Imagine Gilligan's Island starring Jerry Van Dyke as Little Buddy and Carroll O'Connor as the Captain. They were the first choices for leads in the 1960s sitcom, but both actors turned down the roles that then went to Bob Denver and Alan Hale Jr. Television history is full of stories like that, about turns of fate that sent careers up or down.
Jerry Van Dyke, younger brother of Dick, thought his career was headed up after doing four guest shots on the early 1960s CBS hit comedy The Dick Van Dyke Show, playing Dick's character Rob Petrie's younger brother Stacie. In 1965 Jerry landed his own show on NBC, My Mother the Car, in which he played a man whose dead mother (the voice of the great Ann Sothern) is "re-in-car-nated" into the radio of a 1928 jalopy. It was a ridiculous premise that nevertheless ran for 30 episodes on the network before being canceled. In 2002, TV Guide called it the second worst TV show of all time, right behind The Jerry Springer Show. Looking at the pilot on YouTube, however, that seems unfair. There have been much worse shows on network TV than My Mother the Car. And Jerry Van Dyke has been on some of those, too.
Jerry, 80, doesn't mind waxing about the wanes in his 60 years in showbiz, doing sitcoms, game shows, commercials (remember him as the Big Lots guy?), dinner theater and lounges in Tahoe. He'll talk about anything, as I discovered when I called him at his Malvern, Arkansas, home the other day to find out more about The Sunshine Boys, the Neil Simon play about a reunion of two old vaudeville partners that Jerry and Dick Van Dyke will be performing September 8 and 9 at the Eisemann Center in Richardson and September 10 at Casa Mañana in Fort Worth. (Their co-star is Dallas actress Denise Lee, playing the nurse.)
I've been a TV addict all my life. I remember My Mother the Car. When I was 10, I thought it was funny. Does it bother you that it's always brought up as the worst show in TV history? Jerry Van Dyke [laughing]: My Mother the Car is better than the worst show this season. [Judge for yourself. The entire pilot episode is on YouTube.]
You've had a long career as a second banana on a lot of shows. You did nine years as Luther on the ABC sitcom Coach. That's a remarkable run, especially with a star as difficult, or so I've heard, as Craig T. Nelson. Oh, yeah. I walked off the show after the first year. I went to my dressing room after telling him off. He started in comedy but Craig has problems. They talked me into coming back. Craig and I started hitting some jokes together and all of a sudden he came around.
I saved that show. I was the only one who could bring him out of his depressions. He'd come to work and not talk. I could get him to laugh and bring him out of it. He would go crazy. We're still friends. I'm not that easy to get along with either. I ended up loving Coach. I did some things on Coach that I improvised and really liked.
You also did several years as the grandfather on Yes, Dear, a sitcom so bad the best thing CBS president Les Moonves could say about it was it was "pleasant." I hated it and I was on it. I'd fight and fight for better material. It was embarrassing to watch. It was a job.
I remember all the game shows you were on in the 1970s. Tattletales was my favorite. Back when I was on 'em, they didn't even pay you. They gave you washing machines, cameras, stuff like that.
Did you ever do your nightclub act in Dallas? Oh, yeah. The King's Club at the Adolphus. Great club. I always had a nightclub act. It paid better than anything else. Thank God I had an act.
For a look at Jerry's nightclub routine, check out this clip from 1963 and his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
You've never stopped working. And now you're doing theater. Why work so hard? I don't know. In Arkansas here, they wanted me to do a local production of The Sunshine Boys. I didn't do that production but I read the play and realized that part, Al Lewis, is so right for me it's not to be believed. Al is a curmudgeon, a mean old man. Every line works. I'd been trying to get Dick to do something with me for 100 years. The only time we ever worked together was on The Dick Van Dyke Show. I couldn't get him to do The Odd Couple with me but I sent him this script and he liked it. I went through a great deal to get him to do it with me, but we finally did the play in a little theater in Malibu last spring and it was just magic. I got him hooked on it. I love doing it. It's like Al says in the play, we're like one person when we're onstage. He knows what I'm thinking and I know what he's thinking.
We're actually too old to play the old guys in the play. They're supposed to be in their 70s. But the older we are, the funnier we are. The problem with the play is the guys really don't like each other and they yell and scream at each other. A lot of people think they're too unlikable. The thing about being brothers, the more we yell at each other, the funnier it is and it doesn't bother people.
Doing the play is tiring, but we're both sitting down a lot. Old men would do that. But once you hear the laughs that's what makes the difference. I've been a comic all my life. When you hear laughs like that and material like that .... My problem has always been material. Dick's show was the best thing I ever did. The writing was so good. You had Carl Reiner writing scripts. That's gold, you know. I was young and I thought, wow, TV is great and I'm gonna love this. And I never had material that good again.
So after you do the play here, what's next? We have a firm offer to take it to Broadway for 10 weeks. The problem is that Dick says he can't cut it for that long. He'll be 86 this year. He wants to do five weeks. So we're looking for a replacement. We won't give up. But Dick and I together is the key. See, I've got the lead and I was worried that I'm not that big a name. But I was just in New York seeing shows and I'm a bigger national name than most of the people on Broadway. I do this part very well. If I could get it to Broadway, I think it could get good reviews.
We also have an offer to do the play at the Pasadena Playhouse in LA in December. Dick hasn't agreed 100 percent. I hit him a little at a time.
Dick and I also met with ABC a few days ago. They want to do a series with us. It's a good premise, sort of a continuation of Sunshine Boys, where we're entertaining in a home for old people. They liked it, so we'll see what happens. They don't have good character development on sitcoms now. Just joke, joke, joke.
What do you like on TV now? Well, I'm doing a guest shot on this new show The Middle that I think is pretty good. I'll be on the Thanksgiving episode as Patricia Heaton's father. Her mother is played by Marsha Mason. She used to be married to Neil Simon, you know.
I loved watching television. But there's not one show I really enjoy watching now.
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Do you feel like the best part of your career might be ahead of you? At 80, you're pretty ambitious. Mentally, I do feel young, but physically not so much. Someone told me 80 is the new 70. I said, 70 is good?
The Sunshine Boys runs September 8 & 9 at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson; September 10 at Casa Mañana in Fort Worth. Tickets for the Eisemann, starting at $50, can be purchased at 972-744-4650 or online. For Casa Mañana tickets, use Ticketmaster.