Theatre yesterday and today



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No, it’s not Dick Van Dyke’s birthday (and thank god this isn’t a memoriam piece). I wanted to write about him — that’s all.

You see, he’s been on my mind of late, what with his cameo appearance in Mary Poppins Returns currently on the big screen. And from the moment he made his entrance late in the film, I was reduced to tears. The sheer nostalgia element he brings to the sequel, having played Bert the chimneysweep in the original Mary Poppins back in 1964, is palpable. When that film debuted fifty-four years ago, Van Dyke was already a Tony Award winning Broadway musical star and the eponymous lead in the multi-Emmy Award winning The Dick Van Dyke Show. Now at the age of ninety-three, his remarkable talents are making grown men and women laugh and cry with joy at his literally kicking up his heels once again. Those of a certain age (like me), who grew up on Van Dkye, know of the dazzling effect he had on all of us. At the height of his fame in the 1960s, anyone who saw him on stage, film or television simply adored him. And why not? What was there not to adore? Natural charm like his can't be bottled and sold— or taught.

Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins Returns; an homage to a secondary role

he played in the original Mary Poppins.

In a career that is now in its seventh decade, Dick Van Dyke has done about everything an actor can do. From radio announcer, to TV morning news show host, to nightclub performer, to TV emcee, to Broadway, to movie star, and most prominently, as the lead on four separate television series (three of which ran for a combined total of sixteen years). Oddly enough, the short-livedVan Dyke and Company, a 1976 sketch comedy series, wound up winning that year's Emmy for Outstanding Musical or Variety Program after airing just three months worth of shows. Go figure.

Sure, not everything he touched turned to gold, and he certainly had his ups and downs, but those are part and parcel of any actors' career, and Van Dyke is a true survivor. He went through a bad bout with alcoholism, about which he has been honest and forthcoming. In a 2013 interview with the British Telegraph, he said: "“I was an alcoholic for about 25 years. In the Fifties and Sixties, everybody had their martini, everybody smoked incessantly. The funny thing is that all through my twenties and early thirties I didn’t drink at all. Then we moved to a neighborhood full of young families with the same age kids and everyone drank heavily, there were big parties every night. I would go to work with terrible hangovers which if you’re dancing is really hard.”

Dick Van Dyke, circa The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966).

I recall so vividly what it was like when I first saw Van Dyke in the 1963 film version of Bye, Bye Birdie, singing and dancing with atypical élan and flair. The charm factor was off the charts, not to mention how intrinsically funny he could be. His rubbery face and loose-limbed style, expressed in outward fashion his inner joy as a dancer. And it's important to note, that according to Van Dyke, he never once took singing or dancing lessons. Or acting lessons, for that matter. In a 2011 interview for CBS Sunday Morning, Van Dyke told journalist Rita Braver, "When I auditioned for Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway, Gower Champion [the director/choreographer] said, 'You've got the job!' Then I told him, 'Mr. Champion, I can't dance.' He said, 'We'll teach you what you need to know.'" Not only was the Broadway show a smash, so was the film. "I discovered it was like flying," Van Dyke said. "I thought. 'Where has this been all my life?'"

Performing "Rosie" with Chita Rivera in Bye, Bye Birdie (1961).

As to what came next—a television sitcom that would go down as one of the greatest ever—oddly (in spite of its title) was not intended for him. When Carl Reiner wrote it back in 1960, Van Dyke wasn't in the picture. "He didn't develop it for me; he developed it for himself," Van Dyke said. "And the network didn't like it, didn't like him!" Produced as a half-hour pilot titled Head of the Family, with Reiner in the lead role, it was based on the real-life comedy of his juggling home life in New Rochelle, New York, while also being part of the the legendary writing staff of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. But the network was cool on the finished project (and for good reason). Instead of being filmed like I Love Lucy using three cameras, it was done with one, contributing to a sluggish pace. Also, it wasn't served well with Reiner in the lead (even though he was playing himself). Reiner's initial disappointment at being rejected was eventually assuaged by the show's inventive producer Sheldon Leonard, who had a backup plan, telling Reiner: "I’ll get a better actor to play you."

Mary Tyler Moore, twenty-three years old when she debuted as Laura Petrie in 1961.

And the rest is history. With charismatic turns in such films as What a Way to Go!, The Art of Love, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., Divorce American Style, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the vastly underrated The Comic, to name a few, seeing the name "Dick Van Dyke" on movie marquees throughout the 1960s was non-stop. He also managed during that decade to star in 158 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show between 1961 and 1966. And as the recipient of five primetime Emmys, the Tony and a Grammy, he is but one shy of an EGOT.

Though he has never been nominated for an Oscar... you never know. As he just proved with his performance in Mary Poppins Returns, with Dick Van Dyke, there's always the chance for surprises.

A selfie with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the set of Mary Poppins Returns.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, sign up to follow me here, as well as email me with comments or questions at