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October 20, 2011

Book Notes: Van Dyke autobiography ‘fascinating’


— In a way we’re fortunate to have TV Land around to televise classic shows from the past. There are some great ones out there that never lose their appeal. The  most obvious example is ILove Lucy” which still seems funny 60 years later. It may be that the best shows are timeless, always entertaining no matter how many years have past.

Just think of some of the greatest movies of all time; “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” and “The Best Years of our Lives” are perfect examples of movies that are timeless. They are as intense and entertaining today as when they were made three generations ago.

Television is no different. If you had to pick one television show from the 1960s that defined comedy it would have to be “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” The program ran for five years, from 1961 through 1966, before it took itself off the air. The show’s creator, Carl Reiner, felt that a TV show gets stale after five years and pre-determined “Dick Van Dyke” would run no longer than that despite being at the top of the ratings.

Reiner was also astute enough to not make any references to current events or politics so that the show could remain timeless. It is one reason the show today is as hilarious as it was 50 years ago. Funny is funny.

The show comes alive (as well as a lot more) with the publication of Dick Van Dyke’s autobiography, “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business.”

Van Dyke describes his upbringing in Illinois and how he became an entertainer. Like most successes in life his lucky breaks often had to do with being in the right place at the right time. He was not a nationally known commodity when Reiner chose him as the lead in his hit comedy series. The fact that the show skipped using a clever title and went with “Dick Van Dyke” only added to his celebrity.

As with many successful situation comedies, chemistry between the actors was a must.

Co-stars Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie were already well known but Mary Tyler Moore was a young, relatively unknown 23-year-old actress who absolutely jelled with Van Dyke as husband and wife. Their rapport appeared  so genuine that many viewersassumed they were married in real life.

In fact, in the 1970s when he was appearing in his “originally” named new situation comedy, “The New Dick Van Dyke Show,” one woman viewer apparently didn’t take kindly to his new on-screen wife, Hope Lange. She came storming up to Van Dyke in a grocery store and hit him with her purse screaming, “How dare you leave that sweet Laura!”

Between situation comedies and slaps in the face Van Dyke managed to star in some very successful movies such as “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and “Divorce American Style.” Working with Julie Andrews on “Mary Poppins” was clearly one of the highlights of his life.

In real life (and not the make-believe that some lunatic viewers take for real) Van Dyke seemed to have the same success that he had on-screen. He married to his high school sweetheart and eventually had four kids.

But life wasn’t all peaches and cream. He eventually developed alcoholism and his marriage went south. Van Dyke does not shy away from describing these developments in detail.

Most of the book is sprinkled with wonderful stories that include his actor brother Jerry Van Dyke (Luther from the long-running series “Coach”), real-life incidents that inspired many episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the time Jerry Lewis managed to deliberately embarrass him in front of Queen Elizabeth.

Other than having the usual celebrity pitfall of namedropping once too often, Van Dyke’s autobiography is a fascinating and fast-paced read. He may have had his share of depressing moments but he has been very lucky in life. We are fortunate he has been able to share much of it with us both on-screen and off.