THIS CLASSIC SITCOM DIDN’T ONLY PORTRAY ISSUES OF HAIR LOSS, BUT THE SERIES CREATOR, CARL REINER, IS HIMSELF FAMOUSLY BALD.
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” is described in Vance Waldron’s book “Classic Sitcoms” as “a masterpiece in the admittedly thin annals of television art,” a view that has been seconded by scores of television critics and countless viewers. And this cherished laughfest of a show owes its success to a bald man.
No, the titular star of the show is not the bald man. Rather it’s Carl Reiner, who created and the series and wrote many of its most beloved episodes. Moreover, Reiner was originally the star of the series, back when its pilot was filmed without Van Dyke and entitled “Head of the Family.” For various reasons, “Head of the Family” wasn’t given a green light, but re-cast “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was, and Reiner, graciously accepting the fact that he wasn’t right for the part he wrote for himself, stuck with his creation to see it become a major success.
Reiner’s contributions to the show were not all behind the scenes, however; he created for himself a juicy recurring part, that of Alan Brady, an egotistical, bad-tempered television star and the boss of Van Dyke’s character, Rob Petrie, who was his head writer. Reiner appeared only sporadically and initially his face wasn’t even seen, a fun gimmick that was eventually dropped. But when he was seen, Reiner’s Brady sported a full head of hair, something Reiner himself lacked.
A classic “hair loss” story line
This is, of course, nothing unusual, especially for the time. But the fact that Reiner/Brady wore a toupee did provide the basis for one of the series’ best-remembered and most lauded episodes. Entitled “Coast to Coast Big Mouth,” it starts out innocently enough as Rob’s wife, Laura (expertly played by Mary Tyler Moore) and their neighbor Mille (the diminutive Ann Morgan Guilbert) are in the audience of a TV game show called “Pay As You Go.” Laura is picked to be one of the contestants, and though she wins a number of prizes, it comes at a cost: While Laura is initially able to navigate the loaded questions that the acerbic and fast-talking host of the program keeps lobbing at her (“Is the Alan Brady Show any better now?” “Is Alan Brady any easier to get along with?”), she steps right into his last trap and reveals on live television that Alan Brady wears a toupee.
Millie tries to comfort Laura by pointing out that a lot of men are bald. But Laura replies that “a lot of men aren’t big television stars, my husband’s boss and the vainest man in the world.”
As might be expected, Alan is not at all happy about this turn of events. We soon find him seated at his desk, all six of his toupees atop their respective mannequin heads and spread out before him. He’s clearly upset; when Laura comes in to apologize and tells him Rob would KILL her if he knew she was there, he quickly replies, “Good! I’ll call him!” He then complains that if she wanted to see ruins (which is what his career is now like), why couldn’t she have gone to Greece? Even when Laura tells Alan that she’s always liked him better without his hair, he takes this to mean that she sees him not as a virile man but as a father figure.
“Oh, no, just the opposite!” Laura protests, to which Alan sarcastically replied, “Oh, a bald MOTHER figure!”
Relief: The secrets of hairpieces and toupees
Eventually, after Rob has joined them, Alan lets them both off the hook, admitting that this incident has actually taken a strain off of him and that it’s tough keeping such a big secret. He even goes on to admit that he’s gotten a lot of publicity and sympathy from it, and all ends happily in sitcom land. (Well, not exactly happily, as Laura does make the mistake of joking that since things turned out so well, maybe she should go on TV and tell everyone that Alan has had his nose fixed – a secret that she wasn’t supposed to know and which gets Alan riled up anew.)
“Coast to Coast Big Mouth” is a sterling example of a superb sitcom. It seems so up Reiner’s alley that it’s a surprise to learn he didn’t write it. It was written by two of the show’s busiest writers, Bill Persky and Sam Denoff – who had, perhaps coincidentally, written an earlier bald-themed episode that dealt with Rob’s own fears that he might be losing his hair.
The revelation of Alan Brady’s pate state was full of laughs, but it still rang true. The episode dealt with the importance that we attach to our appearance, specifically our hair, and how we can allow it to define who we are and how we look at and think of ourselves. Even amid the laughs, the show’s creative team made sure not to lose track of the fact that human beings, no matter how tough on the outside, all have tender insecurities somewhere inside them – even egomaniacal television stars.