Wednesday, 2 November 2016

In Hollywood, If At First You Don't Succeed

There was no bigger failure in television in the 1960s than Jerry Van Dyke.

Time after time, he was handed a new series only to fail yet again. After a while, viewers may have been left with the impression the only reason he was on TV at all was because he had a really, really successful brother. After all, why give someone that many chances after blowing it over and over?

Jerry Van Dyke eventually showed audiences he could be a success and did have talent, thanks to his years as a supporting player in the long-running sitcom Coach. But before that? Hoo, boy.

He also had the misfortune of being cast in possibly the most ridiculed TV show of the ‘60s—My Mother the Car. I liked antique cars, so I watched the show. I was 8. It turns out my demographic may have been the only one watching it, at least the way Van Dyke tells it. And, let’s face it, mom didn’t have much of a personality. She was a voice followed by a laugh track. Mel Blanc as Jack Benny’s Maxwell was far funnier than Ann Sothern’s Porter, but you wouldn’t have been able to build a half-hour show around it. (Oh, wait. Hanna-Barbera tried. Remember something called Speed Buggy?)

There was plenty of public-relations optimism before each Van Dyke debut. Let’s wander through the newspaper clipping file to show you. First off is this story that appeared in papers starting July 7, 1963.

Jerry Van Dyke, Dick's Brother, Spices 'Picture This' by Mugging

HOLLYWOOD — Jack Benny's summer replacement on CBS is the New York based game show, "Picture This," hosted by Dick Van Dyke's comical brother, Jerry, which premiered earlier this summer.
"Picture This" has contestants drawing pictures from clues supplied by guest celebrities who act as partners. The original picture is seen by everyone except the contestants, and the laughs, of course, come from the absurd versions. Emcee Van Dyke spices the game up with ad-libs, mugging (which he does at the drop of a hat), plus short take-offs on the subject up for amateur re-production. It's for game-show fanatics.
Jerry Van Dyke was chosen, he says, because the producers wanted a guy who was not a professional emcee, but one who could ad-lib with ease. He's been under contract to CBS for a year after filming two shows with his brother Dick and, so far, the network has been unable to come up with a series for him. To get Jerry's face back on the screen before fans forget him is the main factor.
"The network has treated me very well," says Jerry. "But the scripts that come along just weren't right for me. Besides, I'm down the list — expert comics like Cara Williams are ahead of me. They've been trying to find the right show for her for over a year." The younger crew-cut Van Dyke has been working steadily as a folksy, broad comic who plunks a banjo on the night club circuit. Then, a year ago March, brother Dick cast Jerry as a sleepwalker in two shows. "I'm going to use my brother to get ahead," said Jerry at the time, wearing a big, oafish grin.
Jerry was a big hit and the network quickly signed him before anyone else got a crack at the man. "Suddenly, I was in demand," said Jerry. "It was wonderful."
Jerry made three movies in a row, beginning with "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" which is now out, then was cast with John Wayne in "McClintock" and finished out in Warner Bros.' "Palm Springs Weekend" with Troy Donahue. "They let me go in the last one," says Jerry. "I also did a True-TV show that came out sort of watered down.
"It was a big year, but now I'm back to night clubs. I'll tape 'Picture This' in New York once a week and then fly out for my club dates."
According to the Van Dyke parents who have moved from Danville, Illinois, to the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, son Jerry is an authentic sleepwalker. The two episodes on the Dick Van Dyke series were based on fact.
"I think Dick is double jointed," his mother says. "He would lie down and read with his head propped up on an imaginary pillow. I used to ask him to get a pillow, thinking the stunt would hurt his head, but Dick always refused. He liked to read that way. Perhaps you've seen his act where standing with his back to the audience, his head disappears completely. I think that came from lying down with his head in that strange position."
Whether the Van Dyke brothers are double-jointed, or touched with sleep-walking, both seem to be giving fans a good deal of pleasure. "I worry about the pressure on the boys," says Mrs. Van Dyke. "Sometimes it all doesn't seem worth it, but both eat it up.
"We can't even turn the lights on the driveway," says Mr. Van Dyke, "without Jerry taking a bow."

Two years later, Jerry Van Dyke landed a role on what should have been a hit. Sitcoms centred around the impossible were big in 1965. Allan Burns and Chris Hayward created the show. James L. Brooks, Phil Davis, Arnold Margolin, Frank Fox and Tom Koch were among the writers. But My Mother the Car was a train wreck. Or should that be a car crash? I guess that’s what happens when someone is cast—even though the guy who cast him didn’t like his last performance.

This story appeared in papers starting August 9, 1965. Next to Bea Benaderet, Ann Sothern must have had the most misspelled name in 1960s television. And I liked the anti-freeze gag in the pilot—that is, when it appeared in the Uniblab episode of the Jetsons a few years earlier.

Jerry Van Dyke Has Own Series

HOLLYWOOD — Jerry Van Dyke, the bumbling banjo playing brother of the famous and almost perfect Dick Van Dyke. is about to be known as the man whose mother is a 1928 Porter automobile, when he stars in NBC's new color half-hour Tuesday night comedy this fall, "My Mother, the Car."
Ann Southern plays the voice of Mother in a dream job. She comes in every couple of weeks to read her lines and then takes off. Hero Van Dyke has only seen Miss Southern once, when they made the pilot months ago.
Of course when people hear the premise for the show, sneers and snickers and raised eye-brows are all over the place. "Just like 'Mr. Ed,' the talking horse," is the comment.
"We'll be compared to 'Mr. Ed' until we get on the air," said Jerry at the Sam Goldwyn Studio. "Then I think fans will change their minds." Which way he doesn't say.
Jerry plays Dave Crabtree, a small town lawyer, married to Barbara (Maggie Pierce), father of two kids, Cindy and Randy. One day Dave goes to a used car lot intending to buy an old station wagon. But the lawyer begins prowling about this 1928 red Porter. He turns on the radio and out comes the voice of Mother (Miss Southern). She has come back to help her son get ahead.
Crabtree, the honest God-fearing lawyer, immediately buy other and drives her home. Now comes the problem of explaining to wife Barbara that the old car is Crabtree's mother. No one else can hear Mother except son, so he is considered off his rocker.
"This is the story about a guy and his car," explained Jerry. "The car is the reason for all the trouble. Mother gets me in trouble and I have to straighten things out."
Anti Freeze For Mom
Lawyer Crabtree fixes Mother up and talks to her while driving about town. He even drives up in the hills and is forced to put in anti freeze causing Mom to get looped.
To add more conflict, Avery Schreiber, a comic from Chicago's "Second City" group, is cast as Capt. Manzini, a rich Italian antique car lover who wants desperately to own the Porter, and never gives up trying a new subterfuge to nab the pink slip.
Night club comedian Van Dyke has had his ups and downs on television. He starred in a funny "True" episode a few years ago about a lethargic G.I., and easily carried the show. Next brother Dick put him in two Van Dyke stories, casting him as G.I. who comes to visit and has trouble with his sleep-walking, a former habit of Jerry's.
Brother Jerry more than held his own, and soon he signed to emcee a silly summer show, and then appeared as Judy Garland's companion on her ill-fated blowout. Somehow, no one knew how to write for Jerry, and he came off as an oaf, a smart aleck, and a baffled soul. It was a big defeat, but out of it came "My Mother, the Car."
Producer Rod Amateau, who wears two hats this fall as executive producer also of "O.K. Crackerby," caught Jerry on "The Garland Show," and didn't like him, but felt he saw the real Van Dyke underneath, and sent him the "Car" script.
Jerry's Opinion of Talent
The real Jerry may be in this way-out auto series. "I don't believe I'm a character actor," said Jerry. "I have to play my self and that's what I'm doing as Dave Crabtree, small town lawyer. I won't bumble and stutter as much as I did on brother Dick's show, but I may do a little of it, since I used to stutter a bit when I was excited."
Since the Garland debacle, which also became the Van Dyke mistake, Jerry has been on the night club circuit, twanging his banjo, telling corny jokes, using his stutter and delightful phrasing. He also made two more Dick Van Dyke episodes as G.I. who falls in love with a girl by writing letters for his Army buddy, stealing the idea from Cyrano de Bergerac. Both of these shows are in summer reruns, so fans can become acquainted with Jerry before the new series debuts.
Maybe "My Mother, the Car" isn't the greatest idea to come along, but its success would be a splendid present for Jerry. He's been known as Dick's brother long enough, and this hasn't hurt his career any.
"At times it's bugged me," says Jerry. "That's human nature. Now I'd like to make it on my own."

Two years later (notice how these shows all debuted in odd-numbered years), Van Dyke tried it again. All I remember about Accidental Family was it had a barn and seemed to be postponed an awful lot for specials. To show you how much I was paying attention, I thought the show was called Accidental Farmhouse, a title which may be funnier (how about Ann Sothern as a talking house?). The man behind it was Sheldon Leonard, who saved The Dick Van Dyke Show from cancellation by personally appealing to its sponsors. Dick’s show was then able to find an audience, and became a hit as well as one of the best-loved comedies in TV history. Leonard wasn’t as fortunate with Accidental Family.

The Associated Press story below, which appears in papers starting August 7, 1967, refers to yet another Van Dyke failure—My Boy Goggle. Filmways and James Garner’s JLK Productions signed a deal in April 1963 for Bob Cummings to star in it. Filmways had two other TV comedies in the hopper that year; one was My Son, the Witch Doctor with Marie Wilson and Arte Johnson. The other was originally titled Addams and Evil. I wonder what became of that?

Jerry Van Dyke Makes New Bid for TV Success

AP Television-Radio Writer
HOLLYWOOD (AP) — Jerry Van Dyke has his troubles even before the public sees his new series. "Every time I talk to some one from the newspapers," he complained, "the story comes out with the headline, 'Dick's Brother Tries Again.'"
This is a hard problem to lick. Jerry is indeed Dick Van Dyke's younger brother and Jerry's television career to date has been pretty much confined to a few successful guest shots on the old "Dick Van Dyke Show"—playing the star's brother—and regular employment in three of the worst disasters in TV history.
CBS, seeing him in his brother's show, put him under contract on the theory that two Van Dykes were better than one, and then put him to work as host in what is still remembered as an all-time low in game shows, "Picture This."
Next came an even more spectacular fizzle: "The Judy Garland Show."
"I never knew what I was doing there," Van Dyke says now. "But the first lines I had in the opening show were to ask her, 'What's a nice little old lady like you doing on television?'
Fought, But Lost
"I hated them. I thought they were rude, not funny and made me look bad and I fought them all the way up to the head man. I lost but I was right."
Then came along a pilot show, "My Boy Goggle"—"They ran it this summer and it was pretty bad."
"My Mother, the Car" rolled along during the recent fantasy fad and still holds the distinction of being used almost universally by critics of television to demonstrate the depths to which programming can sink. "Kids like it," said Jerry, "but instead of being a show about a guy with a special problem it was a series of gimmicks."
Performers, however, are not often given so many chances unless they have some sort of special quality or talent. This season, with Jerry back playing in NBC's "Accidental Family," his luck may change.
The half hour comedy is the first series developed by Sheldon Leonard under his recent NBC production deal. Leonard, in partnership, with Danny Thomas, was involved in that string of comedy success that ranged from "The Andy Griffith Show" to "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
Playing Himself
"For the first time I'm playing a character that is more or less myself," he said. "And if this doesn't go, I can't blame anyone else."
The format has Jerry, a Las Vegas nightclub performer, commuting from a farm where he is trying to raise his son. Originally Jerry was supposed to be divorced, but sponsors wouldn't touch the show until fantasy they changed him into a widower. However, the pretty girl who runs the farm, played by Lois Nettleton, was permitted by the sponsor to be a divorcee with one child.
Anyway, there's a mixture of glamor, innocent romance, cute kids, comedy — mixed by Leonard's adroit hand. So maybe Dick's kid brother's career may finally get off the launch pad.

Van Dyke picked himself up from another failure and found another job the following season, this time as a supporting player. But even the star power of Andy Griffith (paired with his old producer Dick Linke) couldn’t get people to tune in to Headmaster. Van Dyke satisfied himself with gigs in the clubs in Nevada resorts until Coach came along in 1989. Four Emmy nominations followed. Today, he’s enjoying the fruits of his labours by relaxing on a huge ranch (no doubt with a non-accidental farmhouse) in Arkansas. The people who had confidence that Jerry Van Dyke could be a TV success story were right all along.


  1. MMTC seemed to bear the brunt of the critics' disdain for the 'fantasy sitcoms' of the 1960s. It was one of two to debut on NBC in '65 -- "I Dream of Jeannie" being the other, which benefited from it's pairing with "Get Smart" and the fact your average male viewer would rather look at Barbara Eden in a harem outfit (even if it was in black & white) than they would at a 1928 Porter being voiced by a middle age woman.

    1. You are so right. However, JEANNIE did have the advantage (as did BEWITCHED) of having genuinely comedic actors to carry it beyond the gimmick. As for the Van Dykes: Often neither brother knew when to dial it back.