Eight Was Too Much: The Tragic Legacy of a Hit Sitcom

By John Lavitt 06/13/17

Is Hollywood to blame? For even the healthiest young person, the combination of too much money and too much fame can be toxic.

Cast of Eight is Enough
Many of the child stars of "Eight is Enough" grew up to have problems with addiction or other mental health issues. ABC Network / tv.com

In 1977, NBC introduced the world to “Eight Is Enough,” a dramedy that highlighted the lives of the Bradford family. The televised one-hour weekly series starred actor Dick Van Patten as Tom Bradford, a Sacramento journalist and the patriarch of a family of eight kids. Given the tragic legacy of the show involving the addiction and/or deaths of half of the young actors, there could be an argument that eight was just too much. Four of the actors – Lani O’Grady, Adam Rich, Willie Aames, and Susan Richardson – ended up battling substance use disorders. Lani O’Grady, the wise older sister Mary on the show, died of a drug overdose in 2001. Despite the happy picture of ideal kids in a loving family, what actually happened was much darker than the rosy fiction.

In its five-year run from 1977 to 1981, “Eight Is Enough” was considered perfect for “family viewing.” It was a favorite of parents and kids across the nation, and I remember watching it in the den of our home with my mom and sisters. In June of 2004, the character of Tom Bradford was ranked #33 in TV Guide's list of the 50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time. Although he was a great dad on television, Van Patten could not be father to the young actors that worked on the show.

After his death in 2015, the obituaries of Dick Van Patten celebrated both a good man and a good father in real life. In "Eight Is Enough," Van Patten found a character who embodied many of the values he had tried to pass on to his own children, including actors Vince Van Patten and James Van Patten. In a 1989 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Dick Van Patten expressed how "Tom Bradford is a lot like the real me. He's a man who always put his career second to his family. As long as everything was OK at home, he was OK too."

Although the show was family-centered, drug and alcohol use was not off-limits. In fact, the very first episode told the story of 15-year-old Elizabeth Bradford (Connie Needham) being arrested for narcotics possession. In this rarely shown pilot, Tom and Joan Bradford (Diana Hyland) face the challenge of trying to understand why their child was found with the drugs in her possession.

Given the extreme subject matter of the pilot, you would guess that “Eight Is Enough” continued to examine alcohol and drug use multiple times over its five seasons. However, only two other episodes broached the issues that later would plague several of the young actors. In "Fast and Loose,” David tries to drown out his grief over the loss of a close friend by excessively drinking. He ends up being arrested for getting into a bar fight. Surprisingly, there is no discussion of David having a problem with alcohol.

In the final season, "Jeremy” told the story of a rebellious new member of the Bradford household. Played by Ralph Macchio, the star of the The Karate Kid franchise, Jeremy Andretti is more of a rebel than a drug abuser or a problem drinker. Sure, in the first episode, he drinks a beer and shares a cigarette with Nicholas, but this only adds drama to the story of a rejected kid. Ultimately, the story line is about Tom Bradford accepting an outcast into the family.

It’s doubtful whether more episodes focusing on drug or alcohol abuse would have had any effect on the dark futures of some of the Bradford kids. Before delving into such bleakness, let’s take a closer look at the family that the show was based on. After all, with eight kids in tow, isn’t losing a few to the demons of drug or alcohol abuse a common outcome? Such a question is undermined by the real story behind the series.

Eight Is Enough originally was a popular memoir written by former CIA operative and syndicated newspaper columnist Thomas Braden (1917-2009), a real-life parent with eight children. On a first-name basis with more than a couple of presidents, Braden was one of the original co-hosts of "Crossfire," the topical show that made its debut in 1982.

Together with his wife Joan, Braden brought up his eight kids in Washington, D.C.

In the book, Braden did tell the story of how one of his sons was arrested for marijuana possession as a teenager. This is about as bad as it got with any of the kids. Almost all of his children went on to live productive and fruitful lives. In 1994, a tragedy struck the family when Thomas Braden III, a respected journalist like the father he was named after, was killed in a traffic accident in Colorado, but no drugs or alcohol were involved.

Braden’s surviving children have produced 12 grandchildren while doing well in their respective lives. In reality, eight worked out just fine. If only the odds had played out as well in Hollywood. As we have seen before, the entertainment industry tends to stack the cards against young actors. From “Different Strokes” to “Growing Pains,” the long-term accounts of child stars in Hollywood is a dark volume stained with sad stories. Like many others, the kids from “Eight Is Enough” were not spared.

The latest Bradford child to be highlighted in the tabloid news is Susan Richardson. She also happened to be the first as well. A child actor with parts in the film “American Graffiti” and an episode of “Happy Days,” Richardson had some Hollywood success before the show. Becoming pregnant in between seasons, she ended up giving birth both on the show and in real life. After her pregnancy, a rumor spread that Richardson would lose her job if she did not shed the extra weight. However, she found it difficult to slim down by normal means. Worried about her job security, Susan started using cocaine to curb her appetite. This was the beginning of a long, downward slide.

In 1987, Richardson became the subject of some controversy: She claimed that she had been kidnapped and almost murdered by North Korean filmmakers. With many conflicting reports about the accuracy of her story, people believed her drug problems were to blame. She battled addiction to cocaine and pills for many years, and she did not participate in a 2010 cast reunion.

Today, living in a trailer park in Pennsylvania, Richardson doesn’t own a television or a computer, and she survives on a monthly pension of $2000. The last decade has not been easy. Unable to eat due to a genetic disorder of the esophagus, she gets nutrition through a feeding tube 16 hours a day. Several family members have died from the same disorder. Susan often goes dumpster diving in nearby campgrounds. It’s hard to know how much the drug abuse is to blame, but there is no question that she has fallen far from her days as a child star.

Of all the Bradford children, the most beloved by the audience certainly was Nicholas, the youngest by far. As Nicholas Bradford, Adam Rich became America's little brother. In the late '70s and early '80s, thousands of boys asked for a Nicholas-style haircut, the long bangs framing his winning smile.

After filming the show, Rich starred with Bill Cosby in Disney's paranormal-family-comedy film, The Devil and Max Devlin in 1981. Like many young actors, however, as he grew older, acting parts dried up and the indulgences took hold. The diminutive former child star has become better known for his public struggles with addiction.

Right after the show, Rich began attending Chatsworth High School. According to Rich, he fell in with the wrong crowd and began experimenting with drugs. “I was 15 and realized I had been working most of my life,” he told the LA Daily News. “I felt like I was almost ready to retire, I was so tired.”

Unable to stay sober or stay in school, Rich’s cocaine abuse led directly to well-publicized stints at the Betty Ford Center and other drug rehabilitation programs. The young man almost died of a Valium overdose in 1989. Then, in 1990, Rich was arrested in West Hollywood and charged with drunken driving. In 1991, he was arrested again in Los Angeles and faced criminal charges for trying to steal morphine from a pharmacy in the San Fernando Valley. Rich admitted that the charges stemmed from his addiction to drugs and alcohol. He told the Los Angeles Daily News, “I don't know why this happened, but I know I am sick. I have a disease.”

During this particular run-in with the law, Rich was bailed out of jail by none other than his TV father, Dick Van Patten. Long after traditional family ties had been burnt, Van Patten remained present for the young man. Right after being bailed out, however, Rich found himself in trouble again. The next day he was arrested at a department store for allegedly shoplifting a pair of sunglasses and socks worth $30. He received probation and more rehab that didn’t stick. Highlighted in the tabloids for years, Rich has become a cliché of the revolving doors of treatment centers for actors who can’t seem to find the path to sustainable sobriety.

Outside of his using and rehab stays, Rich is most famous for a 1996 media hoax that claimed he had been murdered by a drug dealer. The story was published in the San Francisco-based magazine Might, with his cooperation. Once the truth came out, it was not received well. Even before this hoax, Rich has never handled his fame well. His former chauffeur Ron Russell relayed a story about the young man exploding at a fan:

"A guy came over to Adam and asked for the time. Adam just lost it. He snapped at him, 'Do I look like a fucking clock? Do I? Am I Big fucking Ben to you?' I was like, whoa, Adam, settle down. I had to hold this guy back from taking a swing at him. I remember Adam just glared at me. He glared, and glared, and glared, and glared, and glared, and -- glared. Then he glared for a few more minutes. Of course, by now the guy was long gone. But it was really weird."

In 2002, Rich was arrested once again for driving under the influence. The most recent news about the former child star tells the sad tale of a penniless and jobless middle-aged man. Now 48, Rich occasionally makes personal appearances at suburban malls. He also markets script ideas for TV shows and films to Hollywood agents and producers. Given the mercurial nature of the entertainment industry, there only remains a distant hope that he could hit it big again.

Rich’s best friend on the show was Willie Aames. Although he has been in over 22 network series, Aames is best known for playing teen idol Tommy Bradford. Later, Aames played Scott Baio's good-natured wingman Buddy Lembeck on the 1980’s television hit series “Charles in Charge.” When he was in his twenties, Willie Aames partied at the Playboy Mansion and lived the clichéd fast life of a Hollywood star.

Cocaine tends to be a financial vacuum, and his money quickly vanished. During this time, Aames also played the lead role of Miles Peterson in the Christianity-espousing Bibleman, a direct-to-video Christian superhero series from 1995 to 2003. Despite working on a show that celebrated the power of faith, he continued the cycle of abuse. And it got progressively worse, year after year. Then a moment of clarity came in 2008.

As he told The Huffington Post, “At the very peak, I was making a little over a million dollars a year. Then suddenly there was no job, no bank account, no wife, no child. I never dreamt it could happen that fast. I found myself virtually homeless. I stayed with friends when I could, slept in parking garages or slept in the park. It was shameful. I remember laying underneath the bushes thinking, ‘Is this how it turns out? Is this how my life really turns out?’”

Aames struggled to find a way out of the hole of addiction. First, he got a lift up when VH1 reality TV producers asked to film his difficulties for a reality exposé that they titled, “Broke and Famous: Willie Aames.” Using the money he earned, Aames embraced the Christian path of recovery. Later, he worked as a Cruise Director for the Oceania cruise line. He enjoyed being of service to the guests and providing smiles. As he told The Huffington Post, he was often recognized by his guests onboard:

“I make a joke now where I say, ‘Hi, I’m your favorite ex-teen idol.’ Being a teen idol or being a heartthrob on all the magazines, with Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett, and Scott Baio –- it was embarrassing! I never understood it. I mean, why me? I never really got it…. This job is about a chance for me to learn about myself, it’s about a chance to help other people, and gain some self-confidence and self-esteem back. Right now, I am enjoying my life in a way that I never expected possible.”

Today, Willie Aames serves as the International Spokesperson and a Creative Advisor for Alzamend Neuro, a company that leads the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease. Aames hopes his celebrity can help raise awareness of the prevalence of the problem and the funding needed to fight the harrowing disease. The actor is using his celebrity to help others in need.

Such a comeback is no longer an option for Lani O’Grady. Popular on the show as Mary Bradford, Lani O’Grady died of a drug overdose on September 25, 2001. The finality of a death involving a drug overdose is difficult to accept. Once the story is over, there is no way to change the ending.

Although she played the self-confident and “together” older sister on the show, in reality, Lani O’Grady had a serious anxiety disorder. Throughout the run, she was plagued by panic attacks. Sometimes she would shake so badly, she couldn't leave her dressing room. Wanting to keep the production on schedule, set doctors fed her a veritable pharmacy of anti-anxiety drugs and mood stabilizers, including Xanax, Valium and Librium. Is it surprising that she ended up becoming a drug addict?

Later, O’Grady went to at least five different rehabs. In 1993, a serious case of agoraphobia kept her a prisoner in her own home. She later said that her body was so toxic from abusing prescription drugs and alcohol that she had almost no memory of this time of isolation.

In 1998, O’Grady checked herself into Thalians Mental Health Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for detox. Addicted to the prescription drug Lorazepam, she was in profound trouble. Known widely by the brand Ativan, the anti-anxiety drug has a known history of being highly addictive.

While in the hospital, O’Grady’s condition worsened. Rather than getting the help she needed, she encountered crisis and more drama. She claimed that she was sexually battered by a medical technician, but there was not enough evidence for the police to get involved at the time. Later, after discharging herself, O’Grady initiated the legal process of suing the hospital. What really happened at Cedars will never be known because the suit was pending at the time of her death.

Just a week shy of her 47th birthday, Lani O’Grady overdosed on prescription drugs at her home in Valencia, California. Her body was found by her neighbors. According to toxicology tests, she had fatal levels of Vicodin and Prozac in her bloodstream.

The tragedy of Lani O’Grady’s death cannot only be encapsulated by the child actor drug abuse phenomenon. Suffering from the co-occurring disorder of anxiety, her problems transcended just the weight of fame. In the cases of Susan Richardson, Adam Rich, and Willie Aames, we find more obvious examples of what childhood stardom does to the young. Fueled by a savage mix of ego and entitlement, it often leads down a path that catastrophically opens the door to addiction and alcoholism.

This is not meant to be a blanket statement. Many young stars have gone on to have amazing lives and productive careers, both in Hollywood and well beyond like Ron Howard and Jody Foster. The stories of the fallen stars remain more popular due to the rubber-necking bent of our popular culture. In the case of Susan Richardson, she also has been battling a genetic disorder that compounded her difficulties. However, her problems began long before the genetic disorder ever surfaced.

For Adam Rich and Willie Aames, it was just too much adulation too young. Both paid a heavy price for early stardom, and Adam Rich continues to pay that price to this day. In contrast, by embracing his own recovery path, Willie Aames has found his way out of the tragic Hollywood pit of discarded young stars. Of all the drug and alcohol casualties among the “Eight Is Enough” kids, his is the story that offers the most hope and redemption for the future.

The final question: Is Hollywood to blame? Eight was too much in reality because eight is enough is a story line that rarely works out well in the limelight. Clearly, this was not the case with Tom Braden’s original family and his eight kids. Rather, when you put eight different young people into a popular television show that becomes a nationwide hit, the odds are not in their favor. The pressures of being a child star lead to a celebrity minefield where many have unsuccessfully tread. Some have come out unscathed, most have moved on to other lives and careers, but still a frightening number have fallen to the temptations and indulgences of popular culture and stardom.

For any human being, too much money and too much fame too young is a danger zone. When it’s combined with slavish followers wanting to bask in the reflection of a child star’s glow and access their financial success, the risk is drastically heightened. Even with a great role model like Dick Van Patten playing their father, the kids on the show were in real life jeopardy from day one. Given the dangers looming around young actors in Hollywood, the fictions they perform most likely will continue to be much sweeter than the hard and random cards of reality dealt to these kids.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.