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The Lucky Life of Dick Van Dyke

Updated on July 16, 2020

A life well lived

"I've made peace with insecurity ... because there is no security of any kind." ~ Dick Van Dyke


I have a question for you: Name five people alive today who you haven't met, and with whom given a chance, you would most want to spend an evening. It's a great conversation starter with anyone you meet, and the results can tell you a lot about a person. I tend to try to select a variety of people, which might include a world leader, an artist, a thought leader, a spiritual leader, and someone with whom I'd just really enjoy spending a bit of time.

Dick Van Dyke is one of those people. At 85, he finally decided to write a memoir of his well-lived life titled, aptly, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business.

It turns out, as you read his narrative, that Dick Van Dyke the person is pretty much exactly the same person as Dick Van Dyke the actor and entertainer. "I never planned any of it," he says. "The only career strategy I had was in the early days when my goal was simply to feed my family and keep a roof over their heads. I went where the jobs were, anywhere the wind blew, as I like to say, and most of the time things worked out."

The Dick Van Dyke Show

Not everything worked perfectly for him, of course - he had a few ups and downs in his early life, and he struggled early on with smoking and later with alcohol. He grew up better than most in Danville, Illinois, started out in broadcasting while in the Air Force and ended up doing theater acting and then a song and dance team with a partner. For most of the 40's, they lived hand to mouth and in the 1950s he worked as a CBS broadcaster along with Walter Cronkite. Eventually, he was selected for a lead role in the Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie, which debuted in 1960. A New York Times reporter, though not impressed, labeled him "a likeable comedian, who has India-rubber joints."

One night, Carl Reiner and Sheldon Leonard came to see him perform, and decided he would be perfect for a situation comedy initially titled Head of the Family. Reiner created the show and was first planning to star in it. Interestingly, Reiner and Sheldon Leonard liked him because "I wasn't too good-looking, I walked a little funny, and I was basically kind of average and ordinary." The show, about an average couple named Rob and Laura Petrie, had no title until the last minute, until Reiner finally proposed it be titled simply, The Dick Van Dyke Show .

Reiner wanted the show to be timeless, so that it stayed fresh to audiences 50 years later. It contained no references to the period, no politics, slang, no mention of popular TV shows, films or songs; instead emphasizing work, family, friendships and human nature. It succeeded in all fronts and now, 50 years later, it is still relevant and fun.

He describes the synergy of the cast - with Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie and others, such as the time he practiced tossing his hat onto the hat rack in his office all week and always missing, until the live performance of the show, when it went straight onto the peg, to which Morey, surprised, piped out "Holy Shit!" to the audience. "He's been trying to do that all week!"

The Disney touch

"Hope is life's essential nutrient, and love is what gives life meaning." ~ Dick Van Dyke


Of course, the show made him a household name, and it was during this period that he played in the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie , and was then cast to play Bert in Mary Poppins - the cockney-voiced chimney sweep in the picture to the right - specifically selected for the role by none other than Walt Disney himself. He also wanted to play the stooped-over elderly senior banker in the movie for fun, for which Disney convinced him to donate four thousand dollars to the California Institute for the Arts. So, he paid to play that part ("but it was worth every dollar!," he said).

Of course, he befriended dozens of famous stars, including Stan Laurel, who he had imitated as a boy, and for whom he later gave the eulogy at his funeral.

After the Dick Van Dyke Show ended, following five successful seasons, and at the top of its ratings (Seinfeld wasn't the only show to do that), he played in a number of movies, finally cast into the lead of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang , this time as an eccentric American inventor, so he didn't have to again fake a British accent! Interestingly, and I had seen this movie at the theaters as a child, he didn't feel the same magic filming it as he had with Mary Poppins , and even struggled with a torn calf muscle during filming - reading that now, I have no idea how he pulled off the dance numbers, like "Me Ol' Bamboo", let alone the rubbery-bodied puppet who danced around the Truly Scrumptious wind-up toy for the King and Queen.

This is where I lost track of him, until he re-emerged in the 1990s as Dr. Mark Sloan in Diagnosis Murder . Where do you go, I suppose, when yours is a household name? Well, in The New Dick Van Dyke Show, he played Dick Preston, a TV talk-show host, which was taped near his Arizona ranch for convenience. Shortly after it debuted in 1971, he was in a grocery store when a woman walked up to him and hit him with her purse.

"How dare you leave that sweet Laura," she snapped!

By 1974, he had come to realize he had a problem with alcohol abuse, and was appropriately cast as the lead in the TV movie The Morning After as an alcoholic who can't come to terms with his disease.

In 1988, he was in the relatively obscure The Van Dyke Show, along with his son, Barry. In between and after, a number of movies. Diagnosis Murder became very successful, of course. Between the original movie and following series, it was a ten-year run of success. And, of course more recently, there was the character of Cecil in Night at the Museum , where alongside Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs, he actually played a bad guy!

A happy requiem...

"If I'm known for giving people decent entertainment and raising good kids, that's all right. I'll have lived a good one." ~ Dick Van Dyke


After he turned 80, he was approached by a man while at a Starbucks who asked if he wanted to sing and harmonize with a group of his friends. That turned into a group called the Vantastix, who now sing and perform at places such as the City of Hope, where they go from room to room singing to kids who are battling cancer. The group still performs at various venues today, including singing the national anthem at sporting events.

At 85, he's wise and circumspect: "Like it or not, I am circling the drain". His narrative is open, honest, and real. He expresses remorse over some aspects of his life, and comes to a peaceful resolution with all of it, in the end of the book excusing himself to go take his dog for a walk.

Asked by a director how the black upright piano he has been playing for years in his home by the beach stays in such good shape given the moist air, variations in temperature, and constant use. "Good craftsmanship and luck," he said. "The same reasons I'm still going strong today."

A lucky life indeed.


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