EIGHT IS ENOUGH (Lorimar 1977-81) Warner Home Video/Warner Archive
In the summer of 1981, ABC pulled the plug on Eight is Enough (1977-1981) – one of TV-land’s most celebrated families, and this while the show was still in the top twenty in the Nielsen’s. Inexplicably, overnight America’s first family of television, and a cornerstone in ABC’s fall programming, ceased to exist, leaving many fans and cast members utterly perplexed. Only a scant 5 years earlier, the most joyous household of the 1970’s had not been The Waltons, but the Bradfords. Eight is Enough blended familial warmth, heartache and triumph into a winning formula. Grant Goodeve, Willie Aames and Adam Rich became overnight sensations; Goodeve, actually singing the title song that replaced Fred Werner’s bouncy instrumental main titles from Season 3 to the end of the series’ run. Eight is Enough’s portrait of domesticity, presented a gingerly blended weekly potpourri of humor and heartache, striking a chord of sincerity with viewers who found the Bradfords a refreshingly genuine clan. Alas, in one of those Hollywood ironies that never fails to intrigue, the emotional climate on the set was often fraught with chaos instead of harmony; the clean-cut façades of the Bradford children shielding secret lives out of control, dabbling in drugs, alcohol abuse and porn.
Eight is Enough was conceived six years earlier, adapted for television from the autobiography of Washington political columnist, Tom Braden. Braden had written the book in 1975 as a largely glowing, though unvarnished account of raising eight children. It was a refreshing twist on the American family, oft seen through the rose-colored rubric of ‘Father Knows Best’ or ‘Leave It To Beaver’, and its best-seller success was not wasted on executives over at Lorimar Telepictures; a company already responsible for the hit ensemble series, The Waltons (1971-1981). On spec from ABC, veteran writer, William Blinn was hired to write Eight Is Enough’s pilot episode as well as select the principle cast. Blinn was determined to stay true to Braden’s unabashed reflections on being the flawed patriarch of an equally as imperfect family unit – devoted to one another, but ultimately not the usual template to inspire a TV dramedy.
Owing to artistic license, also likely to prevent any lawsuits along the way, Blinn changed the fictional TV family’s name from Braden to Bradford, electing to keep all of the children’s first names intact. In the fall of 1977, casting began with the decision to hire forty-one-year-old Diana Hyland to play the Bradford’s devoted matriarch, Joan. Indeed, Blinn quickly discovered takers for the part were few and far between; most actresses balking to play ‘mothers’ in general. Hyland, however, was undaunted by this challenge. Struck by her youthful good looks, Blinn inquired as to Hyland’s age, whereupon she quickly came back with “Old enough to have had eight kids!” Hyland had made her acting debut in 1955, working steadily in supporting roles on television throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. She had also originated the role of Heavenly Finley on Broadway in Sweet Bird of Youth. On the set of 1976’s TV movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, the actress met John Travolta. Although eighteen years her junior, Hyland and Travolta began a devoted love affair shortly thereafter. Unbeknownst to anyone, except Travolta, Hyland had undergone a double mastectomy shortly before agreeing to sign on to Eight is Enough – a secret, short-lived once production began.
Casting continued, Blinn in search of exactly the right actors to portray the Bradford’s eight children, ranging in ages from eight to twenty-three. Seventeen-year-old Connie Newton, a trained ballet dancer, was hired to portrait thirteen-year-old, Elizabeth; twenty-year-old Susan Richardson, Susan Bradford; twenty-two-year-old, Lani O’Grady (eldest daughter, Mary), Laurie Walker, age twenty-one (Joanie), Chris English, age fifteen, as Tommy; twenty-one Kimberly Beck (Nancy), and, Mark Hamill, age twenty-five, cast as eldest brother, David. Neither Beck nor English would survive the pilot; Lorimar, recasting their parts with twenty-four-year-old Diane Kay and sixteen-year-old Willie Aaemes respectively. Mark Hamill had just completed production on a movie few in the industry had faith in. But when Star Wars (1977) proved a runaway box office bonanza, Hamill desperately tried to finagle his way out of this television contract. Spying Hamill’s overnight fame as a real windfall for Eight is Enough, Lorimar’s refused to budge on his 5-year option, leaving Hamill no choice but to remain indentured to his contract. Alas, fate had other ideas. A near-fatal car wreck, resulting in seven hours of surgery to reset Hamill’s nose and cheekbone, coupled with months of recuperation, forced Lorimar to reconsider Hamill’s option after the pilot had already been shot; Hamill’s replacement, twenty-five-year-old, Grant Goodeve, whose dark and chiseled looks would easily catapult him to pin-up status with teenage girls once Eight is Enough premiered.
Despite the heartthrob status of Goodeve and Aames, no one was more wildly popular than nine-year-old Adam Rich, Nicholas’ distinctive pageboy haircut and seeming wholesomeness, inspiring scores of parents to copycat the look on their own children. Indeed, ‘the look’ would endure well into the eighties – the template repeated on the Lawrence boys (Joey, Matt and Andy for their debuts on Diff’rent Strokes and Gimmee’ a Break). It goes without saying, though bears repeating, that the pressures of instant fame are a challenge for even the most seasoned pro. For children, whose introduction and filter to this wild-eyed megalomania has yet to be tested, the rigors of life in the spotlight can prove a crippling influence. Indeed, Rich could scarcely go to a public restroom alone, mobbed at every turn by adoring mothers who wanted to touch him. The pivotal role of doting dad, Tom went to veteran stage/TV actor Dick Van Patten, although not without a struggle. Blinn had balked at hiring Van Patten, not out of any professional animosity, but because he did not want such a high-profile name above the title to overshadow the ensemble cast. Even so, Van Patten had the upper hand; a close personal friendship with Fred Silverman, who also happened to be the President of ABC. The network put pressure on Lorimar and Lorimar, in turn, set aside Blinn’s overriding concerns. Van Patten was hired.
In 1976, cameras rolled on the pilot episode. But ABC disliked some of the casting decisions. With changes made, Eight is Enough went into production in 1977, destined for great things and a lot of backstage tragedy along the way. In retrospect, the story lines developed for Season One illustrate the unease of writers trying to find the show’s tenuous balance between topical ‘true to life’ subject matter and light comedy. The pilot, in particular, focused on Tom and Joan’s angst over daughter, Elizabeth’s arrest for possession of narcotics, and David’s moving out in disapproval of the way his parents handled her defense. As Season One evolved, the Bradford’s equally struggled with ‘letting go’; Tom and Joan, very reluctant to allow Susan on an unchaperoned ski trip. The series also took a stab at exploring the prospect of Tom losing his newspaper job during a strike. On the home front, the steadfast patriarch also grappled with concerns over Joan wanting a career and Susan, eager to pursue modeling. Writers inveigled Tommy and David in a pair of ill-fated romances. Mary’s boyfriend was stricken with an exotic illness, and, during the season finale, Tom learned his wife was being blackmailed after crumpling the fender on a classic sports car.
Eight Is Enough had enough steam to weather this rocky start. But almost immediately, cast began to notice a change in Diana Hyland; severe pain in her neck and back, as well as her need to lay down and rest between takes. No one associated with the production could have foreseen the extent to which Hyland’s cancer had already overtaken her body. Only five episodes into Season One, the actress left the show for what was then perceived as a brief respite to begin aggressive chemotherapy. She would never return, producers recording Hyland’s voice to be used as ‘phone conversations’ between the devoted Joan and her children; mom’s absence explained away for audiences as ‘off visiting a sick relative’. Even as Hyland’s condition worsened, Eight Is Enough premiered on ABC; Dick Van Patten and several of the cast assembling in Hyland’s hospital room at Cedar Mount Sinai to view the results of all their hard work. Although the zeitgeist of insane popularity that would shortly follow had yet to take hold, Hyland's clairvoyance predicted Eight is Enough would be a smash hit. She would not live to see it. Nine days later, Hyland asked to go home, accompanied by John Travolta. When Dick Van Patten made an impromptu visit, he was shocked to discover the end was very near, rushing to a nearby church to get Father Curtis to perform last rites on the ailing actress.
The passing of Hyland on March 27, 1977 left producers in a terrible quandary. How could they explain away mom’s absence? Worse, what actress would agree to fill the void left behind in both viewers – and this fictional family’s – hearts? Could Eight is Enough survive such an epic loss? Enter thirty-one-year-old Betty Buckley in the part of tutor, Sandra Sue ‘Abby’ Abbott. The inspiration for the part ironically came from Blinn’s sister, Ashley, who regaled him of a real-life circumstance where a close-friend and widower, having engaged a tutor for his children, had fallen in love with her and remarried as a result. Producers agreed it was worth a shot, and after Eight Is Enough concluded its brief 8-episode mid-season run, the character of Abby was written into the plot. Three episodes later, Abby and Tom were in love; wed by mid-season in a televised ceremony that held nearly fifty percent of the viewing audience captive; an astounding coup in the Nielsen Ratings. Even so, Buckley quickly learned the transition from stage to the small screen was not about ‘art’ but rather an assembly line process to get as much usable footage in the can. Buckley’s professionalism initially tested co-star Willie Aames’ patience; the two reaching a truce, blossoming into mutual respect and a passion for the acting craft.
With Buckley’s arrival, Eight Is Enough’s plot lines departed from the earlier treacle of traditional family drama and began to grapple with more realism and topical concerns facing the American family unit beyond Hollywood’s more fanciful reincarnations. Hence, Mary began an interracial love affair (rising star, Cleavon Little as her paramour), while David shocked ‘dad’ when his live-in girlfriend emerged from his bedroom wearing only his robe. Such taboo subjects clicked with audiences, and the show soared in the ratings. As Season Two wrapped ABC was assured one of TV’s bona fide runaway hits – a show, breaking new ground as well as adhering to the hallmarks of the long-cherished family drama. Behind the scenes, however, things had already begun to unravel. Adam Rich was mobbed by crazed mothers out to grab any piece of him they could get, leaving the star shell-shocked and cringing in a public bathroom. Meanwhile, Willie Aames suffered the indignation of being stalked by an adoring gay fan who actually made it all the way onto the backlot during filming of Season Three before being read the riot act by Dick Van Patten. The stalker fled, never to resurface again.
Season 3 of Eight Is Enough may not have been its finest, but it served up a healthy sampling of remarkably diverse episodes to engage virtually all of the cast. Its debut episode was inauspicious at best, revolving around Abby’s management of Nicholas' Little League baseball team, which proved a point of consternation around the dinner table. Speculations over a pregnancy and an affair took hold shortly thereafter, with Tom struggling to embrace Joanne’s decision to pursue a career on the stage. For prepubescent fans, Nicholas developed a strong case of puppy love toward his fourth-grade teacher. In the days before Mary Kay Letourneau, this was depicted as harmless, and, with a frank sense of humor. More serious was Nancy’s decision to drop out of high school – with disastrous results. Susan’s ambition to become a police cadet was also met with concern, while David – struggling over the loss of a good friend, ended up in a barroom brawl, leading to his brief incarceration. Mid-series saw the Bradford’s host a dinner party for the Vice-President, Nicholas briefly run away from home, and, Elizabeth's dreams to attend a swank college dashed by the Bradford’s already strained household budget. Tom effectively alienated his daughters, balking at Susan’s boyfriend taking a shower in their upstairs bathroom, Joanie coming in after curfew, and Nancy sunbathing topless in the backyard. In response, all three moved out, and into their shared apartment.
During the show’s 1979 hiatus, Susan Richardson also announced she and photog/hubby, Michael Virden were expecting their first child; not usually a concern, except that during her pregnancy, Richardson packed on nearly 90 lbs., forcing producers to camouflage her ‘condition’ by hiding her behind potted plants, or staging scenes – presumably, in the winter, with Richardson and her costars dressed in heavy coats and flannel, when in reality, everything was photographed in the sweltering mid-summer 90+ heat of Los Angeles. The ruse worked and audiences never clued in to the pregnancy. Unfortunately, upon giving birth to a healthy daughter, Richardson pursued an aggressive cocaine habit to ‘slim down’ – resulting in one of the unhealthiest weight losses in TV history. Somewhere along the way, producers concluded Richardson’s pregnancy ought to be a part of the show, introducing actor, Brian Patrick Clarke as minor league pro-baseball player and Susan’s love interest, Merle ‘The Pearl’ Stockwell. Initially, the plan was to have Susan impregnated by Merle, who then ran off, leaving her and the rest of the Bradford clan to rear the child. But when the character of Merle proved popular with audiences, the part was rewritten as a main staple, wedged into this already crowded cast. The Sept. 19, 1979 episode where Susan and Merle, and, David and his girlfriend tied the knot in a double wedding ceremony not only won its time slot but also shot to #1 in the Nielsen’s. America’s love affair with the Bradfords had reached its zenith.
Unfortunately, the strain of success was taking its toll on principle cast members Willie Aames and Lani O’Grady; the former, turning to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate; the latter, suffering panic attacks, resulting in a 100mg per day Valium addiction. Even Adam Rich, barely twelve, had begun to smoke marijuana off the set, the sycophants managing his career, also catering to his mild fascination with pornography. By the time Season Four went into production, almost everyone involved with the show was abusing some sort of substance, with only Dick Van Patten, Betty Buckley and Brian Patrick Clarke applying sobriety and abstinence to their work ethic. Producers elected to introduce a baby into the plot. Indeed, just prior to Susan and Merle’s little bundle of joy making its debut in 1980, Eight Is Enough’s story lines had begun to meandering, slightly – at first. Still, the episode where the fictional Susan Bradford ‘gave birth’ proved another highlight for the show and a real rating’s bonanza besides. As with the sudden ‘disappearance’ of Diana Hyland, producers gave no build-up or explanation to the pregnancy and arrival of this latest addition to the Bradford clan.
As Season 5 began, pressures mounted on the set; various cast members squabbling over wardrobe, lines and air time. For the first time since its debut, Eight Is Enough slipped to #24 in the ratings. To reinvigorate the show, producers signed then up-and-comer, Ralph Macchio to play Abby’s troubled nephew, Jeremy Andretti. Even as the actor proved a breath of fresh air and valiant addition to the cast, Eight Is Enough struggled to regain its supremacy among other newer shows on the horizon. By the end of the season, Eight Is Enough had climbed to #18; by all accounts, still a worthy contender to return in the fall. But in June, 1981, and to everyone’s surprise and dismay, ABC announced Eight Is Enough would not be a part of their fall lineup. Speculation has run rampant ever since as to why the series was unceremoniously taken off the air at the height of its popularity.
Perhaps the network felt the story lines had simply run their course. Or perhaps, with the onset of adulthood, the trials and tribulations of elder teens and early twenty-somethings simply fell out of favor with fans who had fallen in love with the close-knit, but youthful family unit. Or maybe…just maybe, execs were tired of the mounting backstage crises afflicting the cast. Whatever the reason, Eight Is Enough quickly went into syndication and then, even more ironically, though perhaps not in an age where ‘home video’ had yet to proliferate to such an extent as it has today, it merely disappeared altogether from the public’s radar. But perhaps the greatest indignation incurred: no one at ABC bothered to tell the show’s stars their epic run had abruptly come to an end. “Nobody called me,” Dick Van Patten later recalled, “I read it in the trades.” At the end of its run, Betty Buckley returned to her first love - the stage, appearing as Grizabella, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s landmark pop opera, Cats. Van Patten starred in a sitcom pilot (never to be turned into a series); Fit for a King, while Willie Aames counted himself among the fortunate to have found renewed fame as Scott Baio’s sidekick in the popular sitcom, Charles in Charge (1984-90). As for the remaining cast; none would enjoy such popularity again.
For Aames, moving from one successful series to another only helped to fuel his drug and alcohol addiction for several more years. As the eighties drew to a close, writer Bill Blinn and director, Harry Harris went to ABC with a proposal for a reunion special for Eight Is Enough. It was rejected. But NBC thought it a splendid idea. As Betty Buckley’s commitments did not allow for her participation on the project, Blinn and Harris turned to Mary Frann who had achieved fame on Bob Newhart’s long-running sitcom, Newhart (1982-90). By now, nineteen-year-old Adam Rich’s drug and alcohol problems had spiraled out of control. Co-star, Willie Aames, no stranger to substance abuse, sat Rich down for a heartfelt talk and Rich reluctantly agreed to enter rehab once production on the 2-hour reunion movie was completed. In Oct. 1987, Eight Is Enough: The Reunion debuted. It was NBC’s second most popular ‘movie of the week’ and NBC quickly contracted for a second trip to the same well. Alas, it would be another two years before this project came to fruition. But by 1989, the fizz in this pop culture phenomenon had fizzled; the ensemble family drama having moved on, and the cast, only two years earlier, warmly welcomed back to television as long-lost relatives, now shunned as passé.
Even so, through syndication, Eight Is Enough has achieved a sort of ever-lasting fame. Despite changing social mores and manners, the show has maintained a sort of ‘quaintness’ for the late seventies/early eighties that seems, if not thoroughly ‘out of touch’ with contemporary tastes, then certainly, more than a little naïve in a joyously blind sighted way. There is no getting around the odd, and at times, unsettling blend of drama, comedy and prime time ‘soap opera’; the range of story lines and broad-spectrum appeal of the cast, ranging in ages from nine to fifty, leaving no dramatic arc to chance and virtual no narrative unexplored. Bookending the series is Van Patten’s benevolent patriarch and his ‘man to man’ conversations with the pint-sized Nicholas; good for a frank and tender chuckle. Still, it is the overall collective acting of this ensemble that clicks as it should with only a few genuine guffaws and misfires along the way – forgivable for such a top-heavy cast. Still, viewed now, Eight Is Enough plays very much like a time capsule from another, and in many ways, very special moment in time. It is a snapshot of ten people devoted to one another, and fervently invested in sticking through the tough times, while celebrating the triumphs of a life together, richly deserved. Rarely does life imitate art. And while the nirvana of family may not have followed the cast on their post-Bradford exploits, in hindsight, Eight Is Enough proved quite enough to fill our hearts with joy, love, and, a sincere longing for that simpler, if not altogether happier time.
All five seasons of this beloved family drama have long since made their way to DVD. Generally, I avoid critiquing TV series on this blog, for the simple reason it is virtually impossible to provide any sort of detailed description of story lines without contributing a review to run the length of a small made-for-TV miniseries. But I sincerely wish Warner Home Video would take as much care and start to bring some of its vintage TV series currently under their umbrella to Blu-ray, even if distribution is handed over to a third-party, as say, Mill Creek. Only Season 1 of Eight Is Enough ever found its way to ‘legitimately authored’ DVD; the rest of the seasons released via the Warner Archive’s burn-on-demand service and divided into Parts I and II (a ridiculous marketing decision not exclusively ascribed to Warner, but downright silly just the same). Despite this shift to MOD DVD, virtually all of the seasons sport remarkably consistent audio/video quality.
Eight Is Enough was shot on film and looks fairly impressive. Colors are understandably dated, but nevertheless rich and bold. Contrast is mostly solid, with occasional stock shots and inserts, culled from less than perfect elements, suffering a brief amplification of grain and a darker than anticipated characteristic. It’s not a deal breaker. Image sharpness is also generally good, although many of these episodes are mildly plagued by some soft filtering and light color smearing. There is also some light speckling and other age-related artifacts. Could it all have been better? Perhaps – and undoubtedly, a bump to 1080p Blu-ray would definitely tighten up and refine this image. Not surprising, the audio is a big, fat Dolby Digital mono; adequate, but just that. Season One contains the only extra feature, a 2010 ‘reunion’ on The Today Show, minus Adam Rich and Susan Richardson. It’s fairly brief and painfully awkward to watch. Bottom line: Eight Is Enough is a franchise likely never to be repeated. Almost forty years into the future, it’s still worthy of our admiration and repeat viewing; a very deliciously concocted ‘plate of homemade wishes’.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Seasons 1 and 2 – 4
Season 3 – 3.5
Seasons 4 and 5 – 2.5