V is for The Dick Van Dyke Show

The Dick Van Dyke Show was a critical success but hardly a ratings bonanza, mired in 80th place.


According to Vince Waldron’s book (pictured), which I read this past summer (I recommend it), when asked to play the part of comedy writer Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961, longtime actress Rose Marie asked “What’s a Dick Van Dyke?” The 35-year-old actor had been a pantomimist, radio DJ, and local talk show host. He was even the anchor of the CBS Morning Show, but like many before and after him, that program was a failure, even with Walter Cronkite as his newsreader.

Whatever real success he had had up to that point was on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie. Producer Sheldon Leonard caught the show and signed Van Dyke. Impressively, and fortunately for him, the actor was also a partner in the show’s production company, named Calvada for creator Carl Reiner, Leonard, Van Dyke, and financial backer Danny Thomas.

Carl Reiner, after he left working with TV skit show legend Sid Caesar in the mid-1950s, was offered a number of sitcoms; he said most were terrible. His wife Estelle said, “Why don’t you write something yourself?” So he did. Not satisfied with writing one script, he penned 13 as a bible for the show. He then starred in a pilot called Head of the Family, about a head comedy writer named Rob Petrie, a pair of co-workers and his wife and son, which failed to be picked up by the networks. Reiner thought his work was in vain until Leonard suggested that the big problem with the pilot was…the star.

The show was recast with Van Dyke, Rose Marie, and her suggestion of jokester Morey Amsterdam as writer Buddy Sorell. For his wife, that “girl with three names,” as Danny Thomas referred to Mary Tyler Moore was cast, after Thomas had rejected her for his own show, primarily over her too-perfect nose. Van Dyke was skeptical; she was a decade younger than he was and he wasn’t sure the audience would accept them as a couple.

The show was a critical success but hardly a ratings bonanza, mired in 80th place. I’ve read that the show survived due to the persuasive nature of producer Sheldon Leonard with potential sponsors, or that the wife of CBS honcho William Paley really liked the show. Maybe both were true. Also, fans seemed to find the show in the summer reruns.

In any case, the cast was surprised to be picked up for a second go-around. Between seasons, Van Dyke squeezed in making the film version of Bye Bye Birdie.

By the fourth episode of the second season, The Dick Van Dyke Show had made it to ninth place, in part because of a new time slot, right after the phenomenon that was The Beverly Hillbillies. That second season also had a new opening sequence replacing the photo montage. Rob Petrie comes into the living room and trips over an ottoman, deftly dances around it, or rarely, gets around it but stumbles; this opening became as legendary as the TV theme by Earle Hagan; here’s Dick Van Dyke and the Vantasticks singing the theme a couple of years ago.

Despite changing writers (which would include Garry Marshall, later of Happy Days fame) and directors, the show ran five successful seasons, the perfect blend of work and home life. It is one of only two complete series I own on DVD, the other being The Twilight Zone. Interestingly each show has someone from Binghamton, TZ host/creator Rod Serling, of course; and Richard Deacon, who played put-upon brother-in-law of Alan Brady/producer of his TV show, Mel Cooley. Reiner himself would have the occasional role of Brady.

Notable episodes in season 2 included the one I remember the best, What’s In A Middle Name, when young Ritchie Petrie (Larry Mathews) discovers why his middle name is Rosebud; and It May Look Like a Walnut, which involves Laura body surfing on a wave of walnuts, discussed in In Praise Of Laura Petrie’s… capri pants. Walnut was ranked at #8 on TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. After that season, Van Dyke costarred in the movie Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews.

One of the funniest episodes of the whole series was “That’s My Boy?”, the season opener for season three; the full script appears in the book The Dick Van Dyke Show: Anatomy of a Classic by Weissman and Sanders (1983). Also, read what Ken Levine wrote about the episode 100 Terrible Hours.

Hope you can watch all the shows here. I’m in the midst of rewatching them at home, but I’ve only gotten through the first six episodes of Season 1 plus Head of the Family.

Dick Van Dyke went on to do other television (notably Diagnosis: Murder, with his son Barry) and movies, but the Dick Van Dyke Show is certainly a highlight in his long career, in which he has received a Tony, a Grammy, and five Emmys. He will receive the Screen Actors Guild’s Life Achievement Award on January 27, 2013. Van Dyke is the artist of the cast drawing above, which appears in the DVDS DVD set.

ABC Wednesday – Round 11