Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)
A Life Achievement Award
At eighty-seven, I received a Life Achievement Award. It was presented to me at the annual Screen Actors Guild Awards gala. Carl Reiner was supposed to introduce me, but he came down with the flu, and Alec Baldwin stepped in at the last moment.
“I’ve been borrowing from Dick every time I step in front of the camera,” he said. I doubt it—Alec is a gifted actor on his own, with more range than I ever had, but it was a nice thing to say, and that’s what you do at those type of events: you say nice things.
I know because I introduced Julie Andrews when she received her Life Achievement Award, and a few years later I introduced my friend and TV wife, Mary Tyler Moore, and on both occasions I said very nice things. Of course, in the cases of both Julie and Mary, they were well deserved. There is not a bad word to say about either one of those women. When you think about it, that itself is worth an award these days, though, if you are like me, you are also thinking that should be the norm. Saying nice things is a good thing. Likewise, not saying bad things also works in your favor.
As for me, I barely knew what to say when I stepped onstage to accept my award. I looked out at the audience and saw George Clooney, Bryan Cranston, and Daniel Day-Lewis, among dozens of other stars in formals and tuxedos, right in front, giving me a standing ovation, and it threw off my concentration.
“Thank you, Mr. Lincoln,” I said. “Such a thrill. That does an old man a lot of good.” A montage of clips had preceded me onstage (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Diagnosis Murder, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Bye Bye Birdie), and I was honored my peers had decided to recognize my work, even if I was reluctant to describe it as work. “I’ve knocked around this business for seventy years, and I still haven’t quite figured out what it is that I do,” I said.
Backstage, in front of reporters, I made a candid admission. “If I don’t have an audience, I am not very good,” I said. “I need the audience to do their work.”
It’s true. And the work the audience does is to laugh, clap, or applaud. Or sing. Or all of the above. The gift I have been given is the ability to make people feel good, and I can’t begin to describe how that has made me feel. I understand why people commit to a life of service—nothing brings more joy than making someone else feel good.
My friend Julie Andrews said the same thing when she received her award. “I have so much joy in my work,” she said, “and these days I’ve come to understand that the joy is all about the giving.”
I found more truths and tips from previous recipients. Shirley Temple Black, for instance, said, “Start early.” Betty White encouraged people to find a passion and pursue it. And Mary Tyler Moore told a story about ignoring advice that she should change her name if she hoped to get work. But as she said, she was Mary—Mary Moore. What would her father, George Tyler Moore, say if she changed her name?
“Then it hit me,” she said. “Tyler was my middle name too. I was Mary Tyler Moore. I spoke it out loud. ‘Mary Tyler Moore.’ It sounded right. So I wrote it out on the form. And it looked right. It was right.”
The lesson? Be real. Be honest. When I look back on a life deemed worthy of an award, I think my biggest achievement has been a body of work on and off screen that is positive. There aren’t any black marks. And with that I am satisfied.
Early on in my Hollywood career I decided I wouldn’t accept any parts that I would be embarrassed for my children to see, and that proved a good touchstone. Adhering to that strict sensibility cost me an opportunity to work with Cary Grant, who wanted me to work on one of his romantic comedies, which I thought was too risqué. Now, looking back, the stuff I thought risqué is laughingly benign, more clever than crude. But it was the early sixties—what did I know?
And that’s the thing. When you are living life, it is impossible to know what will happen. You take your best shot; you make your best guess. My brother, for instance, was the number-one choice to play Gilligan on the TV classic Gilligan’s Island. But he turned it down. He feared, perhaps rightly, that he would be typecast forever as Gilligan and never have the long, varied career he envisioned.
A year later he was offered the lead on a sitcom called My Mother the Car. Before he took it, he asked what I thought. I said a show about a car that talked didn’t seem like a strong idea. Then Jerry asked what I was working on. I said I was about to go to Europe to make a movie.
“What’s it about?” he asked.
“A car that flies,” I said.
So you never know. I never would have guessed that I would meet idols of mine such as Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton, Cary Grant, Gene Kelly (we were actually in a movie together, What a Way to Go), and Fred Astaire, who floored me when he said in a radio interview, “I like the way Van Dyke moves.” (I heard that while I was in the car and nearly drove off the road.)
I remember bumping into Fred Astaire when he was in his early eighties, younger than I am now but still up there. “Do you still dance?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “But it hurts now.”
That might be the best summation I have heard of old age. You do the same things you always did—or try to—except that it hurts. You continue to move. It just takes longer. It may also require more persuasion than was needed in the past. It may also require Advil before or after. It ain’t easy. No one said it would be—and it isn’t. But what are you going to do? This is what we have, this life of ours.
If it were up to me, more people would get life achievement awards for the choices they have made. Somehow we entertainers seem to have locked up this honor. I have lost track of all the award shows where Hollywood gives life achievement awards just for going to work and doing our job. I am not complaining or criticizing, but there is a long list of those who do the same thing and don’t get the accolades. Teachers. Doctors. Inventors. Nurses. Parents who ensure that their child will be the first in their family to get a college education. Volunteers. People who hold sick babies in the hospital. The list goes on.
Life is a roll of the dice. You do your best. My résumé includes booze and cigarettes. I had a drinking problem, and I was a longtime smoker. I had trouble breaking both of those bad habits. I wish I had never started down the path with either one. But I don’t look at them as black marks on my record; in fact, I see quitting them as an accomplishment and, no doubt, contributing factors to why I am still here. And being here, after all, is the point.
Well, part of the point. The other part is making it count, making sure you cover all the bases. And what are those bases? Let’s start with the big stuff. Should you believe in a higher power or not? I say yes. But I don’t believe in a higher power that is owned by any one religion or one that shows a preference to gender or color. I don’t believe in a him or her, a he or she, or the god claimed by a specific religion. I believe in a higher power that we have to answer to. My higher power has something to do with the inexplicable, massiveness, mystery, and beauty of the universe.
The higher power I believe in does not discriminate and does not tolerate discrimination. The higher power I believe in has left it up to us to figure out how to navigate all the complexities that get in the way of us understanding that the only things that truly matter are compassion and love. We get the gift of life; we have to figure out how to make it matter.
I also believe in the power of prayer. I don’t know if prayer is a pipeline to a higher power, but I remember being a young TV host in New Orleans where, despite big local ratings, I felt confused and frightened about my prospects for the future, and I prayed for a break. I am not talking a one-time deal; I didn’t leave a message on a spiritual answering machine: “Hey, it’s Dick Van Dyke in New Orleans, and I can’t raise a family on $10,000 a year. Help!” I prayed several times a day. I was serious. I wanted direction, a path toward more stability and security.
“Something has got to happen,” I said to myself. And then it did. Out of the blue Byron Paul, an old Air Force buddy, got me an audition at CBS in New York. After my audition they gave me a seven-year contract for double the money I’d been making. I was speechless.
“Speaking on behalf of Dick, he accepts,” Byron said. “He is thrilled.”
Answered prayers? Or just luck? I don’t know. Both work. I don’t see a need to sweat the difference. But from what I have seen, prayer has a power of its own. Prayer is a way we talk to ourselves, and I think that creates a sense of clarity, strength, and confidence that opens the door to change.
It was like that with my drinking. For years I tried treatment programs, rehab, and AA meetings without being able to stay sober. Then I tried prayer. I would say, “Please take this away from me. Please remove the power this has over me.”
Gradually the booze started losing its effect. Instead of feeling happy and relaxed, I got a little dizzy and headachy, and then the urge just fell away. I never wanted to drink again—and I didn’t.
Is that proof of anything? Only that prayer worked for me. It still does.
The thing you know when you get up around my age is that there are no rules, no signposts you must hit to get where you are going. In fact, the not-so-secret secret is that no one knows where they’re going—or where they’ll end up. You don’t arrive as much as you run out of gas or break down.
Actually, as I think about it, the only rules are the rules of the road, and we really need to follow them if the younger generations are going to have half a chance of living as long as me and enjoying their old age half as much.
Wait your turn.
Follow the speed limit.
Signal before changing lanes.
Stop at red lights and stop signs.
Be courteous and let the other guy in.
Don’t take up more than your share of the road.
Don’t drive drunk.
Pay attention to what you’re doing—stop looking at your phone.
Carpooling is good.
Wave if you see someone you know.
Don’t cut anyone off. It doesn’t make you get there any faster—and no one likes a cutter.
Don’t honk if there is traffic or get frustrated if you get lost. Eventually you get where you were supposed to end up. It may not be where you intended to go, but it all works out in the end.
Singing in the car remedies any kind of road rage.
One thing I know for sure, something that is common knowledge to everyone who gets up in years enough to be considered old or, more specifically, around and beyond the average lifespan (as I said earlier—and it’s worth repeating—men and women turning sixty-five today can expect, on average, to reach their mideighties, according to the Social Security Administration): the end is coming, and coming sooner rather than later. (It speeds up too.) None of us knows what that will be like other than it will be the end. As in: fade to black. THE END.
The obvious question is: Do I think about it? My answer is yes, I do—but no more than I ever did, which hasn’t ever been that often. I have never been plagued by the kind of neuroses that cause others to constantly check for lumps or fear that each new pain is a white flag signaling that they are on their final lap. I have what I would call the enviable ability to focus on whatever I am doing, without worrying about what happened before or what might—or might not—happen next.
What eats people up is anxiety. It creates the tyranny of the “should haves”—I should have done this. I should have done that. My advice: do what you can, try your best, and then don’t worry about it.
One last note: I hope I don’t come off in this book as thinking I know everything—I don’t. I don’t claim to know much of anything unless it involves lyrics and a tune. But I do know this:
If you are young, get used to having old people around. There’s only going to be more of us—including you!
If you are middle-aged, don’t think about getting old.
If you are already old, congratulations, you now know what I know! There is no finish line. Stay open to whatever happens. Don’t be scared of dying. Be more frightened that you haven’t finished living. Make living a life achievement.
Or, as the kids say, #KeepMoving.