Jerry Van Dyke: TV legend.
Put your hands together for the man who endured as the tallest of television pygmies. The veteran of a half-dozen failed series (average life: seven months), including "My Mother the Car," which all by itself made him accountable for every dumb or awful thing ever telecast. And a long-neglected candidate for career counseling."I never turned down anything but `Gilligan's Island,"' says Van Dyke, who to his everlasting credit drew the line at playing Gilligan. "I needed the work.
"But if I had it all to do over again," he confesses with a comic's practiced timing, "I definitely would have turned things down. (Pause.) Almost everything I did!"
He throws his head back and chuckles lavishly.
Indeed, the last laugh belongs to Jerry Van Dyke, this battle-scarred late bloomer who, at 62, luxuriates in prosperity, stardom and long-sought recognition as someone besides you-know-who's kid brother.
All these blessings, of course, flow from "Coach," a goofy, good-hearted sitcom about college football and a middle-aged head coach played by Craig T. Nelson.
(The show airs at 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC (Ch. 4).
Jerry Van Dyke co-stars as Luther Van Dam, the coach's bumbling assistant who carries on in a state of gaping cluelessness.
"Coach" premiered five years ago last month, which means it has lasted half again as long as all of Van Dyke's other series put together. The series consistently ranks among the most popular programs on TV, and it already has been renewed through the 1994-95 season.
"I never knew what success was like, or having a hit series, or even doing something GOOD," says Van Dyke, gregarious in his emerald-green running suit as he plays host to a reporter in his Manhattan hotel suite.
"Finally," he says, smiling wide,"I got a job that I enjoy doing, that's not hard to do - and I get paid a lot of money."
An aspiring standup comic, he had his first brush with acting in a guest role on his brother's first television series, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" as Rob Petrie's banjo-playing brother.
"I came away thinking, `TV is a piece of cake; I want more of this."'
Obligingly, CBS let him host a game show in summer 1963. Then, come fall, he was hired as court jester for Judy Garland on her much-anticipated variety series.
"But the show's writers wrote awful, awful, awful stuff," he recalls, "and I was forced to do it. For instance, I had to come out and say to Judy Garland, `What's a nice little old lady like you doing on television?" ' He cringes. "And that was just the first week!"
By March, the show was history.
A year later, he was starring in "My Mother the Car."
"I knew this was not good," he says of the sitcom, whose premise brought a dead mom back as a 1928 Porter automobile.
"But gimmick shows were big then, and my thinking was, `Hey, this could be a hit and I could be rich."'
Compared to "The Pruits of Southampton," "Pistols 'n' Petticoats," "Pink Lady" or scores of others, Jerry's show wasn't so horrible. But logic doesn't dictate legend, and legend made an example of him, plunging him from obscurity into disgrace.
After "Mother's" mortifying season (a run he didn't top until he got to "Coach") came unredeeming flops like "Accidental Family," "The Headmaster" and "13 Queens Boulevard."
In 1982, everything could have changed for Van Dyke. He was up for a supporting role in a series to star Bob Newhart. It was a series that would run for eight celebrated seasons.
But Tom Poston got Jerry's role as George the handyman.
"I had the part! Bob wanted me! But at the last second, CBS turned me down."
His jovial mood has taken a dark turn. "That was one of the worst, devastating things that ever happened to me." He shakes his head. "That was a tough one."
Come to think of it, most of his career has been pretty tough.
"I'm just now starting to relax a little bit," he says. "To think, `Hey, maybe I don't have to worry anymore.'
"In fact, I'm awfully content now. (Strategic pause.) Even though my house fell in on me."
After "My Mother the Car" and all the rest, the intrepid Jerry Van Dyke can even laugh about an earthquake.
"What counts is, I survived it! But I'd have been so miffed if I had died."