Obituary: Conrad Bain / Adoptive dad on 'Diff'rent Strokes'

Feb. 4, 1923 - Jan. 14, 2013


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Conrad Bain, a wryly appealing actor who became a household name to millions of TV viewers on the sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes" as a white New York City industrialist who adopts two orphans from Harlem, died Jan. 14 in Livermore, Calif. He was 89.

A native of Canada, Mr. Bain graduated in 1948 from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and became an instantly recognizable supporting player for more than a half-century on stage, television and film. With a balding pate and articulate style, he was often cast in well-educated or avuncular roles.

Producer Norman Lear gave Mr. Bain a breakthrough of sorts when he cast the actor as the conservative doctor and next-door neighbor of liberally outspoken Maude Findlay (played by Bea Arthur) on the sitcom "Maude," which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1978.

Then came "Diff'rent Strokes," which debuted on NBC in 1978. Mr. Bain nominally had the leading role of the widowed patriarch Philip Drummond, but he was overshadowed in the popular imagination by the two children his character adopts from his dying black housekeeper.

The young Jackson brood -- 8-year-old Arnold and 12-year-old Willis -- were played by scene stealers Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges, respectively. Rounding out the family was Mr. Drummond's daughter, Kimberly, played by Dana Plato.

The show ran until 1986, spending its final year on ABC, but it remained in syndication for many years. "Diff'rent Strokes" charted the usual sitcom story lines about dating and family life and ventured often into race- and class-based humor.

When Mr. Drummond says he owns a hot tub in his Manhattan apartment, Arnold thinks his new millionaire father means the tub is stolen. "If we help you fence it, we get half," Arnold quips.

At times, the program gained attention for its darker plot lines about child abuse and drug use. First lady Nancy Reagan appeared on a 1983 episode to promote her "Just Say No" anti-narcotics campaign.

In a sad twist, "Diff'rent Strokes" developed a reputation for the destructive behavior of its child actors. Plato died from a drug overdose at 34 in 1999; Mr. Bridges also had a drug addiction and run-ins with the law; and Coleman struggled with financial and legal difficulties until dying in 2010 at 42 of a brain hemorrhage.

"It is really painful," Mr. Bain told the Los Angeles Times in 1991 as he watched his former cast mates struggle. "It leaves you with such a helpless feeling."

Conrad Stafford Bain was born Feb. 4, 1923, in Lethbridge, Alberta, and was a senior at a high school in Calgary when he appeared in a play for the first time.

He said that show sparked his interest in theater, which led him to New York after Canadian army service during World War II. He became a U.S. citizen in 1946.

As an acting student in New York, he landed small parts on TV anthology shows such as "Studio One." He later had a recurring role as an innkeeper on the ABC series "Dark Shadows" in the mid-1960s and played a loyal presidential aide to George C. Scott in the short-lived sitcom "Mr. President" (1987).

Mr. Bain was a critical standout as a former anarchist in director Jose Quintero's landmark 1956 revival of Eugene O'Neill's tragedy "The Iceman Cometh." The show, which ran off-Broadway and starred Jason Robards Jr., was four hours, but the power and endurance of the cast were credited with launching a resurgence of interest in O'Neill's work.

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