Jerry Van Dyke: The Man Who Wouldn’t Be Gilligan

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The great character comedian Jerry Van Dyke (b. 1931) was born on this day. He’s always rather unfairly lived in the shadow of his older brother Dick Van Dyke, who not only had his own starring role in a classic sit-com but was a movie star, to boot. But Jerry is an excellent comic actor, and is a legend himself in the television business. After his early successful turns on The Dick Van Dyke Show playing Rob Petrie’s banjo-playing, stuttering, clumsy younger brother, and a number of other high profile tv spots, he famously turned down a couple of prominent gigs: the part of Gilligan on Gilligan’s Island and the role of Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show (when Don Knotts left in 1965). These seem like lost opportunities. As Gilligan, Van Dyke would certainly have been vastly better than the blandly vacant Bob Denver. And Van Dyke, in my view is also probably the equal of Knotts as a comic actor, so his Barney would have been interesting to watch. Instead the shows he opted to star in were the one-season wonders My Mother, the Car (1965) and Accidental Family (1967).

For decades, Van Dyke was spoken of as sort of an industry joke, until he finally got the chance to prove them all wrong. In 1989, nearly 60 years old, he was cast in the role of Luther on the ABC series Coach. His work on the series was hilarious and occasionally moving, and his rapport with co-star Craig T. Nelson magical. I think of it as one of the great sit-coms. The show lasted until 1997 and Van Dyke was nominated for four Emmys.

Now… there is lore in my family that one of my great aunts dated Van Dyke quite seriously and even rejected a proposal of marriage from him. I’m at a loss to imagine when, where or how. My family lived in Huntsville, Alabama, and Van Dyke was originally from Illinois, toured with Air Force shows, and got his start on local tv in Indiana. Who knows? But I want to get to the bottom of it!

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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