Four-time Emmy Award® winner Dick Van Dyke (b. West Plains, MO, December 13, 1925) has been entertaining American television audiences in one guise or another for nearly sixty years. He is best known for the original Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran from 1961 to 1966, and its numerous reincarnations, his starring roles in the films Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and his portrayal of Dr. Mark Sloan in the long-lived television series Diagnosis: Murder (1993–2001).
Richard Wayne Van Dyke is of Dutch and Scottish descent. Though he was born in Missouri, he was raised in Danville, Illinois, where he spent much of his youth at the local movie palace watching Laurel & Hardy comedies. While in high school he was active in community theatricals, but in college he aspired to become a Presbyterian minister, initiating an abiding sideline as a Sunday-school teacher. World War II intervened, and Van Dyke joined the U.S, Army Air Corps, whereupon he drifted back into announcing, singing, and dancing in variety entertainments for his fellow soldiers. After the War, he started up an advertising agency in Danville, but it soon failed. He also got married; his marriage to Marjorie Willett, with whom he would have three daughters and two sons, ended in divorce after thirty-six years.
Van Dyke worked as an announcer for the local radio station, and partnered with a friend in a pantomime duo called “The Merry Mutes, Eric and Van,” which continued for a surprising six years. He hosted a morning TV show in New Orleans and was soon signed by CBS as a roving announcer and emcee (Cartoon Theatre 1956, The Chevy Showroom Starring Andy Williams 1958). He made his television acting debut on The Phil Silvers Show (Sergeant Bilko) as a hayseed ball player in 1957.
After a few freelance gigs as a game-show host, Dick Van Dyke had a Broadway breakthrough in a musical revue The Girls Against the Boys (1959). It ran for less than two weeks, but it led to another Broadway role, Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie, which won four Tony Awards® in 1961, including Best Musical and, for Van Dyke, Best Featured Actor in a Musical as well as the Theatre World Award. (Broadway, however, did not see Dick Van Dyke again until 1980, when he led the cast of a City Center revival of The Music Man.)
He was now a confirmed star, and a weekly television sitcom was created (by Carl Reiner) for him bearing his own name – The Dick Van Dyke Show – in which he played comedy writer Rob Petrie (the thinly disguised Reiner). The show received four Emmy Awards® for Outstanding Comedy Series, and three for Van Dyke himself. It also introduced Mary Tyler Moore, as Rob’s wife Laura, to television audiences.
The filming of Bye Bye Birdie took Dick Van Dyke to Hollywood in 1963. That was followed in 1964 by an even greater success, Mary Poppins, in which Van Dyke sang and danced as a cockney chimney sweep (his accent has been judged one of the worst in film history). His showcase song, “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” won the Oscar® for the songwriters, the Sherman Brothers, and a Grammy Award® for Van Dyke for the soundtrack recording. He made several more movies during the ’60s, mostly mediocre comedies (Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., Fitzwilly, The Art of Love, Never a Dull Moment, Divorce American Style), but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) with Sally Ann Howes was a smashing international success.
In the late ’60s, Van Dyke was resorting more and more to the bottle to quell his anxieties and frustrations, until by 1972 he had become a full-fledged alcoholic. Rescued by his inherent honesty, he confessed it publicly – rare for a major television star – underwent treatment and emerged permanently sober. His ordeal became a topic of conversation on talk shows and did nothing to soil his nice-guy image. It did, however, have some effect upon the types of roles he was playing. In 1974, in the TV drama The Morning After, he played an alcoholic ad executive who pays for his addiction with his reputation, his marriage, and his life. He received an Emmy® nomination for this performance. Van Dyke subsequently took on villain parts, first on an episode of Columbo as a clean-cut wife-murderer. On Matlock in 1986 he was a killer judge; in the film Dick Tracy (1990) he was a corrupt district attorney.
The many attempts to resuscitate The Dick Van Dyke Show on television under various slightly altered titles, but with entirely different situations, were increasingly disappointing. The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971–1974), shot in Carefree, Arizona, and again produced by Carl Reiner, portrayed a local television talk show host. Van Dyke & Co. (1976) was an hour-long sketch comedy show that lasted three months – although it won an Emmy Award® for Outstanding Comedy-Variety Series. In another short-lived stab at sitcom, The Van Dyke Show (1988), with his real-life son Barry as a regular,he portrayed a retired Broadway star. The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited (2004), a TV special, was promoted as a new episode of the classic series, the first in thirty-eight years. It was decidedly a flop.
Other television ventures included a three-month stint in 1977 as Carol Burnett’s second banana – a study in incompatibility – and in the 1980s, several made-for-TV movies now forgotten. It began to look as if the blazing career of Dick Van Dyke was fading. But a guest appearance on The Golden Girls in 1989, as a successful lawyer and boyfriend of Dorothy (Bea Arthur) who plans to give up his present life to become a circus clown, got him his first Emmy® nomination since 1977. Then his success in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy led to several more TV assignments (Jake and the Fatman 1991, A Twist of the Knife 1993) which led in turn to the establishment of his own series, Diagnosis: Murder. Before folding in 2001, the series had run 178 episodes, with Dick Van Dyke serving as executive producer for 137 of them.
He was very much in demand thereafter, appearing again with Mary Tyler Moore in The Gin Game (2003), on Scrubs in 2004, and in a recurring starring role as a college professor on the series Murder 101 (2006) for Hallmark. Van Dyke returned to film voicing Mr. Bloomsberry in Curious George (2006) and in Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum (2006) and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009).
Dick Van Dyke resides with longtime companion Michelle Triola. One of his passions now is producing 3D computer graphics, some of which have been shown to good effect on Diagnosis: Murder. He has written two books, Faith, Hope and Hilarity (1970) and Those Funny Kids, recounting amusing anecdotes from his long experience teaching Sunday school. From 1992 to 1994, he was chairman of Nick at Nite, which was then showing reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show. He is the older brother of actor Jerry Van Dyke, best known for his role on Coach.
Dick Van Dyke has been the National Spokesman for the National Reye’s Syndrome Foundation since 1987, when he lost a granddaughter to the disease. An honorary member of the Barbershop Harmony Society, he sings with an a cappella group, “The Vantastix,” which recently recorded an album, Put On A Happy Face (2008). The quartet has sung on Larry King Live, The First Annual TV Land Awards, and led the National anthem at three Los Angeles Lakers games.
Van Dyke has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is an elder in the Presbyterian Church.