When it comes to golden age TV stars, few names stick out like Dick Van Dyke As the star of his eponymous sitcom, he cultivated a squeaky clean image for himself—one which, as it turned out, became the perfect cover for a life filled with dirty little secrets. This living legend’s story is a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface.
1. Showbiz Wasn’t His First Choice
Dick Van Dyke's upbringing in small-town America foreshadowed the role that would one day make him an icon—but it nearly never came to be. A far cry from the sometimes-shady realm of Hollywood, Van Dyke grew up wanting to join the ministry. Luckily for fans, all it took was a single drama class in high school to push him toward acting.
Soon enough, he secured a position at the local radio station. However, before he could embark on his journey to fame, he found himself confronting a life-threatening situation.
2. He Didn’t Want To Be On The Front Lines
Although Van Dyke's hometown of Danville, Illinois couldn’t have been further away from the conflict raging in full force out in Europe, WWII still occupied an outsized part of his teenaged mind. He knew that when he turned 18 that he’d be up for the draft—so he came up with a plan. In an attempt to choose his own path, he dropped out of high school.
He then attempted to join the US Army Air Forces so that he could become a pilot. However, this ingenious plot didn’t quite roll out as he’d hoped.
3. He Survived The Conflict
You would think that being underweight would be an advantage for a fighter pilot in one of those tiny planes—but not so. Despite several attempts, the powers that be didn’t let Van Dyke enlist. Eventually, after he bulked up before a physical, he made it into the Air Forces. But that didn’t mean that he saw combat. Recognizing his talents, the Air Forces promoted him to the position of a radio announcer and later allowed him the privilege of entertaining service members stationed domestically.
In the end, Van Dyke did manage to evade the front lines—but when WWII ended, he was jobless, and without a high school diploma, to boot.
4. He Wanted To Make A Name For Himself
Returning home to Danville, Van Dyke went with what he knew—and went right back to the radio station he’d worked at before WWII. He met his first love, Margie Willett, around this time as well. Van Dyke was just 20, but it was a different time, and he was convinced it was time to grow up and get serious about life. However, that path wouldn’t necessarily be an easy one…
5. He Had A Bizarre Act
After a number of failed ventures, Van Dyke met a man who would change his life in more ways than one. Phil Erickson was a pantomime in need of a performing partner—that’s a mouthful—and he thought that Van Dyke had potential. They called their act “The Merry Mutes,” and while it all sounds a bit goofy, it became an important stepping stone for Van Dyke not just professionally, but personally as well.
6. He Got Married On Air
Dick Van Dyke was madly in love with his long-time girlfriend, Margie Willett—but there was one big problem. He was living in Los Angeles and barely making $75 a week. He’d asked Margie to marry him, and she was sitting at home in Danville waiting for him to take the next step. One day, a bizarre solution presented itself. Van Dyke met the producer of a radio show that profiled couples on the way to the altar.
The producer offered to pay for the wedding if Van Dyke and Margie would get married on the show. It wasn’t exactly the fairy tale they’d hoped for—but it was something.
7. They Didn’t Have A Dime Between Them
Van Dyke and his new bride enjoyed a wedding and a luxurious 10-day skiing trip, all on the dime of the Bride And Groom radio show. But when the honeymoon was over, their dire reality set in. They didn’t have enough money for a place of their own, so they moved in with Van Dyke's creative partner Phil Erickson and his wife.
After a few months, they were finally able to get their own place—but they still struggled.
8. They Experienced A Terrible Loss
Van Dyke and Margie soon got great news—she was expecting twins. But beneath the surface, not all was well. The bills were mounting, and the Merry Mutes weren’t exactly taking off in Hollywood. Van Dyke kept expecting a windfall to save them, but it wasn’t coming—and that’s when tragedy struck. Margie began having bad cramps, and Van Dyke drove her to the hospital, not even sure that his rickety car would make it.
They made it to the hospital, but Margie miscarried—and the misery didn’t stop there.
9. They Were Homeless
Van Dyke left Margie in the hospital to recover and returned to their home—and that’s when he learned just how life can add insult to injury. Their landlord, who Van Dyke hadn’t been able to pay in months, had put all their belongings out on the curb. He packed everything into the car, and when Margie checked out of the hospital, they moved into a dingy hotel room.
Things were looking more dire than ever—and they both had a great struggle ahead of them.
10. He Finally Got A Break
The Merry Mutes were finding work, but it wasn’t enough to keep Van Dyke afloat. At one point, he was left with just $30. It wasn’t enough to get their car out of the garage or pay for the hotel room they were in—but he had an unexpected good luck charm. While Van Dyke slept, Margie took that $30 to the blackjack tables and made enough to get them back in black.
11. He Wasn’t Ready To Fly Solo
The windfall got them to the next job, and that job to the one after that. While performing in Miami, Van Dyke got an offer that could take him to the next level—but there was one devastating catch. The club’s owners wanted him to ditch his creative partner, Phil Erickson. They were offering him 20 times what he was making. When he mentioned this to his agent, he learned the disturbing truth.
12. They Had Ulterior Motives
Van Dyke didn’t realize it—but if he were to accept the offer at the Miami club, he’d be working for the mob. Not only that, but he’d be indebted to them for god knows how long. He quickly and politely backed out of the deal that he’d thought would be his big break. While that hadn’t been it—one was awaiting him right around the corner.
13. He Had No Choice But To Ditch Him
The Merry Mutes branched out and ended up on TV, making a variety show for a small station. While Van Dyke had rejected the mob’s offer, others kept coming forward with the same suggestion. TV producers wanted Dick Van Dyke, not Phil. There was no easy or graceful way out of the situation—but regardless, Van Dyke tried to make it as painless as possible. Still, Phil was devastated when Van Dyke broke off their creative partnership.
14. He Got His Big Break
Van Dyke began to work on his own show for a New Orleans area TV station, and he and Margie settled there with their growing brood of children. All this led to his real big break—when top CBS execs offered him a seven-year contract. Van Dyke and the family packed up and moved just outside of New York City, where he would be working every day.
But in many ways, Van Dyke was completely unprepared for both his work at CBS and for life in the big city.
15. He Had Made An Enemy
Van Dyke found success as one of the hosts on CBS’s morning show, only for the brass to take him off that program. They shuffled him from show to show, including a very brief stint on the first iteration of The Price Is Right. He began to worry that something was wrong—and he was right. One of the CBS execs didn’t like him, and didn’t think that he had “it”.
All of a sudden, the security of that seven-year contract seemed to dissipate before his eyes.
16. They Fired Him
Despite his best efforts, the writing was on the wall for Van Dyke. He couldn’t bring the bosses at CBS around, and they let him go after three years. Once again, he had to worry about keeping a roof over his and Margie’s heads. Plus, this time around they had three kids to worry about. The pressure was on—and Van Dyke had to find some way to deal with it.
17. He Needed A Way To Cope
Van Dyke faced losing everything he’d worked so hard for—and the tension took him down a dark path. He began to drink, and it all began innocently enough. After all, when he’d first arrived in NYC, he’d learned the hard way at a business lunch that he didn’t have the same constitution as his martini-swilling bosses. But now, he began to catch up to them, and drinking became a regular part of his life.
It wasn’t a problem at first—but as we’ll see, it came back to bite him.
18. He Tried Something New
TV wasn’t working out for Van Dyke so he landed a few Broadway auditions. It seemed like he was giving up on the medium that he loved—but it would wind up being the thing that brought him back to it. After one show, he landed the lead in a new production named Bye Bye Birdie. Van Dyke not only originated the role of Albert Peterson in the musical, but he won the Best Featured Actor Tony for his performance.
He’d finally made a name for himself—and now, it was time to capitalize on it.
19. He Finally Found His Niche
At the time, future showbiz legend Carl Reiner was struggling with a sitcom pilot he’d written. He wanted to star in it—after all, it was based on his experiences as a comedy writer—but no one wanted him in the role. He needed a lead, and hearing about the success of Bye Bye Birdie, he went down to Broadway to check it out. When Reiner saw Van Dyke, he knew he had the right guy.
And when Van Dyke read the script, he knew he had the chance of a lifetime.
20. He Was Working Himself Ragged
While still starring as Albert Peterson, Van Dyke began working on Reiner’s new sitcom—at first, filming the pilot and then making the first season. There wasn’t even time to breathe between the end of his tenure on Broadway and the debut of the show. But perhaps the biggest coup of all was the name of the show.
21. It Became His Namesake
Despite the Tony win, Dick Van Dyke was by no means a household name. Reiner wanted to change that—for Van Dyke, and for the show. That’s when he came up with an unconventional plan. He wanted to call it “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. Everyone was confused. No one knew who he was—or what the show was. But Reiner pressed for it…and it worked.
22. They Were Still On The Edge
The Dick Van Dyke Show debuted in October of 1961. While it wasn’t an immediate hit, it made a lasting impression. In its first season, Carl Reiner won an Emmy for writing—but even that triumph couldn’t save the show from the precarious position it was in. CBS was on the verge of canceling it when it won an unexpected ally.
Procter & Gamble threatened to pull advertising unless CBS renewed it. It was a gamble—and it paid off.
23. He Was A Runaway Success
In its second season, The Dick Van Dyke Show went from being ranked 80 in the ratings to making it into the top ten, coming in at 9. The next season, it peaked at 3. Van Dyke got an Emmy that year, as did his co-star, an actress just starting out by the name of Mary Tyler Moore. Van Dyke later admitted to having a huge crush on the younger actress—but he didn’t act on it.
However, as we’ll see, his marriage had much worse storms to weather than just a crush.
24. He Suffered A Brutal Insult
Van Dyke’s TV success created a demand for him on the big screen—and with the news that Bye Bye Birdie was being adapted into a movie, it seemed like an easy choice for his film debut. Unfortunately, he was in for a disappointing surprise. The adaptation significantly lessened his character’s role and shifted the focus to another character.
Van Dyke was a good sport about it—and it paved the way for better things.
25. He Got Lost In Translation
The year after Bye Bye Birdie, Van Dyke appeared in the dual roles of Bert the chimney sweep and Mr. Dawes Senior in Mary Poppins. While the film was a hit, there was some backlash over Van Dyke’s performance. People think of Bert’s “cockney” accent as one of the worst movie accents of all time. Actors actually study it to learn how not to put on a new dialect.
Well, you can’t win ‘em all—a lesson that Van Dyke learned multiple times throughout his life.
26. He Crafted An Image For Himself
Despite the nitpicking about Mary Poppins, Van Dyke greatly enjoyed his experience on the film. This was in sharp contrast to his experience on What a Way to Go!. As production wore on, the light-hearted film that he’d signed up for had turned into a dark comedy. After the film was finished, he vowed that he only wanted to appear on projects that he could show his four children.
This vow contributed to his wholesome reputation—but behind the scenes, it was an image he didn’t always live up to.
27. He Was Always On
Dick Van Dyke tried hard to keep up the appearance of the family man that he’d created for himself on an off-screen. He and Margie avoided Hollywood parties, with the exception of the Emmys. Margie begrudgingly attended each year—only to be mistreated by paparazzi and the TV brass who jockeyed for her husband’s attention. Even while filming his namesake sitcom, which kept a demanding schedule, Van Dyke taught at Sunday school.
But this combination of professional and personal demands created immense pressure on both of them—and it would eventually burst.
28. He Had His First Scandal
When Van Dyke went to film The Art of Love in Paris, he brought Margie with him, hoping to get some quality time in. Instead, they faced a complete nightmare. The tabloids printed stories claiming that he was having an affair with his co-star Angie Dickinson—and that he was fighting with another male co-star over her. It was his first brush with Hollywood scandal, but it wouldn’t be the last.
29. He Had To Say Goodbye
As production began for the fifth season of The Dick Van Dyke Show, its star was as energetic and dedicated as ever. There was just one problem. Carl Reiner, the show’s creator, had only ever planned to make five seasons. There was no altering his viewpoint, either. Van Dyke's dream—of a steady, secure job that left him fulfilled—had utterly vanished in the water.
Despite all his success, the same panic he used to feel when he had few prospects ahead and even fewer dollars returned.
30. She Was Fed Up
Margie’s apathy toward the Hollywood lifestyle had been growing exponentially. Without a sitcom set to return to every day, Van Dyke took the opportunity to move the family to their ranch in Arizona full-time. But not long after, he made a discovery that seemed too good to be true. A soundstage meant for film and TV productions had popped up just a few miles down the road. He could even commute on his minibike there.
It was time for Van Dyke to return to the small screen.
31. He Thought He’d Figured It Out
That soundstage became a major factor in the creation of Van Dyke’s next project—the creatively-named The New Dick Van Dyke Show. Despite the dud title, the show managed to gain an audience and it ran for three seasons, cementing its stars status as a TV icon. However, if Van Dyke believed that excluding Hollywood from the situation would resolve all his issues, he was regrettably mistaken.
32. He Had A Dangerous Habit
Dick Van Dyke seemed to have it all—a happy family, creative freedom, stardom, his own show, and hey, he didn’t even have to commute. But beneath the surface, he was hiding a dark secret. To cope with the pressures that keeping up such a perfect life created, he’d turned to the bottle. It had begun innocently enough, but by 1972, it was becoming a serious problem.
And he knew he had to do something about it.
33. He Looked For Help
The solution seemed simple enough. Van Dyke opened up the Yellow Pages, found a listing for a hospital that offered treatment for alcoholics, and called them up. They told him to come in right away, and he did. But this was long before the days of cushy California rehab clinics.
34. His Experience Was Terrifying
When he arrived at the hospital, the staff sent Van Dyke—the wholesome sitcom dad—straight to the psych ward, where he weathered the storm beside alcoholics and drug addicts going through serious withdrawal. Over the next few weeks, he went to individual and group therapy, confronted painful memories, learned that alcoholism was a disease, and found himself ready to face the world again.
35. He Wasn’t The Only One With A Problem
Van Dyke considered himself cured—or, at the very least, ready to leave the hospital and try out living in complete sobriety. On his last day at the hospital, Dick Van Dyke thought that Margie was coming to pick him up. Instead, he faced a devastating surprise. When she came to the hospital that day, it was so that she could check herself in.
36. She Had Issues Of Her Own
Van Dyke hadn’t been the only one struggling under the pressures of both family life and his career. Margie had begun taking a benzodiazepine for anxiety and depression, and then took it a little more frequently than prescribed. She’d been addicted to pills—and Van Dyke hadn’t even noticed. She took over his room at the hospital and began her own journey to sobriety…but it wouldn’t be easy.
37. Their Newfound Clarity Put Things In A Harsh Light
Over the next few weeks ,Dick Van Dyke acted the part of the supportive partner as Margie went through her own stint in rehab. When the dust settled, they were both sober for the first time in years. It should’ve been a great return to form for the couple—but instead, they found that they didn’t necessarily like what they saw. And there were more complications than that to throw into the mix.
38. He Had To Leave Them Behind
For one, The New Dick Van Dyke Show was about to start filming its third season, and the network execs were tired of dealing with production in Arizona when everything else was made in New York or Los Angeles. They insisted that the show be moved to Hollywood, so Van Dyke went along with it, leaving Margie and the kids in Arizona.
The distance had never proved to be a problem before—but this time, things were different.
39. He Was Struggling
For the first time in his life, Van Dyke was living alone. At the same time, he was fighting to stay sober. After a few months of this lonely existence, he relapsed. As regret set in, he confessed what had happened to Margie, and started all over again at day one. Still, throughout his long ordeal, Van Dyke had kept his alcoholism a secret. He’d intended to keep it that way—until he realized he couldn’t hold it in any longer.
40. It Made Him Want To Open Up
In 1974, Dick Van Dyke signed on to do a TV movie called The Morning After, about an alcoholic PR writer. It was a gritter role than he was used to, but he obviously related to the story. And around the time of the film’s release, he made a stunning decision. Van Dyke decided to reveal that he had a drinking problem. While this doesn’t seem so scandalous today, at the time, it was a real shocker.
Few, if any stars, confessed to having personal problems—let alone suffering from alcoholism. But with his squeaky clean image on the line, Van Dyke had to worry about the backlash.
41. Confessing Helped—But It Didn’t Solve His Problems
Both Van Dyke’s admission and the movie itself, which lacked the happy ending his other projects did, went against everything that he’d done before. He was pleasantly surprised to find that the film did well and that fans were supportive. But when all was said and done, this seeming breakthrough did little to help him with his day-to-day struggles.
Call it a midlife crisis, or empty nest syndrome—but whatever it was, both Dick Van Dyke and Margie were really going through it.
42. Things Weren’t Working
The high school sweethearts struggled to find common ground as they entered the third decade of their marriage—but each time they tried out something new, be it a new hobby or drastically moving to a new city, they had to face the dark truth. Each attempt to bring them back together failed. On top of it, Van Dyke was grappling with decisions about what to do with his career.
He needed to talk it all out with a neutral party. Well, he probably should’ve found a therapist…
43. He Found An Unlikely Supporter
Hollywood stars have all kinds of people to help them work through career issues, from agents to managers. But this time around, Van Dyke found himself relying on his agent’s secretary, Michelle Triola. She was an experienced industry veteran and a straight shooter—just what he needed. But there was a lot more to Michelle than just admin work and good advice…
44. She Had A Scandalous Past
During this time, Michelle was involved in an infamous lawsuit against actor Lee Marvin, who she’d been romantically involved with for many years. She’d given up her career for him on the promise that he’d support her. When he then dumped her, she sued for palimony—despite the fact that they’d never married. This lawsuit left her splashed across the tabloid pages.
And thanks to Dick Van Dyke , it wouldn’t be the last time she appeared there.
45. He Suffered Immense Heartbreak
On top of everything else that Dick Van Dyke and Margie were dealing with, a dark tragedy added insult to injury. Van Dyke lost his father, and soon after, Margie lost hers as well. They moved both of their widowed mothers into an apartment together. Luckily, this worked well for everyone involved. He then threw himself into another show—but it wasn’t enough to distract him from the problems he faced behind the scenes.
46. He Couldn’t Make Up His Mind
Van Dyke was torn between two worlds. His Hollywood achievements were innumerable, and Margie didn’t see why he had to keep struggling to prove himself to various TV execs. Why not retire, get away from Hollywood (which she loathed), and rest on his laurels? On the other side, Van Dyke loved performing and didn’t want to stop. And in that corner of the ring was Michelle. They could talk for hours about the business or creative life, and she understood the allure of Hollywood.
That’s when things began to get out of hand.
47. He Couldn’t Take It Anymore
One night, Dick Van Dyke found himself sitting in the corner of a dark restaurant with Michelle, sipping on a martini. Throughout their friendship, he’d had many moments where he realized what he was doing was wrong. But this time, the realization was too dire to ignore. The drinking had to stop—but he wasn’t willing to give Michelle up.
He’d been stuck for so long…and now, it was time to do something about it.
48. He Told Her The Devastating Truth
Van Dyke went to Margie—his high school sweetheart, the mother of his children, and his wife of three decades—and made a heartbreaking confession. He told her that he had strong feelings for another woman. Margie was stunned. But after a gut-wrenching few weeks of talks, they came to an odd conclusion. They wouldn’t divorce, but they would go on living separate lives from that moment.
49. He Found Love Again
Dick Van Dyke and Margie went their separate ways, but didn’t disclose their separation to anyone but their close family and friends. Finally, Dick Van Dyke was free to begin a relationship with Michelle—but before long, her scandalous past came back to haunt them. After many years and many appeals, she won a judgment for roughly $100,000 against her ex, Lee Marvin.
But then he appealed, and she lost. She was incredibly upset, and Van Dyke wanted to give her the money. However, this offer had a disturbing side effect.
50. They Finally Split Up
The tabloids had caught onto Dick Van Dyke’s relationship with Michelle—and his gift of $100K to her became the final straw for Margie. When she protested, Dick Van Dyke laid down the law and told her that it was his money and his choice. The argument ultimately compelled the estranged couple to finally get a divorce. Despite that moment of tension, it wound up being an amicable split.
51. He Found Brief Happiness
Ironically enough, Van Dyke ended up taking some of Margie’s better advice, and took fewer projects throughout the 80s, more content to spend his time sailing with Michelle. They talked about getting married, but they were also perfectly happy as they were. Unfortunately, a brutal tragedy broke through their happy idyll.
52. He Suffered A Horrible Heartbreak
In 1987, Van Dyke’s first grandchild Jessica took some baby aspirin while dealing with a bout of chickenpox at 13. Unfortunately, the medicine triggered a rare and undetected disorder within her body. The medication triggered an infection, leading to her tragic and abrupt departure from life at the tender age of 13. And then, the hits kept coming.
53. He Nearly Lost Her
Dick Van Dyke had finally figured out that if he wanted to keep going, he needed to take care of himself. He'd given up drinking and inhaling harmful substances—but Michelle hadn't taken the same precautions. She had a heart attack in 1989, but during her recovery, Van Dyke noticed a peculiar and ominous side effect. When Michelle asked him what a remote control did, he knew something was terribly wrong.
54. Her Symptoms Were Terrifying
Within hours, Michelle lost the ability to think clearly or express herself. Then, when Van Dyke showed her a newspaper, she told him that she couldn’t read the headline. He rushed her to the hospital, where they found she’d suffered a form of a stroke. Luckily, she was fine—but it was a wake-up call to both of them.
55. He Can’t Stop Himself
Though Van Dyke had finally kicked his drinking problem, he was still an addict of another (luckily, less dangerous) kind. He was a workaholic. For years, he tried and failed to retire. In the midst of everything, he was a prominent figure in the series Diagnosis: Life-End Mystery for eight years. In recent years, his inability to stop working has continued to plague him—even in the face of immense tragedy.
56. He Lost His First Wife
Though Van Dyke has kept his energy and work level up at an age where most would be long retired, life threw him a true one-two punch. In 2008, his first wife Margie Willett lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. It was a brutal hit—and it didn’t end there.
57. He Watched As She Suffered
In 2009, Van Dyke’s longtime partner Michelle Triola received a diagnosis of lung cancer. Despite surgeries and chemo, it kept coming back with a vengeance. Eventually, the doctors had to reason with him. Treatment wasn’t working. She was struggling—and Van Dyke was faced with a heartbreaking decision.
58. He Put On A Sad Show
Michelle knew that things weren’t going well, but while she was groggy or pained from treatments, doctors would speak to Van Dyke and give him their realistic prognosis. But when Michelle would grow fearful and ask him if she was going to die, he couldn’t bear to tell her the truth. Despite his performance, she eventually caught on. In her final days, after she slipped into a coma, he sang to her every day, until she finally passed.
59. He Had A Mystery Illness
Unfortunately, while caring for his sick wife and then grieving her, he was also dealing with health issues of his own. In 2013, he revealed that he’d been suffering from a mysterious ailment for years—and the symptoms were brutal. He’d get debilitating, pounding headaches whenever he laid down, which made sleeping impossible. Although he went through scores of tests, doctors struggled to diagnose him.
Left looking for answers, he came up with one of his own. He suspects that titanium dental implants may have caused the illness. At least there was a bright spot in it all…
60. He Found Love Again
Van Dyke deeply mourned the loss of his longtime partner Michelle Triola—but he was eventually able to at least mend part of his broken heart when he met makeup artist Arlene Silver. The pair began as friends, but it eventually deepened into a romance—one which raised eyebrows. There is a 46-year age gap between the pair, but both friends and family approve.
They tied the knot in 2012 when she was 40 and he 86—and they’re still going strong.
61. His Mother Lied To Him
Van Dyke is still kicking at 96—or at least, we think he’s 96. His actual birthday has been a thing of mystery, and it all goes back to a family secret. His parents lied to him about his birthday for all of his childhood. The truth came out when he thought he was 17 and worried about being drafted into the army.
His mom then revealed the truth: He was already 18. She said he’d been born premature—but something about her story didn’t check out.
62. He Learned A Family Secret
When Van Dyke confronted his grandmother about his mother’s secret, she asked him what exactly his mother had said. When he recounted the story about being born premature, she scoffed and revealed the real truth. His parents had conceived him out of wedlock, which at the time, in a small town, was seriously scandalous. They later moved his birthday forward to conceal the “shameful” truth.