There are comedic performers who have proven themselves more than able to lead a sitcom, case in point being someone like Dick Van Dyke and the still memorable The Dick Van Dyke Show. Conversely, there are some who make brilliant supporting players, but should not be front and center. That case in point, unfortunately, is Dick’s brother, Jerry Van Dyke, who had something of a disaster on his hands in the form of the 1965 to 1966 sitcom My Mother the Car.
Now the 1960s were, admittedly, a time for oddball sitcoms. We had a talking horse (Mister Ed), a visiting alien (My Favorite Martian), a witch (Bewitched), genie (I Dream of Jeannie), a couple of creepy and ooky families (The Munsters, The Addams Family) and then a mother reincarnated as her car (the aforementioned My Mother the Car). Maybe you don’t quite remember the latter?
“If a horse can talk, why can’t a car?” asked actress Ann Sothern, voice of Mother, of the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1965.
“Jerry Van Dyke plays a small-town lawyer who visits a used car lot one day and becomes intrigued by a 1928 Porter,” offered the same publication. “As he sits down behind the wheel, a voice says, ‘Hello, son.’ The Porter is Dave Crabtree’s (that’s Jerry) mother reincarnated. She explains to him that, ‘It was the only way I could find to bring me back.’ Naturally he buys the car and, like Alan Young’s horse, Mr. Ed, the car talks only to its owner.”
The critics were harsh
There are lots of shows that are negatively reviewed and manage to thrive anyway despite the critics — Gilligan’s Island is a perfect example — but My Mother the Car was in a class all by itself.
“Wild, off-beat ideas aren’t necessarily bad,” offered the Valley News‘ Ernie Kreiling in a review dated October 7, 1965. “Occult comedy is popular these days and it boasts a proud lineage back at least to Topper. But the ideas alone don’t make a program. Execution is the key, and for My Mother the Car it’s the only answer. The fact that it is based on galloping Oedipus problems alone doesn’t bother me, but the fact that it is simply stupid is inexcusable.”
It certainly didn’t start out that way, according to Allan Burns who co-created this show as well as The Munsters and, eventually, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “Chris Hayward and I came up with what turned out to be the worst idea for a series in the in the history of the world,” he told the Television Academy. “Our idea was that Martian and Bewitched and all these things were so popular, so why don’t we do something that makes fun of them? So we wrote the script and somebody must have thought it was funny, but, boy, the critics sure didn’t. I probably spent the rest of my life living that show down. I promise you, we meant for it to be a satire and it turned out to be the worst of all the shows we thought we were satirizing.”
My Mother the Car: Meet the Cast
Jerry Van Dyke is Dave Crabtree
With the series sold, the producers went about assembling their cast. Jerry Van Dyke was on their radar for the lead role (and, it should be noted, because he was tied up with My Mother the Car, Sherwood Schwartz says he couldn’t cast the actor as Gilligan).
Born on July 27, 1931 in Danville, Illinois, Jerry began his entertainment career as a stand-up comic, performing in strip joints and nightclubs. He joined the US Air Force Tops in Blue in 1954 and performed at military bases around the world.
Making a few appearances on The Dick Van Dyke Show and performing on The Ed Sullivan Show led to his being made one of the cast members of The Judy Garland Show in 1963, though his time there didn’t last the show’s only season.
Two years later, of course, he would get My Mother the Car, and would work fairly consistently in the years that followed. He was a regular on Andy Griffith’s Headmaster (1970), appeared in nine episodes of 13 Queens Boulevard (1979) and is best known for playing assistant coach Luther Van Dam on Coach (1989 to 1997).
Back in 1965, he spoke to the Press and Sun-Bulletin, sharing his feelings about My Mother the Car: “We’re still feeling our way. We’ve tried broad comedy, aiming at our kid audience, which seems to be considerable. We’ve also tried family situations to please the adults, a strategy I favor. I’m not not in on policy decisions. I just work here.
“But, you know,” he added, “I could learn to hate this thing [the car]. It’s tough talking to a car. I mean, when you’re talking to an inanimate object, you’re forced to animate yourself to keep the scene alive. I’ve done everything but stand on my head. Another difficult thing is shooting with one camera, like a movie. I’ve played before live audiences all my life; I thrive on the reaction of the crowd to pace my comedy. I’d much prefer a three-camera show before an audience as Dick does. I think he’s better under those conditions than he is in movies. .You can see him respond to the audience.”
Married twice with three children, Jerry died on January 5, 2018 at the age of 86 from heart failure.
Ann Sothern as the Voice of Mother (formerly Gladys Crabtree)
Prior to voicing the 1928 Porter (aka Gladys Crabtree), actress Ann Sothern had had an amazing career. Born January 22, 1909 in Valley City, North Dakota, she’d appeared in nine movies in uncredited roles between 1927’s Broadway Nights and 1933’s Broadway Through a Keyhole, but between 1933’s Let’s Fall in Love and 1987’s The Whales of August she was featured in over 60 others.
Making many television guest appearances, she had starring roles in the series Private Secretary (1953 to 1957) and The Ann Sothern Show (1958 to 1961). She performed on stage in 17 different shows, among them Of Thee I Sing, The Glass Menagerie, Gypsy, Mame, Barefoot in the Park and The Duchess of Pasadena.
Which led many to wonder why she agreed to voice Mother. “I am interested in money,” she told the Richmond Times Dispatch matter of factly on September 12, 1965. “Anyway I’m an actress and I want to act. I don’t want to sit around waiting for the great things that never come along. I play her as a pretty hip character, although so far I must admit my dialogue hasn’t been earth-shattering.”
Married twice with one child, she died on March 15, 2001 at age 92 of heart failure.
Maggie Pierce as Barbara Crabtree
Maggie Pierce was picked to play Dave’s wife, Barbara, who (of course) begins wondering what’s wrong with her husband and his obsession with this old car in their garage (Wilbur Post had the same problem regarding his stallion that wouldn’t stop talking — to him). Born October 24, 1931 in Detroit, Michigan, prior to acting she became a registered nurse in 1949, but between the pain of losing patients and a suggestion by a doctor led her to leave the medical field and she began modeling.
This would lead to a screen test at Paramount Pictures and her being signed as an MGM contract player. While nothing major came out of that, in 1962, when the contract was over, she began appearing on a wide variety of TV shows and, of course, My Mother the Car.
“We had a real find in Maggie,” Jerry Van Dyke told newspaper columnists at the time. “She has much the same quality as Mary Tyler Moore on Dick’s show. She even looks a lot like Miss Moore.”
Although My Mother the Car actually had respectable ratings, the critics were just merciless, and despite the fact early on she was very positive about it, there reached a point where she told the media, “All I’m interested in is using the show for as much publicity value as I can get. Of course, I like the show. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that my character is wonderful. She isn’t. My role is all hemmed in. Jerry and the car get all the laughs. I took the part to succeed in this business and to become well-known you have to be on a series regularly.”
As it turned out, that was her last role on television and she only appeared in one more film, The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967). After that, she married producer and theatre owner Jerome Minskoff and began getting involved in the production of plays. She was married to Minskoff from 1971 until his death in 1994. She herself died April 5, 2010 at age 78.
Avery Schreiber as Captain Bernard Manzini
Even though we’re talking about a television show with a talking car, the most cartoonish element of My Mother the Car was undoubtedly Avery Schreiber as Captain Bernard Manzini, a car collector who spent 11 episodes of the series trying to get his hands on Dave’s car.
Avery was born on April 9, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois. In the 1960s, he was part of the comedy team Burns and Schreiber (the other half being made up of comedian Jack Burns). While he was practically a mustache-twirling villain on My Mother the Car, he starred in a series of popular Doritos commercials and co-hosted The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour in 1973, Not as well remembered today as you think he’d be given the quantity of his credits, he appeared in several dozen films (between 1969’s The Monitors and 2001’s Dying on the Edge) and television (between a 1964 episode of East Side/West Side 1999’s Becker). Married once with two kids, he died on January 7, 2002 at age 66 of a heart attack resulting from complications of diabetes.
A Final Thought
In a final look back at My Mother the Car, Allan Burns mused, “We thought it was pretty funny, but everybody else thought it was pretty terrible. It’s nice to know that at the point in my life where some people think that The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of the better shows of all time, I also did the one that everybody is sure is the worst.”