Jerry Van Dyke (1931–2018)

Jerry Van Dyke (1931–2018)
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Jerry Van Dyke was a famous comedian and actor who lived in Arkansas; he was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 1998. He was perhaps most noted for his Emmy-nominated performance as Luther Van Dam on the television show Coach. Van Dyke and his wife, Shirley Jones, owned a ranch in Hot Spring County, and, in the late 1990s, they purchased and renovated a city block in Benton (Saline County), including the Royal Theatre and a soda shop that bears his name.

Jerry Van Dyke was born in Danville, Illinois, on July 27, 1931, to Loren and Hazel Van Dyke. Loren Van Dyke was a traveling salesman for the Sunshine Biscuit Company. Both their sons had successful show business careers. Van Dyke’s older brother, Dick, became a movie actor (Mary Poppins), television sitcom pioneer, and comedian (The Dick Van Dyke Show). Jerry Van Dyke began his career as a comedian while still at Danville High School. The brothers performed around town in various strip joints and nightclubs until 1952, when Van Dyke joined the U.S. Air Force. As part of the air force’s Tops in Blue entertainment unit, he performed at many shows for the men and won several air force talent competitions, including the chance to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. He returned home in 1962 to perform at a fundraising dinner for the down payment on Danville’s Kathryn Randolph Theater, and he regularly returned to his hometown throughout the years for school reunions and other events.

After serving in the military, Van Dyke had his first acting job in 1962, as a guest on The Dick Van Dyke Show; he played his brother’s character Rob Petrie’s shy, banjo-playing, military veteran brother. He became a regular on The Judy Garland Show in 1963, where he was the comic relief. Soon, CBS made plans for Van Dyke to have his own series. After turning down the role of Gilligan in Gilligan’s Island and choosing not to replace Don Knotts in The Andy Griffith Show he accepted the lead role in My Mother the Car. This series did not last long, and he returned to supporting roles in television and movies for a decade, including playing a Las Vegas nightclub comic and single father in Accidental Family in 1967. He also had roles in movies, including McLintock! starring John Wayne, and hosted a celebrity game show. Eventually, Van Dyke returned to stand-up comedy, touring for several years at Playboy Clubs around the country, and appeared in a number of television series and TV movies throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

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In 1989, Van Dyke began his most famous role—Luther Van Dam on the television series Coach, which ran for nine seasons. His character, which was written for him by series creator Barry Kemp, was the assistant coach to Craig T. Nelson’s character, Hayden Fox. Luther Van Dam was lovable, irritable, and yet hilarious. In 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1994, Van Dyke received Emmy nominations for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series.

Van Dyke was married twice. He had three children from his first marriage to Carol Johnson, whom he divorced in 1974.

Van Dyke married Shirley Jones of Glen Rose (Hot Spring County) in 1984. They owned a 500-acre ranch in Hot Spring County, where they raised horses, llamas, and other animals. They also owned residences in Los Angeles and in Mexico. In 1996, the Van Dykes purchased a city block in Benton, which they renovated before selling the properties in 2000 and 2001. The block includes the Royal Theatre, an old movie theater converted for live acting, which the Van Dykes gave to the Central Arkansas Community Players in 2000. The group changed its name to the Royal Players and regularly performs in the theater, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Also on that block were a candy store and an ice cream and soda shop. Although it was sold in 2001, the ice cream and soda shop continues to operate as Jerry Van Dyke’s Soda Shop.

Van Dyke continued to act on television, including in Yes, Dear, Teen Angel, My Name is Earl, and Raising Hope. Most notable was the role of Tag Spence in the series The Middle (2010-2013); he and his brother appeared in an episode of The Middle called “Two of a Kind” in 2015, which was Jerry Van Dyke’s final television role. In 2015, he was injured in a head-on collision while driving in Arkansas and suffered a broken pelvis and leg. Following the accident, his health steadily deteriorated, and he died on January 5, 2018.

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For additional information: “Jerry Van Dyke.” Internet Movie Database. (accessed August 22, 2022).

“Jerry Van Dyke.” J. Cast Productions. (accessed August 22, 2022).

Lloyd, Robert. “Remembering the One-of-a-Kind Jerry Van Dyke.” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2018. (accessed August 22, 2022).

Pettit, Emma. “Jerry Van Dyke Dies at Home in Arkansas.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 7, 2018, pp. 1B, 2B.

“Sip a Soda With Jerry.” Southern Living 34 (April 1999): 47.

Wicoff, Mary. “Everybody Was Jerry’s Friend.” Commercial News (Danville, Illinois), January 9, 2018. (accessed August 22, 2022).

———. “Friends: Van Dyke Was a Clown with a Big Heart.” Commercial News (Danville, Illinois), January 7, 2018. (accessed August 22, 2022).

Allison MajorsSearcy, Arkansas

Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas