Dick Van Dyke:
“As you get older, you care less and less what other people think.“
I know it is rather old fashioned in our age of streaming content, but, I still hold the half-hour television sitcom in high esteem as an art form.
My Top 10 Of All Time:
I Love Lucy (1951-57)
The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77)
Will & Grace (1998-2020)
The Golden Girls (1985-1992)
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66)
Van Dyke writes in his gossipy, highly readable memoir, My Lucky Life In And Out Of Show Business (2011) that his life was nothing other than one long string of lucky breaks.
Born in small Missouri town to a housewife and a travelling salesman, Van Dyke was a shy kid who used humor as his way of dealing with the tough spots in life.
During World War II, Van Dyke enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps where he found work as a radio announcer. After the war, he formed a double pantomime act with a buddy, The Merry Mutes. They lip-synched to Bing Crosby and Doris Day records.
Van Dyke took the act to Hollywood where he persuaded the producers of a radio program titled Bride And Groom to let him marry his high school sweetheart on-air, saving the cost of the wedding and honeymoon.
He found work in radio and television in Atlanta and New Orleans before signing a seven-year contract with CBS in the early 1950s, but he was let go after just three years because they didn’t find him to be funny.
Van Dyke landed a small role in the short-lived Broadway musical revue Girls Against The Boys (1959). But, his big break came when, against all odds, he was cast in the new Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie (1960) with Gay Icon Chita Rivera, and gay actors Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. The show was a big box-office hit, and Van Dyke received a Tony Award. He would reprise his role in the 1963 film version.
Van Dyke took two weeks off from the run of Bye Bye Birdie to shoot the pilot for a new sitcom. It was originally titled Head Of The Family, with different actors playing the roles. In the original version, the late, great Carl Reiner, who created the show based on his own experiences as a television writer, played the lead. The first pilot was a dud, and Reiner revamped the show with Van Dyke playing the central character. It was television alchemy.
Earlier, I Love Lucy and Make Room For Daddy were series set in the milieu of show business, but my love for The Dick Van Dyke Show has always been fueled by its more realistic, but hilarious look at the inner backstage workings of the making of a television series, the fictitious “The Alan Brady Show”. Reiner had formerly been a writer and performer on Sid Caesar‘s crazy Your Show Of Shows.(1950-54), and he drew from his own life on that show for the new The Dick Van Dyke Show.
In case you don’t know your television history, it centers on the lives of head television writer Rob Petrie and his pretty wife, Laura, played to perfection by Mary Tyler Moore. Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam play Petrie’s co-workers on the program. Rob, Buddy, and Sally write comedy material for Alan Brady, played deliciously by Reiner, and the premise provides a built-in way for them to be making constant jokes. In the early 1960s, I was so impressed with the premise, that I dreamed of being a joke writer. I still do.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was not an immediate hit, yet it eventually developed quite a following. Van Dyke showed such sweet, good natured humor and likeability in his performance. He won three Emmy Awards for his work on the series. Decades later, I still watch the show in syndication, although I have every episode memorized. Van Dyke:
“When we did The Dick Van Dyke Show, it was like an improv group. Carl Reiner, the writer and producer, had a rule: ‘I don’t care how crazy it gets as long as it could happen in real life and you react accordingly.’ The minute you try to be funny, you’re not.“
With the success from The Dick Van Dyke Show, Van Dyke was able to move to feature films. He worked in many genres and proved a smart dramatic actor and a reliable, if unexpected, villain in films like The Runner Stumbles (1979) as an alcoholic priest, as a crook in Warren Beatty‘s Dick Tracy (1990) and an evil night watchman in Night In The Museum (2006) and its sequels. But he will always be most noted for his work in musical films Mary Poppins (1965), with Julie Andrews, and Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968), which is not gay porn.
Van Dyke’s problem with his film work was that The Dick Van Dyke Show had set the bar so high for television comedy and Rob Petrie was such a familiar and beloved character, that matching that standard in films was a tough task, and audiences had trouble accepting him as anybody else.
I admire his breezy, charming performances in 1960s-era comedies: What A Way To Go! (1964) opposite Shirley MacLaine, The Art Of Love (1965) with James Garner, and Some Kind Of A Nut (1969). But, nothing matched the TV stuff.
Van Dyke has been forthright about his personal problems:
“I was an alcoholic for about 25 years. In the 1950s and 1960s, everybody had their martini, everybody smoked incessantly. The funny thing is that all through my 20s and early 30s, I didn’t drink at all. Then we moved to a neighborhood full of young families with the same age kids and everyone drank heavily, there were big parties every night. I would go to work with terrible hangovers which if you’re dancing is really hard.“
He had a couple of stays in rehab:
“I had suicidal feelings, it was just terrible. But then suddenly, like a blessing, the drink started not to taste good. I would feel a little dizzy and a little nauseous and I wasn’t getting the click. Today I wouldn’t want a drink for anything. But I do occasionally think of taking a nice drag on a cigarette.“
In his book Keep Moving: Tips And Truths About Aging (2013), Van Dyke writes:
“My whole generation has disappeared on me. My contemporaries, not in talent but in age, were Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Rock Hudson. All gone.“
I am so glad Van Dyke is still with us.