Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)
Ninety Years—A Report Card
For some reason people think I am a conservative. This has been the case for many years. I don’t know what I have said or done to create that impression. But when I walk into a restaurant, a shopping mall, or an airport terminal, the same thing happens. A certain type of person makes a beeline to me, apologizes for interrupting, and then launches into a monologue: “Here’s what we need to do about the immigration problem!” Or, “The gays—what are we going to do about them, Dick?” Or, “Remember when this country was great?”
As a matter of fact, I do remember what this country was like over the past ninety years. I have witnessed more events, changes, and innovations than most of the 300 million people situated between Malibu and Maine. There used to be an attraction at Disneyland called Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress that showed the technological advances in homes through the decades as the world modernized. I have experienced that in real life.
When I was born, Calvin Coolidge was the president of the United States, the dust from World War I was still settling, construction on the Empire State building was just beginning, John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were kind of public heroes—celebrities of the day, if you will—and the entire population of Danville, Illinois, where I grew up, used to run outside and look skyward on those rare occasions when an airplane flew overhead. In other words, I have seen a lot of changes in my time.
Here’s my take on some of the headline-making people and events that have mattered to me from 1925 to the present (keep in mind that the grades are my opinion—but hey, it’s my book):
Tennessee schoolteacher John T. Scopes, who was born in Kentucky but coincidentally raised in my hometown of Danville, was arrested for violating state law against teaching the theory of evolution in class. This was but an initial chapter of a long-running debate that continues to pit fundamentalists against science. The reason behind his arrest: A
The country’s malingering failure to separate fact from fiction in the classroom ninety years later: F
The 1960 movie loosely based on the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy: A
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was published. I tried reading it once when I was younger. I made it halfway through, but I enjoyed it: A
Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler was published. Never read it. Don’t plan to. The world could have done without it: F
Al Capone took over the Chicago bootlegging racket. Combining ambition and bullets, he kept Americans liquored up during the Prohibition Era and laid the groundwork for numerous books and movies: F
Philo Farnsworth invented the television, and thank goodness he did. In the 1940s and 1950s it enabled me to feed my family. Then with The Dick Van Dyke Show, it changed my life in every way imaginable—and some you can’t imagine. Like the first time I realized people recognized me.
It was soon after the show began airing and I was driving my family to Las Vegas. We stopped in Barstow for breakfast, and on the way out of the restaurant a group of teenage girls ran toward us, screaming, “It’s him. He’s on TV.” It scared the hell out of us. We got in the car and plowed out of there.
But being on TV was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. In general it has defined our lives and given humanity shared experiences. We’ve cried together, we’ve gasped together, and we have laughed together. My taste and sensibilities are rooted in a different era, but I appreciate the choices we have now, and I’m in awe at the way we can summon shows from the cloud and stream them on computers, tablets, and phones: A
My parents took me to see Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the first real “talkie.” I was hooked: A
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected the thirty-second president of the United States. I remember the election results broadcast on the radio and the jubilation that followed his victory. The country was in the thick of the Great Depression. They needed a leader, someone to believe in, and FDR was the man. The big song was “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and you heard it everywhere, playing on the radio: A
FDR got rid of the Volstead Act right away and launched the New Deal. My father hated him. He would yell at the radio, “People, go out and get a job! Don’t live off the government!” I loved Roosevelt. Even at eight years old, I thought he was a good orator. He had gravitas. He was solid. As I listened to him, I would say to myself, “This is a good president.” And as time went on, I thought he got better. I lived across the street from a public park where I took music lessons, participated in shows, got on a sports team, and did art—everything was free. It was all WPA sponsored, and I took advantage of it. I didn’t understand why my father and other Republicans hated him so much. I thought FDR was saving the country’s ass: A
The Marx Brothers released Duck Soup, and Laurel and Hardy released Sons of the Desert. The Marx Brothers’ jokes were a little over my head—I didn’t quite get them, except for the physical part. I loved Laurel and Hardy. From the get-go Stan Laurel was my comic idol: A+
John Dillinger was killed. I remember hearing news reports about Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd, but Dillinger was the most notorious of all these bank robbers. I was listening to the radio when I heard that the FBI had shot him in a Chicago movie theater. I thought, Wow, they got him. Dillinger: D
FBI Agent Melvin Purvis: A
The Benny Goodman Jazz Orchestra plays on the Let’s Dance radio program for the first time. I don’t remember that specific broadcast, probably because it came on late at night, but I do remember my dad introducing me to swing. I was hooked immediately. I loved music. I was always an enthusiastic singer, whether at home, in the church choir, or in the school chorus. In sixth grade my voice changed to a bass, and I had to sing with the eighth-grade music class.
In junior high I was the first trombone in the school band. I was taller than anyone, so they figured I had the reach. I was given the first seat only because my good buddy, Al Hoss, who sat in the second chair, didn’t read music as quickly as me. But I envied his tone. My downfall as a player was the state band championship. We got to the state finals, where our number featured a trombone solo. I had practiced it numerous times and had the piece down. But when it counted, I stepped forward, looked out at the audience, which seemed like thousands of people to me, and froze. It was pure stage fright. I didn’t play a note. The conductor looked like he wanted to kill me. I never played another note on the trombone again.
I played the piano instead. We had an old upright at home, and from the time I was a little kid, I would sit on the bench and figure out how to read the music. One day after choir practice at church, the organist heard me fooling around on the church piano. I was playing “Claire de Lune” before it changes keys.
He said, “You have talent. I’ll give you free piano lessons.” I only went twice, one of the mistakes of my life because I would love to play with proper technique today. But I still played all the time. In high school my buddy and I played four-handed boogie woogie. We were the boogie woogie kings of our school. So Benny Goodman, swing, and jazz: A+
This was also the year my grandfather died. He went into the hospital one day for a tonsillectomy, suffered a burst aneurysm, and dropped dead on the spot. He was only fifty-five years old and seemingly in perfect shape, if not still physically imposing from his job in the railroad’s tool shop. I was busted up. I remember talking to my brother about it. Jerry was only five years old at the time, and I tried to explain death to him. He didn’t understand that our grandfather was gone—it was too hard for him to grasp. I don’t know that I came to terms with it either. I looked at the obituaries every day without finding his name. As far as I know, my grandfather was never listed. It bothered me. My grandfather: A
The mid-1930s was the heyday of Jack Benny’s radio show. Around this time he went from CBS to NBC, and the American public went with him. Television hadn’t come along yet. On a summer evening you could sit outside, and all you would hear were porch swings creaking, crickets chirping, and Jack Benny coming from every house up and down the street. Jack Benny: A
World War II broke out with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and France, and England declared war on Germany. At age fourteen, I remember thinking that it was about time. Fighting across Europe had been going on for a while, and then the big escalation: Hitler bombed London fiat, and I was terribly bothered that the United States wasn’t doing anything. As France fell to Germany and Italy, I remember wondering what we were waiting for. Were they waiting until Hitler got to the United States?
We listened to reports every night on the radio and watched newsreels at the movie theater. Our entry into the war seemed inevitable, though the wait for Washington to make a move seemed interminable—so much was at stake. The early years of World War II: C
December 7: Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, “a date which will live in infamy.” It was a Sunday, and some friends and I had gone to the movies that afternoon. As we walked out of the theater we sensed something was different even before we heard the news. It was that big. But everybody on the street was talking about it. Pearl Harbor had been bombed. I had never heard of Pearl Harbor before. No one knew we had a base in Hawaii. Then suddenly everybody knew. Pearl Harbor: F
I joined the Air Force. Entering the military was something I never pictured for myself. I was still fifteen when the United States entered the war and thought it would be over before I reached draft age. Then in February, as the war dragged on and I looked ahead to my eighteenth birthday, I told my mother I was thinking of signing up before I came of draft age later that year.
In the biggest surprise of my life to that point, she said I was already eighteen. She explained that I had been born prematurely and that it was something not worth sharing. Well, my grandmother nearly spit out her coffee when she heard me recount that story. She told me the truth: I was born out of wedlock. Regardless, I hurried to the nearest Air Force recruiting center before I was drafted and sent to the front lines. Instead, I went into the special services, for entertainers. Avoiding the front lines: A
Me as a soldier: C
The war ended. I was let out of the service because I was no longer of service. I remember hearing news that Hitler had killed himself. I was shocked and sickened by the reports and the pictures of the death camps where Nazi soldiers had murdered millions of Jews. It was incomprehensible. Nobody could believe that human beings could be so horrific in our modern times. War: F
Discharge from the service: A
In August the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For some reason I don’t remember where I was either of those times, but I do recall a heaviness of spirit, a feeling of dullness from the ensuing victory and thinking it was a sad time for the country. However, I admired President Truman for making a tough decision, and by God, when he ran again, I voted for him. He wasn’t a great orator, but he spoke the simple truth—and he didn’t lie. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” America’s war effort: A
Truman’s effort: A
My effort in war: C (I did my best, but it can’t compare with those who fought.)
I bought my first TV. I was in Los Angeles and came home with one of those early sets with the seven-inch screen. There wasn’t much to watch, mostly news and serials. At night the networks shut down and put on a test pattern. But I was glued to it. It was radio with pictures, and I knew it was going to catch on.
I happened to be in New York City during the original Broadway run of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It was a sensation out of the box, I recall, with wonderful reviews, and I went to see it the first chance I had. Gene Lockhart had taken over the role of Willy Loman from Lee J. Cobb, and he was a force on that stage—too much for me. Willy Loman was my father, a traveling salesman. It was so close to my own childhood. I was depressed for a month. A
Singing in the Rain, starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds, was released. I was working at the Million Dollar Theatre in downtown Los Angeles doing five-a-day vaudeville shows with my partner, Phil Erickson. We called ourselves the Merry Mutes. I must have seen Singing in the Rain twenty times, and it never got old. I think it’s the best movie musical ever made. A
Elvis Presley hit it big. I never understood him. I was not a fan of the music. In fact, before Elvis took rock ‘n’ roll to a new popularity, Bill Haley had his own early rock ‘n’ roll hits with “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and I felt the same way about his music. Years later I was in a coffee shop, and he came up to my table and introduced himself. He was a nice man. I jokingly said, “I don’t know whether to shake your hand or punch you.” Those songs weren’t music to me. As far as I was concerned, they ruined everything. D
I saw Mike Nichols and Elaine May perform at Town Hall in New York City, and to this day it remains the most brilliant comedy performance I have seen onstage. In what I remember as the final sketch, they started out as two kids playing house. As it progressed and they grew up and became adults, their dialogue got harsher, until Nichols and May were in a fight. Stagehands came out and separated them. Those of us in the audience thought, “Oh my God, they lost it.” Then suddenly they turned and bowed. It was brilliant. A
Nixon and Kennedy ran against each other in the presidential election. I had voted for Ike, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and I thought he did a good job. But I didn’t consider myself a Republican. I watched the Nixon-Kennedy debate on television. I thought Kennedy won hands down. I was surprised when a number of people I knew who had listened to the debate on the radio thought the opposite, that Nixon had been the clear winner. I was a fan of Kennedy. I was taken in by the Camelot Era; it was both smart and glamorous or glamorous and smart. I thought he was a good president. A
The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered. I got a week off from Bye Bye Birdie to do the pilot. I was such a nervous wreck that I had four fever blisters. But the writing made it a cakewalk! The pilot went unbelievably well. The show wasn’t a hit right away. We were up against the Perry Como Show, and my name didn’t mean anything. We got canceled at the end of the season. But summer reruns helped, and Sheldon went to Proctor and Gamble and convinced them to stick with it. He said the show was too good to cancel. He was right.
We took off in season two, and though we only did five seasons, thanks to syndication the show has rarely been off the air. Why has it held up? Carl had a rule: No references to current events, no slang, nothing that would date it.
It also had to be real.
He would tell the writers, “I don’t care how ridiculous a situation is as long as it could really happen. It has to be believable.” And, of course, above all else, the shows were funny. A
President Kennedy was assassinated. I was doing The Dick Van Dyke Show. I was at work that day, November 22. I walked in from lunch and saw the assistant director, John Chulay, standing in front of the television, with tears streaming down his face. He turned and said, “Kennedy was shot.” I had to record an album that night, Songs I Like, by Dick Van Dyke. We’d already rented the studio; the musicians in the orchestra cried the entire night. It was so tragic. F
Color TV became the new standard. Although a handful of shows were broadcast in color in the fifties, color TV was not widely available until the early sixties. The network approached Carl Reiner about doing The Dick Van Dyke Show in color, but we stayed in black and white. Around this same time I bought my family’s first color TV, an RCA. But I began seeing movies that shouldn’t have been in color, such as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. It took a while before the industry appreciated that those were so beautiful in black and white. A
With four children, including two girls, Beatlemania hit hard in our house. I am pretty sure the Beatles’ Sunday night appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was must-see TV for all of us, including me. Unlike Elvis and Bill Haley, I was impressed by the group’s musicality. They were more sophisticated than anyone else. The next month my daughters, Carrie Beth and Stacy, were with me in England, where I was working on Mary Poppins, and we crossed paths with the Fab Four at Twickenham Studios.
We were working on the “Jolly Holiday” number, and John, Paul, George, and Ringo were finishing A Hard Day’s Night. They invited all of us to a party, and we had a great time. But here’s the best part: months later we were at a fundraiser somewhere, a garden party, and they came up to my daughters and said, “Hi, Stacy. Hi, Carrie. How are you?”
My daughters were blown away that the Beatles remembered their names. They probably still haven’t gotten over it. The guys were nice young men, and I thought their music was very good. A
Mary Poppins was released. I knew this was a special project the day Walt Disney first showed me all the scenes beautifully painted as storyboards. They were tacked to the wall. It was like being in an art gallery. Then I sat and listened to the Sherman brothers play the score. That cinched it. I knew I had to be in that movie. Looking back, the magic was the music and Walt’s touch. He just had it. There was a great spirit the whole time we made it, and I think it shows onscreen. A+
On March 25 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of civil rights demonstrators on a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. This followed a terrible display a few weeks earlier when police beat marchers as they attempted to peacefully cross the bridge on their way to the state capitol. The violence had been televised. Americans had seen peaceful citizens bloodied by police. That the demonstrators were black and the police white made it even uglier.
In the interim Dr. King urged religious leaders of all faiths to join his march. I wanted to go. A year earlier I had attended a rally at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where Dr. King spoke. I had lived in Atlanta as a younger man and had seen—and in fact been shocked and disturbed by—the way black people were treated. I thought it was important to go to Selma. But The Dick Van Dyke Show was in production, and the studio wouldn’t shut it down. But I give Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement an A.
Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I was glued to the TV the whole time. In addition to the image of Armstrong climbing out of the lunar module, the other thing I can still picture is CBS anchor Walter Cronkite counting down the touchdown and then finally taking off his glasses and shaking his head in amazement. He was wiped out, as we all were, though I also remember thinking that the whole thing was a fake. Some people believed that it was all acted out in a soundstage. It reminded me of when I was a kid and the disappointment I felt when I learned there were no aliens on the moon. A
The New Dick Van Dyke Show premiered. I reunited with Carl Reiner on this new CBS sitcom, which costarred Hope Lange as my wife. It was a solid show, but it never took off because viewers wouldn’t accept me with another woman. One day a lady came up to me in the supermarket, hit me with her purse, and said, “How could you leave that wonderful Laura?” I learned a lesson: thou shall not cheat—even on your TV wife. B
Watergate consumed the country in so many ways. Among the most serious and long-lasting harm—at least to me—was the sense of mistrust the incident seemed to ignite in all aspects of American life. It was a wake-up call: What do you mean we can’t trust the president? What do you mean he ordered a break-in? In 1974, two years after the break-in was uncovered, Nixon resigned. We are still paying a price. F
With the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War finally ended, and it was many years too late, as far as I was concerned. I was against the war from the beginning. I thought it was based on paranoia. Just like the Korean conflict, we didn’t manage to do anything in Vietnam except lose a lot of lives. We got out by the skin of our teeth, as evidenced by those indelible images of Americans being hastily evacuated from rooftops as the North Vietnamese took over the southern capital. F
Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. I thought back to when I first met him in the early 1960s. Actor Don DeFore was a neighbor of mine, and he invited my wife, Margie, and me to a dinner party. It was Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Ron and Nancy, and my wife and I. We were the only liberals at the table. But I kept my mouth shut. Ron talked that night about getting rid of the unions and the right-to-work issue. A short time later he served two terms as California’s governor. Five years later he ran for president of the United States and was elected twice to what was, without question, his greatest role. Even though we differed politically, as a fellow actor, I will respectfully give him top marks: A
The Summer Olympics were in Los Angeles, and I went for the whole thing. As a former track guy (I was a high jumper and ran the 220 in high school; I never had the stamina for the 440), I loved it. The city came together; it was a two-week celebration and showed the potential for people from all over to get along. A
In February Nelson Mandela was released from jail after being in prison for thirty years. Four years later he was elected president of South Africa, the first black president in that country’s history. Apartheid ended, and it seemed like a victory for the entire world. But I remember seeing Mandela on the news around then and noticing the look in his eyes. It was full of character and strength and, impressively, a depth of humanity that I had seen before—in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was the kind of look that gave me faith that right does eventually triumph. A
Diagnosis Murder premiered. As I mentioned earlier, producer Fred Silverman wanted me to star in a spinoff from Jake and the Fatman. “Freddy, I’m ninety-five years old. I can’t do an hour series,” I said. In truth, I was sixty-five, but I thought I was done.
He said, “Just do the spinoff. Then you don’t have to do anything.”
I did, and then one movie of the week turned into three movies of the week, and so on, and that went on for ten years. It wasn’t a cool show, but I did push the fact that there was no violence and no bad language. And as I worked well into my seventies, I think I helped show that older folks are still employable. For that reason alone: A
September 11. Terrorists attacked the United States in New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It’s one of those days that none of us will ever forget. I woke up, turned on the television, and saw the World Trade Center on fire. Like everyone else, I had trouble comprehending what I saw, especially when the second plane crashed into the building and then the towers fell . . . it was incredible in the sense that I didn’t believe something like that could be real. It was like a movie. But it was real, and it brought back memories of the bombings of London in 1939 and the kamikaze pilots in World War II who were willing to die. The world is still feeling the impact of those attacks. F
Barack Obama won the election for the forty-fourth president of the United States, becoming the country’s first black president. I never ever thought I would see that in my lifetime. I thought I might see flying cars before I saw the first black president. But regardless of opinions about his performance, his election, like his campaign slogan, “Hope,” made the future look much brighter. A
Same-sex marriage became legal in about two-thirds of the country. By the end of the year thirty-five states allowed same-sex marriage, which I think is more than good—it’s inevitable. I remember in the sixties and seventies, when people thought the institution was dead. I guess people were wrong. If one thing is clear from the dawn of human history, nothing is more powerful than love. Love is here to stay. A
Like every era of history, the years I have witnessed have been filled with all kinds of violence, prejudice, and stupidity, and yet every day someone is born who will discover a vaccine, invent new technology, write a song, find a peaceful way to battle injustice, conquer ignorance, and make a decision that will keep us human beings moving forward. How do I know? I have seen it happen. So as I think about a time when I will no longer be around to see what happens next, I have hope that future generations will continue to do better, to keep us moving in the direction where every generation will have the nourishment of hope.
Let’s Hear It for Neighborliness
Recently Arlene and I went out to dinner in Beverly Hills and then saw Jane Lynch in her one-woman show. The next morning I realized I had lost my wallet. Here is the letter to the editor of our local newspaper I wrote a few days after my wallet mysteriously turned up in a neighbor’s yard.
I moved to Malibu in 1986 when I was sixty-one years old. I’m closing in on ninety now. It’s been a beautiful three decades, and I think it’s time I expressed a little appreciation. As the years have piled on, some of my faculties began taking a hike: you know, misplacing the car key, my glasses, grocery lists—that sort of thing.
Once, I dropped my wallet on the sidewalk in front of the bank. Before I could miss it, a call came from the restaurant next door, Marmalade. Someone had dropped it off, knowing I go there a lot. I believe Ralph’s Supermarket keeps a special drawer for the collection of credit cards I leave there on a regular basis, always neatly bound up in a rubber band.
Last week a good neighbor called to say she found my wallet in her front yard. How did it get over there? She didn’t know. I don’t know. None of us will ever know. But it got back to me.
Short of a nursing home, this neighborhood is the closest there is to assisted living I could get. Thanks to you all for looking after me so well.
When you get over the hill, I will do the same for you.
What a town!