Veteran trio play pivotal roles in Levy-helmed laffer

Fleshing out a cast that already included leading man Ben Stiller, and supporting work from Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Robin Williams and Steve Coogan, helmer Shawn Levy didn’t want a “Dick Van Dyke type” or a “Mickey Rooney type.”

“I wanted the real dudes, and with the studio’s support, I was able to go after them,” says the director, who just completed work on the Fox comedy “Night at the Museum.”

In the film, which is slated for December release, the 80-year-old Van Dyke the 86-year-old Rooney, along with 71-year-old character actor Bill Cobbs, play a trio of retiring security guards — comic foils — who turn over their posts to the unwitting Stiller at the strangest of all natural history museums.

Far from mere legend cameos, the three play meaty, pivotal roles.

“With Dick, we were looking for the primary villain of the movie — sugar-sweet on the outside — somebody who would be formidable opposite Ben,” Levy explains. “We’re talking about the most beloved family-comedy actor of any era that I can think of, and there’s a lot of irony going against that vein.”

As for Rooney, “We knew we wanted a bulldog — a tough, pugnacious guy,” Levy explains.

And Cobbs? “With his stagelike gravitas, we knew he’d be a funny pivot point for Mickey’s belligerence and Dick’s smooth-as-silk charm,” he adds. “I also like the pure visual of the three of them together — they look like three old superheroes.”

Although Van Dyke and Rooney have slowed down their feature film skeds quite a bit in recent years, Levy says they were both immediately amenable to doing “Museum.” In fact, without a fuss, they even auditioned for it — a necessity, given Stiller’s working style.

“There was definite trepidation asking legends to audition, but casting something in a vacuum is not an option with Ben Stiller,” Levy explains. “You have to see what the combination will be like.”

For his part, Van Dyke didn’t seem at all bugged by the process. In fact, Levy says his interest in doing more film work might have been sparked.

He recalls this exchange with the Van Dyke during the wrap party: ” ‘You son of a bitch,’ he said to me. ‘You ruined my retirement.’ “

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