Dick Van Dyke, with a self-portrait of a lucky man
Luckily, he had a lot of talent, too.
Van Dyke writes proudly of his roles in one of television’s most beloved sitcoms (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”) as well as a classic film musical (“Mary Poppins”). But he characterizes those hits, along with the rest of his career, as lucky breaks that fell into his lap.
So don’t come to this breezy but heartfelt book expecting Van Dyke to crow about his many accomplishments. Or bellyache about the low points. Or dish dirt: In his preface, he posts a consumer alert that “there is nothing salacious here.” He makes good on that promise.
The book’s very creation seems a surprise to him, judging from a recent interview.
“It never occurred to me to write a book,” he says. “My life seemed kind of pedestrian to me. I auditioned for a few things but for the most part, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, just going with the flow.” He pauses. Reconsiders. “So it IS a kind of interesting story from that standpoint,” he concedes, as if trying to rationalize telling it.
But what about the years of setbacks and struggles before he scored his first big success, starring in the 1960 Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie”?
Van Dyke credits his tenacity to his four kids - Chris, Barry, Stacy and Carrie - who are now grown and “truly admirable people,” in his view. “I had to keep working in order to support them,” he explains, flashing his familiar grin. “I never had a lot of drive, not much vision or goals. It was them that kept me going. And God.”
Van Dyke grew up in Danville, Ill., a small town in America’s heartland, the son of a stenographer and a salesman for the Sunshine Cookie Co. (He had a younger brother, Jerry, who followed him into show business and is best known from the 1990s sitcom “Coach.”)
Then, in his early 20s, Van Dyke hooked up with a former chum, Phil Erickson, who needed a partner for his comedy duo. Van Dyke signed on without even asking what he was supposed to do. Their act called for the pair to comically mime records but the Merry Mutes weathered obstacles and money shortages.
Van Dyke’s prospects brightened when he was cast in “Bye Bye Birdie.” The director wasn’t put off when Van Dyke cautioned him, “I can’t really dance.” The director soon proved him wrong. And Van Dyke won himself a Tony.
In January 1961 came an audition for Carl Reiner, who was cooking up a series based on his own life as a comedy writer and family man. Van Dyke’s eponymous sitcom, on which he was paired with an effervescent unknown named Mary Tyler Moore, premiered that October. Van Dyke depicts those five seasons as a creative lovefest for all concerned, during which he and Moore shared a chaste but palpable crush.
The 1964 “Mary Poppins” brought him another made-in-heaven pairing, as he played a Cockney chimney sweep to Julie Andrews’ flying nanny.
By then, Van Dyke had proved himself not only as an actor, a singer and a dancer but also as affable everyguy with equal skill for light comedy and rubber-jointed slapstick. “When I was a kid, I loved all the silent comedians - Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin,” he says. “And I used to imitate them. I’d go to see a Buster Keaton movie and come home and try things out I’d seen. I learned to do pratfalls when I was very young.”
Now there is talk - especially from Jerry - of bringing this comedy to Broadway. How about it, Dick?
“Well, yeah,” he agrees, while voicing concerns about an eight-performance week - and about continuing to work with his brother. “I have trouble because he breaks me up. My brother just kills me and I can’t keep a straight face.”
A man who can’t stop laughing. Some luck!
My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business
Author: Dick Van Dyke
Publisher: Crown Archetype