Thursday, July 18, 2013

Me-TV Blogathon: 'The Dick Van Dyke Show'



This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.

When I was a boy in the early 1970s, my family had a small portable black and white television that my mother would sometimes keep in the kitchen. Although we were never allowed to watch it at dinnertime, we could on the occasional breakfast and lunch. And while I remember enjoying such fare as “Johnny Quest,” “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” and “Captain Kangaroo,” the two shows I enjoyed most were reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Perhaps I was attracted to them because they felt so … foreign. Life was presented in black and white, both were set (or mostly set) in New York City, and these small families were nothing like my large family/small-town existence.

I wasn’t old enough yet to really focus on the out-of-date hairstyles or clothing. I simply laughed and did so out loud.

It’s ironic that what I’ve been watching on DVD during the past 18 months while on the treadmill has been “I Love Lucy” and “Dick Van Dyke,” and by the time I post this I will have just finished season four of the latter.

What I love about “The Dick Van Dyke Show” is the fact that life isn’t perfect in the Petrie household or in the writers’ office at the “Alan Brady Show.” What is perfect is the writing and casting, with Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore portraying a married couple madly in love and yet they bicker and point out each other’s faults. It’s been said often that Rob and Laura Petrie were the first sexy couple on TV. Despite the separate beds, you knew what was happening off screen. 

 
And that’s the appeal of this timeless show – it’s real in a way that the squeaky-clean family comedies beforehand were not. Outside of Mary Tyler Moore’s loveliness (and her provocative capri pants), the show isn’t filled with a model-perfect cast. But what a cast! In the pilot, the show’s creator, Carl Reiner, plays Rob. Although the pilot didn’t sell the first time around – family shows were out, Westerns were in – it was producer Sheldon Leonard who liked the pilot but told Reiner he wasn’t right to play the character he created. So the pilot would be reshot, and the candidates to play Rob were narrowed to two actors: Dick Van Dyke and Johnny Carson. Leonard favored Van Dyke, who wasn’t a glamorous movie star whose more “average” looks would play well on TV. Van Dyke was starring on Broadway in “Bye Bye Birdie,” for which he had won a Tony Award, and when Reiner saw the show, he knew Van Dyke would be perfect.

Rose Marie was a veteran performer who was always asking Danny Thomas and Leonard to cast her in a role on TV. When they called her, she thought it was for a guest spot on Thomas’ TV series. Instead, she was offered Sally on the spot. It was Rose Marie who then suggested Morey Amsterdam as Buddy. Richard Deacon was selected from 22 character actors to play Mel. Larry Mathews was “discovered” by his mailman, who knew someone at a talent agency who signed Mathews. When the call went out for Ritchie, Mathews was the only boy sent from that agency and he got the part. 

 
As for Laura, they couldn’t find the right actress. But Thomas remembered someone who had tried out for the role of his oldest daughter for his show, although he couldn’t remember her name – except that she had three of them. And he thought she was on a show where she only showed her legs (which was “Richard Diamond, Private Detective”).

When she was finally found, they knew she was right. As for the neighbors, Jerry and Millie Helper, Jerry Paris was spotted by Leonard at a baseball game. The two were old acting buddies, and Paris was thrilled to be cast. Paris’ best friend was married to Ann Morgan Guilbert, and while producers originally thought she should have been prettier, Paris and later Moore would be her biggest fans and supporters. Paris, incidentally, would end up directing many episodes of the show, launching a new direction to his career.

The new pilot was shot in January of 1961, but the show didn’t premiere until October of that year. It was not a hit initially, but CBS stuck by it, although the show did move all over the schedule for a while. Over its five years, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” grew its fan base until it was a top 10 hit. Its Emmy win for Best Comedy Series in season two was a shocker, although most agreed it was well-deserved. It would win four consecutive Emmys for best show, as well as multiple wins for Van Dyke and Moore.

The show holds up beautifully, thanks to that combination of sharp writing and a perfect cast. If Van Dyke and Moore were the ideal leads, the rest provided such great comic support, especially Guilbert, that the show rarely missed. Reiner himself would begin playing Alan Brady with his back to the camera, eventually taking on the occasional appearance in full view (“Coast to Coast Big Mouth” reveals Alan’s toupee and is a season five gem).

How many classic episodes are there? Well, my favorites, in no particular order, are when the gang are forced to stay in a cabin and each disappears one by one; the infamous Rob Petrie monster movie-inspired dream where Laura floats out of the closet on a pile of walnuts; Laura unable to resist temptation when a package arrives for Rob; all of the marvelous flashbacks – to Rob and Laura’s wedding, Ritchie’s birth, the purchase of their home, Laura’s pill-induced first meeting with Rob’s parents; Rob’s skiing accident; the giant bird attacking Ritchie; Laura’s toe caught in the bathtub spigot; Rob and Laura eavesdropping on Jerry and Millie which leads to an unfortunate game of charades … as you can tell, there are many. 

 
But it’s worth pointing out that the show did do some daring stuff. When Rob flashes back to when he and Laura brought Ritchie home from the hospital and Rob thinks they have the wrong baby, they capped the episode with a sight gag that was considered risky in the early 1960s, considering the lack of minorities on television and even in starring roles in films. Van Dyke and Moore say the gag received the longest laugh and ovation of anything they did on the show (which had to be edited for the aired episode), and it broke down racial barriers by showing an interracial encounter between peers as if nothing was wrong.

You also have Sally as a full-time, well-paid professional writer at a time when women didn’t have such positions, in real life or on TV (unless it was typical female jobs, like teachers or nurses or actress). Although a running plot throughout the series is Sally unable to land a guy, there aren’t many guys – then or now – who could match Sally’s vivacity, energy and talent. In fact, it’s the show’s genius to pair her with her opposite, Bill Idelson’s Herman Glimsher. Even his name is funny, but mild-mannered mama’s boy Herman who she keeps going back to because he doesn’t try to outmatch her – he knows he can’t – he simply loves her.

Now throw in Jerry Van Dyke, Dick’s real-life brother playing Rob’s brother Stacey, or Joan Shawlee giving life to Buddy’s wife, Pickles, or Van Dyke’s personal assistant, Frank Adamo, appearing in more than 40 episodes, and you understand how wonderful it all is.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the most famous opening sequences of any TV show, which is Van Dyke tripping over that ill-placed ottoman, and then the sequence showing him sidestepping the ottoman. Apparently bookies used to take bets as to which one of these sequences would open the episode!

While this post barely scratches the surface of this brilliant show, it’s clear that I love it. After five seasons, the cast decided to stop, and frankly it was the right time. Had they continued even one more year, the show would have switched to color, and it would have lost that early ‘60s chic. And for a show that tried hard not to incorporate current events (outside of the Redcoats episode, a takeoff on the British music invasion), I don’t think it could have avoided the cultural and social upheaval of the late ‘60s.

So the five seasons of “The Dick Van Dyke” represent one whole, a single chapter in the life of Rob, Laura, Ritchie, Jerry and Millie, Sally, Buddy, Mel and Alan. A time capsule, if you will, but one filled with a lot of laughs, a great sense of fun and one of the most realistic married couples on TV. 

39 comments:

  1. CFB - A wonderful look back at one of the great sit-coms of all time! When this show first came on I was too young to stay up and watch but I use to sneak peeks and my parents would hear me laughing. Instead of getting mad they eventually let me stay up late and watch the show. Mary Tyler Moore was probably the sexiest TV wife/mom of the day (as you mention, those Capri pants). Needless to say Moore and Van Dyke had great chemistry and the rest of the cast were excellent. Later on, I realized how wonderful the writing on this show was, a key element to its success. The show remains a real treat to watch.

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    1. I'm glad you remember it fondly and well. As for those Capri pants, CBS had to limit how often she could wear them on an episode to once at the most! How times have changed ... LOL

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  2. I recently shelled out for the complete series on DVD (there was a sale). It is now so easy to get the entire family to sit together and enjoy the gang on "The Dick Van Dyke Show". Drop by any time.

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    1. Glad you enjoy the show as much as I do!

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  3. I have used up an enormous amount of Internets bandwidth on the love I have for The Dick Van Dyke Show. It's my favorite sitcom of all time...it can't and never will be duplicated.

    How deep is my love? When I was a kid, I would practice tripping over the ottoman in our living room aping Rob Petrie. I wasn't as fortunate as Our Lady of Great Caftan to get the complete series on sale but I bought every volume when it was released because it was simply something I had to have here at Rancho Yesteryear.

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    1. You need to film yourself tripping over the ottoman for a video clip at Rancho Yesteryear. I'm sure it would be expert! This show is a classic for the ages and I love it.

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  4. An irresistible favorite for those who grew up with it. Loved your mention of the extra black and white portable TV. Surely every home had one of those. In the kitchen, or the den or family room, or on a long extension in the backyard to watch a ballgame on a summer night. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was just as good in reruns on the old little portable.

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    1. You are right about that. I did love that little TV ... watched my first full Oscars ceremony on that TV in my room in the 1970s :)

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  5. CFB - This is a lovely tribute to a beloved and brilliant show - one of my all-time favorites. When "The Dick Van Dyke" debuted on Nick at Night in the '90s I hadn't seen it since it was on network TV - and I noticed something I hadn't as a youngster: the Petries strongly resembled the Kennedys (JFK and Jackie). Both couples were attractive, stylish, smart - and youthful. I later found out that, coincidentally, the first episode of the Van Dyke show was filming on the same day JFK delivered his inaugural address. Two new frontiers kicked off on the same day...

    I'm always home from work by the time Dick Van Dyke airs on MeTV and I've found that it never fails to lift my spirits - even after the most grueling day on the job.

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    1. Thank you ... I've read a few comparisons between the Petries and the Kennedys, but I didn't realize the pilot was filmed on the same day as the inaugural address. Fascinating. On another note, I'm still a bit hacked off that Entertainment Weekly didn't include this show on its recent list of top 100 TV shows of all time. Really???

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  6. A marvelous post--a perfect mix of background details (most of which I didn't know), analysis of why the show was so good, and your memories of The DVD SHOW from youth (as a kid, my daytime TV schedule included LUCY, DVD...and PERRY MASON, THE RIFLEMAN...I watched a lot of TV). The casting of Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore was kismet; as you noted, they had great chemistry and came off as a very realistic couple. I always preferred the at-home scenes to the office ones, although Richard Deacon is always funny. On a personal note, my junior high band teacher--who let us play current pop music by the likes of Chicago--picked THE DICK VAN DYKE THEME for one of our numbers. Not sure what inspired that...we sounded awful on it, although the percussion guys were enthused about playing the slide whistle during the ottoman spot in the theme.

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    1. Thank you, Rick. I really appreciate it. I agree about the home episodes ... I forgot to mention all the times Rob was forced to write and direct the PTA shows that they rehearsed in their living room. How fun regarding the junior high band ... at least you enjoyed it, no matter how it sounded!

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  7. CFB - love this show - and your fine tribute. Growing up in NY, the show seemed like home to me. Plus - I really dug Laura's capris!

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    1. Thank you! It's funny our perceptions. It felt like home to you, and I think this show is where I learned about something called the suburbs! My town of 2,200 people didn't have such things :)

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  8. Great post! I'm more of a sporadic watcher of the show, but I love the episode with Richard Dawson (because I LOVE Richard Dawson) and I like the Twizzle episode because Me-TV plays that song a lot and I LOVE it! :)

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    1. Richard Dawson is fun, and the Twizzle is one of the rare episodes built around a pop culture craze of the time.

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  9. OH ROB!!

    My favorite part of the show, are the scenes where he and his staff are trying to come up with ideas for their comedy-variety show.

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    1. And those scenes include the Buddy-Mel relationship which is hilarious. I loved when Mel used a clicker whenever Buddy irritated him.

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  10. I'm proud to say I have watched this series my whole life and have it committed to memory. Favorite episode? Probably the Christmas episode where we are watching an episode-within-an-episode of "The Alan Brady Show." The opening musical sequence where Buddy, Sally, Laura and Mel Cooley sing "Alan Brady" while Rob conducts the disloyal choir. CLASSIC! Thanks for writing about this series--and reminding me why I love this series.

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    1. You are welcome. I love that episode, too.

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  11. Loved your post -- I've been waiting for it all week! The Dick Van Dyke Show has always been my favorite show of all time. It's funny, though, the one episode I don't like is the one with the walnuts -- it's scary and creepy to me, and I never watch it when it comes on. But I adore all the rest -- one of my favorites that you didn't mention is the one where Rob and Jerry go skiing and Rob sprains his entire body, except the corner of his mouth. Dick Van Dyke showed such physical talent in that one. Oh, I could go on and on, but I won't. Just wanted to say your post was worth the wait!

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    1. Thank you! I'm glad you liked the post. I thought of many episodes I didn't mention and realized just how many great ones there are. I'm starting Season Five while walking on the treadmill and I'm looking forward to the one where Laura inherits the brooch shaped like the U.S.

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  12. Great post about a great show! I'm glad you mentioned the "That's My Boy??" episode--it's one of my favorite TV comedy episodes ever.

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    1. It's a great one ... still makes me laugh out loud.

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  13. Brilliant indeed! This is one of my all-time favorites and you do it proper justice! I was smiling through your entire write-up. THAT CAST! And the brilliance of Carl Reiner. And... and... on and on. It's perfection. Funny as hell and classy. Prat falls and all-out production numbers.

    Anyway - great stuff!

    Aurora

    PS - "Coast to Coast Big Mouth" is one of my favorite episodes! :-D

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    1. Thank you! And glad you love Coast to Coast Big Mouth :)

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  14. Wonderful tribute to this terrific show. I haven't seen too many episodes, but I've really admired those I have. So many clever lines and the characters are interesting. So glad you included this in the blogathon. It wouldn't have been a proper Classic TV blogathon without "The Dick Van Dyke Show". :)

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    1. Thank you! You'll have to check out more episodes and let me know what you think.

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  15. Great post on a show which I had only seen sporadically, but which my mom (a huge MTM fan) always raved about. I'm much more familiar with her 1970s work, but after watching a few episodes on YouTube, the brilliance of MTM on this series is quite evident - super chemistry with Van Dyke as others have also mentioned. I was unaware of the "wrong baby" gag, but found a clip of that also - rather interesting stuff for that time period. Thanks for providing a fantastic tribute with many background details.

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    1. Thank you! Glad you liked the post, and I hope you check out more episodes. You are right about MTM ... she's a natural.

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  16. A splendid post on one of the greatest TV shows of all time. I remember liking the episode where a very lavish b-day party for Richie goes out of control, with a kid in an Indian headdress tied to a stake and screaming constantly. Very funny.

    Growing up, I always enjoyed Buddy's insults on baldness towards Mel. Now.....

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    1. Ha! It was Richard Deacon who came up with the "blech!" reply for Mel to utter at Buddy. Besides, hair is overrated ... remember "Coast to Coast Big Mouth."

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  17. Perfect pick for this blogathon, CFB! I think this show is one of the very best things ever put on TV, bar none. The writing was sharp, the actors divine. I seem to remember reading that Van Dyke felt it was time for the show to end when it did -- it was damn near perfection, and he felt it would just go downhill if it went on too long. My favorite episode is called "Coast to Coast Bigmouth" about Laura spilling the beans that Alan Brady was bald. I laughed until I was sick at that one. The episodes with Carl Reiner were just wonderful. Great piece!

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    1. Thanks, CB! Good to see you. Glad you are as much of a fan as I am.

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  22. In your own home, Rob's caring yet overly-nervous spouse Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) stays on aware of the couple's kid Ritchie crosswrods solutions. Encircled through most of these distinctive figures, Deceive is definitely involved within another person's plan, imagination, or maybe shenanigan.

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