Dick Van Dyke was born on December 13, 1925, in West Plains, Missouri. During his more than 60 years in show business, Van Dyke has enjoyed great success on the stage, in films and on television. The tall, lanky actor is best known for his comedic antics. One of his early influences was Stan Laurel, of the famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.
Van Dyke grew up in Danville, Illinois, with his parents Loren and Hazel and younger brother, Jerry, who also became an actor. “Danville was a town of 30,000 people, and it felt as if most of them were relatives,” Van Dyke later wrote in his autobiography, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business. His father, Loren, was often away from the family, working as a traveling salesman for the Sunshine Cookie Company.
In his younger years, Van Dyke considered becoming a minister. He abandoned this ambition, however, after joining high high school’s drama club, and developing his singing and dancing skills in school musicals. His classmates included actor Donald O’Connor and entertainer Bobby Short. Around this time, Van Dyke landed his first professional job, working part-time at a local radio station.
In 1942, Van Dyke enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, and ended up in the special services unit. There, he performed in shows and hosted a radio show. After being discharged from the service in 1945, Van Dyke tried his hand at advertising, but after realizing that the business wasn’t a good match for him, he joined novelty lip-synching act the “Merry Mutes” and moved to California.
For years, Van Dyke struggled financially and professionally. He and his first wife, Margie, married on a radio show called Bride and Groom in 1948, in part because the program paid for the ceremony and gave them a free honeymoon. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Van Dyke worked in radio and television in Atlanta and New Orleans. He landed a seven-year contract with CBS in the early 1950s, but was let go after three years.
In 1959, Van Dyke landed a small part in the Broadway comedy review Girls Against the Boys. The show only lasted two weeks, and he soon moved on to another production. Along with Chita Rivera, Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly, Van Dyke was cast in the musical Bye Bye Birdie, which made its Broadway debut in 1960. The musical proved to a big hit, and it brought Van Dyke his one and only Tony Award win in 1961, for his supporting role. Not long after, his career took off.
Despite being a relatively unknown actor, Van Dyke got starring billing in his breakthrough TV series, The Dick Van Dyke Show. The now-classic comedy series was created by Carl Reiner, formerly a writer and performer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Van Dyke drew from his own life for the show, which centered around the lives of TV writer Rob Petrie and his wife, Laura (played by Mary Tyler Moore). Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam played Petrie’s friends and co-workers on the program.
Though The Dick Van Dyke Show got off to a slow start, it eventually developed quite a following; Van Dyke won over audiences with his good humor and likeability, and won three Emmy Awards for his work on the series. Decades after the show went off the air, in 1966, it remained a popular program in syndication. Following the show’s end, Van Dyke starred on several other TV series, including The New Dick Van Dyke Show, but none captured the public’s heart the way his first sitcom did.
With the success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Van Dyke was able to make the leap to feature films. His most memorable works were the musicals Mary Poppins (1965), with Julie Andrews; and Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968).
Van Dyke took a more dramatic turn in the 1990s. He starred in the popular crime drama Diagnosis Murder alongside his real-life son, Barry Van Dyke. Debuting in 1993, the series featured Van Dyke as Dr. Mark Sloan, a medical professional who helped the police solve crimes. The series ended in 2001, but Van Dyke didn’t stay away from the small screen for long. He played another amateur detective in a series of TV movies, beginning with 2006’s Murder 101. That same year, the actor appeared in the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum.
Returning to the stage, Van Dyke made a special guest appearance in Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life in 2006. He also transformed his own life into a theatrical production, Dick Van Dyke—A Step In Time: A Musical Memoir, which debuted in 2010 at Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, California.
“I’m having the best so-called retirement of anyone I know, doing what I love doing,” Van Dyke told BroadwayWorld.com in late 2010. “Eventually, I may try something less strenuous.” The following year, he published a printed version of his story in My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business. Van Dyke shares his ups and downs in the book—including his struggles with alcoholism—with remarkable optimism and poise.
On January 27, 2013, at the age of 87, Van Dyke received the 2013 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. During his acceptance speech, Van Dyke reminisced about his work over the years as an entertainer and stated that his career has “been full of surprises and a lot of fun.” He also praised actors working in the industry today, calling them “the greatest generation of actors” and telling them, “You’ve all lifted the art to another place now.” He continued with a rhetorical question for his Hollywood colleagues: “Aren’t we lucky to have found a line of work that doesn’t require growing up? I love that.” Van Dyke is the 49th recipient of the SAG Life Achievement Award, following 2012 honoree Mary Tyler Moore.
Van Dyke made headlines again in April 2013, this time for an incident of a much different kind—one posing a threat to the actor’s life, not celebrating it the way the prestigious event had just weeks earlier. The legendary performer announced that he was suffering from an “undiagnosed neurological disorder,” posting on his Twitter page: “My head bangs every time I lay down. I’ve had every test come back that I’m perfectly healthy. Anybody got any ideas?” The famed TV personality was reportedly advised by his doctor to avoid plane travel and rest until further tests could be conducted to pinpoint the direct cause of his head pain.
Along that same vein, in August 2013, reports about a new health scare involving Van Dyke were circulating worldwide. According to reports, a sports car that Van Dyke was operating on L.A.’s 101 Freeway suddenly burst into flames on August 19, leaving the actor trapped inside the burning vehicle until a passing motorist who had witnessed the accident could come to his aid. Thanks to the passerby, Jason Pennington, Van Dyke left the scene of the accident unscathed—not only did the actor walk away uninjured and needing no medical treatment, he did not receive a citation for the incident, according to The Associated Press. According to some reports, Van Dyke had reported engine trouble with the vehicle the previous day, on August 18.
Van Dyke had four children with his first wife, Margie. The pair lived separate lives for years, before officially divorcing in 1984. The actor became involved with Michelle Triola, an ex-girlfriend of Lee Marvin, in the late 1970s. Trioia had been working as Van Dyke’s agent’s secretary when they first met. Van Dyke stayed with Triola for nearly 30 years, until her death in 2009. In March 2012, the 86-year-old actor wed 40-year-old makeup artist Arlene Silver.