Today is the birthday of one of the late 20th century’s great physical comedians, Dick Van Dyke (born 1925). Van Dyke had started out in the late 40s with an act called “The Merry Mutes,” performing pantomime and lip-syncing to records, much as Jerry Lewis had done around the same period. In the early 1950s, he and comedy partner Phil Erickson broke into local television with this act in the Atlanta area. By 1954 he was beginning to work for himself on national television shows like Chance of a Lifetime and The Phil Silvers Show.
Van Dyke’s knack for physical comedy was used to spectacular effect on the Carl Reiner-produced Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66). The program had originally been devised by Reiner as a vehicle for himself, based largely on his own experience as a writer working for Sid Caesar. When the network (CBS) demanded a change, Reiner decided to play the Caesar part, and Van Dyke was cast as the main character. The opening credit pratfall over a living room ottoman gives a strong indication as to why.
At the time when The Dick Van Dyke Show was cooked up he was a smash on Broadway in the lead role in Bye, Bye Birdie. Those famously long lank limbs of his served him well not just for eccentric dancing but for pratfalls. Indeed, in many ways The Dick Van Dyke Show was to be built around that skill. Van Dyke’s persona was likable, clean, and All-American. He wasn’t particularly funny in delivering lines, which is odd for someone playing a comedy writer. Most of the actual humor of the show came out of embarrassing situations and the fact that Van Dyke’s character was a klutz. Also many scenes had him acting out bits of comic pantomime as part of the comedy-writing process (as when he pretends to be walking a make-believe dog and gets tangled in the imaginary leash). But other times, slapstick is worked directly into the sit-com, as in the episode where he is accidentally hypnotized to believe that he is falling down drunk.
Carl Reiner went on to become a movie director as well. In 1969, he wrote and directed the silent comedy tribute The Comic, starring Van Dyke. The project came about because of Van Dyke’s outspoken enthusiasm for silent comedy. Stan Laurel had often said that Van Dyke was the only person he would allow to play him should a bio-pic ever be produced. Laurel was, in turn, Van Dyke’s comic inspiration; the younger man did a spot-on impression of him.
“There isn’t a comic on TV who moves as funny as Van Dyke,” Buster Keaton pronounced in 1965, “Had he been in silent movies, he would have ranked with Chaplin and Harry Langdon.”
For more on slapstick history, including heirs to the form like Dick Van Dyke, don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media