Born into an entertainment family, the youngest son of actor Dick Van Patten, Vince Van Patten entered showbiz at a young age. Yet Vince is many things to many people. Actor, tennis pro, poker expert, and cult hero. As a child actor, he appeared in such TV shows as Wonder Woman, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza, before graduating to B-movies such as Hell Night and Camp Fear. He was the Bionic Boy for crying out loud! Yet more important to pop culture history than all that is the fact that he starred in the greatest rock ‘n’ roll movie of all time, Roger Corman’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which features The Ramones. This is the flick that put him on the map, as far as kids who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Incredibly, before all this, the guy was a child prodigy tennis pro and poker expert, and was highly successful at both at a very young age. After his acting career slowed down and he got the tennis bug out of his system (hey, after you’ve been ranked among the Top 30 professional players in the world as a teen where do you go from there?), Vince started taking poker more seriously, playing in some of the biggest cash poker games and tournaments in the world. Nicknamed “King of the Hollywood Home Games,” he is the current host and commentator for the nationally televised World Poker Tour and one of the faces of Hollywoodpoker.com.
G4 had a chance to talk to this multi-talented multi-tasker about poker, acting, tennis and, of course, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Read on.
How’d you get into poker?
Well, I was taught how to play poker from my father, actor Dick Van Patten, at age 9. He played great poker and used to have games in our house, in the kitchen, four nights a week with celebrity friends like Walter Matthau, Gabe Kaplan and Get Smart’s Don Adams. So he figured, “Well, the kid better learn how to play,” so I learned to play and learned how to read the Racing Form. I used to watch them play and, by age 14, I was good enough. I just loved the game of poker. Eventually I was good enough to get in that game. And as a 14 year old I was playing against these adults who were throwing pizza at each other. It was a pretty serious game, but there was laughter and insults. It was crazy.
From there my game really evolved. I was such a lover of the game. I even had a fake mustache and beard made up from a guy named Ziggy in the San Fernando Valley. I put ‘em on when I was 16 years old and drive to Gardena, California where gambling was legal if you were over 21. I’d be playing, but I was only 5 feet tall, and had this fake beard on and moustache. I looked like a freak. Sometimes security guards would say, “How old are you?” I figured out that if you said, “21,” it looked ridiculous, so I’d say, “38.” For some reason, they would just look at me and walk away. I got away with it.
I played tennis on the circuit and was acting my whole life, but I always found a way to play poker in some of the biggest games in the world. I played the World Series 15 years ago, and always played the biggest games in Los Angeles and underground kind of games. It evolved until about 5 years ago, when World Poker Tour was created by Steve Lipscomb. He knew I was the obvious choice because I had hosted a World Series once. Myself and Mike Sexton got the job to take the World Poker Tour and host those shows. Then, of course, the whole game exploded, and now everyone plays, and I’m right in the thick of it and enjoying it.
Tell me about Hollywoodpoker.com.
Hollywoodpoker.com, where the stars come to play, the celebrities. They all love poker, we know them all, so we hooked them all up on the site. We have great tournaments, or any kind of poker game you want.
Do you play against celebrities?
Well, the good thing is we have tournaments where you play against them and there’s bounties. So if you knock out Jimmy Woods, or Jon Favreau, or myself, you get extra money. The people are responding and they love it. The cool thing is that in Hollywood, celebrities are private people and it’s tough to rub elbows with them. But playing poker, when you don’t really have to be there, they love it. They are very talkative, they’re chatting it up in the chat rooms, and have a great time with it. In fact, we are taking six celebrity girls to the World Series and putting them in, like Anne Heche, Ricki Lake, Mimi Rogers, and great people that are playing the game for Hollywoodpoker.com.
What other goals do you have for the site?
One of our goals is to become the number one poker site for charitable contributions. We’ve already started with Dennis Quaid’s charities and others. So we have a lot to give back.
Was it weird having dad who was not only a celebrity, but played the dad on a hit show about a family, Eight Is Enough?
I was about 18 when that show really took off. So we were used to him being out of work half the time, and he hadn’t really hit it big in acting until Eight Is Enough. So he was knows as this great, all-American father on the show, but little did they know how interesting he really is. He really is so colorful, and that show didn’t show anything about who he really is, the action and the love of life. The horses, the poker…he was a great father but unorthodox, and you didn’t see that.
You’ve been acting your whole life, I remember you in Wonder Woman and James At 15. How did you originally get into acting?
My father was a kid actor also, and an agent came and said, You’re kids have a good look, would they want to act?” We said, “Does it get us out of school?” He said, “Yes it does,” so we said, “Okay we’ll do it. My brother Jimmy and I both did real well and it just took off. I worked with legends. Betty Davis played my grandmother in a pilot that didn’t go. I worked with John Sturges, who is considered to be one of the greatest directors of all time, and Charles Bronson in Spain for three month in a film called Chino, when he was considered to be the biggest movie stars in the world. I had great experiences as a child actor, so I’ve had a great life with acting, professional tennis and poker.
How’d you get into tennis?
I did a series called Apple's Way when I was 16 and used to hit against the stage wall, a thousand balls a day, just because I loved the game of tennis. I wasn’t that good, but after I got off the series my game just went up. I played Wimbledon, the US Open, and was Top 25 in the word. I did that for 8 years. But I’ll tell ya, that’s a very tough life, to tour, to do it, to stay up in the top of the world. There’s no breaks, it’s 12 months out of the year. It was a grind, but I accomplished a lot in that field.
Between tennis and acting, you were quite busy as a kid. Did you ever have a chance to live a normal life as a regular kid or were you always on the go?
I did a little bit of both, because when you’re not on a series, you go back to regular school. And that’s tough. It makes you tough as a kid because kids want to pick on you because of that, because they see you on TV. But that makes you tougher if you can get through that, and I did. I don’t regret my childhood. A lot of actors didn’t turns out that great but I had a great childhood as an actor. I have two little kids, and I don’t really want them to do unless they are dying to do it because it’s nice to have a regular childhood and then do it later. But mine was quite good, and very interesting.
I have to ask you about Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which is the greatest movie ever made. Were you a Ramones fan when you made that movie?
I knew their music a little bit. I appreciated it. But I look back on the movie now, it was 25-26 years ago, and it holds up. It’s more fun today for me to see then it was then. We shot in 16 days out in Commerce, and the director got like one take at each shot. It was a lot of night shooting, and then we’d go to the Sunset Strip to the Roxy and Whiskey to shoot The Ramones. There were no dressing rooms, it was gorilla type shooting, so we were eating pizza out of pizza boxes with The Ramones in the back. And The Ramones were every nice, very humble, and just happy to be on the set. They were fun and we all had a good time. Now you look back and it was a lot of fun, and their music does hold up. They were classic.
Did you get to party with the band or get exposed to their rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
I can’t lie. I’d like to, it sounds very nice. I needed my sleep, I guess. I knew that stuff was going on, but not with me, I needed my sleep. It was a crazy time. Those guys lived on the edge for sure.
Ever talk to co-star PJ Soles these days?
Not really, but she’s still working a lot. There was a reunion screening in LA a few years ago, but she wasn’t there.
Did you go to that?
Yes I did. It was shocking how much people love that movie. We didn’t think we were doing anything special. It was a triple-C movie that you’re doing for Roger Corman, and would get some silly little release and never be heard from again, so it’s nice when you stumble into something like that.
After all your years of working in the business, what do you appreciate the most?
I just appreciate who I worked with over the years. Funny story: When I worked with Betty Davis everyone was really nervous to be around with her. I played her grandson. In the middle of rehearsing a scene and she said something, but everyone was so tight around her that no one really laughed or responded. But I laughed. And she looked around and looked at me and said, “Who laughed?!?” I went, “Um…I guess it was me?” And she said, “You’re good. You’re very good.” She turned to the crew and said, “Now he’s good!” They went, “Oh yes, let’s all laugh.” And everyone started to laugh. I was also the Bionic Boy on TV years ago. But people forget about all that stuff, so I’m just happy to be working again in a field that’s doing well.
Amen to that, brutha.