The Amazing, But Much Too Short, Career of Richard Deacon

Richard Deacon, 1960s

Richard Deacon was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1921, but most of his adolescence was spent in Binghamton, New York. When he was only 11, he contracted polio. He took up dancing to build up his leg muscles.

Deacon’s first career choice was to become a doctor.  He was working as an orderly at the Binghamton Hospital when World War II began. He tried to join the Navy; they suggested he try the Army.  He did and joined the medical corps.

After the war, he studied medicine at Ithaca College but soon switched to acting. He studied drama for a couple of years and was the actor in residence at Bennington College.  After spending some time in New York, he headed to California to look for work.  After paying his dues as a bartender, he finally got a break and was offered a role in a film.

When he first began his career, Helen Hayes advised him to become a character actor as opposed to a leading man.  It was great advice, and he was one of the most beloved and prolific actors during the golden age of television. During his career, he appeared in 66 movies on the big screen, guest starred on 92 different television shows, and starred in six series.

In the 1950s, he appeared in 48 television shows including Burns and Allen, The Life of Riley, Bachelor Father, and the Gale Storm Show.  He had regular roles in two sitcoms.

The Charles Farrell Show debuted in 1956. Farrell played himself as the manager of the Palm Springs Racquet Club, a resort he actually owned and operated. It was a summer replacement for I Love Lucy and only lasted 12 episodes. Richard played Sherman Hall.

 

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In 1957, he got another chance at being a regular in a sitcom, Date with the Angels starring Betty White. Deacon played Roger Finley.  This show lasted one year.

 

Richard continued his productive acting career, appearing in 43 shows in the 1960s.  He could be seen in a wide range of shows including Bonanza, The Rifleman, My Three Sons, Make Room for Daddy, Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, The Twilight Zone, Mr. Ed, I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, The Munsters, and The Addams Family. He was also appearing in a number of films during this decade. He appeared in four sitcoms on a regular basis during the ’60s.

 

Leave It to Beaver aired from 1957-1963. Deacon played Fred Rutherford, father of Clarence, or Lumpy, Rutherford, Wally’s friend. During the 6 seasons it was on the air, Fred was in 63 episodes.

 

Part way through the series, he was offered another regular role, that of Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  From 1961-1966, he brightened the screen in 82 shows, putting up with his brother-in-law’s bullying and Buddy Sorrel’s belittling. Deacon had high praise for everyone connected with The Dick Van Dyke Show.

One day Morey Amsterdam was goofing around with Richard and said he didn’t think his hair had fallen out, he thought it had imploded and fallen into his brain, clouding his thinking.  Carl Reiner came running on the set and said to add that dialogue to the show.  From then on, there was an insult fest between Buddy Sorrell and Mel Cooley. When the writers were trying to come up with a comeback from Mel to Buddy, Reiner asked Deacon how he would respond to someone who continued to torment him.  Deacon replied, “Yeecchh!” and his trademark phrase was invented.

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Bud Molin, Dick Van Dyke Show film editor described Deacon as “the funniest human being on the face of the earth.” Carl Reiner said it was a joy to have him around and everyone on the show loved him.

Deacon, Leonard, Reiner, Paris

The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the best shows ever written. It won the Outstanding Comedy Emmy in 1963, 1964, and 1966. After the cast of the Dick Van Dyke Show decided to end the show on its own terms, leaving the air with its quality reputation intact, Deacon was offered another sixties role.

 

Phyllis Diller had a fantastic cast on her show, The Pruitts of South Hampton, or The Phyllis Diller Show as it became known in syndication. This was about a formerly wealthy family who found out they owed $10,000,000 in back taxes.  They try to appear that they still have their wealth, while living in very reduced circumstances.  The cast included Louis Nye, John Astin, Reginald Gardiner, Paul Lynde, Gypsy Rose Lee, Billy De Wolfe, John McGiver, and Marty Ingels in addition to Diller and Deacon.  I don’t know how this show did not succeed, but it was taken off the air after only one year. Diller and Deacon continued to work together both on an episode of Love, American Style and in the production of Hello Dolly in the 1969-1970 season.

 

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Once the Diller show was canceled, Deacon was offered a role on The Mothers-In-Law starring Kaye Ballard and Eve Arden. Deacon took over the role of Roger Buell mid-way through the series. The concept was two families who didn’t necessarily get along were neighbors whose children  married so they had to find ways to get along and keep the peace.

 

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After the show was cancelled, he continued to stay busy with his acting career.  He also appeared in 17 episodes of Match Game and several Family Feud episodes.

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Deacon was a life-long bachelor.  He was a closeted gay man who had to keep his sexual orientation secret to keep his options open to work for companies like Disney. He was also a gourmet chef.  In the 1980s, he hosted a Canadian cooking show about microwave cooking, writing a book that sold almost two million copies. He spent a lot of his spare time working with SYNANON, an agency that helped teenage drug addicts.

On the night of August 8, 1984, he was suffered a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home. He was rushed to Cedars Sinai Hospital, where he died later that night. He was 63 years old.

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Everything I read about Richard Deacon painted him as a gracious, friendly, very funny man who was caring and kind.  He had an amazing career, with 180 acting credits within a 30-year period.  The legacy he left was a rich and full acting life. Pretty good for a guy who chose to be a character actor and turned down two offers to do a show that he would star in.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Amazing, But Much Too Short, Career of Richard Deacon

  1. As a younger person I think it is incredible that he was acting with Betty White in 1957! Also, I am surprised with my upbringing but I don’t think I have ever seen the Dick Van Dyke Show.

    Like

    • That is a revelation you probably should not say out loud. Along with a handful of shows like MASH, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and Big Bang, the Dick Van Dyke Show is probably the consistently best written show ever.

      Before your wedding, I see a few bonding days with your mom eating a couple of your favorite meals and taking an afternoon for classic tv bingeing!

      Like

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