Monday, October 03, 2011

 

“Oh, Rob…”

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is our contribution to The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon being hosted by Ivan himself over at his home base at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.


By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
It’s been observed by many boob tube historians that during the era fondly referred to as The Golden Age of Television “comedy was king”…in 1950, for example, audiences could catch The Colgate Comedy Hour on Sunday nights, with Tuesdays reserved for the wacky shenanigans of “Mr. Television” himself, Milton Berle and his Texaco Star Theater. Sprinkled throughout the week were radio sitcom holdovers such as The Aldrich Family, Beulah and The Goldbergs not to mention the early offerings from veterans Burns and Allen and Jack Benny. It all came to a boil on Saturdays with the 90 minute Your Show of Shows — which also presented music, opera and ballet in addition to the hilarity and made TV icons out of stars Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, the headliners of its earlier incarnation, The Admiral Broadway Revue.

Caesar and Coca’s co-stars on Your Show of Shows included two other funny men, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner, the latter versatile enough to play any sort of role from villainous cad to roving reporter (he usually was Caesar’s straight man in Sid’s “Professor” sketches). Although billed as a performer (Reiner would win two Emmy Awards as outstanding supporting actor on Sid Caesar’s follow-up series, Caesar’s Hour and Sid Caesar Invites You), Carl also was an uncredited writer and it was the atmosphere of “the writer’s room” on Your Show of Shows (described by Reiner as “the most interesting room I’ve ever been in”) that inspired him to create a pilot about a television comedy writer and his experiences both at work and at home. The show would be titled Head of the Family and despite a favorable response from many, it went nowhere quickly. Fate intervened to give the busted pilot a second chance, and when Reiner allowed himself to be talked out of starring in it on the second go-round, he laid the groundwork for a series that premiered on this date 50 years ago that in my opinion is the gold standard by which all situation comedies should be measured: The Dick Van Dyke Show.


In Head of the Family, Carl Reiner played Robert Petrie, the head writer of the popular TV comedy show The Alan Sturdy Show — with Reiner’s pilot focused on Rob’s workplace, staffed with his fellow scribes Buddy Sorrell (Morty Gunty) and Sally Rogers (Sylvia Miles). Previous sitcoms did show their characters working their jobs on occasion, but Family was one of the first to concentrate chiefly in that area. Rob Petrie’s home life wasn’t neglected, however; there was plenty of action on the homefront (the pilot had a subplot in which Rob’s son is a little embarrassed that his dad is but a mere comedy writer) with wife Laura (Barbara Britton) and son Richie (Gary Morgan). What made Family such a unique TV pilot was that Reiner wasn’t content to write just one script while waiting to see if the series would get sold — he pounded out an additional 12 episodes on his typewriter in order to obtain a better feel for the show and its characters. The July 19, 1960 premiere of Head of the Family on CBS’ The Comedy Spot was extremely well-received by potential sponsors and yet Reiner was unable to get any of them to bite — it was a time in the industry when Westerns rode herd over the airwaves and in the end the sponsors decided to, in Carl’s words, “go with horses and guns.”

Reiner’s pilot was considered too good to just die prematurely on the vine, and his agent Harry Kalcheim continued to shop the show around until actor-turned-producer Sheldon Leonard was convinced to look at Family. Leonard, whose partnership with comedian Danny Thomas had not only made Thomas’ own show (Make Room for Daddy, which by that time had been renamed The Danny Thomas Show) a monster hit but also struck gold with The Real McCoys and The Andy Griffith Show, had a consistently high batting average in the business in that he had never produced a pilot that hadn’t sold and that he possessed an amazing knack for being able to salvage the best elements from pilots that didn’t work. After screening Head of the Family, Leonard told Reiner that the show could succeed — provided that Carl recast the lead role with someone other than himself.

As we are well aware, the entire cast of Head of the Family was eventually replaced, but finding the right person to headline the series was Leonard and Reiner’s top priority. The two candidates for the role of Rob Petrie were Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke — Carson was better-known at the time, and had he taken the job the course of TV history would have been changed remarkably — but Leonard liked Van Dyke and the fact that his unconventional leading man looks were more in keeping with the show’s main character (he had an aversion to stars such as William Powell and Robert Taylor, who were “too glamorous to be sharing your living room”); he convinced Reiner to see Van Dyke in the current Broadway hit Bye Bye Birdie, and Carl agreed that Sheldon’s instincts were right on the money.

For the part of Sally Rogers, a female comedy writer that Reiner based by combining Your Show of Shows’ Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond, Leonard hired Rose Marie on the spot — he had been promising her for years that he’d find something for her in one of his series and he was good as his word. The former child star (known in her youth as “Baby Rose Marie”) had previous sitcom experience with roles on The Bob Cummings Show (aka Love That Bob) and My Sister Eileen, and when she learned that Leonard and Reiner hadn’t chosen an actor for the part of Buddy Sorrell, she suggested Morey Amsterdam whom she had first met when she was 12-years-old on radio’s Al Pearce and His Gang. Amsterdam had a reputation in the business as “a human joke machine,” and since the Buddy Sorrell character had been inspired by Reiner’s friendship and association with Mel Brooks (both on the Caesar shows and their popular “The 2000 Year Old Man” sketches) Morey was the next best thing to having Mel himself.

While I'm on the subject of Mels, Reiner tabbed Richard Deacon (who at this point in his career was familiar to TV audiences as Leave it to Beaver's overbearing Fred Rutherford, father of Wally Cleaver’s pal Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford) for the part of Mel Cooley, the toadying producer of what would be re-named on the new series “The Alan Brady Show” (both Sheldon Leonard and Morey Amsterdam observed that the original “Alan Sturdy” sounded too much like “Alan’s dirty”). The Cooley character was originally called “Cal” (as in “Calvin”) on Head of the Family; the change was suggested by Leonard (who pointed out that the handle was awfully similar to “Calvin Coolidge”) though Deacon later went on record as saying he wished Leonard had stuck with the original. Cast in the role of Richie Petrie was a young child actor named Larry Mazzeo, who also was a victim of a name change, only it was his real-life surname (he became “Larry Matthews”) because as he later admitted “Ethnic wasn’t in at the time.”

The new cast members were chosen with relative ease save for the role of Laura Petrie, Rob’s charming, supportive wife. Leonard and Reiner auditioned close to 60 actresses but just couldn’t seem to find the perfect fit; it was only after the two men had a conversation with Danny Thomas that Danny remembered an actress who had once auditioned on his sitcom for the part of his daughter. The only problem was Thomas couldn’t remember her name, only that she had three of them. So a little detective work was in order and oddly enough, a TV detective show figured in the search for their Laura Petrie in that Leonard remembered the actress to which Thomas was referring had a role as the sexy secretary “Sam” to boob tube shamus Richard Diamond…even though all audiences ever saw of Mary Tyler Moore was her legs (though you did hear her voice). Moore almost didn’t get the part because she seriously considered not showing up for the audition when her agent called and told her Carl Reiner wished to see her, but she was a fan of Reiner’s from the Caesar shows and agreed to go anyway. She barely got out the first line in her audition (“Hello Rob, are you home?”) before Reiner grabbed her and marched her down to Sheldon Leonard’s office. “She says ‘hello’ like a real person!” Reiner shouted enthusiastically, and once Leonard heard Mary read he agreed that the final puzzle piece had fallen into place.

Rather than re-shoot the original Head of the Family script, Reiner decided that one of the other scripts he had written, “The Sick Boy and the Sitter” would work better as a pilot for the new series, which he renamed The Dick Van Dyke Show. Leonard already was producing The Danny Thomas Show and The Andy Griffith Show, so it seemed like a good idea that the new show follow suit even though people would ask him in the beginning “What’s a Dick Van Dyke?” In the premiere, Rob and Laura go out for the evening to attend a party being thrown by Rob’s boss, Alan Brady, despite Laura’s reservations since son Richie’s slightly elevated temperature indicates he might be sick. The choice of “Sick Boy” was considered an excellent one because of several comedy and musical numbers in a party sequence that allowed Van Dyke, Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam to demonstrate their talents and versatility as Rob, Sally and Buddy.

Procter & Gamble loved the pilot and agreed to sponsor the show — and CBS premiered it on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m., sandwiched between half-hour reruns of Gunsmoke (retitled Marshal Dillon) and the hit sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Despite rave reviews from critics praising the quality of the series and tepid competition from NBC (the last half of the Western series Laramie) and ABC (Bachelor Father), the early scheduling of the show did not work in its favor: on the West Coast, The Dick Van Dyke Show aired during the “dinner hour” and the response was extremely disappointing. A move to Wednesday nights at 9:30 p.m. at mid-season proved even more disastrous; the series was killed by its NBC competition, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall. The Dick Van Dyke Show was cancelled at the end of the 1961-62 season by CBS.

Both Carl Reiner and Sheldon Leonard were stunned by CBS’ decision…though the catalyst for the show’s cancellation actually was the decision by Procter & Gamble to bail on the series, at a time when the sponsor still called the shots. Leonard simply wasn't content to let the show die so with the help of Lee Rich, an executive with ad agency Benton & Bowles, the two men lobbied P&G’s head of television, “Havvy” Halverstadt, into signing on for a second season despite the objections of CBS’ president of programming, James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey. Halverstadt would eventually agree to pay the bills for a second year of Dick Van Dyke, but only for half of the sponsorship. (Leonard lucked out in that he was able to crash a board meeting of P. Lorillard & Co. — better known for making Kent cigarettes — and talk Kent into picking up the tab for the second half.)

While Sheldon schmoozed with corporate America, Carl Reiner cajoled CBS into rerunning The Dick Van Dyke Show during their summer schedule — a risky gambit at the time, since it was believed the best possible way to ladle dirt over a show already in its grave was to further remind TV audiences via reruns what a flop it was in the first place, but the show soon garnered a renewed following, and coupled with Reiner’s Emmy Award win for outstanding chievement in comedy writing, The Dick Van Dyke Show vaulted into the Nielsen’s Top 10 the following season. The fact that the most-watched series that same year, The Beverly Hillbillies, was its lead-in also was a tremendous help.

The Dick Van Dyke Show shuttled back-and-forth between two worlds: first, there was the work “bullpen” where writers Rob, Sally and Buddy would craft scripts for their talented but autocratic boss, television comedian Alan Brady. But viewers also got the opportunity to see Rob announce “Honey, I’m home!” in that many of the show’s stories revolved around the domestic bliss shared by Rob and Laura at their home at 448 Bonnie Meadow Road. Rob and Laura’s marriage (and in flashbacks, the circumstances surrounding their courtship) took precedent in most of the stories; audiences only got an occasional glimpse into the personal lives of Rob’s co-workers. Buddy was married to an ex-showgirl named “Pickles” who turned up on the program on only a handful of occasions before the show’s writers realized that Pickles was funnier when just talked about and Sally was a “professional spinster” who, despite her intelligence and sense of humor, always had difficulty keeping a boyfriend. (The closest she got to a regular beau on the show was mama’s boy Herman Glimscher played by Billy Idelson, who finally ended up tying the knot with Sal by the time the reunion special The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited was telecast in 2004. Just between you, me and the lamppost — everybody knew that Buddy and Sally were married to each other, just not in the legal sense.)

The nature of Rob’s job made the antics at his place of business positively delightful; unlike other sitcom characters, you just knew that Rob Petrie enjoyed getting up and going to work in the morning. Rob’s occupation and The Dick Van Dyke Show itself made the notion of writing for television attractive and had a huge influence on a future generation who aspired to write comedy for a living; Saturday Night Live scribe and "It’s Garry Shandling’s Show." co-creator Alan Zweibel acknowledged this to be this case when he had the opportunity to meet Dick Van Dyke one time in a Hollywood elevator (he pointed out the similarities between the two men’s lives and broke down when Van Dyke brought up the painful memory that he had also become an alcoholic). The workplace atmosphere of The Dick Van Dyke Show, with its “second family” setting, would find itself adopted later by Mary Tyler Moore’s self-titled sitcom (the WJM-TV newsroom) not to mention WKRP in Cincinnati, Taxi, Cheers and scores of other TV sitcom hits.

But The Dick Van Dyke Show also broke new ground in its portrait of domestic life on television; moving away from the established bland, white-bread, middle-class nature of most families into something that could very well be called a television “Camelot” (referring to the nickname given to the Kennedy White House). Rob and Laura were an attractive couple, possessing poise and a terrific chemistry; sure, they slept in twin beds but seemed to be, as producer Leonard once remarked, “the first pair (on TV) that may be having some fun in the hay.” Laura Petrie established herself as a wife and mother unlike those seen previously on TV; she was not only incredible sexy (especially decked out in her trademark Capri pants, which raised quite a ruckus when they first introduced on the program) but also demonstrated an independence in that while she was generally supportive of her husband she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind if she had a difference of opinion. (In other words, they had great fights and they undoubtedly had great make-up sex.) Thanks to Rob’s show business connections, she also threw tremendous parties…something I always chuckle about when I consider that the running gag on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was that Mary Richards’ shindigs usually were a bust. The character of Laura also was tempered with an endearing wackiness that had her occasionally venturing in Lucy Ricardo-like territory (such as dying her hair half-blonde and half-brunette or getting her toe stuck in the faucet of a hotel bathroom), which just made her that much more human.

Rob Petrie was TV’s first neurotic father, complete with foibles and an uncertainty as to whether he was always pursuing the wisest course of action. He wasn’t ineffectual or bumbling like Chester Riley or Ozzie Nelson, but he’d be the first to admit that he didn’t always have all the answers and often found himself learning about parenting from a hands-on, first-time-out approach. He was engagingly goofy and elastic (like human Silly Putty) yet without being cartoonish, and as played by Van Dyke displayed some of the most hilarious physical comedy in the history of the television sitcom. Crazy things often happened to Rob (he’d find himself mistakenly arrested for assault or he had to solve the problem of what to do when a bird attacked his son without reason) but he’d usually find a solution before the half-hour was out in a fashion that was only slightly exaggerated for comic effect, rarely delving into anything too foolish.

It seems like I haven’t paid much attention to the character of Alan Brady in this essay, and that might be because Carl Reiner’s intention on The Dick Van Dyke Show was to have Alan talked about and occasionally heard from but never seen on the show, because Reiner originally wanted a BIG star for the part. (Though many of the characters on The Dick Van Dyke Show were based on people Reiner knew or was acquainted with, he was always adamant that “Alan Brady” was not modeled after his former “boss,” Sid Caesar…suggesting that Alan was closer in spirit to Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle than anybody else.) In the first season of Dick Van Dyke, only Alan’s voice was heard; he didn’t make an onscreen appearance until “The Sleeping Brother” (in an easy chair with his back to the audience). As the series progressed, Reiner consented to turning up more frequently as the tyrannical Brady (but only sparingly, and only, as Reiner put it, “when we had a great idea for him”) — his best showcase is unquestionably the classic outing “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth,” in which Laura inadvertently reveals to a nationwide TV audience (she’s a contestant on a game show) that Alan Brady wears a rug. (For the record, this is my very favorite of all Dick Van Dyke Show episodes.) Alan Brady was one of those characters whose personality was so strong it seemed like he was in every episode; he later took on a life of his own, appearing as “himself” on a classic episode of Mad About You and an animated special on TV Land.

Besides, Carl Reiner was much too busy writing and producing the series to squeeze in a weekly appearance as Alan Brady; in the first season alone he wrote 19 of the show’s first 30 episodes, and penned an additional 21 in season two. The addition of Bill Persky and Sam Denoff in the show’s third season — the team wrote the season opener, “That’s My Boy?”, a classic in which Rob relates how he was convinced he and Laura brought home the wrong baby from the hospital (and an episode whose “surprise twist” generated more than its fair share of controversy at the time) — was a godsend for Reiner, who noted “If I hadn’t found Persky and Denoff in the third year, I think I would have had a heart attack!” Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson, long before they adapted The Odd Couple to TV screens, also were prolific contributors to The Dick Van Dyke Show, as were Carl Kleinschmitt and Dale McRaven. “That’s My Boy?” was directed by John Rich, who helmed many of the series’ episodes, but not nearly as many as Jerry Paris, who not only played director behind-the-scenes but also appeared on camera as Rob’s best friend and next-door neighbor, dentist Jerry Helper (with his wife Millie played by Ann Morgan Guilbert).

In its final season on CBS, The Dick Van Dyke Show was still a Top 20 ratings contender, but the decision was made by creator Reiner that the series would not go beyond a fifth season. There have been various explanations for this: many of the cast members wanted to pursue other projects (Dick Van Dyke actively chased a film career before returning with Reiner to TV in 1971 to work on another sitcom titled The New Dick Van Dyke Show); Reiner himself always has been adamant that he was going to close up shop after five years, wanting to leave “while we’re still proud of it.” Fortunately for fans of classic television, there are 158 episodes with which to be pleased — all available on DVD (in five box sets that some have called one of the best example of TV-on-DVD collections ever released) and on many cable outlets, notably (as of this post) weeknights at 8:30 on Me-TV. OK, maybe saying they can be proud of all 158 episodes is a slight exaggeration (“The Twizzle”…call your office)…but the majority of the shows hold up extremely well and don’t embarrass to the degree that other comedy shows do from its era, due to Reiner’s insistence on character-based humor (he also was careful about avoiding any slang that might “date” the episodes).

As a kid, I was such a big fan of Dick Van Dyke that I would practice — in the tradition of the show’s opening, which alternated from week to week between Van Dyke tripping and falling over the ottoman, stumbling on it and sidestepping it completely — falling over the hassock in our living room, as my mother’s eyes rolled helplessly heavenward. I wanted my Dad and Mom to be just like Rob and Laura Petrie (they were more like Herbert and Winifred Gillis, to be honest) and for them to throw cool parties with singing and dancing…and it even got to a point where I schemed to have something tragic befall young Richie (whom I pictured floundering in a well without a Lassie to save him) so I could volunteer to take his place. I watch the shows over and over again and marvel at how they sparkle; how witty the dialogue is and how even when the lines aren’t so funny I laugh because I’m so in tune with the show’s characters. Carl Reiner adopted the first rule of writing — “Write what you know” — in creating The Dick Van Dyke Show, the series I consider without question the greatest situation comedy of all time. I would deem it an honor to raise a glass and toast its 50th anniversary, with the hopes of many more to continue.

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Comments:
Even with their twin beds, it still plays like the first modern sitcom. That's why I'm so glad that for the first time in eons TV Land has made a good decision and acquired The Dick Van Dyke Show to add to their lineup. Now if only they'll dump their deadweight such as Three's Company, Home Improvement and The Nanny. At least they exiled that Extreme Home Makeover to weekend mornings when no one is watching.
 
Along with the Mary Tyler Moore Show (which wouldn't happened, let alone, air, without this one preceding it), this series remains my favorite sitcom of all-time. Excellent look back, Ivan. Thanks for this.
 
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