Dick Sargent, who refused to do just that,
takes time out from his gardening and homemaking
chores to discuss 'Bewitched' and other matters
By Carolyn See
Dick Sargent, the actor who has replaced the ailing Dick York as Elizabeth Montgomery's harassed husband on ABC's Bewitched this season, prefers to be interviewed at home. To get there you drive the demented maze of Los Angeles's freeways up into a ridge of gentle hills which divides the town of Hollywood from the suburbanflatlands of the San Fernando Valley. Some of the places up here could be right out of Nathanael West's sad Hollywood novel, "The Day of the Locust." Fantastic houses, made of the most flimsy materials, line the narrow streets, and you see the remains of gardens hopefully planted but left to die when would-be stars and directors moved away.
Sargent's house is at the end of a not very charming cul-de-sac toward the top of these hills. The front yard is asphalt, the facade is white something or other. A public-relations lady meets me and says, "Oh, I'm so glad you could see him at his house." We knock on the door, and Sargent ushers us in, smiling the deceptively neutral smile of an anarchist who's carrying the world's finest bomb in that unprepossessing paper sack under his arm. We walk through the entry hall into the dining room, which is separated from the patio by a wall of glass. The PR lady triumphantly looks over at me and THERE IN FRONT OF US IS THE WORLD'S FINEST GARDEN: fountains, statues, bending trees, and walls of ferns breathing, spreading, lounging out of an assortment of hanging pots, planters, beds, stone urns, all served up on an endless bed of bricks covered with the softest, sweetest baby tears. Tall trees shelter this green presentation,.letting in just enough sparkling sunshine to take each drop on the freshly watered landscape and make it twinkle on every radiant, lovingly cultivated, totally luxuriant PLANT!
Dick Sargent's eyes glitter insanely, his teeth glitter. "Do you like it?" he asks. "I did it all myself. Yes, I did it all myself. There's an acre here, did it all. Oh, there was a little ivy here when I moved in, but it was halfdead, and some dead grass, but I did it all."
We moved from the dining room into a' kind of atrium. "Do you like it?" Sargent asks, gesturing around the room. "This used to be part of the patio. You can see, the floor's brick, like the patio. I put all the bricks in. Of course, I had to take the diningroom wall out--the house used to end 'here. You can see righthere, where the wood floor stops, that it's not completely finished." He pushes the offending area distastefully with his foot."There's a guy I know about, they call him the Prince of Floors, but I can never get him on the phone. See that wallpaper? They had grass cloth on there before. I spent three days locked up in here with a wallpaper-removing machine. Come over here."
He beckons to us and we wordlessly follow across the atrium. "Look at this." He directs our attention to a comparatively unspectacular medium-sized plant sitting by itself on a table."Look at this," he says again, and bends down to peer into our faces. "Watch this." He gives a branch of the plant a smart rap and a third of the plant collapses over onto itself, to all intents and purposes dead. "How do you like that?" Sargent asks us, and raps another twig of the plant and then another, while they obligingly collapse. "Did you ever see anything like that before? I first saw one like it over in Puerto Rico on location. It's called a sensitive plant."
The sensitive plant more or less pulls itself together and Sargent takes us for a tour of the house. "The kitchen ... I'm not entirely satisfied with the kitchen," he says, as he leads us into a small but entirely perfect room furnished with all the best in old French pewter collanders and a framed 1930s Postum advertisement. The dining room is waiting for the Prince ofFloors, the atrium is furnished with makeshift (but to the untutored eye, perfect) chairs and table. Even Sargent has trouble finding fault with the living room, which is big and white and filled with antiques, comfortable chairs, more enonous plants, Mexican embroidered pillows, the Lives of the Saints painted on sheets of tin. Even Sargent has trouble finding fault, but in a moment or two, after looking around, he says, "See this room? It's ready for another painting. See up in that corner? The paint started to peel and touched it up. It's a lighter white than the other part." And when we sit back on the world's most comfortable and pleasant-couch, he says doubtfully, "Yes, well, i've been thinking of selling that couch. I've got another orange couch out in back..."
What makes all this hard to take is that Sargent looks neither like the kind of man who owns his own lathe nor an elegant, designer-type darling. What he looks like is someone's little kid who inexplicably shot up overnight to 6-feel-2. (In fact, that's what he did, and it may have changed his life.) He's 36 now, but it still seems that he ought to be out flying kites or fiddling around with a $12 chemistry set. He just did all this, that's all, with this random acre of land, and when you ask him why, he says, "Oh, actors have a lot of time on their hands, you know, ha ha." But most actors (or anyone) are apt to spend the time on their hands lying around disconsolately leafing through magazines and getting their pajamas rumpled, or keeping up with the soap operas. I ask Dick Sargent about his past, hoping to get an idea of the kind of person who would, just for himself, not even for a family, turn out this kind of domestic monument. He obligingly starts at the beginning.
"I was born in Carmel. My family was more or less retired then, but my mother had acted in silent movies and my father had been business manager for Erich von Stroheim, which is probably one reason I thought of acting as a career. Although my father was an exceptional man, he'd done lots of crazy, interesting things in his life. It's been hard to live up to him.
"I loved Carmel, I still go back there when I feel I'm losing my sense of perspective down here. I had a good childhood, but I got into a kind of shell when I was 14. My father had just died and my mother remarried and began to travel and my grandfather put me in military school. I grew a foot in a year and I was about 6-feet-2 and weighed 120 pounds. I felt terrible. Every Sunday they'd have parades and every Sunday I'd pass out and they'd have was 15. Then I developed a spot on my lung." Sargent hesitates. "You know, now, later, you can almost see how a kid could do that, as a way of getting out of something he hated. So anyway, got out of military school for six months by getting tuberculosis."
Then what happened?
"I went back into another military school." He shrugs, smiles, you feel terribly sorry for that lost 16-year-old, but 20 years later here he is, thank goodness, sitting pretty.
"At Stanford finally met people who didn't care what you looked like or how much money you had. They liked you for what you were, and I began to have some fun. started to act, and loved it."
Even then things weren't easy. Sargent went more or less against the family's wishes when he decided to take up acting for a career. "Do you remember that scene in 'The Graduate' when Dustin Hoffman comes downstairs and that guy grabs him and tells him to 'think plastics'? Well, when I first saw that movie, I laughed for 20 minutes; the rest of the audience must have thought I was crazy. I went through the exact same scene with my grandfather. He was a very old man then, living at the Pacific Union Club in San Francisco. He took me to lunch when I quit school, with all these old men sitting around in leather chairs, and he told me to think plastics." But Sargent thought movies, and except for a brief, disastrous venture in the Mexican import business and an equally brief and unsuccessful marriage, he has kept his interests down to the essentials-acting and fixing up houses.
Replacing Dick York as Darrin in Bewitched is a break for Sargent, although he is the last to overemphasize it or suggest that at last he is on the road to bona-fide stardom. "I went all over the country or: tour for Bewitched this summer, supposedly so that the country would gel used to me, or ready for the change," he says. "it's interesting, but it's exhausting. The press has a way of ... having at you. There's a picture somebody took of me at a table and I was surrounded by eight or 10 reporters and they're looking at me like this" (he twists his face up to look like eight or 10 rabid German shepherds), "and I look like this" (he relaxes into freckled, stark terror). "Anyway, one of the articles that came out of the tour had the headline Dick York Becomes Darrin." For a minute he looks apprehensive, hoping that we'll remember without prompting that he's Dick Sargent, not Dick York.
Sargent's studio biography carries a brave quote from an old Louella Parsons column ("Talk of the town is a young actor named Dick Sargent, a heretofore unknown, in Pat Boone's picture,'Bernardine.' He's going far!"). And he did go fairly far; he's had supporting roles in perhaps a dozen more feature films, was a "guest star" in several series, and a principal in ABC's Broadside, an ill-fated echo of McHale's Navy. He was suggested for the original role of Darrin in "Bewitched" but had already done the Broadside pilot and was committed to whatever that might bring. I ask Sargent if he regrets the way things turned out, or if he had any notion at the time that Bewitched would become the household word it is now, while to most people Broadside still just means something one boat fires on another.
"No, I couldn't tell then which series was going to make it. I don't think anybody really knows what's going to happen, although they generally make enough remarks one way or the other to cover themselves either way. After Broadside went under, I did The Tammy Grimes Show and everyone connected with that thought it was going to be tremendous. I think she's one of the biggest talents. What did it run for? I think four shows or something. There's just no way of telling."
The checkered quality of his career may be one reason for Sargent's whole style of telling about his life. He has a well-developed sense of disaster, a sense of the grotesque. (On the other hand, it may date back to those Sundays when he fell down in full uniform, or even to the hours spent with his wallpaper-remover.) Sargent has been on location in Puerto Rico, for instance, with Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller, but the experience seems to have made little impression on him-'except for his punch-drunk sensitive plant. He tells us instead about being on location in the California desert during the hottest part of the summer doing a zero-budget science-fiction film which required a mad dog.
"We could only hire the dog for one day and he got the hiccups. He'd snarl like this, see? And then he'd hiccup." He snarls, hiccups; we giggle. "Then the sound man went a little mad himself. He kept getting a Mexican rock-and-roll station on his earphones." Sargent does the sound man, mad dog, rock-and-roll station, very effectively. The PR lady and I gasp, laugh, dab at our eyes. He eyes us speculatively. There might be some way he might make us laugh until ... until we die from it, that's what.
An hour or so later the PR lady and leave, out of breath, clutching our ribs. Sargent follows us, attentive, bent over, a little sly, his kid's face peering down at us frdm the top of his stork-like body. Outside again, we glance down from his asphalt platform of a front yard and see yet another section of his cultivated jungle, trees growing out of banks of vines which twine into bushes which border a small and perfect swimming pool. We tell him once again how beautiful it all is, and he says, "Yes, yes. Do you like it? The day they put in the pool a tractor fell over this cliff and got stuck down there. The gas and lights and electricity were out for three days; they couldn't find the mains. And the cement? Well..."
*Article from TV Guide February 7, 1970
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