After a failed marriage, alcoholism and a stalled career, Dick Van Dyke is coming back strong
by Fred Robbins
“I have a small room in my home,” Dick Van Dyke says, “that has nothing but books on theology, all of which I have read, looking for answers in my life.” In recent years, besides matters of religion, two other questions have haunted him. How did his personal and professional lives go wrong? And where did he go from here?
For Dick Van Dyke, the 70’s were as barren and joyless as the 60’s were rich and bountiful.
Besides a well-publicized bout with alcoholism — a battle he won — his marriage to high-school sweetheart Marjorie Willett broke up after 30 years and four children. There is for now no resolution to this situation. He and his wife are separated, and he is “seeing others,” principally Michelle Triola, of the famous Triola-Lee Marvin “palimony” case.
And his once-thriving career seemed to come to a standstill. After 1971’s Cold Turkey, there were no more movies. And his only television series in this decade. The New Dick Van Dyke Show limped along for three seasons (1971-74), and in no way repeated the spectacular success of his first series.
Looking back to the sixties
In retrospect, the 60’s were a halcyon time. He had starred on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie and won a Tony. His Dick Van Dyke Show, urbane and witty, made him America’s best-loved comedian, ran five seasons and brought him four Emmys. There had also been 11 movies, several of them box-office winners, including the giant hits Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Today, though, recently turned 54, Dick Van Dyke has come back swinging with a double play that is likely to guarantee a golden glow over his next decade. On the stage, he’s headlining in a million-dollar revival of The Music Man, which, after opening at Reno’s Sahara on October 18, is making a 32-week sweep across the country before coming to Broadway in the spring.
Van Dyke’s success in a musical, and in such a ready-made part as that of the flamboyant Harold Hill, should not be surprising. But no one could have predicted the highly dramatic role he essays in Stanley Kramer’s controversial new film, The Runner Stumbles. He plays a middle-aged priest being tried for the murder of the young nun he loved.
“Are you crazy?” Van Dyke had exclaimed when offered the role. “I’m a comedian.” Why did Kramer turn to him? “I’d remembered Dick had been an alcoholic,” he says, “and suffered, so he could be properly vulnerable. And he is. He’s damn good. He gives a helluva performance.”
Terming it now “the most exhilarating experience of my life,” Van Dyke admits that he finally took on the assignment because he feared time was running out. He wanted to do something so challenging that it would scare him to death. “I’m getting to that age, you know, where anything I’ve ever wanted to do I’d better do now.” There was also, he adds, another reason he eventually said yes to the persistent producer. “There comes a time in an actor’s life when, if he’s had a degree of success, the stress, the pressure is off. Once you get past 50, suddenly the drive isn’t there as strongly as it was — unless you’re willing to gamble on something entirely new.”
Self-confidence is not his greatest asset. “What’s publicized, what the audience sees, is not me,” he admits. “It’s the image of me: something made up in their own minds. It’s a character I’ve built and play, but it’s not me personally. The public doesn’t really know what I think or feel or who I am.”
Helping him conquer his fears during filming. Van Dyke says, was the memory of how many comedians have successfully assumed dramatic roles. “Actually,” he says. “I think every comedian has the ability to do heavy roles, but it’s hard to get up the guts to strip away the stuff that’s always worked for you. As for the repressed and controlled anger of the priest I play, I had to dig down for that baby. But I believe that all people, and maybe comedians in particular, have anger and rage within them and are afraid to let it out.”
Strangely, once producer Kramer signed Van Dyke to star in his picture, director Kramer urged him, in essence, to “vanish.” “Stanley told me,” reports the actor, “that he didn’t want to see one vestige of Dick Van Dyke in this movie. He said. ‘I don’t want to see that smile, I don’t want to see anything of you. I want you to lose yourself entirely.’ I’d never done that. God, it was hard! I had to change everything about myself.
“For instance, I tend to move in an eccentric way and can get laughs without wanting to. I’m skinny and rather angular. But the key to this man, with his inner fury, was physical containment. Getting that was incredibly difficult.”
Humor in his heart
Despite his triumph in this tragic role, though, comedy remains Dick Van Dyke’s first love. He has just completed an NBC-TV movie in which he plays “Fearless Fosdick,” of the comic strip, and portrays him as a “clutzy Jacques Tati.” Following that, he and Stanley Kramer join forces again, this time to do a farce “about the last of the Marx Brothers’ writers.”
Referring to himself as a “clown,” Van Dyke is strongly opposed to the modem trend of cruelty in humor, saying, “I think comedy should be gentle — human and gentle and tender.” He also holds no truck with the “laughter through tears” theory about clowns — that they are funny because they need attention or love to compensate for some secret hurt in their lives. “I’ve never had tears — never bought that,” he states emphatically “I, personally, just always loved comedy. I didn’t adopt it as a mechanism to hide anything.”
At the height of his earlier fame, though, Dick Van Dyke camouflaged for five years the fact that he was an alcoholic. He managed to hide it from the world, he says, because no one ever saw him drink in public. And he never drank before or during work. Rather, he explains, “I went home and did my drinking there. I drank until I was drunk. My excuse was the pressure of my career.
“Nobody else can tell you that you are an alcoholic,” he says. “You yourself have gotta say. ‘I am an alcoholic.’ Finally, you have to acknowledge, ‘I can’t control it myself at all. There is nothing I can do. I’ve got to go upstairs for help.”
In August 1972, Dick Van Dyke had himself committed to a ward at St Luke’s Hospital in Phoenix, which has an alcoholic-rehabilitation program. He has not had a drink since. As he carefully points out, though, “Alcoholism is not a thing that can be cured. You can never take a social drink. You’re an alcoholic the rest of your life. But, having gone through that dark tunnel, you know something you didn’t know before. Life takes on an entirely different aspect — there’s a preciousness about it, and you are continually aware of that.”
His years as an alcoholic also tremendously hurt Marjorie, the wife he married twice — the second ceremony coming on the occasion of their 18th wedding anniversary, with their children, sons Chris and Barry and daughters Stacey and Carrie Beth, present. He speaks of Marjorie often, with tenderness, and there are reports that yet another reconciliation may occur between the Van Dykes some time in the future.
Has humor helped at all through the bleak times? “Yes, humor has always helped, absolutely,” he replies. Contrasting this lightheartedness in Dick Van Dyke, however, is his seriousness, illustrated by his reaction to the filming of one particular episode in The Runner Stumbles.
“There is a scene in which the priest is talking to God, a most solemn scene in which he asks, ‘What kind of a God are you? What do you want from me? What have I misunderstood about this whole thing?’ And this got very close to me. Some of the questions I’ve had all my life, questions that were never really quite answered, are surfacing again.”
In that quiet, little room in his home, surrounded by the wisdom of the religions of all ages, Dick Van Dyke — the man unknown to his public — continues to search for answers.