AT 62, AFTER DECADES OF DRIFTING along under what had the appearance of a small cloud of failure, Jerry Van Dyke has finally found success and security playing assistant college football coach Luther Van Dam on ABC’s popular sitcom Coach for four seasons. “God knows I tried to make it earlier in life, but with all due respect to myself, nothing I ever did was any good,” says Van Dyke, who—like Luther—stumbles through his sentences with an endearing earnestness. “I would like to philosophize and say what it was that kept me going, but the truth is, I can’t do anything else.”
As a performer he was often lost in the long shadow cast by his elder brother, Dick, star of the classic ’60s sitcom bearing his name. Jerry’s resume, by contrast, includes the classic sitcom turkey My Mother the Car. Alcohol didn’t help any. And two years ago, after a long struggle with drug use, his oldest child, Kelly Jean, committed suicide at 33.
And yet here Jerry Van Dyke is today, comfortably shaggy in a white-and-purple jogging suit, his dog (a black Lab named Cash) by his side, in the living room of his four-bedroom Toluca Lake home outside L.A. “Without a doubt, this is what I’ve always dreamed of,” says Van Dyke, whose hit show, which helped him buy this home, is guaranteed at least two more years on ABC. “It’s great to know I don’t have to worry about my career anymore.”
A few people, at least, have had faith in him all along. Producer Barry Kemp, a friend of 17 years and the creator of Coach, cooked up the part of Van Dam especially for him. “I like being around Jerry,” he says. “It’s relaxing. He has an everyman quality.” And Van Dyke’s wife, singer Shirley Jones (no relation to the Partridge Family Shirley Jones), 41, remembers the words of Van Dyke’s mother, Hazel: “Jerry just blunders through. He blurts and he blunders and somehow comes out on top.”
He began his slow stumble upward in Danville, Ill., the second son of L.W. “Cookie” Van Dyke, a traveling salesman with a fondness for gags. Jerry inherited that same strain of humor. He was always the classroom clown, the sort of kid who let pigeons loose in the schoolroom. “It was a good beginning for either a comic or a criminal,” he says. Dick was the born actor, starring in school productions. For Jerry, he was an impossible act to follow. “Dick wore a suit and tie to school,” says Jerry. Dick was a better student too. It took Jerry six years to finish high school.
Dick, meanwhile, had moved to Los Angeles, hoping to break into show business with a comedy group. Part of their routine was miming and lip-synching to hit songs. Jerry learned the shtick on a visit, then—determined on a stand-up career for himself—began using it in banjo-toting appearances back home in Danville. In the Air Force during the Korean War, he performed for troops abroad. After he returned home, he and his wife, Carol, his high school sweetheart, traveled around the country while he tried, without resounding success, to make a living at stand-up.
His big break came from big brother. In 1962, Dick found Jerry two Dick Van Dyke episodes’ worth of work as Rob Petrie’s sleepwalking brother, Stacey (a character inspired by Jerry himself, who once rose from his bed and strode into the night, naked and carrying golf clubs). Stacey was a hit, and Jem” repeated the role in another two-parter in 1965.
So how come a Jerry Van Dyke Show never materialized? “I didn’t handle success all that well,” says Van Dyke. Like brother Dick, a recovering alcoholic, Jerry tussled with the bottle. “I don’t consider myself an alcoholic,” says Jerry, who finally kicked the habit several years ago, “though my friends who are alcoholic say I was. I’d be drunk onstage, and it would hurt my act.”
He also had a less than sure hand at picking TV vehicles. Among his choices: Picture This, a 1963 game show that lasted three months, The Judy Garland Show, which also premiered in ’63 (and died in ’64), and the one-season 1965 nightmare My Mother the Car, about a man who bought an antique car that happened to be the reincarnation of Mom. “At least it took the edge off being Dick Van Dyke’s brother,” says Van Dyke, laughing. “I became known as the guy who did the worst show in the history of television.”
Astoundingly enough, Van Dyke opted to star in Mother instead of Gilligan’s Island. Reason? “The My Mother the Car script,” he says, “read like Neil Simon compared to the Gilligan’s Island script.”
After My Mother went to the scrap heap in 1966, Van Dyke entered a long stretch that his brother describes as “a very, very down period.” Says Jerry: “I borrowed money from him. I was on his ass all the time.” Other than club appearances, work was scarce. He and Carol, by then the parents of three children, divorced in 1974, after a long separation. (The kids lived with her.) At that point he found himself flooded with bills for alimony and back taxes.
One happy development, though, came not long after he and Carol split. He met second wife Shirley while doing a supper-club gig in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1970. She was a local country singer and only 18 years old. “It was pretty much love at first sight,” says Van Dyke, who stayed on in Hot Springs for two weeks, wooing Jones and enlisting her to be his opening act. What attracted Shirley, who wed him in 1977, was that Jerry was “just totally honest, wide-open all the time,” she says.
But even she concedes that—financially, at least—their first years together were bleak. And Van Dyke suffered an especially painful professional blow in 1982 when he failed to land the part of George the handyman on Newhart. (Tom Poston got the role instead.) “We were living in a house that was being foreclosed on,” says Van Dyke. “I thought that show would save my life.” The Van Dykes then packed up and for the next several years based themselves in Arkansas, with Jerry traveling to one-nighters. “Jerry had lost faith that anything was ever going to happen for him,” says his friend Barry Kemp.
Show business, though, wasn’t quite ready to forget Van Dyke. In 1986, Kemp approached him with the tailor-made role of coach Van Dam. In typical Van Dyke fashion, the show wobbled along for its first season but now has found a comfortable Tuesday-night niche. And Van Dyke so far has landed three Emmy nominations.
But the comfort and joy of having a sitcom to call his own was overshadowed when Kelly Jean hanged herself in November 1991. She had a history of drug problems, says Van Dyke, and had been through rehab. Her relationship with him had been strained, he says, but he had no inkling of how desperate she was.
“We’re just another family devastated by substance abuse,” says Van Dyke, who adds that he always welcomes the opportunity to discuss—though not dwell on—the tragedy. “Maybe by talking about, it I’ll come up with an answer, although I’m not sure there is one. I don’t think she meant to hurt us the way she did. We did the best that we could, and that’s it. You have your cry, and then you say, ‘I’m moving on.’ ‘
He says Kelly Jean’s death has made him closer to his two other children, both of whom live in Los Angeles: Terri Lynn, 30, a loan processor, and Ron, 26, a house painter.
Van Dyke spends about only half the year in L.A.; the rest of the time, he and Shirley retreat to a 500-acre spread they own 30 miles outside Little Rock. There he likes to ride horses, play tennis, swim in his 25-acre lake and, he says, “drive around in my golf cart checking out the cows.”
And he enjoys a small but hard-earned gloat. Checking out a TV magazine article recently, he saw a picture of Dick. “Beneath it, they wrote, ‘Jerry’s older brother.’ I was elated when I saw that. He has his career. Now,” says Jerry Van Dyke, “I get my turn.”
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles