If ever there was a household name to come out of the Disney Empire, it’s Dick Van Dyke. A comedian and actor, Dick is known in the world over—and during the course of his career, he touched many lives and brought a lot of joy into the world. In fact, he still does. We’re all able to go back and re-watch all the classics that he starred in.
He’s an American icon—and if you’d like to learn more about his history and some of the most notable things he did, keep reading! I’ll fill you in.
From Humble Midwestern Beginnings
Dick was born in West Plains, Missouri on December 13, 1925, though his family—parents Hazel and Loren, and his younger brother, Jerry—later moved to Danville, Illinois. This was a tiny town, no more than 30,000 people, and very close-knit. As Dick once said of it, “it felt as if most of them were relatives.” Dick’s father couldn’t always be at home. He worked for the Sunshine Cookie Company as a salesman, a role that often took him traveling to peddle the company’s products.
Showbusiness wasn’t always on Dick’s radar. As a youngster, he considered becoming a minister. But when he joined the drama club at his high school and began polishing singing and dancing skills via school musicals, all of that changed. Interestingly, he attended school with other famous figures, including entertainer Bobby Short and the actor Donald O’Connor.
It was during the high school musical phase that Dick got his first official job in entertainment when he started working part-time at a local radio station.
And if you’re looking for his inspirations? It was always comedy. Stan Laurel, part of the internationally famous Laurel and Hardy comedy team, numbered among one of Dick’s greatest early influences.
Early Show Business Struggles
After high school, Dick pursued showbusiness in an unusual place. By 1942, he’d enlisted in the Air Force. Here, he became a part of the special services unit, where he hosted a radio show and performed in other shows. When his discharge came in 1945, he gave advertising a shot, but this career path didn’t fit him, so he took up a job in California with “Merry Mutes,” which was an unusual lip-syncing act.
Dick’s life wasn’t always one of wealth and stardom. During the early years, he often found himself struggling with both finances and his career. Such was the situation that led him to marry his first wife, Margie, in 1948 via a radio show called Bride and Groom. Part of this decision was because the show not only paid for the ceremony but also gave the couple a free honeymoon, too.
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw Dick working with television and radio stations in New Orleans and Atlanta. At one point, he secured a seven-year contract with CBS. This was early in the 1950s. Unfortunately, however, CBS let him go three years into the contract.
From there, Dick turned to Broadway, where he gained a small part in 1959 in the comedy show Girls Against the Boys. This show ran for two weeks, after which Dick moved on to work on other productions.
Perhaps his big breakthrough came in 1960. Dick had landed a Broadway part in Bye Bye Birdie. The show debuted in 1960—and it proved a rousing success. So much so that this musical garnered Dick a Tony Award in 1961 for the supporting role that he’d played. From there, his career rocketed into the stars.
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show is perhaps what Dick is best known for—and it’s the thing that brought him from obscurity to international stardom. He landed this show in 1961, though it wasn’t an immediate success. Still, Dick and the show’s creator, Carl Reiner, kept at it. For the comedy, Dick drew heavily on inspirations from his own life to recreate the fictional life of a TV writer named Rob Petrie and his wife, Laura—who was played by the legendary Mary Tyler Moore.
It would be a few years before The Dick Van Dyke Show really began to flourish. Eventually, more and more people began to follow the show, mainly because Dick himself was a likable guy with humor that audiences could relate to. By the time the show ended in 1966, Dick had won three Emmy Awards for it, and it had become a household classic that people still enjoy to this day, decades later.
And After His Show’s Success?
Once The Dick Van Dyke Show ended, Dick went on to star in a variety of other things. Although none were as wildly successful as his first show, he has a list of other roles under his belt, including The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Poppins and Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang.
It was Dick’s Disney work that was perhaps the most special in so many ways. In interviews, the actor recounts experiences with adoring fans—one of whom even burst into tears over her fond memories of Mary Poppins as a child. Mary Poppins is his most famous Disney role, but there are others, including Lt. Robin Crusoe USN, Never A Dull Moment, and the role of D.A. Fletcher in Dick Tracy along with various cameos and bit parts in other productions.
By the 1990s, Dick had entered into the realm of drama when he took on a new project through the show Diagnosis Murder. This one also starred his son, Barry Van Dyke. From there, he went on to play a detective in the 2006 TV movie series Murder 101, and he also featured with Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum. That same year, he performed on stage, too, in two different productions: Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke—A Step in Time: A Musical Memoir.
By 2013, Dick’s achievements had gone so far that he won the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, making him the 49th recipient right after the 2012 winner, who happened to be none other than his former co-star, Mary Tyler Moore.
Although Dick has had some issues with his health—most notably, headaches that began troubling him in 2013—he’s still around and still inspiring audiences with his wit and charm. Looking at all the magic he made on TV and in movies, it’s unlikely that he will ever stop inspiring through his work.