Throughout a movie, music, and television career that’s spanned more than 50 years, Dick Van Dyke has remained one of the most down-to-earth individuals in Hollywood. From his star-making turn in the stage and screen versions of Bye Bye Birdie to his still-signature role as comedy writer Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Van Dyke has engaged in agile physical comedy as well as pitch-perfect comedy: His best-known works are still celebrated decades after they debuted. But while the Mary Poppins and Diagnosis Murder star is now in his mid-80s, he hasn’t retired. He recently released a memoir, My Lucky Life In And Out Of Show Business, which discusses his career along with tough topics like his alcoholism, divorce, and his granddaughter’s death. He also sings in a group called Dick Van Dyke And The Vantastix, and he recently mounted a production of Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys with his brother, Jerry Van Dyke. Through it all, he’s also been considered thoughtful and unfailingly polite, as The A.V. Club found out during a recent conversation about his book, his 10 years on a TV show that was never picked up for a single season, and his crush on Mary Tyler Moore.
The A.V. Club: In the first chapter of your memoir, you write about your motivation for writing it at 85 years old. Had you ever thought about writing a book before?
Dick Van Dyke: Oh, it never occurred to me. A producer came to me [about doing a memoir], and at first I thought, “Well, it’s a little bland.” But then I realized that almost everything that’s happened to me was the result of being in the right place at the right time. And I thought “Well, luck has a lot to do with it,” so I wrote it from that perspective.
AVC: When you sat down and thought about the whole span of your career and life, what was the most surprising thing you came away with?
DVD: The whole thing is rather surprising to me. When I was a kid, I had ambitions for being a television announcer, which was before television took off, you know, in the late ’40s. And just through necessity, going out looking for work, I was starting to sing, and dance, and act, and I never expected to do that, nor to have any success at it at least. So the whole scheme… I’m still surprised every day.
AVC: You say in the book that you’ve said you were going to retire for 50 years—
DVD: I’ve done it 100 times.
AVC: What’s been the motivator to keep finding projects, keep finding things to do? Like your singing group, for instance—
DVD: Well, that all came about by accident. But you know, I found out retirement means playing golf, or I don’t know what the hell it means. But to me, retirement means doing what you have fun doing. So if I’m not doing anything, it’s just not fun right now. So I’m going out with a quartet. We do a lot of benefits and that kind of thing. We sang for the president last summer in Washington, and my brother and I just knocked together a two-man play of a Neil Simon play, Sunshine Boys, and did that for a few weeks, and may do it again. But I’m just doing whatever’s fun to do now.
AVC: Considering all the famous people you’ve been around, is it still a thrill to do something like sing for a president?
DVD: Well, it was for me, because I’ve met presidents, but I’ve never performed for one. I said it was the first time in 50 years I actually had butterflies. You know, the Obamas were sitting out there, the Supreme Court, Maya Angelou, and Desmond Tutu for God’s sake, all in the front row. [Laughs.] It was a big kick for me. And the president came up and said, “Can you teach me your moves?”
AVC: You said right from the start that you weren’t writing the book to be a tell-all.
DVD: Well, there wasn’t much to tell. [Laughs.] Old drinking problem.
AVC: Who was your co-writer?
DVD: A guy named Todd Gold, who was really, I think, a hypnotist or something, because he managed to reach into my subconscious and bring up memories I’d forgotten about.
AVC: What was the process there? Did he sit with you and interview you?
DVD: More I just talked, and he would interject here and there and kind of lead me down the path. He was really very, very good. He talked very little. I literally almost dictated it into the tape machine.
AVC: When you got to describing negative experiences like working with Faye Dunaway or restraining a knife-wielding Redd Foxx on the set of a TV movie, did you have to restrain yourself?
DVD: No, I think I told the Redd Foxx story pretty completely. I might have been a little easier on Faye than I could’ve been. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was it at all tempting to go in that direction?
DVD: Well, you know, I tried to tell the story without going too far. I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or anything. But they shot that thing with Faye with, I think, three cameras on the set. And the guys who were in the control room said… that time I was over her shoulder and I was making faces, mugging. I’d love to have that footage now! [Laughs.]
AVC: And plenty of other people have Faye Dunaway stories—
DVD: [Laughs.] Yeah, I’ve heard quite a few. Other than that, I’ve been pretty lucky with the leading ladies.
AVC: You mention that you had a big crush on Mary Tyler Moore when you were doing The Dick Van Dyke Show together. Where did that come from?
DVD: You know, I don’t know. Just working with her every day. The first season, you know, we both liked each other a lot. We got along so well, our personalities meshed, and of course she’s attractive, and we were attracted to each other, and admitted it. It became a real honest-to-God crush. I said maybe in another time and a different way, something might have happened, but it didn’t.
AVC: Were you able to channel that into what you did onscreen?
DVD: Well yeah, we spent a lot of time together and had a great time. And just working with her was like improv. We got to the place where we could almost read each other’s minds. It was great fun to work together.
AVC: You spend a lot of the book praising The Dick Van Dyke Show; it really seemed like you felt it was one of the highlights of your career.
DVD: As a matter of fact, I just did a little Q&A with Carl Reiner last night at the Writers Guild here in L.A., and Rose Marie was there. We all admitted that that was, for us, the best five years of our lives, the most creative and the most fun.
AVC: Carl Reiner is still in pop culture as much as you are these days, with movie and TV roles.
DVD: Oh, particularly as a writer, a terrific writer. He’s just turning out things. You know, his wife Estelle passed away a few years back, and he’s just buried himself in writing, and is turning out a lot of great stuff, even children’s books.
AVC: Did the reverence for the experience of doing the original Dick Van Dyke Show increase in your mind as you went on to do other projects?
DVD: Yes. True. The presses reported at the time that the show went off because I was off to pursue a movie career, which couldn’t have been more wrong. I’d still be doing it today. Carl just felt that was enough.
AVC: Do you think a lot of shows could follow that formula these days?
DVD: Well, you know, Mary Tyler Moore ran for seven years. I know Seinfeld ran for a lot of years. I think you can do it. He had a fear at that point of getting repetitive, and I don’t think it would’ve happened.
AVC: Because Reiner’s such a good writer?
DVD: Absolutely. And he got such good people around him—Bill Persky and Sam Denoff—and just taught them his style of writing. I think we could’ve gone on a long time.
AVC: What adjustments do you think he could’ve made to keep the show going further than five seasons?
DVD: I think our child, Ritchie, should’ve started to grow up, and possibly Mary should have gotten involved in some kind of a career on the side. I think it could have been done, but that’s all conjecture.
AVC: Later in the book, you talk a lot about your drinking problem, your marriage falling apart, and your granddaughter’s death. When it came time to put those personal events in the book, did you stop and think “Maybe I shouldn’t do this?”
DVD: I went public with the alcoholism, very early on… the early ’70s. Mercedes McCambridge, the actress, I think was the first recognizable person that went before Congress and talked about it, and I thought that was a good idea, to take some of the stigma away from it and say “Normal, average people can fall prey to it.” So it’s been public for me. I did a movie about an alcoholic. And today, you’re nobody unless you’ve been to rehab. It seems like everybody has some kind of an addiction. [Chuckles.] It’s out of the closet now, and I think that’s great. The thing with the granddaughter, I did it for my son. It was his only daughter, and it was a terrible loss to him, and he vowed to never even attempt to have a child again. But she’d written a wonderful book of poems about age 12, almost prophetic. She was kind of an old soul. I put one of the poems in just in memory of her, because she was quite a bright kid.
AVC: How about your marriage and how that ended, was that tough to put in the book?
DVD: Well, yeah. A lot of the guilt didn’t help my drinking at that point. I never expected a divorce to happen in my life particularly, but it just slowly happened. My wife was proud of me, but she hated the business, and for good reason. The spouses get moved, shoved aside, and ignored, and it’s just, it’s terrible. We finally moved to Arizona to kind of get away from it. But it was just a time when I could neither afford financially or emotionally to quit. It’s what I did. And it was amicable, you know. She wanted very much to live a quiet life away. As I look back upon it, the transition was pretty smooth, but boy, it was killing me at the time.
AVC: In the book, you talk about how people think you’re a very serious person offscreen. What’s your reaction to that?
DVD: I don’t know. Around my friends, I don’t think I’m that serious, unless the subject is. But Mary said she never really got to know me very well, and I was kind of surprised by that, because I thought she knew me very well! [Laughs.]
AVC: Did reading great philosophers and thinking about big issues, as you mention in the book, help inform what you did onstage or in front of a camera?
DVD: Not particularly. But I decided, when I started having kids, that I’d try not to do anything that I wouldn’t be proud for them to see. I’ve kind of stuck with that, and I don’t regret that at all, although I’ve lost money and passed up a lot of projects because of it. But I feel good about that.
AVC: Did you expect Diagnosis Murder to run as long as it did?
DVD: Not in a million years. I kind of got drawn into it by Freddy Silverman. He did a spin-off from Jake And The Fatman, and I said, “Oh God, I’m 65 years old. I don’t want to do an hour.” And he says “No, I just want you to do the pilot. That’s all. If it sells, we’ll get somebody else.” And then he said, “How about a TV movie?” Then we did three TV movies. Then [CBS] picks up, I think, eight weeks. That whole 10 years, the network never picked up an entire season. They doled it out three at a time, four at a time. So we never knew when we were going off the air, and we existed like that for 10 years. It was just remarkable.
AVC: There seem to be shows like that all the time on TV, and people are going, “It’s still on the air?”
DVD: Yeah, that’s true. Well we were, obviously, [attractive to] the older audience, because it was family-oriented. But I do get a lot of letters from kids who enjoyed it. We ran a very loose ship. Nobody took it too seriously. We’d often say, when the three of us were out chasing the criminals, “Who’s watching the hospital, for God’s sake?” But everybody who ever came on said they had a wonderful time. We kept it light. And I think that atmosphere kind of transferred to the screen a little bit.
AVC: And you grew the mustache because you wanted to look more doctorly?
DVD: Exactly. My wife hated that mustache, but I thought it looked like a doctor. [Laughs.] And of course, I carried nepotism to its ultimate extreme and had the whole family on. [One of the show’s stars was Dick’s son Barry. —ed.]
AVC: Who was the most enjoyable guest star to work with?
DVD: Oh, my brother always is my favorite, because he breaks me up. I can’t work with my brother without laughing. Dick Martin was a good buddy, and he was always a lot of fun to have around.
AVC: One of the book’s surprises is that you’re now a big CGI fan, and you do your own computer graphics.
DVD: Yeah! Yeah, I got into it, oh God, almost 20 years ago, when they came out with a little toy called a Video Toaster that would put out something like 15 frames of animation. And I got into that and just kind of stayed with the technology, and today, I’m pretty good!
AVC: Have you loaded anything to YouTube on the sly, without people knowing it was you who did it?
DVD: No. I did a motorcycle stunt for Diagnosis Murder once, something that was physically impossible. And I did that and actually got paid, so I became a pro. Then we did a reunion of the Van Dyke Show at one point, and I had done a cartoon of myself tap-dancing, and I danced with myself. So I’ve been on twice with my work.
AVC: Is that something you would want to continue with as things go forward?
DVD: Well, it’s just a hobby. No, I wouldn’t want to do it professionally. It’s too hard. Deadlines are no fun. But I can sit and tweak all night and not worry about time.
AVC: Do you see comedy as being the same now as it was when you did The Dick Van Dyke Show?
DVD: No, I don’t think it is the same. I think comedy’s morphed pretty well over the years. We were talking about that last night. Do you remember Your Show Of Shows with Sid Caesar? To me, that was groundbreaking. It changed comedy. All the guys had been either vaudeville, or burlesque, or nightclub comedians before that, and Sid came up with a whole new thing. I think it’s changed, not necessarily for the better, because primarily… We used to get 27, 28 minutes to do a story in, and now they’re lucky if they get 18 or 20 minutes. So I don’t think they can really do a beginning, a middle, and an end anymore. There’s an awful lot of one-line jokes; almost every line is a punchline. It’s not the same, but there’s still good comedy around.
AVC: What are you a fan of?
DVD: I like The Office. I particularly like the British version with Ricky Gervais. Of course, I liked the Seinfeld show a lot. I thought that was an awfully good show.
AVC: What do you think of all the single-camera comedies on the air now?
DVD: I found doing that kind of comedy without an audience is just… for me, it’s almost impossible. You need the audience to do their half of the work. You play off them, and that’s what the pacing comes from. But I did a guest shot on a comedy series where they did 20 to 30 takes of everything. It’s just gone by then. The joke is over. [Laughs.] It’s not funny anymore, and then of course, the editor’s the one that has to figure out the timing. I think a lot depends on that.
AVC: What show was that?
DVD: It was Scrubs. Yeah. Which, you know, is a good show on the air, but I found their way of working just not to my taste at all. I did a Golden Girls once, which shot in front of an audience, and that went well. I had a good time. But I need an audience, for comedy at least.
AVC: If you were asked to play a role in a regular series, whether it was a drama series or comedy, would you do it now?
DVD: Anything that was good, that was interesting, that piqued my interest. I do get a lot of scripts these days, but it’s turned out to be a matter of taste these days. A lot of stuff, I’d just rather not do. But heck, I’ve been watching—Dana Delany has a new show [Body Of Proof] which I really like, and I said “Yeah, you want an executive, an old guy around? I’ll do it!” Good people to work with, a good script, I’d do it in a minute.
AVC: Who would you want to work with these days?
DVD: Oh God, a lot of people. I did an interview, and I forget what it was… somebody said, “If they remade The Dick Van Dyke Show today, who do you think should play Rob Petrie?” And I said Jim Carrey should play him. And I got a note from him. He was flattered that I admired him, and invited me to the première of his new picture, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, that’s coming up. And I said, “Well, I’m just coming to see my penguins [from Mary Poppins] anyway.” But there’s a lot of very funny people I’d love to work with, that I’ve never met of course. I love Steve Martin and Jim Carrey. Martin, particularly; have you read his book? It was called Born Standing Up. The whole book is really how he over the years built his act, took out the punchline. It really is an interesting study. He’s a hell of a writer.
AVC: It does seem to be an era now where performers from your generation are getting the respect they deserve. Do you see this as a trend that’s going to last?
DVD: Oh, I think there’s kind of a wave of nostalgia going on right at the moment. You know, people recall an earlier time, which they see as a better time. And I think we just kind of evoke good thoughts when they look at us. That’s the feeling I get.
AVC: When you see all the stuff going on with Betty White, what’s your impression?
DVD: She tickles me to death, because she’s hotter than a pistol, and she’s taking every job that comes along, and I don’t blame her. She’s obviously having a great time.
AVC: If there was a Facebook movement to have you host Saturday Night Live, would you take up the challenge?
DVD: You know, 10 years ago, I would’ve. But to me, the show has declined. For some reason, humor isn’t what it was. It just, to me, it’s not as funny as it was, not as sharply satirical.
AVC: Is it because of the subject matter, like they’re doing more pop culture?
DVD: Well, I think both of those: the subject matter, pop culture… the talent, I don’t think… there’s no Belushis in there, for me. And probably, you know, possibly the material. They’ve done everything over the years.
AVC: Who do you think is doing that kind of satire these days?
DVD: Jon Stewart kills me. I love him. And Bill Maher. He does an hour on HBO. But entirely political. It is awfully rough, but he does make me laugh.
AVC: If Maher asked you, would you go on Real Time?
DVD: I wouldn’t mind taking a chance at it. I’ve always thought if I could pick my interviewer, it’d be Charlie Rose, who I think is the best.
AVC: Mainly because he just kind of lets people be, right?
DVD: Yeah, and he’s always done his homework. He’s so well-informed. His questions are always provocative. I just think he’s the best one.
AVC: One of the things you also mention in the book was that The Dick Van Dyke Show was made purposely by Reiner so it would be timeless. Besides Jim Carrey playing Rob, what do you think the show would look like these days?
DVD: Well, I’ve also said, I would love to see Carl working in the arena today with the kind of latitude you have [now.] He did some marvelous things on our show in the early ’60s when it was a little edgy. You know, we did shows about blacks, a couple, three of those. Some thought-provoking stuff. Today, with the subject matter that’s around politically, and internationally and everything, I think he would have a ball. I think the format should stay the same. I’d sure love to see him dealing with it today.
AVC: When you talked about Mary Poppins in the book, you didn’t mention how the accent you used came about. How did that happen?
DVD: Well, as I say in the book, they gave me an Irishman as a coach. And I was concentrating so much with staying on pitch with Julie [Andrews], and a lot of heavy dancing, and so much else that I was doing. And I was surrounded by British people, and nobody ever said a word to me. Neither did Walt Disney. You would think he’d come down from the dailies and say, “You’ve gotta work on that Cockney accent. You stink.” But nobody ever said anything. [Laughs.] But the British still keep getting after me.
AVC: Have you heard a favorite line about that accent?
DVD: [Laughs.] No, I haven’t. Only funny line I’ve had was my first day on the set of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They were making me up, and I saw the director call the makeup man over, and he says “What are we going to do about the hooter?” And the makeup guy said, “I’m not a plastic surgeon.” So I started that show with a big nose, and quite conscious of it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you ever look back and think of anything you did in your career that you wish you’d done differently, or could take back?
DVD: Well, a few dog movies that I probably shouldn’t have done. Thank God people don’t remember them. I think the biggest mistake—I was always a big fan of Cary Grant, and he asked me to do a movie with him, playing the second lead, and I didn’t do it. And to this day, I can’t remember why. But I could’ve said I worked with Cary Grant, but I turned him down. That was probably the biggest mistake I ever made. It’s just something I’m disappointed in myself for not having done, to have had that experience. Otherwise, everything got better and better, just one surprise after another. And that’s why I wrote the book about a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and just luck.
AVC: At this juncture in your life, do you see yourself slowing down at all?
DVD: As I said, my brother and I did a little play together, and the Shuberts have asked us to come to New York this summer and do it on Broadway. So I very well may do that. And we’re getting invitations for… my quartet’s been invited to… well, Andy Williams wanted us to come down to Missouri, and we’ve been asked to go on tour. So I’m gonna keep singing and dancing as long as I can.
AVC: You hurt your foot a few months back?
DVD: Yeah, I tore my Achilles heel. We were about to open at a theater out here, and what was supposed to be a one-man show, with my quartet backing me up, we were all set. And I threw my ankle out and had to cancel it. So we may go back and do that too. My ankle’s doing very, very well. I’m back to jumping around and dancing. So I may go do it again. Because we had an hour and half of—it was autobiographical. A few little stories and film clips, but mostly singing and dancing, and we were excited about it.
AVC: When you were in your 30s and 40s and you envisioned yourself at 85, did you envision yourself still working?
DVD: Yes I did, because longevity in my family’s been pretty good. And my grandparents were pretty spry at their age, so I figured I’d probably stay skinny and fairly agile. I used to do old men all the time in sketches. And there used to be an organization called the Gray Panthers. And they would send me, oh, terrible letters about making fun of old people. And I would just always say, “I’m playing the old person I intend to become!” [Laughs.]
AVC: And did you become the old person you played back then?
DVD: I’m not quite as much of a curmudgeon. [Laughs.] I’m not cantankerous. But otherwise, I’m about the same.