After acting for nearly 6 decades, Tom Bosley, still had the fire in his belly and twinkle in his eye that he did when he spoke his first lines appearing in a local, Chicago production of Our Town in 1947. But, when personal tragedy struck, Bosley’s zest for life faded. And he found himself in an unexpected place: Deeply depressed.
Hitting the bottom
In 1971, the pieces of Bosley’s life were falling neatly into place. Happily married to dancer, Jane Eliot, a Tony award on his mantle for his starring role in Fiorello!, and a darling daughter, Amy, it seemed the world was his oyster. “Then Jane became ill,” he says, pinpointing the event that shifted his world off its axis. “That was so very hard to come to terms with.”
“Initially, the doctors thought she suffered from epilepsy. After several months, they diagnosed her with a brain tumor,” the Chicago native explains. Months turned into years battling Jane’s illness and watching her deteriorate took an emotional toll on Bosley. “You feel helpless not being able to do anything but watch someone you love fade away,” he says.
It’s hard to imagine the real-life alter-ego of jovial Howard Cunningham, Happy Days’ TV patriarch, losing his zest for life. But four years into the hit show’s 10 year run, that’s exactly what happened in 1978 when Jane succumbed to her tumor after, a 7 year battle. “The years she was sick, and then of course her death, were an especially difficult time in my life, and as a result, I became depressed.”
Bosley says his depression didn’t “just happen.” “It was slow growing, and as she faded, it grew.”
Fueling his depression were feelings of inadequacy. “I had an 11 year old daughter who lost her mother, which meant I was now both mom and dad,” he says. Even though on screen, his character was a role model to a generation of parents and teens, at home, Bosley, then age 51, felt awkward and inept in his role of single dad. “That was a very difficult time because in addition to grieving, I didn’t think I was particularly good at being a stand-in mom or a dad.”
Emerging From the Dark
Luckily, his family, friends and co-workers saw something was wrong. Not allowing him to withdraw or become isolated, he credits his loved ones with helping him through some very dark days.
“They really rallied around me,” he says. “I needed that because I had spent so much time being sad, in the dark, that I needed a hand to pull me out.”
Those shoulders to lean on and sympathetic ears to listen created a safe outlet for me to express my feelings of grief and despair. It’s often easier to talk to people in your family or close circle of friends, than it is to step into a strange doctor’s office and discuss your problems.”
Staying active during the day also helped. “Thank God I was working and busy at the time. That filled a lot of the void and gave me a purpose,” he says.
“My daughter did a lot to pull me through, too. She had such strength at her young age.”
He says he didn’t take anti-depressants, because that wasn’t the standard therapy in the 70’s. “Thankfully, today there are many medications and treatments since depression doesn’t have the negative connotation it did years ago.”
The stereotypes once associated with depression are what spurred Bosley to lend his widely recognizable face and voice to advocating for depression. “Whether you have it, or love someone who does, depression touches everyone’s life in some form or another.”
Today Bosley was actively advocating everyone learn to recognize the signs they – or a loved one – might be depressed. “I’m grateful the people in my life did,” he says.
We’re grateful for your generosity and willingness to share your story, Tom. Rest in peace.