On the hit 1960s sitcom Bewitched, Dick York played Darrin Stephens, the long-suffering mortal married to witch-turned-housewife, Samantha. Yet in season six of the show’s eight-season run, York was replaced in the role by actor Dick Sargent. For audiences used to seeing York, no onscreen explanation was given, or even alluded to.
Public speculation regarding the abrupt recasting included a dispute with the network, clashes with fellow cast members or disagreements with showrunners. The truth, unknown to audiences for years after York left the sitcom, is far less salacious, yet just as mortal as the character Darrin was envisaged for television: injury and addiction were the catalysts that prompted York’s departure from Bewitched.
York badly injured his back while shooting the movie 'Condura'
Born September 4, 1928, in Fort Wayne, Indiana to a salesman father and seamstress mother, it was a parochial school nun who first spotted his talent for acting and encouraged York to seek coaching. At 15 he had a regular role on the radio show That Brewster Boy. Within a decade he had moved to New York City, was working on radio soaps and had married his childhood sweetheart Joan Alt, with whom he had five children and remained wed to until his death.
As well as radio soaps, York’s early years in New York also saw him acting on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy with Deborah Kerr in 1953. Contracted to Columbia Pictures soon after, York was soon in front of big-screen audiences in the western drama They Came to Cordura (1959), starring with Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Tab Hunter and Van Heflin. Cordura and Inherit the Wind (1960) were his biggest film successes, but it was an accident during shooting on the former that would inform and influence the remainder of his life.
According to York, it was during filming on Cordura when he sustained a severe back injury. When the director yelled cut on a scene featuring Cooper and York propelling a handcar along railway tracks, one of the extras on the base of the car reached up and grabbed the rail York was pumping and pulling.
“Now, instead of lifting the expected weight, I was suddenly, jarringly, lifting his entire weight off the flatbed—180 pounds or so. The muscles along the right side of my back tore. They just snapped and let loose,” York said in an interview published in FilmFax magazine in 1992. “And that was the start of it all — the pain, the painkillers, the addiction, the lost career. I didn’t attend to the problem then. I continued to work through it.”
He became addicted to prescription painkillers
Work included numerous roles on television, including The Untouchables (1960), Dr. Kildare (1961), Route 66 (1963) and Rawhide (1961-1963), before York landed the role for which he would be forever associated with: Darrin Stephens in Bewitched. Form 1964 to 1969 York portrayed the mortal husband to Elizabeth Montgomery’s witch Samantha and her magical, misfit family members, including acerbic, mortal-hating mother-in-law Endora, played by Agnes Moorehead.
The show was a ratings hit and delivered York a steady paycheck, but his chronic back pain resulting from the Cordura accident and reliance on prescription painkillers continued to worsen and began to affect his physical abilities. “I had a board in my trailer where I would flatten out,” he told People in 1989. “And on the set the crew would help me. They would plant someone on the other side of a door in case it was too heavy for me to open by myself.”
York continued taking doctor-prescribed medications, including codeine, muscle relaxants and sleeping pills, though he stressed he avoided drugs while working. By 1968 he was addicted, and in 1969 he passed out while on the Bewitched set and had to be hospitalized. While under care York knew his ability to continue working on the series was finished due to his worsening health and reliance on pain medication, prompting show producers to recast Sargent in the role for the sixth, seventh and eighth seasons, ahead of the series end in 1972.
The only public comment York made at the time in relation to his departure from the series was to The Sacramento Bee in March of 1969. “Five years as Liz’s husband on Bewitched; there are no hard feelings,” he said. “I just want a chance to do other stage and movie roles.”
York's career never recovered
York continued medicating until 1971 when he decided to quit cold turkey. But his career had already waned in his absence from television, as had his economic situation, forcing him and his family to rely on welfare, unemployment checks and odd jobs to make ends meet over the following decade. Minor roles in Simon & Simon and Fantasy Island in the early 1980s were his only other acting appearances.
By the time he and his family moved to Rockford, Michigan in 1986, York was already suffering from emphysema due to a three-pack-a-day smoking habit and would become reliant on oxygen from a canister. Much of his final years were spent working to help bring awareness to and outreach for the plight of homeless people in the United States, a cause he felt he understood having grown up during the Great Depression. York died February 20, 1992, at age 63.