Dick Van Dyke is best known as an actor, singer and dancer who made it big in the 1960s over the brief span of years in which he starred in the stage and movie versions of Bye Bye Birdie, TV’s classic The Dick Van Dyke Show and the Disney favorite Mary Poppins.
Even when the West Plains, Missouri-born entertainer took on serious parts later in his career, he always appeared engaging, charismatic and wholesome in an All-American sort of way.
As evidenced in his autobiography, Dick Van Dyke: My Lucky Life In and Out Of Show Business, the real Dick Van Dyke and his big and little screen persona are not too different. As he reflects on his life in entertainment and as the father of four through a series of funny and bittersweet anecdotes, one gets the sense he’s a decent guy, the sort of person you can hang out with and shoot the breeze over a couple of beers.
But wait. There will be no brews for him, because in the book, Van Dyke admits his long-time struggle with alcoholism. He speaks candidly about his years of trying to quit his one-to-two pack-a-day smoking habit. And he frankly admits to an adulterous affair, dumping longtime wife Margie for Michelle Triola, the woman who famously sued ex-boyfriend Lee Marvin for “palimony” in 1977.
Despite the secrets revealed—including the fact he was born out of wedlock, a potential scandal in 1925 Middle America—Van Dyke still comes through as a mensch. All of the aforementioned faults he attempts to correct, quitting smoking, drying out in rehab and trying to smooth things over amicably with his wife after he has fallen for another woman. For some celebrities, one may think the subject’s efforts are nothing but a slick spin job, but in Dick Van Dyke: My Lucky Life In and Out Of Show Business, Van Dyke seems like the real deal, ready, willing and able to pull back the curtain on his life.
Breezily written, the book delves into Van Dyke’s childhood, follows him into World War II, then chronicles his years in advertising which led to performing live and on radio in and around the country, solo and with others. He made a huge splash on Broadway in 1960 in Bye Bye Birdie as songwriter/agent (and chemist in the latter film version) Albert Peterson, manager of hip-swiveling teen sensation Conrad Birdie, who has been drafted into the Army ala Elvis Presley. Van Dyke copped a Tony Award (along with the play for Best Musical) and jumped ship to star in The Dick Van Dyke Show for writer-creator Carl Reiner and producer Sheldon Leonard.
Reiner, who penned the book’s forward, is regularly cited as a mentor and a genius. After all, it was his tireless efforts and creative fervor that led to the beloved show. Van Dyke’s physical and verbal dexterity as Rob Petrie, lead writer for The Alan Brady Show, coupled with sharp, sophisticated writing and a dream cast that included Mary Tyler Moore as his Capri slacks-wearing wife Laura, Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie as the star’s jokesapoppin’ writing associates, deadpan Richard Deacon as the show’s producer and Reiner as the egotistical Brady himself.
Additionally, the series showcased the fresh tandem of Van Dyke and Moore (only 24 when the show started) as a charismatic, believable married couple who were truly in love. In fact, their portrayals were so convincing, people actually believed they were a couple in real life.
It took a while, but The Dick Van Dyke Show became a critical and ratings darling for CBS, winning fifteen Emmy Awards (including three for Van Dyke) during its run from 1961 to 1966. Originally entitled Head of the Family with Reiner in the lead, the show cast Van Dyke as the New Rochelle, NY-based head comedy writer for a network variety show, based on Reiner’s experiences working with Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows.
Van Dyke recounts the good times, camaraderie and creative squabbles throughout the show’s run with affection. He also cites the frustration of trying to find the magic to duplicate the show’s success throughout the rest of his career, noting that he and Reiner left the show while it was still doing well, even though the network wanted them to continue.
It’s no surprise that The Dick Van Dyke Show gets lots of attention in Dick Van Dyke: My Lucky Life In And Out of Show Business. In fact, the author could have probably written a book based on the show alone. But Van Dyke touches on practically all of his other credits as well.
Of course, there’s Mary Poppins, Disney’s smash released in 1964, of which Van Dyke lovingly recalls working with Julie Andrews, Walt Disney and the composers Sherman Brothers. Other positive experiences in the book include Van Dyke’s acting with Shirley MacLaine in What a Way to Go! (co-star Dean Martin was sloshed throughout and dating Ursula Andress at the time), working with Norman Lear on Cold Turkey, being appreciated by a younger generation in A Night at the Museum, and starring in several TV projects, including the long-running Diagnosis Murder in his seventies with his son Barry. Not so fond reminiscences are culled from his experiences on Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (he wasn’t fond of producer Cubby Broccoli or director Ken Hughes), Lt. Robinson Crusoe (he loved his simian co-star, but was grief-stricken by how cruelly it was treated off-camera), a brief stint on The Carol Burnett Show, a short-lived Broadway revival of The Music Man (critics deemed him as too nice for the part of Harold Hill) and uncomfortable working situations with Jackie Gleason, Redd Foxx and Faye Dunaway.
The book continually takes detours from show biz, dipping poignantly into Van Dyke’s personal life, honestly depicting his struggles and addictions.
Witnessing Van Dyke at his best—singing “Put on a Happy Face” in Bye Bye Birdie, dancing joyously with a group of chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins or tripping over the ottoman in the opening credits of The Dick Van Dyke Show—it’s easy to understand why.
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