It is tough to imagine what television would be like without The Dick Van Dyke Show. The sitcom is in the company of venerable classics like I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone, two other early television series with a lasting impact on subsequent generations of shows. Thanks to Netflix, we can watch the series that was almost The Dick Van Dyke Show, the one-episode run of Head Of The Family.
Head Of The Family was the pilot for what eventually became The Dick Van Dyke Show. Most of the premise of the series is the same, but with an entirely different cast and style. Show creator Carl Reiner plays Rob Petrie, who is also a comedy writer married to a stay-at-home wife (played by Barbara Britton). What became The Alan Brady Show was The Alan Sturdy Show. In a similar stylistic choice to how Brady was not seen for much of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Sturdy’s face is not fully revealed to the audience (similar to Home Improvement’s Wilson character).
The plot of the pilot revolved around their son’s dislike for Rob and a nosy neighbor dropping into annoy the Petries about a bulletin that Rob was writing for a local PTA bazaar. The same story was later recycled into The Dick Van Dyke Show episode “Father Of The Week.”
The most glaring difference between Head Of The Family and The Dick Van Dyke Show is the type of comedy. Head Of The Family is a more straightforward family sitcom. None of the actors in the pilot displayed the physical comedy of Van Dyke or Mary Tyler Moore. While the Petries were supported by brilliant and timeless writing, the physicality and energy of the show’s two leads set the series apart from its contemporaries. Without that element in place, Head Of The Family is a far more generic network sitcom.
Even the iconic opening sequence is less physical. Instead of the gangly Van Dyke tripping on an ottoman, Reiner merely pulls a car out of the driveway, drives to work, and enters an office building.
Reiner is undoubtedly one of the funniest minds of his generation, but the show’s creator did not dazzle the screen with the magic that Van Dyke routinely displayed. The same can be said of Barbara Britton, who did manage a well-traveled career in film and television. It is unfair to contrast anyone to Moore, who went on to have a career that only few women in entertainment have ever come close to approaching. Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie also brought a slapstick quality to their characters that was not present with their Head Of The Family counterparts.
After Head Of The Family was not picked up for the upcoming television season, Reiner recast the show. He completely changed the tone and range of the series by tapping into some truly singular talents. His selections were exceptional and by doing so he launched an all-time great sitcom. It is rare to catch a glimpse of a series in its alternate form, but watching this pilot brings a greater appreciation for the talent of its cast.
The pilot of Head Of The Family is currently available on Netflix (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Season One: Episode Seven).