In 1982, SAG-AFTRA Co-President Ken Howard and Life Achievment Honoree Dick Van Dyke Starred together in the TV movie The Country Girl, and have been friends ever since. They sat down to discuss Van Dyke's seven-decade career as an actor, broadcaster ad recording artist —and that cockney accent from Mary Poppins that has endured for 50 years.
Ken Howard: I’ve known you and worked with you … and have always been fond of your work and also of you. It occurred to me that you are so representative of all the various areas which SAG-AFTRA represents. You’ve done it all, from broadcasting to music to film to television to stage.
Dick Van Dyke: Everything but opera and ballet, I believe. [laughs]
KH: And even ballet, you’ve been close. You’re a wonderful dancer. I know that when you were 16, I think, you had your own radio show and were working back in Danville, Illinois.
DVD: Well, you know it was during World War II and everybody was getting drafted and there were no announcers at our radio station. I saw an ad in the paper and I went down and auditioned and I got the job. So I worked after school and weekends. I did the news. I did record shows, interviews, everything. And on the weekends, I was there alone. I played the records, ran across the hall, got the news, ripped it off, read it and ran the whole station by myself. It was a great experience. I thought I eventually wanted to be a television announcer.
KH: And that happened for you. You worked in Atlanta and New Orleans before going national.
DVD: I was an anchor on the CBS morning show for a year [in 1955], and I had to get up at 4 to get into Manhattan at 6 every day. And then we had to do the show twice because there was no coast-to-coast. I was the worst at it. Doing the news, interviews, that kind of thing.
KH: Well maybe in your mind but I can’t imagine you ever being bad at anything.
DVD: I was 29 and didn’t have a clue. My newsman was Walter Cronkite. Walter sent me a picture of the two of us on the set and it said, “How did you ever make it without me?” What a doll he was.
KH: We talked years ago and you told me the story of the [Broadway] audition for Bye Bye Birdie with Gower Champion. What is your recollection of it?
DVD: At the time I was [hosting] a game show for ABC called Mother’s Day. We had diaper-changing contests and I realized I wasn’t good at it. That wasn’t my future, so every day when the show was over I would go out and audition for whatever there was — a play, a musical, anything. And I’d gotten a few callbacks on a couple of things. But I got up for Gower Champion and sang Once in Love with Amy. You remember the old rib?
DVD: And I did a little bit of a soft shoe. And he came up on the stage and said, “You’ve got the part.” It was like in the movies! [Ken laughs] This is the way it happens! And I said, “Mr. Champion, I don’t dance.” He said, “We’ll teach you how,” which he did. Later, I think somebody wanted to replace me because I was still trying to learn to dance and sing, something I hadn’t done, so I was under pressure to learn a lot really quick.
KH: Well, you did apparently learn how to sing and dance soon enough to win the Tony for it [in 1961].
DVD: Finally, I won a Tony. [laughs] It’s funny, the first few weeks I was just scared stiff, you know, stage fright, butterflies, everything. But once I got used to it, I began to have fun and enjoy it, then I was able to perform. I found I’m never any good unless I’m enjoying it.
KH: And very natural all the time … I think, if I may, a great part of your artistry is that you make it look so easy, and so natural. It’s great to watch.
DVD: I think it was an advantage for me to not to have trained as a dancer because I probably would have fallen into a pattern of whoever taught me. But I had to kind of ad lib and make up my own moves, and I think that was an advantage to me rather than a disadvantage.
KH: Speaking of, can we talk a little bit about Mary Poppins, which is such a great film, such a great piece of entertainment, such a winning performance by Julie Andrews, by you. I love that film.
DVD: [Julie] had some mischief in her, but she’s just the lady you’d think. What my problem is: If anybody from the U.K. just sees me, I hear about my cockney accent. They won’t let me off the hook about it. I [tell them] I was too busy learning to dance, sing and all that other stuff but they won’t let me off the hook about that accent. I’ll never hear the end of that.
KH: I think it’s perfect because it’s you, being that character and everybody knows it, and it’s a great American classic.
DVD: Well, I think The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Poppins are the two peaks of my whole career because they were so much fun to do, but hard, hard work. I always thought Walt Disney wanted me because of my singing and dancing. It turns out he had heard me in an interview, talking about the dearth of family entertainment. That’s why he called me. He had never seen me sing or dance. Isn’t that amazing?
KH: Incredible. Tell us a little bit about the fruition of your wonderful relationship with Mary Tyler Moore [on The Dick Van Dyke Show].
DVD: I tell you, that woman could do anything. When I first met her, the first thing I said to [executive producer] Carl Reiner was, “Isn’t she a little young?” — and she’s considerably younger than me. But it wasn’t three shows, and she just grabbed it. Mary and I could read each other’s minds. It was such a joy working with her. The extreme compliment: Most people thought we were really married. So, I think we did something right.
KH: It was wonderful to watch. Now, in terms of that show being a great hit, I know it ended right at the peak. I mean it’s kind of remarkable.
DVD: Yeah, Carl didn’t want to do more than five seasons. None of us would have ever left.
KH: I know that during this time we’re talking about, you also were able to meet and spend some time with one of your great heroes, Stan Laurel [of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo]. Tell us a little bit about that because I know it meant a great deal to you.
DVD: Oh god, what a gentleman. This was in the ’60s and I was looking up a phone number in the Santa Monica phone book, and it said “Stan Laurel.” And I thought it can’t be. So, I called up and asked, “Is this Mr. Laurel?” and I told him who I was, and he had seen the television show, so he knew who I was and I said, you know, I’m afraid I’ve stolen from you a lot over the years, and he said, “Yes, I know.” He invited me to his apartment, I spent the afternoon with him, and visited with him quite often after that. What a gentleman. He called me “Dicky.”
KH: I think it’s appropriate that we’re talking about him today because he received our second Life Achievement Award in 1963, and you had the opportunity to play him on screen from time to time. It came from within and you had him down. It was great.
DVD: On one episode [of The Dick Van Dyke Show] we did a Laurel and Hardy sketch. So the night the show was on, afterwards, I called him and asked “So, what did you think?” and he gave me 40 minutes of notes. That I should have known ahead of time. [laughs] He said, didn’t you remember that I had paper clips as cuff links, and the brim of the hat wasn’t flat enough, and he took the heels off his shoes — I never knew that — to give him that funny stance, and that walk. But he never told me ahead of time! I said, “Now you tell me?” But then I got to do the eulogy at his funeral [in 1965]. What an honor for me.
KH: You’ve done so many marvelous things, and had so many opportunities, and then, of course, came the height of nepotism with Diagnosis Murder.
DVD: The ratings were healthy enough to keep us on the air [over the course of 10 years] and it was a joy for me to do because they let me be funny and keep it light. We tried to run a loose ship and make it light.
KH: And it was also a family affair.
DVD: I had my son [on it], used all my grandkids, my daughter Stacy. [laughs] I think I used everybody on that show, which made it fun for me.
KH: You’ve said that so much of your career was on-the-job training.
DVD: Yes! I had anxiety most of my career because I had never expected to act or sing or dance; I thought I was going to be a TV announcer. So I got a job singing and dancing on Broadway and I wasn’t ready, I didn’t know how. And I got The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I had never really acted. We had a hit show and I was learning to act as we went.
KH: And now yet another new phase of your life, not only with [the a cappella group] the Vantastix, which I just love, you also just recently married Arlene.
DVD: It was a fairytale. It was the best wedding I’ve ever been to. And the three guys I sing with [in the Vantastix] are half my age, and they keep me young.
KH: You’re an inspiration to all of us. You’re a perfect recipient of the Life Achievement Award because you have done it all. And for someone who hoped to one day be a television announcer, things have turned out just fine.
DVD: Oh, like this award! It’s out of the blue and such a nice surprise. What a nice cherry on top of everything.
KH: Well it’s a gift to you, but you are such a gift to us. Great chatting with you.
DVD: Let’s work together again.
KH: I’d love it, let’s do it.