Matlock: Charming but Cantankerous

We are winding down our blog series, One-Named Detectives, and today we have Matlock on the hot seat. In the mid-1980s, Andy Griffith returned to television, starring in Matlock, a legal drama created by Dean Hargrove. The show’s concept was similar to Perry Mason which was also created by Hargrove. During its run from 1986-1995, the show was produced by a variety of companies including Intermedia Entertainment Co., The Fred Silverman Co., Dean Hargrove Productions (which was named Strathmore Productions during the first two seasons), and Viacom Productions.

The show began its life on NBC before moving to ABC from 1992-1995. In 1997, Matlock was featured on a two-part episode of Diagnosis Murder which aired on CBS. During this episode, we learned that early in his career, Dr. Sloan (Dick Van Dyke) had convinced Matlock to invest his life savings in the 8-track tape company and he lost it all. He was forced to buy cheap suits and survive on hot dogs and both things became habits that continued even after he had money again.

Ben Matlock was a folksy and well-liked, but grumpy, attorney. Ben attended Harvard Law School, followed by a few years as a public defender before opening up his own practice in Atlanta. He lives in a contemporary farmhouse and only drives Ford Crown Victorias.

Matlock was apparently based on Georgia lawyer Bobby Lee Cook who was also known for his legal skill and down-home charm. One of his most famous cases was defending former running back Bobby Hoppe. Hoppe was on the Auburn 1957 championship team and three decades later was charged for murder of a bootlegger in 1957; the case ended with a hung jury. Hoppe played for a short time with the Washington Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers. After his football career he returned to school and obtained his BS and Masters in Education. In 2010, his wife wrote that Bobby had indeed killed the bootlegger, Don Hudson.

Matlock - The Thief (1989) - Coins on Television
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Matlock, a widower, is also known for being a bit cheap despite his $100,000 standard fee, the equivalent of about $240,000 in 2021. However, he has been known to waive a fee or let a client pay in by installments. During most episodes, he finds an overlooked clue at the crime site a la Columbo.

Best Matlock Episodes | Episode Ninja
Matlock from Season 1 with Linda Purl and Kene Holliday Photo: episodeninja.com

The cast changed during the run of the show. In season one, his daughter Charlene (Linda Purl) is a partner before moving to Philadelphia to set up her own practice. Tyler Hudson (Kene Holliday) is his private investigator for the first three seasons. Conrad McMasters (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) takes over that job for seasons 4-7, followed by Cliff Lewis (Daniel Roebuck). Season 2 features Cassie Phillips (Kari Lizer), Ben’s file clerk. Michelle Thomas (Nancy Stafford) is an American lawyer living in London, an equal partner of Matlock’s for seasons 2-6. Ben’s daughter Leanne MacIntyre (Brynn Thayer) comes on board for seasons 7-8 as Thomas’s replacement. Finally, Julie March (Julie Sommars) is a district attorney, Matlock’s rival in court, and his good friend of Ben’s from season 3-6. Those are a lot of cast changes to keep straight!

There were also a variety of recurring characters, primarily from the police department. Don Knotts, who worked with Griffith on The Andy Griffith Show, was Les Calhoun, Ben’s next-door neighbor from seasons 3-6.

27 Matlock ideas | matlock, andy griffith, favorite tv shows
Together Again: Knotts and Griffith Photo: pinterest.com

In addition to Knotts, other cast members of the old show who appeared on Matlock included Aneta Corsaut, Jack Dodson, Betty Lynn, and Arlene Golonka.

Daniel de Vise wrote the book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show in 2015. He relayed that “Andy harbored enormous ambitions for Matlock. He envisioned Ben Matlock as a sort of antihero, more complex than Andy Taylor, vain, uncultured, cheap, and vaguely unlikable.”

Dean Hargrove didn’t like that vision of the character. He felt the character’s darker characteristics were being exposed and wanted Griffith to “humanize” him.

However, de Vise said it was “Andy who imbued Matlock with humor. Over its nine-year run, Matlock became an increasingly whimsical series, with the formality of the early episodes giving way to a looser, warmer more Southern style.” He said Griffith knew his new show was a drama but also understood how to lighten things up just enough. As de Vise explained–“The humor was often subtle: a raised eyebrow or gentle groan when Matlock heard something he didn’t like or a drawn-out ‘Nooo,’ just like Barney Fife used to do it.”

Matlock’s theme song was written by Dick De Benedictis specifically for the show. De Benedictis had more than 90 composing credits and produced music for a variety of genres of shows. He composed music for Perry Mason, Columbo and Diagnosis Murder as well.

The show began life on Tuesdays at 8 pm EST and continued for five years until it moved to Fridays at 8 pm EST. In season one, the show was in the top 20 and up against Who’s the Boss and Growing Pains on ABC which were both in the top 10. In 1991 it dropped out of the top-rated shows and moved to Thursday nights. In 1992 it beat out several shows throughout the year in those time slots and jumped back into the top 30. It stayed in that schedule for the remainder of its run, never cracking the top 30 again and its last year faced the tough competition of Friends.

After nine years on the air, the show ended because Andy wanted to spend more time with his family.

Grandpa Simpson mentions the show on The Simpsons. In “Whacking Day,” he relates “I’m an old man. I hate everything but Matlock.”

The show’s seasons were released on DVD from 2008-2015.

Matlock has been popular in reruns, showing up at various times on TBS, Hallmark, CBS Drama, WGN, FETV, and MeTV.

Andy Griffith | Biography, TV Shows, Movies, & Facts | Britannica
Photo: brittanica.com

With 181 episodes, Matlock had a long and successful run. After playing Andy Taylor for so many years and having the show available in syndication after it went off the air, it would be tough to create a more popular character. Between the two shows, Griffith had three unsuccessful shows in The New Andy Griffith Show, Headmaster, and Salvage 1.

Andy Griffith dies at 86 | MPR News
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But with Matlock, Griffith was once again able to play a southern character who he made the show his own. You can’t compare the two shows, but on its own evaluation, Matlock is a well-written and well-acted show and deserves to be watched on its own merits.

Jerry Van Dyke: Actor and Brother

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.

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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.

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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.

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McClintock–Photo: tidefans.com

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.

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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.

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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.

Jerry Van Dyke, Dick Van Dyke's Younger Brother, Dead at 86 | PEOPLE.com
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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.

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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.

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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.