BY MARY WICOFF
LOS ANGELES — If he hadn’t found his niche as an actor, Dick Van Dyke probably would have starved to death.
“I’m not good at math and I was a terrible salesman,” he said jokingly during a recent telephone interview.
Fortunately, he got his break as an announcer at WDAN Radio in Danville after World War II, and he hasn’t slowed down since.
That long, multi-faceted career as a singer, dancer, comedian, author and actor has earned Van Dyke the Screen Actors Guild’s highest honor, the Life Achievement Award. The award will be presented tonight in Los Angeles.
“I’m just thrilled to death,” said Van Dyke, 87, who was surprised when he learned about the accolade.
After having been recognized as a dancer and comedian, he said with a chuckle, “It’s nice to be finally confirmed as an actor.”
It’s even more special, he said, because he’s the first recipient of the award since the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists unions merged.
Van Dyke presented the award to Julie Andrews in 2006 and to former co-star Mary Tyler Moore last year. Moore isn’t in good health and is unable to return the honor, he said, so Carl Reiner will present the award this year. Both Moore and Reiner starred with Van Dyke on television’s iconic situation comedies, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
To receive the award, Van Dyke joked, “You have to live long enough.”
In reality, the award is given to an actor who fosters the “finest ideals of the acting profession,” and who is involved in humanitarian activities. Van Dyke’s main charity is the Midnight Mission, a shelter for the troubled and homeless in LA.
Van Dyke acknowledged that he’s received many awards — except an Oscar. But, he said, “I’ve got enough to make me happy.”
One of his favorite pastimes is performing with the Vantastix, a quartet that performs at colleges and fundraisers.
“I love to sing,” he said, describing himself as a “shower singer.” The other members of the quartet make him sound good, he said with a laugh.
Van Dyke also expects to appear in a third version of “Night at the Museum,” portraying the head security guy. “I was a bad guy and it was fun,” he said.
Being busy with his career, he has no immediate plans to return to Danville — especially in the winter. He and his wife, Arlene Silver, are used to the warmth of Malibu, Calif.
Still, Van Dyke hasn’t forgotten his Danville roots. He still chats with longtime friend Bob Hackman; Van Dyke was best man in Hackman’s wedding.
The two reminisce about how quiet and slow life used to be in Danville — milk and ice were delivered by horse and buggy; the lawn was cut by a push mower. Today, motorized mowers, cars and cell phones make for a hectic, noisy life.
“I don’t think people realize how the culture has changed,” he said.
When he was growing up, Van Dyke said, he had relatives in all directions from his house, including cousins and great-grandparents. Now, except for some second cousins and Hackman, everyone is gone, he said.
In April 2004, Van Dyke came to town to coach Danville High School students in their production of “Bye Bye Birdie.”
About that visit, he said, “What a thrill it was to get that kind of reception.”
He likes to mention publicly that Danville is his hometown, he said.
Hackman said of his longtime friend’s talent, “I think it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. He’s full of talent.”
Hackman is actor Gene Hackman’s uncle.
Van Dyke actually was born in West Plains, Mo., on Dec. 13, 1925; his parents just happened to be there at the time. After his birth, they brought him to Danville, where he attended local schools.
As a youngster he taught himself music, magic and pantomime. By 16, he was appearing in school plays, running track, serving as junior class president and working part time as an announcer at WDAN.
Enlisting in the Air Force at 18, he soon was performing for the troops and hosting a radio show called “Flight Time.” After one year of duty he was back in Danville, giving advertising a try, but it was not a fit.
With another Danville local, Phil Erickson, he hit the road in a record-pantomime act called “The Merry Mutes,” a perfect showcase for his physical comedy gifts. While appearing in Los Angeles, he sent for his high school sweetheart, Marjorie Willet. The two were married on “Bride and Groom,” a network radio program offering gifts and a honeymoon to newlyweds.
After a run hosting a daytime talk show in Atlanta and a morning show in New Orleans, CBS put him under contract. Van Dyke moved to New York, and in 1954 he began hosting “The Morning Show” (which featured up and coming newscaster Walter Cronkite). Other hosting jobs preceded his 1957 television-acting debut on an episode of “The Phil Silvers Show” and his Broadway debut in 1959 with Bert Lahr in the comedy revue “The Boys Against the Girls.”
The following year his career soared when he was cast opposite Chita Rivera in “Bye Bye Birdie.” His performance as rock star Conrad Birdie’s songwriter/manager Albert Peterson earned Van Dyke a Tony Award and brought him to the attention of Sheldon Leonard and Carl Reiner, who signed him for a pilot opposite newcomer Mary Tyler Moore.
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” premiered in 1961 and ran for five seasons. The series was a showcase for Van Dyke’s genius for physical comedy, earning him three lead actor Emmy Awards.
The tireless Van Dyke spent his series’ hiatus shooting the film version of “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1963 followed by “What a Way to Go” and Disney’s 1964 musical classic “Mary Poppins.” It won five Academy Awards, including one for star Julie Andrews and earned Van Dyke a Golden Globe nomination and, with Andrews, a Grammy.
A run of films followed, including “Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN” (1966), “Divorce American Style” (1967), “Fitzwilly” (1967), the musical “Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang” (1968), “Some Kind of a Nut” (1969) and Norman Lear’s anti-smoking “Cold Turkey” (1970). Van Dyke, who had delivered the eulogies for his comedy idols Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton, explored the role of a fictional silent movie star in 1969’s “The Comic,” He would return to the big screen again in Stanley Kramer’s “The Runner Stumbles” (1978), Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” (1990) and the Ben Stiller comedy “Night at the Museum” (2006).
After a year of filming “Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang” in England, Van Dyke moved with his family to their ranch in Carefree, Ariz., where “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” was produced for CBS for three seasons. In 1974, his stunning portrayal of an alcoholic family man in David Wolper’s ABC television movie “The Morning After” earned Van Dyke an Emmy nomination. A guest-star turn as a homicidal photographer opposite Peter Falk’s “Columbo” followed.
It was back to song, dance and comedy in NBC’s variety series “Van Dyke and Company,” earning him a fourth Emmy, followed by a national tour in “The Music Man,” which brought Van Dyke back to Broadway and a national tour in “Damn Yankees.” The 1980s brought a run of television movies including the Showtime production of “The Country Girl,” “Drop-Out Father,” “Found Money,” “Breakfast with Les and Bess” and the miniseries “Strong Medicine.”
In 1982, Van Dyke earned his fifth Emmy for his vocal performance as the father in the CBS Library special “Wrong Way Kid.” His voice-over talents were employed in the 2006 animated feature “Curious George” and the 2010 short “The Caretaker 3D,” a tribute to the Hollywood sign.
Van Dyke’s crime-solving physician, Dr. Mark Sloan, was introduced in a 1991 episode of “Jake and the Fat Man” and became the central character in three TV movies before evolving into the CBS series “Diagnosis: Murder.” It ran from 1993 to 2001, followed by two Dr. Sloan television movies in 2002. “Diagnosis: Murder” co-starred Van Dyke’s son Barry as a police detective and during its run provided guest-star opportunities for Van Dyke’s daughter Stacy, grandchildren Carey, Shane, Wes and Taryn, and brother Jerry Van Dyke.
From 2006 to 2008, the father-son team reunited for a series of four Hallmark Channel “Murder 101” movies, casting Barry as a private investigator opposite Dick’s absent-minded but brilliant criminology professor, Dr. Jonathan Maxwell.
In 2003, Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore re-teamed to portray lonely seniors in “The Gin Game” and the following year recreated husband-and-wife Rob and Laura Petrie for “The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited.”
Van Dyke, whose 2011 memoir “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business” made the New York Times Best Sellers list, admits that his retirement plans have yet to work out.
In 2006, he returned to Broadway receiving standing ovations in “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life.” In addition to his memoir, Van Dyke is the author of “Faith, Hope and Hilarity: The Child’s Eye View of Religion” (1970) and “Those Funny Kids” (1975), a collection of classroom humor.
Love of music
Twelve years ago, he teamed with Eric Bradley, Bryan Chadima and Mike Mendyke to form The Vantastix. Their first major public appearance was at the Society of Singers Ella Awards honoring Julie Andrews. They’ve since performed the National Anthem at L.A. Lakers playoffs, mounted a musical memoir at L.A.’s Geffen Theatre, appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, Disney Hall and at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., with the president and first lady in the front row and released an album of children’s songs, “Put on A Happy Face.”
For 15 years Van Dyke has been committed to his volunteer work at the Midnight Mission. He helped raise millions for their new building program and is there without fail every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and times in between offering comfort and cheer, often with the Vantastix and members of his own family.
He is passionate about raising funds for music and art programs for public schools and has performed at countless fundraisers. He became a spokesperson for the National Reye’s Syndrome Foundation in 1967 after losing a granddaughter to that disease and in 2010 was named the first spokesperson for the Cell Therapy Foundation.
Van Dyke has four children from his marriage to the late Marjorie Willet Van Dyke — sons, Christian and Barry, and daughters, Stacey and Carrie Beth — and seven grandchildren.
On Feb. 29, 2012, he married make-up artist Arlene Silver (whom he met at the 2007 SAG Awards) and whose vocal talents now occasionally blend with those of Dick and The Vantastix.
The Screen Actors Guild’s highest honor, “The Life Achievement Award,” will be televised at 7 p.m. (central time) today on TNT and TBS.
Dick Van Dyke-related items are for sale at Stage Presents (at the Fischer Theatre), 158 N. Vermilion St., which is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.