Dick Van Dyke's most popular movie role is that of Bert, the Cockney jack-of-all-trades and best bud with the practically perfect nanny ( Julie Andrews) in Walt Disney's beloved 1964 musical " Mary Poppins." It was Van Dyke who introduced the Oscar-winning best song "Chim Chim Cher-ee" by Richard and Robert Sherman.
But Van Dyke is quick to point out that the "British people have never left me off the hook" about his less-than-picture-perfect Cockney accent. "They just tease me to death," he says, laughing.
"Somebody sent me a British magazine listing the 20 worst dialects ever done in movies. I was No. 2, with the worst Cockney accent ever done. No. 1 was Sean Connery, because he uses his Scottish brogue no matter what he's playing."
Van Dyke, still trim and handsome with his snow white hair and sparkling blue eyes, will be singing a lot of the tunes from "Poppins" as well as from the 1968 movie musical "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" in his new his stage show, "Step in Time! A Musical Memoir," which begins previews Wednesday at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse and opens Dec. 16. Of course, he'll also be performing tunes from "Bye Bye Birdie," for which he won a Tony Award nearly 50 years ago, and reprised for the 1963 movie, as well as talking about other parts of his performing life, including his starring role in what many consider the greatest sitcom ever, " The Dick Van Dyke Show."
The show also features the singing trio the Vantastix — Eric Bradley, Bryan Chadima and Mike Mendyke — who found Van Dyke sitting in a Malibu Starbucks one morning about 10 years ago.
"This young fellow walks up and introduced himself, and he said, 'I understand you like to harmonize' and I said, 'I love to,' so he brought a couple of buddies over that night," Van Dyke recalled recently in an interview at the Geffen. "We started singing together and for a year every Tuesday we would have a pizza and sing, just for our own entertainment. Somebody asked us to do a benefit, and we sang and then somebody else asked us and then we were singing all over town."
Including the Geffen. "It went so well, they booked us into the theater."
Van Dyke looks like he's in fabulous shape — he turns 85 on Dec. 13. "I am hoping I am in good enough shape to do this," he says, with a twinkle in those bright blue eyes.
Even as a teen, Van Dyke loved singing, performing in musicals and plays at his high school in his hometown of Danville, Ill. But his first big show business job was pantomiming to records with Phil Erickson. They joined together in 1946 as the Merry Mutes and came out to Los Angeles. "We worked all over town for a couple of years," he says. "Mime was quite a thing then. We would sometimes do an opera, play a lot of Crosby, Spike Jones."
While he was appearing at the old Chapman Park Hotel on Wilshire, he married his first wife on the radio show "Bride and Groom," which taped at the hotel.
"The emcee would come in and see the show," says Van Dyke. "I let it drop I was planning on getting married. He said, 'Come on the show,' so I sent for my girlfriend back home and we did the show. We got a honeymoon in Mt. Hood, Ore., and some free appliances. I couldn't afford to get married otherwise."
The Mighty Mutes and their families ended up in Atlanta. The team eventually broke up because they couldn't travel with their families. Van Dyke was working for a local TV station as an announcer and talk show host when an old Army buddy, who had become a director at CBS, told the network about Van Dyke and said they should audition him. Van Dyke came to New York, auditioned and got a seven-year contract with the network, appearing on two episodes of the CBS series "The Phil Silvers Show" before becoming a comic performer on "The Pat Boone Show" and "The Andy Williams Show."
"Silvers" writer Aaron Ruben took Van Dyke under his wing during those early years in New York. "I have only heard recently that he was the guy who dropped the word to director Gower Champion and that's how I got the audition for 'Bye Bye Birdie.' " Not only did Van Dyke earn a Tony, but the musical also led to him being cast as TV writer Rob Petrie on the seminal Emmy Award-winning comedy series "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which aired on CBS from 1961-66.
Creator-writer-producer Carl Reiner had shot the original pilot, "Head of the Family," with himself as the lead, but CBS didn't like Reiner. "Carl saw me in 'Bye Bye Birdie' when he was casting the show. I got a week off from 'Birdie,' I came out here and did the pilot and it sold. I had a script I wanted to do as a pilot, and once I read Carl's stuff, I just threw it away."
The series, which costarred Mary Tyler Moore as his capri-wearing wife, Laura, Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie as fellow writers Buddy and Sally, and Reiner as obnoxious TV star Alan Brady, was "the best five years of my life," says Van Dyke. "I had the most fun."
But it was Reiner, according to Van Dyke, who said at the outset that he would end the show after five seasons. "He felt that you would start repeating yourself. We could have gone another five. I didn't want to quit. I would still be doing it today."
Fast fame: Dick Van Dyke
Dick Van Dyke appeared opposite what star of "Psycho" in the 1963 musical "Bye Bye Birdie"?
' Dick Van Dyke: A Step in Time! A Musical Memoir'
Where: The Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood
When: Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.
Previews: Dec. 8-15
Schedule: Dec. 16 through Jan. 16
Admission: $65 for previews; $75-$85 for regular run
Information: (310) 208-5454 or go to http://www.geffenplayhouse.com