Richard Deacon plays Mel Cooley, the producer of The Alan Brady Show. Cooley is somewhat of a curmudgeon but cannot be blamed 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.” And, playing Richie Petrie, Rob and Laura’s only child, is Larry Mathews. The Petrie’s also had the requisite best friends/neighbors who appear in many episodes – Jerry and Millie Helper, played by Jerry Paris and Ann Morgan Guilbert.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone if I say that if I had the time, I’d spend most of my days watching classic television and movies. It just never gets old. Unfortunately, the time I’ve available to dedicate to the classics is limited so the best I can do is squeeze in an episode here, a movie there, and so on. Of late I’ve been “squeezing in” episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Naturally I am compelled to post a comment or two about those classic gems. However, before I comment on any specific episode, I thought it might be a good idea to share a bit about how that show came to be. Although, I’m sure it’s safe to say most of us know the general backstories of our favorites, it’s always fun to relive the stories – vicariously.
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 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. I am in awe of him, by the way. What an incredibly talented man.
Reiner spent the summer that year (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. And Reiner intended the show as a vehicle for himself to star in as the lead.
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. 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 the 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. He was everything from game show host to morning television newscaster. Van Dyke was good at it all, but he 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 was sitting in the audience for 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 veterans of entertainment, 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 despite Reiner’s scripts.
On the Van Dyke Show, Rose Marie’s character, Sally Rogers is in constant search for a husband and Amsterdam, as Buddy Surrell is married to Pickles. If memory serves, Pickles made scarcely an appearance on the show (I can’t say how often) but Buddy is always referring to her and you can only imagine how funny his constant references to Pickles are. Both Sally and Buddy are writers, under Rob who is the lead writer for the fictional, The Alan Brady Show. Oh, and I’ve yet to mention that Dick Van Dyke plays Rob Petrie.
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. Um…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, at that time, Danny Thomas didn’t have the girl’s name, he only remembered she had three names. 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 the 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. Even provocative. 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.
Audiences slowly began to warm up to The Dick Van Dyke Show. This was due, in large part, to the fact that Reiner began to write to the cast’s strengths – allowing Morey Amsterdam freedom for one-liners, writing situations where Rose Marie could showcase her musical prowess and most importantly, allowing every opportunity for Dick Van Dyke’s talent for physical comedy to shine.
Mary Tyler Moore was a novice among show business veterans when The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered. But it didn’t take long for her to start showing signs of great comedic timing in her own right. It’s really quite something she stood out while surrounded with the kind of talent on that show. That’s not to mention she impressed Carl Reiner who’s among the upper echelons of television comedy writers in television history. Anyone else would have been overpowered, yet, Mary Tyler Moore made her mark as Laura Petrie. When The Dick Van Dyke Show began, Moore’s role was minor, but as she began to blossom as a comedian, Reiner wrote more and more for her character to do.
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.
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 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.
The Dick Van Dyke Show stood out during its run – from 1961 to 1966 – for offering a wonderful balance of sophisticated and slapstick comedy – a unique, stylish combination. The show remains a beautifully written, full-scope of well-rounded characters doused with one-liners occasionally warmed by good, old-fashioned show business song and dance routines. For classic geeks like me, it’s perfection – an emphasis on story and talent, held together by the writing genius of Carl Reiner. This is one of those – you know…the ones worth keeping.
How sweet it was.