David Cassidy: The Teen Idol Who Never Wanted To Be Superstar

“Girls are following me around – they’re ruining my whole life!” cried Keith Partridge in a fraught moment on the 1970s sitcom The Partridge Family.

Keith, played by David Cassidy, was the show’s heartthrob, and for its four-year run Cassidy’s offscreen life mirrored his.

Teenage girls didn’t just follow him around – they spirited themselves into hotels, camped in the air-conditioning unit of his house and howled at the sight of him. At his peak he received 25,000 letters a week and his fan club was said to be the biggest in the music business.

Cassidy, who died aged 67 in November 2017 after several years of living with dementia, was a new kind of teen idol. While the Monkees had been groundbreakers in using television as a route to adolescent hearts, Cassidy’s weekly appearances were just one strand of an unprecedented marketing plan. Recognising that his run at the top would be brief, the TV studio ensured that every possible cash stream was exploited: 12-hour filming days were followed by night-time recording sessions – both for his own albums and those released under the Partridge Family name – and weekends were spent playing concerts.

If there was a surface where his photo could appear, it did – on everything from lunchboxes and plastic guitars to pillowcases and dresses. The merchandising earned Cassidy’s handlers about $500m – of which, he claimed in a lawsuit in 2011, he received only $5,000 – and turned the young performer into a worldwide star.

Most teen idols eventually find fame a grind, but Cassidy resented it almost from the start. His aim was to be recognised as a serious actor, but that was scuppered by playing cute Keith, the eldest of five singing siblings. “I was pigeonholed as a teen idol [and] there’s no credibility,” he said in the 80s. “I paid a tremendous personal price – it’s a very empty, isolated, lonely existence.”

He often reminisced bitterly about the turn his career had taken: just before The Partridge Family, he had believed he was on his way to professional acclaim after winning one-off roles in a handful of US TV dramas. But while he proved competent, nothing could distract attention from his fine-boned prettiness. Even before The Partridge Family launched in 1970, the teen magazines were circling, with introductory articles such as David & Those Special Kisses. Gloria Stavers, editor of the top-selling 16 magazine, said: “I’d been waiting for [someone like] him for … years.” Cassidy, for his part, responded: “I’ll feel really good when it’s over.”

Born in Manhattan, New York, David was the only child of Jack Cassidy and Evelyn Ward, both actors. His parents divorced when he was six, and at 11 he moved to Los Angeles to live with Jack and his second wife, the actor Shirley Jones, who later played his mother in The Partridge Family. David had a fractious relationship with his father, an alcoholic who resented both Jones’s success and his son’s eventual superstardom. Jack died in a house fire in 1976, and David later spent five years in therapy to “gain perspective”.

His father had spurred his interest in acting, however, which he followed as soon as he finished school. Moving back to Manhattan, in 1969 he landed a role in a Broadway show, The Fig Leaves are Falling. It closed after four nights, but a casting director spotted him during the run and he returned to California, where he quickly picked up TV roles that deployed his ability to project boyish, fresh-faced vulnerability.

His stint as Keith Partridge made him an instant star. At 20, he looked young enough to pass for 16-year-old Keith, but where Keith was wholesome, Cassidy dabbled in drugs and loved the blues, once boasting that BB King had let him carry his guitar. The disconnect wasn’t apparent to fans, who assumed he and Keith were interchangeable – in 1972, a frustrated Cassidy made a point of posing naked for Rolling Stone magazine, and revealed in the accompanying interview his partiality to drink, drugs and sex. Though his fans were shocked and titillated, the article did not achieve his primary aim, which was to attract a more mature audience.

He had been hired on the show as an actor rather than a singer, but when his surprisingly resonant voice turned out to be more than passable, he was drafted in to add real-life vocals to the songs mimed every week (he and Jones were the only cast members who sang on Partridge Family albums). He had huge hits with both Partridge material and his own records. The first Partridge single, I Think I Love You (1970), reportedly sold 4m copies, and some of Cassidy’s own records, notably Cherish (1971), How Can I Be Sure (1972) and Daydreamer (1973), were inescapable on early-70s radio.

One of his biggest markets was the UK, where, in 1974, a 14-year-old fan was crushed during a crowd surge at one of his London gigs and died several days later. Cassidy had already announced his retirement from both touring and The Partridge Family; after the girl’s death, although he continued to make records and act, his idol status began to dissipate.

He had moderate success as a more adult rocker, returning to the UK Top 10 in 1985 with the dramatic ballad The Last Kiss. He also received an Emmy nomination in 1978 for an appearance in the US drama Police Story.

The 90s and 2000s were filled with jobs in Broadway and West End musicals, including a well-received turn in Blood Brothers. He also appeared in Las Vegas and on the 2011 series of Celebrity Apprentice, the latter after being persuaded by the then host, Donald Trump.

Cassidy was married three times: to Kay Lenz (1977-83), Meryl Tanz (1984-88) and Sue Shifrin, a songwriter, whom he married in 1991. He and Shifrin had a son, Beau, and he had a daughter, Katie, with Sherry Williams, a model.

His last decade was punctuated with problems caused by alcoholism. Between 2010 and 2014 he was arrested three times for drink-driving and he was sentenced to 90 days in rehab after the 2014 offence. The sentence coincided with Shifrin filing for divorce, followed a year later by Cassidy declaring bankruptcy. He continued to tour, but fans complained that he seemed drunk onstage and was forgetting lyrics to his songs. In February, after falling down at a concert, he revealed that he had dementia, the disease of which his mother and maternal grandfather had died.

His children survive him, as do Jones and his half-brothers, Shaun, Ryan and Patrick, from her marriage to his father.

* David Bruce Cassidy was born on 12 April 1950 and died 21 November 2017 –

  • Adapted from a tribute by The Guardian

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