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.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Fifty Years After Getting the Pink Slip

The late 1960s and early 1970s might have contained the most diverse television shows than any other era. In 1968, there were the rural comedies like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; there were the standard sitcoms, My Three Sons, Get Smart, That Girl, Bewitched; there were the remains of a few westerns including The High Chaparral, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke; there were crime and thrillers such as Hawaii Five-0 and Mission Impossible; there was the crime/western in The Wild, Wild West, there were gameshows on at night including Let’s Make a Deal, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game; there were sci-fi shows like Star Trek and The Land of the Giants; family shows like Lassie; and even Lawrence Welk.

In addition, there were a couple of shows that were a bit edgier and introduced more  provocative concepts and themes. The Mod Squad featured three teens who were helping solve crimes in lieu of jail time, and then there was the almost-impossible-to-describe Laugh In.

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Similar to Laugh In was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which also debuted in 1967 featuring Tom and Dick Smothers. It had more of a variety format to it but it had the same topical and satirical humor.

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The Who

In addition to poking fun at politics, the war, religion, and current issues, you could tune in to the Smothers Brothers for some of the best and sometimes controversial music in the industry. Performers such as Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Cream, Pete Seeger, and The Doors appeared on the show.

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Jefferson Airplane

The show aired Sunday nights against Bonanza on NBC; ABC aired The Sunday Night Movie in its first season and Hee Haw in its second season.

The series had some of the best writers on television: Alan Blye, Hal Goldman, Al Gordon, Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mason Williams. Reiner and Martin both commented on the show in an interview by Marc Freeman in the Hollywood Reporter 11-25-2017 (“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at 50: The Rise and Fall of a Ground-Breaking Variety Show”).  

Reiner relayed that “you had two cute boy-next-doors wearing red suits, one with the stand-up bass and the other with his guitar. They looked like the sweetest, most innocent kids. You got drawn to them, and then they hit you with the uppercut you didn’t see coming.”

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Martin elaborated “When you have the power wrapped up in innocence, it’s more palatable. They were like little boys, but you also had Dickie there to reprimand Tommy when he would make an outrageous statement. It’s like the naughty ventriloquist dummy who can get away with murder as long as the ventriloquist is there to say ‘You can’t say that.’ It’s the perfect setup for getting a message across.”

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Jack Benny

In addition to the musical acts, hundreds of celebrities appeared on the show between 1967 and 1969, including Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, Barbara Eden, Nanette Fabray, Eva Gabor, Shirley Jones, Don Knotts, Bob Newhart, Tony Randall, Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas and Jonathan Winters, along with so many others.

Part of the show was the brothers’ ongoing sibling rivalry about whom their parents liked best. They also began to add political satire and ribald humor. Pat Paulsen delivered mock editorials about current topics such as the draft and gun control, and in 1968 he had a mock presidential campaign.

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Pat Paulsen for president

Church sermon sketches poked fun at religion. The show lampooned many of the values older Americans valued, often delivering anti-establishment and pro-drug humor. No one was given an exception, and the show lambasted the military, the police, the religious right, and the government.

Battles over content were ongoing with the network. The network pulled Pete Seeger’s performance of his anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” They nixed Harry Belafonte’s song, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” because it had a video collage behind him of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.

Younger viewers were tuning in, and despite the conflicts, the show was picked up for a second season. The network insisted they receive a copy of the show at least ten days in advance for editing. In April of 1969, William Paley canceled the show without notice. Some sources contend it was canceled by CBS president Robert Wood. Some sources cite the issue with unacceptable deadlines and others mention Tom Smothers lobbying the FCC and members of Congress over corporate censorship that brought about the firing. The brothers filed a breach of contract suit against the network and after four years of litigation, a federal court ruled in their favor, awarding them $776,300.

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Here’s a typical joke from the show that was not as controversial.

Tom: You can tell who’s running the country by how much clothes people wear, see?

Dick: Do you mean that some people can afford more clothes on, and some people have . . . less on? Is that what you mean?

Tom: That’s right.

Dick: I don’t understand.

Tom: See, the ordinary people, you’d say that the ordinary people are the less-ons.

Dick: So, who’s running the country?

Tom: The morons.

The Smothers Brothers elicited humor that was as topical, influential, and critical as anyone had ever heard before on television. Fifty years later, both the network and the brothers realized everyone over-reacted. If the Smothers Brothers had tried to play by the rules a bit, they would not have lost their platform to continue to help change what they saw as a messed-up culture.

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The CBS executives felt the program created too much controversy. In their defense, politicians, especially Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, exerted a lot of pressure on the network. Remember this was a time of three networks and ads are what produced the profits to fund shows. The network received a boatload of hate mail daily about the program and, when viewers begin talking boycotting advertisers, executives sit up a bit straighter and listen.

The Smothers Brothers Show, a less controversial series, debuted in 1975. They had two specials on NBC later and another CBS series in 1988 but never regained the influence they had in the sixties. However, the show did help pave the way for a future that permitted, and later embraced, shows with controversy beginning with All in the Family, continuing with Saturday Night Live, and recently seen on shows such hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Although the comedy spouted on the show would seem quite tame by today’s standards, the show had an important part in the history of television and the rights of free speech.

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I have seen some DVDs out there from this show, but they are pricey. Recently I saw season two going for $190. I do see Laugh In on Decades quite often, so perhaps The Smothers Brothers might show up somewhere too, although I’m not sure this show would hold up as well as Laugh In, but the musical performances would be fun to see.