Before The Dick Van Dyke Show There Was Carl Reiner’s Head of the Family

Reiner in the Head of the Family pilot. Photo: CBS Enterprises

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The Dick Van Dyke Show began in October of 1961 and ran for five seasons before quickly entering the history books as one of the great American television classics and launching the stars of Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. At many points through the process, however, history was nearly thwarted by outside circumstances. The biggest roadblock came at the end of season one, when CBS decided to cancel the show. Luckily their sponsor went to bat for them and the program lived on. But the first major struggle came even earlier, after the filming of the first episode, when The Dick Van Dyke Show was The Carl Reiner Show. Today we look at the original pilot, then known as Head of the Family, which featured the show’s writer and creator as the star as well, with Carl Reiner as the original Rob Petrie, and compare it to the pilot episode of Dick Van Dyke’s version of the character.

As readers of this column already know, comedy legend Carl Reiner first came to prominence as a cast member on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. After that show transformed into Caesar’s Hour and ended in 1957, Reiner set out to write his own sitcom pilot. Drawing from his experiences backstage at a popular comedy program while raising his kids in New Rochelle, New York, he created the character of Rob Petrie, writer for the fictional Alan Sturdy Show (renamed to Alan Brady on The Dick Van Dyke Show) and family man of New Rochelle. Then, before even filming the pilot, Carl went on to write 12 more episodes of the show. Ultimately, CBS passed, but producer Sheldon Leonard recognized the potential of the show and recommended Van Dyke, who at the time was starring in the original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie.

While the pilot episodes of both Head of the Family and Dick Van Dyke share a ton of DNA in the form of character names, premises, professions, dynamics, and so on, there are a lot of major differences between the two as well. The most immediately obvious are right there on the surface: The cast is completely different, with Barbara Britton as Carl Reiner’s wife Laura, and Sylvia Miles and Morty Gunty as Rob’s co-writers on The Alan Sturdy Show. The show was filmed with a single camera as opposed to the more traditional three-camera look on the Dick Van Dyke version. But the thing that probably hurt the original pilot more than anything else was the pace. Head of the Family crawls along from scene to scene, while the first episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show moves at a breakneck pace.

But the thing that you only notice when you compare the two shows directly to one another is Reiner’s performance as Rob Petrie. This version of Rob is incredibly downtrodden and just can’t catch a break. As soon as he comes home from work he learns that his son Ritchie “doesn’t like him” because all of his friends’ dads have easy-to-understand jobs with practical purposes, like dentists and mechanics. Ritchie doesn’t understand what a comedy writer really does, or why it’s important, and so he’s become depressed and has taken to hiding in closets. “How can he dislike me? I’m his father. He’s only six years old, he hasn’t known me long enough to dislike me,” Rob exclaims before launching into a Willy Loman-esque rant about how “universally well-liked” he is.

Laura then attempts to convince him to take his son to work so he can see how powerful he is as a head writer. Rob is resistant, but finally relents, making it clear that he’s only going along with the idea “because 95% of the time you’re right. I’d love to lower that average just a little.”

Things don’t go much better at work. Here he is continually disrespected by his two co-writers (which is the same dynamic Dick Van Dyke’s version of Rob has with his writers Buddy and Sally, played by Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, respectively) and the guy who shows up to deliver the coffee and doughnuts. Since it’s a single-camera show, there are an awful lot of insert shots of Ritchie making disgusted/embarrassed faces at the camera. Next, Rob is called into Alan Sturdy’s office, where the star of the show tells him, in front of his six-year-old son, that the monologue he wrote is terrible and that there are no usable jokes to be found within.

The next morning, as Ritchie grabs his lunch, he kisses his mother goodbye and ignores his father. When Rob pulls him back and demands a hug, Ritchie instead body-checks him. While at school, Ritchie sees that all of his classmates are going crazy for a silly poem that was for the PTA bulletin and posted in the hallway and is shocked to learn from a teacher (who is played by a woman with the flattest delivery 1959 had to offer) that his father wrote it. When Ritchie comes home that night he’s ecstatic, andhe jumps into his father’s arms and asks him to write a poem for him on the spot. Rob responds with a version of “Jack and Jill” with nonsense words sprinkled throughout. Ritchie loves it! “Boy, that’s funny! What’s that mean, daddy?”

Now, the thing you might notice from that plot overview is that Rob Petrie has exactly one moment of happiness in these 26 minutes, and it comes at the last 30 seconds. Reiner’s character is constantly tortured (at one point when he gets home from work, his wife opens a door directly into his face), and as the episode progresses, Reiner realistically portrays the character as more and more ground-down. Compare this to Dick Van Dyke’s version of the character, who bounds across the screen with enormous energy, using his tall, lanky frame to comedic effect as he trips over ottomans, into the loving arms of his friends and coworkers. While Reiner only smiles during his final moments of triumph, Van Dyke is constantly smiling. At his lowest moment in The Dick Van Dyke Show’s pilot, when Laura tells him she can’t go to the party at his boss’s penthouse because she’s worried that Ritchie might be getting sick, Van Dyke makes large mopey faces, rather than Reiner’s realistic sadness. We don’t feel bad for Van Dyke’s version of Rob because even though he’s sad, he’s funny about it. That’s not to say Reiner isn’t funny, but when his son runs across the living room yelling “I hate my daddy!” it’s hard not to feel genuine sadness for the guy.

The other major difference between the two Robs stems from the type of performers the lead actors are. In the middle of the Dick Van Dyke pilot, the writers are goaded into doing a giant comedy routine for all of the network executives schmoozing at Alan Brady’s penthouse apartment. In this sequence we see Morey Amsterdam as Buddy perform a bunch of 1960s-style stand-up jokes, we see Rose Marie as Sally perform a song called “I Wish I Could Sing Like Durante” that features her lovely natural singing voice as well as her Jimmy Durante impression, and Van Dyke does his impression of his wife Laura’s uncle coming home drunk from a Christmas party. In it, he stumbles home, his long, lanky legs flailing around the room, and instantly sobers up the instant his wife looks at him. It’s the Michigan J. Frog bit, but with Van Dyke’s rubber legs and incredible physical comedy instead of “Hello, My Baby.” Perhaps Reiner needed to be on the outside working just as a writer so he could recognize and showcase the talents of his cast. According to Van Dyke’s memoir My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, everyone in the cast was encouraged to contribute to the script. “If someone offered a line and it was funny and it fit the story, it stayed in. That was the ethos as we worked on the pilot, and it stayed that way for the entire run of the series.”

Speaking of his talented cast, if there had been no Dick Van Dyke Show, the world may never have been introduced to Mary Tyler Moore, who was cast as Rob’s wife Laura, and her controversial pants wearing. We wouldn’t have had Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. And we definitely wouldn’t have had Diagnosis: Murder. It takes a genius like Carl Reiner to create such a timeless and enjoyable show as this one, but it takes a selfless genius to take himself out of the starring role if that’s what the show needs.

Before The Dick Van Dyke Show There Was Head of the Family