R.I.P. Conrad Bain, Diff'rent Strokes star and America's adoptive TV dad
Conrad Bain, who served for years as the eternally understanding adopting father to the American melting pot on Diff’rent Strokes, has died. Reports say that Bain died of natural causes at the age of 89.
Bain was an actor who spent time doing Shakespeare and classic dramas on Broadway like The Iceman Cometh, Candide, and Uncle Vanya before breaking into film and TV in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Among his most notable early roles was on Dark Shadows as the town innkeeper—a two-season run that ignobly ended with his being killed by a werewolf. From there Bain graduated to film work in movies such as Coogan’s Bluff, I Never Sang For My Father, and Woody Allen’s Bananas, before producer Norman Lear, having turned him down for a film, gave him the consolation prize of bringing him to national prominence on Maude.
As the old-fashioned conservative foil to Bea Arthur’s women’s libber, Bain’s Dr. Arthur Harmon character (along with his ditzy wife played by Rue McClanahan) served as the frequent sounding board and/or target for Maude’s patriarchy-challenging opinions. Along with the polished, upper-class demeanor that colored most of his roles, Bain had a natural earnestness that made him sweetly sympathetic no matter how stuffy and arrogantly out of touch he sounded. (Another bonus to hiring him: He had a twin brother, Bonar Bain, who could guest star as Harmon’s own competitive twin.)
After Bain’s character was written out of the show—part of the last-ditch effort to revamp Maude by having her become a D.C. congresswoman—he was quickly scooped up for Diff’rent Strokes, a show conceived jointly to showcase both him and the newly discovered Gary Coleman. Bain’s Philip Drummond was the rich white man with a bleeding heart of gold—the “man of means,” to quote the theme song, who recognizes that it takes different, multiracial strokes to move the world, and also that he’s probably the only one who can save the disadvantaged kids of his beloved, deceased housekeeper. As Mr. Drummond, Bain was again the straight man to the sassy, authority-challenging quips of Coleman, yet he was also the perfect dad, a loving father who was always there for Coleman, Todd Bridges, Dana Plato, and the rest of America's many kids placed under the foster care of TV parents.
Like everyone else in its cast, Bain’s inextricable association with Diff’rent Strokes led to a fairly limited career once the show ended in 1986. His attempt to transition into another regular sitcom role with Mr. President—one of the first shows ever broadcast by the fledgling Fox network—found him playing the Chief of Staff to George C. Scott’s titular leader, but that lasted only two brief seasons. Once that show limped to a close in 1988, Bain had a few more on-screen appearances—including a small role in Mike Nichols’ Postcards From The Edge and reprising Philip Drummond for a winking cameo on Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air—but was more often seen participating in various specials and interviews that looked back on Diff’rent Strokes and, in particular, the troubled lives of his on-screen children. Bain’s final performance came in 2011, playing a priest on CBS’ Unforgettable in his first role in nearly 15 years.
Bridges, now the only surviving core cast member of Diff'rent Strokes, issued a statement on Bain's death that reads, "I am deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Conrad as we were looking forward to celebrating his 90th birthday next month. In addition to being a positive and supportive father figure both on and off-screen, Conrad was well-loved and made going to work each day enjoyable for all of us. He will be missed, but never forgotten."