Don’t say Dick Van Dyke is an overnight success (1963)
By Hank Grant, TV Time Special Writer – The Paducah Sun (Paducah, Kentucky) June 12, 1963
HOLLYWOOD — Want to make genial Dick Van Dyke really mad?
Just refer to him as an overnight success.
In truth, Dick Van Dyke was a comparative unknown less than two years ago when CBS announced he’d star in his own series. To many, it seemed strange that the least-known of the cast would be the star.
Carl Reiner, creator-producer of the series, had become a household word as Sid Caesar’s second banana; Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam were veteran comics who’d already become familiar figures on the TV tube; and even Mary Tyler Moore, Dick’s wife in the series, had amassed enough TV credits to make her name at least a recognizable one.
Perhaps only Dick himself knew that he was ready to match his talents with anyone when he stepped before the cameras for the first time as the star of his own series.
Far from being an overnight success, you see, Dick had been through the proverbial baptism of fire, making the slow rise to stardom the hard way. Back in 1947, Dick formed a comedy-pantomime act with a friend named Phil Erickson that was to tour the country for six years.
“Despite some indifferent audiences,” he recalls, “I figured I was a success, particularly when I hit California, so I sent for my childhood sweetie (the former Marjorie Willett of Danville, Illinois) and we got married.
“My road days weren’t over as soon as I thought. Our two sons, Christian and Barry, were born while on tour, and it’s a little nightmarish to recall the tough times when they had to sleep on mattresses in the back of the car when we jumped from job to job. Our two daughters, Stacey and Cathy, both born later, didn’t have to suffer these inconveniences, thank goodness.
“I got off the road and took TV emcee work in Atlanta, then New Orleans, on local shows that led to a CBS network show that finally got me recognition in New York.”
Reiner fires himself
Though he won critical approval in his first Broadway show, it was his second, “Bye, Bye Birdie” that caught the eye of Carl Reiner, then engrossed in selling a pilot of a series that had already been filmed with Carl as the star.
“I saw Dick Van Dyke,” says Carl, “and that was it. I fired myself and made him the star of the series. It only took me five minutes to see that Dick was a real pro and, for one so young, the versatility of his talent was unbelievable.”
So, I’ll change that to two people — only Dick and Carl Reiner knew that the comparative unknown was ready to match talents with anyone as the star of his own series.
Dick seems happy-go-lucky today, but believe it, he’s not going to let anyone take away his hard-fought success.
“All the years of hitting the road,” he recalls, “makes me really appreciate what I have now; a house I can call my own, with my wife and four children waiting there for me — man, no one will ever take that away from me. I wouldn’t change the past; it forged me, with all the rough heartaches, into a tough performer.
“But, as for touring again, count me out — like the song says, who really needs one more for the road?”
Dick Van Dyke doesn’t like leaving home (1972)
By Paul Jones – The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) August 12, 1972
Dick Van Dyke doesn’t make many personal appearances. In fact, he has made only two — both in Broadway plays — since he left here some 20 years ago. But he’s returning to Atlanta on Tuesday to star in “A Musical Cavalcade” at the Civic Center for the Theater of the Stars.
“I love the city and I love the people,” said the celebrated TV star whose career actually received its greatest impetus when he first came here in late 1948 as a member of the comedy team, The Merry Mutes. “I kinda think of it as home.”
Speaking from his present home in Carefree, Arizona, Dick recalled that he bought his first home in Chamblee [Georgia], and his first child, a son, Christian, was born here.
“We bought our first house on the GI Bill,’ said the affable star of Broadway, movies and TV, who is now many times over a millionaire. “And we later rented a house on Paces Ferry Road, which, I understand, is now an antique shop.
“We came to Atlanta from California where Phil (Erickson of Atlanta) and I had appeared at the Chapman Park Hotel in Hollywood for 14 months. We were to appear at the Paradise Room of the Henry Grady Hotel. Yeah, we just loved it. Phil and I went on to Texas to fill an engagement in Dallas, and our wives stayed behind in Atlanta and started looking for houses right away.
“Since that time, my wife Marjorie and I have thought of Atlanta as our home town. When Chris Manos (manager of the Theater of the Stars which is presenting “The Musical Cavalcade”) called me and asked me to do the show there I accepted because I felt this is one way I can visit there and see all my friends again.”
This is a rare exception for Dick, an acknowledged homebody.
“I do not make personal appearances anywhere. I do not appear in summer stock, in my own show in the major cities as do many other personalities, But I’m making an exception for Atlanta,” he said.
Dick named a number of friends, some former neighbors and some TV personalities such as Ray Moore, Ben Gunn, Don Elliott Heald, with whom he was associated when he worked for all network-affiliated stations here before leaving for New York in 1951.
“Ray Moore used to break me up at WSB-TV when he did the weather reports. His funny stuff just fractured me,” said Van Dyke, who won three Emmy Awards for his original comedy show, one of the most successful of all time.
Dick hasn’t forgotten Erickson, with whom he co-starred for some eight years as The Merry Mutes before Dick broke out on his own.
He had Phil on one of his television specials as a special guest. The two chat on the phone frequently. Dick said he hoped to get by Wits End, the Atlanta nightclub which is owned by Phil and his wife, Nancy, and see the new satirical revue there.
On his series last season, Dick worked in a line of dialogue in which he mentioned Phil and Atlanta. The episode was about Dick being out of work. Dick kissed off his plight with this ad lib line: “I know what I’ll do,” he said on the show. “I’ll call Phil Erickson in Atlanta. He will give me a job.”
Phil recalled the other day that scores of television fans called him and others saw him in shops and supermarkets and they all asked him, “If Dick needs a job, will you help him?” Phil said he reassured one and all that he would give Dick a job — if he really needed one.
Van Dyke hasn’t been out of work since he came to Atlanta in 1948, said Atlanta’s Monk Arnold, a theatrical agent, who served as “exclusive manager-agent” for the Merry Mutes.
It was Monk who got Dick his first job as a solo act on the Ed Sullivan TV show. It was Monk who booked the Merry Mutes into the Blue Angel in New York. It was Monk who also brought George Gobel, Andy Griffith and Dan Rowan and Dick Martin to the Paradise Room here and later saw them rise to great heights in TV.
The appearance on the Sullivan show was only a minor stepping stone. Dick soon returned to New York, where he met an old friend who had been in the Air Force with him during World War II. He is Byron Paul, who still manages Van Dyke.
Paul was a director for CBS-TV at the time, and he helped Dick land a job on a nighttime Cartoon Theater. Subsequently here placed Jack Paar on his morning Show, filled in occasionally for Garry Moore and made guest appearances on the Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore and Perry Como shows, among others.
Dick made his Broadway debut in “The Girls Against the Boys,”‘ then starred in two television specials which won him the lead in Broadway’s “Bye Bye Birdie.” His performance in that play and its movie adaptation brought him recognition as a major musical comedy star. This was quite a move for a young fellow who had once specialized in pantomime comedy done to recorded music.
The Van Dyke family, which now consists of Dick and Marjorie and four children — two boys and two girls — live in Carefree, Arizona, on a 180-acre ranch. Carefree is 40 miles from Phoenix. Dick tapes his TV show at a studio near his ranch, and said he already has completed the 1972-73 season.
“We like the desert,” said Dick, who has granted fewer interviews than he has made personal appearances in the last 20 years. “We moved here several years ago when the TV newscasters started telling the children not to go out and play because the smog was too dangerous. We like the outdoors. We like swimming, horseback riding and digging for archaeological treasures in the desert around Cave Creek, Arizona. We have about eight head of cattle and we just have a ball.
“One reason I don’t make more personal appearances like I’m doing in Atlanta is that I don’t like leaving home — leaving the family.”
Asked about the show which will be presented here for eight performances, Starting Tuesday, Dick said “You probably know as much about it as I do. I haven’t seen it since I will be appearing only in Atlanta. They sent me all the things that I would be doing and I’ve had a chance to sort of practice them here at home. It looks like it will be a lot of fun.”‘
“I’ll arrive in Atlanta on Saturday, and we will have three days of rehearsals. I will do some of my own material.”
While here, Van Dyke said he will make a few appearances on radio and television — something else he hasn’t done for 20 years.
“In a way, it’ll be like old home week,” said Van Dyke.
After a failed marriage, alcoholism and a stalled career, Dick Van Dyke is coming back strong (1979)
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 ’70s were as barren and joyless as the ’60s 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 ’60s 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.
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.”
Dick Van Dyke: Confident?
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.
A look back at some of Dick Van Dyke’s ads/product endorsements
Dick Van Dyke has everything
…including a Custom Royal Suit by ‘Botany’ 500
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‘Botany’ 500 tailored by Daroff
Dick Van Dyke for Hunt’s sauces: Turns your oven into a BBQ (1982)
Dick Van Dyke: “Hunt’s all-natural Barbecue Sauce. Turns your oven into a barbecue.”
America! Your good cooking just got better! (1982)
’cause Hunt’s was good… but it just got better!
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