“I never wanted to be an actor, and to this day I don’t. I can’t get a handle on it. An actor wants to become someone else. I am a song-and-dance man, and I enjoy being myself, which is all I can do.”—Dick Van Dyke.
Dick Van Dyke is an American actor and singer who is best remembered for his roles in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins and The Dick Van Dyke Show. With a career in music, radio, film, and TV that spans half a century, he’s one of the most beloved “legacy” figures in Hollywood. So what is left to know about Dick Van Dyke?
From his entertaining career in the military to the exploits of his live radio marriage, no one can accuse Dick Van Dyke of not living life to the fullest. Say “Chim Chim Cher-ee” to these 42 musical facts about this legend of the screen.
42. The Family that Laughs Together
Van Dyke has pedigree. First, his family has been in America for hundreds of years. He can trace his ancestry to Mayflower passenger John Alden. More immediately, he was the older brother of Jerry Van Dyke, who is best remembered for the TV show Coach. Jerry passed away of heart failure in January 2018.
41. Choir Boy for Life
Because of his religious mother, Van Dyke considered a career in the Church as a youth. What changed his mind was a drama class in high school: from then on, he was utterly convinced that his true destiny would be in Hollywood. However, he never fully abandoned the idea of being a minister. As he would write, “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.”
40. Learning Never Stops
Van Dyke continued to teach Sunday school at his Presbyterian Church well into his success in entertainment.
39. The War on Laughter
Van Dyke was denied entry into the US Army several times because he was underweight. However, he was eventually offered admission… as a radio announcer. After a time, Van Dyke was transferred to the Special Services, where he provided laughs for the troops during World War II.
38. School is Cool
In 1944, Van Dyke dropped out of high school in his senior year to enter the army and become a pilot in World War II. Unfortunately, he was too underweight for combat, but he never went back to graduate. He didn’t lose out on the degree though; in 2004, the actor finally earned his high school diploma at the ripe age of 78 years old—some six decades after he left.
37. Put Your Lips Together For…
Van Dyke got his start in radio. Acting as an Illinois DJ in 1947, he was recruited to start a comedy duo with Phil Erikson called “Eric and Van—the Merry Mutes.” Touring the nightclub circuit, the act was a combination of music and mime. They would lip-sync to old 78 records—some 70 years before the rise of Lip Sync Battle.
36. Underqualified and Hired
Van Dyke is famous for playing the Broadway lead in Bye Bye Birdie. However, he originally auditioned for a small part. Having no experience as a dancer, he improvised a soft-shoe dance number after his audition song. And good thing he did: the show’s director and choreographer happened to be watching. Impressed enough, he immediately offered Van Dyke the lead role. When the actor told the director that he couldn’t actually dance, he was merely informed: “We’ll teach you.”
35. Going for Gold
It’s a good thing director Gower Champion took a chance on Van Dyke, even though the actor couldn’t dance and had next to no experience. For his role in Bye Bye Birdie, Van Dyke won the 1961 Tony for Best Featured Actor. Not a bad debut!
34. Why Change What Works?
Dick Van Dyke starred in two separate shows with his name in the title: The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) and The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-74). Despite the name, neither of these shows were related. We couldn’t blame you for making the mistake: in the former, Van Dyke played a comedy writer, while in the latter, he played a local television talk show host.
33. Grief is for Amateurs
Van Dyke was in the middle of recording Songs I Like By Dick Van Dyke when he and the crew were informed of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Everyone was rattled, but the show had to go on: Command Records put them on a strict deadline. Thus, Van Dyke and the rest of the production completed the recording. Understandably, the actor barely remembers doing the album because he was so shocked by the news.
32. Ominous Omissions
One of Van Dyke’s biggest regrets was turning down the role of Ambassador Thorn in The Omen (1976). Due to the film’s gory subject matter, he rejected the opportunity to get down and dirty. Decades later, in 2013, he would call this decision “stupid.”
31. Double Shifts for Disney
Van Dyke did double duty for Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). Not only did he play Bert the chimney sweep, but he also got into heavy make-up to embody the elderly and antagonistic bank chairman, Mr. Dawes Senior.
30. Word Games
For his second role in Mary Poppins, as Mr. Dawes Senior, Van Dyke was credited as “Nackvid Keyd”—which is an anagram for “Dick Van Dyke.”
29. Lost in Translation
Dick Van Dyke’s “cockney” accent in Mary Poppins is heavily cited as one of the worst movie accents of all time. Actors actually study it to learn how not to put on a new dialect. In a 2003 poll by Empire magazine, it was declared just the second-worst accents ever put to film—behind Sean Connery in The Untouchables.
Van Dyke blamed his notoriously bad Mary Poppins accent on his Irish accent coach who, in the actor’s words, “didn’t do an accent any better than I did.” Yeah, it is pretty weird they’d hire an Irish person to teach a Cockney accent, but the past is the past? Also, nobody bothered to warn Van Dyke about the quality (or lack thereof) of his cockney accent while they were actually producing the film.
27. Follow the Yellow Brick Road
After a decades-long career of fairly diverse roles, Van Dyke said in an interview with Larry King that his dream job would be to play the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Can’t you just picture it?
26. Dick the CGI Animator
Van Dyke is a professional computer animator. In 1991, he bought a Commodore Amiga and has since honed his skills to create 3D-rendered effects for big Hollywood productions from Diagnosis: Murder to The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited. He continues to have his work featured at SIGGRAPH, an annual computer graphics conference, and he works with the software LightWave 3D to this day.
25. Not a Hollywood Ending
Van Dyke married his first wife on live radio. On 12 February 1948, he and Margerie Willet were wed on a show called Bride and Groom. About 15 million people tuned into the nuptials. Although they had four children together, the couple endured a long separation that ended in official divorce in 1984.
24. Partners ‘Til Death
For most of his life, Van Dyke’s life partner was actress Michelle Triola. They were together for more than 30 years until Triola’s passing in 2009.
23. Where There’s Smoke, There’s Quitting
While Van Dyke has been a heavy smoker for the vast majority of his long life, the actor has made steps to curb it. In 2013, he admitted that he had been using Nicorette gum for ten years. Better late than never.
22. Turn Left
Van Dyke is a staunch liberal. He endorsed Bernie Sanders for the 2016 US presidential race—the first time the actor had campaigned for a candidate since Democrat Eugene McCarthy in 1968. What took Van Dyke out of political hiding? His fear of Donald Trump. To quote Van Dyke about the eventual President: “He scares me.”
21. A Star is Born
Van Dyke’s first acting credit was as Baby Jesus in his church Christmas pageant. Looking back, he wasn’t as professional as he could have been—according to Van Dyke himself, he “cried” all the way through his performance. We all start somewhere, right?
20. He Likes Strong But Silent Types
Despite his career in radio and musicals, Van Dyke is a huge fan of silent era films. Among his idols are silent screen stars Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel.
19. Put Your Fame Where Your Mouth Is
While living in Malibu, Van Duke was neighbors was actor Charles Bronson. For 16 years, Bronson would send him a lemon cake every Christmas. Sour, but sweet!
18. Early Bloomer
By the age of 12, Van Dyke was already six feet tall, but he was very underweight for many years as a result. Later, he was actually instructed to go on a milkshake diet until he could be big enough to join the Air Force. Sounds like my kind of diet!
17. Not Each One Can Be A Hit
Van Dyke was brought on to replace Harvey Korman in The Carol Burnett Show’s tenth season. Unfortunately, some people just can’t be replaced. Ratings tanked as viewers noticed his lack of chemistry with the remaining cast. While this was one of a few busts in his long career, it didn’t impact his long-running friendship with Carol Burnett.
16. Better Late Than Never
Despite his eclectic performance resume, Van Dyke didn’t act in a motion picture until the age of 36. This was, of course, for Bye Bye Birdie.
15. I’d Bet On It
Was Van Dyke’s high school newspaper psychic, or did student journalists merely spot his star talent from an early age? On 31 January 1944, Van Dyke was featured in a “spotlight” which detailed his plans to drop out and join the army. The article concludes with the predictive lines, “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.” Spooky.
14. Roles Not Taken
Van Dyke beat out the likes of Johnny Carson to lead The Dick Van Dyke Show. Does that mean there’s an alternate universe where Van Dyke hosted The Tonight Show?
13. School of Rock
Dick Van Dyke went to high school with two other musical talents: Donald O’Connor of Singing in the Rain fame and musical legend Bobby Short. Their high school in Danville, Illinois was notoriously tiny, so what are the chances it would produce such a famous trio?
In 2015, Van Dyke celebrated his 90th birthday by participating in a flash mob. Never too old to party!
11. Fleeting Attraction
Van Dyke admits to having had a “real crush” on Mary Tyler Moore, his 23-year-old co-star on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Him and most men in the country!
10. Cloudy With a Chance of Comedy
Imagine Dick Van Dyke telling you to bring an umbrella to work. For many citizens in New Orleans, Louisiana, this might have been the reality, as the actor held a brief early gig as their local weatherman.
9. Why Pick One?
Two hands are better than one: although Van Dyke favors his left hand, the actor is actually ambidextrous, which means he can use either hand almost equally well.
8. For Love, Not Money
Despite the highly public nature of their radio broadcast wedding, Van Dyke and his first wife Margie started their marriage very poor. While the show paid for the rings, honeymoon, and even their wedding gifts, the couple spent some of those honeymoon days living out of their car.
7. The Comedic Proofreader
Van Dyke’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame originally misspelled his last name as “VANDYKE.” Good thing Van Dyke has a sense of humor: he took it in stride, grabbed a pen, and simply drew a slash between the “VAN” and “DYKE.” Of course, the star has since been corrected, but it would’ve been funny to keep his proofreading notations.
6. Never Too Old To Find Love
In 2012, the 86-year-old Van Dyke began a late-in-life marriage to make-up artist Arlene Silver. Just for the record, Silver was 40 years old at the time. The couple had met six years previous at the SAG Awards, while Van Dyke’s previous partner was still alive.
5. Scorching Survivor
In 2013, Van Dyke had a flamingly close brush with death. The actor was rescued from the flaming wreck of his Jaguar on the US 101 freeway. The 87-year-old actor miraculously escaped unharmed, while the car burnt down to its frame.
4. Using TV To Make a Statement
In 1974, Van Dyke admitted he had struggled with alcoholism for 25 years. This admission came hot on the heels of his role in the television movie The Morning After (1974), where he played an alcoholic businessman.
3. Ready for the Big Screen?
After playing the lead in the Broadway version, Van Dyke revived his role for the film adaption of Bye Bye Birdie in 1963. However, he was unhappy with the changes: the film now focused on the exploits of a supporting character, played by up-and-coming starlet Ann-Margret, instead of his own star. Despite his grumble at being outshone, the film was a huge financial success.
2. My Friend Jack Daniels
For most of his run on The Dick Van Dyke Show, the leading man kept his alcoholism under tight wraps. He never considered himself a troublemaker; instead of expressing any negative feelings towards the crew or fans, he’d release his angst in the drink.
1. Birthday Surprise?
Van Dyke’s 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. The young man considered just joining the army anyways at 17 because he’d at least get to control his future that way. His mom then dropped the bombshell: Dick was already 18. His mother told him he was born premature, so they moved his birthday to his original due date. But Van Dyke’s grandma told him the real story: Dick was really conceived out of wedlock, and his parents moved his birthday forward to hide the “shameful” truth.
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