I was sitting in a Panera in Nashville this past February when I received a phone call from a blocked number. I eyed it suspiciously. Earlier in the day, I had talked to “Growing Pains” star Joanna Kerns for a story about Leonardo DiCaprio’s humble beginnings, which included a stint on the 1980s sitcom. At one point, she paused.
“You know who you should really talk to?” Kerns asked. “Alan.”
Alan Thicke, of course, played Dr. Jason Seaver on the show, husband to Kerns’s character, Maggie. But I was on a tight deadline and doubted I could get Thicke on the phone so quickly. Still, I sent a brief email to Thicke’s manager explaining my interview request.
About two hours later, just as I settled into a table at Panera during a break from a work conference, my phone rang. When I answered, a jovial voice boomed through the speaker: “This is Alan Thicke.”
After news broke on Tuesday night that Thicke died at age 69, the tributes rolled in almost immediately. It’s clear he was beloved by many in Hollywood, and even after only talking to him for a 15-minute phone call, I got a glimpse of why. Not only was he a mix of charming and self-effacing, but his DiCaprio stories were so good that he gave me my opening anecdote and the kicker for my article. Months later, I still vividly remember the conversation – and here’s what stood out:
– The dad jokes.
Thicke has three kids of his own and played one of America’s most famous dads – and, fittingly, the dad jokes flew during our conversation. He spoke glowingly about DiCaprio, who starred on “Growing Pains” in 1991 as a homeless teen taken in by Thicke’s character’s family.
“As far as what I taught him about acting … I can teach Leo (as much) about as acting as I can teach Robin Thicke about making big hit records!” Thicke said, referencing his son, also known as the “Blurred Lines” singer. Though Thicke actually is a musician, he joked that the most valuable contribution he made to his son’s music career was to “fill out the publishing forms.”
Of course, Thicke added, he had more acting advice for Leo, the future “Titanic” star: “Want a tip? Get on a ship!”
– He and DiCaprio kept in touch.
Thicke said his sons Robin and Brennan used to come visit the “Growing Pains” set, and since they were around the same age as DiCaprio, they became friends. Years later, they all ended up living in the same neighborhood. “When I see Leo now, it’s usually at some rager that my son is throwing,” Thicke said. “We’ve all come kind of full circle that way.”
– He had great DiCaprio stories.
Thicke said DiCaprio is secretly hilarious. “I do believe the world hasn’t seen just how funny he can be,” Thicke said. “I’m anxious to see him in a movie with Will Ferrell or Chris Rock.”
He also recalled the time that DiCaprio saw a cute girl on set, but was too nervous to approach her. He asked Thicke, “How do I get her number?” Thicke helpfully pointed out that the wardrobe department posted everyone’s contact information on the wall (in case of wardrobe emergency). “I was very helpful that way. I’m sure he feels he owes most of his adult social life to that tip,” Thicke said with a laugh.
– He was candid.
As our conversation wrapped up, Thicke emphasized that DiCaprio, despite anything people might read in the press, is a stand-up guy. “He’s socially conscious, he’s a crusader for things he believes in, he puts his money where his mouth is,” Thicke ticked off. “He’s the real thing.” Plus, he added, if DiCaprio ever heard that a “Growing Pains” cast member was going through something difficult, he would always call and ask how he could help.
Thicke was also quite blunt – unusual for an interview with a celebrity. “Frankly, there are some young turds in the business,” Thicke said. “You kind of know who you want to root for. Leo is one of those guys everyone rooted for.”
On Wednesday afternoon, DiCaprio posted a tribute to Thicke on Facebook:
“Alan was a devoted father, husband, friend and role model. He knew how to harness the power of the entertainment industry to be a positive influence in so many lives – including mine. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity I had to work with Alan early in my career. He had tremendous class, a huge heart, and he taught me and so many others the valuable lessons about humility and gratitude. I’ve seen him a number of times over the years and when Alan Thicke walked in the room, quite frankly, no one was cooler. I miss him already – my thoughts and prayers are with the entire Thicke family during this difficult time.”