Family reunions are all about family history—establishing new memorable events and remembering what makes your family what it is. For Alan Thicke, the actor/composer/talk-show host possibly best known for his role as Dr. Jason Seaver on the 1980s hit sitcom “Growing Pains,” that was exactly the case. For him, a trip with his family to his native Ontario 30 years ago to reconnect with other relatives proved nothing short of a revelation. “That,” he explains, “is when we learned our oldest son, Brennan, had diabetes.”
What a difference a day makes
Being on vacation gave Alan and actress Gloria Loring, who is Brennan’s mother and was then Alan’s wife, plenty of time to spend with their son. “That gift of time let us observe him 24/7 and notice his moods, dietary inclinations, urinary output, etc.,” he says. “We realized something was out of whack.” Brennan was going to the bathroom a lot, yet he wasn’t eating much and was always thirsty.
During the reunion, Alan was chatting with his stepmother about Brennan. “She’s a nurse and told us his symptoms were those of diabetes,” Alan notes. “Those words hit us like a ton of bricks; we worried the rest of the day.” Following a sleepless, tear-filled night, Alan and Gloria took Brennan early the next morning to a local hospital where, despite no family history of diabetes, he was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes (now known as type 1 diabetes). Within hours, the Thickes were on a plane back to Los Angeles.
“We went right to Children’s Hospital, where Brennan spent the next eight days getting his blood sugar and insulin levels under control,” Alan recalls. “That was stressfula nd scary.”
The first few weeks following the diagnosis were rocky. “At first he thought the needles and blood testing were cool, but that novelty wore off quickly,” Alan says. About a month after his diagnosis, Alan says Brennan rebelled. “He refused to take his shot.”
“After hours of cajoling and chasing him around the house I had to pin him to the floor to give him his [insulin] shot. He was kicking and screaming. That likely wouldn’t happen today since insulin-delivery options like insulin pumps now exist. One of those would have made life a lot easier for all of us,” Alan says.
The incident reduced Alan to tears. And in that moment, something “clicked” in Brennan. “He recognized he wasn’t being punished by getting a shot,” the father explains, “and that the shots were hurting me almost as much as they were hurting him. That changed our whole relationship.” Seeing that father and son were going through the diabetes process together, Alan says, helped Brennan accept his condition. “He realized we were a team.”
Raising a child with diabetes also impacted Alan’s parenting strategies. “We coddled and over-protected him. We let him use his diabetes to manipulate situations,” Alan admits. He adds that there are a lot of emotions associated with the diagnosis of diabetes—concern, confusion, frustration, and more—and that they hit them all. But, Alan also is quick to point out that not all the emotions are bad. “A lot of good things have come as a result of Brennan’s diabetes,” such as making Brennan mature beyond his years. “There’s a psychological effect of living with a disease,” says Alan. “Brennan became aware, perhaps earlier in life than most, of his mortality, so he takes advantage of every moment and lives life to the fullest.”
Man in motion
Brennan Thicke, now in his 30s, hasn’t let diabetes slow him down. As a teen, he was a voice actor on the animated “Dennis the Menace” and “MASK,” and was twice nominated for a Young Actor Award. Today, he’s a happily married, busy entrepreneur. He’s also a proud papa. “I was delighted when he made me a grandfather,” beams Alan.
Alan says Brennan’s diabetes has been controlled for years with the help of an insulin pump and good diet. But that doesn’t stop Alan from worrying about his son. “Thankfully, he’s never been brittle; he hasn’t had emergency comas or many visits to the hospital. Even so, he’s my son and I’ll always worry about him.”
Alan traveled a curvy career path. “My father, the doctor, wanted me to become a doctor,” he says, while his mom—whom Alan calls “the rock and roll groupie”—wanted him to play the guitar. Alan’s minister wanted him to have a career in the clergy. “I was involved in church organizations and groups in high school, and I even delivered sermons on Youth Day every year. So, my first year of college, I enrolled in ecumenical school.” However, despite a genuine interest in theology, he didn’t feel dedicated to it and transferred to pre-med. “I studied a lot of things before finally landing in the entertainment industry.”
Bouncing from one potential career to another, including his being a disc jockey, Alan landed a job in 1969 as the co-writer for “The Tommy Hunter Show,” a long-running Canadian musical variety program. Moving on to appear on American TV, he composed the theme songs to iconic shows like “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Wheel of Fortune,” expanding his impressive list of credits. Then in 1983, he entered the late-night-TV wars as host of “Thicke of the Night” before landing on Growing Pains in 1985.
The self-professed “master of B talents”, Alan says he’s done a little bit of a lot of things. “I’ve been lucky enough to do something different every day, to experience just about everything a guy in the business would want to do.” Yet, despite his varied résumé, there’s one thing he hasn’t accomplished: playing right wing for the Montréal Canadiens. “My window of opportunity to play in the NHL is probably closing,” he jokes.