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.
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.
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.)
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.