Bill Bixby on the set of "My Favorite Martian" (AP Photo)
It is rare for a TV actor to achieve even one leading role. Even rarer: to make a significant impact on television during four decades. With starring roles in three popular series, and a key behind-the-scenes role in another, Bill Bixby – who died 19 years ago today – did just that. And in the process, he helped define television in the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s.
My Favorite Martian was Bixby's first big TV break. From 1963 to 1966, Bixby played Tim O'Hara, the reporter giving shelter to Ray Walston's alien Uncle Martin. My Favorite Martian was a big part of the 1960s trend toward the fantastic in sitcoms – Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and even animated The Jetsons stood alongside it with characters who could do amazingly unreal things. And like Dick York and Dick Sargent on Bewitched and Larry Hagman on Jeannie, Bill Bixby was the straight man who tried to keep his fantastic family member grounded in reality.
Photo of Bill Bixby as Tim O'Hara from the television program "My Favorite Martian." In this episode, an accident with a rejuvenation bulb takes Uncle Martin (played by Ray Walston) back to babyhood. (Wikimedia Commons / CBS Television)
The Courtship of Eddie's Father came next for Bixby, as he played a widowed father trying to figure out the dating scene. The widowed-dad theme was as popular in its day as the out-of-this-world had been a few years earlier. With fellow widowers Andy Taylor of The Andy Griffith Show, Steven Douglas (played by Fred MacMurray) of My Three Sons, and Russ Lawrence (Don Porter) of Gidget, Bixby’s Tom Corbett (aka Eddie's father) was in good company.
The Incredible Hulk brought Bixby back to science fiction playing Dr. David Banner, the mild-mannered physician ("Don't make me angry; you wouldn't like me when I'm angry") who occasionally turned into a green-skinned giant. The Hulk wasn’t the only sci-fi guy on TV in the 1970s and '80s. Science fiction drama was hot with shows like Wonder Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and V wowing audiences. But none could match the thrill of the Hulk – or the emotional intensity of Bill Bixby as he portrayed the conflicted David Banner.
Blossom is not the iconic series that The Incredible Hulk is. But for those of us who were girls or young women in the early 1990s, Blossom was a touchpoint – an influence on our speech patterns (Joey’s "Whoa!" or Six’s fast talk) and even a source of empowerment (inner beauty counted more than outer beauty; it was good to be smart). Though not a presence on-screen, Bill Bixby was a force behind the camera, directing 30 episodes of the popular show.
In fact, Blossom would be the actor-director’s last show. Bill Bixby collapsed on the set in 1993, and died six weeks later of complications from prostate cancer. He was just 59 years old.
It’s incredible to think what great television Bixby might have brought us had he lived to enjoy a couple more decades.
Written by Linnea Crowther and Jessica Campbell