Back in the summer of 1958, Carl Reiner, already an established writer and supporting actor on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, sought to create a sitcom in which he would star. He followed the adage of “write what you know” and created thirteen scripts of Head of the Family, a largely autobiographical series centered around Rob Petrie, head writer of “The Alan Sturdy Show.” Rob was married to Laura, they had a six-year-old son, Ritchie, and Buddy and Sally were Rob’s cohorts in the writers’ room. Sound familiar?
Reiner’s agent, Harry Kalcheim, shopped the Head of the Family pilot script around, and actor Peter Lawford wanted to front the money to shoot the pilot. Once Reiner sent a script to Lawford’s father-in-law and supplier of the cash, Joseph P. Kennedy, Reiner was given the green light. The pilot was shot in December of 1958 in New York, with Reiner starring as Rob, Barbara Britton as Laura, Gary Morgan as Ritchie, Sylvia Miles as Sally, and Morty Gunty as Buddy. And then … nothing. The pilot failed to sell for the Fall 1959 season, and for the next year, Reiner thought the project was dead. But Kalcheim refused to abandon the show. He presented the pilot episode to another client of his, producer Sheldon Leonard.
Already a successful creator/producer of The Andy Griffith Show, and producer of The Danny Thomas Show, Leonard recognized genius in Head of the Family, but identified one major flaw: Reiner completely miscast himself as Rob Petrie. It’s difficult to see how Reiner could be wrong for a role that he based on himself, but Reiner was a natural sketch performer, not a sitcom actor. Reiner didn’t take the news well, but as he describes in his Archive Interview, Leonard brightened his spirits by telling him that he was a natural producer:
Sheldon Leonard, himself a seasoned writer/performer (he played the robber who famously asked Jack Benny, “Your money or your life?”), convinced Reiner that one makes a much better living as a creator/writer/producer than as an actor. Reiner agreed and so began the hunt for a new Rob Petrie.
Re-enter Harry Kalcheim, candidate for best-agent-ever. A year earlier, at the urging of Kalcheim, Sheldon Leonard attended a musical revue called “The Girls Against the Boys” to check out a performer named Dick Van Dyke. In his Archive Interview, Leonard recalls liking Van Dyke, but not having any material at the time that could showcase his talents. Now, the right project had come along. Leonard convinced Reiner to hop a plane to New York to watch Van Dyke in Broadway’s “Bye Bye Birdie” and Reiner saw what Leonard now saw: Rob Petrie.
With a new lead, Reiner and Leonard distanced themselves from many elements of the failed Head of the Family pilot. The program assembled in the spring of 1960 was shot in California, in multi-camera format rather than single-camera, filmed in front of a live audience, and had an entirely new cast. The original scripts remained, but Reiner re-tooled them for multi-cam shooting and to play to the actors’ individual strengths, like Van Dyke’s talent for physical comedy:
Assembling the new cast was effortless in some ways, torturous in others. Sheldon Leonard knew he wanted Rose Marie as sassy Sally Rogers, who in turn suggested pal Morey Amsterdam for the role of Buddy Sorrell. Reiner took on the part of Rob’s boss, re-named Alan Brady; Richard Deacon portrayed producer Mel Cooley; and little Larry Matthews, who had never professionally acted before, played six-year-old Ritchie. Jerry Paris and Ann Morgan Guilbert rounded out the cast as neighbors Jerry and Millie Helper. Everyone was set … except Laura Petrie.
After auditioning many actresses for the part and coming up frustratingly empty-handed, Leonard and Reiner paid a visit to Danny Thomas, the largest funder of the newly formed Calvada Productions, which owned the show (Calvada: Ca – Carl Reiner, l – Sheldon Leonard, va – Dick Van Dyke, da – Danny Thomas). Thomas recommended they audition a woman who had tried out for the role of his daughter on Make Room for Daddy. The actress was wonderful, but with her cute nose, Thomas felt that no one would believe she was his daughter! Thomas remembered her as “the girl with three names.” With the help of a casting agent who tracked her down, Mary Tyler Moore auditioned for and won the role of Laura Petrie, as she explains in her Archive Interview:
Throw in advertising agency executives Lee Rich and Grant Tinker of Benton & Bowles, who secured sponsor Procter & Gamble and optioned the series to CBS, and that brings us to Tuesday, October 3, 1961, the premiere of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Reiner suggested the new title, following Sheldon Leonard’s tradition of naming a show after its star. Though no longer the lead in front of the camera, Reiner’s leadership behind the camera resulted in the classic sitcom of the 1960s.
Critics adored The Dick Van Dyke Show, but the program did not enjoy high ratings and was nearly canceled after the first year. Due to Sheldon Leonard’s persistence, four more seasons aired, and the show ended its run on June 1, 1966 with episode “The Last Chapter,” in which Alan Brady is set to star in and produce a television show based on Rob Petrie’s autobiographical novel. Talk about art imitating life!
But art imitating life is what made The Dick Van Dyke Show such a gem. You believed Rob and Laura as a couple. They showed affection, they fought, and she sighed, “Oh, Rob!” sometimes out of frustration, sometimes out of happiness. Sally and Buddy teased each other like co-workers really do; all of the characters represented people you felt like you knew or wished you could befriend. Fifty years later, the episodes and characters still remain approachable and real.
So here’s wishing a very Happy 50th Anniversary to The Dick Van Dyke Show. We expect we’ll be watching Rob trip over that ottoman for many years to come.
- by Adrienne Faillace