Thursday, 6 October 2011

50 Years of Rob and Laura

How’s this for a TV review? Fred Danzig of UPI gave it to a show in his column of October 3, 1961.

The acting ... was petrified. The dialogue was wooden. The laugh-and-applause track was intrusive. And the background fiddle music* was impossible.

And what was the show? One I had never heard of until researching this post. It was ‘Window on the World’ and starred Robert Young, just coming off a long career as the Father who Knows Best. Danzig’s description certainly isn’t one you could give to a different show which debuted that night, one still loved by comedy fans everywhere.

Going up against the second-half of ‘Laramie’ on NBC, and tired, old ‘Bachelor Father’ on ABC, was a promising, brand-new sitcom on CBS—‘Double Trouble.’ Well, that’s what its name was in a news blurb the previous May. By the time it aired, it was called ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’

It succeeded because it simply wasn’t anything like Danzig’s description of Bob Young’s forgotten effort. The acting was superb, the dialogue was both funny and fast, the brassy theme song stuck in your head (and everyone watched and waited for the hassock gag in the opening credits starting in season two). And you knew everyone on the show. Rob Petrie was the nice guy next door, Laura was crush material, and Buddy and Sally were the snappy, silly, funny friends. They all meshed together oh-so-well. And, more importantly, ‘Van Dyke’ pulled away from shows like Young’s ‘Father Knows Best’ which weren’t much more than radio sitcoms, filled with standard-issue characters with standard-issue dialogue in standard-issue situations.

I wanted to mark this week’s 50th anniversary of the debut of the Van Dyke show by digging up an old interview. So here’s a fine profile of Van Dyke in a syndicated column that ran about a month before his show debuted.

Dick Van Dyke Is Versatile

NEW YORK — A new contender for “young Bob Hope” parts is out in Hollywood sporting a tan, driving a sports car and making a TV series. He’s Dick Van Dyke, the-rubber-legged star of the Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” who turned down a smaller role in a Cary Grant picture to make a series instead.
This is a puzzle. Why do a TV series and kill yourself instead of concentrating on a movie career? Manager Byron Paul, who is a TV director, too, says he wants to bring his boy along slowly. ‘The slower Dick can grow the longer he will be around.’
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Van Dyke will be around because he’s a nice happy looking, handsome fellow with a barrel full of talent. He says he never had a dancing lesson in his life until Gower Champion gave him a few directions for hobbling around in “Bye Bye Birdie” and he tore the theater down with his movements. TV fans will remember the unknown drunk who sobered up when he saw his wife on “Fabulous Fifties.” Dick had about ten minutes of action there and the exercise exhausted him. The action woke up a few fans. “Who was that fella anyway?” Then you had to wait ‘til the credits rolled at the end to learn he was Dick Van Dyke.
“That’s the story of my life,” says Van Dyke with a grin.
Later, he appeared on Alfred Hitchcock as a rich boy and in a stark Steel Hour drama about a homicidal murder. This fall, Dick, gagster Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie play TV writers in the Dick Van Dyke Show, a series written and produced by writer and comic Carl Reiner. Reiner tried to star in his own pilot a year or so ago, but he couldn’t make a sale. With Van Dyke it was easy.
Van Dyke says he’s never been a straight man, but he may fall into this part with Morey Amsterdam throwing out one-liners, and brassy Rose Marie tossing curves. The Van Dyke moments will come when he has a dream sequence or some opportunity to get in a bit of pantomime, and these are the moments the fans will be waiting for. Because when Dick starts to be someone else like his imitation of Stan Laurel, he’s irresistible.
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“If you don’t mind,” says Dick, pulling up his mouth, blinking his eyes, giving the busy little waddle. You begin to look around for Babe Hardy to answer Laurel.
Laurel is Van Dyke’s hero. “I’ve stolen everything I could from Mr. Laurel,”' says Dick. And Mrs. Van Dyke says she’s never seen Dick more nervous than the first time he went to meet Stan Laurel.
Other Van Dyke pantomime heroes are Marcel Marceau and Jacques Tati, and fans will see some of their characteristics in the Van Dyke spots this season. Dick has spent hours seeing Tati’s ‘Hulot’s Holiday’ and whenever Marceau is in town Van Dyke is in the audience. Dick loves pantomime and 'hopes the series will give him an opportunity to use it.
Van Dyke learned his trade in night clubs working the California-Vegas area moving over to Florida and then up to the East Coast. He doesn't consider himself a comic, but an entertainer, because he can do bits of many things. “I can do a little sleight of hand, but I can’t tell jokes,” he said. “People are always asking me to come to a big banquet and tell jokes. I can’t. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Dick’s best known routines are a drunk, headless man, a tight rope walker or just an ad-lib dancer rejecting or accepting drum beats. These pieces will be occasionally fitted into the weekly plot and that’s tough to do. Ray Bolger tried it years ago and darn near expired doing it. Looking back, it was a good try.
In addition, Dick can get by with simple dialogue because he has that clean, friendly All American look. He also wears clothes well, but his tan isn’t as dark as Cary Grant’s. In any event the ladies are going to love him and may not care if he never wiggles an ankle. He’s not the Robert Mitchum type, but this corner bets he’ll get by anyhow.

It’s telling that Scheuer’s column makes no mention of Mary Tyler Moore, who was little more than a Richard Diamond trivia question at that time (only her legs were seen on that show). Certainly Frank Sinatra knew better. Ol’ Blue Eyes signed her in September 1961 as the first contract player for his Essex Productions to play the feminine romantic lead in ‘X-15.’

Oh, you may be asking yourself: “If Danzig hated that Robert Young show, what did he think about Dick Van Dyke?” An excellent question. Danzig reviewed it the following day:

All right. Dick Van Dyke is a clever entertainer who deserves a TV show. Agreed. But why does the show have to be a limp situation comedy?
“The Dick Van Dyke Show once seen as a sad pilot for a possible “Carl Reiner Show,” seemed like a left-over “Danny Thomas Show” with its debut Tuesday night on CBS-TV.
Our hero is cast as a college-educated comedy writer—the new breed — as a husband-and-father and, perhaps too incidentally, as a capable entertainer in his own right. The first episode let Van Dyke stab at each segment of that triolocular personality and his best moment came when he was allowed to entertain. At a party Van Dyke was asked to do a bit. He performed a fall-down, stand-up drunk and it was very funny. And that was the show. All else was dreary TV comedy fare. Supporting Van Dyke are Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie—remember little Baby Rose?— and, as the wife, Mary Tyler Moore. Larry Matthews apparently is going to have too much to do in the role of a small boy.

Today, Danzig’s review seems a little ludicrous, but there were those within CBS who must have agreed. The network was just about set to replace the Van Dyke show the following season with a sitcom starring Paul Lynde. But producer Sheldon Leonard, known for playing strong-willed, strong-arming characters in the movies, used his real-life strong will to, perhaps not strong-arm, but convince the network to keep the show on the air. A happy decision for all (except maybe Paul Lynde). It saved ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ from really having something in common with ‘Window on the World’—obscurity.

* Footnote: Music credits on ‘Window on the World’ were given to Emil Cadkin and Irving Friedman. Though I haven’t heard the cues, the names virtually scream that the show used one of the Capitol production libraries.

1 comment:

  1. Just for the historical record, and via the magic of YouTube, let us turn the clock back another five years, to Van Dyke's first prime-time CBS show -- "CBS Cartoon Theater". Not too many other actors could come through playing the straight man for a bunch of Terrytoons -- especially doing it after hosting the CBS Morning Show -- and still become a pop culture icon for over half a century.