Born with the name he has used all his life, Dick came into the world on December 13, 1925. Raised in Danville, Illinois, he was like a number of American comics and entertainers who grew up in the local movie theater watching cowboys and Indians and miscellaneous adventure heroes week after week. It was Laurel and Hardy, however, who captured the young Van Dyke’s imagination, and he joined the high school drama club as soon as he was eligible. He served in the military during World War II after struggling to meet the Army’s weight requirements. He was always underweight.
His Army career started his work in radio and kept him in the United States for the duration, but during that time his trademark baritone voice made him popular, a natural for continuing in radio work. Transitioning to the civilian world, Van Dyke became an announcer, weather reader and news reader, moved on to some acting jobs, and into the world of television as host of game shows. By 1960, he landed a starring role on Broadway in the show “Bye Bye Birdie,” a comedy about a fictitious singing idol. Dick did not play the singing idol, definitely modeled after Elvis Presley, but an inept manager who can’t control his superstar and keep him out of trouble. Van Dyke earned a Tony award for the role.
The same year, he was signed to play Rob Petrie on his own show, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” a highly successful sit-com about the team of comedy writers who try to work together to make their crotchety star funny. This superb team of actors, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, and Rose Marie, went on together for seven seasons to become one of television’s most loved, respected, and still revered shows. It spun off to the Mary Tyler Moore Show from 1970 to 1977, also spectacularly successful.
Meanwhile, Van Dyke became a movie actor beginning with the adaptation of “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1963 and the blockbuster, “Mary Poppins” in 1964. If Dick Van Dyke was not already a household name and face, he became one with the release of “Mary Poppins.” Though he did not master an English accent and was skewered by the critics, he went on to star in “Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang” in 1968. There was a brief reappearance on television with his own show, “The New Dick Van Dyke Show,” in the 1970s, but its short life may have had to do with Van Dyke’s struggle with alcoholism. Both alcohol and nicotine became his nemesis for many years, but he overcame both during the later part of the decade.
An entertainer for life, Van Dyke went on to make several made-for-television movies and many guest appearances before he found another successful series, the medical mystery drama, “Diagnosis Murder,” from 1993 to 2001. The show frequently featured Dick’s son Barry Van Dyke. Since the end of the series, Van Dyke has selected occasional movie roles in such films as “Curious George” and “A Night at the Museum,” in 2006 and 2007. He loves to accept television roles in which he can include one or more of his grandchildren. A dedicated parent and believer in appropriate entertainment for children and families, he has announced his retirement frequently, but turns up just about every year on one screen or another.