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Van Dyke, Dick (1925—)

Van Dyke, Dick (1925—)

Dick Van Dyke is best remembered as a television comedian in the 1960s and 1970s, but this performer's career has included everything from Broadway to motion pictures to drama, in which he has excelled portraying likeable and sensible characters. His most successful role was as the star of The Dick Van Dyke Show, an Emmy-award-winning sitcom that appeared on the CBS-TV network from 1961 to 1966; he played the role of Rob Petrie, the head writer for the fictional " Alan Brady Show " who lives with his wife (played by Mary Tyler Moore) and son in suburban New Rochelle, New York. The show was unusual for a sitcom of the period in that it allowed its star to portray a "TV Dad" both at home and at work while offering an insightful, behind-the-scenes glimpse of a television sitcom from the inside out.

Van Dyke was born in West Plains, Missouri, on December 13, 1925, the son of a trucking agent. His younger brother, Jerry, also became a comedian. It was while he was serving in the U.S. Air Force during World War II that Van Dyke began performing in shows; one of his buddies, Byron Paul, later became his personal manager. After a failed attempt, with a friend, to start an advertising agency after the war, Van Dyke formed a comedy pantomime act, The Merry Mutes, with his friend Philip Erickson. "Eric and Van" broke up in 1953 and Van Dyke continued to appear solo in nightclubs around the country until he became emcee of two daytime programs for an Atlanta television station: The Merry Mutes Show and The Music Shop. In 1955, he originated a variety program he called The Dick Van Dyke Show for a New Orleans television station, and went to New York as emcee for CBS's The Morning Show, following in the footsteps of Walter Cronkite and Jack Paar. He was emcee of CBS Cartoon Theater in 1956 and NBC's Laugh Line in 1959.

Disappointed with CBS's refusal to offer him a daily show, Van Dyke appeared as a guest performer on a variety of television shows, including The United States Steel Hour, but it was on Broadway that he had his first major starring role. From April 1960 to September 1961, he attracted much critical and popular attention and won a Tony award for the role of Albert Peterson in the musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie. A month after leaving that cast, he debuted as TV writer Rob Petrie in his own weekly TV sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show, which premiered on October 3, 1961 with Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore as the leads, and Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, and Richard Deacon playing the supporting roles. The episode, titled "Head of the Family" was the title of the pilot episode that writer-producer Carl Reiner had earlier made with himself in the leading role—Johnny Carson was also briefly considered for the part—until he agreed that Van Dyke was a better choice. Reiner, who appeared on the show in the role of Alan Brady, based many of the episodes on his own experience as a writer for the 1950s comedy series Your Show of Shows. The Dick Van Dyke Show was also a vehicle for the relatively unknown Mary Tyler Moore, who had appeared mostly in commercials before assuming the role of Rob Petrie's wife.

The Dick Van Dyke Show stands as an icon to the times, a mirror for the world of television in the early 1960s and for the suburban lifestyle that was then somewhat more idyllic than it would become in later years. It was popular largely because of Van Dyke's ability to play both light, sophisticated, domestic comedy and engage in clownish, farcical pratfalls. The stories endure because they present believable characters in unusual but ultimately explainable situations. The producers and cast deliberately ended production after just five seasons, and so the quality of this series remains consistently high throughout; it won fifteen Emmys in five consecutive years.

Beginning in the 1960s Van Dyke starred in a number of memorable films. He reprised his Broadway role in a film adaptation of Bye, Bye, Birdie (1963), then played the Chimney Sweep alongside Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins (1965). He next starred in Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N. (1966) and Divorce American Style (1967), and played an eccentric inventor in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). In 1971, he tried a different type of role in the satire Cold Turkey, that of a minister in a town undergoing withdrawal symptoms as it tries to give up smoking for a month to win a bounty from a tobacco company.

Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke were reunited in The New Dick Van Dyke Show in 1971 by a CBS network anxious to try to recapture the viewers and quality of their first sitcom a decade earlier. By this time The Mary Tyler Moore Show had become a hit, and the trend was toward the sophisticated, more adult comedies, like the original Dick Van Dyke Show had been. In The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Van Dyke was cast in the role of Dick Preston, the host of a local talk show in Phoenix, Arizona, and a happily married family man with loving young daughter and college-age son. For the final twenty-four episodes, the scene shifted to Hollywood as Dick Preston accepted a major role in a daytime soap opera. This venue seemed a more deliberate attempt to duplicate the earlier show, with its faster pace and more emphasis on behind-the-scenes banter among the performers, writers, and producer.

Despite these devices, The New Dick Van Dyke Show was not overly popular with audiences and it was almost canceled by the network until a flap over one episode in which the Prestons' teenaged daughter accidentally walked in on them while they were having sex. Though the bedroom scene was not shown on camera, the network refused to air the episode as it was filmed and Reiner quit. It was after his departure that the show's setting moved to Hollywood, and the show's new soap-opera situation, plus publicity over the earlier flap, helped raise its ratings somewhat. By 1974 Van Dyke decided not to continue the show, which still won an Emmy. He returned later in the 1970s with a briefly-running variety show called Dick Van Dyke and Co. that won another Emmy for him.

Following this show, Van Dyke continued to make occasional movies and is perhaps best known for a series of public-service announcements aimed at fire safety for children that advised them to: "Stop, Drop and Roll." He, along with Pearl Bailey and Hermione Gingold, supplied voices for the British-made children's movie Tubby the Tuba (1977), and he appeared as the star of The Runner Stumbles (1979) and in the supporting cast of Dick Tracy (1990). In the early 1990s Van Dyke reappeared before television audiences as the "Chairman" of Nick-at-Nite, the cable network program that shows reruns of classic TV shows including his own 1960s series. Around this time, he also appeared in episodes of the show Jake and the Fatman and in several television movies. His most notable role in this period was that of Dr. Mark Sloan in the hour-long CBS-TV dramatic series Diagnosis Murder. In this show, Dr. Sloan is portrayed as a Los Angeles crime-solving physician with a police detective son, played by Van Dyke's real-life son, Barry. This show captured a strong following and benefited from a new writing team that allowed it to grow and expand. Despite its serious subject, the show was directed with a playful and human feel that reflected Van Dyke's combination of sophistication and humor. In early 1999, he was cast as Ted Danson's father in a "Becker the Elder" episode of another CBS-TV series, Becker.

—Frank E. Clark

Further Reading:

"Becker." http://members.theglobe.com/Becker_TV/dickvan1.htm.June 1999.

Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Harry and Wally's Favorite Shows: A Fact-filled Opinionated Guide to the Best and Worst on TV. New York, Prentice Hall Press, 1989.

Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L. A. Law—America's Greatest TV Shows and the People Who Created Them. Boston, Little Brown, 1992.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. 3rd edition. New York, Penguin Books, 1991.

Putterman, Barry. On Television and Comedy: Essays on Style, Theme, Performer and Writer. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1995.

"Video Flicks." http:www.videoflicks.com. June 1999.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best in Prime-Time Comedy. 2nd edition. Los Angeles, Silman-James Press, 1997.

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