'The Dick Van Dyke Show' is back on CBS in living color

Editor's Note: Actress Mary Tyler Moore died Jan. 25, 2017. She was 80.

Here’s a spoiler alert TV fans didn’t see coming in 2016 — the ottoman Dick Van Dyke trips over in the opening titles of his classic 1960s sitcom is olive green.

Several generations of viewers have enjoyed Van Dyke and costar Mary Tyler Moore on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which 50 years after completing its initial run on CBS is still available on Hulu, Amazon, the nostalgia TV network Cozi and a recently released Blu-ray box set. But on Sunday, viewers will see the Petries’ monochromatic world re-imagined in “The Dick Van Dyke Show — Now In Living Color!” in which CBS debuts two digitally colorized episodes back-to-back.

The original 1961 to 1966 run straddled the years when network TV series production converted to color. Some long-running sitcoms from the era such as “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Bewitched” made the switch after a few seasons on the air in black and white.

But “The Dick Van Dyke Show” creator Carl Reiner said he passed on the chance to film in color after learning it would require an additional $7,000 an episode, a significant cost in an era when a half-hour show cost around $40,000 to produce.

“It would have killed whatever profits we were making from the black-and-white episodes,” Reiner recalled in a recent interview. He also wanted the show to have a consistent look when reruns appeared in syndication.

Colorization of classic black-and-white movies has been a polarizing issue in Hollywood since the 1980s when cable entrepreneur Ted Turner and other film library owners started using the process to make their older titles attractive to younger audiences. Directors vehemently expressed objections to having their artistic visions altered for commerce.

David Bushman, television curator for the Paley Center for Media, said colorization will bring a new generation of viewers to the “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but suspects there are purists who believe great TV is an art form as worthy as film and shouldn’t be tampered with.

“You wouldn’t use to technology to change the fundamental aesthetics of a Picasso,” he said.

But Paul Brownstein, who manages “The Dick Van Dyke Show” library owned by Reiner, Van Dyke, and the estates of executive producers Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas, believes the TV audience is more accepting of refreshed editions of their favorites.

“The very act of doing it would drive a cinema fan crazy, whereas the television fan appreciates seeing it updated,” he said.

That has been the case for the CBS airings of colorized versions of “I Love Lucy” during the holiday season for the last few years. While they have generated some grumbling among bloggers (“Don’t ... with ‘I Love Lucy,’” TV comedy writer Ken Levine opined in 2013), the specials have attracted fans old and young — most recently 6.6 million of them on Dec. 2.

Brownstein long believed “The Dick Van Dyke Show” would be similarly successful with colorized versions. But he had to convince Van Dyke, who was not keen on the idea after seeing the tinting done years ago on his favorite Laurel & Hardy films.

After technological improvements to the colorization process, Brownstein said he got Van Dyke to “look at it with an open mind,” and sold the concept to CBS in October. Stanton Rutledge, a designer for West Wing Studios who handled the project, said the results are markedly better thanks to improved computer-animation software and hardware. 

“Back when I was coloring films for Ted Turner, people had a right to say it looked bad,” Rutledge said. “I would love to redo all those films that I did back in the ’80s and ’90s. But there will be a whole new audience for ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ Millennials are never even going to know it was shot in black and white. They’re just going to love the comedy.”

The 94-year-old Reiner always maintained that the show’s quality is timeless — he deliberately kept topical slang phrases and references out of the scripts — and welcomes the new exposure on a major broadcast network.

“We’re going to be on after ‘60 Minutes,’” he noted with the enthusiasm of a producer getting his big break.

Rutledge and Brownstein said it helped that Reiner had the color still photos of the show’s set at Desilu Studios. The documentation allowed them to come up with the hues that accurately matched the Petries’ living room and kitchen. They also searched through old magazine ads to get the proper mid-20th-century color schemes for clothing and furnishings not seen in the photos.

On Sunday, viewers will see two of the most revered “Dick Van Dyke” episodes in its five-season run. “That’s My Boy??” is a flashback story by writers Bill Persky and Sam Denoff in which the Petries reflect on how Rob gathered evidence that left him convinced the wrong baby had come home with Laura from the hospital after their son Richie was born.

Another spoiler alert: Rob telephones the other new parents in their neighborhood, the Peters, who had left the same hospital with their son at the same time, and presents his switched-at-birth scenario. Their arrival at the Petrie home to straighten out the matter elicited what Reiner claims is the longest studio audience laugh in TV history as Rob sees that the Peters, played by Greg Morris and Mimi Dillard, are African American.

The visual gag was a socially progressive jolt when it first aired on Sept. 25, 1963. The civil rights movement was playing out on the evening news nearly every night, but significant roles for black actors were still scant in prime time. (That same TV season, CBS affiliates were skittish over George C. Scott’s topical social-worker drama “East Side/West Side” in which Cicely Tyson was the first black actress cast as a regular in a network hour.)

Along with the laugh, “That’s My Boy??” sent a message to the TV audience that the Petries and Peters lived in the same town and their children went to school together. Reiner even made a point of having Rob Petrie note how Peters’ son had the best grades in the class while Richie remained an underachiever.

Reiner recalled that network executives suggested that the Peters be another nationality, but he resisted. “I was always looking for ways to bring African Americans to New Rochelle,” he said.

CBS is also showing the Emmy-winning 1965 episode “Coast to Coast Big Mouth,” where Laura Petrie appears on a game show and reveals to a network TV audience that comedy writer Rob’s boss, the imperious variety show host Alan Brady (played by Reiner), wears a toupee. The scene with Laura apologizing to a humiliated Brady at his desk with his secret array of hairpieces is one of the most memorable moments of the series.

More than 50 years after it first aired, Reiner still points out how the episode is unrelated to his own tonsorial choices. “When I wore a wig, I always told people I was wearing a wig,” he said.

‘The Dick Van Dyke Show – Now in Living Color!’

Where: CBS

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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