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Book review: 'Dick Van Dyke: My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business'

The personable performer has written an engaging memoir that stresses the personal over the professional.

May 09, 2011|By Jeff Bailey, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Legendary actor Dick Van Dyke is photographed at the Geffen Playhouse in 2010.
Legendary actor Dick Van Dyke is photographed at the Geffen Playhouse in… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

From 1961 to 1966 (and ever since in reruns), "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was a jewel of comedy writing and acting, its loose-limbed namesake among the most likable stars ever on television. During that same brief period, Van Dyke played Bert in the movie "Mary Poppins," sidekick to Julie Andrews' practically perfect nanny. And it is Van Dyke's chimney sweep, looking out across the rooftops of London, who sums up the glory of the working stiff, a quiet moment and seditious sentiment that underpins "Mary Poppins":

"What did I tell ya? There's the whole world at your feet. And who gets to see it, but the birds, the stars and the chimney sweeps."

Not bad for five years' work.

Why, then, was so much of Van Dyke's subsequent work unremarkable? His new memoir, "Dick Van Dyke: My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business," while harshly self-critical at times, does too little to clear up the mystery. Van Dyke chronicles his long struggle to control his drinking but never faults booze for the forgettable roles he later chose.

"I gladly said yes to a hodgepodge of TV movies," Van Dyke says at one point in the book, written with Todd Gold, a veteran celebrity biographer.

He faults the writing on several projects he starred in, but firing the screw-ups and bringing in a new crew seems never to have occurred to Van Dyke. He says he never bought the premise of "The Van Dyke Show" — a retired song-and-dance man and his son running a small-town theater — "and frankly, I don't think the show's writers bought it, either." The show lasted a few months in 1988.

Neither does Van Dyke tell us enough about his best work. How, say, does one so unforgettably fall over a living room ottoman the way he did in his original sitcom's introduction? And why was Bert's cockney accent so bad — it didn't matter; Van Dyke was wonderful in "Mary Poppins" — given a gift for mimicry that propelled his early career?

Perhaps performing came so naturally to Van Dyke that explaining his craft is beyond him. His wife Margie, visiting the set of his original sitcom, "said it didn't look like I was acting at all. 'You're exactly like you are at home.'"

Despite these failings, the memoir is engaging, not unlike a long, meandering chat with an older Rob Petrie, one imagines.

Van Dyke grew up in Danville, Ill., which turned out to be a hotbed of talent. High school classmates included singer Bobby Short and dancer Donald O'Connor. Gene Hackman, four years younger, was an annoying kid who tried to tag along. Van Dyke worked as a radio announcer in high school and did the same work while in the Army during World War II. A captain complained that Van Dyke tested to an IQ of 150 but failed all military-related exams. "I'm not much of a soldier," Van Dyke replied. He never saw action.

After the war, Van Dyke teamed up with Phil Erickson, another Danville guy, as the Merry Mutes, lip-syncing hit songs in a way that satirized popular singers. They worked Los Angeles nightclubs, then moved on to Miami and Atlanta, where they eventually had a daily variety show on the NBC affiliate.

In 1955, Van Dyke landed the announcer's job on the "CBS Morning Show," opposite NBC's "Today." He then worked on game shows until getting his big break: Gower Champion cast Van Dyke as a songwriter-agent on Broadway in "Bye Bye Birdie" (he was later in the movie). That's where he was when Carl Reiner decided to launch a sitcom and went looking for someone to play a comedy writer named Rob Petrie.

Van Dyke was initially skeptical about Mary Tyler Moore, who played his wife.

"I was concerned that Mary wasn't much of a comedienne," he says. But as rehearsals progressed, her timing became perfect. "The first time I stood across from her in rehearsal and heard her say, 'Oh, Rob!' I thought, That's it, we're home." (Van Dyke later says he developed a crush on Moore: "Who wouldn't adore Mary?")

Van Dyke mostly credits Reiner: "It was the writing. It was fantastic." But Reiner, eager to do new things, insisted the show fold after five seasons, much to Van Dyke's disappointment: "Was the show getting stale? No. Repetitive? No. Was I ready to leave? No."

Much of the second half of the book deals with Van Dyke's marriage to Margie (they have four children), who didn't care for Hollywood; their eventual divorce; and his 35-year relationship with Michelle Triola, who had been his agent's secretary (and famously Lee Marvin's former girlfriend and later plaintiff against Marvin in a palimony suit). Van Dyke does a better job of explaining his personal life than his career, though the latter seems of more interest to his fans.

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