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Ted Bessell – A Career Tragically Cut Short

Howard Weston Bessell Jr – or Ted, as he was known in Hollywood, is best known for playing Donald Hollinger in the ABC sitcom That Girl. His story is one that is not only touching and inspiring but also equally tragic. He died much too young, cutting his successful career shorter than it should have been.

It’s been more than two decades since his death, but Bessell still lives on in our collective memory. One can only wonder what he would have been able to accomplish if he had lived to this day. Unfortunately, we will never know what Bessels full potential could have been, but we can take a look back at his life and pay our respects.

We’re going to look at how his career took shape, how he found fame on That Girl as ‘That Guy’, and how his life was ultimately snuffed out much too soon. So make sure you stick around to see how this incredibly talented actor managed to rise to fame and win the hearts and minds of audiences across the country.

If we have time, we’ll also touch on some of the little-known facts about That Girl – the show that made him a household name.

Who Was Ted Bessell?

Ted’s story is definitely one that is worth telling. He might not have achieved the same kind of fame as some of his contemporaries like Dick Van Dyke or Jackie Gleason, but he was without a doubt just as talented and his influence is something that deserves recognition.

Bessell was born in Flushing, New York on March 20, 1935. His father’s name was Buster and his mother went by Jo. Ted grew up in Long Island in a small hamlet town called Manhasset.

When he was a child, he displayed a great deal of interest in music. He aspired to pursue a career in classical music and he had the natural aptitude to do so. Many described him as a prodigy of sorts. At the age of 12, he was privileged to play a recital at the world-famous Carnegie Hall.

While in High School, Bessell took an interest in sports. He played in his school’s Lacrosse team alongside future Cleveland Brown’s fullback Jim Brown – an athlete that is often referred to as one of the greatest football players of all time.

After graduating from high school he went on to attend Georgetown University and The University of Colorado. It was during this period of his life that Bessell realized that he wanted to focus his studies on acting instead.

Getting His Foot In The Door

He got the opportunity to study under the much-applauded and visionary acting teacher Sanford Meisner at New York’s prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. Other notable alumni of that celebrated school include Jeff Goldblum, Burt Reynolds, and James Caan.

It’s pretty clear that being accepted into the Neighborhood Playhouse was Bessell’s first major break in the world of acting. Attending a school like that – one that pumps out star after star – is perhaps one of the best ways for an aspiring actor to pad their resume and make the needed connections to start climbing the Hollywood ladder.

Bessell also got the opportunity around this time to study dance and dramatic movement with Martha Graham – who’s Graham technique helped reshape American dance and is still widely taught today – and Louis Horst – a trailblazing choreographer whose contributions to the world of dance are unmistakable.

Additionally. He got to work with the legendary Wynn Handman in another professional acting club that he was a member of.

Simply put, Bessell not only had the innate natural ability to be a gifted actor but he also received the education and network connections required for him to have a viable path to success in the entertainment industry.

His first job in television was working as a page for ABC New York. It might not have been a glamorous job, but it was at least a foot in the door – and plus, he needed some kind of income at the time. A man’s got to eat.

While working as a page, he got the chance to appear on the game show Who Do You Trust?, where he got acquainted with Johnny Carson. He also got the oppurtunity to work on The Dick Clark show – a variety show that aired on Saturday evenings and featured the top rock and roll acts of the day.

He also acted in and directed various stage plays for summer stock theater including the works of Shakespeare and multiple Jule Styne musicals. It was then that he was cast into his first off-Broadway production, The Power of Darkness. He subsequently worked with the Blackfriars Guild on several other productions.

When Bessell went to LA for the production of Thomas Wolfe’s coming-of-age tale Look Homeward, Angel: A Story oF The Buried Life, he received the praise of delighted critics. He followed that up with small parts in the films The Outsider and Lover Come Back.

Bessell’s Career Continues To Take Shape

Yes, Bessell was starting to make a name for himself. Not only was he recognized for his work as an actor and director, but he now had successfully made the leap to film. His career certainly was beginning to look mighty promising. Bessell unquestionably was playing his cards right.

If you’re going to pursue a career in show business, you must establish yourself as being versatile. Nobody want’s a one-trick pony. Fortunately, Bessell was a man of many talents, and the world was starting to take notice.

In 1962, he served as Assistant Director for the private detective mystery series Checkmate which starred Anthony George and Doug McClure.

Also in 1962, Bessell played Tom-Tom DeWitt, a college student in his late twenties, in the NBC comedy series It’s a Man’s World. The show only ran for 1 season, but it showed that Bessell was capable of shining on the television screen.

His next major appearance on TV was in an episode of 12 O’Clock High in 1965. The following year, he became a regular on Aaron Ruben’s Andy Griffith spin-off Gomer Pyle USMC as Private First Class Francis ‘Frankie’ Lombardi. His character served under Sergeant Carter ,was best friends to Private Duke Slater, and was one of Gomer’s closest confidants.

It was also in 1965 that Bessell played the role of Lt. Wilbur Harkness in the film McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force. In 1967, he played a gypsy prince in the Oz-inspired Off to See The Wizard TV series. He played Axell Magee in 1969’s Don’t Drink The Water, and Roger Bowen in Love, American Style

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That Girl

In 1965, Bessell landed the biggest role of his career in the ABC series That Girl. He played Donald Hollinger, Marlo Thomas’s love interest and fiance. That sitcom ran for five seasons and 136 episodes.

Marlo Thomas played Ann Marie, a youthful aspiring actress who moves to the Big Apple to try and find success. Ann has to take on odd jobs to put food on the table and pay the bills in between her numerous auditions and small roles.

Bessell’s character Donald was a writer for the fictional Newsview Magazine.

That Girl was one of the very first TV shows to feature a single woman pursuing her career as opposed to just being a housewife. In many ways, the show foreshadowed the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was an early indicator that women’s roles in American were shifting.

Marlo’s endearing humor and charm meshed perfectly with Bessell’s dry wit. Even though the show never topped the charts, it was a very solid performer for the 5 years that it was on the air.

That Girl’s Working Tile Was Something Entirely Differentiating

Initially, producers of the series wanted to title it, Ms. Independent. The title had special meaning to Thomas as it was the nickname that her father, Danny Thomas, gave her when she was younger.

Danny was best known for starring in Make Room For Daddy and had a thriving career as a stand-up comedian he also served as one of That Girl’s executive producers.

The original title definitely fit Thomas’s character but the network instead opted for a title that would be less likely to stir up controversy. America wasn’t quite ready for the feminist wave that was soon to come.

Thomas Fought To Keep Marriage Out of the Show

The network and primary corporate sponsor, Clairol cosmetics, were pushing to have Ann Marie marry her boyfriend Donald Hollinger.

As the series came to an end, Thomas fought tooth-and-nail, for her and Bessell’s character to not get married. She compromised, albeit reluctantly, by agreeing to the couple getting engaged, but she refused to take part in an on-screen wedding.

She felt like it would be a betrayal to the younger female fans of the show that had connected with Thomas’ independence. She didn’t want the show to imply that the only happy ending that a woman could achieve was by marriage.

A reunion series was actually planned for 1996 where Donald and Ann Marie would reunite decades later having never wed but unfortunately, Bessell would pass away before it could ever be filmed.

Bessell’s Death

After That Girl wrapped up in 1971, Bessell had numerous small roles in shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Good Time Harry, and Hail to the Chief. He never achieved the same kind of success that he found on That Girl and felt somewhat typecast as his Hollinger persona.

In 1989, he made the jump from acting to directing when taking the reins of The Tracey Ullman Show. That would prove to be his last major credit before his passing.

On October 6, 1996, Bessell suddenly and shockingly died. The cause of death was aortic aneurysm. It is believed that he was 61 years old when he passed although curiously some news reports at the time cited his age as 57.

Bessell was working on a film adaptation of Bewitched at the time and high hopes of continuing his career as a film director. He no doubt could have gone far. It looked like his career was on the verge of a revival, but we may never know what he might have been able to accomplish if he had survived for another decade or two.

Do you think Bessell would have gone on to find more success if he hadn’t died when he did or do you think That Girl was the peak of his career? Let us know what you think in the comments section and before you go, make sure you give this video a like and subscribe to our channel if you haven’t already.

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