A star of stage and television for over two decades, actor Jack Cassidy embodied the vainglorious, self-absorbed side of his profession in a series of Tony-winning and Emmy-nominated turns that made him a much-loved performer until his tragic death. Cassidy's rich, mellifluous voice and fair-haired good looks made him a popular leading man on Broadway in the late 1940s and early '50s, where he met his first wife, dancer Evelyn Ward, who would give birth to their son, future pop star David Cassidy. While appearing in a production of "Oklahoma!" Cassidy met Shirley Jones, who became his second wife and mother to sons Shaun, Patrick and Ryan, who would all follow in their parents' showbiz footsteps. Television gave Cassidy his biggest showcase, and he would net an Emmy nod for his turn as an egotistical actor on the critically acclaimed "He & She" (CBS, 1967-68). His performance set the tone for future, more substantive roles in features and television, though personal problems, including bouts with alcoholism and mental illness, began to erode his career in the mid-1970s. Cassidy remained active on the small screen until late 1976, when a fire in his West Hollywood apartment claimed his life. He left behind an acclaimed body of work in three mediums, as well as a cache of amusing and accomplished performances that underscored his status as one of the busiest and most appreciated actors of his generation.
Born John Joseph Cassidy on March 5, 1927 in Richmond Hill, NY, Jack Cassidy was one of five children born to immigrants William Cassidy, who hailed from Ireland, and his German wife, Charlotte. Like many children of the Depression, Cassidy spent his formative years working in a variety of menial labor jobs to help support his large family. But he developed an interest in performing from an uncle who had been a circus contortionist, and by his mid-teens, Cassidy had made his Broadway debut as a member of the chorus in the Cole Porter musical "Something for the Boys" (1943). Larger supporting roles on stage preceded his marriage to dancer-choreographer Evelyn Ward, with whom he had a son, David, in 1950. Three years later, Cassidy made his debut as a leading man in the Tony-winning musical "Wish You Were Here" (1953), which was soon followed by a star-making turn as an Irish immigrant in the play "Sandhog" (1954). Blessed with matinee idol looks and a rich, baritone voice, he was a leading man of choice for high-profile musicals, including a 1955 State Department European tour of "Oklahoma!" which cast him opposite a young actress named Shirley Jones. The pair soon fell in love, and after divorcing Ward, Cassidy asked Jones to marry him between acts of a 1956 production of "The Beggar's Opera." Their first son, Shaun, was born in 1958, shortly before Cassidy reprised his turn in "Wish You Were Here" for a 1959 production co-starring Jones. The couple would produce two more sons, Patrick and Ryan, all of whom would pursue entertainment careers to varying degrees of success in the 1970s and beyond.
By this time, he had also begun to make forays into television, most notably in live anthologies before becoming a staple of episodic series. Cassidy's theatrical demeanor made him ideal for urbane, larger-than-life personas, especially those with a highly inflated ego. He had begun playing such roles on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor as a suave ladies' man in "She Loves Me" (1963), and would continue to reap Tony nods for similar roles in "Fade Out/Fade In" (1964), as a jealous columnist who vied with Clark Kent for the hand of Lois Lane in "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman" (1966) and later as a roguish Irish actor opposite Jones in "Maggie Jones" (1969), which won him his second Tony Award. On television, Cassidy earned an Emmy nomination for "He & She" as a supremely self-confident actor in a fictional television series who made life miserable for Richard Benjamin, who had created the cartoon on which the program was based, and his wife, played by Benjamin's real-life spouse, Paula Prentiss. The role and his screen persona would later inspire the creators of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS, 1970-1977) to fashion the character of vain TV announcer Ted Baxter with Cassidy in mind. He turned down the role, which gave veteran actor Ted Knight with a sizable career boost, though he would play Baxter's equally vain brother in a 1971 episode of the series.
A second Emmy nod came for a dramatic turn in George C. Scott's TV-movie adaptation of "The Andersonville Trial" (PBS, 1971). The high-profile honors gave Cassidy's screen career a boost, which he parlayed into appearances in feature films like "The Eiger Sanction" (1975), which cast him as the main villain opposite Clint Eastwood, and "W.C. and Me" (1976), in which he played another highly theatrical stage performer, the legendary John Barrymore. During this period, he also enjoyed leading roles on television, most notably as a disfigured actor plaguing a venerable film studio in "The Phantom of Hollywood" (CBS, 1974) and several "Columbo" (NBC, 1968-1978/CBS, 1989-2003), in which he matched wits with Peter Falk's rumpled but shrewd detective. He also enjoyed a successful run as a nightclub performer in a musical show with Jones called "The Marriage Band" (1972). But Cassidy's rise in popularity also coincided with the emergence of several serious problems that would undo both his career and personal life.
He was an unchecked alcoholic who displayed increasingly odd behavior in public, including a 1974 incident in which neighbors discovered him watering his front lawn while fully naked. A similar incident, in which Jones claimed that Cassidy had proclaimed himself Jesus Christ, led to a 1974 hospitalization in a psychiatric facility for bipolar disorder. Jones filed for divorce that same year, though Cassidy would frequently express remorse for the split in subsequent interviews. During this period, Cassidy's sons, David and Shaun, had also vaulted to the top of their professions as pop stars and TV performers on "The Partridge Family" (ABC, 1970-74) and "The Hardy Boys Mysteries" (ABC, 1977-79), while the momentum generated by his early '70s roles had begun to wane. However, he remained active on television until 1976, when he died in a fire that broke out in his top floor apartment in a West Hollywood, CA building he owned. Cassidy had returned to his apartment in the early morning hours and fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand, which set fire to his couch and eventually the entire apartment. His charred remains were found near the front door of the apartment, where it was assumed that he had attempted to escape before succumbing to lack of oxygen and thermal burns. In 2005, Cassidy was posthumously approved for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which required fundraising efforts to complete.
By Paul Gaita