Friday, October 3, 2014

From the Writers’ Room to Bonnie Meadow Road—The Dick Van Dyke Show

The core cast--Dick Van Dyke, Morey Amsterdam, Richard Deacon, Rose Marie, Mary Tyler Moore.

The Dick Van Dyke Show, one of the most beloved and successful television sitcoms of all time made its bow on Tuesday evening, October 3, 1960 on CBS.  It aired at a time when the small screen was dominated by westerns, detective, and variety shows.  A few long running family comedies like Father Knows Best, The Ozzie and Harriet Show, Leave it to Beaver, and The Donna Reed Show focused on the children and how the wise parents rescued them from their misadventures.  Other comedies tended to be wild concept shows, which often came and went without much notice. 
The Dick Van Dyke Show was something different—it split its time and attention between Rob Petrie’s job as head writer of a comedy/variety show and his home life in suburban New Rochelle, New York with his beautiful and somewhat neurotic young wife, Laura.  In this it echoed the show biz/domestic split of the classic I Love Lucy.  The couple does have a child, a grade school age boy named Ritchie, but plots seldom revolved around him and he did not even appear in many episodes.  At home the story was all about Rob and Laura, played by raven haired Mary Tyler Moore.
The show was created and written by veteran comedy writer Carl Reiner based on his own life—and intended to feature him in the lead role.  Reiner had been a working member of the most famous team of writers in television history working for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and its successor programs.  Among the other famous members of that writing room were Mel Brooks, Neil and Danny Simon, Lucille Kallen, Larry Gelbart, Selma Diamond, and Woody Allen.  Those characters would be consolidated into the two other writers on the fictional Allan Brady Show.  

Carl Reiner and Barbara Britton in the unsold pilot--Rob and Laura in an alternate universe.

In 1959 Reiner shot a pilot for a show called Head of the Family playing a comedy writer named Robbie Petrie—pronounced Peetrie in this version.  Also in the cast were Barbara Britton as Laura, Morty Gunty and Sylvia Miles as writers Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers, and Gary Morgan as Ritchie.  Despite a strong cast and the support of some network executives, the pilot was rejected.  Reiner was pretty sure it was because he and his version of the lead character were too identifiably Jewish.  To get the show on the air Rob Petrie would have to be re-cast as an indisputable Goy.
The Nebraska boyish charms and comic timing of a young game show host named Johnny Carson first drew Reiner’s attention.  Then executive producer Sheldon Leonard, a former character actor known for his roles as second string gangsters, suggested Van Dyke, who was even more indisputably gentile than Carson, if such a thing was possible.
Van Dyke grew up in solidly middle America Danville, Illinois and during World War II served in the Army Air Corps as a radio announcer, later transferring to the Special Services entertaining troops in the Continental United States.  All of this would be incorporated in the back story of Rob Petrie and related in flashback episodes.  After the war Van Dyke returned to Danville as a disc jockey, and then formed a novelty mime act with Phil Erickson which successfully toured nightclubs as Eric and Van.  He married Margerie Willett, a former dancer like Laura Petrie in 1948 and began raising a family.
In 1959 Van Dyke premiered on Broadway in The Girls Against the Boys.  Then in 1960 he unexpectedly was cast in the lead of Bye, Bye Birdie which turned into a huge hit and won him the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 1961.  That’s where Leonard spotted him and offered him the job.  Van Dyke continued with the show, arranging shooting for the first episodes of the series around his performance schedule, until October 7, just four days after the premier of the TV show that now carried his name.
With a new lead, the entire show was recast.  First on board was Rose Marie, then 38, as the woman in the writing room, Sally Rogers.  In the pilot New York bohemian actress icon Sylvia Miles had been ten years younger.  But Rose Marie represented a tougher, wise cracking broad who could be “one of the boys” and was modeled particularly on Selma Diamond.
Rose Marie had been a child star, performing as Baby Rose Marie in vaudeville at the age of 3 and by 5 had her own NBC radio show.  She was a singer with a big, impressive voice who belted out jazz numbers with aplomb.  She made several short films for Paramount and co-stared with W. C. Fields in International House in 1934.  She also made numerous recordings, including her first in 1932 on which she was backed by Fletcher Henderson’s band, one of the top Black Big Bands.  She became a favorite of mobsters Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel who latter booked her as his opening act at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.  From the late 30’s through the 50’s she was a band singer and night club performer well known around New York.  Rose Marie had just finished a year on CBS’s short lived series My Sister Eileen with Shirley Boone and Elaine Stritch which convinced Leonard and Reiner she could act.
Casting gag machine Buddy Sorrell based on Mel Brooks, Reiner’s close friend and partner in the 2000 Year Old Man sketches.  Rose Marie recommended veteran vaudevillian and comic Morey Amsterdam.  Amsterdam was a generation older than Brooks, but his rapid fire delivery of seemingly ad libbed jokes and insults to show producer Mel Clooley was in the same spirit.  Buddy was also the only character who was allowed to retain a recognizable Jewish identity.
Chicago born Amsterdam was working as a straight man in a vaudeville duo with his brother when he caught the eye of Al Capone, who hired him and his cello for an act at one of his nightclubs.  After nearly getting killed in a gangland shooting, Amsterdam headed to California where he found work in clubs and on the radio.  He was also a song writer—credited with the lyrics to the Andrews Sister’s hit Rum and Coca Cola.  He actually lifted most of them from calypso singer Lord Invader who sued him for copyright infringement.  He was noted for his huge repertoire of gags—his own and those borrowed liberally from other performers.  Known as the Human Joke Machine he often performed with a mock machine hanging by a strap on his chest.  Upon request for a gag, he turned a hand crank and paper rolled out and would pretend to read the machine’s joke.  In the late ‘40’s he was on three radio shows simultaneously including his own Morey Amsterdam Show, which also ran with a different cast on TV on CBS and then the Dumont Network.  Art Carney and future novelist Jaquelin Sussan were on the TV version.  He was also one of the first two hosts, alternating with Jerry Lester, of Broadway Open House, NBC’s first late-night entertainment show and forerunner of the Tonight Show.  Through the ‘50’s he worked in night clubs and made guest appearances as an actor in several network and syndicated series.

Laura's Capri pants created a fashion trend and liberated millions of women from dresses and skirts at home.

In the pilot Reiner had played Petrie as a middle aged man.  Although Van Dyke was only three years younger in real life, he seemed younger on the screen, necessitating a younger wife than Barbara Britton who was 41 when the pilot was shot.  More than 60 actresses were tested before they settled on 24 year old Mary Tyler Moore, a stunning brunette who broke the standard TV mom image.  She was so youthful looking even next to Van Dyke that it was explained in the back story that she was a 17 year old dancer when she met her future husband on a USO tour.  Her role model for Laura was Nanette Fabray who had replaced Imogene Coca in Caesar’s Hour.
New York born Moore grew up in California and studied to become a dancer.  She got her first break as Happy Hotpoint, a tiny dancing elf on appliance commercials during aired during broadcasts of the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  She auditioned for the role of Danny Thomas’s oldest daughter in Make Room for Daddy, but was turned down because “no daughter of mine could have a nose that small.”  She became the sultry voiced receptionist on Richard Diamond, Private Detective who was only shown from the waist down, featuring Moore’s shapely dancer legs.  By the late ‘50s Moore was appearing regularly as a guest star in numerous TV series including, Bourbon Street Beat, 77 Sunset Strip, Surfside Six, Hawaiian Eye Wanted—all detective shows from the Warner Bros. assembly line—as well Wanted Dead or Alive, Steve Canyon, Thriller,  and Lock-Up.  Finally it was Danny Thomas, owner of the production company who remembered the “girl with three names” and recommended her to Leonard.
Reiner himself took the role of the seldom seen Alan Brady.  When he did appear he was shot from the back, usually sitting at his desk waving a cigar.  He was portrayed as rude, crude, dictatorial, and ego maniacal, vainly concerned with keeping his bald head concealed by bad hair pieces.  Viewers who knew about Reiner’s background naturally assumed that the part was modeled on Sid Caesar.  But Reiner—perhaps out of deference to his former employer—insisted that Alan Brady more closely resembled a combination the notoriously hard to get along with Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason, who was his own biggest admirer.
Rounding out the regular cast was veteran character actor and straight man Richard Deacon who had a still recurring role as the father of Lumpy Rutherford on Leave it to Beaver, the producer of the Allan Brady Show and the star’s brother in law.  Jerry Parris and Ann Morgan Guilbert played Jerry and Millie Halpern, the Petrie’s next door neighbors and best friends.  Parris would go on to direct many of the episodes after season two.  Larry Mathews played Richie Petrie and was six years old in the first season.
Although critically acclaimed, the show garnered mediocre ratings in its first season and CBS executives had plans to cancel it.  But show sponsor  Procter & Gamble had done its own research and discovered that it had a huge fan base among its prime target audience—young suburban housewives.  The company threatened to pull all of its lucrative advertising from the CBS daytime soap opera and game show line up if the program was canceled.
The show picked up new viewers during summer re-runs and vaulted to the top ten by the third show of the second season, no doubt boosted by a lead-in from the new number one program, The Beverley Hilbillies.  Even when moved to a new spot on Wednesday nights it was never out of the top ten again.
The show ran for 5 seasons and could have gone on but Van Dyke wanted to concentrate on his increasingly successful movie career which already included Bye, Bye Birdie and Mary Poppins.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was nominated for 25 Primetime Emmy Awards and won 15 including nod to the program as Best Comedy and Best Achievement in Comedy, for Reiner as a writer and producer, for Jerry Paris as a director, and to all of the principal cast members.
In 2002, it was ranked at 13 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
Just about everyone involved in the show went on to successful careers. 
Reiner went on to a memorable career as an actor, writer, director, and producer.  He was co-star in one of the funniest movies ever filmed, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming in 1966.  He wrote and directed the bitter sweet portrait of a silent movie star The Comedian starring Van Dyke.  Other directorial efforts on the big screen include the autobiographical Enter Laughing; Where’s Poppa; Oh, God! with George Burns; The One and Only; the Steve Martin vehicles The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains, All of Me; Summer School, and That Old Feeling. He has continued to write and occasionally act, most notably in the George Clooney Ocean’s films.  He was elected to the Television Hall of Fame in 1999.  He remains a beloved elder figure in the world of comedy.
After a string of forgettable movie comedies Van Dyke returned to the small screen in two separate sitcoms and most successfully in the long running mystery series Diagnosis Murder.  He has done one man shows and written a frank memoir, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business which discussed his struggles with alcoholism.  At age 88 he remains active in show business.
Mary Tyler Moore went on to star in another of the most celebrated sitcoms in TV history—The Mary Tyler Moore Show which ran from 1970 to ’77.  It was produced by MTM Productions, the company she operated with her husband Grant Tinker and went on to produce a slew of other successful shows, many of them spin-offs from her show.  Later forays into series programing, including two variety shows and two short lived sitcoms were, however, noted failures.  Moore did have success on the movie screen in Thoroughly Modern Millie with Julie Andrews and Change of Habit as a young nun who attracts the attention of Elvis Presley.  Most memorably she played against type as the cold mother in Ordinary People, which earned her an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress.  In later years Moore has become known for her charity work as Chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).  Moore was diagnosed with diabetes during the run of her show.  She is also active in several animal rights organizations.
More than 50 years after it premiered, The Dick Van Dyke Show remains in perpetual reruns and is as beloved as ever.

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