Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)
A Conversation with Carl
As I say frequently, I would not be where I am today without Carl Reiner. This Emmy-winning writer and actor, Oscar nominee, playwright, novelist, devoted husband, father, and proud grandfather is my longtime friend. He is also my mentor, a genius, and the smartest person I have ever known. Whenever I’ve needed advice, I have called Carl. Whenever I needed a clever line, I knew I could go to him and get a winner. And now, in need of another chapter for this book . . .
Seriously, given that Carl is three years older than me, I thought it would be interesting to speak with him about our relationship, about life, and about living a lot longer than either of us would have predicted. Luckily, he agreed. So one afternoon in April 2015 I went to his house in Beverly Hills, where we sat down in his office, a room filled with books, awards, and the interesting clutter amassed in one of Hollywood’s great careers.
ME: So how is it being ninety-three?
CARL: Slower. (He smiles.) But hey, it’s better than having stopped at ninety-two. How old are you?
CARL: How is that?
ME: A surprise.
CARL: I understand.
ME: We have known each other for about sixty years. Do you remember our first meeting?
CARL: I do—and I’ll tell the whole story. I did a pilot called Head of the Family, a sitcom. I was starring in it, and I wrote thirteen episodes so that I would have a bible for other writers. I did the pilot with Barbara Britton, Sylvia Miles, and Morty Gunty in the other three parts. And it didn’t sell. It was poor to failing. Horses and guns sold that year—no situation comedies. So I put it to bed.
However, I had thirteen episodes lying on my agent’s desk. He was so upset because, as he said, the scripts were gold. He gave them to producer Sheldon Leonard, who wanted to try it again. But I said to Sheldon and my agent, “Fellows, I don’t want to fail twice with the same material.”
Sheldon Leonard said, “You won’t fail. We’ll get a better actor to play you.”
That better actor was you. Someone suggested you right away. I knew of you. I’d seen you on TV—the morning show you hosted when Walter Cronkite did the news for you. I went to see you in Bye Bye Birdie, and I was smitten. I went backstage to say hello, and that’s where we met. I told you what I was planning, and as I recall, it was magic from that moment on.
ME: I had a pilot of my own that I wanted to do, something based on Jacques Tati’s character Monsieur Hulot and set in Europe. But after reading your script, I threw my idea out the window. I had never read anything so good in my life.
CARL: It was one of those fortuitous moments. Everything fell into place, including Mary. That was another thing. I was looking for—well, I didn’t know what I was looking for. Sheldon Leonard, in his infinite wisdom, said, “You’ll know her when you see her.” I saw about thirty girls, including Eileen Brennan, a very good actress. We flew her from New York and tested her. She was too ballsy and strong. Your character—not you but your character—couldn’t have handled that. We told Sheldon she wasn’t right.
We also told Danny Thomas, who’d picked up the check for the show, and he said, “What’s that girl with the three names? She has good legs. She played on Richard Diamond, but all you saw were her legs. I brought her in to test for my daughter. But her nose went the wrong way.”
We looked her up. It was Mary Tyler Moore. We called her, but she said she didn’t particularly want to come in. She had gone to a couple of auditions and didn’t make it. But she came anyway. As I recall, she walked in, I handed her the script and said, “Read the first scene.” She read the first word and I sensed a ping in her voice. I made my hand into a claw, like the kind in an amusement arcade that picks up candy, and I walked across the room. She got scared.
I put my hand on top of her head and said, “Come with me.” She had only said one word. Whatever it was, she said it perfectly. I walked her down the hall and said, “Sheldon, we found her.” You were the only one who objected. She was twenty-three years old, and you were—
ME: I was twelve years older. I thought she was a little young.
CARL: I said, “My God, look at you together.” Nobody ever asked if he was too old for her. They looked like a team from day one.
ME: I admired the way you ran the show. Your stuff was brilliant, but you never treated it as if it were written in stone. Everybody could contribute.
CARL: Luckily we had a creative cast. My agent suggested Rose Marie. He said, “Only one girl can play this. Rose Marie.” And he was right. For the part of Buddy Sorrell, I was looking for a young guy like Mel Brooks. She said, “Morey Amsterdam. He’s perfect.”
I said, “The human joke machine?” I’d seen him at the little place he had on Broadway. He was the human joke machine, literally. He only needed two lines or even two words to make a joke; and he gave us a hundred thousand jokes. Having him in the room was one of the truly fortuitous things that happened.
ME: You purposely made it timeless—no slang, no reference to current events, nothing that would date it. What was your thinking behind that?
CARL: As soon as I saw the pilot, I knew it was a classy show. It was about a family. It was about my family. It was true, and I knew it would remain true a long time if we didn’t put in anything that would date it.
ME: The show aired from 1961 to 1966—
CARL: By the way, Dick, I’ve got to tell you something that will make you feel good. The show has been airing on one of the channels, and I have recorded them as they come on. Every once in a while I can’t go to sleep, so I’ll pop on a show, and I just laugh. I keep getting re-amazed by what you could do.
ME: And I am amazed by what you created. We did the show fifty-some years ago. It’s aired practically nonstop. And while we’ve grown old in real life, on TV we haven’t aged. We’re stuck in our prime.
CARL: What’s nice is that it’s still on every night. I can’t believe it. And the show is responsible for something nice that has happened now for three generations. It happened twenty years ago, it happened ten years ago, and it happened lately. Somebody comes up to me and says, “When I was a kid or eleven or twelve years old, I was funny. I knew I wasn’t going to be a comedian, but I was funny. Then I saw The Dick Van Dyke Show and learned there’s a thing called a writer. I could do that. I could be that Dick Van Dyke guy who writes for other people.” Over the years two or three dozen people must have said that to me.
ME: That’s a tribute to your writing. Those shows do make it look fun.
CARL: It is fun. I write every day.
ME: But thanks to that show we are eternally young.
ME: Actually it doesn’t bother me. I’m just happy to be here.
CARL: A long time ago I was asked which theatrical project I am most proud of, and I answered, “Creating The Dick Van Dyke Show, hands down. I’ve done a lot of things, but that’s one that informs my whole being.”
ME: It’s your life.
CARL: With a more talented person playing me.
ME: Neither of us has stopped working. Like me, you blew past age sixty-five, retirement age. Did you ever think of retirement?
CARL: Now, physically, I can’t do very much. I did something at the TV Land Awards the other night, and it took a lot out of me. But I was very funny.
ME: Did you feel old at sixty-five?
CARL: I didn’t give age a second thought. I was busy directing, producing, and acting. If you’re working, you don’t think about it. You figure those milestones are just another day. In fact, I think somebody said I was eligible for Social Security. I said I didn’t need it.
ME: Earlier in this book I have a chapter called “How Do You Know When You’re Old?” When did you start to feel it?
CARL: I don’t remember the exact moment. But it’s when I look into the bathroom mirror in the morning and say, “Look who you are. What became of you?” There are all these spots and things. How could that be me?
ME: I remember when I turned eighty, I said, “This is old age? Fine. It’s good with me.” I didn’t realize what was ahead.
CARL: Since turning ninety I’ve slowed down a lot. Every once in a while I will feel something and think my blood pressure just spurted. I will hear myself say, “This is it. I’m about to go.” I have one salvation—a blood pressure cuff. I will put it on and check. It’s anxiety. I’m ninety-three. How far can you go?
ME: I don’t think about that.
CARL: I do—all the time. How am I going to go? Where am I going to be? What will I be doing? You know the line, “Is this the end of Rico?” Jimmy Cagney says that at the end of the movie Little Caesar. He’s a gangster. He’s on top of a water tower. They’re shooting at him. His last words are, “Mother mercy, is this the end of Rico?” I think about it frequently: How am I going to go?
ME: I heard you in an interview say that you get up every morning, look at the obituaries, and if you’re not there, you have breakfast.
CARL: I do that. Every morning. Looking, hoping I see a 101-year-old. Once in a while I do. When I see people in there that were eighty, seventy, and sixty, I think, “Oh, shit.” The other day I saw a ninety-eight-year-old. That was good. There was hope.
ME: When you’re writing, do you feel your age?
CARL: No, when I am writing and not thinking about my health, I could be fifty. I don’t think about age. But other times I think I’m lucky; I still walk up and down the stairs. I walk up and down the block. Yesterday I forced myself to go around the block. At my age they tell you walking is the single most important thing you can do—after not dying, of course.
ME: I have been working out for years, but once I got into my seventies, I got a little curious: How much can I do? Now I work out as a matter of defiance. I still have vivid dreams of myself running across an open field, like a deer—that freedom.
CARL: That’s a good dream. I dream all the time. I have to remember them because I go to a psychiatrist once a week and try to figure out what they’re about.
ME: You’re still in therapy?
CARL: Yeah. My wife found psychiatry when it was $15 an hour. She heard about it and said, “That’s for me.” Then we went together. Then I went alone. You realize there are things you can fix about yourself—or at least think about differently.
ME: After all these years, what are you still working on?
ME: What is causing you anxiety?
ME: In 1977 you directed George Burns in Oh God. He was famous for celebrating his age. Did he say anything you remember?
CARL: When the picture was over, I went backstage to say good-bye to him. I said, “George, you never talk about your family or anything. You always talk about vaudeville people.” He said, “Family is boring. They’re all boring.” I said, “I’m fifty-five. But you’re eighty, and I always see pictures of you with two or three girls on your arm. What do I have to look forward to sexually when I get to be your age?” He said, “Carl, did you ever try to push an oyster into a slot machine?” That’s a great line.
ME: What advice do you have for people in their fifties or sixties who are worried about getting old?
CARL: Find something that interests you, and stay with it. A good marriage is very healthy. I lucked out marrying what I call my LOML—my love of my life—and staying married for sixty-five years. People ask me how long I was married. I would explain I was married sixty-five years when Estelle died. But now I say, “She was married for sixty-five years. And in my head, I think she’s still my wife. I’m not marrying anybody else. So I have been married seventy-two years now. I’m still married to her.”
ME: I didn’t expect to remarry or meet anyone new. I just fell in love.
CARL: Estelle was still singing when she was ninety-two. At sixty-three, she practiced in bed. Our daughter Annie filled in for her a year later when she was too sick to perform. But to the day she died, she had a ukulele in the bed with her. She made two albums with her uke, Ukulele Mama 1 and Ukulele Mama 2. I bought her a very nice Martin uke. She said, “Why do I need such an expensive uke? You play it.” Our son Lucas is now playing that uke.
ME: She loved to perform.
CARL: The last year of her life she had a lot of things wrong with her. But she was always there. In her head she was always fine. For the last year she couldn’t get out of bed. As she got worse and worse, we had nurses all the time. Even when Mel [Brooks] came to visit, he’d come up for a few minutes and say hello. Then when she was really starting to go and had all her faculties about her, she spoke to each one of the kids separately. She apologized for not being a good mother, and they convinced her that she did her best. On the last day the hospice people were there. She was not breathing, at least that we could see. We talked to her, but she was not answering. Her eyes were not moving, her lids were down. Every once in a while we saw her take a breath, not much of a breath, but we saw it. The last hour of her life, there was no sound at all, nothing. We were just sitting there, and I said, “Let her go hearing herself sing.” I got her album Adult Songs for Children and put on the song “Hey, You’re Adorable.” I said, “Play it up loud. Let her hear herself go out singing.”
As it played, one of the nurses said, “She has such a lovely, sweet voice.” Well, Lucas went up to his mother, who was just lying there, and he spoke loudly, right to her face, “Ma, one of the nurses say you have a lovely, sweet voice.” She mouthed, “Thank you,” and died.
ME: Just before Michelle died, she looked at me and said, “You made me a better person.” Then she closed her eyes and—
CARL: The best way to go is to dream you’re going and then go, in your sleep.
ME: Instead of talking about the end, let me ask you this: What has given your life the most meaning?
CARL: My kids being who they are. Every one of my kids, all three of them, turned out to be really good people, and that’s the only thing you can take pride in, that you sent nontoxic people out into the world.
ME: I always thank my kids. I had no ambition or drive of any kind, and if it weren’t for my kids, I would still be back in Danville, Illinois. But I had to get out and beat the bushes, and look what happened.
CARL: Pretty good.
ME: What advice do you have for younger people?
CARL: Be who you are. If you can, if you can afford to, do only things that please you.
ME: Unfortunately so many people don’t like their jobs. They hate their work. If you love your work, it’s like play.
CARL: That’s right. If you can’t do what you love in order to make a living, find a hobby that you can’t wait to get to after work. You need passion and joy in your life. Family. Love. Passion. And joy.
The Thing That Lasts
The one thing that persists
from childhood through
whatever age you are right now
is the love we feel for one another
and still feel even more today.
Love is the thing that lasts.
You feel it more than the aches and pains.
You remember it when other memories fade.
You crave it when you have no taste
for anything else.
You pick it up when you feel weak.
It’s on your smile in the morning
and in your dreams at night.
It’s what you carry around with you every day.
It’s what you take with you.
It’s what you leave behind.
Love is the thing that lasts.
That makes it all worthwhile.
I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.