It is now part of TV folklore that the classic sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show was originally conceived as a starring vehicle for the series' creator, Carl Reiner. In the pilot episode "Head of the Family," filmed in New York in 1959, Reiner played TV comedy writer Rob Petrie (then pronounced "pea-tree"), who divided his time between his job as a head writer on "The Alan Sturdy Show" with co-workers Buddy Sorrell (Morty Gunty) and Sally Rogers (Sylvia Miles) and his home life in New Rochelle with his wife, Laura (Barbara Britton) and son, Ritchie (Gary Morgan). Potential sponsors and networks liked the premise but not the cast...or to be more blunt, no one wanted to buy a series with Carl Reiner as star. Swallowing his pride, Reiner limited himself to the jobs of producer, director, and writer. He retooled "Head of the Family," and recast the property with Dick Van Dyke as Rob, Mary Tyler Moore as Laura, Larry Mathews as Ritchie, Morey Amsterdam as Buddy, and Rose Marie as Sally; the rest, as they say, is history.
Debuting October 3, 1961, on CBS, The Dick Van Dyke Show, as mentioned, top-billed the titular star as Rob Petrie, who was now head writer for "The Alan Brady Show" During the series' first few seasons, Alan Brady (a brash, dictatorial character reportedly inspired by Reiner's former boss and colleague Sid Caesar) was seldom seen -- and when he was, it was only from the back. It was an open secret that Carl Reiner himself played Brady, though he did not take screen billing. Only in the series' fourth season was Brady's face actually seen, and only then was Reiner credited on-screen as the actor playing the part. Other recurring characters included Richard Deacon as Alan Brady's producer (and beleaguered brother-in-law) Mel Cooley, Jerry Paris and Ann Morgan Guilbert as the Petries' next-door neighbors Jerry and Millie Helper (he was a dentist, she was Laura's best friend), future director Bill Idelson as Sally Rogers' erstwhile boyfriend, Herman Glimpshire, and Joan Shawlee as Buddy's ex-showgirl wife, Pickles.
Although the series was distinguished by the high level of wit in its writing and its wonderful physical-comedy set pieces, the strong suit of The Dick Van Dyke Show was the warm rapport among its principal players. Indeed, only a handful of TV sitcoms have been so perfectly cast, making one wonder how the series would have fared with its original cast members. Incredible though it may seem today, The Dick Van Dyke Show was not an instantaneous hit. Indeed, the series fared so poorly opposite its first season competition, Bachelor Father and Laramie, that CBS canceled the show outright, sending out notices to the cast members on the last day of shooting. The series might have been just another one season wonder had not one of its sponsors picked it up for a second season, insisting that CBS find a better time slot than Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. Thus, the show was moved to Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. -- fortuitously right after CBS's biggest success of the 1962-1963 season, The Beverly Hillbillies.
Although The Dick Van Dyke Show's somewhat higher ratings still did not set the world on fire, the series received a great deal of word-of-mouth buzz during its second season, and its audience grew steadily throughout the remainder of its run. The fact that the series picked up several Emmy Awards along the way was the icing on the cake. After five seasons, star Dick Van Dyke and producer Carl Reiner opted to quit while they were ahead -- a rare move in the mid-'60s (and even rarer four decades later). Thus, The Dick Van Dyke Show concluded its nighttime run on September 7, 1966, though reruns continued to air on CBS's daytime schedule until 1969. Thereafter, the series entered off-network syndication, where its has continued to flourish mightily well into the 21st century. And in 2003, the surviving cast members were reunited for a two-hour special, The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
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