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

May 10, 2011
Originally published on May 10, 2011 10:03 am

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 2017 NPR. 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.


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 show business, as well, which accounts for the title, "My Lucky Life In And Out Of Show Business."

MONTAGNE: 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 a hit Broadway show, "Bye, Bye Birdie."


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

MONTAGNE: Oh, absolutely.

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

MONTAGNE: "Head of the Family."

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


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


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

MONTAGNE: Carl Reiner. Carl had written it for himself.


MONTAGNE: I saw the pilot. He was wrong for it. He really was.


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


MONTAGNE: You know, Rob wasn't that kind of a guy. So 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 just falling off a log. 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.

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


MONTAGNE: (as Laura Petrie) Rob, somebody's trying to get into our house.

MONTAGNE: (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.


MONTAGNE: 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...

MONTAGNE: (as Rob Petrie) Where's the bullet?

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


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



MONTAGNE: 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...

MONTAGNE: ...and grab one bullet and then close it. Open it and grab another bullet.



MONTAGNE: 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.


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

MONTAGNE: That's true. If I tried to check in in a hotel with my real wife...


MONTAGNE: ...they...


MONTAGNE: Wait a minute.

MONTAGNE: 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 had a little crush on one another.

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

MONTAGNE: 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 to...


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

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about the call.

MONTAGNE: 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 grill 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 did 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.

MONTAGNE: Well, the brim of the hat was flat. And I had literally taken an iron and tried to flatten out the brim of a hat I had, and it 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.


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

MONTAGNE: 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.


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

MONTAGNE: Thank you so much for having me.

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

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.