Monday, April 20, 2015
The Career of Comedy Legend Dick Van Dyke
Recently I read Dick Van Dyke's autobiography "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business". He turns 90 this year and he has had quite an amazing career as an actor, singer and dancer.
He narrated the audio version of his book and I was struck by the fact that he is an introspective man who is religious and cerebral. He often has questioned the meaning of life throughout his journey here on earth. He has had times where he went through an identity crisis, wondering about what he should do with his life. He has considered other careers but ultimately returned to his love of performing.
Early in his career he took jobs as a radio announcer and also worked in local TV in Atlanta and New Orleans.
His pivotal role came in 1961, when Carl Reiner cast him as the lead role in a sitcom he created. He beat out Johnny Carson for the role of Rob Petrie on what later became The Dick Van Dyke Show. Reiner saw Van Dyke in a Broadway performance of Bye Bye Birdie. Reiner had worked with Sid Caesar on the groundbreaking comedy program Your Show of Shows. The Dick Van Dyke show aired from 1961-1966 on CBS. 158 episodes aired in total over the 5 seasons. Van Dyke played Rob Petrie, a comedy TV writer. His wife was played by Mary Tyler Moore. In the book, Van Dyke talked with pride about their collaboration. The show also starred Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie. The show remains timeless and still has a following to this day. No pop culture or political references ensured that the show could stand the test of time. Garry Marshall wrote for many episodes and later he created Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Van Dyke spoke fondly of his co-star Morey Amsterdam. He had a background in Vaudeville and he actually worked in a Chicago speak easy owned by mobster Al Capone. Amsterdam was a brilliant comic who had a joke for every situation. He was also a musician who wrote words for the theme song for the Dick Van Dyke show. Amsterdam was a financial wiz who was always studying the stock quotes when not working on the show. After the first season, the Dick Van Dyke show was almost cancelled. It was consistently being beat in the ratings by the Perry Como show. After 5 seasons, Van Dyke wanted to continue the show. But, Reiner wanted to go out on top, fearing that the show may get stale.
As a physical comedian, Van Dyke idolized his predecessors such as Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. He was honored to perform the eulogies at the funerals of Laurel and Keaton in the 1960s.
Van Dyke met with Walt Disney to discuss doing the film Mary Poppins (1964). He was enthralled by the story and the music. Working with Julie Andrews was amazing and the film was a watershed moment in his life. "I thought Walt Disney hired me because I was such a great singer and dancer. As it turns out, he had heard me in an interview talking about what was happening to family entertainment. I was decrying the fact that it seemed like no holds were barred anymore in entertainment . . . That's why he called me in, because I said something he agreed with. And I got the part".
In the 1970s he entered rehab for an addiction to alcohol. He also had to give up cigarettes due to signs of emphysema. He teamed up with the legendary Carol Burnett on her show and they did a play together.
In 1993 he appeared in an episode of the ABC sitcom Coach, which featured his brother Jerry Van Dyke.
From 1993-2002, he starred in the crime/mystery drama Diagnosis Murder as Dr. Mark Sloan. It co-starred Victoria Rowell, his son Barry Van Dyke, and Charlie Schlatter. He felt strongly that the show needed to be a wholesome program, with no overt sex or violence. people tried to re-tool the show and make it more "hip" but this angered Van Dyke. In his 70s, Van Dyke was the computer graphics specialist for the show.
In 2004 at age 79, there was a final reunion version of the Dick Van Dyke show. It was a curtain call for the cast.
At age 80, Van Dyke was a cast member in the film A Night at the Museum with Ben Stiller.
Spanning a career that has lasted over 5 decades, Van Dyke is still working. He has become a fan of barbershop style singing and regularly performs this style of music.
* Information from imdb.com and the book "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business" by Dick Van Dyke.