Diagnosis Murder: an enduring love for the Van Dyke family, two decades later

Barry Van Dyke is well aware that some 16 years after its long run came to an end, his old detective show Diagnosis Murder is still rolling out the repeats somewhere in the world - the royalty cheques tell him so. 

"It's the show that won't die," says Van Dyke. "It keeps popping up all over the place." Surely that means a river of cash flooding into his Los Angeles home. "I get a stack of cheques," he agrees affably. "I think 'oh good, some money from the show'. It will be for four dollars and sixty seven cents. It all adds up. But some of them are pretty funny so I hang them on the fridge: there's one for 18 cents."

He's also still hearing from fans of the show. For those who were students in late nineties Britain, Diagnosis Murder resided pleasantly in the rotation of repeats that occupied the soporific, post-lunch, post-lunchtime edition of Neighbours sweet spot. The British student cult status isn't news to Van Dyke - he's always had a lot of UK fan mail. Like Hasselhoff, they were also, he says, big in Germany. His old co-star and old man, Dick van Dyke, once said they were the show for old people and Seinfeld was for the youngsters. Based on his postbag, Barry isn't so sure: he thinks they had a much wider pull than that.

The best crime fighting due in daytime television: Steve and Mark Sloan, aka the Van Dyke boys.
supplied

The best crime fighting due in daytime television: Steve and Mark Sloan, aka the Van Dyke boys.

"It's nice the appeal has lasted, that it's not dated," he says, of the news that Diagnosis Murder is once again having the resuscitation paddles attached to its corpse. "It's kind of like comfort food. It's not offensive, it's pretty gentle and there was always humour involved." He thinks a bit further - the recipe also included good guest stars, some good mysteries and a good core cast.

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As well as being convivial lunch-settling entertainment, Diagnosis Murder was perhaps the most nepotistic show in television history - its whole shtick was that a real father and son played a crime-fighting father and son team, but over time it expanded to include no less than eight Van Dyke family members, many of those after Barry got a shot in the writing-directing chair. At first, he doubts that stat, then he does a quick tot up - himself, his dad, his uncle, his sister, all four of his kids - and is forced to agree - that yes, it was eight. "I never even counted before," he says.

Barry and Dick Van Dyke and the cast of Diagnosis Murder
supplied

Barry and Dick Van Dyke and the cast of Diagnosis Murder

Dick played twinkly-eyed, eccentric but remarkably-good-at-crime-solving ED doctor Mark Sloan. Barry played his luxuriously-haired but sober detective son Steve. Mark worked out whodunit, Steve did the paperwork. "Personality wise - if he was a doctor and I was a homicide detective, then yeah, we were pretty much playing ourselves," Barry says. "Our relationship was pretty much what it was in real life, and it became so comfortable acting with him, it was so easy.  It was natural, and simple."

Mark Sloan was a character Dick originally conceived for a show called Jake and the Fat Man, but when the studio wanted him to expand it, he was reluctant. Barry counselled him to take it, and then he too was offered a part as the sensible sidekick son.​ "It showed his versatility as a dramatic actor," he argues. "We had some good dramatic episodes. We got into situations - I got injured in almost every episode and we came close to losing me a few times; my sister got into dire straits, Mark had to relive some things from his past... we worked on some real nice dramatic stuff."

Barry's screen debut had come at nine years old, a walk-on in the  Dick van Dyke Show, the 1961-66 sitcom starring his pater and Mary Tyler Moore. "I was sold then. I was hooked. I wanted to do it all the time. I didn't realise that it wasn't like that all the time - that everything in showbiz wasn't as great as that show. Morey Amsterdam [co-star] said it was like going to a party every day."
Dick Van Dyke with co-star Mary Tyler Moore in rehearsal for The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1963.
EARL THEISEN/GETTY IMAGES

Dick Van Dyke with co-star Mary Tyler Moore in rehearsal for The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1963.

Dick said no, and Barry didn't turn pro until he was 19. "Wisely, he told me to enjoy my childhood and when you get old enough, we will talk about it. I am glad it worked out that way - you see so many child actors and it hasn't worked out for them." 

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His own kids, as it turned out, didn't become actors. Shane and Carey did some acting, then began writing film scripts for a small independent production house whose credits include the bizarre horror comedy Sharknado. Wes became a successful artist and Taryn became a kindergarten teacher.

It would not be mean to say Diagnosis Murder was a career high point for Barry. Before that, he had guest spots on shows like The Love Boat and TJ Hooker; Diagnosis Murder, with its spin-off varietals, provided some 16 years of work, on and off. Never, however, was it reliable. "It was always touch and go. We would do eight episodes, pick up another eight, and we would finish a season not knowing if we would comeback for another season..... but it had a steady, very loyal audience.." Now at 64, he says "he's not real aggressive" about chasing the work. He is, however, trying to co-produce a film with his dad, who is 91 years old, to make two independent low-budget movies. 

​If he ever wants to remember, he can. The Hallmark channel in the US shows five episodes a day, every day of Diagnosis Murder. "Sometimes I like to tune in and try guess what year it was [from]. We did close to 180 episodes - some I remember, some I don't remember at all."

Where's it showing on this side of the world, he wants to know? I explain that New Zealand has a fairly obscure cable channel which traffics solely in the nostalgia industry and will be adding Diagnosis Murder to a roster of the Dukes of Hazzard and so forth. He's quite pleased at the thought. "I look forward to that $2 cheque to put on my fridge."

Diagnosis Murder, Jones!, Thursdays, 8.35pm.

 - Sunday Star Times

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