Shut in but Not Shut Off, Actor Dick York Gives the Time He Has Left to the Homeless

updated 03/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

A few miles outside Grand Rapids, Mich., stands a small red house with a flat roof. Inside the cramped living room, a man dressed in a bathrobe, slippers and knee socks talks animatedly while a hose feeds oxygen to his depleted lungs. His tall, once-robust frame is now fragile, the result of a degenerating spine. When he tries to walk, emphysema leaves him breathless after three steps. But when he speaks, it is with a clear, strong and very familiar voice—the voice of Dick York, who played Darrin Stephens, a mortal married to a witch, on the popular '60s sitcom Bewitched.

"Reports are I'm dying," he says. Tethered to a 25-foot oxygen lifeline, York, 60, hasn't been outside since July. Physically, his world—which once included a six-figure income and a house in the Hollywood Hills—has been reduced largely to this green-walled room. And yet, after a 20-year downslide during which he battled an addiction to painkillers, saw the bank foreclose on the apartment building that was his only asset and ended up living on welfare, York is filled with the boundless energy of a man with a cause. Encouraged by Joan, his wife of 37 years, and using his second lifeline—the phone—York has worked furiously to gather aid for the needy.

"There is no program—drug addiction, homelessness—that I would not give whatever I can," says York. "I'm fortunate I still have my voice." He uses that voice, as well as his lingering celebrity, to scare up government surpluses and make radio and talk-show appeals for contributions. "I must be crazy to think that one guy with a hose up his nose, living on a $650-a-month pension in this little house in Michigan, can make a difference," says York, trying to laugh. "But you know, I'm not crazy." As evidence, he describes the 300 sleeping bags he rounded up for the homeless in Chicago and Detroit, the 5,000 cans of grapefruit juice he helped deliver to the Dwelling Place project for the homeless in Grand Rapids, the 12,000 surplus Navy jackets he had shipped to shelters in Chicago.

Homelessness and poverty are more than abstractions to York, who believes the seeds of his acting career were sown during his Depression-era childhood in Chicago. "You had to be an actor growing up then," he says. "You didn't want your parents to know you knew your toys were secondhand." His parents, Bernard, a sometime salesman, and Betty, a seamstress, acted too, telling him they had eaten when York knew they hadn't.

Ultimately, York's skill in performance paid off. After a parochial school nun spotted his talent and sent him off for coaching, York earned the starring role on an NBC radio show, That Brewster Boy, at age 15. That same year he met Joan Alt, then 12 and also a radio star. Seven years later, after York had moved to New York City and landed work on radio soaps, including Young Dr. Malone, he wrote to the girl he calls Joey and asked her to marry him.

His ingenuous stage presence soon propelled him onto Broadway. He played in Tea and Sympathy with Deborah Kerr in 1953 and in Bus Stop opposite Kim Stanley two years later. He still remembers the day Paul Newman boarded the same subway car: "He told me it wasn't going in his direction, but he wanted to tell me how great I was in Tea and Sympathy."

Columbia Pictures agreed and signed him to a contract. "It was the days of the big studios," says York. "Opulence, huge parties. I remember Rita Hayworth playing Spanish guitar in a hotel room." But a scene on the set of the 1959 Gary Cooper film They Came to Cordura proved his undoing. One of several actors required to operate a railroad handcar, York didn't stop fast enough when the director yelled "Cut!" and ended up lifting the heavy pump handle alone, injuring his spine. It was the beginning of the debilitating back pain he endures to this day.

From 1964 to 1969, York played straight man to his TV wife, Elizabeth Montgomery, and his witchy TV in-laws. In 1968 he won an Emmy nomination for Bewitched, but on the night of the awards York stayed home. "It was more fun sitting and watching it on TV with our five kids," he says. By that time Dick and Joan had settled into a comfortable life with their children, Kim, now 36, Amanda, 34, Stacie, 33, Chris, 29, and Matthew, 28.

What his role on Bewitched lacked in prestige, it made up in steady money—up to $4,000 an episode—and in the company of an accomplished cast. Still, long days on the set exacerbated his back pain. "I had a board in my trailer where I would flatten out," he says. "And on the set the crew would help me. They would plant someone on the other side of a door in case it was too heavy for me to open by myself."

At home, York took whatever medication doctors prescribed—muscle relaxants, codeine, sleeping pills. Though he stresses he never took drugs while working, by 1968 he was addicted. His dependency became critical in 1969, when he passed out on the set. Up until then, recalls Bewitched producer Bill Asher, "I persisted in keeping him because he was the best actor for the part. He had a wonderfully facile face—that's what you need if you're going to be married to a witch. But there came a point when he couldn't go on." In the series' sixth year, he was replaced by Dick Sargent.

York spent the next 18 months at home, continuing the medication. Though Joan worried about his health, he held out until 1971, when he decided lo quit cold turkey and moved in temporarily with his mother in Buena Park to spare his family the horror of watching his withdrawal.

He could not spare them the economic realities. His salary was gone, and his contract called for only limited residuals. "I was free, broke and with no hope of ever going back into show business," he says. "But we had bought an apartment building in Covina and figured that would sustain us." Instead, the bank fore-closed. At first, Dick and Joan cleaned other apartments as a way of keeping their own. "We did what we had to," he says. By 1976, the Yorks were on welfare.

Over the next decade, the family subsisted on a combination of welfare and unemployment checks, loans from friends and family and help from their son Chris, who worked as a waiter. In the early '80s, York managed to snare some minor TV roles. Then, in 1986, following the death of Joan's father, the Yorks moved to Rockford, Mich., to care for Joan's mother. After she died last year, they decided to stay on at her house. By then York, a three-pack-a-day smoker, had developed emphysema. His spinal problems had reduced his height by three inches, and as he approached 60 he looked considerably older. There was no chance of a comeback, but York was restless to do something constructive.

These days Dick serves as a one-man clearinghouse for food, clothing, sleeping bags. A night person, he begins his work around 5 P.M., calling upon a coast-to-coast army of radio hosts and their listeners to drum up donations. "Dick has released a lot of resources," says Greg Robinson, a social worker for the Dwelling Place. "He's very energetic."

He is also content, say the Yorks. "There is no difference in how things are today from when we were in Hollywood," says Joan. "It's all been thrilling, and it still is. They say the show goes on. It just may be a different performance." Though their kids have scattered, Dick says he feels the warmth of their support. "My dad helped people his whole life," says son Matthew, who now lives in Covina, Calif. "I wouldn't expect anything else from him." Looking back, Matthew adds, "Our poorest time financially was our richest in love."

"I don't love things," Dick explains. "A flower, the sky, people—they're different. But I don't have strong ties to my grandmother's teacup." Or to anyone else's teacups or blankets or boots—all the worldly goods he passes on to the needy. "I don't know how I do it," he admits. "It just gets done. I have one rule: Don't give me anything you don't want me to give away."

—Tim Allis, and Maria Leonhauser in Rockford

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