Comedian and actor Jerry Van Dyke dies at home in Arkansas

Wife: He loved making people laugh

Jerry Van Dyke is shown in this file photo.
Jerry Van Dyke is shown in this file photo.

Funny man, actor and longtime Arkansas resident Jerry Van Dyke, the younger brother of Dick Van Dyke, died Friday by his wife's side at his sprawling Hot Spring County ranch, his wife said Saturday.

Shirley Van Dyke said her husband's health had declined since a car wreck outside their ranch gate 2½ years ago. He was 86.

"That car accident, it just destroyed our lives," Shirley Van Dyke said.

In the aftermath, Jerry Van Dyke spent seven months hospitalized, keeping in Arkansas the couple whose relationship was defined over the years by travel and shared adventure. They didn't have children together, although Jerry Van Dyke had children from a previous marriage.

"We never wanted to stop and be tied down," Shirley Van Dyke said.

Jerry Van Dyke married Carol Johnson in the mid-1950s. They divorced in the mid-1970s.

The comedian, born in Danville, Ill., is best known for playing Assistant Coach Luther Van Dam on the sitcom Coach.

From the beginning, Van Dyke's television career was intertwined with his brother's. One of his earliest TV appearances was in 1962 in a two-part episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, as Stacey Petrie, the would-be comedian brother of Dick's character, Rob Petrie.

A boisterous performer who supported himself with a banjo-and-comedy stage act when television or film roles were scarce, Jerry Van Dyke was a ham to his brother's more dignified persona.

"He loved making people laugh. That was his life," his wife said.

Shirley Van Dyke, an Arkansas native, remembered seeing her eventual husband for the first time 47 years ago while he was touring his act near her hometown.

"Oh my god he was handsome," she said. "His blue eyes, blue cashmere sweater."

"He was Mr. Hollywood. He was from another planet," she added.

The couple worked together for their entire relationship, Shirley Van Dyke said. She managed him throughout his television career.

"I handled all the details, and he got the laughs," she said.

She was a singer, and one song in particular was her husband's favorite: "I Remember You." He particularly loved the lyric, "And the angels ask me to recall the thrill of them all."

When reflecting on his career path, Van Dyke told USA Today in 1990 that he "couldn't do anything else."

"I decided to be a comedian at 8 years old and didn't tend to my studies in school. Had I known how to do anything else, I would have quit. Many times," he said.

Van Dyke was frank and good-humored about his failures. "If I had it all to do over again, I definitely would have turned things down," he told The Associated Press in 1994. "Almost everything I did!"

One of those projects was the TV series My Mother the Car, which ran for one notorious season on NBC beginning in September 1965.

He played a man who buys a car that contains the spirit of his deceased mother, voiced by Ann Sothern. The plot revolved around Van Dyke's attempts to conceal the car's consciousness from his family and to keep an unscrupulous automobile collector, played by Avery Schreiber, from acquiring it.

"When people talk about bad television, My Mother the Car is the show that pops to mind," Van Dyke told the AP in 1990.

Though his brother had runaway success early on, Jerry Van Dyke's career was long defined by a string of short-lived projects.

But in 1989 he landed the role of Luther Van Dam, the assistant coach to Craig T. Nelson's head football coach, Hayden Fox, on Coach.

They worked together to lead the fictional Minnesota State University Screaming Eagles, often with guest appearances by professional football figures like Troy Aikman, Dick Butkus and Jerry Jones, as well as actors like Lucy Liu, Drew Carey and Mary Hart.

Van Dam, a bumbling, subservient second banana who had occasional moments of pathos, was a reliable source of laughs on the show, which ran until 1997. Van Dyke was nominated for four Emmys for the role, but he never won.

He told USA Today in 1990 that he was thrilled to get some recognition after his meandering career.

"Everybody talks about me making a comeback," he said. "I say: 'Comeback from what? This is as good as it's ever been.'"

Shirley and Jerry Van Dyke spent significant time in the Natural State. In the early 1980s, they built their secluded Hot Spring County residence on hundreds of acres where Shirley Van Dyke grew up, she said.

They also owned a home in Mexico, where they spent warm summers, she said.

The couple also purchased and renovated a city block in Benton, according to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. On that block is the Royal Theater, a performance hall for live acting, which Jerry Van Dyke gave to a local theater troupe in 2000.

The Van Dykes were physically active -- Jerry Van Dyke swam every day -- until the August 2015 accident, Shirley Van Dyke said. Though her husband's health often took turns for the worse, he fought through those episodes, she said.

He was tough, she said. "He would always pull through."

"We did everything together. I'm at a loss."

Information for this article was contributed by Daniel E. Slotnik of The New York Times.


Democrat-Gazette file photo

Jerry Van Dyke in 1998 stands in front of the Royal Theater in Benton, which he purchased and later gave to a local theater troupe.

Metro on 01/07/2018

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