Dick Van Dyke is a beloved entertainer who is mostly remembered for his role in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins and The Dick Van Dyke Show. His impressive career in music, radio, film, and TV spans half a century. He is one of the most adored “legacy” figures in Hollywood. But there are still some things you don’t know about the 95-year-old actor.
From his military career, his marriage on live radio, to his breakout role and bad accent, Dick Van Dyke has certainly achieved the American dream by living life to the fullest. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have his share of struggles.
Here is the life and career of the incredibly talented Dick Van Dyke.
A Star Is Born
Dick Van Dyke was welcomed into the world on December 13, 1925, as Richard Wayne Van Dyke. His mom Hazel Victoria was a stenographer, and his dad Loren Wayne “Cookie” Van Dyke was a salesman. He had one older brother, and the family grew up in Danville, Illinois.
His brother, Jerry Van Dyke, is mostly remembered for the television show Coach. Sadly, he died due to heart failure in 2019. His family has been in America for hundreds of years. His ancestry can be traced all the way back to the Mayflower’s passenger John Alden.
Church Boy for Life
Van Dyke grew up with a religious mother, so as a child he considered a career in the Church. He changed his mind, however, when he was taking drama class in high school. From that moment on, he genuinely believed he was destined for Hollywood. But that doesn’t mean he fully abandoned his ministerial dreams.
“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.
Too Skinny for Combat
Although he didn’t end up becoming a minister, Van Dyke taught Sunday school at his Presbyterian Church and continued to do so well into his acting days. Van Dyke wanted to go into the U.S. Army and become a pilot, but he was denied several times because he was underweight.
They ultimately admitted him… as a radio announcer. After quite some time, Van Dyke was finally transferred to the Special Services, where his job was to entertain the troops and get some laughs out of them during World War II.
High School Graduate
When Van Dyke dropped out of high school to join the army in 1944, he never went back. Despite not getting accepted into combat due to his weight, he didn’t go back to graduate high school. But that doesn’t mean he never got his diploma.
In 2004, the determined actor was officially a high school graduate. He earned his diploma about six decades after he left high school, at the ripe age of 78 years old. With an incredibly successful career, he obviously didn’t need high school, but it goes to show that it’s never too late.
Started on Radio
Van Dyke got interested in radio in 1947, working as an Illinois DJ. He was initially recruited as part of a comedy duo with Phil Erikson called “Eric and Van—the Merry Mutes.” The act was a combination of music and mime and it toured the nightclub circuit. The duo would lip-sync to old 78 records – decades before the rise of Lip Sync Battle.
Van Dyke beat out stars like Johnny Carson to lead the Dick Van Dyke Show. The actor admitted he had a “real crush” on his 23-year-old co-star on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore.
Quite the Debut
One of the many things Van Dyke is famous for is playing the Broadway lead in Bye Bye Birdie. But he initially auditioned for a small role. With zero dance experience, he decided to improvise a soft-shoe dance routine after his audition song.
It turned out to be a good thing: The director and choreographer of the show, Gower Champion, happened to be in the audition room. He was so impressed by Van Dyke that he offered him the lead role on the spot. When Van Dyke confessed that he couldn’t actually dance, the director said, “we’ll teach you.” Van Dyke went on to win the 1961 Tony for Best Featured Actor.
If It Works, It Works
As a famous actor, his name alone is a money maker. Dick Van Dyke starred in two different programs with his name in the title: The Dick Van Dyke Show, from 1961 to 1966, and The New Dick Van Dyke Show, from 1971 to 1974.
Despite the names, the two shows weren’t related, but we couldn’t blame you for the assumption. They weren’t talk-shows either. In the first show, Van Dyke played a comedy writer, and in The New Dick Van Dyke Show, he played a local television host.
Where Were You When?
John F. Kennedy’s assassination is a classic “where were you when…?” event. Well, Van Dyke remembers exactly where he was. The actor was recording Songs I Like by Dick Van Dyke when he and his crew found out the President had been shot.
As you can imagine, everyone was rattled. However, the show had to go on since they were under a strict deadline with Command Records. Van Dyke and everyone in the production continued working until the recording was complete. The actor explained how he was so shocked by the news that he barely remembers doing that album.
Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve
With such an incredibly successful career, Dick Van Dyke doesn’t have many regrets, but there is one thing he wishes he had done differently. If he could go back, he never would have turned down the role of Ambassador Thorn in the 1976 film, The Omen.
Understandably, the reason the actor had some reservations was because of the gory nature of the movie’s subject matter. Actors, especially famous ones, tend to be careful with the roles they take, so he rejected the chance to get down and dirty. In 2013, decades later, he admitted that his decision was “stupid.”
Who’s Nachvid Keyed?
For Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964), Van Dyke worked double duty. As you might already know, he played the part of Bert the Chimney sweep, but he also had another role. You probably didn’t recognize him, but he got into some heavy makeup to portray the elderly and antagonistic bank chairman, Mr. Dawes Senior.
The heavy makeup isn’t the only reason people didn’t notice him. For his second part in the movie, as Mr. Dawes Senior, the actor was credited as Nackvid Keyed, which is an anagram for Dick Van Dyke.
Worst Accent Ever
In Mary Poppins, Dick Van Dyke’s “cockney” accent has been widely considered to be one of the worst movie accents of all time. In fact, actors actually study his portrayal to learn what not to do when trying to put on a convincing accent.
In 2003, Empire Magazine took a poll, and Dick Van Dyke’s accent turned out to be the second-worst movie accent of all time. He came right behind Sean Connery, who got the number one spot for his role in The Untouchables. Let’s just say his Irish twang wasn’t very convincing.
Disney Should Have Splurged on an Accent Coach
Van Dyke blamed his infamously horrible accent in Mary Poppins on his Irish acting coach. Apparently, as the actor puts it, he “didn’t do an accent any better than I did.” Yeah, it’s a bit strange that a corporation like Disney couldn’t just bring an Irish person in to teach the actor a Cockney accent.
I guess you can’t change the past, but no one did anything to prevent it at the time either. Nobody in the production warned the actor about the quality (or lack thereof) of his accent. Maybe no one knew what a Cockney accent should sound like?
Still Venturing Out
Among his many talents and skills, Dick Van Dyke is a professional computer animator. He bought a Commodore Amiga in 1991 and has since perfected his skills to create 3D-rendered effects for big cinematic productions like Diagnosis: Murder and The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited. An annual graphics conference called SIGGRAPH features his work, and he continues to work with the software LightWave 3D.
Yes, he continues to work at his age, but is it really that surprising? I mean, this is the man who participated in a flash mob for his 90th birthday!
Love and Heartbreak
Van Dyke tied the knot for the first time on live radio. On February 12, 1948, he married Margie Willett on a show called Bride and Groom. I guess getting married on the radio was a thing back then because 15 million people tuned into the nuptials.
The couple had four children together, but, sadly, it wasn’t a fairytale ending. The pair were separated for a long time before finalizing the divorce in 1984. Van Dyke spent most of his life with Michelle Triola; they were together for over 30 years until she passed away in 2009.
Where There’s Smoke…
Van Dyke has been a heavy smoker for most of his long life. But the actor took steps to curb his bad habit. In 2013, he admitted that he had been using Nicorette gum for a decade. You know what they say: better late than never.
In 2013, the actor had a scary, close brush with death. Van Dyke was rescued on the U.S. 101 freeway from the flaming wreck of his jaguar. Miraculously, the 87-year-old got out unharmed, although the car burnt down to its frame.
From Baby Jesus to Superstardom
Van Dyke’s first-ever acting credit was the role of Baby Jesus in his church Christmas pageant. Looking back now, he could have been a little bit more professional. According to the actor himself, he “cried” all through his performance. Awww. Well, everyone starts somewhere.
Despite his long and extensive resume, Van Dyke didn’t actually act in a motion picture until the age of 36. His first role, of course, was in Bye Bye Birdie. Fun Fact: Dick Van Dyke prefers using his left hand, but he is ambidextrous, meaning he can use his left and right hand almost equally well.
An Early Bloomer
Being tall is usually a good thing, but when Dick Van Dyke was just 12 years old, he was already six feet tall. It resulted in him being extremely underweight for years. We mentioned how it even affected his chances of serving in combat for the United States Army.
He was really hoping to join the air force and become a pilot, but since he needed to gain weight, he was instructed to go on a milkshake diet until he could get heavy enough to join. That sounds like my kind of diet!
Can’t Replace Everyone
In the tenth season of The Carol Burnett Show, Dick Van Dyke was brought on to replace Harvey Korman. However, there are some people who just can’t be replaced. Despite Van Dyke’s talent and star power, it didn’t go as planned.
Unfortunately, ratings went down as soon as audiences noticed his lack of chemistry with the cast. This was one of the very few busts in Van Dyke’s long career. Luckily, it didn’t affect his long friendship with Carol Burnett. Not everything is going to be a hit.
School Newspaper Predictions
Dick Van Dyke had so much star power as a child, and the student journalists at his school noticed his talent from an incredibly early age. On January 31, 1944, the future actor was featured in a “spotlight,” which explained his plans to drop out of school to join the army.
The article ends with this prophetic sentence: “Danville High School wishes you the best of luck, Dick Van Dyke, and hopes your post-war career will see you right at the top of the entertainment world!” How did they know?!
There were two other talented artists that went to high school with Dick Van Dyke: Donald O’Connor from Singing in the Rain and musical legend Bobby Short. Their high school in Danville, Illinois, was infamously tiny, so what are the chances three famous folks came out of there?
When Van Dyke got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, his name was misspelled as “VANDYKE.” Luckily, the actor had a good sense of humor about the whole thing: He just took a pen and simply wrote a dash between the “VAN” and “DYKE.” His star has been corrected since.
Cloudy With a Chance of Comedy
Can you imagine Dick Van Dyke telling you that the skies are cloudy and you should bring an umbrella to work? Well, that may have been the reality for many residents of New Orleans, Louisiana. Before becoming an actor, he had a brief gig as their local weatherman.
Despite his career in radio and musicals, Van Dyke really enjoys films from the silent era of cinema. His idols include silent film stars like Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel. Van Dyke was neighbors with actor Charles Bronson when he was living in Malibu. Every Christmas, without fail, Bronson sent him a lemon cake for 16 years.
There Is Hope for All of Us
When Van Dyke married his first wife Margie, the highly public radio broadcast wedding seemed like a fairy tale! But, in reality, their marriage didn’t exactly start off on the right foot. Although the show paid for the rings, honeymoon, and their wedding presents, the newlyweds spent some of those honeymoon days living out of their car.
In 2012, the 86-year-old actor had a late-in-life wedding to makeup artist Arlene Silver. Just to be clear, Silver was 40 years old when they walked down the aisle. The pair met at the SAG Awards six years earlier, but Van Dyke’s previous lady was still alive.
My Friend Jack Daniels
In 1974, Van Dyke confessed that he had a problem with alcohol for 25 years. His admission came right around the time he played the leading role in the television movie The Morning After as an alcoholic businessman.
For most of his time on The Dick Van Dyke Show, the star managed to keep his alcohol problems under wraps. He never really thought of himself as a troublemaker; so, he chose to release his emotions with a drink instead of expressing any negative feelings towards his crew or fans.
There Is No Place Like Home
After portraying the lead in the Broadway version, the actor revived his role in the film adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie in 1963. However, he wasn’t very happy with the changes. The movie’s focus shifted to the exploits of a supporting character, played by up-and-coming starlet Ann-Margret. Although the movie didn’t surround Van Dyke’s character, it was a huge financial success.
Van Dyke has had a long career of playing remarkably diverse roles, thanks to his ability to embody all different types of characters. During an interview with Larry King, the actor revealed that his dream role would be the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.
Living a Lie
It turns out that Dick Van Dyke was living a lie throughout his entire childhood because his parents lied to him about his birthday. The truth finally came out when he turned 17 (or thought he did) and was worried about being drafted into the army. He considered joining the army anyway, but he wanted a sense of control over his future.
His mom told him the truth: Dick was already 18. She explained to him that he was born premature, so they moved his birthday to his original due date, but then his grandma told him the real reason. Dick was conceived out of wedlock, so his parents switched his birthday to hide the “shameful” truth.
When it comes to his political views, Dick Van Dyke is a staunch liberal. For the 2016 presidential election, the actor endorsed Bernie Sanders. This was the first time he campaigned for a candidate since 1968 when he campaigned for Democrat Eugene McCarthy.
So, what was it that took Van Dyke out of political hiding? His fear of a certain orange Republican candidate. Van Dyke said of the eventual president, “he scares me.” He isn’t the only one who has that opinion.
Age Is but a Number
You can add the title author to Dick Van Dyke’s resume. After his New York Times bestselling memoir, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, the actor tacked the self-help genre with Keep Moving and Other Tips and Truths About Aging. He rejects the limitations placed on aging.
“If I am out shopping and hear music playing in a store, I start to dance,” he wrote. “If I want to sing, I sing. I read books and get excited about new ideas. I enjoy myself. I don’t think about the way I am supposed to act my age—or at any age.”
Appealing to All Audiences
As we know, Dick Van Dyke played countless roles and has the ability to portray all different types of characters. After winning several primetime Emmys, the actor wanted to conquer an earlier time slot, and needless to say it went well.
He took home a Daytime Emmy Award in 1986 for Outstanding Performer in Children’s Programing, after he was featured on CBS library, an anthology show that depicted animated or live-action versions of children’s books. He certainly has something special since most people can’t appeal to adults and children alike.
A Pod of Porpoises Saved Him
The only context you need for Van Dyke’s most amazing story is knowing that he loves to surf. The actor revealed in an interview with Craig Ferguson that one time, as he was drifting out to sea, he fell asleep on his board.
Van Dyke explained that he woke up in a panic so far away from shore that he wasn’t sure he would be able to paddle his way back. Then, a miraculous pod of porpoises surrounded his board and pushed him back to the shore. Can you believe that?!
The Truth About His On-Screen Mom
In the movie production of Bye Bye Birdie, Maureen Stapleton plays Mae Albert’s widowed mother. Funny enough, the actress was just six months older than Dick Van Dyke in real life. Even though they are pretty much the same age, they played a convincing mother and son thanks to heavy makeup and good acting.
This wasn’t the only time Van Dyke played a son alongside a real-life peer. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his character Caractacus Potts has a father named Bungie, played by Lionel Jeffries. Once again, there was a six-month age gap. This time, Van Dyke is just half a year younger than his on-screen dad.
Best Buds With Stan Laurel
Although he is an iconic actor and comedian in his own right, Dick Van Dyke still has his own celebrity idols. He admitted that his hero is Stan Laurel for his amazing comedic timing and talent. The actor went as far as to look up Lauren in the phone book so that he could call him to give him a compliment.
In a dream-come-true twist, Laurel invited Van Dyke to come over and introduce himself in person, and the two became fast friends. They got to know each other so well that he was asked to impersonate Laurel on more than one occasion. The two stayed close until Laurel passed away in 1965. Van Dyke delivered the eulogy at the funeral.
Diagnosis: Murder Was a Family Affair
Even though he is a certified Hollywood legend now, there were a few bumps on the difficult road to success. In 1993, Diagnosis: Murder came out – at a time when the actor’s career was starting to decline. The actor thought he had passed his heyday and that people saw him as someone from the past.
Diagnosis: Murder revived his career as he continued to play the lead role after the first season – which wasn’t in the original plan. Neither was making it a family affair. His son Barry Van Dyke and his grandson Carey Van Dyke both worked on the show for various episodes. Daughter Stacy Van Dyke also made a guest appearance on Diagnosis: Murder in 1993 and again in 1996.
The Dick Van Dyke Show Was Carl Reiner’s Idea
From 1950 to 1954, Carl Reiner made a name for himself as a writer and performer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Other writers on that show include the famous Mel Brooks and the less famous Selma Diamond. When Caesar’s show concluded, Reiner wrote a pilot script and a few episodes for a new sitcom based on his life.
Entitled Head of the Family, the show focused on the day-to-day life of Rob Petrie (Reiner), a comedy writer with a wife and child. Morey Amsterdam landed the role of the Mel Brooks-type joke writer, and Rosie Marie was cast as the self-deprecating husband-searching Selma Diamond.
The Lead Role Almost Went To…
Veteran producer Sheldon Leonard was intrigued by the pilot and enjoyed the concept and the script, but he wasn’t very impressed with Reiner’s acting chops. He suggested that the character needed to be played by someone more mainstream American (translation: less Jewish) for the show to be successful.
The finalists for the starring role came down to Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke. With the fame and recognition generated from Bye Bye Birdie, Dick Van Dyke landed the gig. Needless to say, the runner-up didn’t do too badly for himself either.
The Words Behind the Music
The theme song to The Dick Van Dyke Show is definitely a memorable one. What you probably don’t know is that the lyrics were written to complement the instrumental theme of the program. In fact, castmate Morey Amsterdam penned the words and also wrote the lyrics for the song Rum and Coca-Cola. The lyrics of The Dick Van Dyke Show are as follows:
“So, you think that you’ve got trouble. Well, trouble’s a bubble. So, tell old mister trouble to get lost. Why not hold your head up high and stop cryin’, start tryin’. And keep your fingers crossed.” It’s much catchier with the music.