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My 1963 phone interview with Dick Van Dyke provided a valuable lesson — never expect an actor to be just like the character he plays on television. Somehow I thought Van Dyke and his Rob Petrie character were one and the same — warm, a bit goofy, someone whose sentences often bumbled along, and a guy who was lots of laughs.

The Dick Van Dyke who has given interviews in the past few years — that is, the octogenarian Dick Van Dyke — became that warm and goofy person, someone who seldom completes a thought without laughing. At 86, he hasn't yet retired, though he has slowed down.

The 37-year-old Van Dyke who called me was cool, business-like and cautious. After all, it wasn't a social call. He was doing his job, which was to publicize his weekly television series, which hadn't yet received all the attention it so richly deserved.

Now, almost 50 years later, he can look back on an incredible career that includes two hit TV series and one of the best-loved movies of all time, "Mary Poppins." I also believe that if there were an award for the best male performance ever in a television comedy series, the actor most deserving would be Dick Van Dyke.

I've already belabored the point elsewhere and will do it again in the story that follows, but it's difficult to believe that for a moment or two back in 1962, there was a strong possibility "The Dick Van Dyke Show" would be canceled after its first season.

Here's the story that came out of our interview a year later:

Akron Beacon Journal, October 20, 1963

By JACK MAJOR

No one was happier than I last spring when “The Dick Van Dyke Show” made a clean sweep of Emmy awards in TV’s comedy categories.

The awards once again proved to me the truth of sayings such as “Class will tell” ... “Quality will out” ... “Don’t give up the ship” ... “Survival of the fittest” ... “Tippecanoe and Morey Amsterdam, too” ... “I regret that I have but one life to give for Mary Tyler Moore.”

Last week I had a phone interview with a guy who shared my happiness over the Emmy awards. This guy thinks “The Dick Van Dyke Show” is absolutely great. His name? Dick Van Dyke.

However, he believes his show may be vulnerable this season because it begins halfway through two competing hour-long dramatic shows. His series is the second half of the CBS team engaged in one of the biggest ratings battle of the year. Front line troops in that battle are CBS’s “The Beverly Hillbillies” and ABC’s “Ben Casey.”

Last season Van Dyke’s program rolled over ABC’s “Our Man Higgins” at 9:30, with its real competition coming from NBC’s “Perry Como Show,” a 60-minute show that started at 9. But Como’s was a variety show; the reasoning is a variety series is more likely to lose viewers at the halfway point than is a dramatic show.

Van Dyke feels his show is dependent on its lead-in, “The Hillbillies.” Naturally he hopes the Clampett family clobbers Casey, thus insuring high ratings for his show. (Through the first three weeks of the season result are inconclusive. “The Hillbillies” had higher ratings in weeks one and two, but “Casey” scored a victory in week three.)

Van Dyke hopes to pick up new viewers at 9:30, but not for the reason that seems obvious to me. I don’t enjoy “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but I love “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” And there’s no rule that says I have to watch anything from 9 to 9:30. But Van Dyke’s reasoning is based on the assumption most people will be watching something at 9. He feels NBC’s “Espionage” is more likely to hold its viewers, though its audience is smaller than the one for “Ben Casey.”

“I’ve seen ‘Espionage,’ ” said Van Dyke, “and it’s darn good. I watched all of it. That’s the dangerous thing about hour-long shows. You watch the first half and you’re liable to stick around for the second half, too.”

So what about “Ben Casey”? That also is an hour-long show.

“Oh, that’s different. Maybe other people watch ‘Casey’ the same was I do. I just stick around long enough to find out what is the disease of the week. After that I know what’s going to happen.”

What Van Dyke hopes for most of all is higher ratings for his show than for “The Hillbillies.”

“I’m tired of hearing people say ‘The Hillbillies’ were the only reason we were successful last season,” he said. “I want to prove we made it on our own.

“It’s true we had our share of problems the first year, but I think our show just took a long time to catch on. Now that we have caught on, I think it will take a long time for us to cool off.”

His analysis of the first season – 1961-62 – is an understatement. His program two years ago could have borrowed the title of Steve Allen’s favorite comic soap opera, “Edge of Cancellation.”

“The Dick Van Dyke Show” was so close to the edge it was a miracle it survived for a second season. CBS and the program’s sponsor, Proctor & Gamble, were prepared to dump the series in the spring of 1962. Only a last-minute appeal by the show’s owner, Danny Thomas, saved the day. (This season Thomas talked NBC out of dropping “The Joey Bishop Show,” so if you need a person with clout, you know who to contact.)

Thomas’ faith in Van Dyke paid off when the show climbed into the Top Ten last season, eventually rising to the Top Five. That was quite an accomplishment for Van Dyke, who only six years ago was host of a kiddie’s cartoon show.

Van Dyke now has a movie career going for him, too. His first film, “Bye Bye Birdie,” recently completed its first-run circuit. It got mixed reviews from critics, but Van Dyke considered the film a complete bust.

“They Hollywood-ized it and turned ‘Birdie’ from adult entertainment into a kids’ picture. They took out the satire and replaced it with slapstick.”

Van Dyke is the man who should know. He played the lead during the long Broadway run of “Bye Bye Birdie.”

He has higher hopes for his second movie, “Mary Poppins,” a Walt Disney production.

“My role is finished, but Disney is preparing so many special effects with cartoons that he’ll be working on the movie for another year. It will be a fantasy, of course, and I think it may be the best picture of its type ever made.”

Van Dyke also has a role in “What a Way to Go,” an elaborate comedy with Shirley MacLaine, Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman and Dean Martin. Columbia has him under contract for five more movies and Disney has offered him work in two future productions.

The 37-year-old Van Dyke got started in show business as a radio announcer in Danville, Illinois, his hometown. He also did some announcing for the Air Force.

“It was more by accident than design,” he recalled. “I got into special services after I flunked out of pilot training.”

Van Dyke returned to Danville after his discharge and opened an advertising agency. The agency went bankrupt a year later.

He had a brief fling as part of a nightclub comedy team, but decided for the sake of his wife and two small children to settle in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1951 when he received an offer to do a morning television show. He took a similar job in New Orleans three years later. There he attracted the attention of CBS and signed a seven-year contract with the network.

In 1955 he replaced Jack Paar on CBS' "The Morning Show," which had him working alongside Walter Cronkite. (The roster of hosts on that program is rather impressive. They include Paar, Van Dyke, Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin.)

For the next few years Van Dyke was the television equivalent of baseball's utility player. Sometimes he was host of a game show ("The Price Is Right," for instance, in 1956), and sometimes he was a panelist on "To Tell The Truth." He also performed on several prime time variety shows before he turned his attention to Broadway.

The amazing thing about Van Dyke's success in stage musicals is he had never had a voice or dance lesson. He is very much a self-trained performer.

He was at the right place at the right time in his career when CBS went looking for someone to star in a situation comedy that Carl Reiner had written with himself in mind. CBS liked the idea, but didn't think Reiner was right for the role of a young man from the Midwest who landed a job as the head writer for a popular television show.

Reportedly Johnny Carson also was considered for the role, but he certainly wasn't disappointed when it was offered to Van Dyke. It wasn't long before Carson landed the job of a lifetime — host of NBC's "Tonight Show."

Apparently good things happen to people who step into Jack Paar's shoes.

 

 

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Herb Alpert Richard Egan George Montgomery
Dana Andrews Jack Elam Joanna Moore
John Astin Linda Evans Mary Tyler Moore
Frankie Avalon Pat Finley Ozzie and Harriet Nelson
Barbara Barrie Eric Fleming Hugh O'Brian
Bill Bixby Peter Fonda Pat O'Brien
George Burns Anthony Franciosa Gene Pitney
Michael Callan Annette Funicello Martha Raye
Richard Chamberlain Zsa Zsa Gabor Della Reese
Leslie Charleson Beverly Garland Carl Reiner
Petula Clark Jackie Gleason Barbara Rush
Dabney Coleman Merv Griffin Robert Ryan
Robert Conrad Mark Harman Henry Silva
Bill Cosby Patricia Harty Julie Sommars
Joseph Cotten Marty Ingels Barbra Streisand
Bob Crane Jack Jones The Three Stooges
Richard Crenna Jack Kelly The Supremes
Ken Curtis Dave Ketchum Dick Van Dyke
Bill Dana Sue Ane Langdon Jerry Van Dyke
Bobby Darin Sheldon Leonard Robert Vaughn
Sammy Davis Jr. Jack Lord Clint Walker
Richard Deacon George Maharis Ray Walston
Bob Denver Jackie Mason Betty White
James Drury Raymond Massey Andy Williams
  Martin Milner Henry Winkler
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