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Van Dyke, Richard Wayne ("Dick")

VAN DYKE, Richard Wayne ("Dick")

(b. 13 December 1925 in West Plains, Missouri), entertainer in television, film, and theater, known for his versatility and individual style as an actor, physical comedian, and song-and-dance man.

Van Dyke was one of two children born to Loren "Cookie" Van Dyke, a truck dispatcher, and Hazel Van Dyke. His brother, Jerry, later became a well-known actor. Van Dyke grew up in Danville, Illinois, and attended public schools. In 1944 he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, intending to become a pilot. But at six-feet, one-inch tall and weighing just 147 pounds, the gangly teenager was ruled under-weight for flight school and served out his time on a ground crew. While he was in the service, he won a job as an announcer on Flight Time, an armed forces radio program. Byron Paul, a fellow GI, saw potential in the performer and encouraged him to become a professional entertainer. Paul would become Van Dyke's personal manager.

Van Dyke returned to Danville in 1946 and went into the advertising business with a childhood friend, hoping to use his army radio experience to write, produce, and perform broadcast commercials. When the business failed in less than a year, he went on the road with Philip Erickson, another Danville friend, in a comedy pantomime act known as the Merry Mutes. Eventually, they obtained cross-country bookings. Van Dyke married Marjorie Willett in 1948. The couple had four children and divorced in 1984. Since that time his companion has been Michelle Triola Marvin.

In 1953 Van Dyke found his way into television as a local program host in Atlanta. A hit with his largely female afternoon audience, he was courted away by a New Orleans station in 1955 and less than a year after that by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television network, with whom he signed an exclusive seven-year contract. His early network assignments in New York included hosting duties on CBS Cartoon Theater and the Morning Show. But when network executives decided they could make better use of him in prime time, Van Dyke balked and was released from his contract in 1958. "I want to stay with the housewives," he told a reporter. "I can't think of a more delightful way to make a living."

Once free of the CBS contract, Van Dyke moved his career along on several fronts at once. To hold on to his daytime audience, he made a deal with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) to host both a television game show and a daily radio series. Meanwhile, he expanded his audience by making multiple appearances in prime time, including the Ed Sullivan Show, where he performed his song-and-dance and pantomime comedy routines, and Sgt. Bilko, where he got his first exposure as a comic actor. He took roles in several dramas as well.

If all this were not enough, Van Dyke captured a part in a 1959 Broadway musical revue, The Boys Against the Girls. The show was a flop, but Van Dyke won positive notices from several critics, including Kenneth Tynan of the New Yorker, who lauded him for giving "color to an otherwise drab production." Within a year the mostly self-trained actor, singer, and dancer had a starring role in the hit Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie. His performance as a small-time promoter out to exploit a rock-and-roll teen idol won him the Tony Award for best actor in 1961, and he went on to play the part in the Hollywood film adaptation.

Van Dyke now had his pick of offers for stage, screen, and television projects. Confident that he was ready for the big time, he dropped his other commitments and focused on what in the early 1960s had become the great brass ring for a hot young performer: a television series. He auditioned for the role of Rob Petrie in a situation comedy then titled Head of the Family, which concerned a New York comedy writer who commutes between a serene suburban family life in New Rochelle, New York, and the frenetic show-business world of midtown Manhattan. Carl Reiner, the show's creator-producer, originally had written the lead role for himself and performed it in a pilot episode. Advised by the veteran producer Sheldon Leonard that the show might stand a better chance of reaching prime time if it were recast with a less "ethnic" (that is, less Jewish) and more "mainstream" (that is, more WASPish) male lead, Reiner held auditions to replace himself. Van Dyke won the role over another up-and-coming performer, Johnny Carson, and with his star rising he negotiated title billing and a partnership in the show's production company.

The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on CBS in the fall of 1961. Because the show devoted few of its story lines to the parent-child morality tales that otherwise dominated the genre, its treatment of home and work relationships seemed mature by contrast. As a "backstage" comedy about the writers of a mythical television variety show, the show supplied setups for Van Dyke and the cast to present musical numbers and comedy routines, something that the genre had not seen since the heyday of I Love Lucy. At a time when popular situation comedies were often idyllic tales of 1950s suburban family life (for example, Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver), the Van Dyke show effected a distinct Kennedy-era look, with Rob, the youngest of the comedy writers, as head of the team, and his beautiful wife, Laura (played by Mary Tyler Moore), sporting an unmistakable "Jackie" (Kennedy) hairdo. During the show's five-year run, Van Dyke won three Emmy Awards, and the show took "outstanding comedy series" honors four times. In the spring of 1966, however, CBS, the last of the networks to air black-and-white programs, decreed that all shows, new and returning, must be in color for their September premieres. With Van Dyke and Moore both eager to move on to other projects, the producers chose to call it quits rather than gear up for color production.

While appearing in what many were calling the only "adult sitcom" on television during the 1960s, Van Dyke simultaneously emerged as one of the decade's great stars of family-oriented and children's movies. He appeared in featured or starring roles in such international hits as Mary Poppins (1964), Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (1966), Fitzwilly (1967), and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), displaying his considerable talents as a mime and a song-and-dance artist. His other film efforts, including The Comic (1969), which was based loosely on the life of the entertainer Buster Keaton, were less successful at the box office.

Van Dyke continued to be a popular figure on television during the 1970s, appearing in a new situation comedy as well as in comedy-variety and dramatic programs. He admitted to being plagued by alcoholism problems and cut down his frantic work schedule toward the end of the decade. In 1993 he surprised both critics and audiences with a new dramatic series, Diagnosis Murder, in which he played a murder-sleuthing medical doctor. The show, which ran for a decade, was heavily weighted with baby boomers, who have remained loyal Van Dyke fans since childhood.

There are two fan books devoted to Van Dyke's "classic" 1960s sitcom, both of which contain a surfeit of biographical material and trivia: Vince Waldron, The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book: The Definitive History and Ultimate Viewer's Guide to Television's Most Enduring Comedy (1994), and Ginny Weissman and Coyne Steven Sanders, The Dick Van Dyke Show (rev. ed., 1993). Biographical articles appear in Newcomb's Encyclopedia of Television and Current Biography (1963). An interview with the performer was audiotaped in 1980 as part of the Encyclopedia Americana/CBS News Audio Resource Library.

David Marc

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