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Published: Monday, 8/16/2004

Van Patten enjoys life at the track


If Paris Hilton can earn a series for her misadventures, why can't television's beloved old stars share their colorful lives in a show? After all, they've provided years of entertainment, a feat beyond Hilton's grasp. We won't always have this Paris.

The cable channel TV Land is giving veteran actors their close-ups in the reality series Living in TV Land. Tomorrow's premiere at 10 p.m. focuses on Dick Van Patten, who's zanier than the father he played on Eight Is Enough from 1977 to 1981.

Van Patten is such a dynamic, competitive figure at 75 that he launches Living in TV Land with gusto. He loves to bet on horses, take cold swims, clown around the house, and play tennis badly but boldly. He brings out tart but admiring observations from his actor sons Vincent, Nels and Jimmy.

Living in TV Land offers good-natured stargazing, what you would expect from a channel devoted to vintage reruns. At a celebrity poker tournament, the program finds a bonanza of TV veterans, notably David Groh of Rhoda, Connie Stevens of Hawaiian Eye, Charlene Tilton of Dallas, Barry Williams of The Brady Bunch, Dom DeLuise, and Mickey Rooney.

The opener is so entertaining that you'll wonder about the next installment. Unfortunately, TV Land doesn't know when we'll see it or which performer will take center screen. But the Van Patten episode confirms that Living in TV Land can work.

Van Patten lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif., so he can be near the Santa Anita and Hollywood Park racetracks. He started going to the track at 14, giving his bets to adults to place.

He's such a determined gambler that he talked his bride, Pat, into cashing a wedding present of bonds so he could bet on a horse. Forty-nine years later, she can laugh about the loss, a big setback to a couple starting out.

When Van Patten goes to the track these days, he can be in the company of pals Jack Klugman and Tim Conway. Their exuberant camaraderie will amuse TV buffs. "Nobody bets as much as Dick bets," Conway says.

At home, the Van Patten sons are happy to tell stories on a father they obviously love despite his wacky ways. Their father was such an advocate of cold showers that Vincent says he didn't take a hot one until he was 22.

A doubles tennis match pits Nels and Alan Thicke of Growing Pains against Van Patten and Bernie Kopell of The Love Boat. Van Patten doesn't play tennis in a manner you would expect from a revered TV dad.

"He's the worst player, but he knows how to win," Nels says. "He's crafty."

There's more stargazing at a family dinner. One daughter-in-law is Eileen Davidson of The Young and the Restless. Another is Nancy Valen, who appeared on Baywatch.

There's such affection in the family scenes that you realize that playing a TV father wasn't much of a stretch for Van Patten. And that the Hollywood community, so often knocked for being out of sync on family values, obviously is home to some loving clans.

That the Van Pattens' story plays out at a poker tournament adds another delightful wrinkle to Living in TV Land. Now that's entertainment. Maybe more reality series should put professionals in front of the cameras.

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