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Tom Bosley: A 'Golden Pond' of Memories

October 26, 2006 By:
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"Golden" oldie? Young in spirit Tom Bosley

The name's LaGuardia ...

No ... wait. It's Cunningham. No ... it's Sheriff Tupper ...

No, these days, it's Thayer, Norman Thayer, didactic dad of "On Golden Pond," where Tom Bosley plays the part to perfection Oct. 31 to Nov. 5 at the Merriam Theater.

But father figures have always figured prominently in Bosley's bountiful career: He was Richie Cunningham's dad (TV's "Happy Days"), Belle's papa (Broadway's "Beauty and the Beast") and, of course, the father of all father figures: Fiorello H. LaGuardia, the New York mayor who fathered the modern-day prototype of a paternal politician.

Well, at least the one he played -- winning a Tony Award for "Fiorello!" in 1959 -- was a real-life hero, who never had to rely on little tin boxes as he worked outside the box.

Bosley was even another father -- of TV's "Father Dowling Mysteries" -- whose main mystery, perhaps, is how such a Jewish actor ever got to portray a man of the cloth?

But then, Bosley himself is made of whole cloth, an incredible talent who, at 5 foot 9, towers over other titans in the industry, whether as a sheriff in TV's "Murder, She Wrote" or writing his own ticket as an acclaimed stage actor.

Theater, stage, TV, film ... it's all his business, and Bosley makes it his business to do it right.

Yet how can this sweet, even-tempered Jewish Chicagoan even think of blowing a gasket as thunderous Norman Thayer does "On Golden Pond"? Is this the face of an impatient professor facing, with his wife, the fading final days of glory?

Grumpy old man? The grumpiest! "I don't know about that, but he's certainly the oldest dad I've ever played," muses Bosley.

"It's a part that calls for an 80-year-old guy. Well ... here I am!"

And there it goes, dissimilarities and likenesses alike. (Actually, Bosley's a young'un at only 79.) If there's the character's bout with forgetfulness, well, Bosley knows the lyrics to "Try to Remember" firsthand. "I sometimes open the refrigerator and can't remember what I was getting," he chuckles.

But open the curtains and he gets the applause every time -- this time in a Tony Award-nominated drama in which, to a great degree, the warring father and daughter are stand-ins for Hollywood standouts/real-life dad and daughter Henry and Jane Fonda, who took the parts onscreen after carrying their battle off screen for years.

"I knew them both," offers Bosley.

Familiar to Family?

Would Bosley's own kids, now all grown up (widowed in 1978, the actor remarried in 1980), or his seven grandchildren recognize the tyrant on stage? Nope. Besides, they've never had a hard time distinguishing between his on- and off-stage personas. "They long ago accepted the fact that I'm an actor."

Happy days those years as Papa Cunningham on TV in the '70s and '80s. Happy, too, at the bijou; it's been a lifelong love affair with the screen since "Love With the Proper Stranger," in which Bosley made his movie debut opposite Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen 44 years ago.

But the king of kings was his regal stage role as Fiorello.

"For people to still come up to talk to me about it ... " muses Bosley. "Well, it's good so many of them are still alive."

He's been on the side of the angels for ages, but Bosley humbly explains away his part of the Little Flower (Fiorello), which was destined to seed his career: "I was a young actor in the right place at the right time."

That was close to 50 years ago, and no one comes close to paralleling the real New York mayor's life since.

Not even Rudy Giuliani?

"Giuliani was born to act on 9/11," says Bosley, "but he wasn't the greatest mayor. Certainly, he took hold of the reigns, and will always be remembered for that."

But the best? Paper clip the history pages for entries on John Lindsay, says Bosley, who was the late New York mayor's "great friend."

And do the same for news stories on "Paper Clips," the film about the whitebread Whitwell, Tenn., middle-school students whose efforts to collect 6 million paper clips in commemoration of the Six Million Martyrs unexpectedly made millions as a 2004 movie.

Bosley contributed not just clips to the effort but, in a film clip, is seen reading his response to a letter of help sent by the children.

"When I saw the film, I fell apart," says Bosley, whose part in the movie is moving itself. "It was important for me as a Jew to do it; I had lost a great uncle -- whom I never met -- in the Holocaust."

He hopes to meet the "Paper Clips" children and the community soon, as the tour of "Golden Pond" will take him just a lake or two away from Whitwell.

If that movie provides hope, well, Bosley is hopelessly hopeful. How else to explain his role as board member of the Cubs Die-Hard Fan Club?

"Ah," he sighs, sizing up his clueless Cubbies, "we were born losers."

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