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DICK VAN DYKE : The Chairman of the Sitcom . . . Turns to Mystery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Put Dick Van Dyke in a mystery series, and you’d be hard pressed to think of the sitcom veteran as TV’s next Quincy, M.E.

In CBS’ “Diagnosis Murder,” he plays Dr. Mark Sloan, a whimsical physician and amateur sleuth who tap dances, sings and roller skates in the hospital corridors. And on Dec. 3 he narrates NBC’s animated special “The Town Santa Forgot.”

In an interview with Times Staff Writer Ted Johnson, the chairman of Nick at Night says that in his return to TV, he hasn’t forgotten the comedic roots that made his ‘60s sitcom such a classic.

Will audiences compare you to your past characters, such as Rob Petrie?

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I get people who say my personality is about the same (as the character). Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper--they all played themselves pretty much no matter what the part was. I just play myself as a 68-year-old man. He’s a mature guy, he takes his profession very seriously, but himself, not at all. That’s the charm of the guy. He is eclectic, a Renaissance man in many many ways because he loves to do everything. I don’t think anybody is going to tune in and watch me do something that is ‘out there.’ They trust me to deliver family entertainment.

Isn’t an hourlong show a lot more rigorous than a sitcom?

Andy Griffith called me up and just said, ‘Don’t do it.’ Andy and I are about the same age and he said, ‘I cannot tell you how hard it is,’ and he was right. With a half hour, you wear makeup and are in your costume one night a week. It’s the easiest way in the world. But these things run into 12, 14 hours a day. It’s like making a movie that never ends. What I did was take the best care of myself I could.

Your son, Barry, plays your police officer son in the show. How is that working out?

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As we worked together the relationship (between the characters) has matured and taken on a lot of facets that we didn’t have in the beginning. They have transcended the father-son relationship and it’s just two people who are very close and are friends and love each other.

You and your son did a sitcom in 1988. Why didn’t you try a comedy again?

I don’t think I would ever do a sitcom without (“The Dick Van Dyke Show” creator) Carl Reiner. Or somebody as good. Danny Arnold (“Barney Miller”) or Norman Lear (“All in the Family”) or Jim Brooks (“Mary Tyler Moore”). For the most part I’d never try it again.

Would you ever do something again like the TV movie “The Morning After,” a heavy drama about alcoholism that you did in the 1970s?

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Someone just sent me a movie script, a wonderful thing about an older man with arthritis who has to come to realize that life is still very much worth living. I love what it says. A man awakening to the fact that death has to be dealt with. I’m at an age where death is certainly not an unreality. It’s there. I read the obituaries every morning and say, ‘What’s the age group here?’ Not who died, but how old they are. You have to deal with it.

You’ve said that more people are likely to be offended by TV these days. Is that a problem for today’s sitcoms?

It’s the “you can’t win syndrome.” No matter what you do, somebody is going to be angry at you. I like “The John Larroquette Show.’ I know people are deeply offended by it. It does push the edges. But he is dealing very honestly with the affliction of alcoholism. He fights that problem, but not in a heavyhanded way. It shocks me, but I laugh out loud. . . . But very few of the sitcoms are as lighthearted (as “Dick Van Dyke”), it seems to me. Sometimes the writing is pretty good and I see people striving too hard. Somebody hasn’t said, when you come to the punch line, you don’t have to turn to the audience and throw it away. I like a little more subtlety.

Why do you think your reruns have caught on so well on Nick at Night?

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I think it’s just because they are funny. They don’t ask you to buy into anything. And it’s all based on human behavior. There are very few jokes as such. Carl didn’t write jokes. There weren’t punch lines. It all came out of the relationships and the situations. He always told the writers, “I don’t care how silly the situation is that you put him in, as long as it could happen. If it does happen, then I want him to react honestly. I don’t want any craziness. They have to act like real people.”

Was there ever a time where you tried to get away from the Rob Petrie character?

No, because Rob Petrie was pretty much me. I wasn’t playing Rob Petrie. Carl Reiner was writing Dick Van Dyke who became Rob Petrie. He did the pilot himself first. And the network didn’t like it. The guy he wrote was harassed and nervous and driven up the wall all the time. That made the audience nervous. So when I got the part, he just kind of watched me and it slowly became me.

I understand you do your own home special effects.

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Yeah, that’s my new hobby these days. I have a computer, ultramat blue screen all that junk out in the garage. You stand against a blue screen, it’s keyed in and you can do anything. There’s no end to the creativity of it. I put myself in “The Godfather.” I’ve even done things where I would put myself in the old show at my age, and I’d follow myself (as Rob Petrie) around giving myself advice, second guessing my delivery. Nobody sees this stuff but me, but I love it. It cracks me up.

“Diagnosis Murder” airs at 8 p.m. Friday on CBS. Repeats of the “Dick Van Dyke Show” air weeknights at 11 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Nickelodeon.


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