More of sprite’s Virtual Advent 2023 goodness beckons – courtesy of today’s birthday boy: the one-and-only Dick Van Dyke, born on this day in 1925.
Most folks know him from TV and movies, though this post will concentrate on two Christmas themed episodes of his TV shows.
The first is a classic episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the 13th episode of the third season of the groundbreaking sitcom. The show featured Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, a comedy writer for a TV comedy/variety show. His boss, Alan Brady (played by Carl Reiner), kept Rob and his fellow writers, Maurice “Buddy” Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), on their toes to keep the show going. Rob’s wife, Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), was always working to keep Rob grounded.
Originally airing on December 18, 1963, this episode finds Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) working hard with Buddy and Sally to come up with a spectacular Christmas episode. However, Alan is aware that critics have seen his previous holiday shows as a bit lacking in heart. So Alan, going against the instinct of his writing staff, throws a bit of a curve ball: have the writers be the stars of a Christmas-themed variety show, something they do at company parties as improvisational entertainment.
The episode, titled “The Alan Brady Show Presents,” is one of the classics of the series. And as was the fashion on the show at the time, Carl Reiner’s character doesn’t appear clearly on screen, being dressed up as Santa Claus (and being excluded from the credits).
Sure, some aspects of this show haven’t aged well over the years – 1963 is certainly not 2023 in terms of women’s rights and their ability to play a leading role. But it is a very self-aware episode, flipping some tried-and-true TV holiday special tropes on their ear.
It was really hard to replicate the sheer quality of The Dick Van Dyke Show, something that was obvious after the actor returned to the small screen in 1971 after making movies such as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Van Dyke was already an established stage and screen talent, having wowed audiences in the stage and screen versions of Bye Bye Birdie.
Van Dyke’s new TV show – called, rather non-creatively, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, was commissioned by CBS, who were eager to get the actor back into viewers’ living rooms. They agreed to film the show near Van Dyke’s home in Arizona, they commissioned Carl Reiner to develop the show (and Reiner ended up writing and directing some episodes), and they originally aired it within the network’s powerful Saturday night lineup among heavy-hitters like All In The Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
And the show was, sadly, a bit of a dud. Van Dyke played a TV talk show host in Phoenix, Arizona, with the show’s action taking place in a similar split of office life and time at home. It was standard ensemble comedy fare based around a marquee star but the show was not as stacked with talent – both in terms of writers and actors – as was his earlier TV hit.
In the second season of The New Dick Van Dyke Show they aired a Christmas themed episode on December 24, 1972. The plot revolved around Van Dyke’s character, Dick Preston, being caught speeding. Not having enough money to post bail he ends up in jail, calling his friend, Bernie (Marty Brill, perhaps better known for his time on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to bail him out. When Bernie also ends up on the wrong side of the law, though, things get… funny?
The New Dick Van Dyke Show only aired for three seasons. By the second season it was moved to CBS’ Sunday night lineup which lacked other popular shows to prop up the ratings and things only went down from there.
The final season saw the show moved to Monday nights – and the filming location moved to Hollywood, mostly to save production costs. This season saw Dick Preston land a role in a medical soap opera called Those Who Care. Much of the original cast of the show didn’t make the move to California, so new cast members were added, including Dick Van Patten (in one of his first season-long TV roles), Richard Dawson (fresh from Hogan’s Heroes), and Chita Rivera (in her first recurring TV role).
The show tried to be edgy to fit in with the predecent set by All In The Family by airing a show that season where the Prestons daughter walks in on her parents having sex (the bedroom, itself, being in an off-screen shot). CBS refused to air the episode (which would have been the season closer), saying it had gone above and beyond in terms of indecency. This so incensed Carl Reiner that he left the show entirely, both as a writer and producer. Reiner tried to make the case that AITF was able to handle even more controversial subjects with nary a complaint from CBS executives.
(Of note: the controversial episode, “Lt. Preston of the 4th Cavalry,” eventually did see broadcast in 2004 on the syndicated GoodLife TV network. That said, the show seldom airs these days, even in syndication. If you want to watch the episode in its entirety, click here.)
Once Reiner left the show was essentially done. Van Dyke was unhappy filming away from his Arizona home and, without Reiner’s steady presence as an adviser and writer, he chose not to renew his contract with CBS – thus bringing on a de facto cancellation of the show in 1974.
Thanks to myriad sources, including Wikipedia and the Museum of Television and Radio, for research help on this piece!