That Guy, Ted Bessell
Like many actors who get a taste of fame, Ted Bessell cherished and resented the very thing that brought him good fortune. Between 1966 and ’71, America knew Bessell — who collapsed from an aortic aneurysm in L.A. Oct. 6 at 61 — as Donald Hollinger, the buttoned-up, safe-as-milk magazine exec who courted Marlo Thomas through five seasons of That Girl. ”Our show was called That Girl, but we all knew that guy was half the success,” Thomas says. ”I loved him, and I will miss him for the rest of my life.”
For much of his life, however, Bessell — the father of two — battled his tweedy bit of typecasting. ”Donald Hollinger made me a name but took away what was the heart of me,” he told People in 1989, dismissing the role as ”an imposition on my creative needs.” For years the New York-born, theater-bred Bessell strived to portray anything but Milquetoasts. He hobnobbed with an ape in 1972’s Me and the Chimp; he played a philandering heel in 1980’s Good Time Harry, which NBC yanked after five episodes. Ironically, he scored his biggest burst of post-Marlo fame in the final season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, playing the beau to yet another spunky woman.
By his 50s Bessell had switched gears again. He shared in an Emmy for producing The Tracey Ullman Show in 1989. ”He never let me make a fake move,” Ullman recalls. ”He was truly an actor’s director.” And when he died — just five days before an all-star tribute to That Girl at L.A.’s Museum of Television and Radio Oct. 11 — the edgy, energetic entertainer was moving forward by reaching back into Nick at Nite nostalgia. Bessell had been tapped to direct a silver-screen version of TV’s Bewitched. That project may now be in limbo, but Bessell’s legacy is not. Says Penny Marshall, a longtime friend who was producing Bewitched, ”Even though his name didn’t appear on film, he was a great force behind a lot of creative people.”