Even in their 80s, Dick and Jerry Van Dyke still have their big-brother, little-brother dynamic.
“I looked up to him as a kid,” said Jerry, 83, the more gregarious of the two, best known for his Emmy-nominated role as Luther in the 1989-97 ABC comedy series “Coach.”
Dick, 89, the sweetly charming Emmy- and Tony-winning actor of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Mary Poppins” fame, sings his baby brother’s praises, recalling the first time he saw Jerry onstage in Atlanta. Jerry was in the service and performed a Dick Shawn routine during a talent show.
“In the service, you can steal other people’s material,” the elder Van Dyke said, adding that his brother was better than Shawn. “I didn’t realize how good he was. The main thing about Jerry is that he’s funny from the inside out.”
The brothers reunite on Wednesday’s episode of the ABC sitcom “The Middle,” in which they play — you guessed it — squabbling siblings.
Jerry has been a regular on the comedy series about an Indiana working-class family. He plays Tag, the father of matriarch Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton) and a man who definitely sees the glass half-empty. Tag isn’t happy when his estranged brother Dutch, whom he hasn’t seen in 15 years, arrives from Las Vegas to bury the hatchet.
Before rehearsal with his real brother on “The Middle” soundstage at the Warner Bros. Ranch in Burbank, Jerry described their characters as two people “always at odds.”
But Dutch is the life of the party.
“I come in dancing all over the place,” Dick said.
He gets to do a little soft shoe. And the brothers duet on “Two of a Kind,” the tune that Dutch and Tag performed years ago at a talent show.
There’s plenty of fun fraternal bickering.
“I’m like wine — I got better with age,” Dutch tells Tag. “You’re like cheese — a stinky old piece of cheese.”
There’s even a joke about an ottoman that’s a homage to “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Eileen Heisler, creator and executive producer of “The Middle” with DeAnn Heline, long wanted to have Dick Van Dyke on the show.
“We thought it was some pie-in-the-sky thing,” she said.
But then late last year, Jerry, who was staying at his brother’s house in Malibu, approached Heisler and Heline with the idea of the brothers doing an episode.
“We ended up going to Dick’s house and meeting him around Christmastime,” Heisler recalled. “He agreed to do it. We always sort of knew that Dick and Jerry had an old funny relationship. They are very different personalities. Our show is all about family dynamics. We wanted to make it a fun thing about a brothers’ dynamic that didn’t change no matter how old you are.”
The first table read was magic, Heisler said.
“Everyone was kind of hushed,” she said. “We had this feeling we were watching this rare moment of history — their chemistry together. There is a line in the episode that Jerry and I had discussed: ‘Your sibling is your partner for life. They are the ones who have all your stories.’ ”
Because of their six-year age difference, the brothers weren’t that close growing up in Danville, Ill.
“We were too far apart in age,” Dick said. “We loved each other, but I was out of high school before he got in.”
The two have worked together before, including during a production four years ago in Malibu and Texas of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys.”
“We got an offer from Broadway,” Jerry said. “Look at us, we’re going to do eight shows a week?”
Dick laughed. “I never would have made it. Eight shows a week!”
More than 50 years ago, Jerry guest-starred on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” as Stacey, the brother of Dick’s character Rob Petrie. Stacey was shy and awkward when he was awake, but became the life of the party when he was sleepwalking.
“It was based on truth,” Dick said. “He was a sleepwalker as a kid. I told Carl Reiner about it, and that’s why he wrote it into the script.”
Decades later, Jerry said, working together on “The Middle” has been important.
“We are becoming closer,” he said. “I’m really getting to know him better at this age.”
Added Dick: “It’s because we have been working together more.”
Jerry paused before delivering the last laugh: “The nicer he is to me, the more I think he thinks I’m going to die."
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)