After his starring role in the disastrous My Mother The Car (NBC, 1965-1966), Jerry Van Dyke returned to television in September 1967 with this more traditional sitcom, also on NBC. He played a single father recently granted custody of his young son. Joining him was Lois Nettleton, who played a divorcee with a young daughter. Living together on a farm, the two had to learn how to parent together. Low ratings led to a quick cancellation and Accidental Family was off the air after just 16 episodes.
Jerry Van Dyke, younger brother of Dick Van Dyke, began his acting career with a March 1962 guest spot on The Dick Van Dyke Show where he played, not surprisingly, the younger brother of Dick Van Dyke’s character. During the summer of 1963 he hosted a game show called Picture This for CBS. Jack Gould referred to it as an “idiotic trifle” that Jerry Van Dyke was “trapped in” . He appeared as a regular on The Judy Garland Show (also on CBS) when it premiered in September 1963 but soon left.
Van Dyke then then filmed a sitcom pilot called “My Boy Googie” that wasn’t picked up; it would air during the summer of 1967 as an episode of Vacation Playhouse. During the 1965-1966 season, Jerry Van Dyke starred in the critically savaged sitcom My Mother the Car on NBC. In January 1967, Broadcasting published a list of roughly 90 television pilots vying for spots on the networks’ 1967-1968 schedules. Among them were two half-hour comedy pilots from Sheldon Leonard Enterprises: “Everywhere a Chick Chick” and “My Friend Tony” .
Leonard had an exclusive contract with NBC at the time. Set to star in “Everywhere a Chick Chick” were Jerry Van Dyke and Lois Nettleton. It was reported that “My Friend Tony” could be pushed to the 1968-1969 season and it was. The series eventually premiered as a mid-season replacement on NBC in January 1969. In its February 27th issue, Broadcasting reported that NBC had several problem spots in its schedule, including the Tuesday 9:30-10PM half-hour, which would likely be filled by either “Everywhere a Chick Chick” or another sitcom called “Sheriff Who” .
The New York Times, on February 28th, revealed that “Everywhere a Chick Chick” had instead been given the Friday 9:30-10PM time slot following The Jerry Lewis Show while “Sheriff Who” was not picked up . In March, The Los Angeles Times reported that Proctor & Gamble had turned down sponsorship of the new sitcom “because it looked immoral to them,” deciding instead to sponsor another new NBC sitcom, The Mothers-In-Law .
On June 2nd, Percy Shain of The Boston Globe reported that other names for the series has been suggested, including “Accidental Family” and “Occasional Family” . But on June 28th Herb Lyon of The Chicago Tribune revealed that the series would be called Accidental Family and that the name of the series had been changed to at the urging of Jerry Van Dyke . Apparently Dick Van Dyke hadn’t liked the name either, calling it “too cute and contrived, like someone was trying to swing. And nobody will understand what it means” .
In Accidental Family, Jerry Van Dyke would star as Jerry Webster, a stand-up comic working in Las Vegas. A widower, Jerry’s eight-year-old son Sandy (played by Teddy Quinn) had been raised by an aunt for many years until Jerry was able to win custody. There was a catch in the custody agreement, however: Sandy had to be brought up far away from the glitz and glamour of his father’s showbiz career.
(The characters of Jerry and Sandy originally had the last name of Wallace. According to Ted Quinn, it was changed due to its association with controversial Alabama governor George Wallace, who was mulling a 1968 presidential run while production on Accidental Family was getting underway .)
Luckily, Jerry had recently purchased a farm in San Fernando Valley, some 300 miles from Las Vegas. Upon arrival at the farm, Jerry is surprised to find it occupied by recent divorcee Susannah “Sue” Kramer (played by Lois Nettleton) and her young daughter Tracy (played by Susan Benjamin). Sue’s marriage had been rough: her husband Hank would screw up, she would forgive him, and he would screw up again. After taking him back a half-dozen times, Sue finally kicked him to the curb for good.
Sue and Tracy stayed on their farm but Hank then sold it to Jerry, who bought it without visiting. There was some question over the farm’s true ownership so Jerry couldn’t evict Sue. The two came to a mutually beneficial agreement: Sue and Tracy could keep living on the farm and in return Sue would look after Sandy while Jerry is away in Las Vegas.
And that’s how the four found themselves stuck in an unusual situation. Both Susannah and Jerry want to be supportive of their respective children and do what’s best for them but at the same time they have to be careful to be supportive of both children and each other. They’re an accidental family, after all.
Rounding out the cast were Ben Blue as Sue’s uncle and ex-vaudevillian Ben McGrath, who helped out as a handyman/farmhand, and Larry D. Mann as Matty Warren, Jerry’ss agent. John Byner had a recurring role as Dewey, a hustler who initially tries to cheat Jerry before befriending him.
Accidental Family premiered on Friday, September 15th, 1967. Critics were primarily positive in their reviews, with Cynthia Lowry of The Associated Press opining that the “series may build into something warm and pleasant” . Paul Henninger of The Los Angeles Times suggested that the show “could be the season’s sleeper” while the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Harry Harris wrote that it was “warm, appealing, often funny.” Louise Sweeny of the Christian Science Monitor singled out Lois Nettleton for praising, writing that she “is real and worth watching.” Anthony LaCamera of the Boston Record American referred to the show as an “improvement” over My Mother The Car.
Rex Polier of the Philadelphia Bulletin was circumspect in his review, noting that “future episodes and how they are handled will tell more.” Other reviews were brutal. The Washington Post‘s Lawrence Laurent wrote that “a painless death may be the best solution” while Wade Mosby of The Milwaukee Journal stated that the “labored premiere was played more for pathos than laughs.” Eleanor Roberts of The Boston Herald Tribune called the show a “cloying little exercise in togetherness.” And Newsday‘s Barbara Delatiner lamented that the show was “yet another attempt to make a TV star out of Jerry Van Dyke.”
Reviewing the premiere for The New York Times, Jack Gould wrote “Jerry Van Dyke is making what probably will have to be called progress. His opening in ‘Accidental Family’ […] was an improvement over his earlier appearance in ‘My Mother the Car'” .
Initially, episodes of Accidental Family revolved around the new living arrangements of the characters and the custody agreement allowing Jerry to raise Sandy. In the premiere, while trying to get to know his son, Jerry also grapples with the realization that the 300 miles between Las Vegas and the farm is going to make commuting difficult. The aunt who was raising Sandy didn’t feel Jerry had any sort of real connection with his son, something Jerry hoped to fix.
In the second episode, Sue planned a birthday party for Jerry on the farm but he has to work. So Sue decided to bring Sandy and Tracy to Las Vegas to surprise Jerry. Little did she know that his friends had a surprise of their own: a big party complete with a young woman in a bikini popping out of a cake (credited as Cake Girl and played by Janet Hamil). Sue didn’t know that the custody agreement stated that Sandy couldn’t go to Las Vegas.
Making matters worse, the judge who signed off on the custody agreement showed up at the party. He wasn’t happy to see Sandy in the city and certainly wasn’t happy that Sandy was present when the bikini-clad woman jumped out of the cake. In fact, he was so unhappy that he planned on suggesting to the aunt that she reopen the custody case because Jerry obviously wasn’t concerned about Sandy. But Jerry was able to convince the judge that he did care about is son.
The aunt, played by Joyce Van Patten, dropped (played by Joyce Van Patten) dropped by the farm, hoping to find proof that Jerry is an unfit parent. When she spotted Jerry and Sue together, Sue clad only in a towel, she thought she had her proof. Once again, Jerry was able to prevail by convincing her that he did have Sandy’s best interest in mind.
With the custody agreement firmly in place, episodes of Accidental Family were able to focus on the accidental family itself. Mixed in with the comedy — Sandy and Tracy convinced they’ve met a leprechaun, Ben flying across a newly waxed floor in his socks — were serious moments. In one episode, Jerry was so desperate for Sandy to be proud of him that he lied about being a skilled outdoorsman and the two join the Indian Scouts. They soon became separated from the rest of the group during a hike and then were trapped in a cave-in.
In another episode, Sue’s ex-husband Hank (played by Jeremy Slate) showed up unexpectedly. Sue was dismayed when Hank and Jerry hit it off. Jerry was certain that Hank was trying to win Sue back but eventually discovered that Hank was only hiding out at the farm because he owned a lot of people money.
Other episodes involved Jerry digging for buried treasure; Sandy and Tracy competing against each other in a “best lamb” contest (in the process pitting Sue and Jerry against one another as well); Jerry trying to mold his son into school pageant material; Sue’s plans for Thanksgiving thrown into disarray by Jerry; and Sandy turning into a bully after Jerry teaches him to box because he’s concerned his son isn’t tough enough.
There was also in which Jerry, after dreaming that Sue was in love with him, starts to pursue her thinking she actually did have feelings for him.
Accidental Family never had a chance with viewers. Its competition consisted of ABC’s The Guns of Will Sonnett, a new half-hour Western, and The CBS Friday Night Movie, a powerhouse in the Nielsen ratings. The series premiere aired opposite the second half of The Great Escape on The CBS Friday Night Movie and “earned the lowest opening rating on the boards” . The following week, on September 22nd, Accidental Family faced The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and ranked in the bottom five in the Nielsen chart .
The September 29th episode would have competed with North by Northwest but NBC decided to pre-empt it in order to cover a speech on Vietnam by President Johnson. The poor ratings didn’t bother executive producer Sheldon Leonard, who insisted “the show needs time to build an audience. This is a complicated story and it takes time to get to know the characters” .
Jerry Van Dyke, faced with the overwhelming competition of The CBS Friday Night Movie, was pragmatic: “I have no beefs. I think we have a good situation comedy, and, from what I’ve seen, good situation comedies stay on. At least, I don’t see any bad shows that are still going after a couple of years. If we lose, it’s because of Elvis Presley, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen. No on is going to pick me over those guys” .
In late October, NBC announced that Accidental Family had been canceled and would end its run in December, to be replaced by a game show or perhaps “Sheriff Who?” . The series ended its run on January 5th, 1968 and was replaced the following week by a prime time version of The Hollywood Squares, hosted by Peter Marshall. A total of 16 episodes were produced and aired.
Lois Nettleton was understandably disappointed that the series was cancelled, telling Percy Shain of The Boston Globe that she “fell in love with ‘Accidental Family’ and the character I played […] seemed to have variety and depth” . She felt the series “had such possibilities for soft humor and such a fine mixing of two worlds” and was “desolate it did not catch on right away” .
It took Jerry Van Dyke a little while to realize what the cancellation meant, according to his brother Dick Van Dyke:
He and his wife Carol had their bags packed for a weekend in Las Vegas. The phone ran and Jerry answered it to learn the show had been cancelled. The message just didn’t sink in. He hung up the phone, drove with Carol to the airport, flew to Las Vegas, checked into the hotel, put his bags down in the room, and then all of a sudden moaned, ‘Oh, my God!’ Finally it had hit him. They picked up their bags, and few [sic] home to suffer the impact of the news alone. 
Accidentally Family was never syndicated and has not been seen since it originally aired.
2 “What’s ahead in next TV season?” Broadcasting. 9 Jan. 1967: 30.
3 “CBS reshuffle: emphasis on youth.” Broadcasting. 27 Feb. 1967: 26.
4 Gent, George. “N.B.C. to Cancel 11 Shows in Fall.” New York Times. 28 Feb. 1967: 74.
5 Humphrey, Hal. “Older Folks Get the Boot From TV.” Los Angeles Times. 15 Mar. 1967: E16.
6 Shain, Percy. “ABC Sweeps Clean on Friday Nights.” Boston Globe. 2 Jun. 1967: 35.
7 Lyon, Herb. “Tower Ticker.” Chicago Tribune. 28 Jun. 1967: 14.
8 Shain, Percy. “Van Dykes Compare ‘Chick’ to ‘Chitty.” Boston Globe. 31 Jul. 1967: 9.
9 Comment left at Television Obscurities on February 20th, 2010.
10 Unless otherwise noted, all reviews from “Finale on critics’ views,” Broadcasting, September 25th, 1967, 71-72.
11 Gould, Jack. “TV Review.” New York Times. 16 Sep. 1967: 67.
12 Witbeck, Charles. “Jinx Persues Jerry Van Dyke: Opposition His Big Trouble This Time.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 26 Oct. 1967: 43.
13 Lowry, Cynthia. “Big TV Response Is Listed For Series Fest in Boston.” Lawrence Daily Journal-World. [Lawrence, Kansas]. 5 Oct. 1967: 23.
14 Witbeck, Charles. “Jinx Pursues Jerry Van Dyke: Opposition His Big Trouble This Time.” 15 Ibid.
16 Lowry, Cynthia. “More Shows Facing the Axe: Two Already Dead, Four Others Shakey.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Associated Press. 27 Oct. 1967: 33.
17 Shain, Percy. “Lois Nettleton: Sadness Is a Cancellation.” Boston Globe. 26 Nov. 1967: B2.
19 Beck, Marilyn. “Van Dykes Brewing Up Special Within Special.” Hartford Courant. 4 Apr. 1968: 26.
Originally Published October 24th, 2004
Last Updated May 21st, 2013