Wednesday 29 March 2023

From Van Dyke to Hartman to Cosmic Cow

A number of actresses popped up somewhat regularly on television in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Some of them got starring or featured roles on comedy shows.

One was Nancy Dussault.

She started out as a cast member in the 1955 version of the Waa-Mu show at Northwestern University near Chicago and made her way to Broadway, where she was nominated for two Tonys in the 1960s.

Anyone wanting fame and fortune back then would likely find it on television rather than the Great White Way, so Dussault began appearing on Tonight, To Tell the Truth, The Bell Telephone Hour and The Garry Moore Show, to name a few.

But once she got some regular employment, there were some hiccups. First, she was hired to play agent Charlie Brill’s wife on The New Dick Van Dyke Show in 1971. She lasted two seasons. But the show kept going. She was dumped in a re-write of the premise of the show which left no room for Brill and, therefore, no room for Dussault. As columnists observed, there was no cast chemistry. One quoted Fanny Flagg as saying she got nothing to do on the show.

This is part of a story from the Berkshore Eagle of July 12, 1973.

The Lively World
by Milton R. Bass
DO YOU REMEMBER kooky Carol Davis of "The New Dick Van Dyke Show"? I ask you this because the Van Dyke ratings this past year were low enough to indicate that not too many people watched it on a regular basis. Well, the role of Carol Davis, described by the star of the show as “a woman so totally honest that she sometimes appeared dumb," was played by Nancy Dussault, who is currently thrilling audiences with her beautiful singing in "The Gershwin Years" at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
Miss Dussault has been a singer since she enrolled at Northwestern University at the age of 16 and after receiving her bachelor's degree in music, she made her mark both on and off Broadway in "Sound of Music." "Bajour," "Carousel" and "Whispers in the Wind."
It was while she was acting in Pinero's "Trelawney of the Wells" that Carl Reiner caught her performance and decided that she must be part of the Van Dyke television show, which he was then putting together Miss Dussault first was tested for the role of Van Dyke's wife, which was eventually given to Hope Lange, but then they decided she would be perfect as "the nitwit," and she was stuck in the desert for two years.
Stuck is the exact word for the situation because in order to get Van Dyke out of retirement, CBS had to promise to film the show near his home in Cave Creek. Ariz. There was a studio available in nearby Carefree, Ariz., and most of the cast commuted from Phoenix, the closest place with real people.
Miss Dussault makes a face when you ask her what she did during nonworking hours. "I learned to shoot pool." she begins, and then she’s unable to come up with any other excitement. She and Fannie Flagg chummed aground together, and attended rodeos, saloon-hopped, took tennis lessons and swam in pools, but outside of the snakes and scorpions, there weren't too many interesting characters. Van Dyke is a terribly quiet, shy man who keeps to himself pretty much so there was no mad center of activity from which the cast and crew could spin off. The studio did furnish them with cars, but they were so low-powered that they had to "turn off the lights, the radio and the air conditioner" if they wanted to pass somebody. Consequently, there were no long trips of exploration. If you break down in the desert you don't want to have to walk on a road that is also a thoroughfare for rattlesnakes and scorpions.
The disorientation of the cast was reflected in the show itself, which never caught fire, and this season, CBS dropped the whole cast except for Van Dyke and Lang and moved production to Los Angeles. Word from out there indicates that this has not solved the problems of the series, and it is doubtful if it will continue much beyond its first cycle this fall.
Meanwhile, Miss Dussault made a pilot for CBS, “The Nancy Dussault Show," which was created by Carl Reiner from Miss Dussault's own experience of being married to a non show-biz person and the resulting problems. No sponsor has indicated hot interest, but CBS is keeping Miss Dussault under contract with thoughts of maybe reshooting a pilot for possible use as a midseason replacement.

The self-titled show was blown off at the same time as two other failed pilots in a movie-of-the-week time slot. It featured Lawrence Pressman, Karen Morrow, Rip Taylor and John Byner. One of the other shows was pilot for Ted Bessell.

Dussault’s next television experience was even worse. Dussault could sing, act and dance. She wasn’t an interviewer, but that’s what she was hired to do. Then she was un-hired.

Perhaps her best-known role followed. A Britcom was re-tooled into a vehicle for Ted Knight called Too Close For Comfort. He played a cartoonist who created Cosmic Cow (which showed up as a puppet; Knight had been a ventriloquist in his early TV days). It lasted three years on ABC then another three in first-run syndication. The final season was re-jigged but, unlike Van Dyke, Dussault survived the storyline overhaul.

Here’s a story from the Pittsburgh Press of March 7, 1982. To be honest, she doesn’t sound too enthusiastic about the sitcom.

Comfort’s Nice, But She’d Rather Sing
By Jerry Krupnick
NOBODY ever told Nancy Dussault why ABC refused to renew her contract as David Hartman's original co-host on "Good Morning America."
"I kept asking for an explanation, asking for help, but nobody would give me a hint," recalls Miss Dussault, who now is having greater success on the ABC situation comedy "Too Close for Comfort."
"I still don't know if I was one of David Hartman's victims or one of his friends, although I am almost sure I am the latter."
Hartman, host of "Good Morning America" since it began, has a martinet reputation. The corridors of ABC are said to be strewn with the bodies of on-and off-camera people who somehow crossed him, though Hartman comes across on the tube as the original Mr. Nice Guy.
Now that is all behind Nancy Dussault, who has become—without planning it that way—a heroine of American 40-plus womanhood.
In "Too Close for Comfort," which is completing its second season and rates very highly in the ABC lineup, she and Ted Knight play a middle-aged couple who live in the top half of a San Francisco duplex with their two nubile daughters in the apartment below.
As the wife and mother, Miss Dussault is an oasis of sanity in this desert of wiggles and worries. She's sensible, bright—and pregnant. At the age of 42, she's about to have a baby, much to the alternate delight and distress of her husband and daughters.
Miss Dussault's character is reasonable and cheerful in a situation that certainly was unplanned but could work out for the best.
"Nobody prepared me for the storyline," the actress says. "They just sprung it on me one day. 'How'd you like to be pregnant this season?' And that wasn't even a proposition.
"But it works and I like it. It's funny, but even when I remove those pillows and go out, people still believe I'm pregnant. They figure that's the real reason for the plot."
"Too Close for Comfort" has shot its last show of the season, with those pillows getting a lot of work. But it all ends as a cliff-hanger, we have to wait until next season for the birth.
This sets up Knight for many gags built around his fear of having another girl in the family, considering the suffering he goes through each week with the two on the first floor.
"I know the major criticism of the show has been its 'jiggly' aspects," Miss Dussault says. "And it has bothered me, along with bothering Ted. Hopefully, we have had some input in changing the direction a little bit. Our story is not simply, 'See how they jiggle.' Basically, we're concerned with parental reactions to what has become a much more permissive age.
"The only difficulty is that, as with all half-hour situation comedies, everything must be done by telegram. You never get a chance in that short time for a decent conversation. You're either setting up a gag or pushing the story along. So it's difficult to keep it completely real and honest. It's much easier to do the jiggling.
"Still, we try."
Though she's happy to be in a successful TV sitcom, Miss Dussault says her heart still belongs to Broadway musical theater.
That's where it all began for her, as the ingenue lead with Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker in "Do Re Mi." She was an instant hit, winning the coveted Theater World Award and being nominated for a Tony as best featured player in a musical.
"Suddenly," she recalls, "I was this year's hot ingenue. I made the rounds of all the parties. It was terrific. I was in demand."
She stepped into the Mary Martin role for the final year on Broadway of "The Sound of Music." She was cast opposite Chita Rivera in a flawed but still memorable musical called "Bajour." She was a regular on the TV panel show circuit, on Ed Sullivan, with Garry Moore.
So why is she in "Too Close for Comfort"?
"Hah," she says, "my agent told me that right now I had better work in a comedy series or not work at all. This is a business of, 'How quickly they forget.' Now, with the constant weekly exposure, I'm able to do other things. "And I think I had better get back into musicals before it's too late. I still sing a lot, but nobody has asked me for Broadway lately and there just don't seem to be too many parts I would be right for."
If one did come along, would she shift career gears again?
"Yeahhh," Nancy Dussault says dreamily, not leaving much doubt.

Dussault’s career didn’t end with the sitcom, though her profile may have been a little lower. She appeared on stage (her “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road” was parodied by SCTV as “I’m Taking My Own Head, Screwing It on Right, and No Man’s Gonna Tell Me That It Ain’t”), in a telethon for several years, recorded some CDs and, in her ‘70s, became a cabaret actress. She was also coaxed into joining David Hartman on camera for a 40th anniversary show of Good Morning, America. Methinks the behind-the-scenes antics of GMA might have made a more entertaining series than anything else on the tube featuring Dussault. With or without Cosmic Cow.


  1. I remember Nancy Dussault mostly from, in order, " The New Dick Van Dyke Show ", then as an early co-host of " Good Morning America ". I believe Sandy Hill filled that position when Dussault was let go. Don't know if Hill's fate on GMA was the same Dussault's, but Hill was out a few years later.. Finally as Ted Knight's wife in " Too Close for Comfort ". I later saw some videos of her days on the Game Show panels.

    1. I didn't want to get bogged down with excess trivia, Errol, but I left out a reference to Sandy Hill. She left KIRO in Seattle to do 'Good Morning, America.' Every once in a while, J.P. Patches would refer to her and the other KIRO 6 p.m. news people on his show as kind of an inside joke (the camera crew would laugh anyway).