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May 05, 2015

Brother, Can You Spare the Time?

The last time brothers Dick and Jerry Van Dyke shared a stage, Dick was starring as that beloved comedy writer Rob Petrie and Jerry was guesting as his brother-in-law, Stacey. Some 50 years later, the sibs met on the set of Jerry's comedy, The Middle.

Craig Tomashoff

There's a newbie on the set of the ABC series The Middle this afternoon, kidding around with series regular Jerry Van Dyke.

It's his first time shooting a single-camera comedy, so to break the ice, he applauds and announces, "Oh, my God! Look there! It's that family from the show The Middle."

The cast — Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher and Atticus Shaffer — smile as they come on set, applauding right back. "I'm glad we're giving this guy a shot. He deserves a break in the business," guips Jerry, beaming at brother Dick.

The elder Van Dyke (he's 89, Jerry is 83) has indeed done well for himself on TV and in films, whether it was winning three of his four Emmys for his legendary sitcom or starring in classic films like Mary Poppins.

Jerry has done well, too, from his early days as a stand-up comic to earning four straight Emmy nominations while on the ABC 1990s series Coach. Still, except for a few episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show more than five decades ago, the brothers have not worked on a television show together until now.

They sat down with emmy contributor Craig Tomashoff to talk about playing bickering brothers on The Middle, why Dick hates modern sitcoms and that time he had to get tough to defend Jerry's honor.

Dick, how did you end up joining Jerry on The Middle?

DVD: I have problems with today's sitcoms. They're only 22 minutes long, whereas they used to be 28. They move so fast, and you have to cram the whole thing in so quickly.

And their canned laughter bothers me. If a door slams, you hear canned laughter. We never did that in my day.

And doing single-camera comedy didn't appeal to me, because comedy without an audience is stifling. But Jerry had this idea and convinced me to try it.

JVD: The difference between Dick and me is like night and day, so I thought it'd be fun to have us actually play that out on the show. He plays someone successful, and I'm not. He's in great shape and I'm a mess. He comes in dancing, and of course my character resents everything he is.

The whole family loves him, Mr. Personality. It resembles real life, except I looked up to him as a brother because he was older. [On the show] he's in the vacuum business, which I don't believe he ever tried in real life.

How's it been working together?

DVD: [Laughing] Well, the arguments between us are working well. We've had plenty of years of rehearsal.

JVD: The truth is, we didn't fight or argue growing up. Dick doesn't do that, even though I love confrontation.

DVD: That's true. It's why he is great playing a curmudgeon on the show. He plays one in everyday life, too.

JVD: Let me make this clear. I have never yelled at a kid to get off my lawn. But then again, I don't really have a lawn.

Are you enjoying your time together?

JVD: I live in Arkansas most of the time when I'm not doing The Middle. So when I was coming out around December to do another episode, Dick said, "Why don't you stay at my home?"

He's stayed at mine but never invited me to stay at his before. He called me several times to get me to stay this time. He was completely going out of his way to connect with me. I think he thinks I'm going to die soon.

DVD: Be honest. We're both kind of circling the drain right now,

JVD: All kidding aside, I've been at his place for a couple of months and I think it's brought us closer together than we've ever been. We see each other every day. He talks to me every day. We never had that in the past. He has saved my life.

DVD: You mean like that time when we were kids and Quinn Frankenburger knocked you down, so I knocked him down and said, "Now, don't be sending your big brother after me"? I'm still not sure why I said that, but we both survived

Jerry, didn't Dick also help you by getting you on The Dick Van Dyke Show when you were starting out?

JVD: That was my first TV appearance. It got me signed to a contract. I don't think I ever thanked him before, so... thanks, Dick! It's ironic that now I finally help him out by getting him on my show,

DVD: I tried to get him a spinoff back then. He should have had his own series, and now he's helping me out. So... thanks, Jerry!

JVD: I've been on his ass all these years to do things with me. Finally, when I'm ready to die, he decides it's time to work with me.

DVD: What can I say? We Midwesterners are not into that touching and hugging type of stuff. We don't say, "I love you." It's taken for granted.

JVD: The other day, I told him, "Dick, I can't tell you how much I appreciate what you've done for me." He said, "Yeah," and moved on to another topic,

DVD: [Laughing] Yeah. How 'bout those Cubs?



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