LOS ANGELES Forget dishonest modesty. Dick Van Dyke seems nothing short of gobsmacked about receiving the life-achievement honor at Sunday's Screen Actors Guild Awards.
"They must've gotten to the 'V's," he joked.
Though probably best known for "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (1961-66) and Walt Disney's big-screen musical "Mary Poppins" (1964), the 87-year-old Van Dyke said that, with the SAG Award, "I kind of find a home. I've always been a bit of an orphan, because actors say, 'Well, he's more of a dancer.' And dancers say, 'No. He's really a singer.' And singers say, 'No. He's an actor.' So, now I've got a home. I can actually refer to these people as my peers."
His career has spanned eight decades, starting with work as a disc jockey and a standup comic in the late '40s. He even worked as a national television morning-show host, with no less than Walter Cronkite serving as his news anchor. But perhaps Van Dyke's most critical career break came in 1960, when director Gower Champion hired him as the male lead opposite Chita Rivera in the new Broadway-bound stage musical "Bye Bye Birdie."
Van Dyke had no professional dance experience, and out-of-town tryouts did not go well. "They were going to fire me in Philadelphia," Van Dyke recalled during a recent interview at the Screen Actors Guild headquarters. "I was still nervous and tight."
Nevertheless, Champion refused to terminate Van Dyke, who would go on to New York with Rivera, and win a Tony award for his performance.
Just about a year later, Van Dyke was starring on his own sitcom, in the role of a television-comedy writer on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Three prime-time Emmys for Van Dyke and more than 50 years later, the series remains revered by many critics as one of the earliest models of great workplace comedy.
"That whole show was the genius of (show creator and writer) Carl Reiner, who said he wrote Jewish comedy for gentile actors," Van Dyke said.
During the series' run, Van Dyke also enjoyed big-screen hits, including the 1963 "Birdie" movie and the 1964 all-star comedy, "What a Way to Go!" But biggest of all was "Mary Poppins," in which he introduced the Oscar-winning song "Chim Chim Cher-ee," but for which he also took, and still takes, serious ribbing, even from his leading lady and longtime pal Julie Andrews.
"She still kids me about my so-called Cockney accent," Van Dyke said, adding a line of defense: "I had an Irish coach ... so he wasn't any better than me."
The first sitcom and "Poppins" are likely to be his most enduring works, but Van Dyke has never stopped working, with other TV series (including a short-lived 1976 variety show, "Van Dyke and Company," which earned him a fourth prime-time Emmy), stage appearances and films.
"My favorite unknown movie is 'The Comic,'" Van Dyke said, referring to the 1969 drama, which reunited him with "Van Dyke Show'''s Reiner, who directed. "We felt we actually captured the feel of the silent era." The film is loosely based on the life of silent legend Buster Keaton, who Van Dyke knew personally, adored, and at whose funeral he delivered the eulogy. The two funny men also shared a personal demon: alcoholism.
These days, Van Dyke sings with his vocal group, The Vantasix, and is enjoying life in Los Angeles with his new wife, makeup artist Arlene Silver, who he happened to meet seven years ago . . . at the SAG Awards.
Van Dyke's favorite professional life achievement?
"That I made 'em smile," he replied, smiling himself. "And I think that's asking enough."
The 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards is set for Sunday in Los Angeles.