The Dick Van Dyke Show may seem dated in some ways, but it broke so much TV ground in an otherwise staid era.
1. It was all Carl Reiner's Idea
From 1950-54, Carl Reiner cut his show business teeth as a writer/performer on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. His fellow writers on the show included the famous (Mel Brooks) and not-so-famous (Selma Diamond, who would later portray bailiff Selma Hacker on Night Court). When Caesar's show ended, Reiner wrote a pilot script and several episodes for a new TV sitcom which closely mirrored his own life. Called Head of the Family, the show highlighted the daily life of Rob Petrie (Reiner), a TV comedy writer who lived in New Rochelle with his wife and son. Borscht belt comedian Morey Amsterdam was cast as the Mel Brooks-type joke writer, and Rose Marie portrayed the self-deprecating spinster-in-search-of-a-husband Selma Diamond.
2. The Lead Role Almost Went to Johnny Carson
The pilot caught the attention of veteran producer Sheldon Leonard (The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show) who liked the concept and the script, but didn't care for Reiner's acting ability. He not-so-tactfully suggested that the lead character needed to be more mainstream American (translation: less Jewish) for the show to be successful with a wide audience. The finalists for the lead role of Rob Petrie boiled down to Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke. Thanks to name recognition generated by a successful run on Broadway in Bye, Bye Birdie, Van Dyke landed the job. Of course, the runner-up didn't do so badly for himself.
3. The Girl with Something Moore
As a teen, Mary Tyler Moore had auditioned for a role as Danny Thomas' daughter on his self-titled sitcom. Despite her comedic prowess, Thomas rejected her, saying that "no one would believe a girl with a little button nose like hers could be a daughter of mine." A few years later, when Moore auditioned for the role of Laura Petrie, she not only caught Carl Reiner's attention, but also jogged Danny Thomas' memory. While Van Dyke initially objected to her hiring since she was 11 years younger than he, the onscreen chemistry proved magical enough to banish any doubts he harbored. Despite her youth, Moore was no pushover. When initial scripts called for her to vacuum the living room in a dress and high heels Ã la June Cleaver, the actress put her foot down. Mary was a young mother in real life, and she wore comfortable clothing to perform household chores. Thus was born Laura Petrie's trademark Capri pants, which simultaneously gave network censors fits and set suburban housewives free of their pantyhose prison.
4. Breaking Color Barriers
From a 21st-century point of view, it seems ridiculous to praise a series for using African-American actors in roles other than maids or railroad porters. But when The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered, the world of prime-time sitcoms was a different place. Even though the Civil Rights movement was slowly progressing, TV was still dragging its feet when it came to change. As a result, one of the most popular episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show—"That's My Boy?"—almost didn't make it to film. In the episode, exhausted and overwrought new dad Rob was convinced that the hospital had sent him and Laura home with the wrong baby. A couple named Peters had welcomed a baby in the same hospital on the same day, in a similar hospital room number, and the Petries had even received some of the Peters' gifts in error. The comedic (and controversial) payoff to the episode arrived when Mr. and Mrs. Peters visited the Petrie household and were revealed to be a black couple, played by Greg Morris and Mimi Dillard. The positive response from the studio audience gave producer Sheldon Leonard the confidence to sign Bill Cosby for a co-starring role in a new series he was producing, I Spy.
5. The Drama behind the Laughter
Behind the scenes, all was not always well. Dick Van Dyke was a self-confessed "people pleaser" and was loathe to reveal any unhappiness or frustration, either on the set or when meeting fans. Instead, he found solace after hours with a good friend named Jack Daniels. (Years later, Van Dyke publicly announced his alcoholism and checked himself into a facility for treatment.) Meanwhile, co-star Mary Tyler Moore began to experience strange unexplained medical complaints on the set, including dizziness, weight loss, and blurred vision. Presuming she was overworked, she ignored the warning signs which she later found to be attributed to Type 1 diabetes. Then, during the series' fourth season, Rose Marie's beloved husband of 20 years passed away. She was so overcome with grief that she wanted to quit the show, but director John Rich coaxed her into staying.
6. Words behind the Music
The opening to The Dick Van Dyke Show is certainly memorable (and not only for Dick's famous stumble over the ottoman). But what most folks don't know is that lyrics were written to go along with the program's instrumental theme. In fact, they were written by co-star Morey Amsterdam, who also penned the words for the hit "Rum and Coca-Cola." Memorize the following lyrics and think of them as you watch the traditional Dick Van Dyke introduction:So you think that you've got trouble.
Well trouble's a bubble.
So tell old mister trouble to get lost.
Why not hold your head up high and
Stop cryin', start tryin'.
And don't forget to keep your fingers crossed.