict in the recently shot indie film Happy Holidaze from the Jonzes. “I’m up for hooker roles a lot now,” says Cornell of her struggle to rebuild her career. “But for a while I got to be the all-American girl. It was amazing.”