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Dick Van Dyke

Dick Van Dyke

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Also Known As: Richard Wayne Van Dyke Died:
Born: December 13, 1925 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: West Plains, Missouri, USA Profession: Cast ... actor comedian singer writer radio announcer advertising agency owner
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BIOGRAPHY

Much loved by generations of fans for his comic - as well as sometimes underestimated song and dance talents - and a seemingly endless supply of joie de vivre, Dick Van Dyke was a multiple Emmy winner and television legend for his work on the beloved sitcom, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1961-66). The Illinois native had already endeared himself to audiences as the star of the hit Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie," which earned him a Tony Award in 1961, and he continued to delight audiences during the series' network run with films like "Mary Poppins" (1964) and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968), but it was his famous sitcom which defined him. Van Dyke struggled to find a quality project after the series left the air, but remained a welcome presence in TV movies and guest shots until the early 1990s, when he scored again as a doctor-turned-sleuth on "Diagnosis Murder" (CBS, 1993-2001). Predictably, the indefatigable Van Dyke never adhered to the concept of retirement and continued to pop up in such projects as the animated feature "Curious George" (2006) and a new series of made-for-TV mysteries, beginning with "Murder 101" (Hallmark, 2006). A consummate entertainer and ambassador of goodwill for more than 50 years, Van Dyke never failed to put a smile on the faces of audiences of all ages.

Born Richard Wayne Van Dyke on Dec. 13, 1925 in West Plains, MO, he was raised in Danville, IL - the same hometown as his later "Van Dyke Show" character, Rob Petrie - by his parents Hazel and Loren "Cookie" Van Dyke, with the latter being a traveling salesman with a knack for making customers laugh. Van Dyke attended high school in Danville (among his friends at the time were future actor Gene Hackman and nightclub legend Bobby Short) and was a fixture in local theater productions. He was also a devoted movie fan, with a particular fondness for the comedy of Laurel and Hardy. In fact, in later years, he would befriend the elderly Stan Laurel and even delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1965. Exceptionally tall and thin at an early age, Van Dyke attempted to enlist in the Air Force during World War II, but was rejected by the pilot program due to a weight requirement; he eventually served as a Stateside radio announcer during the war, and participated in several military-produced plays. Along the way, he attempted to launch an advertising agency in Danville, but found more success at radio and television stations in regional markets. He also formed a pantomime duo with his friend Philip Erickson called "The Merry Mutes," which offered an excellent showcase for his considerable gift for physical comedy.

Eventually, he landed a contract with CBS and replaced Johnny Carson as the host of "The Morning Show" (CBS, 1954-57). More hosting gigs preceded his television acting debut on a 1957 episode of "The Phil Silvers Show" (CBS, 1955-59). More television followed, as did a short stint opposite the legendary Bert Lahr (of "Wizard of Oz" fame) in the Broadway play "The Girls Against the Boys" (1959), but Van Dyke's career really did not take off until the following year, when he was cast as lovestruck English teacher/songwriter Albert Peterson in the Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie" in 1960. Van Dyke's sunny, ebullient performance, which included his rendition of the enduring "Put on a Happy Face," earned him a Tony Award in 1961, and caught the attention of actor-turned-TV writer and producer Sheldon Leonard of "The Danny Thomas Show" (ABC/CBS, 1953-1964), who recommended him to Carl Reiner for a new sitcom that the veteran writer-producer was developing. Reiner had penned and starred in a rejected pilot based on his own experiences as a TV comedy writer and family man called "Head of the Family," which aired on the anthology series "The Comedy Spot" (CBS, 1960-62) in 1960, but with Leonard's assistance, he began crafting what would eventually become "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Van Dyke was top-billed as Rob Petrie, who juggles a career as a New York comedy writer for the fictional "Alan Brady Show" (Reiner himself would later appear as the egomaniacal Brady) with his home life in New Rochelle with wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore, then still a relative newcomer) and son Ritchie. Van Dyke's boundless energy and knack for both physical and verbal comedy was the show's engine, but he was complimented by one of the best supporting casts in TV history: in addition to Moore, comedy vets Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie played his fellow writers, while Richard Deacon was producer Mel Cooley and Jerry Paris was neighbor Jerry Helper. Van Dyke's own brother, Jerry Van Dyke, made his acting debut on the series. The sitcom was also blessed with exceptionally smart writing and direction, courtesy of writers Garry Marshall, Arnold Peyser, and Jerry Belson, and directors Paris, Leonard, James Komack, and Theodore J. Flicker. Though it was slow to gain a substantial audience, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was hailed by critics and won numerous Emmys, with Van Dyke himself winning two Emmys for her performance. The show remained a hit in syndication decades after its final episode, and was considered by many to be among the finest TV sitcoms ever produced.

Van Dyke's success on television naturally translated to a movie career, which began in earnest with the 1963 film version of "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963). Van Dyke was reportedly unhappy with the adaptation, which shifted the musical's focus to attractive newcomer Ann-Margret and made significant changes to the score and choreography. He found greater success and satisfaction with Disney's "Mary Poppins" (1964), which earned five Academy Awards and spectacular box office returns. It also gave filmgoers a better perspective of Van Dyke's musical talents - particularly in his crooning of the moody classic "Chim Chim Cheeree" - despite the negative press garnered by his wobbly Cockey accent. Unfortunately, it would be his last real hit at the movies. "The Art of Love" (1965) was a lightweight farce about a painter (Van Dyke) who fakes his own death to increase the value of his art, while "Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N." (1966) epitomized the substandard quality of Disney's live-action features.

That same year, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" ended its network run. Reiner wanted to bring the series to a close when the show's quality was still at its peak, and Van Dyke and the other cast members were eager to explore other projects, so this all worked out. Unfortunately, Hollywood was unable to place him in a feature that matched his talents, and for the remainder of the 1960s, Van Dyke was stranded in insignificant films like "Fitzwilly" (1968) and "Never a Dull Moment" (1968), though the musical "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968) eventually found a devoted youth audience through television broadcasts. Van Dyke also made a rare foray into drama with "The Comic" (1969), a Carl Reiner-penned feature about the difficult life of a silent film comedian that was inspired in part by Van Dyke's hero, Stan Laurel. Sadly, Van Dyke's own life drew parallels with that of the film's character, Billy Bright, as he was developing a problem with alcohol that had begun while working on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." He sought treatment for the problem in the early 1970s - something few stars would consider then, let alone admit - and found considerable comfort in the Presbyterian Church, for which he became an elder. The experience of his recovery moved him to publish a book, Faith, Hope and Hilarity: A Child's Eye View of Religion in 1970.

Television seemed to be the place where Van Dyke's star could shine brightest, and he began making inroads back to TV in the early Seventies. He co-hosted a TV special with another versatile and well-liked comic, Bill Cosby called "Dick Van Dyke Meets Bill Cosby" (1970) prior to returning to series work with "The New Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1971-74). The show, which was overseen by Carl Reiner and cast Van Dyke as the host of a TV talk show, was filmed in his new hometown of Carefree, AZ, where CBS had built an entire studio just for him. The program was a relative success in its first few two years, but by the third season, its mild charms had failed to keep a substantial audience. CBS, which had signed Van Dyke to a three-year contract, decided to retool the show and moved both its setting and the production to Hollywood, where Van Dyke's character was now the star of a soap opera. The change failed to boost its ratings, and after Reiner quit the show when the network failed to air an episode in which Van Dyke and his TV wife Hope Lange were reportedly caught in flagrante delicto, Van Dyke himself pulled the plug on the program.

Undaunted, Van Dyke continued to work in television for much of the 1970s in a wide variety of material. He garnered excellent reviews and an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of an alcoholic businessman in the TV movie "The Morning After" (1974), which coincided with his public admission that he had sought treatment for his own drinking problems. Van Dyke also took a dramatic turn as a homicidal photographer in "Columbo: Negative Reaction" (1974), and could be seen regularly in commercials as a spokesperson for the National Fire Prevention Agency. But he never strayed far from comedy. A TV special, "Van Dyke and Company" (1975), which featured an early appearance by future comic legend Andy Kaufman, earned him an Emmy nomination for Best Special; the subsequent if short-lived series of the same name brought him an Emmy nod for Best Writing, which he shared with top talents like Don "Father Guido Sarducci" Novello, Bob "Super Dave" Osbourne, Pat Proft, and others, resulting in an Emmy win for Best Comedy Series.

In 1977, Van Dyke stepped in to replace Harvey Korman as a series regular on "The Carol Burnett Show" (CBS, 1967-1978), but the pairing failed to generate sparks, and he departed after three months. The failed stint preceded a long string of low-wattage television appearances, which was capped by the resounding negative press that followed his return to movies with "The Runner Stumbles" (1979), followed by another flop on stage in a revival of "The Music Man" (1980). By the mid-1980s, his career had stabilized to a degree, and he was working steadily in TV movies like "Drop-Out Father" (1982) and "Strong Medicine" (1986), which primarily utilized his dramatic talents. "The Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1988) gave him an opportunity to work with his son, Barry Van Dyke, but lasted just two short months. However, a 1989 appearance on "The Golden Girls" (NBC, 1985-1992) brought him his first Emmy nomination in over a decade, and a small but pivotal role in Warren Beatty's pastel-colored epic "Dick Tracy" (1990) brought Van Dyke back into the spotlight. In 1992, he even received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Sadly, Van Dyke's career upswing was tempered by the death of his granddaughter Jessica in 1987 from Reye's syndrome. So affected was he by her passing, that he became the national spokesman for its foundation, and appeared in several moving television spots to bring attention to parents.

In 1991, he landed a guest shot on "Jake and the Fatman" (CBS, 1987-1992), starring as Dr. Mark Sloane, a charming MD with a penchant for solving mysteries. The character earned three TV movies in 1992 - "Diagnosis: Murder," "The House on Sycamore Street" and "Twist of the Knife" - before launching its own series, "Diagnosis: Murder," that same year. The gentle dramedy gave Van Dyke his second hit series (and his first as executive producer), as well as another chance to work with son Barry, who penned several episodes of the show. Though never the critical favorite that "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was, "Murder" was popular with viewers, and after ending its network run in 2001, Van Dyke continued to appear as Sloane in several popular TV movies. Van Dyke also returned to singing in 2000 as a member of the a Capella group, The Vantastix, which enjoyed a handful of widely publicized television performances. The return to the public eye brought Van Dyke a slew of awards that recognized his long career, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Television Critics' Association in 2000.

Though he announced his retirement from acting in 2002, Van Dyke remained exceptionally busy after "Diagnosis: Murder" left the air. He reunited with Mary Tyler Moore for a well-received TV movie version of "The Gin Game" (2003), before the Emmy-nominated "Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited" (2004), a TV movie special hosted by Ray Romano which brought together the surviving members of the original cast, including Reiner. Van Dyke also returned to feature films twice in 2006; first, as a retired museum security guard in the Ben Stiller hit "Night at the Museum," and later, as the voice of Mr. Bloomsberry, who dispatches Ted (voiced by Will Ferrell) to Africa, where he finds "Curious George" (2006). The year 2006 also found Van Dyke trying out the new character of a criminologist named Jonathan Maxwell, whom he played in four TV movies between 2006 and 2008. During this period, Van Dyke also revealed his interest in working with 3-D computer graphics, which he had been experimenting with since the 1980s. Among his creations was a CG version of himself, which he danced with in "The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited." In 2012, he was nominated by his fellow actors as recipient of the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award.

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