The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Dick York

As an all-around actor and entertainer, Dick York exemplified what it meant to have a multidisciplinary job in the entertainment industry. He once acted in theatre and film, and even did radio. But York was best known to many for his role in the 1960s television sitcom "Bewitched." The hit series is ranked as one of the funniest American sitcoms of all time (per Ranker), and it helped propel York into Hollywood stardom.

York's role on the show as Darrin Stephens made him famous. He starred alongside actress Elizabeth Montgomery, who played his wife (a witch) going through trials and errors using her powers in a non-magical world. Together the pair became comedic gold.

Despite having to leave the popular series, and seeing his part taken over by another actor, York will always be remembered for his execution of a memorable television character. His career unfortunately took a tragic turn in his prime years, the result of significant health issues that ultimately took his life.

York's early start into acting

Dick York was born Richard Allen York in Fort Wayne, Indiana on September 4, 1928. His parents were Betty and Bernard Allison York. The former worked as a seamstress, and the latter, a salesman. When Dick was about 10 years old his family moved to Chicago, where he would be mostly raised. York's family was not wealthy, and his working class parents normally struggled to make ends meet. The family's poverty became all the more clear when York, who was just 11 years old, dealt with the sudden loss of his baby brother. His parents could not afford a proper burial for the child and apparently York and his father had to sneak into a cemetery to find a final resting place, according to The Los Angeles Times.

But even with his humble upbringing, York had a rich talent. While attending St. Mary of the Lake School he would be encouraged to explore his singing abilities, and joined a children's theater group called The Jack and Jill Players. There, York trained to become a child actor. And not long after, he had a role in a play called "Water Babies" and was cast as a fish, says

Hollywood fame comes to Dick York

York continually found work as a child actor, specifically in radio acting in the days before television. York worked steadily in small parts in numerous radio productions, until he was 15, when he landed the starring role in his own radio network series, "That Brewster Boy."

But he'd soon find himself on the big screen too. After studying drama at DePaul University (via, he starred and made several appearances on television shows such as the NBC '50s anthology series "Kraft Television Theatre," and played different characters on the thriller anthology "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." But his biggest role was when York was cast as Darrin Stephens on the sitcom "Bewitched." His portrayal as the often irritated husband of a witch-turned-housewife became the role for which he'd be best remembered.

But during his time filming episodes of the show, York was silently suffering from an condition that would shape, then derail, his career.

A career-defining injury

A few years earlier, York injured himself on the set of a movie. While filming a scene for "They Came to Cordura," York was lifting a railroad handcar with other cast members. But when the director shouted cut, everyone stopped lifting, except for York. And with the weight of the handcar solely on him, he accidentally kept lifting and took out his back in the process.

He tried to recover with medication, but his life would never be the same. To cope with his injury, York used painkillers and other medications. He continued to act on "Bewitched," and as things got worse for him the show apparently adapted. According to IMDB, the set was equipped with special furniture to accommodate his back problems. However, York had bigger issues coming. After taking drugs year after year to try to deal with his pain, he grew addicted. York became so dependent on the drugs that even though he had avoided taking them before heading to work, it soon spilled into his professional life and he started medicating on set.

By 1969 the show could no longer adapt to his health issues, and when York passed out on set that year, he was let go. His beloved character was taken over by another actor, and the show went on without him until it went off the air in 1972, per Biography.

York returns to humble beginnings

In 1971 he weaned himself off the drugs that cost him his career. He did return to acting in the '80s but found very few roles, and eventually just stopped acting. He hit rock bottom. According to his 1989 Los Angeles Times interview, York was living in Michigan, suffering from emphysema, dependent on oxygen, and nearly destitute. He and his wife were living off his monthly $650 monthly pension from the Screen Actors Guild. It was somewhat of a full circle, a return to the life he knew growing up in a financially struggling family.

But the actor was using his final days to help out the most vulnerable. York created a charity called Acting for Life and became dedicated to helping the homeless. And he managed it all from his home, finding assistance, encouraging donations, and organizing fund drives in support of people living on the streets.

Dick York's final days

He died at the age of 63 in 1992. At the time of his death he was still suffering with the effects of his back injury from decades earlier, which had become a degenerative spine condition. And while that certainly crippled him in many ways, it was emphysema that took his life. York was a chain smoker with a multiple-pack-a-day habit. His smoking history created a series of added health complications for York, adding to what must have been the emotional stress of a faded acting career, a meager income, and permanent back pain. Despite having defeated one life-threatening addition, the decades of smoking took their gradual, inevitable toll. Toward the end of his life he required oxygen, just to get by. But he had the support of his lifelong partner and wife, Joan Alt, who he married in 1951.

York died February 20, 1992. He was survived by his wife and their five children: Christopher, Kim, Mandy, Matthew, and Stacy.