The Dick Van Dyke Show – Origins
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Several of its episodes ranked among the greatest comedy episodes of all-time. In its comparatively short-run among classic television programs, it captured a whopping 15 Emmy Awards. And it is regularly ranked among the best shows ever to come out of the 1960s.
What show are we talking about?
It’s The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The original premise for this highly successful sitcom was actually based on a failed pilot show starring television comedy writer Carl Reiner. A key member of the writing dream-team that made up Sid Caeser’s Your Show of Shows (which also included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart and other genius scribes), Reiner created the idea for a show based on his own life.
Part-work based, part-home life…the idea of a story dealing with the hectic lifestyle of balancing a career and young family seemed perfect for an early 1960s audience.
The working title of the show was called “Head of the Family,” with Reiner’s character (then named Robbie Peetree) dealing with a zany staff of television comedy writers and then going home to deal with all the fun that comes with a newly-wed couple raising a young son.
Robbie’s wife, Laura, was played by Barbara Britton in the pilot and his son was played by Gary Morgan. Robbie’s co-workers were portrayed by Morty Gunty and Sylvia Miles. Robbie’s boss was played by Alan Sturdy, who, like the early years of The Dick Van Dyke Show, remained either off-screen or his face was not seen by the audience. (Ironically, Reiner took this role in the revamped format, but, after the first three years allowed HIS character to be seen on screen).
By his own admission in many interviews since that time, he said the original pilot had one major flaw: he cast himself as the lead!
When all three networks passed on his pilot episode (which still exists today on YouTube), Reiner scrambled to rework the show, including spotting new talent for all the lead roles.
For the role of “himself,” he changed the character’s name to Rob Petrie and sought out the versatile actor/singer/dancer, Dick Van Dyke. Many of Van Dyke’s “real life” interests spilled over into the “new” Rob Petrie character like pantomime, love of cowboys, old time radio show references, his “Stan Laurel” impressions, et al. Van Dyke’s multi-talented skills allowed Reiner to broaden the character to incorporate physical comedy, song-and-dance numbers and many other elements that the original pilot’s “Robbie” would never have attempted.
Rose Marie (“Sally Rogers”) was probably the most popular personality of all the main characters at this particular time. She had starred in several films in the 1950s and had become a major attraction because of her hilarious Las Vegas stand-up routines.
For the “Buddy Sorrell” character, Reiner tried to liken this character to the real life, smart-mouth (as much as early-1960’s network censors would tolerate) antics of Mel Brooks. Veteran jokeman Morey Amsterdam quickly bought into that characterization and instantly made the wise-cracking “Buddy” a likable supporting role on the program who always got quick laughs despite not always getting a ton of on-screen time.
For the role of his wife, Reiner remembered a talented young actress who Sid Caesar really liked and auditioned for his own show but passed on her because he felt the audience wouldn’t believe that he could have an on-screen daughter that was so pretty.
While Mary Tyler Moore’s political views were diametrically opposite her television husband in real life, their on-screen chemistry was magical. Reiner quickly added more “home life” scenes to the pilot (and subsequent episodes) to build on that relationship which, Reiner correctly assumed, audiences would most closely bond with.
The revamped show did receive a ringing endorsement from CBS and was immediately added to the network’s fall schedule. But the successes of this show’s new look were just beginning. We’ll have more on the successes of this wildly popular show coming up in a future blog entry here at “The Showplace.”
In the meantime, you can see The Dick Van Dyke Show, as part of a rotation of some of the best classic television shows of all-time on ATVN’s Classic TV Showcase, Tuesdays at 12 noon on the Astound TV Network.
To view the complete rundown of classic programming on ATVN, check out the weekly listings here.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Astound Broadband or any other agency, organization, employer or company.