From Fred Rutherford to Mel Cooley, Richard Deacon was perfectly suited for his memorable TV roles
Paul Lynde: “Richard has the kind of career nobody plans on."
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If keeping the star happy is the producer's biggest job, The Dick Van Dyke Show's Mel Cooley had a double whammy to deal with.
We know he had to deal with the fictional Alan Brady on the classic sitcom. However, the actor who played Brady was also The Dick Van Dyke Show series creator Carl Reiner, who the actor who played Mel Cooley, Richard Deacon, needed to impress both in sharing scenes as the star's producer and as a serious player expected to help bring Reiner's unique vision to life.
Luckily, Deacon – or "Deac," as friends knew him – was so up to the task, Reiner once said he couldn't even imagine a different actor taking on the part of Mel Cooley. "Richard Deacon was a natural because we needed a toadie, and he played wonderful toadies," Reiner said in an interview with the Archive of American Television.
Fans of classic TV likely do think of Deac as a "natural toadie," thanks to roles in early hit sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver (he played Ward Cleaver's coworker Fred Rutherford) and his most famous role on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but according to another huge character actor Paul Lynde, Deacon's career could've taken a different path if audiences hadn't met him first in a suit and tie. According to an interview in the book Bygone Binghamton, Lynde said Deacon's typecasting was simply serendipity: "Richard has the kind of career nobody plans on. It just turned out that way.”
Need proof? Picture if you can, a young Richard Deacon, already balding but just headed to college to study medicine when the drama bug bites and he begins enrolling in different sorts of classes – delving into the arts. And perhaps where he shines most is not acting, but dance, where college classmate Fred Heckman described Deac as looking much the same as when we saw him on TV, except giving off an air of someone more like Fred Astaire than Mel Cooley:
"In dance class, it was ballroom and a little bit of ballet, and he was fantastic as a dancer. He was good in dancing the waltz. He was tall, between six-foot-one and six-foot-two, and slender. Real thin. He was bald even then. And the girls loved him, especially in dance class. He was graceful. He loked like Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers when he danced. He floated on that dance floor. Richard had kind of a Jack Benny hang-down facial quality to himself. But the girls just loved him, I looked at that guy, and I couldn’t believe it.”
Of course, instead of dancing his way into TV viewers' hearts, Deacon waltzed a different path to his entry in TV history as the overbearing producer Mel Cooley, perpetually in suit and tie. In Bygone Binghamton, Deacon described the types of roles he ended up taking because of his memorable turn as Mel Cooley, saying he was "nearly always an executive of some sort, in suit and tie, and somebody always pricks my bubble of dignity.” According to the actor, this meant, "My character always represents the establishment. I’m never an individualist.”
Behind the scenes, though, Deac was free to show more dimension, and his Leave It to Beaver costar Barbara Billingsley smiled broadly remembering what it was like to work with him in an interview with the Archive of American Television. Beyond playing Fred Rutherford on her hit sitcom, Deacon also portrayed a character in the show's pilot episode, so Billingsley thinks of him fondly as someone there right from her show's very start, "I love Richard. Yes, he was in the pilot and he played Mr. Rutherford and Ward Cleaver worked with him... Oh, he was funny. He was a funny man.”
Deacon was so funny that Reiner thought of him instantly for the part of Mel Cooley, whereas The Dick Van Dyke Show creator said he struggled to think of anyone who could play Alan Brady. That's why Reiner ended up taking on the part himself, making himself Mel Cooley's difficult boss and adding endless comedy to the show as the sitcom grew and grew, thanks in part to that specific dynamic. And for his part, Deacon never seemed to mind accepting the types of roles he became so widely known for, saying in The Dick Van Dyke Show: Anatomy of a Classic, “Watching the genius of Carl Reiner and Sheldon Leonard was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.”