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.