You’ve probably seen Billy Gardell on various TV shows. Known for his friendly, approachable manner and the catchphrase ‘Mister Peanut Butter’, his jolly demeanor is usually enough to elicit a smile from even the most reserved person. But behind the scenes, things are a little more serious for Gardell.
The beloved actor’s extraordinary story of transformation began in 1979 when he was cast as Steve Martin on the NBC series, What’s Happening!! This groundbreaking comedy-adventure series aired for one season before being canceled due to low ratings. Though Martin went on to have a prolific movie career (including appearances in Major League, Back to School, and License to Chill) the series remains one of the most beloved in TV history. (The entire crew, including Gardell, reunited for the 2019 Netflix special, Major League: Remembering My Brother’s Life & Death.)
After the series was canceled, Martin dedicated himself to a healthier lifestyle and, six months later, won the American Cancer Society’s ‘Celebration Award’ for beating the odds.
The former sitcom star’s life took a major turn in 1989 when, at the age of 43, he was diagnosed with melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Though he beat the disease, it resurfaced in his brain in the form of a tumor. Facing seemingly insurmountable odds, Gardell determined to fight the malady once and for all. He underwent radical brain surgery at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, which left him with severe hair loss and a drastically reduced ‘hair-donating’ zone. (Gardell’s gorgeous gray hair was a major feature of his appeal; he sported the kind of full head of hair that makes most men look like boys.)
Though he had to downsize his life, Gardell wasn’t about to let go of his lavish lifestyle. He kept his swimming pools, his horses, and his private chefs. (The chef was apparently responsible for creating a diet made up of only foods that Gardell could digest. His restricted diet, coupled with his morning exercise routine, reportedly allowed him to shed a remarkable 150 pounds in under a year.)
The transformation continued in earnest when, in 1995, Gardell was cast in the role of George Clooney’s grandfather in the critically acclaimed film, First Wives’ Club. He then nabbed the female lead in the Robert Redford-directed drama, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which won him a Golden Globe and SAG Award. Since then, he’s appeared in a number of critically acclaimed films, including The Big Blue, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and The Perfect Storm, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe.
While most men his age would be seeking to enjoy life with the convenience of faster movement and constant stimulation, Gardell has devoted himself to the more leisurely life of a professional actor. He’s well-known for his activism, particularly in the area of animal welfare. In 2004, he founded a charity, Actors’ Voice, which brings together celebrities, scientists, and politicians in an effort to improve animal welfare.
With his extraordinary history of defeating cancer, losing weight, and embracing a healthier lifestyle, it’s only fitting that Billy Gardell is being celebrated this July as he turns 45. Fans can catch him on the big screen this summer in Roland Emmerich’s Midlife Crisis, which also stars Margot Robbie and Will Smith. And don’t miss his next big screen appearance in the upcoming comedy, Overboard, opposite Ben Schwartzler and Anna Faris.