I have had several occasions to interact with his son Vince, both while covering him in World Series of Poker Main Events and when working with him a few times at World Poker Tour events. I have written here before about enjoying those conversations, which have pretty much all been about poker. Meanwhile I’ve always been curious to talk further with him about his tennis career (and once beating John McEnroe -- no shinola), all of those TV roles, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, and other stories from his teen idol days.
In truth, I was a little young to have followed either Vince’s tennis playing or to have noticed him on television during the ‘70s and early ‘80s (although I do remember seeing him back then in Hell Night when that slasher turned up on HBO). On the other hand, I was very familiar with his father, thanks primarily to Eight Is Enough. That show aired from 1977-1981, and I’ll bet I saw practically every episode once the repeats went into syndication in the years that followed.
I’d notice him again in the several Mel Brooks films, in particular High Anxiety (a fave), then also in some other ‘70s titles like the Firesign Theatre’s Zachariah, Soylent Green. Westworld, Gus, and Freaky Friday.
I wasn’t paying any attention at all to televised poker in the 1990s, so I missed Dick Van Patten having prefigured his son’s later career as a commentator when he teamed with Jim Albrecht from 1993-1995 for ESPN’s telecasts of the WSOP Main Event final table. You can hear him in this clip of the final hand of the 1995 WSOP ME won by Dan Harrington, when there were no hole cards and the scene was considerably more modest than is the case today:
The New York Times obituary mentions Van Patten’s poker playing in passing, noting how a People magazine profile “said that Mr. Van Patten’s only vices were twice-weekly poker games and regular visits to the racetrack.” However, according to the accounts of most -- including Vince -- both cards and the horses were pursuits to which he was especially dedicated.
Several of the stories circulating today repeat an anecdote both father and son would later laughingly tell, one from the days when the teenaged Vince would participate in his pop’s poker games. As the story goes, at a late hour the boy would ask if he could go to bed, and his father would tell him to “shut up and deal.”
He played the family patriarch in Eight Is Enough, and the obit describes him as having been a “father figure” on the set, too. While my memory of the show is now admittedly dim, it’s hard not to think of him similarly, an image enforced even further in the poker world where his son serves as our primary link to him.