Queen Elizabeth II, actress Angela Lansbury, and entertainer Dick Van Dyke were born within a few months of each other. And all three of them met. The first two unfortunately didn’t quite make their 97th birthday. But Dick Van Dyke did!
Dick Van Dyke is an American professional actor, comedian, singer, dancer, and writer. He’s worked as an entertainer in radio, nightclubs, television, film, and on the Broadway stage. In television, he became a household name with The Dick Van Dyke Show, and later starred in The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Van Dyke and Company, Diagnosis: Murder, and Murder 101. In film, he’s starred in Bye Bye Birdie (which he had done earlier on the Broadway stage), Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and The Comic. He’s also appeared in many other TV shows and movies.
In addition to numerous nominations, he’s received five Primetime Emmy Awards, a Tony, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy Award. He was recognized as a Disney Legend in 1998, and the Television Critics Association recognized him for Career Achievement in 2003. He received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2013. This was not only for his entertainment contributions, but also for his charity work. He’s volunteered for several groups such as the Los Angeles Homeless Shelter and The Midnight Mission. In 2021, he received the Kennedy Center Honors.
And he’s no stranger to the computer and Internet. In 1991, while in his mid 60s, he got a computer and started toying with computer animation. He later got his own Twitter account, and created 3D-rendered effects used on both Diagnosis: Murder and The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited.
Richard Wayne Van Dyke was born December 13, 1925 to stenographer Hazel Victoria and salesman Wayne “Cookie” Van Dyke. While starting out in West Plains, Missouri, he grew up in Danville, Illinois. The older brother of the late actor Jerry Van Dyke, he contemplated entering the ministry until a high school drama class led him to performing. (He later taught Sunday school, and was recognized as an elder, in his Presbyterian Church).
During World War II, he left high school before finishing his senior year. He intended to become a pilot in the United States Army Air Forces, but was turned down several times due to his low weight. He was eventually accepted for service as a radio announcer, and later entertained troops in the Special Services.
He finally received his high school diploma in 2004—60 years after leaving school.
He married his first wife, the former Margerie Willett, on the radio show Bride and Groom. He said they were poor at the time, and gifts from the show helped them start out. For a while after their marriage, they lived in a car. The couple had four children, Christian, Barry, Stacy, and Carrie Beth. They later divorced.
He had a long-time relationship with Michelle Triola Marvin which lasted until she died. At the age of 86, he married the 40-year-old make-up artist Arlene Silver.
After struggling with alcoholism for years, he chose to stay in a hospital to receive treatment n 1972. Many have attributed his openness about his problem helping them seek recovery. Once a heavy smoker, in 2013 he said he had been a nicotine replacement therapy gum chewer for about 10 years. His desire to help others led to the creation of The Van Dyke Addiction Treatment Center.
But what are Dick Van Dyke’s connections to Science Fiction and Fantasy?
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show seems to have no connection to science fiction. (It has a direct connection which we’ll get to). It’s about a television comedy show writer, his co-workers, family, and neighbors. It was largely inspired by series creator Carl Reiner’s real-life work as a comedy writer. In 2002, the series was ranked at 13 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
The show challenged social norms of the time, particularly in regard to gender issues. One of Rob Petrie’s (Dick Van Dyke) two writer coworkers is the male Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam), but the other is the female Sally Rogers (Rose Marie). Sally is the only unmarried, and arguably the most self-sufficient, regular adult character (if you don’t count her serial dating).
By today’s standards, Rob’s wife Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) may seem to be a conventional housewife and stay-at-home mother. But she had worked as a dancer, and popularized women wearing slacks when those were considered primarily “male clothing.” Both Rob and Laura often got in over their heads, and relied on the other to get out. The show often avoided the “men vs. women” trope that was common in sitcoms at the time.
And kids weren’t left out. In the 1965 episode “Girls Will Be Boys,” Rob and Laura’s young son Ritchie (Larry Mathews) was being hit by a girl. The episode challenged the conventional “boys can’t hit girls” rule, and also touched on how parental violence can affect how their children behave.
So what’s the direct connection to science fiction?
One of the series’ most famous episodes, ranked in 1997 as no. 15 in TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time, is “It May Look Like a Walnut.” In the 1963 episode, Rob stays up to watch a frightening science fiction movie on TV, a movie which scares his wife Laura. The movie features space aliens who use small devices disguised as walnuts. The “walnuts” then transform humans so they lose their creativity and their thumbs. That way humans won’t be competition in space.
The next morning, Rob gets out of bed and finds walnuts are on the floor of the living room, and in his breakfast, and in his son’s bagged lunch….
Then in the 1965 episode “Uhny Uftz,” Rob is all alone when he sees and hears a flying saucer–or does he?
The influence of the show, including the walnut episode, hasn’t stopped. People involved with the 2021 Disney+/Marvel Comics television miniseries WandaVision openly acknowledged a connection to The Dick Van Dyke Show. Paul Bettany. who plays Vision, said his interpretation of the character was influence by Van Dyke. The creator, director, and some of the executive producers of the miniseries talked with Van Dyke about his program. And characters in the Emmy Award winning WandaVision watch the walnut episode, which reportedly influenced the development of the miniseries.
Perhaps Van Dyke’s most famous appearance in the science fiction/fantasy realm is in the 1964 musical fantasy film Mary Poppins. The Walt Disney-produced film was directed by Robert Stevenson with songs by Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman, known as the Sherman Brothers. Based on a book series by P.L. Travers, the screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi follows the magical nanny Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews). She flies in via umbrella to help a dysfunctional family. But her closest friend is the Cockney jack-of-all-trades Bert (Dick Van Dyke). The film implies the two of them have known each other for a long time.
Van Dyke also played Mr. Dawes Sr., the much older bank director. He was credited in this role as “Navckid Keyd,” but the letters of the name unscrambled to become Dick Van Dyke. The film combines live action with animation, including Van Dyke’s famous dance with animated penguins.
The film received five Academy Awards out of a Disney record of 13 nominations. It was the company’s only film to be nominated for Best Picture during Walt Disney’s lifetime.
While Van Dyke himself has joked about criticism over the inaccuracy of his Cockney accent, he was praised for his acting, singing, and dancing. And the film has one of the motion picture industry’s most famous uses of a single word. In Citizen Kane, the word is “Rosebud.” In Mary Poppins, it’s “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang may sound like the name of a 1960s nightclub. But it’s the name of a 1968 musical-fantasy film starring Dick Van Dyke. Directed by Ken Hughes with a screenplay co-written by Roald Dahl and Hughes, the film is loosely based on a children’s book written by, of all people, James Bond creator Ian Fleming. As with Mary Poppins, music was by the Sherman Brothers.
In addition to Van Dyke, the film features Sally Ann Howes, Lionel Jeffries, Gert Fröbe, Anna Quayle, Benny Hill, James Robertson Justice, and Robert Helpmann. Van Dyke plays the widowed inventor Caractacus Potts who is raising two young children. The children become concerned about the retired, crashed ex-race car they love that’s due to be destroyed. Caractacus tries to raise money to save it, and also tells the children a fantasy story about the car, which fills most of the rest of the movie.
The title song received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.
Mary Poppins Returns
Dick Van Dyke returned in Mary Poppins Returns. The 2018 American musical fantasy film is a sequel to Mary Poppins. Released 54 years later, it held the cinematic record for the longest interval between a film and its sequel. It was directed by Rob Marshall, with a screenplay written by David Magee based on a story by Magee, Marshall, and John DeLuca.
Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), is the former nanny of Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) and her brother Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), a recently widowed father. Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a former apprentice of Bert, Van Dyke’s main character from the first film. Like the 1964 movie, it mixes live-action with traditional animation. Other roles are played by Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, and Angela Lansbury. The movie received numerous awards, and four Academy Award nominations.
Van Dyke plays bank director Mr. Dawes Jr., son of the bank director he played in the previous film. As before, his banker role was credited as “Navckid Keyd”, with the letters unscrambling to spell Dick Van Dyke.
While the film was in production, Dick Van Dyke amazed the cast and production team—and said he amazed himself—by dancing on a desk. Many were touched by his return, including director Marshall. The director became so emotionally moved during a rehearsal that someone else had to call “Cut.”
More Fantasy and Science Fiction
The actor also appeared or did voice work in other live action and animated projects that had fantasy or science fiction elements. These include The New Scooby-Doo Movies, Tubby the Tuba, Dick Tracy, Curious George, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
What does Dick Van Dyke have to do with Star Trek? Admittedly not much, but a few connections are there. When the The Dick Van Dyke Show aired its last episode, filmed in Desilu Studios, the Desilu Productions’ Star Trek was preparing to be aired for the first time. Both programs challenged contemporary social norms. And both programs focus on resolving conflicts through teamwork.
Another connection. Van Dyke was in the 2018 American fantasy drama film Buttons: A Christmas Tale. Among his co-stars was Angela Lansbury in her final film role. The cast also included Robert Picardo, a regular as the Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager. And it included John de Lancie, who’s played Q in the Star Trek franchise from 1987 to the present. And in Mary Poppins Returns, David Warner, known for his roles in fantasy films and as various characters in the Star Trek franchise, played his final film role.
Then in 2019, singer Justin Bieber famously tweeted a challenge for actor Tom Cruise to a fight. Brent Spiner, known for playing Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, jokingly joined in. He made a very similar challenge–except his was to the 93-year-old actress Angela Lansbury. But Lansbury’s 93-year-old friend Dick Van Dyke responded. He wrote back to Spiner, “I will defend the honor of Dame Lansbury for free!! The pier at the sundown!! Be there, if you dare!!” Spiner quickly “backed down.”
In 2000, Dick Van Dyke announced his plan to retire after the end of that season’s Diagnois: Murder. This was when he was age 74.
That’s before he appeared in The Gin Game. And Scrubs. And The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited, Murder 101, Curious George, Buttons: A Christmas Tale, and more than one film in the Night at the Museum fantasy-comedy franchise. And, of course, Mary Poppins Returns. At the age of 92, he said, “I have retired so many times, it has become a habit.” At age 95, he told Today‘s Al Roker, “I don’t think I’ll ever retire, unless they make me. It’s too much fun! I have such a good life.”
Happy Birthday, Dick! Thank you for all of it.
Alden Loveshade first thought of emself as a writer when in 3rd grade. E first wrote professionally when e was 16 years old, and later did professional photography and art/graphic design. Alden has professionally published news/sports/humorous/and feature articles, poems, columns, reviews, stories, scripts, books, and school lunch menus.
This is a well researched article about Dick Van Dyke and his milestone of reaching his 97th birthday. If you are a fan of The Dick Van Dyke Show, you will enjoy this documentary to commemorate the show’s 60th anniversary. https://youtu.be/dytkcbFwboY
Thank you very much for your comments and for your work bringing us the documentary! So far, I’ve just seen its beginning. But in spite of the research I’ve done, I’ve already learned something from it that I didn’t know. I’m looking forward to watching the whole thing this weekend!