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The Dick Van Dyke Show Turns 50

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On October 3, 1961—50 years ago today—The Dick Van Dyke Show first aired on CBS.

The show followed the adventures of an easygoing comedy writer named Rob Petrie (played by Dick Van Dyke), his beautiful wife Laura (the then-unknown Mary Tyler Moore), and his two comedy co-writers, Sally Rogers (played by Rose Marie) and Buddy Sorrell (actor Morey Amsterdam).


Let's take a closer look at this comedy classic.

Head of the Family

Originally, the series was titled Head of the Family and starred Carl Reiner, the show's creator and producer. But executives at CBS decided Reiner wasn't quite right for the part and cast Dick Van Dyke in a new version.

Johnny Carson was also in the running to play Rob Petrie.

Broadway or the Living Room?

Van Dyke was actually taking a bit of a risk signing on to do the show. At the time, he was starring in the hit Broadway show Bye Bye Birdie, which he had to quit to do a television series. If the series had flopped, he would have been out of work.

Credit Roulette

The original opening credits for the show were just a packet of photos of the cast spilling onto a table and being shown individually on the screen. These credits were used only during the show's first season. For the remaining four seasons, two other memorable openings were used: the famous shot of Rob entering the room, greeting his wife and friends, and tripping over the ottoman, and an almost identical version in which he enters, walks toward the group, and expertly sidesteps the ottoman. These two versions were used randomly for the opening credits. A third variation, in which Rob enters, sidesteps the ottoman, and then stumbles anyway, was introduced in season three and was used occasionally.

According to Van Dyke, before each episode, viewers would bet on which opening would be used that week.

Pilot Jitters

The pilot episode was actually shot on the same day President John Kennedy was inaugurated. Van Dyke was so nervous doing the episode that he developed a cold sore on his upper lip; extra makeup had to be applied to hide it. Van Dyke says he cannot remember JFK being inaugurated.

Begging and Pleading

For its first season, the show was not successful and was actually canceled by CBS. Producer Danny Thomas personally went to the network execs and had to convince (beg) them to leave the show on the air. The show picked up steam during summer reruns that year, remained on the air, and became the classic series we all know. When Van Dyke decided to end the series in 1966, it was the CBS executives who begged him to stay.

The Inspirational Mel Brooks

Buddy Sorrel, the wise-cracking joke writer played by Morey Amsterdam, was based on Mel Brooks. Brooks worked as a comedy writer with Carl Reiner, The Dick Van Dyke Show's creator and producer, on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the 1950s. (The photo shows Reiner, at left, and Brooks on the right.)

Who's Laughing?

The show was usually filmed before a studio audience, but there were at least three occasions when it was not. One of those days was November 22, 1963. While the cast was in the middle of rehearsals that day, they heard about JFK's assassination, but decided to go ahead and film the episode "Happy Birthday and Too Many More" anyway. However, it was decided they would film the episode with no studio audience, figuring no one would be in the mood to laugh.

Brought to You by Kent Cigarettes

Kent Cigarettes sponsored the show and would often give the cast and crew free cartons of cigarettes. Mary Tyler Moore, then a heavy smoker, would routinely take her cartons, as well as those of the set's non-smokers, and trade them in at a local store for her preferred brand.

The Starring Couple

Although they played one of the most attractive couples in TV history, Dick Van Dyke was a full 12 years older than Mary Tyler Moore. He originally thought she was too young to play his wife. Both Van Dyke and Moore later admitted to having crushes on each other during the show's run. Countless viewers actually believed the two were married in real life.

Real Life Friends, TV Enemies

Although they played bitter enemies on the show, Morey Amsterdam and Richard Deacon (who played Mel Cooley) were actually very close friends in real life. Many of the best insults Buddy hurled at Mel were crafted when the two of them went out for drinks after work.

The Wardrobe Controversy

A small controversy erupted when Mary Tyler Moore started wearing capri pants on the show. The executives at CBS objected because, at the time, all TV housewives (June Cleaver, Alice Kramden, Wilma Flintstone) wore dresses. But Moore insisted all the housewives she knew wore pants. She was allowed to continue wearing them, helping capri pants become a popular fashion fad for women across America. (Interestingly, the most famous sitcom wife of all time, Lucille Ball's Lucy Ricardo, often wore pants on episodes of I Love Lucy.)

Dick Van Dyke and the Civil Rights Movement?

On September 25, 1963, an episode aired called "That's My Boy?" Written by Reiner, Bill Persky, and Sam Denoff, the episode flashes back to Rob and Laura bringing home their newborn baby. Rob confides to his neighbor Jerry (director Jerry Paris) that he might have been given the wrong baby at the hospital. Rob details how a Mrs. Peters was staying in the hospital in room 203 at the same time Laura (aka Mrs. Petrie) was staying in room 208. Rob is convinced the hospital confused the baby of Mrs. Peters with his own.

Rob places a desperate call to Mr. Peters, who agrees to come to Rob's home to discuss the matter.

As Rob welcomes an unseen Mr. Peters at his front door, he's shocked. Rob giggles nervously as Mr. Peters enters the room and is revealed to the studio audience. Mr. Peters, played by Greg Morris, is African-American. This reportedly led to the longest uninterrupted span of laughter from a live studio audience.

Rob sheepishly greets a laughing Mr. Peters, shakes his hand, and welcomes him into his home, in an understandable state of acute embarrassment. Contrasted with Rob's discomfort, Mr. Peters is being calm, cool, and collected.

According to Reiner, "It was the first time in television history that a black man was shown as being superior to a white man." If Hulu works where you are, you can watch the episode here:

"So You Think That You've Got Troubles?"

The famous Dick Van Dyke Show theme song actually had lyrics, though they were never used on the show. The lyrics, composed by Morey Amsterdam, were first revealed by Van Dyke in a 2010 interview with NPR. The first three verses:

So you think that you've got troubles?
Well there'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.

When you find the joy of livin'
Is lovin' and givin'
You'll be there when the winning dice are tossed.


Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.


Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.

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Man-Eating Space Lizards: When V Was a TV Smash
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American broadcast television in the 1980s didn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. Shows like Hill Street Blues were outliers, crowded off the schedule by head-hammering episodic series featuring mercenaries (The A-Team), car chases (The Dukes of Hazzard), or soapy melodrama (Dynasty).

On its surface, V appeared to be no different. A two-part miniseries airing on consecutive evenings in May 1983, it told the story of the “Visitors,” gregarious aliens who arrive on Earth in three-mile-long spaceships and greet humans with a bargain: Let the Visitors harvest a chemical needed for their continued survival and receive advanced medical knowledge in return.

As the humanoid aliens reveal themselves to be malevolent lizard-like creatures who prefer to dine on humans rather than prolong their lives, V took on the look and feel of a pulpy sci-fi epic—the kind of thing that could be easily summarized in one Amazing Stories cover image from the 1940s. But writer Kenneth Johnson had something far more subversive in mind. The Visitors were stand-ins for fascists, and V was a cautionary tale about the perils of complacency.

Jason Bernard and Robert Englund star in the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Johnson had broken into television with a writing stint on The Six Million Dollar Man, for which he conceived a female counterpart in the form of Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner). Sommers got her own series, The Bionic Woman, which Johnson produced until he was tasked with adapting The Incredible Hulk as a live-action drama.

It was around this time that Johnson became fascinated with a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist group that rises to power in the United States. Johnson reworked the concept into Storm Warnings, a feature-length screenplay; that work landed on the desk of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, who encouraged Johnson to adapt it into a television miniseries by casting Soviets or the Chinese as the antagonists.

Tartikoff’s request made sense. The miniseries format, which took off in the 1970s with Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, was drawing record numbers of viewers. The Thorn Birds, about a priest who is tempted to break his vow of celibacy by a younger woman, was a hit; so was Shogun, about a 17th century man who shipwrecks in Japan and becomes a pawn in a war between samurai. (Both starred Richard Chamberlain.) Storm Warnings had an appropriately sprawling narrative with multiple characters, a feat of creative engineering Johnson was encouraged to use after reading War and Peace.

But the writer was less enthused about casting a foreign superpower as a rival. Tartikoff then suggested aliens, the allegorical turf of Rod Serling that had fueled many a socially-conscious episode of The Twilight Zone. Johnson later told Starlog he “ran screaming from the room” at the suggestion, but eventually warmed to it. Storm Warnings became V: NBC committed $13 million to produce the four-hour drama.

A scene from the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

While a generous budget for television, the scope of Johnson’s idea taxed every available dollar. A 60-foot-long model of one of the Visitor ships was built; a giant hangar intended to depict the inside was made to scale, albeit cut in half; matte effects, with the ships laid over a background painting, depicted their unsettling arrival over Earth’s major cities. A feature with those same ambitions might take months of pre-production planning: Johnson got three weeks.

Whatever was lacking in the special effects and costumes—Johnson opted for a regal, military-inspired garb for his aliens that hasn’t aged well—never diluted the real attraction of V. Following a television cameraman (Marc Singer) and a botanist (Faye Grant) as they grow suspicious of the true intentions of the Visitors, the series quickly turns into an examination of what happens when a population is seduced by the promise of a helping hand. Celebrities and world leaders endorse the Visitors; scientists questioning their motives are corralled and delivered to ships for “re-education.” By the time their foot soldier Diana (Jane Badler) is seen devouring a guinea pig, Singer and his cohorts have decided to form a resistance to push back against being turned into alien kibble. For viewers who didn’t care for the subtext, there was still the birth of a lizard baby to talk about with coworkers and friends the next morning.

In a departure from conventional advertising, NBC decided to take a conservative approach with V. Posters in subway stations and bus stops depicted illustrations of the Visitors in propaganda-style posters; later, a “V” would be spray-painted over the ads. There was never any mention of the series.

The premiere of V drew a 40 share, which meant 40 percent of all households watching television at that hour were watching the lizard people establish their dominance on Earth. Tartikoff even granted Johnson the ability to run 15 minutes past the allotted two-hour time slot, cutting into local newscasts. On night two, V maintained much of that audience.

What might have turned out to be a lucrative franchise for NBC quickly lost its way. Tartikoff wanted Johnson to oversee a weekly drama continuing the story of the resistance while ramping up their licensing efforts; Johnson argued that the premise would be too expensive for the format and suggested a two-hour movie air every month or two instead.

A licensed action figure from the 'V' miniseries
Amazon

In the end, neither quite got their wish. Another miniseries, V: The Final Battle, aired in 1984, but Johnson disowned it after extensive rewrites. V: The Series followed, but lasted just one season. Johnson lamented that the network had taken his cautionary tale and turned it into a spectacle, with gunfights and lizard people eating small animals taking the place of the allegory.

V was revived by ABC in 2009, but low ratings led to a quick demise after two seasons. Other shows and movies like 1996’s Independence Day had borrowed heavily from Johnson, wearing out the premise. In 2007, Johnson published V: The Second Generation, a novel based on one of his follow-up scripts.

The miniseries format would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s before serialized dramas with shortened seasons edged them off television schedules. Like The Thorn Birds, V remains one of the most well-remembered entries in the medium, due in no small part to Johnson’s nods to levity. When the aliens arrive, a high school band plays the Star Wars theme.

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before he was called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior, in 1980, to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their original poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and said that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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