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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.
Van Dyke was born in West Plains, Missouri, to Loren (nickname “Cookie”) and Hazel (née McCord) Van Dyke, but he grew up in Danville, Illinois. He is the older brother of actor Jerry Van Dyke, who is best known for a role on the TV series Coach. Dick’s grandson, Shane Van Dyke, is also an actor and directed Titanic II. Dick is of Dutch descent on his father’s side; his mother was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Peter Browne from England.
Among his high school classmates in Danville where Donald O’Connor and Bobby Short, who both would go on to successful careers as entertainers themselves. Van Dyke’s mother’s family was very religious, and for a brief period in his youth he considered a career in ministry, although a drama class in high school convinced him that his true calling was as a professional entertainer. In his autobiography he wrote, “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”. Even after the launch of his career as an entertainer, he taught Sunday school in the Presbyterian Church, where he was an elder, and he continued to read theologians such as Buber, Tillich, and Bonhoeffer, whom he has said helped explain in practical terms the relevance of religion in everyday life.
During World War II, Van Dyke enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps where he became a radio announcer, later transferring to the Special Services entertaining troops in the Continental United States.
During the late 1940s, Van Dyke was a radio DJ in Danville, Illinois. In 1947, Van Dyke was persuaded by Phil Erickson to form a comedy duo with him called “Eric and Van—the Merry Mutes.” The team toured the West Coast nightclub circuit, performing a mime act and lip synching to old 78 records. They brought their act to Atlanta, Georgia, in the early 1950s and performed a local television show featuring original skits and music called “The Merry Mutes”.
In November 1959, Van Dyke made his Broadway debut in The Girls Against the Boys. He then played the lead role of Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie, which ran from April 14, 1960 to Oct 7, 1961. In a May 2011 interview with Rachael Ray, Van Dyke noted that when he auditioned for a smaller part in the show he had no dance experience, and that after he sang his audition song he did an impromptu soft-shoe out of sheer nervousness. Gower Champion, the show’s director and choreographer, was watching, and promptly went up on stage to inform Van Dyke he had the lead. An astonished Van Dyke protested that he could not dance, to which Champion replied “We’ll teach you”. That musical won four Tony awards including Van Dyke’s Best Featured Actor Tony, in 1961. In 1980, Van Dyke appeared as the title role in The Music Man on Broadway.
Dick Van Dyke’s start in television was with WDSU-TV New Orleans Channel 6 (NBC), first as a single comedian and later as emcee of a comedy program. Van Dyke’s first network TV appearance was with Dennis James on James’ Chance of a Lifetime in 1954. He later appeared in two episodes of The Phil Silvers Show during its 1957–1958 season. He also appeared early in his career on ABC’s The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom and NBC’s The Polly Bergen Show. During this time a friend from the Army was working as an executive for CBS television and recommended Van Dyke to that network. Out of this came a seven-year contract with the network. During an interview on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! program, Van Dyke said he was the anchorman for the CBS morning show during this period with Walter Cronkite as his newsman.
From 1961 to 1966, Van Dyke starred in the CBS sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which he portrayed a comedy writer named Rob Petrie. Originally the show was supposed to have Carl Reiner as the lead but CBS insisted on recasting and Reiner chose Van Dyke to replace him in the role. Van Dyke won three Emmy Awards as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, and the series received four Emmy Awards as Outstanding Comedy Series.
From 1971 to 1974, Van Dyke starred in an unrelated sitcom called The New Dick Van Dyke Show in which he starred as a local television talk show host. He received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance but the show was less successful than its predecessor, and Van Dyke pulled the plug on the show after just three seasons.
In 1973, Van Dyke voiced his animated likeness for the October 27, 1973 installment of Hanna-Barbera’s The New Scooby-Doo Movies, “Scooby-Doo Meets Dick Van Dyke,” the series’ final first-run episode. The following year, he received an Emmy Award nomination for his role as an alcoholic businessman in the television movie The Morning After (1974). Van Dyke revealed after its release that he had recently overcome a real-life drinking problem. He admits he was an alcoholic for 25 years. After a few guest appearances on the long-running comedy-variety series The Carol Burnett Show, Van Dyke became a regular on the show, in the fall of 1977. However, he only appeared in half of the episodes of the final season. For the next decade he appeared mostly in TV movies. One atypical role was as a murdering judge on the second episode of the TV series Matlock in 1986 starring Andy Griffith. In 1989, he guest-starred on the NBC comedy series The Golden Girls portraying a lover of Beatrice Arthur’s character. This role earned him his first Emmy Award nomination since 1977.
His film work affected his TV career: the reviews he received for his role as D.A. Fletcher in Dick Tracy led him to star first as the character Dr. Mark Sloan in an episode of Jake and the Fatman, then in a series of TV movies on CBS that became the foundation for his popular television drama Diagnosis: Murder. Van Dyke continued to find television work after the show ended, including a dramatically and critically successful performance of The Gin Game, produced for television in 2003 that reunited him with Mary Tyler Moore. In 2003, he portrayed a doctor on Scrubs. A 2004 special of The Dick Van Dyke Show titled The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited was heavily promoted as the first new episode of the classic series to be shown in 38 years. Van Dyke and his surviving cast members recreated their roles; the program was roundly panned by critics. In 2006 he guest-starred as college professor Dr. Jonathan Maxwell for a series of Murder 101 mystery films on the Hallmark Channel.
Van Dyke began his film career by playing the role of Albert J. Peterson in the film version of Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Despite his unhappiness with the adaptation—its focus differed from the stage version in that the story now centered on a previously supporting character—the film was a success. That same year, Van Dyke was cast in two roles: as the chimney sweep Bert, and as bank chairman Mr. Dawes Senior, in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). For his scenes as the chairman, he was heavily costumed to look much older, and was credited in that role as “Nackvid Keyd” (at the end of the credits, the letters unscramble into “Dick Van Dyke”). Van Dyke’s attempt at a cockney accent has been decried as one of the worst accents in film history, cited by actors since as an example of how not to sound.
In a 2003 poll by Empire magazine of the worst-ever accents in film, he came in second. According to Van Dyke, his accent coach was Irish, who “didn’t do an accent any better than I did.” Still, Mary Poppins was successful upon release and its enduring appeal has made it one of the most famous films of all time. “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, one of the songs that Van Dyke performed in Mary Poppins, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the Sherman Brothers, the film’s songwriting duo.
Many of the comedy films Van Dyke starred in throughout the 1960s were relatively unsuccessful at the box office, including What a Way to Go!, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., Fitzwilly, The Art of Love, Some Kind of a Nut, Never a Dull Moment, and Divorce American Style. But he also starred (with his native accent, despite the English setting) as Caractacus Pott in the successful musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), which co-starred Sally Ann Howes and featured the same songwriters (The Sherman Brothers) and choreographers (Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood) as Mary Poppins.
In 1969, Van Dyke appeared in the comedy-drama The Comic, written and directed by Carl Reiner. Van Dyke portrayed a self-destructive silent-film era comedian who struggles with alcoholism, depression, and his own rampant ego. Reiner wrote the film especially for Van Dyke, who often spoke of his admiration for silent-film era comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and his hero Stan Laurel. Twenty-one years later in 1990, Van Dyke, whose usual role had been the amiable hero, took a small but villainous turn as the crooked D.A. Fletcher in Warren Beatty’s film Dick Tracy. Van Dyke returned to motion pictures in 2006 with Curious George as Mr. Bloomsberry and as villain Cecil Fredericks in the Ben Stiller film Night at the Museum. He reprised the role in a cameo for the sequel, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian but it was cut from the film. It can be found in the special features on the DVD release.
The Penguin Dance
Me ol’ Bamboo (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
Step in Time
Often hosted game shows when he was a struggling actor. He hosted Mother’s Day (1958) and Laugh Line (1959) but turned down The Price Is Right (1956).
Older brother of entertainer Jerry Van Dyke.
According to his book “Those Funny Kids: A Treasury of Classroom Laughter”, by age 11 he had grown to 6′ 1″.
He enlisted to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II, but initially did not make the cut because he did not meet the weight requirement, as he was underweight. He tried three times to enlist, before barely making the cut. He actually served as a radio announcer during the war, and he did not leave the United States.
Beat out Johnny Carson for the role of Rob Petrie on what later became The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961) .
Won Broadway’s 1961 Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Musical) for “Bye, Bye Birdie” and a Grammy Award for the Mary Poppins (1964) soundtrack.
His comic inspiration was Stan Laurel. He says he was able to find him by looking up his name in the phone book in Santa Monica, California, where Laurel lived. He called and Laurel invited him over. The two became good friends. When Laurel died, Van Dyke delivered his eulogy at the funeral.
Says that his most memorable role is that of Bert the chimney-sweep in Mary Poppins (1964).
Overcame alcoholism in the 1970s.
In Britain, his attempt at a Cockney accent in Mary Poppins (1964) is so notorious that a “Dick Van Dyke accent” is an accepted slang term for an American’s unsuccessful attempt at a British accent. Despite that, he is quite popular in Britain.
Rob Petrie, Van Dyke’s role on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961), was ranked #22 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” [20 June 2004 issue].
In his 30s and 40s, he had a talent for playing crotchety, eccentric old men. He played this kind of role in Mary Poppins (1964) as Mr. Dawes Sr. and in a The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961) episode where he played one of Rob Petrie’s elderly relatives.
Had played Lionel Jeffries’s son in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) even though Jeffries is actually six months his junior.
Was a heavy smoker for fifty years, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day for a time. He finally managed to quit using gum and patches.
Best known by the public for his starring roles as Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961) and as Dr. Mark Sloan on Diagnosis Murder (1993).
In 1968, he left Hollywood and bought a ranch in Arizona.
Did not appear in his first movie until he was 36.
Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel were two of his comedy idols. Both became fans of Dick’s classic TV series.
Received a lemon cake every Christmas from Charles Bronson, who lived nearby in Malibu, for 16 years.
Created most of his own comedy routines and physical schticks on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961).
Helped his ex-The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961) co-star, Mary Tyler Moore get her own sitcom, in the 1970s.
Prior to being an actor, he was also a Sunday School teacher and an elder at a Presbyterian church, who ministered every Sunday.
Was longtime friends with Buddy Ebsen. Van Dyke hosted Ebsen’s memorial service on August 30, 2003.
Between Angela Lansbury, Norman Lloyd, Mickey Rooney, Ernest Borgnine, Betty White and Larry Hagman, Van Dyke is one of the stars never to retire from acting.
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The River Oaks School of Dancing. The name alone is intimidating. River Oaks. Anyone living in the Houston area understands the prestige behind the name. Older men and women dressed in Ralph Lauren and Ann Taylor practically floating around a ballroom was the image that burned in my brain. But I was so excited about writing an article on their dance studio. I always wanted to learn how to waltz! Then it hit me. I was going to learn ballroom dancing…in a room full of people…who have been taking lessons for a while….watching me mess up. Oh dear. What did I just do? I don’t have a dancing background! Sure I took ballet when I was five and swing dancing in high school, which I couldn’t remember, but those don’t count! I became so nervous that I couldn’t even figure out what to wear to the lessons. I thought I needed a specific outfit or special shoes, like the dancers in their pictures. All of a sudden I didn’t feel that excited anymore.
I realized there was no turning back and when the day came I drove to the dance studio. I secretly thought that since I’m just a writer I wouldn’t have to dance that much, I could simply hide somewhere and observe. But when I got there, I realized it wasn’t a group class, it was actually a private session. Great! Now all I needed to worry about was the large probability of stepping on my instructor’s feet.
My instructor wasn’t even what I had imagined. I expected someone closer to my grandfather’s age or a strict Russian woman telling me I had the rhythm of a goose walking on a tightrope. I know it’s a stereotype but I couldn’t help it! However, none of the instructors were like that. They were all in their twenties and thirties and some of the nicest and funniest people I ever met. Their kindness and constant encouragements gave me confidence even when I messed up; which happened more than once.
Before we even started, my instructor John first asked me what dances I knew. I told him my all about my dancing “experiences” and he decided to start off with something I had previously learned (forgotten) instead of immediately throwing me head-first into the deep end. It actually boosted my confidence and made me feel more comfortable about the actual dancing part of the job. After the review, we slowly worked on new material. The Foxtrot was at least similar to the swing dances, but The Cha-Cha…uh well…wasn’t.
At least with some of the dances a person can almost fake the moves. Even Mel, one of the instructors, said if you aren’t that great at swing dancing just look like you’re having a good time and people will think you know what you’re doing. Love it! But when dancing The Cha-Cha, yeah I wasn’t very good at even faking that one. The nice thing was that after nearly colliding with John a couple of times, I finally got it. Yay! So, I ended up learning four dances in a 50 minute class!
Now before anyone gets too excited or too scared about taking one of their classes, let me explain. Since I was invited to write an article on their dance studio and get first-hand experience, I was given the opportunity to learn a lot more in a short amount of time. Otherwise the private classes are tailored to your own skill level, needs and goals. Since you work one-on-one with your instructor, you can learn at your own pace, ask as many questions as you’d like, and learn the dances that interest you.
I was actually disappointed the session was over so soon. I had more than fun than I had ever imagined. I was even trying to stop myself from dancing in the car on the way home. I also found myself practicing the dances around my house. That’s how much fun I had! The best part was being invited back for their Friday group class and their dance party along with one more dance lesson. That night was more fun than the previous one.
This time my instructor taught me the Waltz and the Rumba. I think I did better with the Rumba than the Waltz mainly because John gave me a little tip. When learning the Rumba, never pick up the balls of the feet when sliding from side-to-side. The best way to remember this is to imagine a mint conditioned vintage baseball card under each foot. The objective is to try to keep the cards in perfect condition under the feet and away from exposure. The other part of the dance focuses on the toes. He told me to pretend I was in a vineyard squishing grapes. Squish-Squish-Slide-Squish-Squish-Slide. Then I got it! Brilliant! Ok to me it was brilliant. I honestly had no idea how to Rumba, but when John gave me the visuals then it became easy.
The Waltzing part was fun; aside from stepping on John’s feet twice. He did make me feel a little better when he told me I would be surprised how many times it actually happens to him. I felt as if I had been initiated into some sort of club. But it really was great! I kept picturing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers gliding across a ballroom floor. It truly is the most elegant dance on the planet-in my opinion anyway. All in all it was a great lesson.
The fun wasn’t over yet! The group session was next. Every Friday their group classes practice the spotlighted dance from 8:00-9:00 pm. Each month the River Oaks School of Dancing focuses on a specific dance in their group classes. This month they spotlighted the Waltz and in February they will be teaching the East Coast Swing! It was very convenient to have my dance lesson be the same dance that was being spotlighted in the group classes. I felt a lot more comfortable about performing with others by that point. I thought I was going to have to perform in the middle of the room and have everyone watch me. Not even close. John and Pari basically break the steps down piece-by-piece and everyone copies the moves. The group classes aren’t intimidating at all and that part was what I was dreading the most.
But then the real fun began after the group session. Party Time!!! This is where the magic happens. The instructors and students show off their skills in a fun, social environment for an hour. To be honest, just watching everyone was just as much fun as the actual dancing. They played a variety of music and a “serve yourself” bar is provided. No, I did not try the bar because I was my own date who was driving herself home that night. The party is a great opportunity to mix and mingle with the wonderful students who are also interested in learning to dance!
If a song came on and I didn’t know the dance, an instructor would come up to me and ask me if I wanted to learn it. Pari was really sweet in teaching me how to tango. Thank you Pari! Yuri and Angele were my waltzing partners at one point too. It was so much fun! Every fear I had just melted away. I never felt out-of-place or intimidated. I loved every moment of it and was a little sad that it was over so soon.
I want to thank the wonderful staff at the River Oaks School of Dancing, Ina Darley and Miss Kim for their help and for inviting me to the dance studio. I also want to thank all of the amazing instructors for their patience, humor and kindness. Pari, Yuri, Angele, Mel and John thank you all so much!
So what is the takeaway for all of you readers?
Ladies, don’t be intimidated to give dancing a try
Gentlemen, real men ballroom dance
Interested in signing up? You can schedule an online appointment at http://www.riveroaksdancing.com or call 713-529-0959 and start your complementary lesson now!
Emily Pau graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in English and a minor in Communication. She is a native Houstonian and first-generation Cuban-American. She is fluent in American and French Sign Language and when she is not working as a lion tamer, she enjoys drag racing her red Volkswagen Beetle named “Harvey” on the weekends.
Emily Pau, Social Media and Blog Manager for Frame Dance Productions, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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