Of Dick Van Dyke’s many talents, the most remarkable may be the moment you think about him, you smile.
The affable actor, singer and dancer has that effect on audiences. His colleagues think highly of him, too. They’re bestowing upon him the Life Achievement Award at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, airing live on TNT and TBS Sunday, Jan. 27.
Although his former co-star Mary Tyler Moore took this honor last year, Van Dyke says, “It never occurred to me I might be next. It was a total surprise to me. I found out a couple of months ago. They told me, and I just couldn’t believe it. It was another surprise in a career of surprises.”
Few people realize that Van Dyke, 87, started with Walter Cronkite. Van Dyke wouldn’t come right out and say he was proud of his career, which continues with his singing quartet, The Vantastix.
“I am just startled every time I look back,” he tells Zap2it. “I never expected that to happen. I thought I would be an announcer on television. I was an anchor on a CBS morning show; Walter Cronkite was my newsman. I was no good at it.
“It was a bad start,” Van Dyke continues. “I tried a game show for a while. That was no good. I would run out and audition for Broadway shows. I got into a revue with Bert Lahr, which flopped, and got into ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and changed my life forever.”
To grasp just how surprising landing that show was, consider that Van Dyke did not know how to dance when he auditioned. Gower Champion taught him, which is a little like someone not knowing how to drive and Mario Andretti explaining the difference between reverse and neutral.
“I had never danced or sang or acted,” Van Dyke recalls. “I just went up on stage and sang a little of a Ray Bolger song, and he gave me the part on the spot. The choreographers I had knew what I could do and couldn’t do. He just taught me. He would give me a move and see if I could do it.”
Van Dyke was in his 30s when he won a Tony for “Birdie.”
“I was scared stiff opening night, and I was a bit wooden, and the reviews said I was adequate,” he says. “Once I started to relax and enjoy myself, I enjoyed it a lot.”
And perhaps that’s the secret to why people smile watching him. To prove it, watch what he is most famous for: the black-and-white classic TV comedy “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-66).
“All of us agree that the five years on ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ were the most fun we ever had,” Van Dyke says.
The show opened with Van Dyke tripping over a hassock in his New Rochelle, N.Y., home. The creator of the show — and the person Van Dyke’s character was based on — was Carl Reiner.
Reiner was a TV comedy writer living in New Rochelle who had just finished working on “Your Show of Shows” when he was offered various roles on mediocre comedies. His wife told him he could write better scripts than what he was offered.
“I was on the West Side Drive,” Reiner says. “I said, ‘What piece of ground do I stand on no one else stands on?’ “
He went to Fire Island for the summer and wrote 13 episodes, thinking he would be the star. That didn’t work; no comedies were picked up that season. Reiner went on his way and worked in movies.
Reiner’s agent then had a meeting with Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard to see what they could do with the script. Slipping into Leonard’s foghornlike voice, Reiner recalls him saying, “We will get a better actor to play you.”
Looking back on that decision, Reiner says, “Dick is the best situation comedy actor in the history of the genre. He could do anything and everything, as Mary [Tyler Moore] almost could. Mary wasn’t the funster he was. She would do whatever we asked for. He was like a Slinky when he would slide off a chair. His right and left side worked as one. He is an extraordinary pantomimist, and everything he attempted worked. He never ever failed, and he always gave us these little extras. When he had to bumble, nobody bumbled better than he did.”
And that bumbling makes people smile. It’s just part of Van Dyke’s magic. Though he is genuinely surprised by the SAG honor, not too many others are.
SAG Awards producer Kathy Connell explains that the veteran actor honored with the Life Achievement Award is someone who has contributed to improving the image of acting and been actively involved in humanitarian and public service causes.
“I think it is a few years too late,” Reiner says of the award. “They should have noticed it before. He deserves anything people want to throw at him because he is amazing. The book he wrote, which was ‘as told to’ but it is his voice, it will tell you who the man is. He is a deeply good man. Nobody knows the extent of his goodness.”