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My first interview with Jerry Van Dyke came in March 25, 1962. The phone call was set up by a Beverly Hills publicist to call attention to the young comedian's appearance on his brother's struggling television series. Yes, it was the first season of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and it was not doing well in the ratings.

Jerry Van Dyke was featured in a two-part episode, appropriately playing Stacey Petrie, younger brother of Rob Petrie. Stacey was a soldier about to be discharged. He wanted to go into show business, but he had an unusual problem — he was painfully shy. Well, he was when he was awake. But when he asleep he turned into a banjo-plunking, wild and crazy guy. His sleep-walking knew no bounds.

Parts of the Stacey Petrie story mirrored Jerry Van Dyke's real life. He had been in the army, and while in uniform he performed twice on "The Ed Sullivan Show," which featured servicemen on Sullivan's annual Christmas programs.

Van Dyke was discharged in 1957 and became a nightclub comedian. He was 23-year-old at the time. His act — part of it, anyway — resembled Stacey Petrie's sleep-walking antics.

By the time he appeared on his brother's show, Jerry Van Dyke had made a name for himself on the comedy circuit. However, his performance as Stacey Petrie hastened his success.

Our interview was conducted before the two-parter aired, but already Jerry Van Dyke was fielding other offers.

“I’m going to make a pilot film for a new television series,” he said. “It will be called ‘Double Trouble,' and I’ll be a cub reporter for a small newspaper in Cloverdale, Tennessee which is across the river from Cloverdale, Virginia, and the series will be about the trouble the two towns have because of their names. It’s based on an actual situation in Bristol, Tennessee.”

Van Dyke said he hopes the series clicks “because I don’t particularly like nightclub work. “Besides, I think I’m better suited for television than clubs. I’d rather do comedy acting. Too many successful nightclub comedians get stuck in a mold. Jack E. Leonard and Dick Shawn, for example, have a hard time doing well on television because they are too associated with their routines.”

Jerry Van Dyke’s routine was faintly reminiscent of pre-television’s George Gobel. He entered strumming a banjo, then went into monologues he described as “an Andy Griffith kind of country humor.”

Van Dyke managed to escape comparisons ... even with his brother.

Dick Van Dyke, being five years older, got into show business before his brother. He was performing in Los Angeles in the early 1950s when his family paid a visit and caught one of his shows. Jerry Van Dyke confessed he temporarily “borrowed” his brother’s act when he went back home to Danville, Illinois.

He said he clowned his way through the Army, performing in several service shows, and later had a local television show in Terre Haute, Indiana. After a year he left Indiana, hit the nightclub circuit, eventually was booked at the Tropicana Club in Las Vegas. A few weeks later he filmed his two part appearance on his brother’s show.

The series, "Double Trouble," never materialized. Instead CBS put Jerry Van Dyke into the short-lived "Judy Garland Show." He also had parts in the movies "Palm Springs Weekend," "McLintock!" and "Love and Kisses," and guest roles on television in "Perry Mason," "The Cara Williams Show" and "The Andy Griffith Show."

In 1965 he finally had his own series, and when he visited Cleveland to promote the show, we had our second interview, this time in person:

Akron Beacon Journal, October 31, 1965

By JACK MAJOR

A visit with Jerry Van Dyke is the pause that perplexes.

Take his appearance.

He is a slouch with the all-arms appearance of Goose Tatum. You know he has legs somewhere, but all you see is his trunk with those long, dangling arms.

He stands about five-foot-ten, but if he’d straighten up he’d probably be tall enough to play center for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Or his manner.

He hardly ever looks directly at you. His eyes shift from your shoe strings to your right shoulder to your left ear and back again to your shoes. Or completely away from you.

His voice is low and his tone almost apologetic. He is polite and obliging, but seldom grips the subject being discussed. Instead he jabs at it in a vague and stuttering fashion that is so comic you figure it must be rehearsed.

But the longer he talks, the more you wonder – maybe the bashful bit is for real.

Chances are, however, that the person most perplexed by Jerry Van Dyke is Jerry Van Dyke.

He reminds me of Rocky Nelson, the old baseball player who hit minor league pitching like crazy, but always flopped somehow when he got a shot at the majors.

Van Dyke’s performances on television the last three years have been well received, but he hasn’t come close to achieving star status.

Until three years ago he confined his work to the saloon circuit, particularly the Playboy clubs. Then his brother, Dick, and comedian-writer Carl Reiner wrote Jerry into a two-part episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

In that episode the younger Van Dyke played an introvert able to break the shackles of his self-consciousness only when asleep. Then, for some reason, he became a tiger.

The show was hilarious and Jerry Van Dyke was great. It looked as though his career might take off. but it didn’t.

“The big trouble,” he recalled, “was that after I did the show no one knew whether to cast me as the introvert or the extrovert. And I didn’t know ... I mean, I didn’t even know enough to have a manager, and my career got all fouled up.”

One of the snags in his career was a contract that he signed with CBS a few weeks after he finished his brother’s program. In two years CBS produced only two projects for Jerry Van Dyke – a featured spot on the ill-fated “Judy Garland Show” and a job as host of the terribly unfunny summer series, “Picture This.” Whatever momentum his career had gathered was lost.

His only break during the life of that contract was a scene-stealing role in the Glenn Ford movie, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” Anyone who saw the film may have felt Van Dyke was headed for bigger things.

“Yeah,” he drawled, “but there just wasn’t anyone who, uh, saw the movie.”

Now Jerry Van Dyke has a television show ... with the same problem. That’s why he was in Cleveland as part of a publicity tour.

However, “My Mother, The Car” is not the kind of program a fellow a fellow can brag about. And it may not be the kind of show that will boost Van Dyke’s career.

“Yeah, I know ... a lot of people think the show is, uh, stupid,” he admitted, “but I figure it’s a good show for kids, and it’s on at 7:30, which is a good time for kids.”

Then he broke into a hollow, dumb-dumb kind of laugh, the one that goes huh-huh-huh instead of ha-ha-ha.

“I must be right,” he added, “because I’m met lots of grown ups who tell me they’d rather watch ‘Combat,’ but they can’t because – huh-huh-huh – their kids are hooked on our show.”

His show is about a 1928-model automobile that contains the reincarnation of his mother.

“The biggest complaint we’ve had – and I think this is silly – is from people who object to my mother’s voice coming from the car radio. They tell us, uh, there weren’t any radios in 1928 cars. Like it’s okay to have talking cars, just as long as they’re late-model cars.”

“My Mother, The Car” is in the “iffy” category; its rating are inconclusive, so Van Dyke has no idea yet whether the series will survive its first season. Networks are so panicky this fall that they’ve canceled programs after just four weeks.

“Boy, if networks had panicked like this a few years ago there wouldn’t be a ‘Bonanza’ on the air today. Or a ‘Man From UNCLE.’ Or a ‘Dick Van Dyke Show.’ ”

His brother’s success, which has snowballed tremendously during the past two years after his show was nearly canceled, has haunted Jerry throughout his career, but he doesn’t chafe when someone refers to him as “Dick Van Dyke’s brother.”

He said he even incorporates this into his nightclub act. After he introduces himself he calls his daughter, Kelly Jean, on stage and say, “Tell the people who you are,” and she says, “Dick Van Dyke’s niece.”

Dick Van Dyke’s brother says he is confident he can become a star in his own right. His only concern is whether he’ll get the opportunity.

“This is a funny business,” he said. “Look at Jackie Vernon. He has been doing the same material for years, but until recently he was unknown.

“I used to work with Jackie at the Playboy Clubs and I’d have to laugh because of the way he was bombing. Nobody caught on to his stuff. He’d tell a joke ... and nothin’. I mean, nothin’. And he’d look over at me and shrug his shoulders ... and I’d laugh.

“Then Jack Paar ... or somebody ... put Jackie on television and – WHAM! – all of a sudden he’s hot. And he didn’t change a bit.”

Van Dyke would like to make movies, but says he’s stumped by the way they do things in Hollywood.

“I can’t figure out how they decide who is in demand. I mean, who knows whether the public wants to see Jim Garner? Or Steve McQueen? Or Paul Newman?

“The studios keep talkin’ about box office appeal, but I’m convinced anyone can become a star if the studio decides to push him long enough. I mean, look at Ann-Margret. I went to see one of her movies a few months ago and she was awful. the movie was awful. I don’t even remember the name of it, except it was awful.

“But someone decided that Ann-Margret was going to be a star, and they’ll keep putting her into movies until she is one. Even if it takes forever.”

I found it interesting that Jerry Van Dyke cites Ann-Margret as an actress who became a star despite awful performances. His brother, Dick, never mentioned Ann-Margret by name, but I had to believe she was on his mind when he mentioned how disappointed he was in his first movie, "Bye Bye Birdie." He starred in both the Broadway and screen versions, and said of the latter:

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

They also put the spotlight pretty much on the teenager played by Ann-Margret, who looked about five years too old for the role.

As for Jerry Van Dyke's career, well he managed to keep working, though he had bad luck with four series in a row — "My Mother the Car" (1965-66), which lasted one season and 30 episodes; "Accidental Family" (1967-68), with Lois Nettleton, which ended after 16 episodes; "Headmaster" (1970), which starred Andy Griffith and was canceled after 13 episodes, and "13 Queens Boulevard" (1979), with Eileen Brennan, which was gone after nine episodes.

Finally, in 1989, Jerry Van Dyke struck gold in the Craig T. Nelson series, "Coach," which ran until 1997. In all the show presented 199 episodes. He's appeared since then in several television shows, most recently two episodes of ABC's "The Middle."

In 2004 he joined his brother in a TV movie, "The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited," and they recently performed together on stage in Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys." Jerry Van Dyke is 83, and on December 13,, 2014, Dick Van Dyke celebrates his 89th birthday.

Jerry Van Dyke on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com)

 

 

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