This month we are looking at some of our favorite sitcom stars. With roles in more than eight popular sitcoms, Jerry Van Dyke has to be in the mix.
Jerry was born in Danville, Illinois in 1931. Van Dyke started his comedy stand-up career in high school performing for local nightclubs. In 1954 he joined the US Air Force Tops in Blue, performing at military bases around the world. During this time, he also played the banjo in his shows. After his military time was up, he married Carol Jean Johnson; they would divorce in 1974.
Dick Van Dyke was his brother, and Jerry’s first television appearance was on his brother’s show where he fittingly played Rob Petrie’s brother Stacey.
In 1963 he made his movie debut with two movies: The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and Palm Springs Weekend. He was also made a member of The Judy Garland Show which was cancelled after its first season. I’m not sure if there were behind-the-scenes issues with this show or not, but it seems like it would have been more successful at that time. What I was able to read was that it went through a lot of personnel changes; had to compete with Bonanza; and that while viewers loved Judy, they did not love the format or Van Dyke.
Jerry made a few more television appearances in the early sixties on Perry Mason, The Cara Williams Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and McClintock.
In 1965, Jerry was offered the role of Dave Crabtree on My Mother the Car. The premise of the show is that Dave buys an antique car only to realize his dead mother talks to him through the radio, and no one else knows it’s happening. This show is often cited as the worst sitcom of all times, but it certainly has some strong competition. Somehow viewers suffered through 30 episodes before the show was put out of its misery. I’m not sure if it was a blessing or a curse, but Jerry turned down the role of Gilligan on Gilligan’s Island for this show. Luckily, this show didn’t seem to have too much negativity on his career, while Bob Denver was typecast to the point that he never really had much of a career once the show ended.
When the show ended, Jerry made appearances on That Girl and Vacation Playhouse before being offered another leading role. He was cast as Jerry Webster in Accidental Family. He aptly plays a nightclub comedian who was a widower with a small son Sandy. After buying a farm to raise Sandy, he hires Sue Kramer (Lois Nettleton) as governess and, of course, there is some romantic tension. This show only lasted for sixteen episodes before ending.
After showing up on Good Morning World and Gomer Pyle, USMC, Jerry was offered another lead role as Jerry Brownell, a physical education teacher, on Headmaster. This was an Andy Griffith vehicle where Andy played the principal at an elite California private school. After fourteen episodes, Jerry was back to guest appearances which he made on Love American Style, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
In 1977 he married again, this time to Shirley Ann Jones, and they were together until his death.
1979 brought him another regular role on 13 Queens Boulevard. The show was set in a New York apartment complex and explores the relationships of the residents. It just never clicked with fans and was given the boot after 9 shows.
A decade later Jerry took on the role that he is best known for: Luther Van Dam on Coach. For eight years he was the assistant coach to Craig T. Nelson’s Hayden Fox–first as college coach and then for a time in the pros. Luther was the well-meaning but bumbling friend who often made life interesting for Hayden. However, he was a great coach. Van Dyke would receive four Emmy nominations for his character on the show from 1990-1993. His losses were to Alex Rocco on The Famous Teddy Z, Jonathan Winters on Davis Rules, Michael Jeter on Evening Shade, and Michael Richards on Seinfeld.
In the late nineties he had recurring roles on two shows that I do not remember anything about: Teen Angel and You Wish. Teen Angel was a weird concept where Marty DePolo eats a six-month old hamburger, dies, and then becomes his best friend’s guardian angel. Van Dyke played Grandpa Jerry. He played another grandpa on You Wish, which had an equally weird concept. Its premise is that a single mother finds a genie who was imprisoned in a magic carpet for 2000 years. Not surprisingly, they each had fewer than ten episodes before being canned.
Jerry Van Dyke was an avid poker player and fan, and from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, he hosted tournaments for ESPN. During that time, he also accepted guest roles on several television series and a few movies. However, his career was not over.
He received two more recurring roles on popular sitcoms in the 2000s. From 2001-2005, he was Big Jimmy Hughes on Yes Dear and from 2010-2015, he was Tag Spence on The Middle.
He and his wife lived on a ranch in Hot Spring County in Arkansas where he seemed to be very happy. He passed away there from heart failure in 2018.
Most actors would have been very proud of a career mirroring Jerry Van Dyke’s, and I’m sure he was, but it would have been hard to be in your successful brother’s shadow so much of the time. Dick Van Dyke was five years older than Jerry and, with the success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, he had a career that was truly impressive. However, considering how few comedians make it in the business, Jerry had a stand-up career, a movie career, and a television career. His role of Luther Van Dam was a gem and gives us an example of what his career could have been if the luck of the dice had given him better roles.
Many of us enjoyed the Super Bowl yesterday. Maybe you are a football fanatic, maybe you just wanted to catch the commercials, or perhaps, like many of us, you just wanted someone, anyone, besides the Patriots to win this year. For many Americans, the Super Bowl has become an unofficial holiday. We prepare certain foods, we throw parties, and decorate the house.
Many movies have been written about football; my favorite is still Remember the Titans, although Brian’s Song (appropriately with Shelly Fabares as Joy Piccolo) still makes me cry. On television we had Friday Night Lights, but when I think back to the classic sitcoms, the only show that came to mind was Coach.
I remember watching Coach when it was originally on the air from 1989-1997, but my viewing was hit and miss. In my defense, I had two young children then, and they kept my evenings busy. This past year, I caught part of the Coach marathon on Decades. I’ve also been watching it on Antenna TV, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. The characters still ring true for me. Hayden, Christine, Luther, Dauber, and Judy are just exaggerated enough to be fun and quirky. My youngest son attends Minnesota State Mankato, and I knew there were some connections with the show, but I was unsure what they were. I decided this was the perfect time to learn some of the behind-the-scene details of the show and celebrate our national pastimes of football and television watching.
Hayden Fox (Craig T. Nelson) is the head coach of a NCAA Division I college football team. His staff, primarily Michael “Dauber” Dybinski (Bill Fagerbakke, later the voice of Patrick on SpongeBob Square Pants) and Luther Van Dam (Jerry Van Dyke), help him coach the Screaming Eagles. His girlfriend is Christine Armstrong (Shelly Fabares), a local newscaster. Christine doesn’t especially love sports, but she loves Hayden even though his narrow mindedness can make her crazy. Their relationship is a give and take that gradually entwines them and allows them to grow together, understanding more about each other, but still retaining very different personalities and points of view. Hayden truly cares about his friends, he just has a gruff manner when showing it. Feelings make him uncomfortable.
In addition to Christine, Hayden has to learn to be a father again. His ex-wife raised their daughter, and now Kelly (Clare Carey) has enrolled at Minnesota State. Kelly has much more in common with Christine than with Hayden. Eventually she dates and marries Stu, a guy Hayden cannot relate to at all. In 1991, the marriage ends in divorce when Stu falls in love with someone else, and Hayden is relieved to have him out of their lives. Kelly graduates in 1993 and is offered a job at an ad agency in New York and only guest stars after that time. Oddly enough, Carey was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in California but got the part because she was a believable Midwesterner.
In addition to trying to influence the players on his team to become good men and citizens, Hayden “parents” Dauber who is much younger and Luther who is much older. Luther is a bachelor and has a lack of self-confidence, but he’s a great coordinator and Hayden appreciates him. Dauber has a heart of gold but is not the most intelligent though he can be wise at times. He continues to work with the team, eventually gathering three degrees and dating the women’s basketball coach, Judy (Pam Grier).
Judy and Hayden do not see eye to eye, and she does not have the patience or motivation to be nice to Hayden. Hayden often has harsh words for his athletic director Howard Burleigh, (Kenneth Kimmins) who always has his finger on the bottom line, but Hayden and Christine are friends with Howard and his wife Shirley (Georgia Engels) and, despite their working relationship, we see their underlying friendship developing.
At the end of season seven, Hayden is offered an NFL dream job with the Orlando Breakers. He accepts and takes his staff with him. By this time, he and Christine are married, so she also moves with the coaching staff. The owner of the team, Doris Sherman (Katherine Helmond), is more interested in the perks she gets being an owner than the success of the team. However, Fox gets the Breakers to a wild spot playoff game in the last season, although they lose to Buffalo. Also in the final season, Christine and Hayden adopt a baby boy. The Breakers were a parody of the Jacksonville Jaguars who, like the Breakers, entered the NFL in 1995 and made the playoffs against Buffalo in their second year as a team. The view Hayden sees when he looks out his office window at the stadium is actually the Milwaukee County Stadium, another tie to my Midwest.
In the season finale, the cast thanks the audience for nine years of support. Van Dyke refuses to believe the series is really over, despite all his co-stars trying to convince him. The fans also are treated to an summary of what the characters did after Coach. Hayden and Christine return to Minnesota to raise their son, even though other NFL teams are interested in Fox as a coach. Luther and Doris are in a relationship, and they build a house similar to Graceland as a tribute to Elvis. Howard and Shirley sell their rare collection of Barbie dolls and use the proceeds to buy a dinner theater in Florida. Dauber takes over the Breakers team as head coach. He wins back-to-back Super Bowls, and when he retires, he joins the Monday Night Football crew as an announcer.
Barry Kemp originally created the role of Hayden Fox for Dabney Coleman, but when ABC was ready to air the show, Coleman was unavailable. Kemp was also the creator of Newhart, and he gives a nod to his previous hit from time to time. In one episode, Christine is reading a book, How To Fly Fish by Dick Louden. In the finale, when Christine and Hayden return to his cabin, there just happen to be several people living there: Larry, Darryl and his “other brother Darryl,” whom all Newhart fans recognize immediately.
Another interesting twist on Coach was the appearance of stars who had personal relationships with the cast. Nanette Fabray, Shelly’s aunt, shows up as Mildred Armstrong, Christine’s mother. Mike Farrell, from M*A*S*H, Shelly’s husband, also appears on an episode. Nelson’s son, Noah, guest stars as a football player in one show, a delivery boy in one show, and the biological father of Fox’s adopted son in two later episodes. Perhaps the most unusual appearance was related to Luther. When Luther learns he was adopted and attends his birth family’s reunion, he tells Hayden that there was no way he could be related to any of these people. At that moment, a guy walks by them. He doesn’t have any lines, but it is Dick Van Dyke, Jerry’s brother.
stars included Tim Conway, Elinor Donahue, Lisa Kudrow, Dick Martin, Lucy Liu,
Tom Poston, Rob Schneider, and Alan Young.
might have more stars appearing as themselves as any sitcom ever. Just a few of
these sports heroes include Troy Aikman, George Allen, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka,
Eddie George, Frank Gifford, Kathie Lee Gifford, Bob Griese, Lou Holtz, Keith
Jackson, Jimmy Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson, Jerry Jones, Al Michaels, Hank Stram,
Joe Theismann, and Johnny Unitas.
Kemp was an alumnus of The University of Iowa. He chose the name Hayden Fox as a tribute to Iowa coach Hayden Fry. Even though the show is supposed to be set in Minnesota, much of it is filmed in Iowa. Many of the exterior shots on the show were taped at the Memorial Union. A couple of residence halls and the Field House also end up on the show.
song was performed by the Iowa State University marching band. They won a
national contest, earning the right to record the song.
The footage of football games is actually film from The University of Minnesota football seasons.
The Screaming Eagles was a nod to the line of Harley-Davidson motorcycles which Nelson collected.
In 1989 when the show first aired, there was no Minnesota State University. However, in 1998 Mankato State University became Minnesota State University Mankato ( and Moorhead became Minnesota State University Moorhead). However, there are some similarities between Mankato and the fictional college. Both have purple and gold as their school colors. The campus is about an hour from St. Paul-Minneapolis as is Mankato. (Christine lives in the Twin Cities when they first begin dating.) Hayden lives on a lake and in Mankato, faculty members do live on Lake Washington. The television university was founded in 1867, and Mankato was also created at that time.
Although the finale summed up the lives of the characters, that was not the end of the story. In 2015, NBC ordered 13 episodes of a Coach sequel. Nelson and Kemp came up with a concept where Hayden’s son takes a coaching job at a small college in Pennsylvania. The plan was to retain the original viewers while attracting a new, younger audience. Hayden, now a widower, comes out of retirement to be his son’s assistant coach. Dauber, now married to Judy, also signs on to help with the team. The pilot was filmed, but then NBC changed its mind. There are rumors that the revival may still happen, and other networks might be considering it. We’ll have to stay tuned.
Although the reboot has not come to fruition yet, Nelson, Van Dyke, and Fagerbakke did star again in an episode of The District. Nelson starred in the show from 2000-2004. In “The Black Widow Maker,” Jerry is a grumpy small-town judge and Bill is a police officer.
It’s too bad that the revival has not been fully developed. Considering the shows that were resurrected, often badly, this one sounds like it might have been a hit. Nelson won an Emmy during his time on Coach, but the network moved the show constantly, making it hard for fans to become loyal viewers. It was on every night except Thursday and Sunday. It survived because it worked. The writing was solid, and the characters were realistic. Hayden always had good intentions, and Christine was aware of that. Also, the show was able to survive the changes with Kelly graduating and moving, with the NFL team move; the crew stayed together while circumstances kept the show fresh.
The show went on the Antenna TV schedule last January. Do yourself a favor and get to know the Minnesota State crew.
Let’s end with some dialogue that captures the relationship between Hayden and Christine’s real marriage and Hayden and Luther’s work marriage:
Assistant Coach Luther Van Dam: I’ve made out my will, and I’d like you to be my executioner.
Michele Ann Marie (Shelly) Fabares was born in 1944 in California. She began acting at 3 and at age 10 she appeared in her first television show. Her aunt was the actress Nanette Fabray who also began acting as a child, and then went on to musical theater.
During the 1950s, Shelly appeared in several television shows including Annie Oakley, The Loretta Young Show, and the Twilight Zone, in addition to 8 others. She was part of the cast of Annette in 1958, playing Moselle Corey. The star of the show was Annette Funicello. She is an orphan who grew up in the country and now lives with her wealthy aunt and uncle, not fitting into the snobby community. The show was cancelled after 19 episodes. Annette was a life-long friend of Shelly’s. They met in seventh grade, and Shelly was at her bedside when she passed away from multiple sclerosis in 2013.
Later that year she was offered the part of Mary Stone on The Donna Reed Show. The show was on the air seven years. Shelly left the show in 1963 to pursue a film career but stayed close to the cast, especially Donna Reed who was a second mother to her. Paul Petersen and Fabares both described how amazing Donna Reed and Carl Betz were during their time on the show. Realizing how tough the industry can be for young kids, they protected them and loved them as second parents. Both Shelly and Petersen pursued their music interests on the Donna Reed Show. In 1962, she recorded “Johnny Angel” which went to number 1 on the Billboard 100.
Shelly appeared in 13 films in the 1950s and 1960s, including three with Elvis Presley—Girl Happy in 1965, Spinout in 1966, and Clambake in 1967. She also appeared on television on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Daniel Boone,Lancer, and Bracken’s World. Shelly married Lou Adler in 1964.
Her acting career continued to skyrocket in the 1970s. She appeared as Joy Piccolo in Brian’s Song in 1971. She appeared in 26 television shows, three of them regular series. The Brian Keith Show was on the air from 1972-74. Keith was Dr. Sean Jamison and Shelly played his daughter, Dr. Ann Jamison. The two of them ran a free pediatric clinic in Hawaii financed by a wealthy patron. Sticking with the medical theme, she joined the cast of The Practice in 1976-77 working with Danny Thomas. She played Jenny Bedford, the daughter of Dr. Jules Bedford. At the end of the decade she tried another sitcom, Highcliff Manor, which only lasted 6 episodes. I don’t remember this sitcom, but it seems an odd one: the manor, owned by Fabares’ character, Helen Blacke, was home to the Blacke Foundation, a research institute staffed by an eclectic group of eccentric characters. It sounds a bit like Scorpion, maybe just a couple decades’ too early.
She continued working on television in the 1980s, appearing on Fantasy Island, Mork andMindy, Matt Houston, The Love Boat, Newhart, and Murder She Wrote. She joined the cast of One Day at a Time, playing Francine Webster between 1978-1984. She also made the movie Hot Pursuit in 1987. The description of the movie is that young Danny is following his rich girlfriend’s family to the Caribbean. But suddenly he simply must take a chemistry test and cannot go with them. After they have left, he gets a leave from his professor and takes a plane to find them. But he is not quite sure where they are, and meets smugglers, crazy captains, and murderers. Fabares’ marriage to Lou Adler legally ended in 1980, although they had been separated since 1966. In 1984, she married M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell.
Entering her 5th decade of acting, she made her last film, Love or Money in 1990. She continued her television work appearing in A Whole New Ballgame and the JusticeLeague. She also had a regular gig providing the voice for Martha Kent in Superman from 1996-99. In addition to the Donna Reed Show, the show that Fabares is best known for was Coach which ran throughout most of the 90s, from 1989-1997. As Christine Armstrong, she is the girlfriend, and later, wife of Coach Hayden Fox, played by Craig T. Nelson. The show revolves around the football team that Fox coaches. He lives for sports while Christine is not the least interested. This causes a bit of friction and miscommunication in their relationship.
Fabares had a long and full career. While her career kept her busy, she had to deal with several major life situations:
Donna Reed, her second mother, passed away in 1986 from pancreatic cancer. Shelly adored Donna, and Donna’s final words were to make sure Shelly’s birthday gift was wrapped and delivered.
At the same time Reed was dying, Fabares’ mother was suffering from Alzheimers.
In 2000, Shelly needed a liver transplant because she had autoimmune hepatitis.
She had to deal with the death of her life-long friend Annette Funicello in 2013.
Few actors can begin acting as a child, transition into teen parts, transition into movie roles, and then continue acting as an adult in sitcom series, but she did that beautifully. Hopefully she and hubby Mike Farrell continue to enjoy a long and well-deserved retirement.