A Tribute to Bernard Fox: "Dr. Bombay" on "Bewitched"

Herbie J Pilato

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[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

[Author's Note: All quotes and commentary that appear in this article were culled from interviews the author conducted with those individuals mentioned.]

Bernard Fox was "a dedicated father and husband, and a gifted actor.”

That’s how devoted daughter Amanda Fox once described her father, the heralded film, television, and stage thespian (who died in 2016).  Best-known as the skirt-chasing, slightly-arrogant, and delightfully debonair witch Dr. Bombay on classic TV’s long-running sitcom Bewitched (ABC, 1964-1972), Fox left an indelible mark on his millions of fans.

The phrase, “Calling Dr. Bombay, Calling Dr. Bombay,” voiced by the sitcom’s charming lead twitch-witch Samantha, as portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery, was Fox’s calling card on the show.

Samantha and her supernatural friends and family members including her meddling magic mother Endora, as played with delightful acumen by Agnes Moorehead (who owned an acting school at which Fox taught fencing) were in constant need of Bombay’s magic potions to cure various other-worldly ills. 

As Fox once explained of the role, “I never wanted him to be a run-of-the-mill character.  I based him on a commanding officer I encountered while serving in the naval transit camp in what was then Ceylon. He was an elderly gentleman who in civilian life had been a veterinary surgeon of the old school, and he was hard of hearing.  He assumed everyone else was also, so he constantly yelled at everybody.”

Two decades later, when Fox came to play Bombay, he was seeking a more colorful way to interpret a not-so-everyday doctor and, as he continued to recall, “…that officer came to mind.”

As Amanda recalled, “My father brought a lot of his own ideas to everything he did, including Bewitched.” 

In 1989, Montgomery confirmed how the show’s writing staff enjoyed creating situations for Fox as Bombay, as much as the actor delighted in portraying the off-beat role. "Dr. Bombay was so outrageously odd. And we were always on the lookout to present unique characters and actors. One of the neat things about Bernie was that he would come up with all of these really weird kinds of sides to Dr. Bombay.”

Born in South Wales, Fox was the fifth generation of his family to pursue a career in theatre. During the war, he served in the Royal Navy. Upon his release, he joined the well-known York Repertory Company.

In 1952, he appeared in live stage productions such as Reluctant Heroes, Simple Spymen, and Dry Rot for London’s Whitehall Farce Players. Upon leaving that troupe, he was seen in other London productions, such as G.B. Shaw’s Misalliance, Saturday Night at the Crown, and a musical version of The Bells at the Irving Theatre.

Fox’s British big-screen movies included Star of India (1954), Blue Murder at St. Trinians, and The Safecracker (also 1958, with Ray Milland), while the 1958-1959 U.K. television season saw him starring in Three Live Wires, a sitcom somewhat similar to America’s Sergeant Bilko series with Phil Silvers.

The actor’s initial Hollywood performance was at the Civic Playhouse in Write Me a Murder, which was followed by several TV appearances including those on sitcoms starring Danny Thomas, Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith, and more. Besides his recurring role as Dr. Bombay on Bewitched, Fox was best-loved on American TV as Colonel Crittenden, a semi-regular character in the military comedy, Hogan’s Heroes.

Post-Bewitched, Fox ventured into TV-movies with a starring role in The Hound of the Baskervilles in which he was ideally cast as Dr. Watson to Stewart Granger’s Sherlock Holmes. 

Other small-screen films followed, along with theatrical motion pictures like Big Jake (1971), Herbie Goes Bananas (1977), and Private Eyes (1980). As fate would have it, Fox was also featured in both big-screen adaptations dramatizing the sinking of the Titanic:  A Night To Remember (1957) and Titanic (1997). 

From 1973 to 1979, Fox played host as the Victorian chairman (master of ceremonies) in America’s only British music hall, the Mayfair Music Hall, located in Santa Monica, California, which also once housed the West Coast troupe of Chicago’s Second City comedians. 

He was also good friends with the multi-talented Milt Larsen, creator of The Magic Castle the renowned Los Angeles performance facility, where Fox also frequently appeared.

The experience and knowledge Fox gained over the years proved invaluable; his one-man show, Music Hall Memories, played successfully around colleges, conventions, private groups, and in large gatherings, such as the British-American festival in Sante Fe Springs, California.

In frequent demand for roles throughout his entire professional life, Fox rejected work only when necessary. Such was the case shortly after he finished work on The Mummy feature film in 1999 when he was cast as The Great Gazoo, an alien-super-powered character from The Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas feature film sequel that was based on the 1960s animated TV show. 

Amanda Fox explained the events leading up to that decision, and her father’s ability to always retain his sense of humor in the midst of even the most delicate of quandaries. 

“He wanted to do The Flintstones movie but then he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and didn’t think it was a good idea during radiation treatment to be flying around in tights and a harness [which is what the Great Gazoo role would have entailed].”

“He was just a happy guy,” Amanda added. “I think because he grew up so poor in England. His entire family acted and traveled all over doing all kinds of shows, and never really lived in one place for more than the length of a show.  He had a tough life at times, and at one point was forced to learn how to box because he was always the new kid in school who would get beat up.”

None of that, however, derailed Fox’s vibrant, diversified, and long-lasting career filled with characters that as he once said, “I tried to play…energetically.”  Any obstacles, professional and personal, also never prevented him from performing his favorite role in real life:  that of being a devoted father and husband. 

“He was a wonderful, kind, upbeat, optimist-loving man who loved my Mother, our entire family,” Amanda said.

Additionally, Amanda said her father “adored animals and gardening, and was an avid painter, as is my Mom. We have many of their paintings displayed in all of our homes,” she adds, referencing three family residences that are conveniently located within the same block, a testament to her father’s old-fashioned family values.

But when asked to name her fondest memory of her father, Amanda responded after a long, poignant pause.

“They’re all precious,” she said.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, writes for the Television Academy and Emmys.com, and is the host of THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

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