April 9, 2002
'Deputy Don' succumbs to cancer at 80
- Actor and comedian Don Melvoin did children's shows in Traverse City and Grand Rapids, appeared in TV westerns and did stand-up comedyBy STACEY SMITH
Record-Eagle staff writer
TRAVERSE CITY - The actor and comedian who brought local audiences Deputy Don and Count Zapula died Monday after a year-long battle with cancer.
Don Melvoin started his career in Traverse City in the 1950s, hosting the Saturday morning children's program "Deputy Don."
The 80-year-old actor died Monday of colon cancer at Bortz Health Care, his daughter, Donna Dozeman, said. Members of his family were with him.
"He died in my arms," Dozeman said.
Although local residents will remember Melvoin for his television characters, family friend John Wuerfel said he will remember Melvoin as his "replacement dad."
Wuerfel's father, Cameron Wuerfel, served in the U.S. Navy with Melvoin and the two were good friends.
When Cameron Wuerfel died at age 34, Melvoin became the then-7-year-old John Wuerfel's friend.
"I talked to Don almost every night on the phone," Wuerfel said.
"He was pretty much my replacement dad, if there could be one," he said.
As Wuerfel grew up, married and had kids of his own, Melvoin remained a close friend, he said.
Melvoin took also took an interest in Wuerfel's sons, attending their sporting events.
Wuerfel said one of Melvoin's most-treasured possessions during his stay in the nursing home, where he died Monday, was a Big Ten baseball signed by Wuerfel's son, Jason, who plays on the University of Michigan baseball team.
"It said, 'To Uncle Don, my number one fan.' That meant a lot to him," Wuerfel said.
Melvoin also was able to tell Wuerfel about his father, who John did not remember.
"The majority of the things I know about my dad, Don told me," Wuerfel said. "He was just real inspirational to me and taught me a lot."
Melvoin left Traverse City for a time, hosting a children's TV show in Grand Rapids called "Fireman Freddy," then moved to Indianapolis, where he hosted a variety show called "The Don Melvoin Show."
From there, Melvoin went to Hollywood where he had bit parts on "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke" and "High Chaparral," plus others. He also had a part in the movie "Somewhere in Time."
From there, Melvoin went to Las Vegas where he did stand-up comedy and celebrity impersonations as an opening act for other comedians.
Eventually, though, he returned to Traverse City, reprising his role as Deputy Don and also hosting a late-night horror movie show called "Count Zapula."
Melvoin's dog, Lover, appeared in both shows with him. Lover was Deputy Don's sidekick, Bullet, and Count Zapula's assistant, Igor.
Lover died two years ago.
In addition to Dozeman, Melvoin leaves another daughter, Brooke Filonow, and a son, Cameron (CJ).