Dick Van Dyke: A Trouper, and Still Cool

Dick Van Dyke celebrates a birthday tomorrow: He's 85 and still going strong. Rita Braver now, with this Sunday Profile:


This was going to be a story about that old Song and Dance man . . . Dick Van Dyke back on stage, performing tunes he made famous, celebrating his 85th birthday by performing a musical memoir at the Geffen Play house in L.A., with three guys less than half his age.

"This guy's not only cool, but he's a cultural icon," one laughed.

Cool - like the foursome's rap version of "Spoonful of Sugar."

But it was not to be. Last week, after the first preview performance, the show was canceled. The old trouper injured his Achilles tendon, and has to stay off his feet for a while.

The feet that stepped in time for half a century …. and the comic timing that keeps us laughing, still.

Gallery: Dick Van Dyke

Today, Van Dyke lives in Malibu: "I love it," he told Braver on a tour. "And all the time, it's a little piece of heaven back here."

But he grew up in Danville, Ill., his Dad, a traveling salesman. Dick's brother, Jerry, 6 years younger, also became an entertainer.

"I think we both got it from our parents, who had a sense of humor about everything," said Van Dyke.

In high school, he perfected his magic act, and was class clown AND class president.

Dick van Dyke set out to make a name for himself in show business. He even hosted an early CBS morning news show.

"At 29 years old, they put me in there," Van Dyke recalled. "My newsman was Walter Cronkite. Can you believe that? I had no idea what I was doing!"

He went on to host game shows. "I was the worst game show host that ever lived, and I knew it," he said. "So every day, I'd go out and audition at some theater."

One of those try-outs was for the director of a new musical:

"When I auditioned for 'Bye Bye Birdie' on Broadway, Gower Champion said, 'you've got the job!'" Van Dyke said. "I said, 'Mr. Champion, I can't dance.' He said, 'We'll teach you what you need to know.'"

They sure did! "Bye Bye Birdie" was a smash. So was the 1963 film.

"I discovered it was like flying," he said. "I thought. 'Where has this been all my life?'"

But the biggest life changer was still to come. In the early 1960s, comedian Carl Reiner decided to develop a television show for him.

"He didn't develop it for me; he developed it for himself," Van Dyke said. "And the network didn't like it, didn't like him!"

So Reiner cast Van Dyke as clever but clutzy comedy writer Rob Petrie, with sidekicks played by Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam.

But the audience really fell in love with Rob's wife, Laura, played by 24-year-old Mary Tyler Moore.

"A lot of guys, in particular, mainly remember the fact that she looked awfully good in those capri pants," said Braver.

"Yes, she did look good in those capri pants!" Van Dyke said. "We ran into a little trouble with that, too! And we had to let 'em out a little bit, which I thought was such a sad thing."

"There was a certain sexual energy, I'd say, between the two of you on that show," said Braver.

"That's true. A lot of people thought we were married in real life, which was a great compliment to us," he said. "You know, we had a little bit of a crush on each other."

"Did you ever do anything about it?" Braver asked.

"No, no, we were both married."

The show ended after 5 years, but by then Van Dyke was already making movies. He was personally chosen by Walt Disney to co-star with Julie Andrews in 1964's "Mary Poppins."

Braver commented on the "magic" of the film. "Yes, there is, and I felt that," he replied. "We would say, 'There's something happening here.'"

Then came another classic, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," just out on Blu Ray.

Van Dyke says he'll always remember the first day of shooting:

"I was sitting in the makeup chair, and the director calls the makeup man over, and I overheard him say, 'What about the hooter?' And the makeup guy says, 'I'm not a plastic surgeon!'" Van Dyke laughed.

Van Dyke and his wife Margie (they divorced in 1984) had 4 children, and the walls of his L.A. home are covered with photos of family and Hollywood legends: Fred Astaire, Jack Benny, and his special friend, Stan Laurel.

"When I first called him, I said, 'You know, I've stolen from you somewhat over the years.' And he said, 'Yes, I know!'" he laughed.

But Van Dyke's life wasn't all laughs. In 1969 he played an alcoholic entertainer in "The Comic," a role that hit close to home when he publicly admitted to his own alcoholism.

He says he's been sober now for about 24 years. "It went away so slowly and gradually that I can't name a date when it finally just, I couldn't stand the sight, sound or smell of it."

Through it all, Van Dyke kept working. In 1993 he landed the lead in "Diagnosis: Murder," co-starring his son, Barry. Van Dyke played a doctor who sings and dances, and also finds time to solve murders.

"We used to go out looking for the criminals, and I would say, 'Who's watching the hospital? There's nobody there!'" he laughed.

For 34 years, until her death last year, Van Dyke lived with Michelle Triola, who made headlines in the '70s for unsuccessfully suing her old boyfriend, Lee Marvin, for palimony.

"Were you ever worried that she would try that on you?" Braver asked.

"No, we just fell very much in love," he said. "And it was a wonderful 34 years. She was a force of nature," he laughed.

And here's hoping Dick Van Dyke will be back on his feet soon, savoring and sharing the memories of his remarkable life.
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