At 95, Dick Van Dyke is still the consummate showman and desperate to get back onstage
It's springtime in Los Angeles — the second spring of the COVID-19 pandemic — and Dick Van Dyke, bearded, vaccinated and finished with his morning workout, admits he's antsy. His last singing gig took place on a Saturday night 15 months ago at the Catalina Jazz Club. He packed the house. They even had to cram in extra tables as Van Dyke, backed by horns, a rhythm section and his Vantastix singers, slid through a set that included Fats Waller, Nat King Cole and the title song from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."
"Oh, God, I knew I liked it, but I didn't know how much I would miss it," he says of performing. "I really miss getting up in front of an audience."
The star of one of television's most revolutionary shows is 95. He's slowed down slightly in recent years — nagging arthritis and a gait abnormality known as drop foot force him to think before he skips — but compared with most everyone else, Van Dyke remains a step ahead. At home on this morning, he and his second wife, Arlene, 49, have already moved through sit-ups, stretches and the stationary bike.
Bathed in the Malibu sun, Van Dyke talks about a career that's stretched from the Truman administration and the sitcom revolution of the 1960s to his reinvention as a mustachioed, homicide-investigating doctor before coming full circle with that shiver-inducing leap onto a desk in the 2018 "Mary Poppins" sequel. And Van Dyke can't get far without praising his late friend Carl Reiner, the man who hired him in 1961 to put on that crisp suit so he could report to work as television writer Rob Petrie in "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
"I got the best damn comedy writing in the world," he says. "And then Walt (Disney) called me about 'Mary Poppins.'"
There are many who would say Van Dyke's upcoming Kennedy Center honor is long overdue. Not the recipient. He will often describe his success as a product of coincidence and chance. He even titled his 2012 memoir "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business." So Van Dyke remains awed by the honor. ("The Kennedy Center Honors" will air at 8 p.m. June 6 on CBS.)
"I'm trying to piece that together," he says. "How in the hell did I get to where I am? How did I get to a Kennedy award? You know, I never trained or did anything. I just enjoyed myself."
Just enjoyed myself. That's the Van Dyke mantra. The notion that simply by laughing, singing or falling over an ottoman — his trademark move in the original "Dick Van Dyke Show" opening — the energy can pass through any screen, big or small, to generate a smile.
"He makes people happy," says Chita Rivera, a friend since they co-starred on Broadway in "Bye Bye Birdie" in 1960. "His job in this life is to make a happier world."
"He sets off endorphins," says comedian Jim Carrey, who started watching Van Dyke as a boy in Canada and has incorporated some of his physical bits into his work. "If you can live a life and your name sets off endorphins, and people feel generally better when they hear your name than they did before they hear your name, that's amazing."
There was no plan. There was no backup plan. There was only a poor kid from Illinois who never took a dance lesson, dropped out of high school and, after a decade of bouncing between radio and television gigs, had the good fortune of being handed scripts that were so sharp a club sandwich could have delivered the punchlines. Except that last part is a lie. Words on a page don't come to life on their own. Reiner called Van Dyke the "most gifted performer I ever worked with" for a reason. The star could play a suburban husband, a frazzled employee or a gregarious party host without changing his tie. He had elastic limbs, perfect timing and the looks of a leading man.
"There's a little Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy, in him. A little Cary Grant in him. A little Astaire," says Norman Lear, the "All in the Family" creator. "I can't think of another Dick Van Dyke."
- - -
Van Dyke's show business career began in 1944, when he dropped out of high school in his senior year and joined the Army Air Forces, working as an entertainer. After World War II, he got a job as a radio announcer and, with a buddy, did a nightclub act that took them to California. That led to a series of small gigs until Van Dyke bounced from Atlanta to New York, even hosting a talk show for a short time. It was at that last stop that Van Dyke walked into an audition for a new musical being directed by veteran dancer and actor Gower Champion. The show, "Bye Bye Birdie," was inspired by Elvis Presley and his time in the Army.
Reiner came to see the show one night and discovered the star for his sitcom. Reiner had developed "Head of the Family," based on his experience on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows." In the pilot, he played the lead. But the network wasn't happy, and Reiner cast Van Dyke to replace himself. He renamed the show and brought in newcomer Mary Tyler Moore to play Rob's wife, Laura.
There were other married men on TV and there were other young couples, but the Petries were not like them.
"You didn't know what Robert Young did for a living," says director Rob Reiner, Carl's son. "You heard that Ozzie was a bandleader, but you never saw him do it. This showed the work life. And also there was a sexuality between Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore that didn't exist in the shows that preceded it."
"The Dick Van Dyke Show" would run for 158 episodes and five seasons. Two years into it, Disney cast Van Dyke as Bert, the chimney sweep in "Mary Poppins." His attempt at a cockney accent would be mocked by many — he would later joke that it was the "most atrocious in the history of cinema" — but Van Dyke's charm overcame everything. Julie Andrews, the film's star, still remembers the first day in rehearsals, when Van Dyke took her arm and they began to perform "Jolly Holiday."
"He began that huge, leggy step that he does," says Andrews. "His legs are like, what are they like, jelly sticks? I don't know. They bend in all ways."
Van Dyke lobbied Walt Disney to also let him play Mr. Dawes, the stooped, humorless bank boss. Disney resisted. He told Van Dyke he would have to audition for the role. So he did. Then he told Van Dyke he would not be paid extra for the part. In fact, if he wanted to be Mr. Dawes, the actor would have to contribute $4,000 to Disney's campaign to fund the California Institute of the Arts. Van Dyke took out his checkbook.
- - -
Out here in Malibu, in the modest, single-story home he bought from actress Margot Kidder in 1986, Van Dyke has a life-size, silicone Bert in "Jolly Holiday" colors next to the piano and a few keepsakes on display, including a photograph of President Barack Obama adjusting his bow tie during a 2011 event honoring South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
On the patio out back, Arlene Van Dyke, a makeup artist who married Van Dyke in 2012, has done her best to assemble sitting areas so that people can visit during the pandemic. Her husband needs that company. He finds it hard to be isolated.
In 2009, Van Dyke's partner of 30 years, the actress Michelle Triola, died of lung cancer at 76. He'd met Arlene at a Screen Actors Guild event, where she was working.
"I was talking to Cate Blanchett," he says. "And I saw her go by and I said, 'Excuse me,' and went right over. And then I said, 'Hi, I'm Dick.' That's the only time in my life I ever introduced myself to a strange woman."
He had watched his friends, Reiner and Mel Brooks, adapt after losing their wives. He doesn't know how they did it.
"I can't be alone," he says. "I couldn't be a bachelor if my life depended on it. I have to have a partner and I found the perfect one."
"Put on a Happy Face" isn't just Van Dyke's signature anthem from "Bye Bye Birdie." It's also how he lives, whether onstage or leading an impromptu sing-along of "A Spoonful of Sugar" after getting his vaccine shot.
- - -
A Van Dyke variety show, launched in 1976, lasted only a year. So did a sitcom, "The Van Dyke Show," he did in 1988 with his son, Barry. Then, in 1991, he played Dr. Mark Sloan in a guest spot on the CBS series "Jake and the Fatman." That led to "Diagnosis: Murder," a series that lasted from 1993 until 2001.
"It was just the greatest run for me," Van Dyke says. "I enjoyed every minute of that. I've seldom done anything that I didn't like. And I found out if I don't like what I'm doing, I'm no good."
Van Dyke gets excited when he's asked about performing again. He would like to be up there as soon as he can.
It might not be easy to get the Vantastix, his singing group, rolling right away. His baritone moved to Oregon. But Van Dyke has been mulling another idea.
"I've got an hour and a half put together like a one-man show," he says. "Gregory Peck went out and did it, and Cary Grant did it. Just sit in a chair to have a little footage to show and talk about their lives."
Van Dyke, still in his gray exercise sweatpants and purple shirt, pauses as he considers being in front of an audience again.
"I've got so much material."