In the two days before he died, Bessell, 61, who had no history of heart trouble, went twice to the emergency room of a Santa Monica hospital, complaining of chest pains. Twice, a private physician diagnosed anxiety, for which he was given tranquilizers and sent home. On Saturday night, Oct. 5, Bessell collapsed in his Bel Air home and was rushed to the UCLA Medical Center, accompanied by his wife of 14 years, Linnell, and their daughters, Sarah, 12, and Mary, 11. Doctors couldn't revive him, and he died early Sunday morning.
Mario Thomas, who was preparing to cohost a tribute to That Girl with Bessell at the Museum of Television & Radio in Los Angeles last week, remembers him as a poet and prankster who was above all a caring friend. "When my father died, he drove me around L.A. for days, talking to me while I cried," she recalls. "The minute you needed him, he just showed up, like an angel."
In fact, the Queens, N.Y.-born Bessell briefly considered becoming a priest before turning to acting. He was among TV's most popular male stars during his That Girl run but spent the '70s in a series of dead-end roles, including the ill-fated Me and the Chimp. Nor was his private life trouble-free. Bessell had divorced his first wife in the 1960s, and in 1988, Linnell, an abstract artist, waged an ultimately successful battle with cervical cancer.
Bessell's transition to directing proved professionally fulfilling, but it didn't rid him of the acting bug. "He had a dream that we would do That Girl today," says Thomas. "We were talking about it in the last couple of weeks. We could meet again, fall in love, end up together—That Girl would become That Woman. I'm so sorry we didn't get the chance to do it again."