↑ Scroll to top

Conrad Bain, Father on ‘Diff’rent Strokes’, Dies at 89

Published: January 17, 2013 | 7:29 am
Text size: -A +A

Nbc Television/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images
Conrad Bain in his role as a father to two boys, played by Todd Bridges, left, and Gary Coleman, in “Diff’rent Strokes” on TV.
January 16, 2013
Conrad Bain, an accomplished stage and film actor who was best known for a late-career role on television as the white adoptive father of two poor black boys on the long-running comedy “Diff’rent Strokes,” died on Monday in Livermore, Calif. He was 89.

His daughter, Jennifer Bain, confirmed the death on Wednesday.

Mr. Bain had been familiar to television viewers as Dr. Arthur Harmon, a neighbor of Bea Arthur’s title character on “Maude,” when he joined the cast of “Diff’rent Strokes” in 1978, the beginning of an eight-season run. He played Phillip Drummond, a wealthy Manhattan widower who had promised his dying housekeeper, who was black and lived in Harlem, that he would rear her sons, Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges).

Drummond had a biological daughter, Kimberly, played by Dana Plato, and the show’s plotlines interwove punch lines with larger lessons about the experiences of a racially blended family.

Mr. Bain’s Drummond was stiff but steady and warm when necessary, the implication being that willingly adopting and nurturing poor, older black children attested to the strength of his character.

“You know, a lot of people just talk of taking on bigots,” Drummond said to Kimberly in an early episode, after she had rejected a suitor who told her he did not like being around black people, “but very few people ever really do.”

Drummond’s gentle moralizing, as well as his gentle language — using “bigots” rather than “racists” — was central to the show, which was popular with both black and white viewers. But the show was also criticized as simplistic and patronizing.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., writing in The New York Times in 1989, three years after the show’s final season, said “Diff’rent Strokes” followed a tradition of “domestication” and “cultural dwarfism” of black men in mainstream entertainment, “in which small black ‘boys’ (arrested adolescents who were much older than the characters they played) were adopted by tall, successful white males,” who “represented the myth of the benevolent paternalism of the white upper class.”

Mr. Coleman, who was diminutive because of treatments related to a congenital kidney disease, said later that he had come to dislike the scenes in which, even when he had become a teenager in real life, his character continued to hop into Mr. Bain’s lap for yet another light lecture.

In one final-season episode that focused on older foster children, Drummond looked into the camera and said: “Being father to these boys brought a warmth and richness into my life that I never could possibly have imagined. And of course I was able to give two kids a chance that they might otherwise have been denied.”

Drummond delivered an occasional cultural jab as well. In an early episode he tells Arnold he is going out for dinner with a friend from England.

“England?” Arnold says. “Isn’t that where they talk funny?”

“No,” Mr. Drummond replies, “that’s the Bronx.”

Jennifer Bain said her father was warm, loving and politically liberal, but bore few other similarities to Drummond.

“My father was far more interesting than that character,” Ms. Bain said, adding, “We were a very intellectual, artsy family.”

Conrad Stafford Bain was born on Feb. 4, 1923, in Lethbridge, Alberta, in Canada. He attended the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta and served as a sergeant in the Canadian Army from 1943 to 1946. He then moved to New York, where he graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

He spent much of the next 30 years in the theater, making his New York debut Off Broadway in 1956 in “The Iceman Cometh.” In 1971 he appeared in Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” by the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center.

Besides his daughter, he is survived by two sons, Mark and Kent, and a twin brother, Bonar. His wife of more than 60 years, the abstract painter and art collector Monica Bain (born Monica Sloan), died in 2009.

The three child actors who starred alongside Mr. Bain on “Diff’rent Strokes” struggled in their private lives with substance abuse and legal and financial problems. Mr. Coleman died in 2010 at 42. Ms. Plato died of a drug overdose in 1999 at 34. Mr. Bridges was acquitted of attempted murder in 1990.

Mr. Bridges, who remained in contact with Mr. Bain, said in a statement that “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.”


VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter
More posts in category: Latest News
  • Crude Oil Futures Mixed in Asian Trading
  • ‘Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, He Loves You’: Dick Van Dyke Marries At 86
  • Luxury Car Evolution: 2003 Rolls-Royce Phantom
  • Texon Petroleum logs another strong Eagle Ford oil producer