A Show That Stands The Test of Time

Rob and LauraThe Dick Van Dyke Show debuted October 3, 1961, fifty years ago. (Yes you are THAT old if you remember this as must-watch TV and will watch every re-run again and again.)

Surprising to me was the history of The Dick Van Dyke Show and the convoluted route it took to finally get aired. The show was shot with the title Head of the Family and an entirely different cast. Carl Reiner was a known writer for Sid Caesar, and hatched the idea for a sitcom, with him appearing in the leading role.

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.

Leonard realized this diamond in the rough and spotted immediately the one flaw: Reiner was not a sitcom actor, he was a sketch comedian.

Recasting the Dick Van Dyke Show proceeded and went smoothly until it came to casting Laura Petrie, the female lead. Many actresses auditioned, but it was Danny Thomas who remembered a cute button nosed girl “with three names” who tried out for the role Rob and Lauraof his daughter on Make Room for Daddy. (She was rejected because Thomas thought no one would believe her button-nose compared to Thomas’s honker.)

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.

The critics loved The Dick Van Dyke Show, but low ratings almost caused the program to be canceled after one season! Sheldon Leonard used his powerful influence to squeeze out four more seasons.

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.

Mark Van Patten writes a blog called Going Like Sixty and has been married to the same woman since 1968, and now lives in the higlands of Costa Rica.

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