Conrad Bain, a veteran stage and film actor who became a star in middle age as the kindly white adoptive father of two young African-American brothers in the TV sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” died Monday of natural causes in Livermore, Calif.
He was 89.
“Diff’rent Strokes,” which debuted on NBC in 1978, touched on serious themes but was known better as a family comedy that drew most of its laughs from its standout child actor, Gary Coleman.
Bain played wealthy Manhattan widower Philip Drummond, who promised his dying housekeeper he would raise her sons, played by Coleman and Todd Bridges. Race and class relations became topics on the show as much as the typical trials of growing up.
“Diff’rent Strokes” is, however, remembered mostly for its child stars’ adult troubles.
Bain said in interviews later that he struggled to talk about his TV children’s troubled lives because of his love for them. After Bridges started to put his drug troubles behind him in the early 1990s, he told Jet magazine that Bain had become like a real father to him.
Bain went directly into “Diff’rent Strokes” from another comedy, “Maude,” which aired on CBS from 1972-78.
As Dr. Arthur Harmon, the conservative neighbor often zinged by Bea Arthur’s liberal feminist, Bain became so convincing as a doctor that a woman once stopped him in an airport seeking medical advice.
At a nostalgia gathering in 1999, he lamented the fading of situation comedies that he said were about something.
“I think they got off the track when they first hired a standup comic to do the lead,” he said. “Instead of people creating real situations, you get people trying to act funny.”
Before those television roles, Bain had appeared occasionally in films, including “A Lovely Way to Die,” “Coogan’s Bluff,” “The Anderson Tapes,” “I Never Sang for My Father” and Woody Allen’s “Bananas.” He also played the clerk at the Collinsport Inn in the 1960s television show “Dark Shadows.”
A native of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, Conrad Stafford Bain decided on his life’s work after an appearance as the Stage Manager in a high school production of “Our Town.” After serving in the Canadian army during WWII, he arrived in New York in 1948 He was still studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when he acquired his first role on television’s “Studio One.”
A quick study who could play anything from Shakespeare to O’Neill, he found work in stock companies in the U.S. and the Bahamas, making his New York debut in 1956 as Larry Slade in “The Iceman Cometh.”
With his plain looks and down-to-earth manner, he was always a character actor.
It was an audition for a role in the 1971 film “Cold Turkey” that led Bain to TV stardom. He didn’t get the part, but “Cold Turkey” director Norman Lear remembered him when he created “Maude.”
He married artist Monica Sloan in 1945. She died in 2009. He is survived by a daughter and two sons.