The Story of Dick Van Dyke and the Ottoman

This story was originally published at my soon-to-be-defunct blog dedicated solely to classic TV, an entry celebrating physical comedy and the See You in the ‘Fall’ Blogathon hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog.  This tells the tale of an iconic Television moment – when Dick Van Dyke falls over the ottoman in the classic opening to “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-1966).

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I decided to share this on this blog this week because the Athletes in Film Blogathon, which I’m co-hosting with Rich from Wide Screen World is scheduled for next weekend.  This will surely get everyone in the mood.  Aside from a behind-the-scenes look at the iconic TV moment this entry offers insight as to how one athletic talent who became a legend begat another.

The silent era was one where pratfalls were common in the course of each and every day in the lives of the silent clowns who excelled in that sort of mishap.   But Dick Van Dyke‘s moment as he hits the floor with the superb cast – Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam and Larry Mathews – scrambling to help him up is legendary in the annals of Television.

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A silent film legend taught Van Dyke how to “drop and roll”

I defer to the show’s Emmy Award-winning director John Rich to tell the story of how the now famous sequence came to be, recounted when he sat down with the Television Academy folks.  Rich recalled the idea for the opening was one that came about casually as he wrapped up work one day.  The director had just finished shooting episode 6 or 7  when the creator/producer/writer of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Carl Reiner came to him, “We need an opening.  Something clever.”  Reiner was dissatisfied with the original opening already in the can, which features a file folder with pictures of the cast – charming, but forgettable.

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In a hurry to get to a date John Rich asked Reiner what he had in mind, thinking it wasn’t going to be easy since almost the entire cast was to be on screen for the opening sequence.  “Ok, well…what’ve we got…Rosie, Morey…Dick comes home…” and Reiner interrupted, “HE FALLS!”  Eager to get out of there John Rich agreed, “Oh, ok…he falls.  We’ll get him to trip over a stool (ottoman).”

They set up the sequence as a one-shot with everybody in the frame.  “PRINT!”  It was a done deal.  Then Reiner told Rich “Let’s do a variation.  Let’s do one where he misses the stool.”  “Clever” is what John Rich thought, but dammit he was going to be late for his date.  He hurried back to the cast.  “Ok. Let’s do it again and this time, Dick, miss the stool.”  That was that.  One take for each shoot and in about four minutes they had the two versions of what would be the signature of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and one of the greatest opening sequences in TV history.  John Rich made it to his date on time.

The alternate opening where Rob Petrie does a little side-step to go around the ottoman
The alternate opening where Rob Petrie does a little side-step to go around the ottoman

Carl Reiner decided to alternate the opening between the fall over the ottoman and the missing of the ottoman from week to week.  According to Dick Van Dyke, viewers used to make bets (during seasons 2, 3, 4 and 5) on whether or not Rob Petrie would fall on any given week.

It was a lucky thing that Dick Van Dyke turned out to be such an outstanding physical comedian, a master of a lost art.  Asked numerous times through the years how he came to be so great at the art of the pratfall Van Dyke always answers by crediting the silent clowns not only for his physical prowess but with why he became an actor in the first place.  As a life-long fan of silent comedies Dick Van Dyke was prone to mimicking the shenanigans of the masters since he was a kid.  His ultimate idol was Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame, but he’s said that the “drop and roll” technique he used so effortlessly and that has served him so well throughout his career must be credited to “the best physical comedian of them all” – Buster Keaton.  So…legend begat legend.

A still from Steamboat Bill, Jr. shows Buster Keaton in the midst of a pratfall
A still from Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) shows Buster Keaton in the midst of a pratfall

 

From Reiner’s genius brainstorming to Rich’s date to Keaton’s influence on Van Dyke’s natural talents – that’s the story of the iconic trip over the ottoman in the Petrie living room at 148 Bonnie Meadow Road in New Rochelle, New York.

8 thoughts

  1. Thank you for posting this, Aurora! I’m in the middle of watching the entire series. Up until last week, I had seen the key episodes but didn’t know the series as well as I wanted to. So I started watching from season 1, episode 1…and now I’m in the middle of season 3! I can’t get enough!

  2. I LOVE that they shot these openings so quickly. Quickly-executed genius doesn’t normally happen in real life. (Not in my life, anyway…)

    You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an entire episode of this show. Happily, YouTube has several episodes. Yay!

  3. You’re missing a 3rd variation. As you mentioned, there is the tumble over the ottoman and the side step of the ottoman, but the 3rd variation has Van Dyke side stepping the ottoman followed by a tripping over his own feet.

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