Jerry Van Dyke, the younger brother of Dick Van Dyke who struggled for decades to achieve his own stardom before clicking as the dimwitted sidekick in television’s “Coach,” died Jan. 5 at his ranch in Hot Spring County, Ark. He was 86.
His manager John Castonia confirmed the death. The cause was not immediately known.
Mr. Van Dyke had an affable, goofy appeal, but he spent much of his career toiling in failed sitcoms and in the shadow of his older brother, even playing the star’s brother in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Until “Coach” came along in 1989, Mr. Van Dyke was best known to critics as the guy who had starred in one of television’s more improbable sitcoms, 1965’s “My Mother the Car.” Its premise: A small-town lawyer talks to his deceased mother (voiced by actress Ann Sothern), who speaks from the radio of an antique automobile.
Other bombs included 1967’s “Accidental Family,” in which he was a nightclub comedian, 1970’s “The Headmaster,” in which he was a gym teacher, and 1963’s “Picture This,” a game show that lasted only three months. He also joined “The Judy Garland Show” in 1963 to provide comic relief, but was fired at the end of the season.
“The show’s writers wrote awful, awful, awful stuff,” he recalled in a 1994 interview with the Associated Press, “and I was forced to do it. For instance, I had to come out and say to Judy Garland, ‘What’s a nice little old lady like you doing on television?’ ”
In “Coach,” he finally made it, playing assistant coach Luther Van Dam, comic foil to Craig T. Nelson’s coach Hayden Fox. The two headed up a hapless Minnesota college football team whose follies were on the air from 1989 to 1997. Mr. Van Dyke was nominated four times for an Emmy.
“I never knew what success was like, or having a hit series, or even doing something good,” he told the AP. “Finally I got a job that I enjoy doing, that’s not hard to do — and I get paid a lot of money.”
Over the years, Mr. Van Dyke made guest appearances on numerous programs, among them “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” whose star had played his sister-in-law on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
He also appeared on “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Perry Mason” and in films such as “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” “Palm Springs Weekend,” “Angel in My Pocket” and “McLintock!”
His decision to take the “Car” role was one of two disastrous career moves in the mid-1960s. He also passed on a chance to play the title role on “Gilligan’s Island” and to replace the departing Don Knotts as the deputy on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“My Mother the Car” lasted one season. (A New York Times critic cracked, “last night’s premiere made a strong case for not fastening your seat belts.”)
In recent years, Mr. Van Dyke made recurring appearances on “The Middle” (where he and brother Dick starred in an episode) and “Yes, Dear.”
Jerry McCord Van Dyke was born July 27, 1931, in Danville, Ill. He was six years younger than his brother. He said he knew from childhood that he wanted to be a comedian, and grew up listening to the radio shows of Bob Hope, Red Skelton and others.
Van Dyke entered Eastern Illinois University, but his education was interrupted by service in the Air Force during the Korean War. He spent much of that time entertaining colleagues at military shows with jokes and banjo playing.
When he got out of the service, he took that act on the road, with little success. Eventually he followed his brother to Hollywood.
He had his first brush with acting in a guest role on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” as Rob Petrie’s banjo-playing brother. “I came away thinking, ‘TV is a piece of cake; I want more of this,’ ” he told the AP.
His first marriage, to Carol Johnson, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Shirley Ann Jones; two children from his first marriage; and his brother. A daughter died in 1991.
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