When his phone rang late at night, celebrated horse trainer Gary Contessa expected it to be a call from David Cassidy. “We would talk horses all night,” he tells Closer. “He knew sires and broodmares like no one I ever met. He learned from me, and I learned so much from him. He was one of my best friends.” At the dawn of the 1970s, few stars shined as bright as David, who catapulted to fame on The Partridge Family. His green eyes, feathered hair and velvety singing voice provoked such fervor among his fans that it would become a burden. “They get flustered and I get flustered,” David said. “It’s no fun when they rip your clothes.” 

The memory of his disapproving father, Broadway actor Jack Cassidy, also haunted David. The Tony-winning star had sneered at his son’s television success and died in an apartment fire in 1976 before they could reconcile. “I didn’t have a chance to say, ‘I love you.’” David confessed. 

David Cassidy’s ‘Happiest Times’ Before 'The Partridge Family'
Larry Marano/Shutterstock

Born to Jack and his first wife, actress Evelyn Ward, in 1950, David spent his formative years with his maternal grandparents. “The thing that used to make me sad about David was that he was so happy remembering the years before he was famous,” Chip Deffaa, co-author of David’s autobiography C’mon, Get Happy: Fear and Loathing on the Partridge Family Bus, tells Closer. “He showed me the little woods he used to run around at Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange, N.J. He would say those were his happiest times.” 

David eventually learned of his parents’ divorce from a neighborhood kid. He had a long-distance relationship with Jack, but that didn’t stop David from idolizing him. “His father did such a miserable job raising him — the wounds were so deep,” says Deffaa, “but the odd thing was, that as a grown man, David was still in awe of his father. He would tell me his father was the greatest performer he ever saw.”

After David arrived in LA in 1969, Jack helped his teenage son find a manager. David appeared on episodes of Ironside, Marcus Welby, M.D., The Mod Squad and more before being cast as Keith Partridge in The Partridge Family, which also co-starred his stepmother, Shirley Jones. “David and I had a great thing going. He would even come to my house and help me with my kids,” Shirley, 88, the mother of Shaun, Patrick and Ryan Cassidy, tells Closer.

The sitcom, based loosely on the Cowsills family musical group, was never a ratings juggernaut but proved extremely popular with younger viewers, who made David a sensation. “I Think I Love You” topped the charts, and the Partridge Family earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist of 1970, even though David and Shirley were the only cast members who sang on their recordings. David began playing sold-out concerts on weekends while filming the series on weekdays. 

“He was a really good guy,” Brian Forster, who took over the role of Chris Partridge in the second season, tells Closer. “He was obviously really busy all the time.” So busy that David needed to ask his assistant to buy Christmas presents for his castmates — and was appalled to learn that everyone received a bottle of scotch from him, even the children! “David was like, ‘I am so sorry,’” says Brian, who was given a replacement gift of a Swiss army knife by the star.

But David’s worldwide fame never impressed his father. “Jack would tell him, ‘I earned my success,’” says Deffaa. “‘You’re only a success because a network puts you on TV every week. People see you whether they want to or not. You have nothing to do with it.’ David believed that to a certain extent.”

Burnt out, David left The Partridge Family in 1974. “I have an image of myself in five years. I’m living on an island. The sky is blue, the sun is shining. And I’m smiling, I’m healthy, I’m a family man,” he said. 

His post-Partridge career would include more albums, stints on television, in Las Vegas and on Broadway — but it all sadly failed to make him happy. “If you saw him at the stage door after a concert or after a Broadway show, he would be cheerful and smiling with the fans,” says Deffaa. “But there was a degree of unhappiness in him that he never got past.” David sought solace in alcohol and drug use, which ruined his three marriages and caused his extended family to distance themselves. “I have not spoken to David in years. No one has,” Shirley told Closer in 2016.

His daughter, actress Katie Cassidy, 35, was raised by her mother and stepfather. David had a closer relationship with son Beau, 31, an actor and singer-songwriter born during his third marriage. “When Beau wanted to be in Little League, David not only went to every game, he also became Beau’s coach,” says Deffaa, who adds that David never wished for his kids to become performers. “He had so many bad memories of the years when he was supposedly on top. He felt that show business had not been good to him in his youth, and he didn’t want that for them.”

David passed away from liver failure in 2017 at the age of 67. Per his wishes, his remains were scattered at New York’s Saratoga Race Course, where he’d found a different kind of success as a Thoroughbred owner and breeder. “David tried hard to beat his demons,” says his friend Gary. “He never stopped trying to be a stronger, better person.” 

—Reporting by Katie Bruno

For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.