Obituary: Morey Amsterdam

The versatile comedian Morey Amsterdam was a writer, lyricist, producer and supreme jokester, but he is best known for his creation of the character Buddy Sorrell in the fondly remembered television series The Dick Van Dyke Show.

It was one of the first television series to show its hero at his place of work, and many of its best scenes took place in the office where Van Dyke and his fellow writers Buddy and Sally (Rose Marie) drank coffee, ate doughnuts and, between wisecracks, hammered out scripts for the mythical Alan Brady Show. As the outwardly grouchy Buddy, Amsterdam would trade insults with Sally, utter regular deprecating remarks about his rarely- seen wife Pickles and make fun of the show's producer Mel.

Known as the "human joke machine" for his ability to produce a quip on any suggested subject, Amsterdam was born in San Francisco in 1912. His father was a violinist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, but though Morey studied both the cello and saxophone, he preferred comedy and as a teenager entered vaudeville, using the cello as a prop while telling jokes.

Moving into radio, which was in its heyday, Amsterdam became a star comic, featuring in several network series and starring in his own show partnered by his first wife, the actress-singer Mabel Todd. He also started song- writing, though numbers like "Why Did I Ever Leave Wyoming?" and "I Can't Get Offa My Horse" have not become standards.

When he had a major hit in 1944, it nearly ruined him. While on holiday in Trinidad, he heard a melody which he assumed was a folk tune and in the public domain. He revised the ribald calypso lyrics and had Paul Baron and Jeri Sullavan adapt the melody.

The result, "Rum and Coca-Cola", was recorded by the Andrews Sisters and sold over a million copies. A plagiarism suit was then brought by the publisher of a music folio, Calypso Songs of the West Indies, which included Lionel Belasco's "L'Annee Passee", written in 1906 (the melody Amsterdam had heard). The defendants had to make an enormous settlement to retain their rights to the song.

In 1948 Amsterdam moved into television and was an instant hit with his brash humour and one-liners. "TV," he said, "just stands for tired vaudeville." Set in a fictional night-club, his first series co-starred Art Carney and, as a cigarette girl, the future authoress Jacqueline Susann.

Amsterdam next successfully hosted his own variety show, then the late- night talk show Broadway Open House (fore-runner of the Tonight show) and was a prolific Master of Ceremonies on quiz and talent shows, but it was The Dick Van Dyke Show that made him a household name.

Conceived by Carl Reiner and based on his own experiences as a television script-writer, the show had originally been titled Head of the Family with the cast headed by Reiner himself and Sylvia Miles and Carl Brill in the roles of Sally and Buddy. The producer Sheldon Leonard liked the premise but on viewing the pilot programme was unhappy with the casting.

With a new cast headed by Van Dyke, it became The Dick Van Dyke Show and played on CBS from 1961 until 1966, its wit, warmth and believability making it popular the world over. When the show finished its six-year run, Amsterdam appeared in other television shows, including Hollywood Squares and Love Boat, and made some films, though he described Hollywood as "the kind of place where the skeletons in the closet are ashamed of the people in the house". His films included dramatic roles in Machine Gun Kelly (1958) and Murder Inc (1960), comedy roles in Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964) and Disney's The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit (1968); he also provided one of the voices for the feature cartoon Gay Purr-ee (1963).

His attempts at film writing were less successful. In 1943 he scripted a haunted-house comedy The Ghost and the Guest and provided additional dialogue for an East Side Kids film, Kid Dynamite, both undistinguished "B" movies. In 1966 he produced, co-wrote and starred in Don't Worry, We'll Think of a Title, which reunited him with Rose Marie and Richard Deacon, and featured Carl Reiner in a guest spot. One critic called it "abominable" and it received limited distribution. He continued to work as a stand-up comedian in nightclubs and charity shows, and had just finished a two- week cabaret tour when he suffered his fatal heart attack.

Tom Vallance

Morey Amsterdam, actor and comedian: born San Francisco 14 December 1912; married Mabel Todd (marriage dissolved), Kay Patrick (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 28 October 1996.

Comments