There’s no question that from almost out the gate in March 1977, ABC was going to have a hit on its hands with Eight is Enough, the comedy-drama based on the true story as chronicled in the book of the same name by Tom Braden. How could it miss, with Dick Van Patten and Diana Hyland as parents Tom and Joan Bradford, with a cast that included a number of future teen idols? But what was completely unexpected was that Diana would lose a sudden and intense battle with cancer that would claim her life after only four episodes had been shot.
In an interview with The Shreveport Journal of Louisiana, Dick explained, “We started shooting in January  and she was complaining about a backache. But she didn’t say it was more than that. She found out a week before we started shooting that she had terminal cancer. She was an amazing, brave girl. Everyone found out during the filming of the fourth episode. She had to go to the hospital and her boyfriend, John Travolta, came and took her. And then she called us to the hospital and told us, ‘Look, the backache I had been complaining about is much more serious. They say I have only a few weeks to live. I hear there are remissions. I am still going to stay with the show. Maybe I will beat this thing.’ Two and a half weeks later, she was dead.”
The Journey of Diana Hyland
Diana was born on January 25, 1936, in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and followed her high school graduation by dabbling in acting in semi-professional theaters in Ohio for about two years. Then she made the decision to take things more seriously and headed to New York and, hopefully, Broadway — with a detour along the way to television.
In a 1968 profile, the Intelligencer Journal noted, “Her first break was in live TV drama — that was in the days when there was such a thing and New York was the center for it — and spent her off-seasons in summer stock. She landed a couple of solid roles on Broadway in Look Back in Anger and Sweet Bird of youth. And in quick succession, she was in three of David Susskind’s TV Plays of the Week, a showcase for actors.”
At the time, Diana herself mused, “There I was on Broadway with three Plays of the Week. All meaty roles. I had a thing going, but I had a dumb agent. I wanted to come to Hollywood then , but he told me there wasn’t anything doing in California. So he put me in a soap opera, Young Doctor Malone. Years later, the same agent came to me out here and wanted to represent me again. I said some terribly naughty things to him.”
“She labored 15 months in Young Doctor Malone,” the Intelligencer continued the scenario, “until TV producer Dick Berg turned up in Manhattan looking for talent for a drama he wanted to produce for the ABC Alcoa Premiere series. The script was The Voice of Charlie Pont, one of television’s all-time best dramas. She got the role which won her an Emmy nomination, the producer of Young Dr. Malone obligingly killed off her character in the show, and she headed West in June 1962. In the years that followed, she was one of television’s busiest guest performers.”
Guest Star of the Week
Between a 1962 episode of The Defenders and a Happy Days from 1977, Diana appeared in no less than 73 TV shows, made for television films and movies. And she took all of it seriously, as she relayed to the Battle Creek Enquirer in 1965 when she was playing a Russian war heroine on the series Convoy and the episode “Katya.”
“Like every script I become involved with, I simply become the character,” she explained. “While I was working in ‘Katya,’ I spoke with a Russian accent from the time I awoke in the morning until I went to bed. It doesn’t embarrass me. I’m an actress, you know. My friends understand. And strangers don’t know the difference. I figured I might just as well go all the way, so I went the Russian food and drink bit also. And now I know what a Russian feels like in the morning with a hangover.”
There was one regular series gig in the mix, when she joined the prime time soap opera Peyton Place for 56 episodes between 1968 and 1969, playing Susan Winter, the wife of Reverend Tom Winter. “I’m very excited about the role,” she admitted to the Journal and Courier of Lafayette, Indiana. “I have done guest spots in over a hundred television series and I now feel that I am ready to settle down and fully develop one character. Also, there aren’t very many good roles written for women in television these days. The majority of the television series are developed for male leads. So, when the opportunity to enter Peyton Place presented itself, I took it. Where else but in Peyton Place could you work with such a large cast of talented players?”
How much older was Diana Hyland than John Travolta?
Things got even more real than that when Diana starred in the 1976 TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, which starred John Travolta — then en route to superstar status thanks to his co-starring roles in the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter (1975 to 1979) and the film version of Carrie (1976), with Saturday Night Fever about a year away. In it, John played Tod Lubitch, who has no immune system and does have to spend his life pretty much inside a plastic bubble, though he does find love with Gina Biggs (Glynnis O’Connor). The film also starred Diana as Tod’s mom, Mickey. In real life, the attraction between the two of them was electric, despite the fact that she was about 20 years his senior.
Reported The Evening Sun, “They were unaware of what the future would bring for both of them, they could only marvel at their similarities and at the direction their lives were taking. They fed off each other’s energies, found warmth and affection in the understanding of each other’s drives. In short, they were soul mates. By the time The Boy in the Plastic Bubble reached the last day of filming, John was reluctant to let go of his beautiful costar and confused as to how he wanted to hold her. John and Diana finally faced their feelings head-on. Nothing more came of it that day, except, as John recalls, they ‘well, sort of kissed.’ John went away on a much-needed holiday and collected his thoughts. Diana went to work preparing for her role as Dick Van Patten’s wife in the upcoming Eight is Enough TV series.”
Did Diana Hyland marry John Travolta?
As hard as they had fallen in love with each other, marriage was not in the cards for Diana and John. And to others, including Dick Van Patten, the relationship seemed a little bit … odd. That changed, however, in the end as he and his wife were actually present at the moment of Diana’s death.
“In the beginning, when I found out about their romance, I was sort of leery, because she was much older,” he said. “But he is a terrific man. He has a lot of character and it was a nice romance. When they were together, they never stopped talking. They were in awe of each other and he took her death very, very badly. It was just awful. He was trembling. He never left her side. He never left the bed. He sat with her in his arms the whole time.”
In April 1977, The Miami News offered up this assessment of the actress: “An outspoken, bright and talented performer, Diana became familiar to television fans during the 60s as an angular beauty with a fire inside. She looked like a brittle fashion model and always surprised with spirited performances playing soap operas (Peyton Place, Young Dr. Malone) or classy dramas such as The Voice of Charlie Pont opposite Bradford Dillman. Unafraid to snipe at television or motion picture stupidities, Diana knew she could find work because she was good. And as the mother of eight in the new series, Diana seemed just right as the Kennedy-family type mother, accepting touch football games and sticking up for her brood when her husband loses his cool.”