Icon: An Interview About The Dick Van Dyke Show.
by Ken Sharp
A show business veteran since the tender age of three, Rose Marie is best known for her role as the brash and fast talkin’ comedy writer Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In this exclusive conversation, Rose Marie pulls back the curtain for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of television’s most classic and enduring shows.
From what I understand, Sheldon Leonard, executive producer of The Dick Van Dyke Show, was pivotal in casting you for the show.
That’s true. When I first came out to California many, many years ago he was doing the Alice Faye/Phil Harris show. My husband, who was a trumpet player — the best in town, by the way — we went over to Alice and Phil’s house and had dinner and Sheldon was there. They were doing a radio show and I was sitting around imitating Sheldon. They said, “Why don’t we put her on the air?” I went on as Sheldon’s sister. We became good friends. Whenever I worked in Vegas he and Danny Thomas would come to see the show. He’d say to me, “Don’t you ever bomb?” (Laughs) And I said, “I try not to.” Then I said to Danny, “You’ve got everybody and his brother on your show, why don’t you give me a guest shot?” And he said, “Your time will come.” That went on for about a year and every time I saw Danny and Sheldon they’d say, ‘Your time will come.” So one day I got a call from the casting office and she said, “Go down to Desilu Studios.” I said, “Great, I’ve finally got a guest shot!” And she said, “No, this for a new show called The Dick Van Dyke Show.” I said, “What’s a Dick Van Dyke?” (laughs again) He said, “Just go down there.” I went down to Desilu and I didn’t have to read or audition for the role. I had the part. That was it.
And we have you to thank for recommending casting Morey Amsterdam.
Yeah. Sheldon and Danny were at the studio and we were talking. I said, “Who have you got for the third writer?” They said, “We haven’t chosen him yet.” I said, “Well, what about Morey Amsterdam?” Morey and I had been friends since I was about ten years old. Morey was very well known in show business but never the world. You know what I mean? Morey was a great writer; he wrote for Fanny Brice, Fred Allen, people like that. Every time I did my act he would write material for me. We were very close friends. In fact I’m his daughter’s godmother. Out of the blue I said, “What about Morey Amsterdam” They both looked at one another and said, “Do you know where we can reach him?” I said, “He lives in Yonkers, New York.” I gave them his number. I went home and called Morey and said, “They’re gonna call you about a new show called The Dick Van Dyke Show.” And he said, “What’s a Dick Van Dyke?”
Proving that you and Morey were always on the same page.
Always. I told Morey, “Never mind, just come into town.” He said, “I’ll be there Monday”. He called me that day and said “I’m doing the show.” He was just perfect for the role of Buddy Sorrell.
Were you ever told who the character of Sally Rogers was based on?
No, I just did it. I think they thought I’d be another Selma Diamond. [Author’s note: Selma was an actress and comedy writer for Your Show of Shows.] I didn’t ask them who my character was based on and they didn’t say anything. They didn’t say “be yourself” either. They knew what I was and what I could do. My God, I’ve been in this business since I’ve been three years old, so they figured I must know what I was doing. I just played the part. I just played me. I was the first woman’s libber. I worked with men on an equal basis. I got the same salary. I was treated the same as the guys. I’ve had women come up to me and say, “Thanks to you, you were the first woman’s libber.” I had a strong opinion and I wasn’t afraid to express it. Not only that, a lot of women became writers because of that and I’m very proud of that fact.
Take us through a typical week of filming.
On Monday we’d come in after we ate some doughnuts and drank some coffee. We’d sit down and read next week’s script and comment on it. Then we’d turn to this week’s script, which we’d commented on last week. They’d made the changes to that script and we’d all be sitting down at a table and read it. We’d start with page one and we’d go through the script and sometimes we’d have even more changes. Then the director would tell us to get up on our feet. We’d get up and start to rehearse and things would come out that you never thought were possible. (laughs) The next day, Tuesday, we’d go over everything we did on Monday with a lot of changes. In fact, I warned every guest actor on the show, “Don’t learn the script because we change it so much.” I remember Robert Vaughn came in and he went crazy saying, “How do you people do this?” (laughs more) On Wednesday we’d have a run through with Sheldon [Leonard] and he’d offer some suggestions and changes. We’d go through everything with the director. Then when Thursday came along we’d come in around twelve, one o’clock and go through the show with the cameras. Then we’d get made up, go to dinner in the commissary and the audience would come in at seven o’clock for the taping. We’d run the show straight through. If we made a mistake they’d cut and pick it up from the last line. In many ways we did a play every week. Sometimes the audience would laugh when we didn’t expect it and sometimes they didn’t laugh when we expected it. (laughs more) We’d have to cope with that. Then we were off on Friday through the weekend.
You share many wonderful moments with Morey Amsterdam on the show. He was the master of a million jokes.
He could come up with a joke for anything. We’d do a warm-up for the audience and he’d tell them he was a human joke machine. He said, “give me a title and I’ll come up with something.” So someone from the audience would say “a bottle of milk” and he’d do a joke about a bottle of milk! Off he would go. No one could ever stump him. He also did a lot for the show. There would be certain things in the show where we’d say, “that’s not funny, that stinks.” Morey would say, “I’ll come up with something.” He’d add something and it would work beautifully. That’s how we worked. We were all on the same page and all for one another. It was just fabulous. I’ve done a lot of TV shows and they were all very nice but there wasn’t the feeling or the camaraderie that we had on our show. It was so perfect. We knew the show was good but we didn’t know how good. (laughs) I looked forward to going to work every day, couldn’t wait.
Initially when his name was mentioned you asked, “What’s a Dick Van Dyke?” but you very quickly found out. What impressed you most about Dick?
First of all, he was the sweetest man in the world to work with. Number two, I never heard him say, “No, I won’t do this, I won’t do that.” He would do a lot of improvising. It was like somebody injected him with a needle and he’d get up and do something. As far as the show was concerned whatever was asked of him he’d do and then doubled it with something even better. He was just so talented. Even today I don’t think Dick knows how good he is. He’s exceptional. He’s a great dancer and he said he never danced or took a lesson, which is probably true. He was a natural, all the way. I have to say, working with two comic veterans like Morey and myself, I’m certain something had to rub off on Dick too. In fact Dick always says he learned timing from me. To me, that’s the greatest compliment.
Jerry Paris played Millie Helper’s husband on the show but also went on to direct many of the show’s classic episodes, what are your memories of Jerry and his talents in front and behind the camera?
We thought Jerry was very good. We listened to him like we would any director. You have to trust your director and we trusted him. He was so talented plus he was an actor so he was able to empathize towards us as actors and that helped him as a director. He was wonderful.
Not much is known about Richard Deacon who portrayed Mel Cooley, what can you tell us about him?
Oh God, he was like my big brother. I could go to him with anything. We became very, very good friends, one thing that was very important on that show. If you did a line and it didn’t come out right, Deac would come over and say, “You’re not doing that right, you’ve got to say it this way.” And nobody would get mad, nobody would get upset, we’d say, “Okay, we’ll try it.” Everybody loved him and we all thought he was the greatest thing in the world. He was very funny. When my husband died he really took care of me: to the point of telling people in the cast and crew not to talk to me about it. He was always there for me. Deac, Tom Tryon and Rock Hudson, the three of them used to call me up and say, “Get dressed, we’re going out to dinner.” I’d say, “I don’t wanna go, leave me alone” and they’d get me to go out.
Carl Reiner not only created The Dick Van Dyke Show but wrote and directed many episodes and also played the role of Alan Brady on the show. What did you learn from him?
I learned how brilliant he is. He’s a great writer, has a great sense of humor and he’s a damn good actor. He really knows comedy and he knows how to write it.
The show ran for five seasons, from 1961 through 1966. Did it take time for the ensemble chemistry to spark or was it there from the beginning?
It was there right from the start. It was all about talent. Everybody on that show had a lot of talent. Sheldon [Leonard] and Danny [Thomas] were smart enough to put it all together. My time came when they called me. Morey fit in just right. Mary [Tyler Moore] was the last member cast for the show as Rob Petrie’s wife because they couldn’t find the right person. Danny remembered the girl with the three names that went for an audition for his show and was turned down because nobody thought she could be a part of Danny Thomas’ family. She proved everybody wrong as she was great for our show. Carl [Reiner] brought her in and said, “That’s the girl!” There was always a great energy on the set. There was a lot of improvisation. We’d kibbutz around during rehearsals and came up with crazy bits out of the blue. Dick, especially, would come up with things and bits and we’d say, “Put that in!” And then it would go into the show. I remember a bit that came out of the blue for the episode “Sally is a Girl.” I picked up the typewriter and I said, “Give me a hand” and they started to applaud. Things like that stayed in. We did an awful lot of double entendre things. We did a show about the wrong baby. When the parents come in and they’re black — they got the wrong baby at the hospital — that was unheard of at that time. That got the biggest laugh from the audience. It was a long, long laugh.
What were the greatest challenges you faced working on the show?
The birthday party episode was not difficult, but I had to give it some extra thought because I was onstage all alone and had nobody else to play off of so that was a little challenging. But it all turned out to be okay.
Do you think the decision to film the show in black and white worked to its advantage?
Frankly, I don’t think anybody noticed. They don’t notice it today. I get letters from kids, twelve, thirteen years old, they don’t care that it’s not in color. They said, “I think it’s wonderful, I love this, I love that…” Twelve and thirteen year old kids are writing to me saying, “Why don’t they have shows like that on television.” Television is not very good today.
The show went out on top, ending after five seasons, from your perspective, was that a mistake?
I felt terrible. It would have been wonderful if we’d gone on for another two or three years. Everybody in the cast felt the same way except for Dick and Carl. I didn’t think we were dried out like Dick and Carl thought. We had an awful lot of ideas we could have explored. Sheldon said to me, “They’d back up a Brinks truck if Dick would keep the show going.” He could have asked for any amount of money. I think Dick wanted to concentrate on doing pictures. He was very disappointed in Bye Bye Birdie because of Ann-Margret. A film like Mary Poppins was the kind of thing he was happiest about. A couple of years later we did a one-off reunion show and in it I was married. It was a great experience. The chemistry was still there.
If switching the channels and the show comes on will you watch?
Yes, I’ll watch it purely out of enjoyment. I know what’s coming and I can remember certain lines too. People who watch the show to this day come up to me and recite lines from the show. One line people say to me comes from the birthday party episode where I had [Leo] Fassbinder there and asked him, “Did I ask you to dinner?” and he said no. Then I look up at the ceiling and say, “See ma, that’s one of the reasons.”
Fess up, what is your favorite episode and why?
That’s a very a hard question. The birthday party was a favorite because it was all me, very selfish of me to choose that one. (laughs) I think the Christmas show was very good. I also like the one show where we were pulling practical jokes and it was hilarious. That’s another one of my favorites.
Lastly, can you explain the enduring appeal of the Dick Van Dyke Show?
What makes the show so timeless is the writing. Writing is very important. But in truth it’s a conglomeration of everything. Look at the talent we had in every area, in directing, in writing, in acting. We had all the top people. Critics all over the country had a big dinner about a year ago and everybody voted “The Dick Van Dyke Show” as the best show on television. That made us all very proud.
For more info on Rose Marie: http://www.missrosemarie.com/
Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 20, 2012.