Van Dyke, Dick

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Dick Van Dyke

American funnyman Dick Van Dyke (born 1925) was a virtual unknown in 1961 when The Dick Van Dyke Show hit the airwaves. Over the next five years, Van Dyke used his comedic timing, good looks and bumbling husband act to turn the show into a legendary classic with timeless appeal. Forty years after it first aired, The Dick Van Dyke Show continued its run on television as a popular rerun. Though Van Dyke was best known for his TV show, this legendary comic also made several hit movies, including the musical comedies Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Acted in Hometown Performances as Child

Richard Wayne Van Dyke, known as Dick, was born December 13, 1925, in West Plains, Missouri. His father, Loren "Cookie" Van Dyke was a traveling salesman for the Sunshine Biscuit Co. His mother, Hazel, stayed at home to care for Van Dyke and his younger brother, Jerry, who also became an actor, starring in the 1990's TV sitcom Coach. The Van Dyke brothers say their good–natured parents helped shape their comic sensibilities.

Van Dyke grew up in Danville, Illinois, and was a terribly shy kid, though he appeared in countless school plays and community theater productions. By high school, the gangly, six–foot–tall Van Dyke was using humor as a tool for working through his shyness to connect with people. In 1944, Van Dyke enlisted in the Army Air Corps to help with the war effort. He was stationed in Frederick, Oklahoma. While there, Van Dyke met Byron Paul, a fellow Air Force cadet and radio showman who was looking for an announcer. Van Dyke easily got the job and spent time on a United States Air Force radio show called "Flight Time." Consequently, Van Dyke never saw combat during World War II. After two years in the service, Van Dyke returned to Danville and opened an ad agency with a good friend. They went bankrupt a year later.

Toured Nightclub Scene

In 1947, Van Dyke hit the road with an old hometown buddy named Philip Erickson. Calling themselves "The Merry Mutes," the two put together a comedy–pantomime act and toured nightclubs from coast to coast. Their act revolved around miming routines to records by such greats as Bing Crosby, Buddy Clark and Doris Day.

Some audiences thought they were corny; others liked the act. Sometimes, they completely bombed. Speaking to C. Robert Jennings of Ladies' Home Journal, Van Dyke reminisced about a time "nobody laughed" when they appeared at a club called Slapsie Maxie's. "We opened with the dinner show and were fired before supper," Van Dyke recalled. "They even towed my car away. I found it in a field sunk to the hub caps in mud, spent the rest of the night getting it out."

During this time, Van Dyke was more focused on making money than on making a name for himself. He wanted to marry his high school sweetheart, Marjorie Willett, but was too poor to do so. While performing at a Los Angeles hotel, Van Dyke came across a radio program called Brideand Groom, which was broadcast from there. Van Dyke persuaded the producers to put him and his fiancée on the show and they were married in the hotel chapel in February 1948 while an estimated 15 million people listened in. "They gave us a two–week honeymoon, the rings, the whole works," he later recalled to Saturday Evening Post writer Joseph Bell. "We couldn't have afforded it for a couple of years any other way."

Making a living on the nightclub circuit was brutal, and Van Dyke and his partner had many ups and downs. In 1949, Van Dyke and his wife were living in a tiny cottage in Malibu, California. Money was tight because Van Dyke had not worked in a while. "Margie was pregnant," Van Dyke recalled to the Ladies' Home Journal. "She lost the baby. And she came home from the hospital to find we'd been evicted."


Got off to Bumpy Start on TV

Van Dyke and his show partner split in 1953, partly because Van Dyke needed more steady work to raise his family—he and his wife had two sons by then. They later had two daughters. Van Dyke spent the next several years working as a TV talk–show moderator in Atlanta and New Orleans. In the mid–1950s, Van Dyke's former Air Force buddy, Byron Paul, got him an audition at CBS–TV in Manhattan. CBS offered Van Dyke a contract and he spent the next several years bouncing around CBS programs, filling various spots.

Van Dyke subbed for Jack Paar and Garry Moore. In 1955, he became host of The Morning Show, which featured up–and–coming newsman Walter Cronkite. The CBS program continued to struggle after Van Dyke came aboard, and he was demoted to host of the Cartoon Show in 1956, introducing "Heckle and Jeckle" cartoons. Van Dyke eventually landed on NBC's Laugh Line and appeared on ABC in a bomb called Mother's Day. Van Dyke never seemed to click on any of the shows and told his wife he had better try acting.

Van Dyke appeared in a few area productions, then landed on Broadway, starring in the light, romantic musical Bye Bye Birdie from 1960–61. Van Dyke had found his niche. He was a hit onstage and earned a Tony Award for his performance. He also caught the eye of television scriptwriter Carl Reiner. At the time, Reiner was searching for a light–hearted comic to play himself in a TV pilot about a good–natured TV comedy writer named Rob Petrie. Reiner had originally written the show for himself and had starred in the initial pilot, though it failed. Reiner cast Van Dyke in the title role for another pilot and Van Dyke drew in Procter and Gamble as a sponsor after he did his famous drunk sketch.


Struck Gold with Self – Titled Show

The Dick Van Dyke Show hit the airwaves in 1961. "It was called that for lack of a better name," Van Dyke recalled to People magazine's Michael Lipton. "And because no one had ever heard of me, it almost buried us that first year." The show was actually canceled after the first year, but the producer talked CBS and Procter and Gamble into keeping it on the air. The show was pure middle–class comedy aimed at middle–class audiences—there was always marital mischief going on between Van Dyke and TV wife Mary Tyler Moore. Soon, hordes of people were watching.

Van Dyke was so richly talented in acting out his character's foibles that fans never tired of the old ottoman act. Viewers tuned in every week to see if Van Dyke would trip or side–step the ottoman in the lounge. Reiner credited Van Dyke's versatility for the show's success. Speaking to Ladies' Home Journal writer Jennings, Reiner put it this way: "Dick can play lover and fall funny into a barrel of cement too." In one episode, Van Dyke's character secluded himself in a mountain cabin hoping to write. Instead, he developed writer's block, which Van Dyke portrayed in comic hilarity. Using his unparalleled pantomime skills, Van Dyke acted out 35 variations of wasting time.

The show also broke new television ground. Though Van Dyke and his TV wife were still shown sleeping in separate beds—as was the norm at the time—their physical relationship was eluded to and even shown at times. The show proved wildly popular and in the mid–1960s, Van Dyke pulled in 1,000 fan letters a week. Van Dyke also earned three Emmys for the show. The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air in 1966 after just five seasons and 158 episodes. Reiner quit while he was ahead, fearing the show might get stale.

Entertainer Rose Marie appeared on the show, too. In her memoir, Hold the Roses, she spoke of her days on The Dick Van Dyke Show as some of her fondest. "Dick is a dream to work with. In the five years we were on the show, I never heard him say, 'No, I won't do that.' I never saw him lose his temper or get angry."

Though best–known for his television work, Van Dyke also starred in several movies—some great successes; some utter failures. He was a sensation as Bert, the joyful chimney sweep, in the 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins. He starred alongside Julie Andrews as the two frolicked with cartoon penguins, sheep and ponies, much to moviegoers' delight. In 1968, Van Dyke scored with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, another children's classic.

Around 1970, the Van Dykes left the high–paced Hollywood life and relocated to a 180–acre ranch in the desert town of Cave Creek, Arizona. Van Dyke discovered a new studio in the area, which had been built to attract the motion picture industry. CBS had been urging Van Dyke to come up with a new series. He agreed to do one if it could be filmed at the new studio near his Arizona home. Van Dyke was eager to give his fans something new. The old show was still popular and continued running in syndication. By the early 1970s, some episodes had already been shown 100 times.

Van Dyke brought back his old pal Reiner to help write the series, which was called The New Dick Van Dyke Show. There were some changes, however. In this series, Van Dyke played talk–show host Dick Preston. Moore, his former brunette TV wife, was replaced by the blond–headed Hope Lange. Speaking to Life magazine, Van Dyke fretted about the changes shortly before the first episode aired in 1971. "If I'm worried about anything, it's getting people to accept me with another wife. Everyone was so sure I was married to Mary Tyler Moore that I could hardly check into a hotel with my real wife."

Viewers accepted the changes and the show was rated among the top 15 that first year. It soon faltered, however, and Van Dyke came to realize that he could not get the help he needed out in Arizona. No one wanted to work there. The technical crew was flown in from Hollywood each week. The show was halted after 1974.


Moved Through Alcoholism, Divorce

During the early 1970s, Van Dyke battled alcoholism. Speaking to the Saturday Evening Post, Van Dyke recalled that he and his wife one day realized that their social drinking had gotten out of hand. "I was proud of the fact that I could hold my liquor pretty well, and I think both Marge and I were on the verge of going into heavier, compulsive drinking where it becomes a necessity rather than a form of relaxation, and we got worried." Van Dyke spoke with people in recovery at Alcoholics Anonymous and realized his lack of energy and concentration, as well as his dip in sense of well–being, were being caused by his drinking. So he quit. "I had a kind of withdrawal period where it was hard to get to sleep at night," he told the Post, "but the difference was startling."

For Van Dyke, the 1970s were filled with ups and downs. He re–appeared on television in 1976, earning an Emmy nomination for best writing in a comedy–variety or music series for his work on Van Dyke and Company. In 1977, Van Dyke joined The Carol Burnett Show, but lasted only 12 weeks as Harvey Korman's replacement. Between TV appearances, he found time to write, publishing three books, Altar Egos, Faith, Hope and Hilarity and Those Funny Kids, between 1967 and 1975.

By the early 1980s, Van Dyke's marriage was over. "It just ran out of gas somehow," he told People magazine. "To this day I don't have a clue why." He later started a relationship with his agent's secretary, Michelle Triola Marvin. By the mid–1980s, they were living together.

In the 1980s, Van Dyke's face continued to be a staple on the television screen. The Van Dyke Show aired in 1988. He also appeared in several made–for–TV movies, including Drop–Out Father, 1982; Found Money, 1983; and Ghost of a Chance, 1987.

In the 1990s, Van Dyke began his fifth decade in television. In 1991, he played crime–solving physician Mark Sloan on the CBS show Jake and the Fat Man. The role was reprised in 1992 for a TV movie called Diagnosis Murder. It became a television show and Van Dyke starred alongside his son, Barry Van Dyke, in the series, which ran from 1993–2002. Van Dyke was in his 70s, but could still draw a crowd. The show consistently ranked among the top 30. In 2004, Van Dyke became Rob Petrie again for a television special, The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited, which brought together the original cast. As the 21st century began, The Dick Van Dyke Show continued its run on the television channel Nick at Nite, a testament to its classic timelessness.


Books

Marie, Rose, Hold the Roses, University Press of Kentucky, 2002.


Periodicals

Ladies' Home Journal, October 1963; September 1977.

Life, September 17, 1971.

Look, April 18, 1967.

People, December 14, 1998.

Saturday Evening Post, March/April 1973.


Online

"Fact Sheet: Dick Van Dyke," E! Online,www.eonline.com/Facts/People/Bio/0,128,16036,00.html (December 11, 2004).