Where coming in second is better than nothing!
Updated on 08/05/2020
Dick Sargent is one of those actors who had roles in almost every major network TV show over the course of his career, which lasted just under 40 years from the 1950s to the 1990s. His resume included appearances or starring roles on Dr. Kildare, Gunsmoke, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Hazel, Wagon Train, The Rat Patrol, I Dream of Jeannie, Love American Style, McMillan & Wife, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Tony Randall Show, Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, The Dukes of Hazard, Vega$, Fantasy Island, Alice, Benson, Diff’rent Strokes, Murder She Wrote, and Columbo. He also starred in numerous stage and screen productions, the most notable being Operation Petticoat alongside Cary Grant and Tony Curtis (along with Dina Merrill, Gavin MacLeod, and Marion Ross all of whom went on to become well-known TV stars in their own rights). For most people however, even if they didn’t know him by name, they certainly knew the character that made him a familiar face for years after. Dick Sargent is known as the second “Darrin” — the second actor to play the role of Darrin Stephens on the once popular American television show Bewitched.
Most youngins’ nowadays probably have never seen the television comedy Bewitched, but over eight seasons from 1964 to 1972 on ABC, it was one of the most widely watched programs on American television and a major pop cultural reference point for several decades after its run had ended. The show was about Darrin and Samantha Stephens, a seemingly typical middle-class married couple who lived in a north-of-the-city New York suburb, but really they weren’t typical at all. Samantha was a witch. Not the flying-broomstick/cooking-children-in-cauldrons kind of witch (in the show, the witch characters decidedly did not approve of that stereotype), but the kind of witch who could make crazy shit happen just by twitching her nose and using magic. As a character Samantha was friendly, intelligent, level-headed, and very much wanted to create a happy home life, which for her husband, didn’t include magic. Elizabeth Montgomery played the part of Samantha was the main star of the show.
Darrin the husband character was a regular middle-class man who worked in advertising at the fictitious firm of McMann & Tate. His only desire was to have a nice, quiet, “normal” home life without any hocus-pocus going on. Whereas most men watching back then and even today would wonder why he was so anti-magic (even when setting aside male-fantasy scenarios), Darrin wanted Samantha to act like a “regular” housewife, a sort of holdover from the 50s with Samantha doing all the housework and cooking like a mortal by hand and not using magic. For the first 6 seasons Dick York very skillfully played the role Darrin and was the audience’s window into Samatha’s witchery. His reactions were often either comically overstated when situations got gnarly, or painfully suppressed for the sake of appearances whenever his wife’s magic got out into the open.
The other major character on the show was Samantha’s mother Endora, who was played brilliantly by Agnes Moorehead. She didn’t initially like Darrin because she didn’t approve of her daughter getting married at what she considered a young age, but then later it was because he was a mortal and she simply didn’t like him. In some ways, you can’t blame her. Having a daughter married to a man who constantly demanded she suppress her special abilities would piss off any parent. Dressed in her groovy bright and flowy clothes, Endora would often use magic to put Darrin in difficult situations, not usually dangerous, but very embarrassing — such as teleporting Darrin in his bedclothes to the lobby of the hotel where he’s staying. She was also very dismissive of Darrin and would willfully mangle his name calling him “Derwood”, “Dagwood”, or “Dorian”.
The way things worked in the world of Bewitched was that there was a secret population of witches and warlocks who rarely let regular “mortals” see their power, except of course Darrin who only found out about his wife’s abilities on his honeymoon in the first episode. His rather inexplicable yet you-kind-of-go-with-it-because-it’s-simply-the-way-his-character-works insistence on Samantha not using her powers served as the main comical drive of the show, because more often than not she had to resort to magic to fix whatever situation they were in, which often times was caused by magic in the first place.
York was fantastic in his role as the befuddled Darrin, but the actor had a difficult time just being on set. Before he ever became Darrin, York had sustained a nasty back injury while filming scene for the movie They Came to Cordura, which was released in 1959. It happened during the second-to-last day of shooting when York as his character was using a railroad handcar — the kind where the driver sort of pumps a see-saw handle up and down to make the car move. York had been using the handcar for scenes and was used to the tension on it, but then at one point while filming he went to pull down on his end of the pump handle but didn’t notice that an extra in the scene was innocently grabbing hold of the other end of the see-saw pump handle to pull himself up. Not expecting the extra resistance, York pulled down hard on the handle ended up tearing a bunch of muscles on the right side of his back.
It was a pretty debilitating injury and almost completely destroyed York’s career. In those days, doctors didn’t have the methods that current doctors do for treating such injuries, which today would include surgery, careful pain management, and many hours of physical therapy. But it being a time when whiskey consumption was still a viable method of pain management and tranquilizers were handed out like Skittles, York’s doctors’ method of treating him was to load him up with painkillers and hope the problem would fix itself.
So while starring on Bewitched, York was in constant pain and needed the help of set designers and prop people to make accessible seats for him to use while onscreen and the help of the writers to come up with stories where York could either be sitting or laying down. Over the years, York’s dependency on painkillers led to an addiction, but he was still able to perform onscreen, and by all accounts was a consummate professional on the Bewitched set.
Disaster struck for York during filming of season 6 in 1969. York fell ill during shooting with flu-like symptoms. He had a fever that shot up to 105°F, and despite it being the middle of summer, he wore a thick coat because of his chills. For 10 days he suffered while taking antibiotics for his sickness in addition to his usual pain pills for his back. Determined to get back to work despite not being back to full health — or at least as close to full health as a guy with a messed up back could have been — York tried to push through his illness. It turned out to be a very bad idea.
While filming a scene that required him to be up on a scaffold under the bright and hot stage lights, the combination of antibiotics, sickness, dehydration, painkillers, and a B-12 shot he got earlier in the day all took a toll on York and feeling lightheaded, he had a crew member help him down. He then ended up having a seizure and collapsed nearly unconscious. While in the hospital recuperating, York reluctantly gave his notice and left the show. For the rest of the season, the remaining episodes were filmed without the Darrin Stephens character.
Instead of cancelling the show, the producers decided to go on and to find a new actor to play Darrin. Luckily for them, they didn’t need to look very far. They simply brought in the guy who had already been cast as Darrin Stephens six years earlier.
Dick Sargent was a well-known actor with a resume filled with film, TV, and stage appearances by the time he took over the role of Darrin Stephens. He was born Richard Stanford Cox in Carmel, CA, in 1930 to parents who were both involved in show business. His mother, Ruth McNaughton whose stage name was “Ruth Powell”, was an actress who had appeared in a handful of silent films, and his father was a manager for several well-known actors and directors, the most notable client having been Douglas Fairbanks.
After graduating from Stanford University where he performed in numerous campus plays, Sargent decided to pursue a career in acting and headed to Hollywood. The young actor scraped by at first doing odd jobs here and there to keep himself fed and off the street before he finally landed his first real gig, which according to Sargent himself, was a small uncredited bit on the Joan Davis Show. Sargent’s second gig was another uncredited role in the movie Prisoner of War, which starred Ronald Reagan.
After a few more gigs along with a couple of dry spells, Sargent began getting regular roles in theater, film, and TV. One of his most significant supporting roles was as Ensign Stovall in the 1959 WWII comedy Operation Petticoat, which starred Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. From there, he went on to have more significant starring and supporting roles. By the time Bewitched came along, Sargent was well-regarded actor, but not necessarily a well-known one.
When Bewitch was originally cast, Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York weren’t actually the first choices for the roles. For the part of Samantha (originally known as “Cassandra” before it was changed), producers wanted actress and singer Tammy Grimes, but she turned them down because she didn’t like the premise of the show. Instead she went and starred in the eponymous The Tammy Grimes Show. The role was then offered to Elizabeth Montgomery, who of course accepted it.
As for Darrin, Dick York wasn’t the producers’ initial choice either. They had in fact chosen Dick Sargent for the role. What happened was that Sargent auditioned for the role but, as he claimed, didn’t hear back from the producers for some time, so instead he took a role on the TV show Broadside instead. Coincidentally, a year later, Sargent ended up playing Tammy Grimes’ twin brother on The Tammy Grimes Show, in roles that were somewhat similar to the ones they were offered on Bewitched.
Next the producers offered the role to actor Richard Crenna who turned it down outright. Finally they went with Dick York. But when it came time to replace York, Sargent was available and this time he signed on.
For the most part, having Sargent join the cast was a good thing all around. Sargent and Montgomery were actually good friends from before, and the producers were fans of his work. The one hold-out was Agnes Moorehead. She had developed a close friendship with York, whom she also viewed as a very professional and talented actor, and did not really take to Sargent when he first arrived. It may have been because he replaced her friend. It may have been because she didn’t think much of him as an actor. Maybe she simply didn’t like him. Her reasons for her hostility toward York’s replacement aren’t fully known, but Sargent for his part had been around long enough to know how personalities onset could be. So he tried to be friendly.
In an interview you can read here, Sargent told the following story about Moorehead:
She was very set in her ways and I had to really make her my friend. About the third or fourth show I was in she said to people in front of me, “They should never meddle with success.” Meaning Dick York should never have been replaced which I thought was a very cruel and unthinking thing to say in front of me. But that was her. She came to rehearsals with a Bible in one hand and her script in the other.
Eventually they became cordial, even friendly toward one another, but that first season together was tough for them both. The good thing for everyone else was that their personal issues never really factored into the work.
Acceptance by Moorehead was the least of Sargent’s problems with the show. Over the next two seasons ratings for the Bewitched dropped precipitously, compelling ABC to cancel the series after its 8th season. Although blame for the failing ratings cannot fall on Sargent alone — some of the plots were weak — his presence never really went over well with audiences who grew so used to the very endearing Dick York. This is a shame because Sargent made a very good as Darrin Stephens in bringing his own style to the part.
It’s interesting that the producers went back to Sargent when they needed a new Darrin especially after York had established such a presence on the show. He and Sargent seemed to have a very different presence onscreen, which didn’t sit well with longtime fans. On the surface they were a couple of 30-something white guys who looked as middle-class as anybody could, but the differences in their subtleties really stick out especially after four seasons of Dick York. For one thing York’s face, specifically his eyes, were more expressive than Sargent’s in certain situations, which helped gave more weight to the moment. When shocked or angry, because of his expressive eyes, York always seemed to add a little bit of fear and exasperation to the expression, whereas Sargent seemed more annoyed and wore a more determined expression. Likely owing to York’s physical limitations, Sargent seemed to use his body a bit more as well, a fact which neither added nor took away from the character, but was simply different.
In terms of chemistry, both seemed to have it with Montgomery, with perhaps York showing a tad bit more affection. However, on body language, Sargent and York both conveyed a level of comfort and familiarity with Montgomery that was essential for the show’s success. It likely helped that Sargent was such good friends with Montgomery beforehand, which is a fair leg up to have since he was coming into the show as a replacement.
Their voice inflections were quite different. York had a higher-pitched nasal sort of yelp that conveyed both stress and exasperation to comedic effect, whereas Sargent had a more neutral-toned, back-of-the-throat slightly breathy tone. Unlike York, whose reaction was the funny bit, Sargent’s reaction was more of a volley back to Montgomery whose own look would become the focus of the comedy.
Probably the biggest difference on appearance alone was that Sargent seemed to look a little more contemporary than York, who still wore his very 50s side-part ‘do, and carried himself a little more elegantly. It probably worked better to have the more conservative-looking York-Darren play opposite the Samantha character; as the times changed and as her hemlines shot up in keeping with those times, it worked for a subtle 50s/60s generational discord and a bit of visual tension, which is always a great thing to have in comedy. Sargent in his portrayal didn’t really bring that vibe, which could have been a conscious choice on the part of the show’s producers and directors.
In the final analysis, one could say that Dick Sargent was possibly the more versatile actor whereas Dick York would more fully occupy the roles for which we was chosen. That statement isn’t so much a value judgement on which actor was better — they were both very very very good and professional in their craft — but more a hypothesis as to why audiences generally preferred York over Sargent.
In his post-Darrin life, Sargent went on to be one of those actors you’d see on a TV show and think, “Hey I’ve seen that guy before!” Take a look at Sargent’s IMDB page and it basically reads like a list of every other primetime show from the 70s and 80s. His versatility, professionalism, and presence made him a go-to guy for whatever most producers needed.
In 1991, a publication called The Star published an article that all but outed Dick Sargent as being gay. The actor had been thinking about coming out for the past few years, but owing to the story and other events of the time, Sargent publicly came out as gay for the first time officially, which was a pretty bold thing to do.
Nowadays, gay actors still face a lot of prejudice but they can still make a living. Back when Sargent came out it was still a big deal and a possible career killer. Growing up in the time he did, depending on where you lived, police would often raid gay bars and nightclubs, arrest people for “lewd” behavior, and then publish their names in local newspapers the next day. Lives were ruined when sexual preferences were made public, which left gay men and women a lot to fear in being outed. Those fears didn’t die easily and even today, despite there being greater tolerance and acceptance of the LGBT community, it is still a difficult thing to do. Sargent himself even mentioned his early struggles with his sexual orientation at Stanford when he tried several times to commit suicide due to the guilt and confusion he felt in being gay. So his coming out was indeed a pretty courageous and inspiring thing to do.
Prior to his coming out, Sargent’s sexual preferences were already known to some in Hollywood, including Elizabeth Montgomery. The two had been good friends even before they worked together on Bewitched, and would often hang out at each others’ houses with their significant others, Montgomery with her husband (Bill Asher who was also a producer on the show) and Sargent with his then long-term partner. As for the rest of the cast, Sargent once said in an interview, “We never talked about it but it was always there.”
Although Sargent was mostly able to live his life, he still went to great lengths to conceal his being gay from the general public. Over the course of his career he would go out of his way to pose in photo-shoots with sexy models to give off a sort of playboy image, and he even made up a fake story about having had failed marriage to a woman.
By the time Sargent came out, he had scaled back his work because of illness, but he was still a working actor. Given his new situation, however, he readily acknowledge that his coming out probably killed his chanced for any more roles.
“I’ll probably never be allowed to play a father symbol again,” he said in 1991. “I’m afraid for my career. I’m probably gonna lose a whole lot of work. . . . I may even have to sell the house someday, but this is more important. I like myself, probably more than I have most of my life.”
Dick Sargent was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1989, and despite treatment, it slowly eroded his health until he died in 1992. Despite rumors at the time to the contrary, he did not have AIDS and was not HIV-positive. He is remembered as an actor who found success over five decades in the business and as a significant figure in LGBT civil rights history. But most of all, he is remembered as an American pop cultural icon for his two seasons as the second Darrin on Bewitched.
Considering the success of the show, and Sargent’s almost having been the “first” Darrin, he likely wondered at certain intervals in his life how different things would have turned out had he taken the Darren role when it was initially offered to him. It seems however that given other issues he faced in life, mainly being a closeted gay man in mid-to-late 20th Century Hollywood, he was able to put it into healthy perspective. In an interview he conducted with Skip Lowe in 1987, Sargent was asked if he had any regrets. His reply:
“I don’t believe in regrets. I think if you don’t learn from everything that happens to you or that you allow to happen to you, then you haven’t progressed. I think you only progress by experience.”