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Craig T. Nelson

Jerry Van Dyke Biography


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Birth Name: Jerry Van Dyke
Born: 07/27/1931
Birth Place: Danville, Illinois, USA


Born July 27, 1931 in Danville, IL, Jerry Van Dyke was the second son of Loren and Hazel Van Dyke, born six years after his older brother, Richard. Like many comedians, he scored his first laughs while clowning in classrooms, and decided to make it his profession while still in high school. Van Dyke earned his comic chops at various clubs and burlesque joints throughout the Deep South, performing a popular act that combined stand-up comedy with impressive banjo-playing skills. In 1952, he joined the Air Force, where he continued to entertain as part of Tops in Blue, an entertainment unit that performed for military personnel around the world. As part of the unit, he received some of his greatest exposure, including a 1954 appearance on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" (CBS, 1948-1971) that saw Airman Second Class Van Dyke performing as MC before an estimated television audience of 15 million viewers.

The heightened exposure gave his career a boost, and when he returned to civilian life after his discharge, Van Dyke began to make regular appearances on television, including a recurring role as Stacey Petrie, the banjo-playing, sleep-walking brother to his big brother's Rob Petrie on the classic series, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1961-66). This led to a short-lived and much-criticized stint as comic relief on "The Judy Garland Show" (CBS, 1963-64), in which critics and network executives tried to pin the troubled variety program's problems on Van Dyke. He exited the series after 10 episodes, moving on to host the game show "Picture This" (CBS, 1963) and land comic supporting roles in films like "Palm Springs Weekend" (1963) and the John Wayne Western "McLintock!" (1963).

Van Dyke rebounded from the failure of the Garland show through tireless club performances and talk show appearances, which eventually restored him to most-wanted status in the eyes of television executives. However, he found it difficult to find a worthwhile project to suit his talents. Van Dyke famously turned down the role of Gilligan on "Gilligan's Island" (CBS, 1964-67), as well as the opportunity to replace Don Knotts in the sixth season of "The Andy Griffith Show" (CBS, 1960-68), before settling on the improbable "My Mother the Car," a surreal sitcom about a lawyer (Van Dyke) who purchased a 1920s touring car that was actually a reincarnation of his mother. The show was slaughtered by critics, who for decades labeled it as the worst show in the history of television; reviews of these kind hung yet an albatross around Van Dyke's neck for years to come.

Future attempts at sitcom stardom met similar fates. "Accidental Family" (NBC, 1967-68), with Van Dyke as a widowed comedian who bought a farm on which to raise his son, was created by Oscar-nominated writer Melville Shavelson and produced by Sheldon Leonard, who handled similar duties on both the "Dick Van Dyke" and "Andy Griffith" shows, but it fell victim to low ratings after a single season. "Headmaster" (CBS, 1970-71) also seemed like a hit, as it featured Griffith in his first new show after the end of his iconic series, but the show, which featured Van Dyke as best friend to Griffith's high school principal, failed to attract viewers. For much of the 1970s and early 1980s, Van Dyke bounced between stand-up work, primarily for the Playboy Club circuit, and guest appearances on television shows, most notably in a pair of appearances on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS, 1970-77) as Wes Callison, Mary's hapless former beau.

Van Dyke was originally considered to play Tom Poston's role on "Newhart" (CBS, 1982-1990), but eventually settled for a guest appearance as a travel agent on the celebrated sitcom. The character, dimwitted but genial handyman George Utley, could be seen as a forerunner for Van Dyke's most celebrated character, the easily confused but likable assistant coach to series star Craig T. Nelson. The interplay between Nelson's Hayden Fox, Van Dyke's Luther, and Bill Fagerbakke's supernaturally dense Michael "Dauber" Dybinski was, for many viewers, like watching supremely well-played tennis, with each performer working their respective strengths while offering up perfect serves to their teammates. For his efforts, Van Dyke received four consecutive Emmy nominations between 1990 and 1994. More importantly, the show's success finally dispelled the lingering notion of Van Dyke as an also-ran to his brother.

The success of "Coach" was tragically dampened in 1991 when Van Dyke's daughter, Kelly Jean, committed suicide. Her life had been a troubled one, and included a stint in the adult film industry under the name of Nancee Kelly. She ended her life after an emotional phone call to her husband, cult actor Jack Nance of "Eraserhead" (1977) fame. After "Coach" ended its series run in 1997, Van Dyke settled into a comfortable run of guest appearances and promotional engagements. He was brought onto the struggling sitcom "You Wish" (ABC, 1997-98) as the Luther-esque grandfather to John Ales' aspiring genie, then enjoyed a recurring role as Mike O'Malley's father, "Big Jimmy" Hughes, on the sitcom "Yes, Dear" (CBS, 2000-06). Van Dyke was also the spokesman for the Big Lots department store chain, but as he eased into his eighth decade, he preferred to spend most of his time at his 800-acre ranch in Arkansas. An avid poker player, he also participated in numerous televised competitions.