In an attempt to avoid the news as much as possible I’ve been bingeing on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Why not dedicate a few lines then to one of the all-time great situation comedies, I thought? Well, maybe more than a few lines since this one is worth reliving. Its back story is as fascinating as the show is entertaining.
Despite the show’s title, The Dick Van Dyke Show was the creation of the ultra-talented, veteran writer and comedian, Carl Reiner. After many years as a contributor – both in front of and behind the camera – on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, Reiner found himself out of a job in 1959. By the way, I just finished reading his 2013 book, I Remember Me, which is a delight. In the book Reiner recounts stories of his life and I was reminded of why I am in awe of him. The book is a compilation of funny, touching stories told by an incredibly talented man. I highly recommend it.
Anyway, Carl Reiner spent the summer of 1959 at the beach and (incredibly) wrote thirteen complete episodes of a new sitcom titled, Head of the Family. That show had a premise that closely resembled Reiner’s own life and career as it revolved around the life and work of a television variety/comedy show writer. Reiner intended the show as a vehicle for himself to star in.
Unfortunately, the pilot of Head of the Family, wasn’t picked up. However, producer Sheldon Leonard recognized the brilliance of the scripts so he convinced Carl Reiner to have someone else play the lead character. Mr. Reiner agreed but hadn’t a clue about who that someone should be.
Dick Van Dyke grew up watching old Laurel and Hardy movies and marveled at the talents of Stan Laurel, in particular. Inspired to perform and graced with a natural talent for physical comedy, Van Dyke appeared in local TV shows and summer variety programs. He eventually became a radio DJ and worked on a number of popular television shows throughout the 1950s (mid-to-late decade) having signed a contract with CBS in 1956. Despite that contract however, it seemed no one, including Dick Van Dyke himself, knew exactly how to showcase his talents. He didn’t find a niche easily, which is hard to believe today. Van Dyke was everything from game show host to morning television newscaster and was good at it all, but he still didn’t make a definitive mark. That is, until he hit the live stage and was launched to stardom in the 1960 musical Bye-Bye Birdie, for which he won a Tony Award.
The story goes that Carl Reiner saw a performance of Bye, Bye Birdie with Dick Van Dyke playing Albert F. Peterson, the same role he’d later play in the 1963, George Sidney-directed film version. Reiner knew instantly he’d found the perfect lead for Head of the Family. But, one man alone, no matter how talented, does not a successful family situation comedy make. There was another casting hurdle ahead.
Reiner cast two supporting, but important roles, fairly quickly opting for entertainment veterans, Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam – both veterans of the Vaudeville stage, musical theater and comedy. Rose Marie could do comedy and had an extensive career in musical theater, and Amsterdam was a comic with exceptional versatility for coming up with jokes on the spot, a practice he continued on the Van Dyke Show.
On The DickVan Dyke Show, Rose Marie’s character, Sally Rogers is in constant search for a husband and her quips revolve around that desperation. Amsterdam, as Buddy Sorrell is married to Pickles, a zany, statuesque woman who is the butt of many of his jokes. Pickles only appears in three episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show but Buddy is always referring to her and she’s so good in it that I could’ve sworn she was in many more than that. Pickles Sorrell is played by Joan Shawlee who you might also know as Sweet Sue, the strict and loud director of Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, the band featured in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). Well, I say “loud,” but she had to put up with Lemmon and Curtis in drag in addition to a boozy Monroe.
Back to our story – Sally and Buddy are writers under Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) who is the lead comedy writer for the fictional, The Alan Brady Show.
OK – so those characters set to go, the time came to cast the perfect Laura, the role of the main character’s wife on the new sitcom. Carl Reiner interviewed more than sixty actresses and found no one who matched the image he had on his mind for the character. Then one day Reiner’s friend, Danny Thomas gave him the perfect girl. Well, he didn’t give him the girl he gave him the idea of a girl, one he’d interviewed for his own show a couple of years before. The problem was that Thomas didn’t remember the girl’s name, he only remembered she had three of them. It was after reviewing all the records of past interviews that they came across the name, Mary Tyler Moore.
By all accounts, the casting of Mary Tyler Moore made an impact on television as soon as Reiner’s show premiered, the name of which was changed to The Dick Van Dyke Show due to the star’s popularity. Moore’s Laura Petrie wasn’t like earlier television moms. Her character was alluring, provocative and modern yet she maintained enough of the traditions to appeal to audiences of all ages. Despite the talented cast, however, The Dick Van Dyke Show was not an instant hit mostly due to the fact it aired opposite ratings powerhouse Perry Como and his variety show.
Mary Tyler Moore was a novice among show business veterans when The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered. It didn’t take long for her to start showing signs of great comedic timing in her own right, however. It’s really quite something that she stood out while surrounded with the kind of talent on that show. That’s not to mention she impressed Carl Reiner who’s one of the all-time great comedy writers in television history. Anyone else would have been overshadowed or timid, but Moore made her mark as Laura Petrie and her chemistry with Dick Van Dyke is fantastic. The two are so believable as man and wife that when the premise of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was being discussed it was decided Mary Richards could not be a divorcéeas originally planned because people would be upset that she divorced Dick Van Dyke.
When The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered Moore’s role was minor, but as she began to blossom as a comedian, Reiner wrote more and more for her character to do. And boy could she do a lot. Her cry is as memorable as Lucy’s, she modernized the TV mom and she could dance and sing alongside show biz veterans in memorable fashion. Her comedic talent would make her a legend in her own right, one of TV’s all-time greats.
Audiences slowly began to warm up to The Dick Van Dyke Show, however. This was due, in large part, to the fact that Reiner began to write to the cast’s strengths. For instance, he allowed Morey Amsterdam freedom for one-liners and wrote situations where Rose Marie could showcase her musical prowess. My favorite instance is when she does the “I Wish I Could Sing Like Durante” number, which really shows the extent of her vast talent. Perhaps even more important is how Reiner gave Dick Van Dyke every opportunity to showcase his talent for physical comedy, which is superb evidenced by the show’s famous opening. You might want to take a look at a previous post I did about how that opening was conceived, The Story of Dick Van Dyke and the Ottoman. Van Dyke makes me laugh the hardest when I watch the show because his reactions and physicality are so memorable. He has a knack for making even the slightest, most mundane every day gesture into a work of art.
Other cast members:
Carl Reiner himself appears on The Dick Van Dyke Show as recurring character, Alan Brady. Brady is the star of the comedy/variety show Rob, Sally and Buddy write for. Alan Brady is loosely based on Carl Reiner’s old boss, Sid Caesar. My favorite episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show features Reiner as the bad-tempered, but talented star Alan Brady. Titled “Coast to Coast Big Mouth,” the fun in the episodes starts when Laura accidentally discloses to everyone in America that Alan Brady is bald.
Alan Brady: [Talking to his toupee stands] Fellas? There she is. There’s the little lady who put you out of business.
Richard Deacon plays Mel Cooley, the producer of The Alan Brady Show and Brady’s brother-in-law. Cooley is somewhat of a curmudgeon but you can’t blame him for it as he’s constantly at odds with Buddy and through this conflict Amsterdam delivers the best one-liners on the show, many of which are somewhat cruel (but very funny) “bald jokes.” During the show’s first season (I believe) Cooley was also appearing as a regular on Leave it to Beaver, but he appeared as a relaible character actor in sveral movies. I remember him best as Semu in Charles Lamont’s Abbott and Costello Meets the Mummy (1955). It’s impossible to forget Deacon’s incredible deep voice.
Playing Richie Petrie -Rob and Laura’s only child – on The Dick Van Dyke Show is Larry Mathews who is also perfectly cast and great in the part. There are more than a few funny moments on the show when Richie asks a question and Rob nervously comes up with a response suitable for a child.
The Petrie’s also have the requisite best friends/neighbors who appear in many episodes – Jerry and Millie Helper, played by Jerry Paris and Ann Morgan Guilbert. Jerry Paris doubled as a frequent director on the show helming more episodes than anyone else at 84. Guilbert is a favorite with many fans not only for her stint as Millie Helper on this show, but also for her hilarious turn as Grandma Yetta on The Nanny. You can’t say enough about the people on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Really.
Aside from the quality and the laughs The Dick Van Dyke Show offers, it is also relevant in the history of the television sitcom in that it bridged a gap from the older-variety-style comedies that preceded it in the 1950s to the grittier sitcoms that would follow. It was after The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air in 1966 that sitcoms began a gradual transition to a new era. Due to a variety of factors – the unrest in our country included – the “innocence” depicted on this show and others of its time would be replaced by relevance, to a degree – shows that made sociopolitical statements and, in many cases, dealt with social problems head on. Those are the ones I grew up watching interspersed with shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show that were available in syndication. That’s one of the reasons I believe my generation is the luckiest – media-wise. We got the best of all worlds – the classics from then and the ones that broke the mold. Of course today – luckily – you can watch these gems online. The Dick Van Dyke Show is available on Amazon Prime and on Netflix and if you’ve never seen it add it to your watch list immediately.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was honored with numerous Emmy nominations during its six-year run and won several of them including a few for Carl Reiner’s writing. No one remembers awards though. Or certainly not the public who returns to revisit these shows because they entertain not because of how many statues it won. The Van Dyke Show stood out during its run for offering a wonderful balance of sophisticated and slapstick comedy – a unique, stylish combination that cannot be equaled. The show remains a beautifully written, story-based program with well-rounded characters doused with one-liners and old-fashioned skits and song and dance routines. For classic geeks like me, it’s perfection. This is one of those we should insist that future generations watch.