NEW YORK – Jerry Van Dyke, the younger brother of Dick Van Dyke who struggled for decades to achieve his own stardom before clicking as the dim-witted sidekick in television's “Coach,” died Friday in Arkansas, according to his manager. He was 86.
John Castonia said Van Dyke died at his ranch in Hot Spring County. His wife, Shirley Ann Jones, was by his side. No cause was immediately known.
Van Dyke had an affable, goofy appeal, but he spent much of his career toiling in failed sitcoms and in the shadow of his older brother, even playing the star's brother in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Until “Coach” came along in 1989, Van Dyke was best known to critics as the guy who had starred in one of television's more improbable sitcoms, 1965's “My Mother the Car.” Its premise: A small-town lawyer talks to his deceased mother (voiced by actress Ann Sothern), who speaks from the radio of an antique automobile.
Other bombs included 1967's “Accidental Family,” in which he was a nightclub comedian, 1970's “The Headmaster,” in which he was a gym teacher and 1963's “Picture This,” a game show that lasted only three months. He also joined “The Judy Garland Show” in 1963, to provide comic relief, but was fired at the end of the season.
“The show's writers wrote awful, awful, awful stuff,” he recalled in a 1994 interview with The Associated Press, “and I was forced to do it. For instance, I had to come out and say to Judy Garland, 'What's a nice little old lady like you doing on television?'” He added: “And that was just the first week!”
In “Coach,” he finally made it, playing assistant coach Luther Van Dam, comic foil to Craig T. Nelson's coach Hayden Fox. The two headed up a hapless Minnesota college football team, its follies aired from 1989 to 1997, and Van Dyke was nominated four times for an Emmy.
“I never knew what success was like, or having a hit series, or even doing something GOOD,” Van Dyke told the AP. “Finally I got a job that I enjoy doing, that's not hard to do – and I get paid a lot of money.”
Nelson, his co-star on the show, paid homage to his former onscreen partner Saturday: “I am incredibly sad to hear of Jerry's passing. He was such a brilliant comedian and we had a great time working together on 'Coach.' It is just devastating news.”
Dawn Wells, an actress who starred with Van Dyke on an episode of “Fantasy Island,” called him in a statement “one of Hollywood's funniest, kindest and personable comedians. He was a joy to work with. He will be missed.”