If you came of age in the ’60s or ’70s, it’s possible that you may think of Jerry Van Dyke simply in terms of being Dick Van Dyke’s younger brother, and…well, it’s not untrue, and most people did first see him on The Dick Van Dyke Show, so fair enough. (Besides, there are a lot worse people to have in your bloodline, y’know?) If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, however, you’re more likely to know Jerry Van Dyke as Luther Van Dam, defensive coordinator of the Minnesota State football team on ABC’s Coach, which is a pretty decent thing to be known for, too. In truth, the man’s career features numerous TV series, a handful of films, and even a bit of stage work. Our time was limited, so we certainly couldn’t cover everything he’s done, but we took a shot at it, anyway. First and foremost, though, we had to talk about his appearance on this week’s episode of ABC’s The Middle, where – as Frankie Heck’s dad, Tag – he turns up for Thanksgiving dinner. We’d originally been set to chat in the morning, but our conversation got pushed to the afternoon, which is why Jerry’s first words after his initial greeting involved an apology for our interview failing to materialize earlier in the day. “I’m sorry that we got messed up,” he said. “I’m in a third-world country here. The phones are weird!”
Popdose: I’m a huge fan of The Middle, and it’s always great to see your character turn up, but I’m curious: how did you find your way onto the show in the first place? Did they reach out to you specifically?
Jerry Van Dyke: They did! I think a lot of it has to do with…well, you know, it’s called The Middle, and everybody connected with the show is from the Midwest or Chicago. I think they have almost a rule about that. So they knew I was from Illinois, and I think that had a lot to do with it.
I was fortunate enough to be able to check out the Thanksgiving episode, and although there were several big laughs, you scored one of them with…well, I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll just say that it was a perfectly timed obscenity that I didn’t see coming.[Cackles.] Yeah! I don’t think he saw that coming, and I didn’t see it coming. They actually had “stupid” (in front of the obscenity) in the script, but I said, “It’s weird, but ‘dumb’ doesn’t sound quite as bad as ‘stupid.’” So I went with ‘dumb’!
I know you hadn’t worked with Marsha Mason before, but had you known he at all before being teamed with her as your wife on The Middle?
No, not at all. But I had been having… My brother and I did The Sunshine Boys – in fact, we’ve done it several times – and then we were offered the chance to do it on Broadway, but we couldn’t do it. Dick’s too old, and I think I am, too. But we had a lot of back and forth with Neil Simon, I was in the midst of dealing with him when I first did The Middle, and I was talking to her about it when I first saw her, and…it was a mistake, because people don’t want to hear about their ex-husbands. [Laughs.] And it hit me while I was talking to her about Neil. I thought, “Oh, my God…” So I jumped off of that topic right away! But, no, I never knew her until this. But this episode is…I think it’s now the third or fourth time we’ve worked together.
There’s also a joke in the episode about Tag’s tendency toward being somewhat unsuccessful when it comes to online poker…which is pretty funny, considering your own history with the game.
Absolutely! Everybody that knows me, I tell ‘em about it, ‘cause I’m a hardcore poker player.
Was that written into the script because they knew that about you?
No! It was just a coincidence! [Laughs.] All my friends died laughing when I told ‘em!
So when you do the show… I get the impression that most people tend to try and hew pretty closely to the script. Do you ever get the opportunity to ad-lib, or do you just prefer to stick to it as it’s written?
I just… Well, the problem with The Middle – and most shows – is that they’re one camera and no audience. See, I’m used to an audience: Coach, The Dick Van Dyke Show… And right after I did The Middle, a week later I did The Millers, that new show, which is shot in front of an audience. So the process that they do if it’s one-camera shows, I never could get the hang of it. Because you don’t get to rehearse! You walk in the first day and get on camera and do the line. I’m used to four days of rehearsal. And they do that on The Millers. They re-write right up to the time of shooting. I don’t like the (single-camera) process at all. I’m basically a performer, and when I hear an audience, I know whether it’s funny or not! [Laughs.] And it’s very difficult for me, and it always has been, even in movies and stuff –without an audience. It’s very difficult, and it’s a lot of work. When I did The Middle, I was doing 12, 13 hours a day…and I’m not a kid! But I love the people. They’re wonderful people, and it’s fun. But you don’t really get a chance to know everybody ‘cause you’re constantly working on the lines. You just go to your trailer. But with three-camera audience shows like Coach, you’ve got three days to bullshit and get to know each other, y’know?
Speaking of Coach, I was able to interview Craig T. Nelson this summer, and I found it refreshing that he was willing to admit that he had to work to find the chemistry with you when he first started on the show.
Yeah. And I don’t think he ever found it. [Cackles.] But he’s still a good friend. We talk all the time. But he’s not easy to get along with. When we hit it off, we hit it off great, and it really was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because he’s great at comedy. It’s a shame he doesn’t get to do more of it.
It’s funny you say he’s not easy to get along with. Everyone forewarned me, “Be prepared, he’s a rough interview.”
But we ended up having a great conversation.[Surprised.] So the interview went well?
Yeah, and I think it’s because I took the time to research, so I was asking him about things dating all the way back to when he was doing comedy with Barry Levinson.
Yeah, well, he’ll talk about that. You know, it’s just…you’ve gotta be careful what subjects you come up with.
I stayed away from politics.
Yes. Oh, yes. Well, like I said, I’m still friends with him, but…he’s pretty much a loner.
Well, I did a fair amount of research before hopping on the phone with you as well, part of which involved watching a clip of you singing “I’m Calm” with Soupy Sales on The Judy Garland Show.
Oh, my God! Yeah, that was…that show was quite an experience. I always thought I was completely wrong, but CBS insisted that they cast me even though I was completely wrong for it, and the material they gave me was awful. But the thing was, I got to meet all the people I grew up with, watching in the movies, like June Allyson and Judy herself. I got to meet all of those people, which was quite an experience. It was a thrill. But as I found out later, CBS forced me into it.
You worked with your brother in The Dick Van Dyke Show, of course, but then you also got to work with him on an episode of Diagnosis: Murder as well.
Yeah, but it took an awful long time to do that show. I finally caved in, but I’m not a fan of the show. I’m a fan of my brother, but the show…it’s not necessarily a comedy, y’know? [Laughs.] But we worked together doing The Sunshine Boys, and, boy, that was something.
When you were on The Dick Van Dyke Show, you got the chance to show off your banjo skills.
And I don’t know how much actual recording you did, but at the very least, I know you released the record “I Wanna Say Hello!” as a single.[Laughs.] I did! Do you know that song? Have you ever heard it before?
I have, actually. Someone put that on YouTube, too.
Oh, really? There was a guy a long time ago who…I forget his name, but he sounded exactly like Al Jolson. And I happened to find the record, but I’d never heard this song before in my life…and I didn’t know anyone ever heard my version of the song, either! [Laughs.]
Yep. I’ll send you the link.
Oh, yeah, I’d appreciate it!
I’m sure you’ve heard that they’ve finally released My Mother the Car on DVD.
They did? When?
Very recently. Like, we’re talking last week.
No kidding! You know, they never really re-ran it. We only ran the one season, is what it was, so we were never able to get into reruns, so nobody ever really saw it. There weren’t enough shows to go to Nick at Nite or anything.
It got its fair share of critical bashing, but I was watching the first episode, and I was surprised to find that there’s no laugh track, which gives it an odd but interesting tone.
Yeah, well, again, it was the one camera without an audience. It was a nightmare doing that show. It was really a nightmare, ’cause Ann Sothern, who did the voice (of the car), I never met her. I never, ever met her, so I had to talk to the producer’s clothing salesman, who did the voice for me. [Laughs.]
Is there a particular project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
Well, I mentioned it already, but the one project that I really loved was recently, and that was doing The Sunshine Boys with Dick. We did it in Dallas, and the reviews were raves, so like I was saying, we got the offer for Broadway. The reason I got into discussions with Neil Simon, by the way, was that we didn’t want to do the sketch in the play, and I replaced it with us singing a song. But they wouldn’t approve it. We had a firm offer for Broadway, though, but Dick wouldn’t do. I doubt if I would’ve made it, anyway. Eight shows a week? [Laughs.] But it’s still one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.
Did anyone film any of the performances, possibly for a DVD release?
Oh, no. Well, I taped it, so I have a tape of it. But it’s not very good. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever done, though, because the character fits me so well. I’m a very outspoken, bitter guy. [Laughs.] It was perfect for me!
At the risk of bringing up something else ridiculous, I wanted to ask you about when you made a beach movie: Palm Springs Weekend.
God, yes. I was actually too old for that. I was 30 playing a college sophomore! [Laughs.] But I met Jack Weston. I don’t know if you remember him. Jack Weston and Andrew Duggan, I don’t know if you know those names, but we became very good, very close friends, because we were all old and everybody else were kids on the show. We were the oldest ones, so we got to be very good friends, and we stayed that way right up until they died.
How was the experience of working with John Wayne on McLintock?
Well, it was fantastic. He just took to me. I remember I met with him at the Beverly Hills Hotel to meet with him about it, and he said that he would add stuff as we go along, and he did. I’d be sitting there, and he’d call me and just add a scene for me where there hadn’t been one in the script. We really hit it off. We were friends, and we went out drinking together and everything. He took to me, and to me, he was just a great guy.
When did you first cross paths with Andy Griffith? Because I know you worked with him on several projects over the years.
Well, we had the same manager, so I worked with him a lot. We did a movie called Angel in My Pocket. I went on the road with him, doing an act. Me and Don Knotts, too. But I was a stand-up comic, so I had an act. I closed the show, and me, Don, and Andy, we broke the record at that time at Caesar’s Palace. But then we went to a lot of other places, too, performing onstage. I also did The Andy Griffith Show as well. I was very close to him. I bought his house, as a matter of fact. His house in Toluca Lake. So I knew him real well.
So what was the story in regards to you and The Andy Griffith Show? I’ve read that you were to replace Don Knotts.
They were talking about it. They did a show, and I appeared where I basically played Don Knotts’ part. I was a carnival guy, and my mother knew Aunt Bea, and…well, that was the episode, and it was a very funny episode. And I know they wanted me to do it, but I never had a real offer for it. I know they were kicking it around, though. But I wouldn’t have taken it, anyway. It would’ve been a really dumb move.
Just trying to fill his shoes, you mean?
Yeah! I mean, who’s gonna do that? It would’ve never worked. But they never actually offered me the part, anyway. It was a lot of discussion, I know that. Instead, I knew better, so I took My Mother the Car. [Laughs.] And you know I turned down Gilligan’s Island, right?
I wasn’t sure, but that’s what I’d heard.
Oh, yeah. I actually turned that down. In fact, I had a lot of problems with the agency, because they were trying to push me into taking it. But that’s the joke: I turned it down and took My Mother the Car. But, again, it was really good, because I’d’ve been forever known as Gilligan. So that worked out, too!
To close with the biggest obscurities of all, I couldn’t help but notice that you did two movies in 1987: one was called Death Blow: A Cry for Justice, the other was called Run If You Can, but in both of them you co-star with Martin Landau.
The worst movies of all time. We were both struggling for work. They were so bad… [Starts to laugh.] I remember going to location, to an apartment, to shoot a scene, and we couldn’t get in. We had the food truck there, all the trucks, and they didn’t know what to do. So I went to my house and did it! [Laughs.] You know, we did it for almost nothing. But, yeah, two of ’em with Martin Landau, and they were both awful. Fortunately, nobody saw ’em!