Night, after Americans had watched on...


May 30, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

LAST MONDAY night, after Americans had watched on television as Jacqueline Kennedy was buried at Arlington, they had the opportunity to watch another great "First Lady" of her era: "Laura Petrie" in a retrospective of the old "Dick Van Dyke Show."

That may sound like yoking the sublime and the ridiculous, but the "Petries" were about as popular as the Kennedys -- and their show contributed greatly to social progress in America. Here's how:

The "Dick Van Dyke Show" premiered in 1961, the year the Kennedys came to the White House. In 1963, the producer decided to open the season with an episode entitled "That's My Boy??" in which "Rob Petrie" (Van Dyke) mistakenly believes he and "Laura" (Mary Tyler Moore) brought the wrong baby home from the hospital.

Against Laura's wishes, Rob phones the other parents, whom he knows only by name, tells them of the mistake and invites them over to the Petries' to exchange babies. They arrive, and Rob's error is obvious. They're black, and they and Laura have a big laugh at Rob's expense.

The script was submitted in advance to the network (CBS), the sponsor (Procter & Gamble) and its advertising agency (Benton & Bowles). And the NAACP.

P&G disapproved, saying that the show made fun of blacks. It didn't. It made fun of Rob -- and made the black couple the equal of the white couple. That was unheard of in situation comedies of jTC the period. The NAACP saw the importance of the symbolism and approved the script.

The ad agency feared white reaction, especially in the South, where the presentation of successful blacks living in "white" suburbs would look like a political statement. A civil rights bill promoting integration was stalled in Congress at the time, and there had been lethal confrontations over it in Dixie.

The show's producer was Sheldon Leonard, the old character actor who had played so many criminals in B movies. He was committed to this episode and finally argued P&G and Benton & Bowles around.

Then a timid CBS vetoed the script. Leonard finally convinced the network to go forward by promising that he would tape the show before a large audience, and "If anybody finds this show to be in poor taste or is offended," he said, "I will personally re-shoot the last scene, replacing the black couple -- at my expense -- with a Chinese, East Asian, American Indian or Italian couple -- anything you want."

The crucial moment arrived. The surprised audience loved it. Their laughter was the longest in the show's entire history. CBS agreed to broadcast it with the black couple.

CBS got a flood of mail applauding the show. This led the Nervous Nellies of television to decide to cast Bill Cosby in a role in a series that ordinarily would have gone to a white. Racial stereotyping in television was on the way to becoming a thing of the past. Television's "Amos 'n' Andy" era was over.

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