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An Interview With

Dick Van Dyke
September 5, 2009

 

 

 

 

Spencer:

Charles Strouse is one of the great American composers, writing songs for Bye Bye Birdie, Annie, Applause, and many others. In his 2008 memoir, he said when he met you in 1959, you were a shy, considerate guy who was of the absolute conviction he couldn’t sing. Yet the following year, you were cast in his show, Bye Bye Birdie and sang to critical acclaim. How did this happen?

Dick Van Dyke:

Well, as a matter of fact, they’ve got me writing a book right now. The publishers came to me. It’s called Any Way the Wind Blows, because my career just followed whatever happened to me. I had no goals. I was doing a game show from the Latin Quarter in New York, at noon, called Mother’s Day – a very cheap – we had like diaper-changing contests. I knew my future didn’t lie in that kind of work. So after the show each day, I would go around to whatever theaters were auditioning. And I auditioned for anything except opera and ballet. Anything. Gower Champion was casting Bye Bye Birdie. And I went in there, and I picked up an old Ray Bolger song from “Once in Love with Amy.” I don’t know whether you remember that. And I got up and sang that and did a little soft shoe, and they gave me the part.

I said, “Now I’ve got to learn to dance. I got to learn to sing.” Which I did during the rehearsals. He gave me the dance steps. I discovered dancing at a very late age, it was like flying. I couldn’t believe it. And then I won a Tony and got The Dick Van Dyke Show after that. And so everything has just been wonderful since then.

Spencer:

Sheldon Leonard, the producer and director of the The Dick Van Dyke Show, had seen you perform a sketch from a Broadway review called The Girls Against the Boys. Later, he and Carl Reiner went to see you in Bye Bye Birdie. They loved your performance. Was this your audition for what would become The Dick Van Dyke Show?

Dick Van Dyke:

Yeah. I took a week off and came out, and we shot a pilot. The show sold. In the very first pilot, Carl cast himself in the role of Rob Petrie. He was the first Rob Petrie. Carl was really not very good. He was better as the voice off the camera.

Spencer:

How did you feel when Fred Astaire called you “one of the greatest up and coming dancers of the time”?

Dick Van Dyke:

I was just driving to work one morning. Bob Crane was interviewing Fred Astaire. He said, “What do you think of the new crop of dancers?” And he mentioned the young man in West Side Story, George Chakaris. And he said, “I like the way Dick Van Dyke moves.” Well, I almost drove off the freeway. I’ll never forget it.

Spencer:

Why did Carl Reiner think you were so right for the role of Rob Petrie?

Dick Van Dyke:

I don't know. They liked the pilot very much. But exactly why – I don't know. He will admit though, that he was not right for that role, and that that show – the pilot didn’t do well with him. Carl played it as a beset, anxiety-ridden guy. It was not amusing. It was just irritating.

Carl always wanted to be a comedy writer, and the producers wanted him to be like an investor. You know? Or like a stockbroker. And they said, “How is that funny?”

Spencer:

Did earlier shows, like I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best, influence The Dick Van Dyke Show?

Dick Van Dyke:

Only in that they were three-camera shows. I think Lucy was the first three-camera show with an audience, which for comedy is the greatest; to have an audience there to work with. Other than that, I don’t think it was influenced that much.

Spencer:

How was it like working in front of a live audience for The Dick Van Dyke Show?

Dick Van Dyke:

It’s a great combination of TV and theater. Because the show, no matter how you rehearse it, subtly changes, depending on how the audience does their 50 percent of the work. I’ve never been able to perform very well without one. You need an audience.

Spencer:

I read that during Lucy, retakes were very rare. How about for The Dick Van Dyke Show?

Dick Van Dyke:

Very same thing. Only when something really got bungled.

Spencer:

I had heard, that for Friends, which was on for years and just ended recently, it would take six hours to do a 21-minute show.

Dick Van Dyke:

A few years ago, I did a guest appearance on Scrubs. It was a one-camera show. They did 20 and 30 takes. You know after that long, it is not funny anymore.

We never used anything but the true audience laughter. Nobody ever put any phony laughter in there.

Male 1:

Of course they didn’t have to for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

 

Spencer:

The Dick Van Dyke Show ended its run over 40 years ago. It remains one of the most celebrated shows in television history. What was its appeal?

Dick Van Dyke:

Mostly Carl’s writing. There’s no doubt about it. Carl was just a gifted writer, and had an angle there. You know nobody ever knew what the father did for a living in the earlier shows. It was the first one where you knew what the dad did for a living and saw what he did.

Carl could write. We almost didn’t have to act. He could pick our inflections and our tempo and the way we spoke and write it down. He had everybody down cold. I just read the line, and it was me talking. And he did the same for Morrie and Rose Marie. I’ve never seen a writer do that before. If you did it the way he wrote it, it was perfect. He was amazing.

Spencer:

I think part of what was so popular was the chemistry between the actors. I read that they thought that you and Mary were married, actually.

Dick Van Dyke:

Even my wife said, “You know you act just the same way at home as you do on that show.” Sheldon Leonard was the executive producer. So once in a while, he would come by and say, “Oh, the otters at play.” Because the rehearsals were a madhouse. We just had such a good time.

Spencer:

I read that you liked playing that role so well, because you said that it was just you – except you were never that clumsy.

Dick Van Dyke:

Yeah, he let me fall down a lot, which I loved. I can still do it. Only it hurts now.

Spencer:

I read that as a kid, you also used to practice falls.

Dick Van Dyke:

Oh yeah.

I loved Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton and all those great – and I got to meet all of them. I ended up doing the eulogy at Stan Laurel’s funeral and I did the eulogy at Buster Keaton’s funeral, because I got to know them.

Spencer:

In the five seasons of The Dick Van Dyke Show, is there one scene that is most memorable?

Dick Van Dyke:

Well, your favorite shows weren’t necessarily the best ones on the air. But it’s the one I had the most fun on. We did one – when Richie says, “Where did I come from?”


Spencer:

You were supposed to tell Richie “You came from Mama’s Belly” I heard Carl Reiner almost quit the show after he was told that line would be cut.

Dick Van Dyke:

We couldn’t even say the word “pregnant” back then. And we had to sleep in twin beds. We were not allowed to be in the same bed. That’s what it was like in the ‘60s. But in this episode she’s pregnant, and I’m a nervous wreck. I’m sleeping with my clothes on. The things that happened during it, just the slapstick junk that happened – I just had a great time.

Spencer:

Isn’t it true that your nice suit got completely ruined in that episode?

Dick Van Dyke:

I had a beautiful gabardine suit, which got soaking wet and thrown in the corner. And the cleaners couldn’t ever get the wrinkles back out of it. Oh God, it was fun.

And there was another episode, where Laura was opening my mail. And there was that great scene, when she opened that thing. The raft.

Spencer:

The joke I remember from that episode is something like, “Someone offered me a letter opener, but I said no thank you, my wife’s one!” I used to use that joke with my Mom, because she always opens my Dad’s mail, and mine too!

Spencer:

In the early years of television, sponsors often agreed to buy ads for a full season. Did this give them the right to censorship?

Dick Van Dyke:

I don’t believe – as far as I know – I wasn’t on that level. But I don’t think they ever got in the way. But the network did. They had a department called Continuity Acceptance, and their job was to find things that you couldn’t do. So they always found something.

We began creating red herrings. We’d put something really tasteless in there, that we had no intention of doing, and then fight them tooth and nail over it, and finally give in, so that we slipped through everything else.

Spencer:

I read that they had problems with Mary’s form-fitting Capri pants.

Dick Van Dyke:

They tucked under too much. And we got a note from the network – “They can’t be tucked under so much.” Can you believe that? When you look at what’s on there today. With their belly shirts and everything. I think it’s gone too far the other way, personally.

Spencer:

What was your most embarrassing moment in front of a live audience?

Dick Van Dyke:

Well, I was in the welterweight boxing championship, and they showed the fight. And they got a guy who had been a boxer, who would just do a little punching. And we rehearsed every move of it. But that night, the bell rang, and he heard the crowd. And he came out, and he punched me in the mouth, and I started to bleed. So I just swallowed blood through the whole thing and went on with it. The episode was called Pitter-Patter Petrie.

Spencer:

What was it like working with your brother (Jerry Van Dyke) when he was doing the band job?

Dick Van Dyke:

Oh God, it was fun. He was a wreck. He was so afraid he wouldn’t be good enough. He’s the funniest man I know – my brother.

You know Carl liked for us to tell things that happened in our lives. If it’s something that really happened, he would much rather use that than make up something. And my brother was a sleepwalker when he was young. He’d get up and wander around the town at night. So I told him about that, and he said, “Oh God, we’ve got to do that story.”

Spencer:

And he really played the banjo?

Dick Van Dyke:

Yes.

Spencer:

That whole sketch was so memorable. And how hard was it staying awake for 100 hours?

Dick Van Dyke:

Oh yeah. That was fun.

Spencer:

It wasn’t hard?

Dick Van Dyke:

You’re reminding me of things I’d forgotten about totally.

Spencer:

What was the happiest day of your professional career?

 

Dick Van Dyke:

Oh. I’ve had an awful lot of 'em. I’ve had a lot of joy. Well, the first time we ever won an Emmy, I think. That night was a big, big night. The first time I was nominated, there was no comedy category. Back in ’61, there was no comedy category. And I lost to The Defenders. E.G. Marshall. It was just the best actor in a show. So the next year, there was a comedy category, and we won everything. It was just great. God, it was fun. It’s been a great life.

Spencer:

Angela Lansbury, when she won her fifth Tony, she said something very funny. They said, “Are you happy that you have it?” She said, “Yes, I had one spot on the end of the table that needed to be filled.”

Dick Van Dyke:

I’ve always wanted to work with Angela, and I’ve never had the chance. She’s incredible.

Spencer:

And very few people have been so successful – like you and she – in so many different forms of entertainment.

Dick Van Dyke:

We’re the end of a generation, I think.

Spencer:

I could see the two of you working together on a project.

Dick Van Dyke:

At one time, I was thinking that probably Angela would be Mary Poppins. She’s the perfect nanny. You know? But, of course, Julie wiped 'em out with that performance. Boy.

Male 1:

Oh yes.

Spencer:

I really grew up with you and Angela. What’s very funny is for some reason – I grew out of cartoons a little early. But I flipped to TV Land one day, and I saw Lucy, and I saw Dick Van Dyke. They are classics. I really think it’s better than the comedy that’s on TV today.

Dick Van Dyke:

Yeah.

Dick Van Dyke:

I don't know. It seems to me like the last good ones were Mary’s show – Mary Tyler Moore. All in the Family was a great – And then they began to fall off into wisecracks. I don't know. It just stopped being –

Spencer:

I agree. Mary’s show was great. Seinfeld was okay.

Dick Van Dyke:

Yeah. Seinfeld was good.

Spencer:

A show about nothing. Right?

Dick Van Dyke:

But it was delightful to watch.

Spencer:

What has been your biggest challenge?

Dick Van Dyke:

My challenge, from the very beginning, was that I got married very young and started a family right away. So working – that was my biggest challenge. Because I don’t really have a lot of drive – ambition. But fear kept me going for a long time. So that’s why I ventured into singing, into dancing, into whatever. Because I had to.

So it was always a heart in the mouth challenge the whole way. But it made a great adventure out of it, for that reason. I think without my kids – I keep telling them, “If you hadn’t been there, I don’t think anything would have happened for me.”

You got to have some drive. I’m a little lazy in that department.

Spencer:

No way. Not at all. The world has seen many comedians. Few have excelled more than you in the art of physical comedy. If there was a top list, who would share the honors with you?

Dick Van Dyke:

Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel. And although he wasn’t a physical comedian, I was a Marcel Marceau groupie. I followed him everywhere. I never saw a man move like that. He once asked me to do a special with him, and I was so honored. And then he got sick and died.

There are guys in there who you don’t think of as physical, that I’ve seen – Peter Sellers and Sid Caesar both are just tremendous talents. God, they were funny. And you’ve got to give Jim Carrey credit.

Spencer:

Oh yes. Jim Carrey’s very good.

Dick Van Dyke:

Because he thinks in animated cartoon terms. And the way he can make it look almost animated is incredible.

Spencer:

His body language is very good.

Dick Van Dyke:

The first time I saw him, I said, “Somebody has illegally cloned me.” Because that’s who I was in high school, that kid with the body.

Spencer:

He’d be the only person I could think of – a young guy, right now, who’s really a very talented physical comedian. He’s very good.

Dick Van Dyke:

Jim – incredible talent. Nobody can do what he does. I think it’d be funny to do a movie – I think – and play his father.

Spencer:

Have you ever met him?

Dick Van Dyke:

Never. Isn’t that funny? You’d think this business was small. But there’s so many people that I’ve never met.

Years ago, I got a call on the phone, “Mr. Van Dyke, this is Michael Jackson. Could I come over and talk to you about dancing?” And I said, “Sure. Any time.” But he never did.

I know Steve Martin. I haven’t worked with him. I just know him socially.

I read his book – Born Standing Up, I think it is. And most of it is about how he constructed his act over the years, how he changed it and put it together. But our childhoods were so similar, that I’ve always wanted to talk to him about it. He was an amateur magician, which I was as a kid. Loved doing the tricks.

Spencer:

Right. You played a villain just a few times – as a guest on Columbo, in Dick Tracy, and once on Matlock with Andy Griffith. Was this hard for you – to play a villain?

Dick Van Dyke:

No. It was kind of fun. It’s really fun. I got an awful lot of flack, I must say – a lot of mail from people who said, “We don’t want to see you –” But it was fun. I had a good time just playing somebody who’s mean. But in Night at the Museum, he wasn’t really a bad guy. I didn’t see him as a bad guy.

Spencer:

One of the best episodes of Diagnosis Murder, was the one where you played everybody. You played the villain. You played the guy who got murdered. You played the suspect. You played a woman.

Spencer:

That episode must have taken forever.

Dick Van Dyke:

Oh. You know changing makeup all the time. I thought I was Alec Guinness there for a while.

Spencer:

Who do you admire?

Dick Van Dyke:

I watched the memorial for Kennedy, and was very impressed with Orrin Hatch from Utah. Talking about their friendship. It was just marvelous to hear the way they fought tooth and nail. But they were close, close friends, and they loved one another. And I thought, “That’s the way it ought to be. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” You know? Instead of what’s happening now.

A lot of misinformation floating around. But I was so pleased with that eulogy he did for Kennedy. He said he’d be tooth and nail – with Kennedy yelling at him and fighting and pounding the table. And when it was over, Kennedy would say, “How’d I do, Orrin?”

At one time, it was that way. I don’t know what happened. The lust for power, I think, has overcome everybody.

Spencer:

How much inspiration do you draw from silent films? Do you think those films are not appreciated today?

Dick Van Dyke:

Well, I don’t think people have a chance, really, to see them. Because I was raised on the silents, and then Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. And I still look back on Laurel and Hardy as the best comedy team ever.

The relationship between the two of them was so sweet. They were like two children who fought, but depended upon each other so heavily. I can go back and watch those movies over and over. And there’s something so sweet about the two of 'em. I think if people could see some of the early Keaton stuff, they would be just amazed at what he did physically.

I got to meet Keaton finally. He lived out in Woodland Hills on a little quarter of an acre. And I called his wife. I went on a Sunday, and was sitting there talking. And Buster’s walking around the house outside, looking in the windows. And I said, “Is he gonna come in?”

“Buster’s very shy. He’ll work his way up to it.” Finally, he came in. He had on his little flat hat and a ukulele, singing, “Oh Mr. Moon, Moon, Carolina Moon. Won’t you shine on –” That was his introduction to me. And then, of course, I plied him with a million questions.

We were standing in the kitchen, and I said, “You used to put one foot on a table and the other foot on the table, and then kind of hang in midair.” He did it for me, and he was 68 years old at the time. I just couldn’t believe it.

Buster was very quiet and shy. Stan Laurel was very outgoing – gregarious English gentleman. Called me Dickie. You know?

I just loved getting to meet all my idols.

Spencer:

Your working relationship with your son was firmly established in 1993 with the launch of Diagnosis Murder, which ran for eight seasons. You again collaborated in Murder 101, a series of TV movies that ran from 2006 to 2008. What was it like working with your son?

Dick Van Dyke:

We had a wonderful time. We got along so well, with an awful lot of clowning going on between shots. Some of it ended up on film. And you know then I had his sons – I had his kids all on, all the grand boys. And my daughter’s been on. I had the whole family on that show.

And we ran a very loose ship. There was absolutely no tension on the set. It’s a wonder we got it done, really, because it was so fun. Everybody enjoyed – anybody who ever guested on that show said, “That was one of the best weeks.” Because it was just not taken seriously at all. Isn’t that funny? I had so many of my comedy writer friends who said, “You can’t go play a straight doctor like that. People will not buy it.”

It was because of the group. It was just that the atmosphere was there. You could tell we were having a good time.

Spencer:

What did you like best about the series Diagnosis Murder?

Dick Van Dyke:

Working with my son. That was the best of all.

Spencer:

That was the best part?

Dick Van Dyke:

When we had scenes together, we just thoroughly enjoyed it. We made each other laugh a lot. Nobody ever thought the show would last. And it was the longest job I ever had. Eight seasons.

You know for some reason – it’s such an American kind of a show. I get a lot of mail from Europe, and even Russia.

Spencer:

People often model characters they see on TV or in the movies. Do you think Rob Petrie or Mark Sloan had an influence on the American man?

Dick Van Dyke:

I don't know. I hope it was a good influence, whatever it was.

Spencer:

Rob Petrie exemplified a wonderful husband, a wonderful father. A team player in the office. You brought him to life.

Dick Van Dyke:

Well, he was a little bit of a klutz.

Spencer:

Little bit of a klutz?

Dick Van Dyke:

What I used was – we all have the child in us. And I kept his childhood fear of authority – cops, anybody of authority, Rob would always get nervous and start to stammer, in front of policemen particularly.

Spencer:

I remember the episode where you thought an old army buddy was robbing your house. And you called the police! When the policeman came running in, you began stammering, stuttering, and became a complete wreck!

Dick Van Dyke:

I think most people do carry some fear of authority. And there’s a lot of comedy in that.

Spencer:

One of your current hobbies today was inspired by your work on Mary Poppins. I was wondering if you could tell me about your work in computer graphics?

Dick Van Dyke:

Well, I bought – oh gosh, I think it’s been almost 20 years ago now, Amiga came out with a little thing called the Toaster, where you could actually do 3-dimensional figures – animate them very simply.

You could do a 15-second animation and have to wait for the weekend for it to render. You could look at the 15 frames on Monday. That company became LightWave, which a lot of movies use now. And I’ve just kind of grown along with it.

It’s the greatest hobby, because it’s always two steps ahead of you. You know technology’s moving so fast. I’ve always got my head in a manual. I spend hours just playing and animating. It’s a great, great hobby.

Spencer:

Do you use Final Cut Pro?

Dick Van Dyke:

No. I just use LightWave, which does the animating, editing, everything. But Final Cut Pro is a great program.

Spencer:

Where can we see any of your recent work? Is it in TV show?

Dick Van Dyke:

I don’t even save it. The fun’s in the doing. Did you see – a few years ago, we did a reunion show. I did a dance with a caricature that I made of me dancing.

Did you ever see the special I did with Mary right after the show went off? It was called Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. It was like maybe a year afterwards. We did a special, and I had Mary on it. We worked together. And she was having trouble, because all they thought of was: she was the one that brought the coffee. She was just the wife on the show and she couldn’t get anything moving. We did that special, and I had her sing and dance. She did everything. And bang. Right after that, she got The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She still credits that show with getting her started. You know? And man, she took off.

Spencer:

She is a great dancer. When she used to dance on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she was fabulous.

Dick Van Dyke:

Somebody sent me a DVD. They took every song and dance number that Mary and I did over the years, and put it on one DVD. There are about 20 of them. One after the other. I was so impressed. We were good together.

Spencer:

You’re a cappella group is called Dick Van Dyke and the Vantastix. Someone was describing a cappella. They said, “It’s the only type of music that a 5-year-old and a 90-year-old could listen to together and have a great time.” I bought your CD and it is such fun music. Your group performed recently on the Bonnie Hunt Show, singing “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

Dick Van Dyke:

That’s right. Oh, I have such a good time. Conan has asked us to be on. We’re going on The Tonight Show with Conan.

We used to stand around this piano on Tuesday night, order a pizza, and sing. That’s all we did. Just for fun. And then somebody said, “Would you come and sing at our little banquet?” And we went there and sang. And then suddenly, we started getting asked, and we’re at fundraisers all over. We’ve sang The Star Spangled Banner for the Los Angeles Lakers.

We also performed at the Singer’s Society Awards. The first honoree was Ella Fitzgerald, so they call it the Ella Award. That year the honoree was Julie Andrews.

The Society raises money for singers who have aged and fallen on hard times. It’s a way of sort of taking care of them. They have this huge event every year and raise a lot of money for these people.

Spencer:

Strouse wrote “Put on a Happy Face” for Bye Bye Birdie, and it is one of the most popular songs ever written. You launched it in 1960, and just last year made it the title track on your album, sung by your a capella group, Dick Van Dyke and the Vantastix. Why do you think this tune has had such a wide appeal?

Dick Van Dyke:

It’s an up tune. It’s a happy tune. There’s a lift to it. Strouse called his book Put on a Happy Face, which I think is great.

Spencer:

What’s next for the Vantastix? What are you guys planning?

Dick Van Dyke:

Well, we’ve got a lot of invitations. One of our guys had to move to Portland. He’s a computer programmer. So he comes down once a month, and we sing. Or if we’ve got a date, he’ll fly right in. We were down at the International Barbershop Competition down in Anaheim.

Spencer:

How’d you do?

Dick Van Dyke:

Well, we weren’t competing, because we don’t sing pure barbershop. You can’t go any more than a seventh in the barber. Any chord beyond that is not pure. And we sing some pretty tight chords. But we were asked to come down and perform for them. And so we performed for probably about 6,000 people. God, it was fun.

Spencer:

You probably won’t ever retire, and I hope you never do. But if you do, what do you hope will be your legacy?

Dick Van Dyke:

That I tried to keep it light. I tried to help people laugh. There’s not a lot of laughing today. And I just think if I helped people laugh, you can’t ask for more than that.