For today’s television audience, the name Bill Bixby may not stir a lot in the way of memories, but for anyone who grew up on Classic TV, he was a mainstay because of shows like My Favorite Martian, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, The Incredible Hulk and others. He was a regular presence who moved from show to show — some lasting longer than others — always bringing with him a genuine on screen presence, whether playing comedy, drama or a mix of the two.
“My personal impression of Bix was that he was a very professional, friendly, accessible guy that never changed,” offers writer/producer/director Kenneth Johnson, the creator of the TV version of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk. “I had no actor in mind when I was writing the script, but as soon as I’d finished it I remembered seeing Bill Bixby in a 1973 TV play called Steambath. He gave a dazzling performance, demonstrating every human emotion that anyone could possibly ever have. He was so wonderful, that I realized he was the guy I should go to for Dr. Banner. He’s the only one I sent the script to.”
Ed Robertson, television historian, author and host of the TV Confidential podcast, says, “That ‘real’ quality he brought forth comes from a very deliberate approach he took as a performer. Certainly when he did Eddie’s Father, you believed that he was this single dad trying to raise a son in the right way. Even something like The Incredible Hulk — and this goes as much to the team behind it as it does to Bixby — you believe, even though it was a ‘comic book story,’ that he was this man living with the agony of this dual personality. Not being able to control what happens when he Hulks out made it real. There’s a good reason the show lasted five years.”
Veteran director Harry Winer, who was early in his career when he shot several episodes of Bill’s 1983 series Goodnight, Beantown, remains grateful that the experience for a relative novice was a pleasant and uplifting one.
“In that era,” Harry suggests, “there was an even greater sense of celebrity for television stars, because there were only three networks then. That means when you were the star of a television show, you are in a hell of a lot of people’s homes. So he was a significant celebrity, and yet incredibly generous. I have to say, I had some good times with him and Mariette Hartley, who also starred in the show. They had a wonderful chemistry and it was a good feeling on the set. And that always starts with the person at the top, the star of the show. Bill was clearly the star of the show, and to sit there as a kid presuming to direct somebody who’s been around the block a few times, it was a daunting process. But he was incredibly supportive, which meant a lot.”
Bill was born, Wilfred Bailey Everett “Bill” Bixby III on Jan. 22, 1934 in San Francisco, CA. When he was in the seventh grade, he attended Grace Cathedral, singing in the church’s choir — until he decided to fire a slingshot in the direction of the bishop. Needless to say, the choir became a thing of the past for him. In the late 1940s he gained a keen interest in dancing, and in high school began to perfect his oratory and dramatic skills. Upon graduation from Lowell High School, he majored in drama (in direct opposition to what his parents wanted him to do) at City College of San Francisco.
Shortly after turning 18, he was drafted into the Korean War, but joined the US Marine Corp reserve rather than the US Army. He served until 1956, and three years later found himself organizing shows at a Jackson Hole, WY resort, before being hired to work as a model and do commercial work for Chrysler and General Motors.
He made the move towards acting in 1961, appearing on stage in the musical The Boy Friend, and then going to Hollywood to make his TV debut on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, followed by appearances on The Andy Griffith Show, The Twilight Zone, Ben Casey, Straightaway, and Dr. Kilare, among others. But things really started to change when, in 1963, he found himself cast as one of the leads in the sitcom My Favorite Martian.
The behind the scenes look at Bill Bixby’s career continues below; just scroll down.