Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)
What Do You Talk About with Her?
My brother is caught up in a mystery, even though I have explained the answer to him numerous times. The mystery is my three-year marriage to Arlene. Each time Jerry looks at us, he squints his eyes, shakes his head, and asks, “What do you talk about with her?”
He did it when we were eating lunch together recently. We were having a pleasant conversation about something we both had seen on television, when suddenly he looked up from his cake, shook his head in the direction of Arlene, and asked the question.
I am aware he is asking much more than that singular question, and he probably isn’t even interested in the specifics of our conversations, which are obvious to anyone who is around us for more than thirty minutes. In reality, Jerry is saying, “My God, you were already in your forties when she was born. What could you possibly have in common? What are you doing with her? What is she doing with you?”
It’s all those questions and more, even if it comes in the form of, “What do you talk about with her?”
I could have asked my brother, “What does anyone talk about with their mate?” relationships being a mystery, and love being the ultimate in the unexplainable. As Albert Einstein mused, “Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”
Even Friedrich Nietzsche said, “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” Arlene and I fell into friendship with ease, and the next steps all seemed natural.
One afternoon, several months into our new friendship-slash-relationship, Arlene came over and my dog, Rocky, and I greeted her at the door, holding a plate of fresh oatmeal cookies from the local bakery. She came inside, and we talked for a while about her day, then I told her about my day, and then I moved to the piano and we sang some songs together—she has a terrific, lively voice. Time passed, then we talked about where we wanted to have dinner, and then I proposed. Marriage.
She rolled her eyes and laughed. It wasn’t the first time I had proposed, nor was it the last, but, as she could see from my reaction, it was the most serious I had been up till that point, and suddenly she realized my offer was less of a joke and something I wanted her to consider seriously.
I was new at this, I explained. Having been with one woman for thirty-three years and another for thirty-one years, I was not in the habit of asking women to marry me. Of course, she already knew that about me, along with the fact that I was different from all of the other guys she had dated previously.
We met at the 2006 Screen Actors Guild Awards, where I was introducing Julie Andrews, who was receiving that year’s Life Achievement Award. I was backstage, in the artists’ green room, talking with Cate Blanchett, when I noticed Arlene. She walked by and sat on a sofa. Something about her caught my eye. I excused myself from Cate and sat down beside Arlene.
“Hi, I’m Dick,” I said, beginning what turned out to be a nice, easy conversation. It was strange; something about her simply compelled me to get to know her. In retrospect, it was as if we were supposed to know each other—and there was lots of catching up to do.
“Weren’t you in Mary Poppins?” she asked before admitting that she had not seen the movie but had recently walked by the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard where it was showing to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its release.
I said, “Yes, I was,” and told her that the movie was pretty good.
“I guess I should see it,” she laughed.
Arlene was a makeup artist and taught at a nearby makeup school. She was friendly and easy to talk to. We chatted until a production assistant came for me. I told Arlene to save my seat. She didn’t think I’d return, she later told me, but I did, only to find the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show had decamped on the sofa.
I introduced Arlene to Valerie Harper. “Are you friends?” Valerie asked.
“It seems like it,” I said. “But we just met.”
Before I went onstage I asked Arlene for a card. She found one—it was her last one—in her bag. I put it in my tuxedo pocket and promised to call. A few months later, I was getting ready to shoot the made-for-TV movie Murder 101, and my regular makeup artist from Diagnosis Murder, Stacy Halax, was working on Desperate Housewives. I needed someone I liked and trusted. I called and offered the job to Arlene.
She accepted but then had second thoughts after speaking with Stacy, who made the job sound not difficult but . . . delicate.
“Don’t talk to him, because everyone talks to him,” she told Arlene. “He’s too nice and never says no to anyone, and it wears him out. He also needs eye drops. He likes his hair done a certain way. Oh, and work fast. He doesn’t like to sit in the chair for more than five minutes.”
On Arlene’s first day on the set Stacy actually came and watched her airbrush my makeup on to ensure she was doing it correctly. However, once it was clear that Arlene was a pro, everyone relaxed, including her. She understood that Stacy was just being protective.
Even then, I was still easier-going than she had anticipated. I came into the makeup room singing a song and continued singing while she applied the makeup. Arlene sensed that I wasn’t in a hurry to leave, and she was right. I was glad to see her. She had a good, positive, capable, and yet relaxed presence.
Promo shots taken in New York in the 1950s when I was struggling to find work. Even when I had very little money, I liked to dress as if I did. Photograph from author’s private collection
My wife, Arlene, was originally my personal makeup artist. Here we are on the set of a 3-D short called The Caretaker. Photograph by Jim Udell
American Gothic: at a friend’s 1920s-themed wedding on the Queen Mary. It was our first public outing together. Photograph by Oh! Snap Studios
Newly engaged, Arlene and I enjoy an alfresco performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Photograph by Laura Gillespie
My family at granddaughter Kristen McNally Mullin’s wedding in July 2011. Left to right, back row: Shane Van Dyke, Wes Van Dyke, Arlene Van Dyke, me, Kristen McNally Mullin, Russell Mullin, Carrie McNally, Kevin McNally, Christine Van Dyke, Chris Van Dyke, Carey Wayne Van Dyke; front row: Taryn Van Dyke, Ryan Breen, Stacy Van Dyke, Mary Van Dyke, Barry Van Dyke. Photograph by Curtis Dahl
Cutting the cake at our intimate first wedding ceremony on Leap Day 2012 at the Serra Retreat in Malibu. Photograph by Matt Hamill
September 2012: For our second ceremony our friends Frank and Fay Mancuso lent us their beachfront home for a big, blowout “nautical circus.” Photograph by Ryan Williams, Rawtography
One of my favorite pictures—we look like a couple of screwball detectives in love. Photograph by Oscar Zagal
My current headshot. Photograph by Oscar Zagal
Introducing my Mary Poppins costar Julie Andrews as she received a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2006. Photograph by Michael Caulfield/WIREIMAGE.com for TNT, a Time Warner Company
I’ve always considered myself a song-and-dance man, so to receive my own Life Achievement Award from SAG really tickled me. Photograph by Mark Hill/TNT
Backstage after I received my SAG award I did my “headless man” trick, to Arlene’s genuine surprise—she’d never seen me do it in person. Photograph by Kirk McCoy/L.A. Times
I doodle while on the sets of all my projects. Sometimes I even draw in bed—my “doodling studio!” Photograph by Arlene Silver Van Dyke
In 2014 Arlene organized a “Jolly Holiday Bazaar” fundraiser for the Serra Retreat and the Midnight Mission, with which I’ve been involved for twenty years. You could get your picture taken with “St. Dick”! Photograph by Loretta Wang/The Social Booth Co.
September 2014: I was bursting with pride when I presented Arlene with a Golden Heart Award from the Midnight Mission. Photograph courtesy of the Midnight Mission
One of the high points of a recent trip on Amtrak was the dining car and our wonderful waiter, Zack. I left him a doodle as well as a tip. Photograph by Arlene Silver Van Dyke
Carl Reiner and I have been friends for almost sixty years, but when it comes to valuing imagination, creativity, and joyful curiosity, we’ve never grown up. Photograph by Andy Gotts
Marrying Arlene is one of the best things I’ve ever done! Photograph by Andy Gotts
2015: My a cappella singing group, the Vantastix, posed for the NOH8 Campaign for marriage equality. Left to right: Mike Mendyke, Arlene, me, Eric Bradley, Bryan Chadima. Photograph by Adam Bouska
A few days into the five-week shoot I poked my head out of my trailer at lunchtime and saw Arlene eating with some of the crew at a table outdoors. We were on location, and it was hot outside. I thought she would be more comfortable eating in an air-conditioned room and not having to swat at flies as she ate. Plus, selfishly, I felt like company. So I invited her to have lunch with me in my trailer.
“Sure, thank you,” she said with a smile, but as she later confessed, inside she thought, “Oh no, here we go. He’s going to hit on me, and this friendship of ours is going to be over.”
But it was just lunch and friendly conversation, and after that we ate together regularly. Actually she ate and I watched. For some reason, I was too nervous to eat in front of her. Then one day I suggested eating outside.
“It probably looks bad,” I said, “you coming in here all the time.”
Arlene appreciated the gesture. But when she saw me sweating through my makeup and swatting at flies, she said, “Let’s go back in the trailer.” When I was outside and in front of the camera, though, I kept track of her whereabouts and well-being. Once, as I shot a scene, I noticed her sunglasses fall out of her fanny pack. “Did you find them?” I asked afterward. She was dumbfounded. “Weren’t you working? What were you doing looking at me?” Another time I saw the portable chair she was sitting in start to wobble. I stepped away from the camera and found her a sturdier perch. “That’s going to be more comfortable,” I said.
After the movie we saw each other occasionally when I needed makeup for one of the little jobs I picked up, but I put my career on hold after Michelle began her battle with lung cancer. I told Arlene about the bad news in an e-mail, and she checked in periodically to see how I was doing. It was hard for me to talk about the ordeal, but I liked knowing Arlene was there if I needed to or just wanted to send a note. After Michelle died, Arlene offered condolences, and we e-mailed every so often, but again, she kept a respectful distance. If only she had known how much I wanted to hear from her.
Then one day I received an e-mail from her in which she mentioned that she had taken a job in the art department at a magazine in Woodland Hills, about thirty minutes north of Malibu, and occasionally she drove to the beach on her lunch break to relax. I invited her to visit me anytime she felt like it.
A week or two later she stopped by. It was the highlight of my day. After that she began stopping by every couple of weeks to fix dinner (usually spaghetti and meat sauce), or else I would pick up something from a local Italian restaurant. As she worked in the kitchen, I would sit on a stool next to the center island and watch her. Later she said she’d noticed my hands were trembling and feared I was developing Parkinson’s disease. I wasn’t—I was nervous. As our dinners together became more frequent, our talks grew more personal, and a deeper friendship blossomed.
I let her know that I was nuts about her. Still, because of our age difference, I didn’t think anything would happen.
Arlene was flattered by my feelings, and deep down she knew she was falling for me too, which blew her mind. As she later told me, she said to herself, “God, there’s no way.”
But there was a way. It was the thing that kept us calling and seeing each other: we made each other happy.
In late summer 2010 Arlene took a belly dancing class, and when they had a recital a few months later at a small Mediterranean restaurant, I made sure I was in the audience. But we kept our relationship under wraps.
When Arlene’s mother, who sat next to me, asked her daughter why I was there, Arlene merely said, “Oh, he’s a friend.” In September the friendship turned romantic, and we went on our first formal date, to the Magic Castle, a nightclub for magicians in Hollywood. The next month Arlene told her friend Lisa that she was “involved” with me and braced herself for a negative reaction.
But her friend was thrilled. “I love it!” she said. “Enjoy!”
At Thanksgiving she decided to tell her mother. She was very nervous and worried about what the reaction would be, to the point where she didn’t know how to even initiate the conversation, until her brother’s wife pulled her aside and asked, “Are you and Dick dating?”
Arlene paused long enough that the answer was likely obvious, but then she stuttered, “Yes,” after which her sister-in-law reached out and gave her a hug. “I think that’s great,” she said. Luckily for us, her mother had the same reaction, though we softened her up first with a beautiful jeweled brooch.
As for my side of the family, my son, Barry, and a couple of my grandsons had worked on the Murder movies with us, so they already knew her. They had watched the relationship develop from the start. Both my daughters, Carrie Beth and Stacy, said essentially the same thing to Arlene: “As long as my dad is happy.” My oldest child, Chris, was skeptical, but as a lawyer, he’s supposed to look at situations through that lens, and he came around quickly as he got to know Arlene.
The only one unconvinced was my brother, who met Arlene in 2011 when we were rehearsing for a five-night benefit performance of the play The Sunshine Boys. The four of us were at the house, Jerry and his wife, Shirley, and me and Arlene. As we went over lines, Jerry periodically turned toward Arlene with a puzzled look on his face.
At the end of the night, as he and Shirley got up to leave, he gave me one last look, then turned to me and said, “What’s going on here?” I didn’t respond. I didn’t have time—Jerry kept talking. “You two are together? How? You’re not exactly hot.”
Four years later the four of us were in the same room, and Jerry was saying essentially the same thing: “I don’t get it.”
“We love each other,” I explained.
“But what do you talk about with her?”
It struck me as an absurd question. It seemed obvious—so obvious that I started to make a list.
WHAT DO YOU TALK ABOUT WITH YOUR BEST FRIEND?
1.How’d you sleep?
7.The old photos she found in the closet
8.A new movie on TV
9.An old movie on TV
10.A picture I drew
11.Rehearsals with the singing group
12.Picking new songs
14.What’s Rocky barking at?
15.The bird’s nest in the tree out back—isn’t spring grand!
16.The pleasure of reading since my cataract surgery
17.The surgery I still need in my other eye
I stopped writing. A list was unnecessary. It was a waste of time. Over ten years, Arlene and I have known each other and become friends, without ever an unnatural or awkward pause in our conversation. In fact, we had only grown closer and found more things to talk about. I could have made hundreds of entries, perhaps more, on that list. Who knows, I might still be working on it now.
More important than what we talk about was that Arlene and I both had someone to talk to. I had lost that special person when Michelle died, and luckily I found a new best friend in Arlene. She found that person in me too.
I’m not saying the differences in our ages is something that will work for everyone, but being open to a new relationship will, with the right person. No one wants to be widowed. But it happens—and a loving heart is a horrible thing to waste. The space and silence resulting from not having someone to talk to, from being lonely and isolated, even if you’re surrounded by people, is a terribly destructive, depressing state of being. The key is to connect with someone. I lucked out—again.
Life together is endlessly interesting and full of small talk and talk about big ideas—all sorts of conversation. Sometimes we sit together in silence. Sometimes all we hear are the birds chirping in the backyard. With the right person, that can be like a conversation too.
My brother is funny. His wife is twenty years younger than him, and they never run out of conversation. Of course, that’s mostly because Jerry can’t remember anything. Shirley, what’s the name of the restaurant where we ate last weekend? What’s the name of the guy I need to call? Shirley, what’s that movie I liked last week? Shirley, what’s for lunch?
Hey, it works for them.
But to finally and definitively respond to my brother: What do I talk about with Arlene?
What does anyone talk about with his or her best friend?
We talk about everything.