Dick Van Dyke was driving to work one morning back in the 1960s when he happened to hear Fred Astaire being interviewed about the current crop of dancers.
“I like the way Dick Van Dyke moves,” said Astaire.
“Well, I almost drove off the freeway, of course,” Van Dyke recalls.
The very excited TV star safely reached the studio where “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was shot. “I ran in and said, ‘Did you hear that? Did you hear that?’ But nobody had heard it. But I had heard it. And it was one of the great thrills of my life.” No surprise that the grace, precision and virtuosity of Astaire impressed Van Dyke, this year’s lifetime-achievement honoree at the SAG Awards. “Anyone who could move well always got to me.”
As a 10-year-old Depression-era kid, Van Dyke would run around the house entertaining his mother and friends with impressions of his other heroes, Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton.
“I had Laurel’s face and chin and I practiced his dialect over and over,” he reminisces. “Then I’d see Buster Keaton matinees and try to do all those pratfalls. I liked to make my friends laugh.
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I’ve always said that I was born too late. I would have made a good silent-screen comedian.”
Surprisingly, the leggy young man who loved all those cool moves began his show biz career behind a microphone in a radio booth in Danville, Illinois. It wasn’t until years after he had made his way to Broadway, well into his 30’s, that he considered himself a dancer.
Van Dyke had landed the lead in the 1960’s hit “Bye Bye Birdie” by doing a little impromptu soft-shoe after auditioning for a smaller part. “That singing and dancing broke me out a bit,” he recalls.
Fortunately, Carl Reiner was in the “Birdie” audience one night. “Carl gave me the break that changed my life.”
Reiner was developing a show based on his own life: a writer who lives in New Rochelle with a wife and two kids, and who goes into New York every day to write for a big variety show.
“I always intended to be the star. I wrote 13 episodes and did a pilot,” says Reiner. “The pilot wasn’t very good. And so I put it aside.”
But Reiner’s agent gave it to producer Sheldon Leonard at Danny Thomas productions.
“Sheldon and Danny called me in. I said, “Fellas, I don’t want to fail twice with the same material.” In his best Leonard impersonation, Reiner mimics, ” ‘You won’t fail. We’ll get a better actor to play you!’
“When I saw Dick in “Bye Bye Birdie,” I said, ‘He’s not just a better actor, he’s an actor who can do anything.’ He’s the most graceful human being I’ve ever met. He can take those pratfalls and not hurt himself. He always did some kind of pantomime even when he was going through a normal day. He’d handle props differently than anybody else. He’s juggler,” adds Reiner. “I couldn’t wait to write musical shows for Dick and Mary Tyler Moore. They were so wonderful together.”
Pratfalls, dancing, tripping over that hassock or not, the groundbreaking TV show had a lot of physicality. But it was the writing, the plotlines, often based on things that had happened to someone in the cast, that really anchored the 15-time Emmy award winning sitcom.
“One of the show’s best writers, Billie Perky, says that the secret was to write Yiddish and play British,” says Van Dyke. “And you didn’t have to act with Carl’s writing. He caught the cadence and the nuance of the way everybody talked,”
“God knows, the writing was the core of the show,” concurs Moore. “It was the first time that the husband and wife were written about with intelligence and a sense of humor. We weren’t perfect people. Rob and Laura were a modern husband-wife team solving family problems together.”
And what of today’s sitcoms? What does Van Dyke think of the writing?
“Almost every line is a one liner. A joke with a laugh,” he critiques. “There’s not time to bring character or story along. Very fast cutting and the lines are delivered very quickly with canned laughter. For me, I don’t buy it. It’s not believable.”
However, Van Dyke still has a few favorites, mentioning “All in the Family,” “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” and “M*A*S*H.”
And, “I like Ben Stiller and Ricky Gervais a lot,” says the SAG honoree. “Ricky plays it for real.”
Casting is a troupe effort | Merger makes for few bumps | SAG honors Dick Van Dyke