People often ask, “What’s your favourite, all-time TV show?” I never hesitate to answer: The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Sure, part of it is nostalgia. I grew up with the black-and-white CBS comedy, which premiered 50 years ago today, Oct. 2, 1961.
It was very much rooted in the Kennedy era, with the pilot having been shot the same day that John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, January 20, 1961. The main character, TV head writer Robert Petrie (Van Dyke), had that Kennedy hair, with his hot wife, Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) just a pillbox hat away from being a Jackie Kennedy look-a-like.
And it had vigour. This TV couple was young, attractive, and looked like they were really into each other. Rob and Laura’s two single beds, a holdover from a more prudish era on television, was the one inauthentic note on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Not that I cared about that as a child watching the show, which I probably didn’t really get into until after it ended its run in 1966 and it was rerun as an afternoon series. I probably identified more with their only child Ritchie (Larry Mathews). The home life story was of less interest to me back then than the scene at work, where Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally (Rose Marie) and producer Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon) were always comedy gold.
Van Dyke today says he has lost track of the number of actual TV comedy writers who have come up to him and said they got into the business because of The Dick Van Dyke Show. There are probably more than a few TV critics who would fall into that same category. What Rob and Buddy and Sally got to do every day just seemed like the greatest job in the world.
It all spilled out of Carl Reiner’s head. The man took his life working as a performer/writer on Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour and spun it into a perfect little series. It’s really he and his late wife Estelle’s life we’re watching, right down to the New Rochelle, N.Y. home address, the neighbours Millie and Jerry and the only son (Rob Reiner). Producer Sheldon Leonard (yes, Chuck Lorre pays tribute each week on The Big Bang Theory by naming his two main characters Sheldon and Leonard) was the one who told Reiner he wasn’t right for the part of Rob Petrie. Leonard, who also produced The Andy Griffith Show and The Danny Thomas Show, wanted Reiner to take a look at this Van Dyke kid he had just seen on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie.
All of these details and many, many more are in author Vince Waldron’s The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book, just re-released by Chicago Review Press, it has been revised and updated from the original edition which was already the best companion book to the series. I had worn out my original copy thumbing through the back episode listings while searching for 16mm prints of the show to buy on eBay. (Years before digital transmissions, TV episodes were shipped to network affiliates on large, pizza-sized reels of 16mm film in order to be broadcast back in the day).
Van Dyke’s own autobiography, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business (Crown Archetype), was a breezy read when it came out earlier this year, offering glimpses behind a private man and beloved entertainer. If you’re looking for dirt, as the 85-year-old Van Dyke says in the foreword, buy another book.
I’ve met Van Dyke on a few occasions over the past decade or so on Television Critics Association press tours in Los Angeles and was delighted to find him as warm and personable in person as he is on screen. He spoke candidly about his struggles with alcohol, especially in the ‘70s, and had a few critics in stitches when I asked him if playing a man with a drinking problem helped when he was making the feature film The Runner Stumbles. “No—I drank more!” said Van Dyke.
The Mary Poppins star is remarkably spry and vibrant for his age, still engages in barbershop quartet charity appearances (with “The Vantastix”) and will sing the Dick Van Dyke theme song—with lyrics written by Amsterdam—with very little prompting. Waldron reproduces the lyrics in his updated book. To Earl Hagen’s music: “So you think that you’ve got trouble/Well, trouble’s a bubble/So tell old Mister Trouble to ‘Get lost!’…”
There was a magic moment eight years ago when Van Dyke and Moore were at press tour together to promote their performance in The Gin Game, which aired on PBS in 2003. I happened to be in the hallway outside the hotel banquet room when the two greeted each other before heading into the session. Van Dyke, that old song and dance smoothie, immediate broke into one of those musical numbers they would throw into the series two or three times a season to give the writers a break. Moore stepped right into it and the two danced and harmonized for a moment in time. Suddenly I was seven again, and the whole world was black and white.
I guess that’s the enduring appeal of The Dick Van Dyke Show. It has a joy and energy that makes you feel good about your world, the future, each other. There’s nothing Cold War about the series, it’s all New Frontier.
I was always cheered that my own children, both now university students, so embraced this series when I showed it to them on film. Despite the relatively slow pacing and few scene changes, there is something modern about The Dick Van Dyke Show. The humour is authentic and almost entirely character driven. You notice people took more time on TV 50 years ago, and there is something about not being rushed that give the show an intimacy today’s comedies seem to lack.
The classic example is the “milk cake” scene in an early episode. Van Dyke wants cake but there’s no mike. Laura says eat it with coffee. Van Dyke makes a face and says that’s just wrong—you can only eat cake with milk. It’s not part of any A, B or C storyline. It’s just real life.
I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners are classics but seem decades older, not the four or five years from the end of their runs to the beginning of the Van Dyke show. Lucille Ball, who actually appeared in films with the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers, seems closer in performance to those theatrical comedy conventions. The Van Dyke Show is all about television, and springs entirely from a TV perspective and sensibility.
To mark the 50th, I had intended to host a screening in Toronto of a couple of network prints from the series–complete with cast commercials–but my own book deadline and just a busy summer threw me off any proper event planning. It will still happen, soon I hope, and I’ll update any news of that here.
In the meantime, stay up to date on all things Van Dyke at David Van Deusen’s site, The Walnut Times (named after the classic “Man from Twilo” episode featuring Danny Thomas). There’s word in the current issue about an upcoming Dick Van Dyke Show opera!
As for marking the 50th, rent a DVD of the series (a new “Best of” set is just out), put on a Botany 500 suit, curl up on a large sectional couch, and catch up with Rob and Laura, Buddy and Sally and even Alan Brady. If you can’t do that, at least find an ottoman and trip over it.