Long before The Dick Van Dyke Show signed off in 1966, Carl Reiner knew he had a classic on his hands, so crafting the perfect finale was just as important as producing a series that would hold up over time.
Since this is the time of year when series prepare to sign off for good (and since we recently addressed finales in EW‘s April 11 issue titled “The Art of Saying Goodbye”), EW caught up with Reiner who’s currently promoting the DVD release of The Dick Van Dyke Show: Classic Mary Tyler Moore Episodes. Reiner talked about finale dubbed “The Last Chapter,” along with all the ridiculous things he could and couldn’t do in a ’60s sitcom.
Why release the Mary Tyler Moore episodes? Was she an unsung hero?
Well, she wasn’t an unsung hero very long because she — I think on the second or third show — she proved her comic chops. She had never done this kind of comedy before and she was very nervous about it but it didn’t take her long to get the swing. Just standing by and watching Morey [Amsterdam] and Rose [Marie] and Dick do their thing and very soon she was, well, Morey didn’t worry at all that she wasn’t going to be able to pull her weight. You wouldn’t know it if you saw the show because she acquitted herself so well but she was worried—actually he was worried, when we cast her he said, ‘she’s wonderful and beautiful and very talented but she’s so young. She was like 23 years old and Dick at the time was like 35 or 36 or something. But nobody ever ever believed they weren’t a couple.
Was it your idea for Mary to adopt that sing-song Oh Rob she used to do?
That was one of those natural things that happened. She just found a way—when she played the emotion correctly, when she set the line with the emotion of the moment, it worked! It became her signature.
Was it intended to be a family comedy or a workplace comedy?Oh, it was planned from the very beginning. After I had finished doing a variety show, situation comedy became the thing everybody wanted. Somebody offered a few and they weren’t very good so my wife said, why don’t you write one? And I remember thinking, what am I gonna write about? I was on my way home from work one day and I said to myself, what piece of ground do you stand on that nobody else stands on? And I figured it out—I worked under a show. I mean I worked in New York as a comedy actor/writer and new the show as a husband and I wrote about that and it became—I did the pilot. The pilot was ok, but it didn’t sell, and I put it to bed. I said, that’s it, that’s my best shot and I went on to write movies. I wrote a movie with Doris Day but then Sheldon Leonard had heard about these 13 scripts that I had laying around. We had a mutual agent. He couldn’t stand the fact that there was gold lying on his desk, so the agent offered it to Sheldon and Sheldon called me in. I told him, I said, Sheldon, I’ve failed once with this, I don’t want to fail twice with the same material and he said, Carl, you won’t fail, we’ll get a better actor to play you! And that’s exactly what he did—he suggested Dick Van Dyke, and the rest as they say is history.
You had already written 13?
When I had a pilot, I wrote one script and somebody wanted to do a pilot I said, I better have some other scripts ready so there’d be a bible for other writers so, in one summer, I wrote 13 in about 5 or 6 weeks. They became our first 13 episodes.
How did you balance the family stuff with the workplace stuff?
It was a 50/50 thing. Mainly talking about the family to the workers and talking about the work to his family. That’s the only thing I had to go by! It was definitely myself and [wife] Estelle.
Was anything off-limits, as far as Estelle was concerned?
Well, the off limits were none for me—I had no off limits, I had taste, I knew what was acceptable but the [standards and practices] wouldn’t even let them sleep in the same bed. I said ‘my wife and I sleep in the same double bed, I’d like to use a double bed.’ But the network said, oh no you’re not allowed to do it. So we had them sleeping in twin beds! I mean I objected to that but I didn’t win.
No tongues! We knew not to do that!
Talk to me about crafting the finale.
We were very careful to look for something that made sense. When a show goes off the air, you don’t want the people to think they died or wondering where they went. So I wrote a show where Dick writes his memoir and brings it to Alan Brady to do a series about it — so it was really me writing a show about myself. Alan buys it asks, who’s gonna play you? That was actually the last show.
Did you worry about pleasing the fans?
The fans and I were one. Everything I did the fans were very happy with, because you can only go by being honest with yourself.
Did you worry about the show’s legacy?
Absolutely! As a matter of fact, I was very aware when we were doing the show, that we were doing a classic and to that end, I did it myself and I instructed anybody who was writing for me to not use any slang of the day. I did this in the ’60s. I said this show is going to be on for a long, long time after us. So far I’ve been proven right.
And the series — all 158 episodes! – is not only syndicated but all on DVD.
It’s helped us keep our status in the community.