Dick Van Dyke Talks About His 'Lucky Life' And What Stan Laurel Left Him

May 10, 2011

On Tuesday's Morning Edition, Dick Van Dyke talks to Renee Montagne about his new book, My Lucky Life In And Out Of Show Business, and touches on everything from the beginning of his career in television to the eulogy he gave at the funeral of one of his heroes, Stan Laurel.

As he tells the story, Van Dyke was on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie in 1959 when he got a visit from Carl Reiner, who was working on a new TV show called Head Of The Family. At that time, Reiner was lined up to play Rob Petrie, the character Van Dyke ended up making famous on what became The Dick Van Dyke Show. Reiner eventually built much of Van Dyke's personality into the character Rob Petrie became, and you'll hear a clip of an episode that came straight out of Van Dyke's real life after he became convinced that he heard a burglar downstairs. The story involves a gun, a ballerina, and "The Blue Danube Waltz."

No discussion about The Dick Van Dyke Show would be complete without a mention of Mary Tyler Moore (she of the iconic capri pants), and here, Van Dyke reveals that the TV couple found themselves told by a psychiatrist at one point that they had crushes on each other — which he admits is true, though he says nothing came of this "mutual attraction."

Finally, he talks about meeting Stan Laurel, one of his idols, and revealing that he'd been copying Laurel in his physical comedy for years — only to hear, "Yes, I know." He later gave the eulogy at Laurel's funeral and inherited a hat for his trouble — and he inherited a memento from Buster Keaton, too.

You can also check out Van Dyke playing "Not My Job" on Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! last October. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



Dick Van Dyke used to say he got paid to play. Early on, the comedian turned his tall, lanky presence and a certain clumsiness into physical humor.


One of his best known bits was tripping over an ottoman in the opening to his classic TV show, as he greeted his TV wife played by Mary Tyler Moore. The live audience howled every time.

Now 85, Dick Van Dyke looks back on his lifetime of antics and some periods of struggle in a new memoir. As he tells it, he kind of stumbled into to show business, as well, which accounts for the title, "My Lucky Life In And Out Of Show Business."

Mr. DICK VAN DYKE (Actor/Author, "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business"): Well, I had come back from the Air Force and got a job as announcer. And a friend came and said, You want to go out to California and do an act? Well, I was totally footloose and I just said what time you pick me up. And we drove out here and started doing a little act, just as a lark. We never intended, you know, to have a life in show business.

We were going to go back and go to school and do something serious. But one thing led to another, television came along, things just came out of the woodwork. It was amazing.

MONTAGNE: Let's jump ahead to 1959. You're in the hit Broadway show, "Bye, Bye Birdie."

Mr. VAN DYKE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: And then Carl Reiner - as you describe him, comedic genius - offers you a TV role that it really changes your life.

Mr. VAN DYKE: Oh, absolutely.

MONTAGNE: And the show that Carl Reiner was coming up with was called...

Mr. VAN DYKE: "Head of the Family."

MONTAGNE: Which, of course, nobody listening will recognize.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: But "Head of the Family" would soon be known as "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Mr. VAN DYKE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: And it would be centered on a show business office and the home of Rob Petrie. Who was playing Rob Petri in the original?

Mr. VAN DYKE: Carl Reiner. Carl had written it for himself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DYKE: I saw the pilot. He was wrong for it. He really was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DYKE: And he admits that. Carl was played a very nervous, anxiety-ridden father.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DYKE: You know, Rob wasn't that kind of a guy. As we did the pilot and Carl kind of adapted it to me. He just wrote me the way I am as he did for the whole cast. And it was as falling off along. And most of the time he would find something that happened to one of us and turn it into a script. So they all had a kind of basis in reality, which I think helped.

MONTAGNE: We have a clip from one of those episodes. It's "The Cat Burglar" episode.

Mr. VAN DYKE: The cat - oh, yeah. Which really happened, one night my wife and I were awakened by what sounded like someone breaking-in.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Dick Van Dyke Show")

Ms. MARY TYLER MOORE (Actress): (as Laura Petrie) Rob, somebody's trying to get into our house.

Mr. VAN DYKE: (as Rob Petrie) Shhh. Shhh. Shhh. Shhh. I don't think anybody is trying to get in. I think somebody is trying to get out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DYKE: So I got up and I had a .25 automatic gun that I had kept in a drawer, just for those occasions. But it had no ammunition in it. And I said to my wife...

Mr. VAN DYKE: (as Rob Petrie) Where's the bullet?

Ms. MOORE: (as Laura Petrie) It's in my jewelry box.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DYKE: Which had a little ballerina on top and when you opened it, it played the "Danube Waltz."

(Soundbite of a music box)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DYKE: So I was trying to get the bullets out. And at the same time, kill the "Danube Waltz." And I would open it...

MONTAGNE: So you mean every time...

Mr. VAN DYKE: ...and grab one bullet and then close it. Open it and grab another bullet.

(Soundbite of a music box)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DYKE: Turned out there was no one in the house whatsoever. But I told Carl about it and he wrote the script.

MONTAGNE: A key feature of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was the chemistry between you and Mary Tyler Moore.

Mr. VAN DYKE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: You write that people constantly thought you were actually married.

Mr. VAN DYKE: That's true. If I'd write a check in a hotel with my real wife...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DYKE: ...they...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Wait a minute.

Mr. VAN DYKE: Yeah, caused me a few problems. Around the second season, we would try to rehearse and begin to giggle and laugh for no reason. And a psychiatrist said, you have a crush on each other. And sure, I realized that's true. We both have a little crush on one another.

MONTAGNE: It almost feels that you were indeed a little bit in love with her.

Mr. VAN DYKE: I would - yeah, probably. I would say so. We both had this kind of a mutual attraction. You know, in a lot of movies and series, they played that out all the way. But Mary is a very decent young lady and I wasn't of the type.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Throughout this memoir, these show business legends pop up in little cameos, you don't always even meet them - Lucille Ball in the audience and others, and Frank Sinatra. Cary Grant wandered into your dressing rooms, scrutinized year or wardrobe.

But ultimately you got a call from your hero, a man you mimicked as a kid really, Stan Laurel.

Mr. VAN DYKE: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about the call.

Mr. VAN DYKE: Actually, I called him. He had seen me on television and knew who I was. I was just overjoyed 'cause I had - well, I said to him on the phone, you know, I've copied a good deal from you over the years. And he said, yes, I know. But he invited me to his home on that Sunday, and I would make regular little visits up there and talk to him. And of course just grilled him about how he came up with this funny idea and that funny idea - quite a gentleman.

MONTAGNE: You tell a funny story in the book how you had invited Stan Laurel for an episode of "Dick Van Dyke." And you call and he couldn't make it to the show. But he watched. You called after to find out what he thought. He didn't say something. He said: It was the best impersonation I've ever seen, son - to you. That's nice. And then he said, Just one more thing.

Mr. VAN DYKE: Well, the brim of the hat was flat. And I had literally taken an iron and tried to flatten out the brim of the hat I had and they wouldn't do it. But he did comment on that. Oddly enough, after he died, I did the eulogy at his funeral and he had left me the hat, which had vanished. And it hasn't been seen to this day. I thought I was going to get that hat. I have his bowtie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, that's wonderful. Where do you keep it?

Mr. VAN DYKE: Oh, I have it in a box. And I have a tailor-made pool cue that Buster Keaton left me. So I also used to visit him too - all my idols.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Dick Van Dyke, thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. VAN DYKE: Thank you so much for having me.

MONTAGNE: Dick Van Dyke's memoir is called, "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business."

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.