Over the long weekend, we lost two beloved showbiz figures of the past half century, who couldn’t have been more different but who had something very important in common in their private lives.
One of the most distinctive singers of his generation, B.J. (Billy Joe) Thomas, died Saturday at his home in Arlington, Texas, at 78, after announcing in March that he’d been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
Most remembered for his Oscar-winning hit, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Thomas had a decades-long string of hits in multiple genres. He broke through in 1966 with a cover of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” That was followed by major pop hits like “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” “Don’t Worry, Baby” and “(Hey, Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” (still the longest title of any song to hit the Billboard Hot 100.) In the ‘70s, he released “Home Where I Belong,” the first Christian album to go platinum, and became the top Christian singer of the era. In the ‘80s, he moved into A/C and country with hits like “Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love” and “New Looks from an Old Lover.”
Personal note: my wife and “Huckabee” co-writer Laura Ainsworth and I live very near Arlington and saw Thomas perform at the Arlington Music Hall in 2019 before a packed house. He sounded as great as ever and we planned to see him there again in March 2020. Sadly, that show got canceled due to COVID.
Recommendation: Check out his 2013 album “The Living Room Sessions,” featuring stripped-down versions of his greatest songs with guests like Keb Mo and Vince Gill. It puts a fresh twist on his classics with the focus on his still-fantastic vocals.
Also on Saturday, actor Gavin MacLeod died in Los Angeles at 90.
MacLeod was a struggling working actor for years, playing small roles in dozens of TV shows and movies before finally landing his unexpected breakthrough as wisecracking news writer Murray Slaughter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (his passing leaves Ed Asner and Betty White as the only surviving cast members.)
After that, he became Captain Merrill Stubing on “The Love Boat.” Critics hated it, but audiences loved it. It ran for nine seasons, spawned four specials and made MacLeod an unlikely TV star and spokesman for Princess Cruise Lines. By all accounts, MacLeod was a truly nice guy, very grateful for his success, whose bright smile on TV was genuine.
Obscure Trivia: MacLeod’s baldness, later one of his most famous features, initially kept him from getting roles, so he wore a toupee early on. He originally auditioned for the part of Lou Grant on “MTM” but realized the gruff character was wrong for him and asked to try out for nice guy Murray instead. He also declined to audition for Archie Bunker on “All In The Family” because he just couldn’t say those bigoted lines.
If you want to see him in an atypical mean guy role, check out “The Kill,” the first episode of the great detective series “Peter Gunn” (streaming free on the IMDb TV app), where he plays a ruthless gang boss.
And what did Thomas and MacLeod have in common in real life? Both had addictions (MacLeod to alcohol, Thomas to drugs and alcohol) that nearly destroyed their marriages. But both overcame their addictions and saved their marriages after becoming Christians. Outspoken about their faith, Thomas became the most popular Christian music artist of the ‘70s, and MacLeod and his wife Patti Steele hosted a Christian radio series called “Back on Course: A Ministry for Marriages.”
Our sympathies to their families and condolences to their fans, which includes all of us here.