Amsterdam, Morey (1908-1996)

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Amsterdam, Morey (1908-1996)

Morey Amsterdam brought a vaudeville sensibility into the electronic age. Best known for his role as Buddy Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Amsterdam was a popular show business veteran before he was cast in the series. He made his mark in acting, songwriting, film, and nightclub comedy—where he earned the nickname "The Human Joke Machine" for his ability to come up with a joke on any subject on demand. He wrote gags for presidents and performers, and his admirers included Pope John XXIII and Chicago mob boss Al Capone.

Morey Amsterdam was born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 14, 1908. From the beginning, the arts touched his life. His father was a concert violinist who played for the Chicago Opera and, later, the San Francisco Symphony. Like many vaudeville veterans, Amsterdam began his performing career as a child. His first public performance took place in 1922 when Morey sang as a tenor on a San Francisco radio program. The teenager then joined his piano-playing brother in his vaudeville act. He started out as a cellist, but soon the instrument merely became a prop for his comedy. When his brother left show business, Morey continued on his own. At age 16, he was hired as a regular performer by a nightclub owner named Al "Brown," who had been impressed with Amsterdam's stage act. Brown's real name was Al Capone. A shootout on the club premises inspired Amsterdam to seek greener, and safer, pastures in California.

Amsterdam attended the University of California at Berkeley for a time, but by 1930 he was in New York City, working as a comedy writer for radio stars Will Rogers and Fanny Brice. He soon realized that he felt at home on the air, where his quick wit and rapid-fire joke delivery, honed in front of live audiences, quickly won over listeners. In 1932 he started writing for The Al Pierce Gang radio program. It was on this show he met lifelong friend and future Dick Van Dyke Show costar, Rose Marie. He also found time to write jokes for another well-known client—President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the late 1930s, Morey Amsterdam continued to expand his creative horizons, serving as lyricist on the films With Love and Kisses (1937) and Career Girl (1943). His songwriting talents also yielded a number of popular compositions, including "Why Oh Why Did I Ever Leave Wyoming?" and The Andrews Sisters' "Rum and Coca-Cola." He wrote the films The Ghost and the Guest (1943) and Bowery Champs (1944) and provided additional dialogue for Kid Dynamite (1943).

In the midst of post-World War II prosperity, television came to America. As with radio, Morey Amsterdam wasted no time taking his place among the pioneers of the new medium. On December 17, 1948, CBS first telecast The Morey Amsterdam Show (a radio version, which had premiered six months earlier, continued during the TV series' run). Morey essentially played himself: His character, a nightclub owner, was a joke-telling cello player. CBS canceled the series after three months. In only one month it was back, this time on the Dumont network, where it remained until its final airing in October of 1950.

Throughout the 1950s, Morey Amsterdam remained visible to TV audiences in a variety of series and guest appearances. He appeared as a panelist on NBC's Tag the Gag in 1951 and Who Said That? (on which he had made his first TV appearance in 1948) in 1954. He hosted Dumont's intergenerational game, Battle of the Ages, from September to November of 1952. While his own show was still on CBS, he hosted NBC's Broadway Open House (1950), a precursor to The Tonight Show, on Monday and Wednesday nights.

It was Rose Marie who, in 1961, recommended Amsterdam for what would become his most memorable role. She was cast as comedy writer Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The role of co-worker Buddy Sorrel was not yet cast. Rose Marie suggested that series creator Carl Reiner get in touch with her old friend Morey Amsterdam. Knowing Amsterdam's reputation, Reiner agreed. Amsterdam accepted the offer to audition without hesitation—happy for the opportunity to move from New York City to California, where the show was to be filmed. He quickly landed the role.

The Dick Van Dyke Show broke new ground in the television situation comedy genre. Viewers not only learned what Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) did at the office, they also got to know the people with whom he spent his workdays. These co-workers were fully formed characters, as richly drawn as Rob and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore). The series pioneered the depiction of a "workplace family," a concept Moore would put to use in her own series in the next decade. Buddy was also one of the first TV characters to openly state a personal fact seldom mentioned on TV at the time: He was Jewish.

The series' casting and writing were works of genius. As the writers of the fictional "Alan Brady Show," Van Dyke, Amsterdam, and Rose Marie played off each other perfectly. Amsterdam's banter with Rose Marie and his fast-paced quips directed at "Brady" producer Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon) quickly became highlights of the show. Buddy Sorell was an ideal role for him: both were show business veterans with sharp wits and an arsenal of jokes for any occasion. Amsterdam later declared, "I am Buddy. [He] is not only a comic, but an experienced writer, a fellow who knows timing and funny situations." In the final episode, the cast learns that Rob's life is to be adapted for a TV situation comedy that will be scripted by Rob, Buddy, and Sally. The fictional Buddy thus becomes a "real" person adapted into a television character. Just as Morey Amsterdam is Buddy, Buddy becomes, in a sense, Morey Amsterdam.

Amsterdam continued to work throughout the rest of his life, performing in clubs and guest starring on series from The Partridge Family (1970, as a comedy writer) to Caroline in the City (1996, with Rose Marie). He had just returned from a cabaret tour when he died of a heart attack on October 27, 1996. As Dick Van Dyke remarked, "Probably a hundred thousand jokes in his head went with him."

—David L. Hixson

Further Reading:

Amsterdam, Morey. The Betty Cooker Crockbook for Drinkers. New York, Regnery, 1977.

Hill, Tom, and Dick Van Dyke. Nick At Nite's Classic TV Companion: The All Night, Every Night Guide to Better Living Through Television. New York, Fireside, 1991.

Waldron, Vince, and Dick Van Dyke. The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book: The Definitive History and Ultimate Viewer's Guide to Television's Most Enduring Comedy. New York, Hyperion, 1994.

Weisman, Ginny, and Coyne Steven Sanders. The Dick Van Dyke Show. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.