By John C. Alsedek:
As I start writing this, a confession: I watched a lot of television as a kid. I mean a LOT—especially during summers, which I spent with my grandparents. Nights (especially after 11p.m.) were my favorite viewing hours, but afternoons were pretty good too. There was a lot of filler such as Hazel and The Mothers-in-Law, but there were also some don’t-misses: The Addams Family on WTAF Ch. 29; Speed Racer on WPHL Ch. 17; and the trio of The Munsters, The Monkees, and The Banana Splits on WKBS Ch. 48. And then there was the odd duck of the bunch—odd in that it was by far the most conventional (at least in theory) of them all: The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Today, The Dick Van Dyke Show is recognized as one of the best situation comedies in television history. But in 1960, it was just an unsuccessful pilot called Head of the Family. It was created by writer/producer Carl Reiner, who based it on his experience as a TV writer while working for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows in the early 1950s. Reiner starred as writer "Robbie" Petrie, while his wife, Laura, was played by Barbara Britton; Petrie’s writing partners, Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers, were portrayed by Morty Gunty and Sylvia Miles, respectively.
When the pilot was rejected, Reiner decided to rework the script a bit—and completely recast it. Instead of playing the lead himself, Reiner moved into the role of Alan Brady, star of the fictional Alan Brady Show that employs Petrie, Sorrell, and Rogers. The Buddy Sorrell role went to veteran Catskills comic and early television star Morey Amsterdam, while Sally Rogers was played by Rose Marie, who at 38 had already been in show business for (believe it or not) parts of five decades. A new character, producer Mel Cooley, was added, played by Leave It to Beaver regular Richard Deaco; he was the consummate "straight man" for the writers to bounce jokes off. And as for the two leads . . . Reiner astutely went with a pair of relative newcomers.
In the role of Laura Petrie, he cast Mary Tyler Moore, best known at that point as a voice and a pair of legs on Richard Diamond, Private Detective. And as Rob? Reiner took a chance on someone who, at the time, had virtually no television experience: Dick Van Dyke. At the time, Van Dyke was playing the lead role of Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway, a performance that would see him win a Tony Award. But Reiner was convinced that Van Dyke was his guy—a decision that changed the course of both their careers.
Produced for CBS by Calvada Productions and filmed at Desilu Studios in Hollywood, The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the few sitcoms of the day filmed in front of a live studio audience. It wasn’t an immediate hit, and CBS actually planned to pull the plug on the show after its first season. However, Procter & Gamble clearly had enough belief in The Dick Van Dyke Show that it threatened to yank its daytime programming sponsorships if CBS cancelled the show. CBS relented, and the second season saw the ratings for The Dick Van Dyke Show climb into the top ten, helped in no small part by its lead-in, TV’s #1 show, The Beverly Hillbillies. The Dick Van Dyke Show would be a strong ratings performer for the remainder of its run, climbing as high as 3rd overall during Season 3 and finishing its five-year run with a still-respectable #16.
CBS wasn’t just rewarded with ratings, either. The Dick Van Dyke Show would finish up with 15 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy (four times), Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy (one each to John Rich and series supporting character Jerry Paris), and Outstanding Continued Performances (two each for Van Dyke and Moore). TV Guide ranked The Dick Van Dyke Show 13th on its "50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time" list and 20th on its list of the "Sixty Best Series."
To me, it’s in the conversation as the best comedy ensemble in television history. I just revisited one of my very favorite episodes, "It May Look Like a Walnut," and it reminded me of how deeply talented a cast it was—and how they meshed perfectly. Morey Amsterdam’s Buddy Sorrell, a self-described "human joke machine," was loosely based on one of Carl Reiner’s writing buddies from Your Show of Shows . . . a fellow named Mel Brooks. Listening to him trading barbs with Rose Marie (who gave at least as good as she got) and Richard Deacon ranks right up there with the exchanges between Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland on Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Likewise, the scenes with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore are just outstanding, with Van Dyke’s pratfall-laden physical humor complemented by Moore’s impeccable comic timing. And the rest of the cast, including Reiner, Larry Mathews, Jerry Paris, Ann Morgan Guilbert, and Jerry Van Dyke, are every bit as good. Whether you’ve never seen it or just haven’t visited with the Petries in years, I highly recommend catching it on MeTV—The Dick Van Dyke Show is on Sundays at 11p.m.
Remember what I wrote earlier about Rose Marie having already been in show business for five decades despite only being 38 when The Dick Van Dyke Show was on the air? Well, you’ll find out how that seemingly impossible fact came to be next time when we look at her long, long, long career. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.