Dick Van Dyke turns 90 this year, but he doesn’t believe he has to act his age—or any age. His book on the subject, Keep Moving: And Other Tips And Truths About Aging, chronicles his life, both pre- and post-Hollywood, and how he stays young, by dancing, singing, and keeping an open mind to whatever surprises life throws his way. Rather than some youngster reviewing the book, we had Ruth Ann Penzey, grandma of assistant editor Caitlin PenzeyMoog, read it and interview Van Dyke, with Caitlin mostly facilitating the technology. Ruth is 78 to Van Dyke’s 89, making her an ideal reader of his book—not that there isn’t advice for younger people in there, too. In keeping with Van Dyke’s subject-spanning book, their conversation ranged to their grandkids, gay rights, Carl Reiner, cartooning, and searching for the purpose of life.
Ruth Ann Penzey: Mr. Van Dyke. What a thrill, what an honor, what fun.
Dick Van Dyke: Are you grandma?
RAP: I am. I’m very proud of the title, too. You’ve got to work hard to get that far.
DVD: [Laughs.] That’s right! I’m now a great-grandfather.
RAP: I see that in your book.
DVD: It hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, either.
RAP: No, it had better not.
At 78, I look up to people who are older than me and think, yes, I can do that. And just reading your book, Mr. Van Dyke, it’s just a real—well, it was a real hoot, for one thing. I enjoyed it immensely.
DVD: Oh, thank you. I’m glad to hear it.
RAP: And then Caity just came with the hardbound cover that actually has pictures in it, too, which was even more enjoyable. You still look fantastic.
DVD: Well… [Laughs.]
RAP: There were so many things that came up in your book that I want to ask you about, and a big one is you writing about the meaning of life. I never gave that much thought as a young person, and as I get older I’m still looking for the answer.
DVD: [Laughs, coughs.] I’m sorry. I just choked on my coffee. You know, it’s the funniest thing, I always wake at 6, and I overslept this morning. Very rare for me. Because I’m always neurotically prompt.
RAP: Oh, we were excited and waiting, it was no problem on our end at all.
DVD: Are you on a cell phone? A speaker phone?
RAP: Yes, we are.
DVD: It’s kind of echoing a little bit.
RAP: There. My granddaughter has trusted me to turn off the speaker and just speak with you.
DVD: Oh, this is great! [Laughs.]
RAP: So, with the meaning of life I was asking about… you know, what’s this all about and why are we here and what’s the answer? Have you come up with an answer yet?
DVD: I think the Buddhists always had the best answer. You need someone to love, and something to do that you enjoy, and something to hope for, and that’s enough for me.
RAP: I agree. But your life is really full. There was a Facebook post of a folk group doing music at your home, and there was your wife, and you were getting her out of the kitchen to do some dance work with you…
DVD: [Laughs.] Oh, yes. Wish I ad-libbed that one, it was sure fun.
RAP: Well, it looks like you’re having fun. She looks like she’s fun to be with.
DVD: Yes, she is. She helps keep me young. She’s very active physically, and she’s bright and intelligent and loves to sing and dance. So she’s really my kind of woman.
RAP: She has a face that makes you think that she’s a likable, knowable woman.
DVD: Yeah, she’s just as open as that. She does look like that. That’s what appealed to me. Her beautiful eyes…
RAP: I can see that. There’s so much more in your book, and one of the things I enjoyed was your cartoonist’s ability.
DVD: I can draw cartoons, and occasionally I can do a caricature. But it has to be somebody with very prominent features like me.
RAP: Well there was a picture of the caricature of yourself you left for the gentleman on the train, and I thought that was amazing!
DVD: How did you see that?
RAP: It’s there in the book, and if you look at it at an angle, you can see very clearly it’s a picture of yourself.
DVD: Oh, for heaven’s sake. Yeah, our waiter was so nice that I drew him a picture. [Laughs.]
RAP: That must be one of the thrills of his lifetime.
DVD: Very nice young man. You know, the funny thing is, writing the book was actually my publisher’s idea. He apparently knows I’m a little more spry than some of my contemporaries, but I said, you know, “What am I going to write about?” One day I started making some notes and I realized it was more than an exercise in health, that attitude was very, very important—openness of mind—and then I just kept writing and came up with a lot more than I thought I would.
RAP: And I would think there’s even more things that you could elaborate on. I got such a kick out of your talking about your grandmother and your great-grandmother, and the fact that your great-grandmother saw Abraham Lincoln speak.
DVD: She was 10 years old. That collapsed the whole history of the country for me. I couldn’t believe that I knew someone who had actually seen Lincoln.
RAP: Isn’t that amazing?
DVD: Yes, absolutely. It really just blew me away when I heard it.
RAP: And now to think that you have conversed with a whole handful of presidents in your lifetime.
DVD: A handful, yeah, I have. I got to meet Obama and Clinton. Johnson. Who else did I meet?
RAP: I think you said Nixon was in there.
DVD: Yeah, Nixon.
RAP: And Gerald Ford. Gerald and Betty Ford.
DVD: Yeah, briefly Gerald Ford. Whom I like. He wasn’t president very long, but I really liked the man.
RAP: I did, too. I don’t know what his presidential standing was—how he was ranked at the end of it all—but he was a very likable man, I thought.
DVD: Yes, he was. I kind of trusted him. [Laughs.]
RAP: I liked your list about how life is sort of like driving your car: Keep to the middle of the road and watch your turns, and…
DVD: Yeah. That’s about all the rules we really need. We’ve got a lot more of them…
RAP: And then this little bit on your wedding that you wrote about. The second big wedding with Arlene, all the fun stuff. I thought, you know, if you could do that again, I’d sure like to be there.
DVD: It was kind of like a great big circus party with a wedding somewhere in the middle. It was more like a party than a wedding, but God, was it fun. And my wedding bells were from “September Song” from Knickerbocker Holiday.
RAP: Oh, for goodness sakes.
DVD: About April-May romances.
RAP: Uh-huh. The days grow short when you reach September.
DVD: Yes. And the marriage is just more than either one of us expected. We’re just loving life.
RAP: That’s wonderful to have that opportunity again.
DVD: Yes. It’s a chance offered to very few people of my age.
RAP: Not only that, but people say, “Love in your 80s, oh come on!” Young people, they have no idea, do they?
DVD: Ageism is probably the last discrimination that’s accepted in this culture. I don’t understand it. So many people are more afraid of old age than they are of dying, I think.
RAP: Well, no, that’s true, because old age, unfortunately, has so many downsides that people harp on all the time that it can sound frightening.
DVD: Yeah. I’m hoping—I hesitated on writing the book in the beginning because I thought, “Well, what is there to say?” But I realized there are probably some old codgers out there like me who can get some good out of it.
RAP: Oh, you know I’m a youngster compared to you, and I found it reassuring.
DVD: Yes. I’m going to be 90 in a couple of months, and I feel pretty good!
RAP: Well you look darn good.
DVD: Where are you?
RAP: I’m in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
DVD: I thought I recognized that accent.
RAP: Oh, come on. I don’t have an accent.
DVD: Well I’m from Illinois, southern Illinois, and I can always tell the difference—someone from Chicago has an entirely different accent, and then, your part of the world, it’s a little—it’s just different. Just a little bit. I can almost nail where someone’s from.
RAP: Well that’s a trick of the ear, too. Being from southern Illinois, I’m surprised you don’t talk with a bit of a Southern accent. The first time I went down that far through Illinois down to the tip of it in the South there, I was amazed that they didn’t sound like the people in Chicago.
DVD: Oh, not at all. They have a nasal twang down there. I’m from Danville, which is about mid-state, and people tell me I still have a Midwest accent, but I don’t compared to the folks back home.
RAP: I always think it’s a shame that with television and the movies these days that eventually we’re all going to end up sounding exactly alike.
DVD: Yes. Yeah, everything’s getting homogenized. It seems to me like music and behavior and everything else is getting homogenized.
RAP: And that’s too bad. The varieties are what make it all go ’round.
RAP: And then, reading your book as kind of a liberal leftist myself, I was enchanted by your leanings, too. Did you take a lot of flak on the NOH8 campaign? You were on that trail early.
DVD: Well, of course here on the West Coast it’s a little different… [Laughs.]
RAP: That’s true.
DVD: You know, most people—what did you think of that gal in Kentucky who wouldn’t pass out the marriage licenses?
RAP: She should’ve been fired just right on the spot.
DVD: I know. It seems to me, in my opinion, that she misread, or misunderstood the biblical admonition. It was against—the admonition was for people who practice homosexuality. There’s nothing in there about the rest of it, casting judgement on them or administering the punishment. That’s God’s job. You’re supposed to hate the sin, love the sinner. But I think, really, she’s got it wrong. She’s not supposed to administer the punishment.
RAP: No. And then somebody said to me, well how can you be in favor of gay marriage when you’re a Catholic? And I says, well, I says, if you believe in God, and that God creates people, are we saying he made a mistake with gay people?
DVD: I think I mentioned in the book, some people never change their mind through their whole lives, about anything, despite new information that comes in. And now that we know that homosexuality is not a choice, it’s biological, I think we have to love and understand them.
RAP: I couldn’t agree more.
DVD: I’m glad to hear you say that.
RAP: And I wish we had had an election the way they had in Ireland on this, because I think it would have won overwhelmingly, and I think the people who are naysayers—who are saying it’s just the government’s idea—would be surprised to see how many of their fellow man agree with them.
DVD: I was so proud of Ireland! [Laughs.] That was just great, wasn’t it?
RAP: And what else—oh, there was so much in your book! I just want people to look at the book, read the book, and get the good feelings I got just reading the book.
DVD: Oh, how nice. That’s great.
RAP: You talk about we don’t have enough trust in the world today, and I thought how true that is: that once there were no locked doors and when a person gave his word, the word was binding. And all that’s gone, it seems.
DVD: Oh, yeah. I think anybody who was born in the last 20 or so years thinks there’s always been freeways and gridlock and shopping malls, and there really weren’t! I was just checking, when I was 18 and I went into the service, there were 130 million people in the United States. Now it’s over three times that, and there’s no way of stopping. They’re having to fake producing food already by force-feeding cows and chickens. I don’t know how we’re going to do it! The population problem really worries me.
RAP: Isn’t that something? And then that’s the downside of being… The new pope is really a bright light in the Catholic religion.
DVD: Isn’t he? I’m just tickled to death with him. He’s got a lot of love to give.
RAP: That’s somebody you should meet, Mr. Van Dyke. I think the two of you would hit it off remarkably well.
DVD: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah. That would be wonderful. There are a lot of Catholics, however, who disagree with him, aren’t there?
DVD: Despite the fact that millions turned out to see him.
RAP: And you know, if he’s the supreme ruler and you have to accept him as God’s emissary, you gotta go along with him.
DVD: [Laughs.] Yeah. But I know clergymen who really have great doubt. They can’t admit it to their congregations, but they do. And they have questions. And it so disturbs me that the church isn’t more understanding, allow a little more intuitive kind of worship than they do. I don’t know what—you know, we came away from England to get away from the [Church] Of England’s tyranny, and they’re still kind of tyrannical with all the rules.
RAP: Yep. I think you’re right.
DVD: You know I taught Sunday school when I was younger, and ended up an elder in the church, and it just seemed to me that a lot of people who went to church certainly weren’t—the rest of the week—living what I would call an Christian life.
RAP: And in the book, as you keep talking, you can see that these are things you’re working on changing. You’ve worked with the gay movement. You work with ecology sites, environmental sites. You work for women’s rights. So that doesn’t mean you just wash your hands and give up, does it?
DVD: [Laughs.] And also, we have one of the greatest homeless places here in Los Angeles, the Midnight Mission, which is just remarkable. They take people off the street, clean them up, re-educate them, and put them back into society. And I work with them almost exclusively.
RAP: Yes, and I think that’s one your wife an award or a recognition from?
DVD: Yeah. I did and she did! She works with them. She’s just a joy.
RAP: It’s so wonderful you’ve got someone like that in your life now, I mean, let’s face it, at this late date.
DVD: Yes, most of my contemporaries have passed, but the ones who—
RAP: Carl Reiner’s still hanging in there.
DVD: Yeah, he’s 93, and still got all of his marbles. He’s just wonderful. But you know he’s a widower. Mel Brooks—a widower. I never planned to marry again at my age, and look what happened.
RAP: And isn’t it wonderful.
DVD: Oh! I am not a loner. I have to have a partner in life.
RAP: Well, I can see with your energy and enthusiasm you have to have somebody to bounce that off of.
DVD: [Laughs.] To keep up with me.
RAP: And if she had to be that much younger to keep up with you, so be it.
DVD: [Laughs.] The most important thing—I’m not sure if I put it in the book or not—for old guys, is never start going down the stairs sideways.
RAP: I was going to ask you about that. That’s the last thing I quoted to my granddaughter.
DVD: It feels a little better to the knees, but that begins to throw the hip out, and then the spine, and before you know it you’re on a walker. I said, even if it hurts a little, don’t ever go down the stairs sideways. [Laughs.]
RAP: And then at one point you say one of the big things in life is a sense of humor, and I couldn’t agree with you more.
DVD: You have to be able to laugh at yourself. Attitude is almost more important than what happens to you. If you take an attitude toward it that maybe somewhere in there is a lesson… [Laughs.]
RAP: Yeah, and there generally is, too. Sometimes you have to look a little harder to find it, don’t you?
DVD: That’s right.
RAP: And then there’s the “I should haves” or “Why didn’t Is.” You know, not as Dick Van Dyke the celebrity, but just as Dick the guy, do you ever get up in the morning and you think, “You know, I can’t do this today. I can’t be charming and witty. I need time to just hide in the closet for a couple of hours.” Do you ever get days like that?
DVD: No, I—you know, there are some people who just naturally get up on the wrong side of the bed. I have two kids who were like me, we get out of bed feeling good, and the other two would sit at the breakfast table and grumble. I think it’s born into us. I usually wake up feeling pretty good. Looking forward to the day. And, at our age, thank God for another day.
RAP: I do, too. I get up and say, “Here I am again, by golly.”
DVD: How old is your granddaughter?
RAP: My granddaughter is 26.
DVD: Oh, great!
RAP: And a beautiful girl she is.
Caitlin PenzeyMoog: Oh, no.
RAP: Yes. She’s one of my set of twins. I got a set of twin girls that are 26 and a set of twin boys that are 5.
DVD: My eldest just turned 65.
RAP: Oh, dear.
DVD: And I said, wait a minute. I’m 65. You can’t be 65.
RAP: [Laughs.] Isn’t that when it starts getting to you? When your grandkids get to be grown.
DVD: I know! I have three kids in their 60s and I just can’t put my mind around it, because I don’t feel that old.
RAP: You look at them and you think, “Well these are great adults, but who are they? These can’t be my children.” But the grandkids are fun, too. They do keep you young, don’t they?
DVD: Oh, yeah. And the great-grandkids. You know, I have some I haven’t met, they’re from out of town, and I can’t even count them. They haven’t slowed down at all.
RAP: That’s amazing. Your book has so many things that sparked my thoughts, and things that I haven’t thought about and—
DVD: That’s good to know! Maybe it’ll do some good.
RAP: Yeah, it will. It’s funny that this is coming from The A.V. Club, which I don’t quite look at as being old-folks material, but on the other hand, when I was at a little family party yesterday and I told my 18-year-old grand-niece that I would be interviewing Dick Van Dyke, and she has this hippy type boyfriend, plays in bands, 19 years old, and he says, “You’re going to talk to Dick Van Dyke?!” And I told him yes, and he says, “Wow, how cool is that!” So I’m cool, talking to you, with these 18-year-old kids!
DVD: Isn’t that great? I’m on my third generation now. It’s really wonderful.
RAP: That is neat. And the fact that you are known by so many, from us older people all the way down to the 18- and 19-year olds, and I just watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with my 8-year-old granddaughter.
DVD: It’s very rewarding to know that… you know, make people laugh, and give a little lightness occasionally, and I’ve had a wonderful time.
RAP: Do we ever need that. But the funny thing is, looking at your pictures here, you’re going to be 90 in December—I looked at these pictures from the book, and I thought, you know, the man hasn’t changed that much since The Dick Van Dyke Show.
DVD: [Laughs.] Yeah. I’ve shrunk a couple inches.
RAP: I liked the line in the book, where you wrote that maybe that’s the way life goes—you just keep shrinking those couple of inches until there’s no more of you.
DVD: Yeah, but everybody knows that I’m shorter, but it doesn’t bother me at all.
RAP: Unfortunately with me, the shrinking of a couple of inches makes me a little heavier. I always used to think I’m not overweight, I’m just 3 inches too short—well now I’m 4 inches too short.
DVD: Do you get any exercise?
RAP: I walk everyday for about half an hour to 40 minutes.
DVD: That’s great. That’s the best thing you can do.
RAP: Well I can’t sing and I can’t dance. I love watching you dance, I love watching other people dance, but not for me.
DVD: You know that old saying, sing like nobody can hear you, dance like nobody can see you, and love like you’ve never been hurt. Everybody can sing and dance. They can’t do it well, but you can do it.
RAP: Well I sing a lot, much to the annoyance of my family members, because I’m really off-key and flat.
DVD: [Laughs.] Oh, me too. I sing all day. And it’s good for you. Good for your vocal cords.
RAP: Well, it makes you feel good, anyway.
DVD: Oh, absolutely. It’s the same as Buddhists doing their chanting or… you know, there are tribes all over the world who sing and dance every day as part of their lives. And we oughta do that.
RAP: You know, you’re right. Every now and then you see these things on Facebook or YouTube of someone getting up on the subway and dancing and getting cheers from the crowd, getting everyone smiling, and I’m thinking, “I wish I could do that.” You do that!
DVD: But I do it in stores.
RAP: Yeah. I think that’s wonderful. It makes people smile.
DVD: Yes it does. Yes it does. It makes me smile, too.
RAP: I would think so. You seem to be having a good kick out of it. Out of life in general. At the end of the book you talk about the T-shirt: “Live the life and get the T-shirt.” And I think, you know, I’m going to get that T-shirt.
DVD: [Laughs.] You’ve got it.
RAP: You talk in the book about making plans and trying to get everything in line and trying to get everything to go the way you planned it, and you said that you felt life is like a mystery: You don’t know which box you’re going to get.
DVD: Well, that’s been the truth for me.
RAP: You’ve gone through so many—I mean, I liked the part where you read the Bible and you were going to become a minister.
DVD: Oh, yeah. Up into my 20s I was an elder in the church. I think I tell the story of why I left.
DVD: Yeah. You know, it’s a matter of living the life.
RAP: Yes. It’s that whole thing about, “life is what happens while you’re making plans.”
DVD: [Laughs.] Yeah. These days there are people with their iPads are taking pictures so much that they’re not experiencing the moment. They go home and look at the pictures later.
RAP: “I remember that now, I was there.”
DVD: [Laughs.] Yeah.
RAP: And I loved the copy of the letter you wrote about Diagnosis Murder.
DVD: Oh, I had such fun with them.
RAP: [Reads from letter.] “I have come to the conclusion that you have it in for us as old folks. You refer to our TV as ‘geezer TV.’” And I thought, I was offended by that. Don’t go calling one of my favorite shows “geezer TV.” Of course at the time you were only a kid; you were only 74.
DVD: How big a town do you live in?
RAP: Milwaukee is a pretty big city. We’re not quite as big as Chicago, but, you know… how big is our population, Caity?
CPM: Under a million.
DVD: My little hometown in Danville, Illinois has shrunk. It’s much smaller than it was when I left there. And I think what happened was a Wal-Mart was built on the edge of town, and all the business died downtown.
RAP: Isn’t that sad?
DVD: Oh, yeah. It just is changing the way people live.
RAP: What would you like to tell young people about aging or getting along with us? About growing up and their life ahead of them? And you talked about that a little bit in the book.
DVD: To keep your mind open to information, and don’t let it settle in like a cesspool. I know friends of mine who have never changed their mind about anything in their lives, despite evidence from all directions. And I think if you can keep an open mind and some understanding, that helps you stay young.
RAP: Well I sure like hanging out with my granddaughters at 26 years old. They have so many new ideas and so many different ways of looking at things that I never considered. It’s cool! Of course they’re not as right as I am, naturally, you know that.
RAP: What do you wish you had known about getting old before you got there?
DVD: You know, people think I’m talking like I’m in perfect health, but I have all the infirmities for my age. I have arthritis and all those things. But if you keep moving, that won’t bother you.
RAP: Not only that, if you keep moving you’re just a step ahead of thinking about it. So you know.
DVD: [Laughs.] Yeah.
RAP: As far as advice, same thing for me, my advice about getting old is, you know, get old! [Laughs.] It’s kind of fun.
DVD: Yeah. Boy, I’ve just had a wonderful time. For one thing, you don’t worry so much about what other people think.
DVD: You know who you are, so criticism doesn’t much bother me.
RAP: I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
DVD: Exactly. You know, Walt Disney and I always said we were two children looking for our inner adults.
RAP: Well, I think the book was just delightful, and I think this is wonderful I’ve been able to speak with you, and I think you’re an inspiration.
DVD: I enjoyed it.
RAP: Well thank you so very much, and blessings on you, and I hope you live so we can celebrate your 100th.
DVD: Me too. And I hope you do, too.