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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I wasn’t old enough yet to really focus on the out-of-date hairstyles or clothing.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.