Tuesday, November 01, 2011

the unknown star of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW

Most primetime scripted series today have “pod” producers attached. These are non-writing producers who are usually former executives who received producer deals after their executive services were no longer, uh… required. Golden parachutes is another way to describe it. But they have now so ingrained themselves into the system (since current executives would rather communicate with them than writers) that writer/producers are practically forced to partner up with them if they hope to get a project off the ground. The truth is most writer/producers don’t need a non-writing producer. Especially if the writer is already an experienced showrunner. The poor writer is forced to give up part of his ownership to someone who basically has no real creative function. Sounds kind of like paying someone for “protection”, doesn’t it?

I suppose if the pod producer came to the writer with a piece of talent attached or a commitment he's laying off then I could see the value. He’s bringing something tangible to the project. But all too often these pod producers bring nothing. They give you notes you don’t need, provide yet another layer of bureaucracy, and for the privilege, they take a piece of your backend profits.

So it might surprise you to learn that I believe the success of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW – arguably one of the greatest sitcoms in history – was directly as a result of a pod producer. Everybody knows that Carl Reiner was the brilliant creative force behind that show. But how many people outside of the television industry know the major contribution of Sheldon Leonard?

Sure, the name looks familiar. You’ve seen it on the credits. And a few of you may even remember him as an actor. But without Sheldon Leonard there would be no DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, and even if there were, there would be no DICK VAN DYKE SHOW after the first season.

So what all did he do? Just this:

Carl Reiner created the series and did the original pilot with himself starring as Rob Petrie. The pilot tanked, primarily because Reiner was not right for the role. Leonard convinced Reiner to re-cast the lead.  How'd you like to be the one making that suggestion to an actor?

Leonard convinced Reiner to do the show in front of an audience.

Leonard showed Reiner how a multi-camera format worked.

Leonard suggested Dick Van Dyke for the lead.

Leonard suggested Rose Marie for Sally.

Sponsors held sway over network shows back then. Leonard arranged for mighty Proctor & Gamble to sponsor THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.

When the series struggled out of the gate, Leonard lobbied hard for a time slot change, which the show got.

After the first season, the show was all but canceled. Leonard took the unheard of step of flying to Cincinnati and convincing Proctor & Gamble to stay aboard.

When P&G decided to only sponsor half the show, Leonard then went to Lorillard Tobacco and got them to commit to the other half. All of this within a matter of days.

And when the CBS president still wouldn’t renew the show (based on a personal grudge), Leonard got P&G to threaten to pull their business off the CBS daytime schedule unless they found a place for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. It was the Hail Marys of Hail Marys.

And along the way he offered great creative input, shielded Reiner from network bullshit, and gave Reiner the resources he needed to produce his classic show.

Now THERE’S a pod producer.

I got the chance to meet him once.  He guested on an episode of CHEERS.  It was a true honor.

And one final note:  Don't know if they did this on purpose or not but the two main characters on THE BIG BANG THEORY are named Sheldon & Leonard. 

If you’re interested in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, there’s a great book out called THE OFFICIAL DICK VAN SHOW BOOK by Vince Waldron. It goes into wonderful detail on the show, all the behind-the-scenes dirt, creative decisions, people involved. And it’s a fun read. No slogging involved. More tomorrow on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and a very special birthday greeting. 

53 comments:

scottmc said...

A possible Friday Question: Is there a time limit between the 'straight line' and the 'punch line'? Must the joke/payoff come within a prescribed time after the set-up? Can it differ for a movie and a sit com?

(The reason that I ask is that I am re-reading "It's Gone...No, Wait a Minute"
and liked the line regarding pitcher Jeff Robinson on p.66 and referenced again on p.72. But the reference to 'Elvis Tower' on p.93 threw me at first until I flipped back to p. 31.)

ManhattanHillbilly said...

Don't know the attribution, but according to IMDB Peter Lorre did indeed name the characters as an homage to Sheldon Leonard.

Johnny Walker said...

Pod producer? God producer, more like. What a guy!

Blaze Morgan said...

"And when the CBS president still wouldn’t renew the show (based on a personal grudge)"

How often is this the case? Between comments from you, and some of my family in the business, I suspect a significant number of shows get wiped because ego infighting soap opera.

I reckon TV viewers believe, rightly or wrongly, this happens most of the time. When their favourite show is cancelled, they are enraged and don't give a fat fig about ratings graphs and demographic stats. Does petty office politics kill a major percentage of shows "on the bubble"?

Carrie said...

(ManhattanHillbilly, that's CHUCK Lorre, isn't it?)

Brian Phillips said...

Waldron's book is great! Also, in the book, it mentions something else that Sheldon Leonard did:

Rose Marie's husband Bobby Guy died unexpectedly during the run of the show and Rose Marie, in her grief, wanted to quit. Leonard convinced her to stay, which was no mean feat considering the loss of her husband and Rose Marie's initial beef with the show. She believed that it was going to be a workplace comedy and that she would be the main supporting female character, not Mary Tyler Moore, which lead to some coolness between the two of them during the show years. They have since reconciled.

To Blaze Morgan: I read in TV Guide about an opposite case: "Sister Kate" stayed on NBC longer than it might have under other circumstances because Brandon Tartikoff's daughter liked it.

Please Leave Name said...

I'll always remember Sheldon Leonard in his bad guy role in "To Have and Have Not" and, of course, as the bartender in, "It's a Wonderful Life." He also produced The Danny Thomas Show, right?

RockGolf said...

To ManhattanHillbilly: I believe you mean Chuck Lorre, not Peter Lorre.

Although according to some now unemployed actor, there may not be much difference

john brown said...

The Hungry Heifer episode was great. "Light the match!" Sheldon Leonard had one of the greatest voices.

Retro Blog said...

Favorite episode is still the Walnuts.

Tom Quigley said...

One other thing that Sheldon Leonard was responsible for was creating and producing the groundbreaking I SPY, with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as the first black actor to have a starring role in a TV series. Right after Leonard's death in 1996, Bill Cosby delivered a tribute to him at that year's PEOPLE'S CHOICE AWARDS

msb said...

I love that I can hear Sheldon Leonard's voice in my ear when reading about him.

MikeBo said...

Igo all the way back to when Sheldon Leonard played a recurring character on the old Jack Benny radio. He was the "tout," who was always trying to give Benny some race-track type "advice."

Michael said...

Sheldon Leonard also appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show as a gangster--the perfect role for him, of course--named Big Max Calvada. The production company for the show was named Calvada, not to combine California and my state of Nevada, but for CArl Reiner, Sheldon Leonard, Dick VAn Dyke, and DAnny Thomas, who also was a key player behind the scenes.

By the way, Leonard really didn't have much trouble talking Reiner out of playing the lead, and the other finalist for the star was Johnny Carson, who might have been great but would have taken the show in a totally different direction. That's a turn in the road to ponder.

If I'm correct, the grudge was that the CBS president was James Aubrey, who hated any show that was intelligent.

Dan Reese said...

It's great to see Sheldon Leonard getting his well-deserved credit for his work on The Dick Van Dyke Show. It's worth checking out his guest starring role on the show in the season 3 episode "Big Max Calvada."

Mac said...

I'm going to get that book, I'm always fascinated by what happened behind the curtain. As brilliant as Carl Reiner is, he must have been smart enough to know when to step back and listen - it must be tough for someone of his ability to know when that's the right thing to do.

Tim Dunleavy said...

Blaze Morgan said...
"Does petty office politics kill a major percentage of shows 'on the bubble'?"


I once attended a book signing/Q&A by the late author Robert B. Parker. He claimed that when SPENSER: FOR HIRE (based on his novels) was cancelled after 3 seasons, it was due to office politics, not low ratings. He said that an executive who helped get the show on the air had been contractually promised a bonus if the series went to a 4th season, and the powers that be didn't like the executive anymore, so they decided to cancel the series rather than give the guy a bonus.

Make of that what you will.

emily said...

Happy Birthday Matt.

Mike McCann said...

Ken, thanks for focusing on one the most important and influential people in TV history.

Sheldon Leonard was the father of one of the most remarkable "family trees" in TV history. From his start producing THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW, he and Thomas partnered in the spinoff THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (which was an even bigger success than Danny's show), MAYBERRY RFD and GOMER PYLE. I SPY was a groundbreaking show -- keep in mind when it went into production, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 wasn't yet in force. Leonard believed in Bill Cosby and in many ways, made him the Jackie Robinson of prime time TV.

Thomas then began producing shows with AARON SPELLING,and we know how MOD SQUAD led to the ROOKIES, CHARLIE'S ANGELS and all the rest.

YEKIMI said...

Interesting. I was watching the "Pioneers Of Television" on PBS and when they did the section on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" none of this was mentioned. Hopefully they left it out because of time constraints.

Anonymous said...

Hey look, Mr. Levine. We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint "atmosphere". Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?

blessa - The beginning of the beatitudes as quoted by Father Guido Sarduchi

benson said...

I have a previous edition of the Waldron book and from it another wonderful example of Sheldon Leonard's leadership; He walked out during the read through of the Walnut episode, not liking the concept at all (and he'd never done that before). But after it all came together hilariously, he apologized to the assembled cast and crew.

Jake Mabe said...

I wasn't around yet, but "The Dick Van Dyke Show" had to be an oasis in the desert when it originally aired. Throw it up against the J-U-N-K that passed for sitcoms then (with one or two notable exceptions). The series was about 5-10 years ahead of its time and, for my money, is one of the top five best sitcoms in TV history, along with "Mary Tyler Moore," "M*A*S*H," "Cheers" and "All in the Family."

(I always thought it was funny that CBS wouldn't let MTM's Mary Richards be a divorcee because the suits were worried viewers would think she had divorced Dick Van Dyke/Rob Petree!)

And thanks for giving Sheldon Leonard his just due. Not too long ago, I was having trouble sleeping and found an old Jack Benny radio "Lucky Strike Program" on the internet. Out of nowhere came Sheldon Leonard, playing the racetrack lout. I laughed out loud -- heartily -- at 3 a.m.

Sheldon Leonard was a true TV pioneer. I *really* hope the "Big Bang Theory" lead characters are really named in his honor.

Blaze Morgan said...

@ Brian Phillips - That puts me in mind of that Tea Leoni sitcom in the mid-90's. It went thru three entire reboots, with major celebrity cast and guests, before they finally let it die. I can only wonder what sort of "Super Sheldon Leonard" was pulling for that show.

@ Tim Dunleavy - I've heard similar anecdotes myself where the show was axed. I'm hoping Ken might supply a little insider info on how many are accurate and how many are TV Land Myth...

Chas Cunningham said...

What did you think of WE'LL GET BY, the short-lived 1970s sitcom that Alan Alda co-produced while he starred on MASH? I remember it fondly.

Vince Waldron said...

Thanks for the shout out on my book, Ken, and also for giving Sheldon Leonard due credit for his enormous contribution to The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Another highly unusual aspect of Sheldon's approach to producing was his ability to admit when he was wrong. A great example of this appears later in the book, when the cast sits down for the first table read of "It May Look Like a Walnut!"

Apparently, Sheldon was less than enchanted by Carl Reiner's script, and he made his displeasure known immediately after the first read, when the executive producer predicted that the script's whimsy would never play for an audience and advised all concerned to abandon the episode! Carl and his cast disagreed, and, disregarding their executive producer's instincts entirely, proceeded to rehearse and film what would turn out to be one of the show's most memorable episodes.

For an exec producer to hold a different opinion of a script than his showrunner was hardly a rare occurrence, then or now. What distinguished Sheldon was not just that he deferred to his head writer's passion for the show, but that he made a point of announcing to all concerned that he'd been dead wrong about the show after he saw how well it played for its first audience at the dress runthrough a few days later --a typically classy act from a typically classy guy.

Chrispy said...

Compare the original run of "The Danny Thomas Show", produced by Leonard in the 50s and 60s, to the revival in the early 70s, which Leonard did not produce. Quite a difference.

Cap'n Bob said...

"...race track lout..." Hahahahaha! Ken had it right, it's "tout."

YEKIMI said...

hmmm, the Huffington Post link is MIA. Something happen or is it just AOL hatred? [which is fine, everyone should hate AOL]

Paul Duca said...

I knew that P & G used its clout to keep CBS from pulling DICK VAN DYKE, but not to the point of threatening to pull all its advertising.
They did that as well a couple of years later. Lucille Ball was thinking of ending THE LUCY SHOW and that is the sword they rattled to get the network back to the negotiating table. They didn't sponsor her show, but CBS was going to move a top-rated P & G show into her vacated time slot, and they did not want that.

When you ARE television's biggest single advertiser, you can do things like that.


Also, does anyone else remember watching Leonard in his 1975 sitcom BIG EDDIE?

Kirk said...

Speaking of "Pioneers of Television", I just saw a segment about I Spy. Supposedly, Sheldon Leonard wanted to fire Bill Cosby after the pilot was shot, but changed his mind after Robert Culp threatened to resign in protest. Now, it was Culp himself telling this story (patting himself on the back in the process), so who knows?

On a different "Pioneers" (I've watched quite a few of those) Andy Griffith tells an interesting story about Sheldon Leonard. The pilot for Griffith's show was shot as an episode of "Make Room for Daddy". Griffith saw the amount of shouting Danny Thomas did between takes (he apparently wasn't all that different from his on-screen character) and this gave Griffith pause. He told Leonard he didn't think he could take such shouting on his own show week after week. Leonard assured Griffith, "Look, Danny likes to shout, so there's shouting. On your own show, if you don't like to shout, than there doesn't have to be any." And from everything I've ever read about Griffith's show, there wasn't.

Kirk said...

@Paul Duca--I do remember Big Eddie, but not that well. Didn't Leonard play a retired mobster?

Buttermilk Sky said...

I also wondered about "Sheldon" and "Leonard" on TBBT. Thank you for the confirmation.

Now, could someone find out if "Cameron" and "Mitchell" on MODERN FAMILY are an homage to the actor Cameron Mitchell? And if so, why?

Jake Mabe said...

@Cap'n Bob -- Oops, that's what happens when you're typing quickly and have the word "loud" running through your head to use in the next sentence!

LOL -- my screw up. Thanks for catching my goof. Although, "racetrack lout" is a humorous image. :)

John said...

Like Ken, Sheldon also spent some time in Syracuse, graduating from the university there in 1929 (he and I share that, as well as also having Stuyvesant High School in New York as our alma matas, albeit he was 50 years ahead of me). A nice, if not very useful piece of personal trivia.

Along with his race track tout on The Jack Benny Show, Leonard also played Silky Thompson on "The Burns & Allen Show" whose tough guy gangster was always being thrown off his game by Gracie, including the memorable episode where he sends his henchman (Herb Vigran, IIRC) to kidnap Gracie and keeps ending up abducting the wrong people -- Blanche Morton, Harry Von Zell, Ronald Reagan (yes, really). And before they settled on nothing but sports stars, Sheldon was one of the original pitchmen for Miller Lite in the mid-1970s, and helped make the originalad campaign the hit it was.

thomas tucker said...

www.examiner.com/classic-movie-in-new-york/from-baby-sherry-to-sherry-baby-my-memorable-afternoon-with-sherry-jackson-p

Here is another take on Sheldon Leonard, and Danny Thomas, that I came across recently.

cadavra said...

It must also be noted that Leonard directed the first three episodes, thus helping to establish the show's visual style.

WV: "ingster"--Director of STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. (No kidding!)

Chris said...

Big Bang Theory co-creator Bill Prady confirms that they named their characters after Sheldon Leonard and that it was Chuck Lorre's idea. He also answers a few other interesting questions here:

http://weblogs.variety.com/season_pass/2009/05/big-bang-theory-we-didnt-anticipate-how-protective-the-audience-would-feel-toward-our-guys.html

"re Sheldon and Leonard named after the brilliant (producer) Sheldon Leonard of “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Danny Thomas Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “My Favorite Martian” and “I Spy?” (Binnie)
A. Yep. Chuck and I are both fans. Chuck’s idea."

Eileen K. said...

In his memoir, Dick Van Dyke tells stories--all positive--about the show. I can't remember what he said about Sheldon Leonard, but I do recall that he gave lots of credit and high praise to the writers.

Brian Phillips said...

Blaze Morgan said...
That puts me in mind of that Tea Leoni sitcom in the mid-90's.

"The Naked Truth". Yes they really did try a lot with that show, but I don't know whether that was inside tinkering or outside tinkering. The worst "fix" of a show I recall (save "Almost Perfect") was "Gabriel's Fire" with James Earl Jones and Dylan Walsh. Brilliant, literate, well-acted and it was retooled and made into "Pros and Cons" with Jones and Richard Crenna, which had a comedic tone. Bleh.
"Stupid" Dave Fontaine from "...Truth" was played by Mark Roberts, who is now working on "Mike and Molly".


Paul said...
Also, does anyone else remember watching Leonard in his 1975 sitcom BIG EDDIE?

"If you ever need a friend...call Big Eddie! That's the man!"

The above theme was recited/sung by Sheldon Leonard and a bunch of kids, antiphonally. It also starred his wife, Sheree North.

The only show I remember(a person on iMdb remembers far more) featured a defective toy. His granddaughter gets a "Loopy-Doopy" toy but it is defective. Eddie takes the manufacturer to court. One witness for the prosecution was German, evinced by the accent, saluting and heel-clicking. He said it was impossible to assemble, or, more to the point, "You could go loopy trying to put the doopy thing together!"

It lasted a season.

WV: ballu. The bear from "Jungle Buuk"

Brian Phillips said...

Before someone else says it, Sheree North played Big Eddie's wife, she was not married to Sheldon Leonard.

WV: cowle - Judge on "X Factro"

Tod Hunter said...

In the '70s I got around by hitchhiking. It was very safe and people were willing to give you a ride no matter where you were going.

One day I was in front of the Troubadour and a man in a Rolls-Royce beckoned me with two fingers holding a cigar. Sheldon Leonard.

I was stunned, but managed to stay cool. I was getting ready to take a trip to London and was very excited about it. He told me that one of the nice things about being in London is that it's a short plane ride from almost all of Europe. Amsterdam, Paris, and Madrid are all a couple of hours away. I was going to be backpaking -- I didn't tell him that -- but I appreciated teh information.

When I got out of the car I said "Thank you, Mr. Leonard" and I think he was surprised that the long-haired hiopie recognized him.

The man was a giant. TV is better because of him.

WV: prediest -- The main qualification to win the Miss West Virginia competition

Foley Monster and Pocket said...

Interesting point about Sheldon and Leonard. Never made the connection. Love the episode with him. "The kid breaks me up.:

DyHrdMET said...

THAT is what a producer should do.

Donald said...

Bill Cosby does a wonderful routine about Sheldon Leonard on his "Wonderfulness" album called "Niagara Falls." He sounds more like W.C. Fields than he does Leonard, but it's a great routine about "Shel" and his bride on their honeymoon.

peterson said...

Sheldon Leonard is known to me by the few times I saw him acting in a film or on a tv show. I remember him as a heavy whose appearance i celebrated, if only to hear him speak with that thick accent from one of the boroughs of n.y. and that faux sinister persona. There is something special about a man; who can muster a convincing peril, at the same time, a subtle humor. in the corporate boardrooms of P&G and others, he must have been hard to resist.

ajm said...

Another tidbit: At the time of his death, Sheldon and his wife had been married 66 years.

Today a hot young standup comedian comes along, and the impulse is to give them a sitcom. Sheldon Leonard saw Bill Cosby emerge and gave him his own drama (I SPY). That's thinking outside the box.

Anonymous said...

Sheldon Leonard's most memorable line: "Relax, Brillo-head."

This is from Albert Brooks' 1940s radio show, the most accomplished of his pre-natal work.

britinla said...

The following Chuck Lorre vanity card shows that he did indeed get The Big Bang Theory characters from Sheldon Leonard

www.chucklorre.com/index-bbt.php?p=187

CHUCK LORRE PRODUCTIONS, #187

Awright, shut up, siddown and listen. I am da immortal spirit Sheldon Leonard and for da last few years I've been using da body of Chuck Lorre to channel my ideas for new sitcoms. For da record, he's a stinkin' lousy channel and my ideas are much better than what he's puttin' on television. Dis is why I am breaking my anonymity. No matter how specifical I tell da kid what to write, he still manages to cock it up. Dharma & Greg? What da hell was dat? I specifically said "do a show about a queer guy who loves a straight chick, and she loves him back, but they can't, you know, bump uglies." But does Lorre listen? No way Jose. The putz turns it inside out, winds up with hippie chick loves uptight lawyer and then wonders why he can't buy an Emmy. (I did find a writing team to act as a channel for dat pitch, which worked out pretty good, Emmy and cash-wise.) Anyway, back to Lorre. Couple years later while he's sleepin', I whisper to him, "Two brudders inherit a midget." Funny, right? What's Lorre do? You got it. Two and a Half Men. Gimme a break! Anyway, I decide to give the mook one last chance. While he's under da gas at the dentist, I tell him to do a show about four wise guys and a sexy dame what knows da score. So what does da knucklehead do? Scientists and a waitress! It just breaks my heart. But at least the dope managed to slip my name in dis one. Now if you'll excuse me, I gotta schlep over to Milton Berle's crypt for a little pinochle with the boys.

HogsAteMySister said...

Great story. I had no idea Sheldon Leonard did any of that. In fact, all I remember about Sheldon was from Bill Cosby's piece about him jumping into Lake Titicaca.

Ron said...

Leonard was great as the race track tout on Benny.

Baylink said...

Absolutely Sheldon and Leonard are named after him; Prady's on record.

Howard Wolowitz is also named after a real person -- Prady's business partner in the small computer company, the creators of the filePro (then Profile) database program which was original sold by Radio Shack (and is still in production).

Dave said...

Maybe the most underrated man in Hollywood history. Pigeonholed by most as a minor character actor, but his record as a producer puts him above better-known names like Spelling. Invented the spin-off, championed integration, even bankrolled Fouad Said's invention of the Cinemobile so that I SPY could feature exotic locales impossible for other TV shows. Heck, he even undercut his own typecasting by being a great guy and exemplary husband. Sheldon, you had us all fooled!