Lady and the Tramp
As far as feel-good fantasies go, it isn’t so bad.
With all due respect to “Veep” and “Barry,” the funniest hour of television on Sunday nights is now the back-to-back episodes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” the multi-Emmy Award-winning series, which returned to the MeTV lineup on Sunday, May 5.
It has been five years since the network devoted to classic and cult television has run “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and its creator, Carl Reiner, 97(!), is elated. “I’m so happy it’s on, I can’t tell you,” he said in a phone interview. “It is the favorite thing I’ve ever done.”
This from the man who was a member of the dream-team writing staff and was an ensemble member on “Your Show of Shows,” co-created with Mel Brooks one of the great comedy routines, “The 2,000 Year Old Man,” and directed a quartet of Steve Martin’s funniest films (“The Jerk,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” “The Man with Two Brains” and “All of Me”), not to mention the pitch-black comedy, “Where’s Poppa?”
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” ran from 1961-1966. It earned 15 Emmys, including three for its star and five for Reiner, who originally conceived the show as a vehicle for himself. Write what you know, the writer’s adage goes, and what Reiner knew was being a suburban family man who happened to have a glamorous show business career. The network didn’t consider Reiner ready for prime time. The pilot, entitled “Head of the Family” was rejected, but producer Sheldon Leonard (the mug who threatens to throw George Bailey and Clarence “out the door or through the window” in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) liked Reiner’s scripts and wanted to revive the project, famously telling Reiner, “We’ll get a better actor to play you.” (Leonard would later guest star in an episode as the intimidating “Big Max Calvada.”)
“He told me about Dick Van Dyke,” Reiner recalled. “I didn’t know him, but I went to see him on Broadway in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and I saw maybe the most talented man I’d ever seen.”
No one else was considered for the role of Rob Petrie, the head writer for “The Alan Brady Show.” “Anything you asked of him, he could do it,” Reiner marveled. “He’s the most coordinated human being and he still is, by the way. He’s an awfully good cartoonist, too. I drink from a cup that has a cartoon he did of the cast of the show; it’s really extraordinary.”
As was the cast, including Mary Tyler Moore as wife and muse Laura, vaudevillians Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam as comedy writers Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell, Richard Deacon as put-upon producer Mel Cooley, Larry Matthews as Rob and Laura’s son Richie, Jerry Paris and Ann Marie Guilbert as neighbors Jerry and Millie and Reiner himself as the tyrannical and egomaniacal star of “The Alan Brady Show.”
The character’s name was originally Alan Sturdy,” Reiner said, “but Sheldon insisted I change it because it sounded like ‘Alan’s dirty.’”
For the next four weeks, MeTV will air episodes Reiner selected as his favorites. He reflected on a few of them:
Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth
Arguably the series’ best-ever episode in which Rob’s professional and personal lives collide when Laura inadvertently blurts out on a TV game show that Alan Brady is bald. The idea for the episode came from Reiner, who indeed wore a toupee, but is not as vain as his iconic alter ego. “That was written by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff; those guys saved my ass,” Reiner said. “The first year I was the story editor and the producer and I wrote the bulk of the first two seasons alone.” We had other writers who didn’t quite get the idea of the show, but they did. In the last year, I put them in charge and I went off to do “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.”
“Big Mouth” is notable as one of the rare episodes to feature a scene between Reiner’s Brady and Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura. “Mary was a gift,” Reiner said. “When she first walked into my office, I said, ‘Wow!’ She didn’t want to come to the audition; she had had a bad week of auditioning and not getting jobs. But Mary just couldn’t make a bad move.”
That’s My Boy??
In this classic flashback episode, Rob recalls Richie’s birth and his growing suspicions that the hospital has confused the Petries with another couple, the Peters, and given the Petries the wrong baby. He arranges for the unseen couple to come to the Petrie home to possibly exchange infants. The episode’s reveal—daring at the time—produced one of the series’ biggest laughs as Rob opens the door to find a black couple on his doorstep. The network was against it as too controversial, but Reiner left the verdict in the live studio audience’s hands. “They reacted just as I hoped they would,” he said. The series was progressive throughout in its attitude toward civil rights, from the matter-of-fact inclusion of a black child in Richie’s classroom in the episode, “Father of the Week,” to casting Godfrey Cambridge as an FBI agent in “The Man from My Uncle.” “I remember getting a call from the network asking if there were FBI agents who were black, and I said, “There will be now,’” Reiner said with a laugh.
It May Look Like a Walnut
Reiner had to fight for this far-out episode. “My partners didn’t want to do it,” he said. In this tip of the hat to “The Twilight Zone,” it may be a practical joke or a nightmare when Rob fears he may be “the last remaining Earth person” in a world ruled by Kolac from the planet Twilo. “I wanted to use pods like they did in ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’” Reiner said. “When I couldn’t, I decided to use walnuts. When Laura comes sliding out of the hall closet on 2,000 walnuts, that was worth the price of admission. We later gave those walnuts to charity.”
Never Bathe on a Saturday
Rob and Laura’s relationship was based on Reiner’s own with his wife, Estelle (the “I’ll have what she’s having” diner patron in “When Harry Met Sally…”). In this episode, Rob and Laura’s second honeymoon goes awry when Laura gets her toe caught in a bathtub faucet. “My wife and I went to a very beautiful hotel,” Reiner said. “Estelle almost got her toe stuck and that’s what gave me the idea. Mary and I had a little contretemps over this episode (because she would be off-camera for most of it). She said she could cover up with a towel and I said, ‘And deprive America of imagining you naked in the bathtub?’ This episode captures the potent chemistry between Van Dyke and Moore that provided the series with its heat and heart. “The two of them, if they had not been married to others, they would have become a couple,” Reiner maintains.
Reiner chose to end “The Dick Van Dyke Show” after five seasons. “The truth of the matter is we started to sort of repeat ourselves,” he said. “We kept saying, “We did one like that.”
Reiner, a Television Academy Hall of Fame inductee, remains creatively engaged. In 2017, he became the oldest Emmy nominee as the narrator for the HBO documentary, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” He is a prolific author. This readership is directed to “Alive at Ninety-Five: Recalling Movies I Love” and “Approaching Ninety-Six: The Films I Love Viewing and Loved Doing.” He also wrote “Why & When The Dick Van Dyke Show Was Born.” Just this morning, he tells his interviewer, he got an idea that will either become another book or a play.
When it is suggested that he co-author a book with Mel Brooks about their lifelong friendship (they get together almost nightly at Reiner’s house to watch movies and television), he shares a story: “Mel and I were invited to [perform the 2,000 Year Old Man]. They paid us an awful lot of money; we have been doing it for nothing at party for years. On the way, Mel complained, ‘What do we need this for?’ He was worried. He didn’t know what I was going to ask him. I didn’t know what I was going to ask him, but Mel never didn’t have the answer. The reaction we got (that night) was immense. On the way home Mel was quiet. I asked, ‘Mel, how much would you have taken for this venue?’ He said, ‘$1.74, and he meant it.”
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” airs on MeTV Sunday nights, 10 p.m. CT. For more information visit metv.com.
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