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Bewitched by a Cause : Dick York Is Dying of Emphysema but He Lives to Help the Homeless

February 08, 1989|BOB SECTER | Times Staff Writer

ROCKFORD, Mich. — In the make-believe world that made Dick York famous, his troubles would have been magically swept away with the twitch of a nose or the wave of a wand.

But no television sitcom medicine can cure what ails York, who played Darrin Stephens, the harried, mortal husband of the comely witch, Samantha, in the hit series "Bewitched" more than two decades ago.

He shook off an addiction to painkillers but could not shake the chronic agony of a crippling spine injury or the aftereffects of a multipack-a-day cigarette habit. Nor could he elude the bank and bill collectors, who foreclosed on his West Covina home and sapped his life savings.

These days, York is broke, bedridden and slowly dying of emphysema. He lives with his wife, Joan, on a $650-a-month Screen Actors Guild pension in the tiny red bungalow near Grand Rapids, Mich., that once belonged to in-laws.

Still, this is not a sad story, because York is not a sad person or one to dwell in self-pity. Exuberant, excited, bursting with energy for someone whose slightest steps send him gasping for air, the 60-year-old actor has found one last part to play--the role of his life--as a one-man clearinghouse for aid to the homeless.

Tethered to an oxygen tank and housebound for months, York spends hours on the phone each day chatting up radio talk show hosts, bureaucrats and just about anybody else who will listen to publicize the plight of street people and scrounge tons of clothes, food and bedding from government supplies.

He may be an invalid in body, but not in spirit.

'Just My Body That's Dying'

"I feel wonderful--it's just my body that's dying," he says with a raspy cackle and that slightly goofy Darrin Stephens grin stretched broad across his face. " . . . You know, three whales get in trouble and people from all over volunteer to help. Wouldn't it be wonderful if one old has-been actor with a hose up his nose could help millions of people?"

Social workers from Detroit to Chicago say York has become a master at cutting bureaucratic mazes to scare up thousands of surplus military- and civilian-issue coats, cots, mattresses, sleeping bags, boots and other supplies long buried, and ripe for the taking, in government warehouses.

"But his greatest contribution is heightening awareness of this problem nationally," said James Nauta, a Salvation Army official based in Grand Rapids. "He's very ill but he finds his way around the country by phone. People listen. When he talks, they respond."

Champion for the downtrodden is a part for which York was typecast. He was a child of the Depression whose family faced a constant struggle to stay off the streets.

He was raised on Chicago's Near North Side in what now is a chic neighborhood of town homes and condominiums but then was mostly tenements. His parents often were out of work and broke. When they did not have the rent--which was often--someone had to stay in the family flat at all times to prevent the landlord from locking everybody else out.

As a boy, York saw his father struggle with other men for food discarded in a garbage can. When he was 11, an infant brother died but the family could not afford to bury him. So York and his father slipped into a graveyard at night and laid the youngster to rest in a coffin crafted from a shoe box.

Despite such hardships, York remembers his childhood as a happy time, influenced most profoundly, odd to say, by something he read in a Tarzan adventure.

"There's Tarzan captured in the land of the Fire Queen and ready to be sacrificed," York recalled. "He's tied up hand and foot and being carried up to the sacrificial altar. He's surrounded by 5,000 of these fierce beast-like characters and a knife is about to be plunged into his heart and somebody says to him, 'My God, Tarzan, why are you smiling?' And Tarzan says, 'Because I'm alive.' "

Besides a cheery personality, York also had a beautiful boy soprano singing voice. A nun at St. Mary of the Lake school sent him to a singing coach, who in turn sent him to the Jack and Jill players, a training school for young radio and stage actors. Through Jack and Jill, he performed in dramas and public service programs on local radio stations. By the time he was 15, York starred in his own network radio show, "That Brewster Boy," on CBS. That was the year he also met Joan, his wife-to-be, another child radio star.

He did thousands of radio shows in Chicago and New York, graduating to television and Broadway, where his credits include "Tea and Sympathy" and "Bus Stop." He also had supporting parts in several films, most notably as the young schoolteacher hounded by religious fundamentalists in "Inherit the Wind" with Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly.

Life-Changing Role

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