Jerry Van Dyke, Luther the Football Assistant on 'Coach,' Dies at 86
The younger brother of Dick Van Dyke, the comic actor turned down 'Gilligan's Island' to star on the ill-fated 'My Mother the Car.'
Jerry Van Dyke, the younger brother of Dick Van Dyke who earned four Emmy nominations for playing the befuddled defensive coordinator Luther Van Dam on the ABC comedy Coach, has died, a source close to his family confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 86.
Van Dyke died Friday at his ranch in Hot Spring County in Arkansas, according to the Associated Press. His wife, Shirley Ann Jones, was by his side. No cause was immediately known.
Van Dyke famously passed up the opportunity to star on Gilligan's Island in favor of toplining the short-lived My Mother the Car, considered one of the worst shows in TV history.
Van Dyke started out as a banjo-playing stand-up comic, and his fun persona throughout his long career was that of a country boy, endearingly earnest and slow-witted.
After working on several TV shows that never stuck, Van Dyke earned supporting actor Emmy nominations in 1990, '91, '92 and '94 for his work as one of Craig T. Nelson's assistants on the staff of the Minnesota State University Screaming Eagles on Coach. The series aired for nine seasons, from 1989 until 1997.
“God knows I tried to make it earlier in life, but with all due respect to myself, nothing I ever did was any good,” Van Dyke told People magazine in a 1993 interview. "I would like to philosophize and say what it was that kept me going, but the truth is, I can't do anything else."
More recently, Van Dyke had a recurring role as Tag Spence, the father of Patricia Heaton's Frankie, on The Middle. Dick appeared as his brother on the ABC sitcom in 2015, and the two often appeared on the small screen together. They also shared the stage for a production of The Sunshine Boys.
In fact, one of Jerry Van Dyke's biggest and earliest breaks came in 1962 when he was hired to portray Rob Petrie's sleepwalking sibling Stacey on two episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show. (He was a sleepwalker in real life.)
In 1963, Van Dyke appeared in the features Palm Springs Weekend, directed by Norman Taurog; Vincente Minnelli's The Courtship of Eddie's Father; and the John Wayne Western McClintock!
All this led to September 1965 and NBC's My Mother the Car. Van Dyke was cast as an attorney named Dave Crabtree who buys a 1928 Porter Stanhope off a used-car lot and then discovers that the antique vehicle is the reincarnation of his mom.
Ann Sothern provided the voice of the mother and spoke to her son through the car radio. (Some viewers noted that a 1928 Porter Stanhope didn't have a radio, but whatever.)
Van Dyke said his agent had pushed him to star in Gilligan's Island, another farcical network comedy, but he opted for My Mother the Car instead. The reason? "The My Mother the Car script read like Neil Simon compared to the Gilligan's Island script," he said in the People interview.
My Mother the Car, in fact, came via an idea from Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, well-respected TV scribes who had created The Munsters. (Burns and another Mother the Car writer, James L. Brooks, went on to launch The Mary Tyler Moore Show.)
However, My Mother the Car lasted just 30 episodes and was canceled after one season.
"It was a nightmare doing that show," he said in 2013. "It was really a nightmare, because Ann Sothern … I never met her. I never, ever met her, so I had to talk to the producer’s clothing salesman, who did the voice for me."
There also was talk about Van Dyke replacing Don Knotts midway through the run of The Andy Griffith Show (that, of course, never happened), and he was up for the part of the dimwitted handyman George Utley on Newhart (that went to Tom Poston).
Jerry Van Dyke was born on July 27, 1931, in Danville, Illinois, five-and-a-half years after his brother. Their father was a traveling salesman, and when their parents traveled to Hollywood to see Dick's nightclub act in 1948, Jerry went along and decided to make comedy his career.
After graduating from Danville High School (Gene Hackman also went there), Van Dyke formed The Jolly Frauds with a partner, and they toured the Midwest. He also took courses at the University of Illinois and Eastern Illinois State Teachers' College and excelled at sports.
Van Dyke entered the Air Force in 1953 and performed for the troops in Korea. He taught himself to play the banjo, which became his trademark prop. (In 1964, Jerry Van Dyke and The Banjo Barons released a single, "I Wanna Say Hello!")
He won a talent contest and traveled with Ed Sullivan for two years as part of the Air Force Revue, and after his discharge hosted a half-hour, daily variety TV show for the CBS affiliate in Terre Haute, Indiana.
In 1962, Van Dyke did his act on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Andy Williams Show. A year later, he was a regular performer on The Judy Garland Show and the host of a CBS game show called Picture This.
Following the quick demise of My Mother the Car in 1966, Van Dyke starred as a widowed nightclub performer with a young son on NBC's Accidental Family and as a gym teacher on CBS' Headmaster — that one starred Griffith in his first show after his iconic series ended — but both programs were short-lived.
Van Dyke was memorable in a guest-starring stint as Wes Callison, the writer for Chuckles the Clown's show, on two episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and he played Mike O'Malley's dad on CBS' Yes, Dear.
An avid poker player, he also appeared as Luther on The Drew Carey Show and Grace Under Fire, and his TV résumé included stints on That Girl; Gomer Pyle: USMC; 13 Queens Boulevard; Love, American Style; Fresno; Fantasy Island; Teen Angel and Raising Hope.
Even with his success on Coach, Van Dyke remained in the shadow of his more famous brother. During his nightclub act in the 1960s, he would call his daughter Kelly Jean to the stage and say, “Tell the people who you are.” And she would say, “Dick Van Dyke’s niece.”
Survivors include his second wife, Shirley Ann. Kelly Jean committed suicide in 1991 after a battle with drug abuse. She was 33.