Philly Mag by Don Steinberg
Partridge Family child star. Reality TV train wreck. And now, morning-radio host on WYSP. But through it all, Danny Bonaduce has really just had one role to play.
THERE ARE A handful of recurring themes that crop up during the radio show Danny Bonaduce does every weekday morning on WYSP, and most of them have something to do with his depth of experience in having crappy and painful things happen to him. He has a considerable portfolio to draw upon, but still, he continually searches for new pain, to keep things fresh. It’s the mark of a true pro.
Ten days before his celebrity boxing match against retired baseball player Jose Canseco, Bonaduce is on the air at the WYSP studio in Old City. He’s reading aloud from a contract for the goofball fight — actually, a waiver stating over the course of several paragraphs that he might be maimed or die. “There’s only six things on this … and four of them say death,” he tells listeners before signing the release. A couple of days earlier, he’d found himself ranked number 63 on an Internet list of the 100 people most likely to die in 2009. “It is well researched, it is well written, and it seems like it has some air of accuracy to it,” he reasoned on the air. “When I see that I am number 63, my final thought is I’m just not trying hard enough.”
Bonaduce’s voice is a croak dragged over gravel that’s a cross between standard FM radio jock and Marge Simpson’s sisters Patty and Selma. He stands in front of the microphone (he doesn’t sit during the four-hour show) in a too-small designer t-shirt, snug on a muscled upper body that he has been torturing into shape for two decades, occasionally with the help of steroids. His skin, where there are no tattoos, is red and worn, and around his neck has the texture of an NBA basketball. He wears a goatee and biker boots with three-inch heels. (He stands five-six-and-a-half barefoot.) The back pockets of his slim jeans are hand-
decorated with rhinestone BeDazzlers; a wallet chain loops out from one of them. Hanging on a thin chain around his neck is a human tooth — he knocked it from the mouth of a guy named Johnny Fairplay, a former Survivor contestant who bizarrely jumped on Bonaduce during a 2007 TV awards show. (Bonaduce flipped Fairplay face-first onto the stage; an ensuing lawsuit was dropped.)
On the fingers of his left hand are three enormous silver rings, one of them a raging skull. On Bonaduce’s left wrist is a two-inch-wide black leather watchband. It covers a scar and the tattooed name of a former radio-show sponsor. The watch bears an image of the Virgin Mary, the same picture that’s on his apple-size belt buckle. Yes, Bonaduce looks like a New Hope shopping spree.
He puffs a cigarette, which is actually an electronic device that produces nicotine vapor. He’s quitting real smoking while training for the Canseco fight. These days when he goes to bars, it’s with a strict three-drink limit. He’s been diagnosed more than once as bipolar (“They prescribe Lithium before I sit down”) but isn’t being treated for it pharmaceutically. He’ll tell you he hasn’t even seen cocaine in 20 years (the last time he was arrested on a coke charge was in 1990), though during his heart-crushing 2005-’06 reality TV series Breaking Bonaduce, which chronicled the explosion of his marriage, he abused Vicodin, chugged vodka from the bottle, and injected himself with steroids.
“I don’t think I ever took drugs or drank to mask pain,” he tells me after the morning show ends. “I’m not completely averse to pain. If you live a life with no pain, how do you measure pleasure? You know, I believe it was Socrates who said an unexamined life is not worth living. Well, my life has been examined, and it’s covered in scars, in full steel, titanium and brass.” Here, he gives a tour of the metal inserted into his body to support broken bones.
Danny Bonaduce is a complicated man who wants to be known as a complicated man: as a menace and a mensch; as a black-belt martial artist and a well-read thinker with a library inside his head and an IQ of 156; as a recovering drug addict who’s now hooked on work; as a briefly homeless person and generous millionaire; as a sentimental romantic who, everybody knows, doesn’t give a crap. Or take any. Of course, he really is all of these things.
“If you challenge him, he won’t back down,” says Shila Nathan, one of his on-air sidekicks. “I’ve kicked him in the balls on a dare.”
He became the WYSP morning guy in November, returning to his native Philadelphia, the bad-boy child star turning 50 this year, divorced from an 18-year marriage, with yet another fresh start, a new set of angels watching over him, and a new generation of fans hoping he makes it, or at least flames out as entertainingly as always.
Rewind: Bonaduce is scrutinizing a contract again, but this time it’s not on the radio. It’s in the pilot episode of The Partridge Family, filmed when Danny was nine and aired in the fall of 1970.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kincaid, but naturally I have to look over the fine print. After all, we’ve both agreed that our record will gross millions,” he says. The Partridge Family lasted four seasons, and a generation — the Obama generation, really — had freckled, redheaded Danny Partridge as a TV buddy.
The Bonaduce family had arrived in Hollywood from Broomall when Danny was four. They had deep Philly roots. Bonaduce’s grandfather, Jack Steck, was a TV and radio pioneer at WCAU and WFIL who helped Ed McMahon and Dick Clark get their starts, in the 1950s. One of Steck’s daughters, Jacqueline, taught journalism at Temple for 45 years. His daughter Elizabeth married Joe Bonaduce, who worked at the Philadelphia Zoo. One of Joe’s side gigs was doing kiddie TV shows with animals.
“I think he had a little show called Joe the Zoo Man,” Danny recalls hazily. The world changed when Joe sold a script to The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the family moved to California, where Joe Bonaduce became a prolific sitcom writer. “A goddamn genius,” Danny says. “He was writing One Day at a Time or Good Times — he’d go into the bathroom with a manual typewriter and write Emmy-nominated sitcoms in one sitting.”
But Joe Bonaduce was an angry, violent genius who frequently took it out on his three boys, Danny says. In his 2001 autobiography, Random Acts of Badness, he describes a brawl between his father and his big brother Anthony in which Joe smashed a wooden dining room chair over Anthony’s head, and Anthony responded by handing his father a “dog-with-a-rag-doll type of beating.” Danny, the youngest, seemed to get it less than the others, even though his father once called him “an asshole who got a lucky break that would eventually amount to nothing.”
“Today, they would call it abuse,” Danny says. “When I was a child, I got punched in the face. By a grown man. And you’d go, ‘That is abuse.’ Well, no it’s not. It makes for a very tough grown-up. … I took less than anybody. I moved out very young. Fourteen, 15 years old. I actually asked my dad when he was still healthy why John was his favorite and he beat him the most. And he said, ‘I never liked you enough to hit you.’”
In 2004, Danny was on the air in L.A., and “They came in and told me, ‘When the song is over, just let another song play. Your father has passed away, and you need to go there and collect the body.’ I said, ‘Why? He’s not going anywhere. I’ll finish my shift.’ I always finish my fuckin’ job. And I finished my job, and I went over and got the body.”
Bonaduce will tell you that his descent into death-taunting recklessness after 1974, when The Partridge Family ended, had nothing to do with being a former child star. He’ll point to Ron Howard and Jodie Foster, child actors who grew up well enough adjusted. Of course, they didn’t lose the cheers, and never had to replace the rush with something else. He did try to make it work. He did a Fantasy Island. He was in the movie Corvette Summer in 1978, but was neither shown nor mentioned in the theatrical trailer. In H.O.T.S. (1979), he made out with a sea lion. But acting parts grew scarce, and he did what it took to squeeze cash from his fame.
“Has-been is an interesting occupation,” he says. “Because how many llamas have you ridden? How many times have you been hung on a swing beneath a motorcycle on a high wire? At Christmastime I’d always make money. They’d open a new Kmart in Wichita and put a tree outside, and I’d sit in it and be Danny Partridge in a pear tree for $500.”
By the early 1980s, he was living in his car. In 1985, he was arrested in Los Angeles for cocaine possession, and the National Enquirer bailed him out of jail for a story. In 1988 he was beaten up while naked outside a sleazy motel. In 1991, after a misunderstanding, he was arrested for assaulting a transvestite prostitute in Phoenix. You know, stuff like that.
When radio stations or “Where are they now?” shows put him on the air, he made people smile. It turned out audiences still wanted him, in a role they recognized and one he was born to play: Danny Bonaduce. Back in Philadelphia in 1988, a one-off interview turned into a job as a sidekick on Eagle 106. And his new career began. He did radio in Phoenix, then Philly again, Chicago, Detroit, New York, L.A. He’s been doing it for 20 years now, almost always working more than one job at a time, pitching TV projects, doing appearances. He’s made millions. Which, it turns out, didn’t always make the pain stop.
Reality TV, that gruesome beast hungry for damaged people with a flair for the dramatic, was inevitable for someone so good at playing Danny Bonaduce. He had met Gretchen Hillmer in 1990, and they married on their first date. He knew their marriage was troubled in 2005, when they began taping Breaking Bonaduce for VH1. The program captured the couple’s life with their adorable kids, Isabella and Dante, and their sessions in therapy after Danny had an affair. It’s hard to know how much Reality Show Danny was reality and how much was show. But it was good TV. He was alternately a super-fun dad and loving husband and a jealous, self-destructive maniac. The producers called it a suicide attempt when, in Episode 5, Gretchen and Danny closed the bathroom door to be off-camera and she told him she wanted a divorce. He smashed a disposable razor and slashed his wrist, and blood gushed.
“I was making a point,” he says. “I said, ‘I’ll die without you!’ and slashed across my wrist. I wasn’t trying to die.”
IT WAS MID-AFTERNOON this January in Philadelphia, in the small apartment in Center City that Bonaduce spent the winter sharing with his girlfriend, Amy Railsback.
“Watch this!” Bonaduce said, and he hooked a metal exercise device over a door frame in the narrow hallway and started doing pull-ups. Every time he reached the bottom, Railsback punched him as hard as she could in the stomach.
Bonaduce met Railsback, a 26-year-old former math teacher, in L.A., after it became clear his marriage was ending, he says. She’s never watched Breaking Bonaduce and ignored friends who suggested she was hooking up with a psychopath. “I’ve seen Partridge Family on Nick at Nite,” she says. She handles Bonaduce’s schedule, his finances, his boxing workouts, his heart and soul. “I am aware I need a keeper,” he says. If demons are still driving him, they’re sleeping at the wheel these days.
After firing Kidd Chris last May for broadcasting a moronic racist song, ’YSP was without a morning-show personality, and getting hammered in the ratings by Preston & Steve on WMMR. Bonaduce was doing an afternoon show on KLSX in L.A., and WYSP operations manager Andy Bloom, who in the 1980s helped make ’YSP the first station outside New York to carry Howard Stern, vocalized what everyone in management was thinking: Bring Bonaduce back here to recapture the glory.
For the first four months, he was doing the ’YSP morning show and the L.A. afternoon show, both from here. He’d wake up at 4 a.m. to pound a heavy bag in the basement gym of his apartment building. It was just blocks from the studio, but he’d usually ride his Harley or scooter to work rather than walk. When all’s been said and done — and for him, it pretty much has — Bonaduce may be the most famous person living in Philadelphia, and multiple generations of fans want autographs, camera-phone snaps. There are no quick walks through the city.
After his morning show, he’d work on ideas for the next day, or meet with potential sponsors. Then he’d go home, maybe pitch some reality TV show ideas to producers; he has at least three projects in the works, one of them being Danny 911, in which he’ll arrive at the homes of troubled people and help, like a funhouse-mirror Pat Croce. Then he’d train more and return to the studio before 5 p.m. for the L.A. show.
“He’s just a machine,” says Bloom.
Bonaduce admits, “I found the antidote for all the world’s ills, for me personally: work.” So far, so good.
In February, feeling settled in Philadelphia, he bought a house in Old City. The timing wasn’t perfect; days later, he learned he’d lost his L.A. gig because KLSX switched to an all-music format. But it’s okay; now he has a place for his kids to stay when they visit from California.
Don’t worry for Bonaduce’s public exposure. He says the bigwigs at CBS Radio are hopeful that if he makes his show number one in Philly, they can syndicate it to other markets. And even the Old City house is getting a TV show: One of those cable home-design programs is going to decorate it. Bonaduce’s life in the media is a fine example of using every part of the cow.
BY HIS ESTABLISHED standards, Bonaduce’s potential for pain in a three-minute boxing match against the steroids-tainted 1986 AL Rookie of the Year seems minimal. But for weeks he’s been professing dread, even though Canseco looked like a chump in his only prior celebrity fight, last July, when Channel 10 sportscaster Vai Sikahema, a former Eagle, knocked him out in less than a minute. Bonaduce reckons his own record going into the fight is 12-and-0, including wins over Donny Osmond and Barry Williams (a.k.a. Greg Brady).
The night of the match, at the Ice Works in Aston, the situation is looking bleak for Bonaduce. Canseco unexpectedly has been pounding him with left jabs to the face and rights to the belly. As the bell rings to begin the final one-minute round, Bonaduce rises from his stool and paces a ragged circle around the big guy. Canseco throws a left and a hard right, and Bonaduce is eating leather again. He lowers his head and bull-rushes the bigger man, but celebrity referee Vince Papale separates them, and moments later, Canseco connects with the hardest blow of the fight, a right to Bonaduce’s nose. The crowd roars. Bonaduce takes a deep breath. His nose feels broken. His mouth is full of blood. The bell rings, and it’s over. The judges score it a draw. You were expecting the celebrity fight at the skating rink to have a legitimate decision?
Monday morning, Bonaduce arrives at work with a picture-book black eye. He tells listeners that when he woke up the day after the fight, there was blood all over the sheets: “My bedroom looked like a murder scene.” So there’s plenty to talk about. For all those years, Bonaduce’s act was hurting, and his life was hurting. Ever since his act has been his life, he’s been on a roll.