Talking with The Man From Atlantis: On Patrick Duffy and the glory years of TV stardom 

Talking with The Man From Atlantis: On Patrick Duffy and the glory years of TV stardom 

Last week I interviewed Patrick Duffy for our Random Roles feature, in conjunction with the Warner Archives manufacture-on-demand release of all four Man From Atlantis TV movies, plus the complete 13-episode run of the TV series. Duffy talked extensively about that role—which he landed on a cattle-call audition when he was only 27—and about what it was like to become an overnight sensation, and then a fixture on television over the next 35 years. Since Man From Atlantis debuted in 1977, Duffy’s done dramas, sitcoms, game shows, and guest shots on anthology series, and he’s even become famous enough to have appeared as a parodic version of “himself” more than once. His longest-running and most iconic role was on Dallas, a primetime soap that became a phenomenon in the ’70s and ’80s, with Duffy in the good-guy role of Bobby Ewing, a tycoon’s son with a conscience. Duffy waxed so eloquently to me about the original series and the upcoming TNT sequel—the first episode of which he’d just watched alongside his co-star and old pal Larry Hagman—that he convinced me to give the new Dallas a look when it debuts next year.

But I’m sorry to report that you’ll never get to read what Duffy had to say, because after the interview was done, I played the recording back and it was completely blank. (Apparently a wire got kicked loose from my phone-to-recorder set-up.) Nearly every journalist I know has had something like this happen, but this is the first time I’ve lost an entire interview. And it’s a shame, too, because Duffy was an affable guy, with a real appreciation for his success and his place in the celebrity stratosphere. In all my years of conducting interviews with famous people, I’ve generally found Duffy’s attitude to be the rule, not the exception, but still… before I get on the phone with an actor, there’s always a fleeting moment of worry that he or she will take umbrage at the line of questioning, or will answer everything in two sentences or less. The former’s not necessarily bad; some of my best interviews have been with people who disagreed with the premise of what I was asking. But the latter? Yikes.

Duffy, though, answered at length, and didn’t even flinch—at least audibly—when I asked whether it ever bothered him that Hagman became the breakout star of Dallas. Duffy’s reply was that if Hagman hadn’t become a viewer favorite, then Dallas wouldn’t have been the hit it was, and that he feels he owes a lot of his success in the business to a man he considers to be one of his best friends. Similarly, when I asked Duffy about his decision to leave Dallas and pursue other career options—including a rare feature-film appearance in the little-seen 1984 indie Vamping—he was quite open about his higher comfort level as a television actor, as opposed to in movies, and how he was eager to return to Dallas when an opportunity arose. (As for the controversial “last season was only a dream” excuse that paved the way for Duffy’s Dallas reincarnation, the actor noted that for all the hue and cry over the silliness of that particular plot device, the show’s ratings went up.)

But just as interviewees sometimes dispute the reasoning behind a question, so interviewers can disagree with a subject’s answer. Early in our interview, Duffy talked about getting cast in that first Man From Atlantis movie, and how he was naive back then about what it meant to be on television. He said that the day after the first commercial aired, he was already being recognized on the street. And once he became established as a TV star—once he was in that exclusive club—opportunities just kept opening up. Without Man From Atlantis, Duffy might never have taken that next step to becoming a “personality,” known for being known. He likely wouldn’t have been asked to guest star on something like The Love Boat, which for actors at that time was both a validation and the equivalent to a paid luxury vacation. So I asked Duffy: Did he think there was a difference between being a TV star in the ’70s and ’80s, and being a star today? His answer was “yes,” which I expected, but I was surprised by his elaboration on that answer, in which he said that he thinks that the spotlight is more intense today, because of the Internet, and the proliferation of media outlets that cover the television business.

I can see Duffy’s point, but I don’t know that he’s right in a broader sense. In some ways, it does seem like being a celebrity 30 or 40 years ago was an easier gig, with more collegiality and less scrutiny. (Or maybe growing up watching famous people clown around together on game shows and talk shows has warped my perspective.) But back then, the limited number of networks and shows meant that “TV stars” were in shorter supply, and that those few that made it on the air had the advantage of a promotional system to rival the Hollywood movie studios in the contract era. These days, TV stars have to slug their way out of the pack, arguably earning any attention they get. (I say “arguably” because it seems a stretch to say that the cast of Jersey Shore has “earned” anything.) When, over the last decade, has a TV star been plucked from obscurity, groomed, and unleashed onto the public the way Duffy was with Man From Atlantis?

Because here’s the thing: As a star vehicle, Man From Atlantis was pretty odd. The original TV movies have a very mid-’70s sci-fi TV charm, with their generic, string-soaked “relax, it’s just a show” score and unforced earnestness. Duffy is calm and charismatic playing a mysterious, amnesiac fish-man, discovered by the Foundation For Oceanic Research and subsequently put to work tackling ocean-bound villains and other mysteries that require lots of swimming. Producers Robert H. Justman and Herbert F. Solow had previously worked on Star Trek, and as Duffy explained to me, the original concept of the show was to use the sea the way Star Trek used outer space. But he admitted that after Man From Atlantis went to series, the stories became campier, relying too much on evil genius Mr. Schubert (played by Victor Buono, who had some experience with camp thanks to his time playing King Tut on Batman) and his tricked-out water-weapons. Though the movies had drawn huge ratings, the series bombed.

Few “bombs” of the ’70s are as fondly remembered, though. Duffy spent more time as the co-lead of the ABC Family sitcom Step By Step, but he told me that he’ll always be remembered most as Bobby Ewing from Dallas and Mark Harris from Man From Atlantis. Partly that’s due to some elements that even the goofier parts of the Atlantis series couldn’t ruin, like the cool-looking undersea labs and ships, and the wonder of the hero himself, with his beguilingly unknown origins. But the strongest enduring attraction of the show is Duffy, who looks so sleek and well-chiseled in his swimsuit, and plays the childlike fascination of Mark Harris in a way that makes the hero seem pure, but never dumb. Unlike Esther Williams, Duffy was obviously a star, wet or dry.

Perhaps he would’ve become a star without Atlantis. Duffy was a handsome young man with a gentle demeanor, and he’d done a few guest shots prior to his big break. But it’s hard to think of a role more suited to introducing Duffy to the public at large. One minute, he was just another young hunk trying to land a part. Then, in a blink, there’s Patrick Duffy, washing up on a beach, ready to go to work.

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