Interview: Alan Thicke on how to reinvent yourself for changing times

“Maybe you start talking about one thing, and you walk out with something else. The secret is being there”

Alan Thicke

“I always felt that writing was my true craft and what I could always fall back on.” (Gerrit de Jonge; Mark Davis/Getty)

The perennially popular sitcom legend talks about how to reinvent yourself in a fast-paced industry, learning from failure, and always having a backup plan.

Yours is a career in multiple acts: talk-show host, sitcom legend, composer, author and now reality star. What’s the secret to so much reinvention?

My secret has always been what I call proactive insecurity. If you spend all day in the gym waiting for your agent to call, you could end up waiting for a long time. I’ve always felt that you need to treat your career like a business and, to that end, I’ve had kind of a calling card, which is my writing background. At any given time, I would always have an idea or two to pitch. That would get me into the right offices, and I knew that if I could get in their face, at the very least I’d be on their radar. I got Growing Pains exactly like that. My talk show had just been cancelled, and I went to meet with some executives at ABC to discuss ideas. They were interested, but they had this other show where they were looking for an actor to play the husband and dad.

When God closes a door he opens an illustrious sitcom career.

Exactly. Maybe you go in to talk about one thing, and you walk out with something else. The secret is being there and being open to opportunity. That’s something I get from my dad. He’s a doctor, and then outside of that he is just a very curious guy, a voracious reader, a historian. He instilled the work ethic in us, not only in terms of having a career and making money but also learning things that will enrich your experience and make your day more interesting. Find things that fascinate you and follow up.

You mentioned your late night talk show, which was launched to rival Johnny Carson and is now commonly ranked among the worst shows ever. Do you agree with that assessment?

I do agree. I had done a very successful afternoon talk show in Canada called The Alan Thicke Show, and then when they plucked me to be on TV in the States, they changed it to a nighttime show. Looking back, I can see that my persona and my skill set didn’t lend themselves to late night. That world is for standup comics—the guys who do it are brilliant at it, but I didn’t have that background. I pretty much got what I deserved.

In your defence, going up against Johnny Carson is not exactly an easy fight.

Well, exactly. And the producers and networks went with this whole campaign that we were going to take Johnny on and trounce him. I was never a fan of that approach, especially given that we are talking about one of the most beloved icons in TV history, but that was the one they went with, and it backfired. The public was ready to hate us before we were even on the air, and then, of course, the show wasn’t very good either.

Is this an example of the old adage that you learn more from failures than mistakes?

I think the lesson is about accepting defeat. If you’re playing football and you can’t run up the middle, then you pull the switch and you run around the end. I pulled an end run and went into the sitcom business, which worked out rather well, rather than trying to tell the world that they were wrong and I was right.

Your son Robin was the biggest thing in music a couple of summers back, and now he’s hit a bit of a rough patch. I’m guessing you were able to offer some valuable counsel.

I think I’ve taught all of my kids that you can’t wait for your breaks to come. Robin has had a bit of a roller-coaster this year with a mix of successes and setbacks, but he remains an incredibly talented guy. I told him, just go back to the studio and make more music. Make them dance. Make hits.

Going back to your resumé for a second, a lot of people don’t know that you composed TV theme songs too. Did you ever see music as your calling?

I always felt that writing was my true craft and what I could always fall back on. I’ve had seven Emmy nominations and five were for writing.

Maybe in my twenties I had certain aspirations. But singing was never really low-hanging fruit for me, meaning that I wasn’t particularly good at it. I played in a bar band in Toronto for a year or two after college, and I started to notice that when I would do a song, people would want to chat and have their conversations. It was when I was talking and doing the patter between songs that they would shut up and listen, so I got a sense pretty early of where my strengths were.

Your reality show is called Unusually Thicke. Pun intended, I presume?

I assume so, too. I gave the network about a dozen titles to choose from, and I never thought they would choose the one they did.

You have described the show as Honey Boo Boo meets Larry David. Can you elaborate?

What I mean is that we’re doing a bit of a hybrid format, which is new. We call it a sitcom reality show. My wife and I didn’t want to do the kind of classic reality where people pull each other’s hair and pour wine on each other. There are already people doing that perfectly, so we thought we would do something a little less conflict based. We have a lot of happy endings.

You had an episode where you consider taking a gig as a spokesman for an erectile dysfunction pill. Was that based on real life?

It was. I did get that offer. I turned it down a number of times, and they kept coming back with more money. I was trying to reconcile in my greedy little mind how I could accept this assignment and become the face of penises, but ultimately I wasn’t able to get to that point.

Did someone else end up getting the gig?

The commercial was done by Jimmy Johnson, who is the Super Bowl winning coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

Ha! I guess they were just looking for any old penis pun.

That’s certainly what it seems like.