In an era where TV dads ruled the small screen with their lovable quirkiness, arguably no one did it better than the man who brought Frank Lambert to life on Step by Step. That’s why Patrick Duffy is one of ET’s Iconic Leading Men of ’90s TV alongside Mark Curry, Jimmy Smits, Charles Shaughnessy and Grant Show.
While Duffy caught the acting bug as a teenager, which led him to decide against his initial plan to attend the University of Washington to study architecture, he didn’t start working as an actor for almost 10 years following his high school graduation.
“I registered at the University of Washington to be an architect and a high school drama teacher pulled me aside in my senior year and said some people can make a living doing what you’re doing after school in the plays,” he tells ET’s Nischelle Turner, adding that the drama teacher offered to give him a letter of recommendation to attend an acting school in Seattle.
“I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ I went home that afternoon and my dad was reading the paper and I said, ‘Dad, I’m not gonna be an architect. I’m gonna be an actor.’ And he went, ‘Yeah, OK’ and he went back to reading,” he continues. “I thought, well, that was easy, you know, the rest was hard. I didn’t work for about 10 years but I enrolled in this program, and from that moment on I was an actor, I just wasn’t employed. I was going to school, I was doing other things, but I considered myself as I do now an actor.”
This could be, in part, why Duffy has remained loyal to his acting career and hasn’t stopped working since he got his first big break as Mark Harris on Man From Atlantis, which aired in 1977.
“I was actually a carpenter and I was driving a delivery truck and I was building a boat in Long Beach, California, remodeling a boat and going to auditions,” Duffy recalls before explaining that in order to land the part of Harris, he had to work on his physical appearance, which included gaining 20 pounds. Duffy wrapped the show after one season and quickly booked Dallas, where he portrayed Bobby Ewing from 1978 to 1991.
After taking on the role of Ewing in the drama for so long, Duffy says he wanted to tackle comedy next. “I was ready,” he explains. “I’m not sure the world was.”
“As a matter of fact, Miller-Boyett, who were the producers of Step by Step, [Dallas producer] Leonard Katzman had done a series with Tom Miller called Petrocelli and they were good friends,” he continues. “And so this was when I left [Dallas] after seven years. Leonard called Bob [Boyett] and said, ‘Nobody knows this yet, but one of the main actors on Dallas is gonna quit and I think you should do a sitcom with him,’ and Tom Miller said, ‘Larry Hagman’s quitting Dallas? And Leonard went, ‘No, it’s the boring one, Patrick.”
But Duffy was nothing close to boring on Step by Step, where his character, a divorced contractor with three kids, stole the heart of Suzanne Somers’ Carol Foster, a widowed hair salon owner with three children of her own. Perhaps it was their off-screen chemistry that led Duffy and Somers to have a successful, seven-season run on the blended family sitcom.
Duffy even says he and Somers became “best friends” the very first day they started filming.
“She was a mentor in the very beginning. She’s sitcom gold,” he gushes. “I was ready to do a comedy, but she was the one who, you know, I would do a bit or a part of a scene or something and I’d always glance over at her — she’d give me a (winks) or a mmm, whichever one. And then we found our footing and it was, again, the best job I ever had.”
When asked if there was something about Somers that would surprise fans, he had plenty to share.
“I think the serious side of her, you know, it’s not hidden, but she doesn’t play to it,” he explains. “She’s a copious writer, I know, there’s 20 or 30 books now she’s written. But her first book was a book of poetry. It wasn’t a script for a TV show or anything. She wrote a small book of verse, and that’s basically who she is. She’s a mother above all else. She’s a caretaker. She’s just one of the best people. She’s a go-to person. If I ever needed something, I know I could pick up the phone and say, ‘Suzanne, I really need help on this.’ It would be there.”
While Duffy says Step by Step was the best job he’d ever had, the now 72-year-old actor isn’t sure a reboot of the sitcom is in his future — but not because he wouldn’t be up for it. “It’s a hard story to come up with,” he explains. “The problem is, we had six children who would all now be adults, who would probably, half of them, have children of their own. So do you gather everybody together again? What is the format that makes everybody come together and have that dynamic? I would be retired. [Suzanne] would be retired. … We were one of the first sitcoms where the two adults had a real sexual relationship. We were attracted to each other. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. It was the ewww moment for all the children, but it was, I think, the key that gave the show the dynamics it did.”
It takes a unique entertainer to have a career span over multiple decades, but thanks to Duffy’s endearing personality and hard work, he’s done just that.
“I started working in 1976 and I worked for 24 and a half years and only had three weeks off,” Duffy shares. And it appears he isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Duffy says he recently worked on a new comedic project with Justin Long. “He’s brilliant,” Duffy adds of Long. “He was able to gather a bunch of actors that I’ve seen forever on television, and here I was working with him. And I [was] starstruck every time I [would] go on a set.”
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