Life and Career
Dick Van Dyke was born on December 13, 1925, in West Plains, Missouri, to Hazel Victoria (née McCord), a stenographer, and Loren Wayne Van Dyke, a salesman. He grew up in Danville, Illinois. He is the older brother of actor Jerry Van Dyke, who is best known for a role on the TV series Coach. Van Dyke’s grandson, Shane Van Dyke, is also an actor and directed Titanic II. Van Dyke has Dutch and English ancestry, with a family line that traces back to Mayflower passenger John Alden.
Among his high school classmates in Danville were Donald O’Connor and Bobby Short, both of whom would go on to successful careers as entertainers. One of Van Dyke’s closest friends was a cousin of Gene Hackman, the future Oscar-winning actor, who also lived in Danville in those years. Van Dyke’s mother’s family was very religious, and for a brief period in his youth he considered a career in ministry, although a drama class in high school convinced him that his true calling was as a professional entertainer. In his autobiography he wrote, “I suppose that I never completely gave up my childhood idea of being a minister. Only the medium and the message changed. I have still endeavored to touch people’s souls, to raise their spirits and put smiles on their faces”. Even after the launch of his career as an entertainer, he taught Sunday school in the Presbyterian Church, where he was an elder, and he continued to read such theologians as Buber, Tillich, and Bonhoeffer, who he has said helped explain in practical terms the relevance of religion in everyday life.
During World War II, Van Dyke enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps where he became a radio announcer, later transferring to the Special Services entertaining troops in the Continental United States. In 1948, while he was appearing at the Chapman Park Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, he and the former Margerie Willett were married on the radio show Bride and Groom. They had four children: Christian (Chris), Barry, Carrie Beth, and Stacy. They divorced in 1984 after a long separation. He lived with longtime companion Michelle Triola for more than 30 years, until her death in 2009. Van Dyke’s son Barry Van Dyke and grandsons Shane Van Dyke and Carey Van Dyke are also actors; these two grandsons, along with other Van Dyke grandchildren and relatives, appeared in various episodes of the long-running series Diagnosis: Murder. Although Stacey Van Dyke was not famous in show business, she did make an appearance in a Christmas episode “Murder in the Family” of Diagnosis: Murder (Season 4, Episode 12) as Carol Sloan Hilton, the estranged daughter of Doctor Mark Sloan. All of Van Dyke’s children are married and he has seven grandchildren. His son Chris was district attorney for Marion County, Oregon in the 1980s. In 1987, Van Dyke’s granddaughter Jessica Van Dyke died from Reye’s syndrome, which led him to do a series of television commercials to raise public awareness of the danger of aspirin to children.
On February 29, 2012, Van Dyke married make-up artist Arlene Silver, 40. They had met six years earlier at the SAG awards.
In April 2013, Van Dyke revealed that for seven years he had been experiencing symptoms of a neurological disorder, in which he felt a pounding in his head whenever he lay down; but despite his undergoing tests, no diagnosis had been made. He had had to cancel scheduled appearances due to fatigue from lack of sleep because of the medical condition. In May 2013, he tweeted that it seemed his titanium dental implants may be responsible.
On August 19, 2013, it was reported that the 87-year-old Van Dyke was rescued from his Jaguar by a passerby after the car had caught fire on a Los Angeles-area highway. He was not injured in the fire, although the car burned down to its frame.
Radio and stage career
During the late 1940s, Van Dyke was a radio DJ in Danville, Illinois. In 1947, Van Dyke was persuaded by Phil Erickson to form a comedy duo with him called “Eric and Van—the Merry Mutes.” The team toured the West Coast nightclub circuit, performing a mime act and lip synching to old 78 records. They brought their act to Atlanta, Georgia, in the early 1950s and performed a local television show featuring original skits and music called “The Merry Mutes”.
In November 1959, Van Dyke made his Broadway debut in The Girls Against the Boys. He then played the lead role of Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie, which ran from April 14, 1960 to Oct 7, 1961. In a May 2011 interview with Rachael Ray, Van Dyke noted that when he auditioned for a smaller part in the show he had no dance experience, and that after he sang his audition song he did an impromptu soft-shoe out of sheer nervousness. Gower Champion, the show’s director and choreographer, was watching, and promptly went up on stage to inform Van Dyke he had the lead. An astonished Van Dyke protested that he could not dance, to which Champion replied “We’ll teach you”. That musical won four Tony awards including Van Dyke’s Best Featured Actor Tony, in 1961. In 1980, Van Dyke appeared as the title role in the first Broadway revival of The Music Man.
Dick Van Dyke’s start in television was with WDSU-TV New Orleans Channel 6 (NBC), first as a single comedian and later as emcee of a comedy program. Van Dyke’s first network TV appearance was with Dennis James on James’ Chance of a Lifetime in 1954. He later appeared in two episodes of The Phil Silvers Show during its 1957–58 season. He also appeared early in his career on ABC’s The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom and NBC’s The Polly Bergen Show. During this time a friend from the Army was working as an executive for CBS television and recommended Van Dyke to that network. Out of this came a seven-year contract with the network. During an interview on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! program, Van Dyke said he was the anchorman for the CBS morning show during this period with Walter Cronkite as his newsman.
From 1961 to 1966, Van Dyke starred in the CBS sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which he portrayed a comedy writer named Rob Petrie. Originally the show was supposed to have Carl Reiner as the lead but CBS insisted on recasting and Reiner chose Van Dyke to replace him in the role. Complementing Van Dyke was a veteran cast of comic actors including Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, Jerry Paris, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Richard Deacon, and Carl Reiner (as Alan Brady), as well as television newcomer Mary Tyler Moore, who played Rob’s wife, Laura Petrie. Van Dyke won three Emmy Awards as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, and the series received four Emmy Awards as Outstanding Comedy Series.
From 1971 to 1974, Van Dyke starred in an unrelated sitcom called The New Dick Van Dyke Show in which he starred as a local television talk show host. He received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance but the show was less successful than its predecessor, and Van Dyke pulled the plug on the show after just three seasons. In 1973, Van Dyke voiced his animated likeness for the October 27, 1973 installment of Hanna-Barbera’s The New Scooby-Doo Movies, “Scooby-Doo Meets Dick Van Dyke,” the series’ final first-run episode. The following year, he received an Emmy Award nomination for his role as an alcoholic businessman in the television movie The Morning After (1974). Van Dyke revealed after its release that he had recently overcome a real-life drinking problem. He admits he was an alcoholic for 25 years. That same year he guest-starred as a murdering photographer on an episode of Columbo, Negative Reaction. Van Dyke returned to comedy in 1976 with the sketch comedy show Van Dyke and Company, which co-starred Andy Kaufman and Super Dave Osborne. Despite being canceled after three months, the show won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy-Variety Series. After a few guest appearances on the long-running comedy-variety series The Carol Burnett Show, Van Dyke became a regular on the show, in the fall of 1977. However, he only appeared in half of the episodes of the final season. For the next decade he appeared mostly in TV movies. One atypical role was as a murdering judge on the second episode of the TV series Matlock in 1986 starring Andy Griffith. In 1987, he guest-starred in an episode of Airwolf, with his son Barry Van Dyke, who was the lead star of the show’s fourth and final season on USA Network. In 1989, he guest-starred on the NBC comedy series The Golden Girls portraying a lover of Beatrice Arthur’s character. This role earned him his first Emmy Award nomination since 1977.
His film work affected his TV career: the reviews he received for his role as D.A. Fletcher in Dick Tracy led him to star as the character Dr. Mark Sloan first in an episode of Jake and the Fatman, then in a series of TV movies on CBS that became the foundation for his popular television drama Diagnosis: Murder. The series ran from 1993 to 2001 with son Barry Van Dyke co-starring in the role of Dr. Sloan’s son Lieutenant Detective Steve Sloan. Also starring on the same show was a familiar daytime soap actress, Victoria Rowell, as Dr. Sloan’s pathologist/medical partner, Dr. Amanda Bentley, and an unfamiliar character actor and lifelong Van Dyke fan, Charlie Schlatter, in the role of Dr. Sloan’s handsome, resident student, Dr. Jesse Travis. Van Dyke continued to find television work after the show ended, including a dramatically and critically successful performance of The Gin Game, produced for television in 2003 that reunited him with Mary Tyler Moore. In 2003, he portrayed a doctor on Scrubs. A 2004 special of The Dick Van Dyke Show titled The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited was heavily promoted as the first new episode of the classic series to be shown in 38 years. Van Dyke and his surviving cast members recreated their roles; the program was roundly panned by critics. In 2006 he guest-starred as college professor Dr. Jonathan Maxwell for a series of Murder 101 mystery films on the Hallmark Channel.
Van Dyke began his film career by playing the role of Albert J. Peterson in the film version of Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Despite his unhappiness with the adaptation—its focus differed from the stage version in that the story now centered on a previously supporting character—the film was a success. That same year, Van Dyke was cast in two roles: as the chimney sweep Bert, and as bank chairman Mr. Dawes Senior, in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). For his scenes as the chairman, he was heavily costumed to look much older, and was credited in that role as “Nackvid Keyd” (at the end of the credits, the letters unscramble into “Dick Van Dyke”). Van Dyke’s attempt at a cockney accent has been decried as one of the worst accents in film history, cited by actors since as an example of how not to sound. In a 2003 poll by Empire magazine of the worst-ever accents in film, he came in second. According to Van Dyke, his accent coach was Irish, who “didn’t do an accent any better than I did”, and that no one alerted him how bad it was during the production. Still, Mary Poppins was successful upon release and its enduring appeal has made it one of the most famous films of all time. “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, one of the songs that Van Dyke performed in Mary Poppins, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the Sherman Brothers, the film’s songwriting duo.
Many of the comedy films Van Dyke starred in throughout the 1960s were relatively unsuccessful at the box office, including What a Way to Go!, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., Fitzwilly, The Art of Love, Some Kind of a Nut, Never a Dull Moment, and Divorce American Style. But he also starred (with his native accent, despite the English setting) as Caractacus Pott in the successful musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), which co-starred Sally Ann Howes and featured the same songwriters (The Sherman Brothers) and choreographers (Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood) as Mary Poppins.
In 1969, Van Dyke appeared in the comedy-drama The Comic, written and directed by Carl Reiner. Van Dyke portrayed a self-destructive silent-film era comedian who struggles with alcoholism, depression, and his own rampant ego. Reiner wrote the film especially for Van Dyke, who often spoke of his admiration for silent-film era comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and his hero Stan Laurel. Twenty-one years later in 1990, Van Dyke, whose usual role had been the amiable hero, took a small but villainous turn as the crooked D.A. Fletcher in Warren Beatty’s film Dick Tracy. Van Dyke returned to motion pictures in 2006 with Curious George as Mr. Bloomsberry and as villain Cecil Fredericks in the Ben Stiller film Night at the Museum. He reprised the role in a cameo for the sequel, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009), but it was cut from the film. It can be found in the special features on the DVD release. He also played the character again in the third film, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014).
Van Dyke received a Grammy Award in 1964, along with Julie Andrews, for his performance on the soundtrack to Mary Poppins. In 1970, he published Faith, Hope and Hilarity: A Child’s Eye View of Religion a book of humorous anecdotes based largely on his experiences as a Sunday School teacher. Van Dyke was principal in “KXIV Inc.” and owned 1400 AM KXIV in Phoenix (later KSUN) from 1965 to 1985. KXIV was at one time an applicant for an FM station in the same area.
As an a cappella enthusiast, he has sung in a group called “Dick Van Dyke and The Vantastix” since September 2000. The quartet has performed several times in Los Angeles as well as on Larry King Live, The First Annual TV Land Awards, and sang the national anthem at three Los Angeles Lakers games including a nationally televised NBA Finals performance on NBC. Van Dyke was made an honorary member of the Barbershop Harmony Society in 1999.
Van Dyke became a computer animation enthusiast after purchasing a Commodore Amiga in 1991. He is credited with the creation of 3D-rendered effects used on Diagnosis: Murder and The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited. Van Dyke has displayed his computer-generated imagery work at SIGGRAPH, and continues to work with LightWave 3D.
In 2010, Van Dyke appeared on a children’s album titled Rhythm Train, with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and singer Leslie Bixler. Van Dyke raps on one of the album’s tracks.