With a seven-decade career in show business and no plans to retire anytime soon, Dick Van Dyke is just as much of a singing and dancing powerhouse as he was decades ago.
Though best known for his 60s musical roles in Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there’s a lot more to know about this 95-year-old star. Take the following 20 facts which you probably didn’t know about this acting, singing and dancing legend.
20. He’s apologised for having “the most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema”
Unfortunately for Dick Van Dyke, when most people think of the legendary entertainer, they think of his bad cockney accent first. Van Dyke’s performance in Mary Poppins became famous due to his atrocious English accent, which he allegedly learned from an Irish voice coach who was no better at it than Van Dyke was. The accent became so infamously bad that when Van Dyke won a BAFTA for excellence in television back in 2017, he used his acceptance speech to make amends to the British people for his accent in Mary Poppins.
Speaking about his role as Bert the chimney sweep, Van Dyke said, “I appreciate this opportunity to apologise to the members of BAFTA for inflicting on them the most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema.” Van Dyke was so ashamed of his cockney accent that he refused to play a Brit in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and demanded his character be rewritten as an American.
19. He regrets turning down the lead role in The Omen
For the 1976 horror blockbuster The Omen, Van Dyke was offered the starring role of Robert Thorn, a haunted diplomat who was eventually played by Gregory Peck. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2013, Van Dyke admitted he turned the gory film down because he was a “goody-two-shoes”. Van Dyke elaborated by saying: “I felt I’d put myself in a position where the audience trusted me. I turned down several things for that reason – either taste or violence or sex or something.”
Despite wanting to maintain his family-friendly brand and protect his image, Van Dyke did eventually regret sticking to such saccharine roles. Van Dyke later called the decision to pass on starring in The Omen “stupid”, and said he wished he hadn’t turned the role down.
18. He didn’t start dancing until he was in his 30s
Despite his dance numbers in Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and countless stage performances, Van Dyke didn’t actually begin dancing until he was in his mid-30s. At the 2015 premiere for a tap dance documentary, Van Dyke reminisced about his belated introduction to dance and said, “it was like flying.” Van Dyke’s journey with dance began when he auditioned for a small part in the Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie.
Having had no prior dance experience, Van Dyke simply improvised a soft-shoe dance number, which hugely impressed the director. Despite not auditioning for it, Van Dyke was offered the leading role in the musical and had to confess that he couldn’t actually dance. The director simply responded “then we’ll teach you!” – and the rest is history.
17. He does the computer animation for his own shows
There’s an unfair stereotype about older people that they struggle to adapt to new technology and try to avoid it as much as possible. This cliche definitely doesn’t hold up as far as Dick Van Dyke is concerned, as the performer has a serious love for tech. As surprising as it may sound, since the 80s one of Van Dyke’s favourite hobbies has been computer animation.
Working with Newtek’s Lightwave 3D at home, he once even created his own computer-animated double, just for fun! Van Dyke and his CG twin went on to dance a duet together on The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited in 2004. Van Dyke also created a CG motorcyclist for an episode of his show Diagnosis: Murder when the crew couldn’t afford to film a motorcycle stunt in real life.
16. He was too underweight to fight in WWII
From a young age, Dick Van Dyke knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life: to become a performer, and to teach Sunday School. However, Van Dyke’s goals and priorities shifted dramatically when the US entered the Second World War, and he immediately dropped out of high school in order to enlist. Van Dyke tried twice to enlist in the Army, but both times he was turned away on the grounds that he was too underweight.
Van Dyke was even told that he should go on a milkshake diet (which is exactly what it sounds like) in order to increase his body mass. On his third attempt, Van Dyke was allowed to join up, but he was placed in a non-combat role. Instead of going to the front, Van Dyke worked as a radio announcer and took part in variety shows for soldiers during wartime.
15. Charles Bronson sent him a lemon cake every Christmas for 16 years
Celebrities often have a hard time making new friends or maintaining old friendships, given that they tend to have busy and unusual schedules. Not only that, but many are hounded and followed in public, making it difficult to or downright impossible to hang out casually with others. All these difficulties mean that celebrities often gravitate to other celebrities, either because they are working together or happen to live in close proximity to one another.
That is what happened with Dick Van Dyke, who ended up living near Charles Bronson in Malibu. Action hero Bronson was one of the most popular actors in the world in the early 70s, and (although they never worked together) he was also a close friend of Van Dyke for two decades. Throughout this time, Bronson would always give Van Dyke a lemon cake for Christmas. After Bronson’s death in 2003, Van Dyke described him as “such a gentle, quiet man.”
14. He claims a pod of porpoises once saved him from drowning
Dick Van Dyke may not tell many tales about raucous Hollywood parties or illicit celebrity misbehaviour, but he does have some anecdotes that are frankly difficult to believe. The only context you need for Van Dyke’s most incredible-sounding story is that the actor enjoys surfing, and used to take a longboard out to the various East Coast beaches in the US.
In a 2010 interview with Craig Ferguson, the actor claimed that he once fell asleep on his board while drifting far out to sea. Van Dyke apparently recalled waking up in a panic far from shore and realising with dread that he might not be able to paddle all the way back to land. The actor then said he encountered a miraculous pod of porpoises, who surrounded his board and pushed him back to the beach. Do you believe him?
13. His parents lied about his age until he turned 18
Raised in Danville, Illinois, Dick Van Dyke always believed he was born in 1926 – but it turned out that was not actually the case. Van Dyke only discovered the truth when he believed that he was about to turn 18, and so spoke to his mother about joining the US Air Corps. At this point, his mother confessed that Van Dyke, who was actually born in 1925, had already turned 18, much to the actor’s surprise.
Van Dyke was informed that he had actually been born four months earlier than he believed and that his parents covered up the date because he had been conceived out of wedlock. “It may not sound like such a big deal today, but back in 1925 it was the stuff of scandal,” he wrote. “And eighteen years later, as I uncovered the facts, it was still pretty shocking to discover that I was a ‘love child.’”
12. He was only six months younger than his Bye Bye Birdie ‘mother’ Maureen Stapleton
1963 musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie marked Van Dyke’s film debut. Having played Albert in the Broadway production, he was recruited to appear in the film adaptation along with Maureen Stapleton as his mother. Funnily enough, Stapleton was only six months older than Van Dyke. Despite the tiny real-life age difference, the pair believably play mother and son, thanks to some heavy make-up and exaggerated acting choices on Stapleton’s part.
This wasn’t the only time Van Dyke played a son opposite one of his real-life peers. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his character Caractacus Potts has a free-spirited old dad named Bungie, who is played by Lionel Jeffries. Jeffries was actually six months younger than his on-screen son in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, despite being made up to look decades older.
11. He got married live on radio
When it comes to classic celebrities like Dick Van Dyke, it’s easy to imagine that their lives were always glamorous. However, that really wasn’t the case when it came to Van Dyke, especially not in his early career years. You may have heard that Van Dyke and his first wife, Margie Willett, got married live on the radio. This wasn’t done in an attempt for attention, fame or publicity, but instead because the couple were desperately poor.
By getting married on the radio, the couple had their wedding licence paid for, as well as their honeymoon, wedding rings and even wedding gifts. At the time of their wedding, the couple were struggling for money so much that they were living in their car – hardly the glitzy Hollywood lifestyle.
10. He became good friends with hero Stan Laurel at the end of Laurel’s life
Despite being a comedy and acting icon in his own right, Dick Van Dyke has always had his own celebrity heroes. In particular, he has confessed to idolising Stan Laurel for his incredible comic timing and prowess. Van Dyke was such a fan of Laurel’s that he went so far as to find him in the phone book, and call him up just to compliment him.
In a somewhat unbelievable twist, Laurel invited Van Dyke over to introduce himself, and the two soon became fast friends. The two became closer in Laurel’s later life, with Van Dyke getting to know Laurel so well that he was asked to impersonate him on multiple occasions. The two were so close that when Laurel died in 1965, it was Van Dyke who delivered the eulogy at the funeral.
9. He used to be a Sunday school teacher
As a child from a highly religious family, Van Dyke knew from a young age that he wanted to become a church minister. While he was starting out in entertainment, the star spent his spare time helping out with Presbyterian church services and teaching at a Sunday school. However, it was in a high school drama class that Van Dyke realised that his true calling might be acting.
Van Dyke gave up his dream of being a minister in order to pursue performing instead, but never gave up on his religious ideals or need to communicate with and inspire others. In Van Dyke’s 2011 memoir, he remarked, “I have still endeavoured to touch people’s souls, to raise their spirits and put smiles on their faces.”
8. He got his high school diploma at 78 years old
We’ve already discussed the fact that Dick Van Dyke dropped out of high school during World War Two in order to join the Armed Forces. Despite never seeing combat, Van Dyke did successfully join up, even if his role was confined to radio broadcasts and boosting the morale of the troops. Even once the fighting was over, Van Dyke did not return to finish high school, instead choosing to pursue his dream of entertaining full time.
In the years following, Van Dyke worked many jobs both in and out of the entertainment world, none of which required him to have his high school diploma. However, it did weigh on Van Dyke that he never finished education, and so he eventually set his mind to achieving the milestone. It may have taken him until the age of 78, but Van Dyke did finally graduate with his high school diploma, just six decades after he left school for the first time.
7. He has his own barbershop quartet
Dick Van Dyke is a big fan of barbershop quartets, and this goes beyond simply appearing in Mary Poppins and having animated penguins harmonise behind him. In 1999, Van Dyke was made an honorary lifetime member of SPEBSQSA, otherwise known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America.
The society, which has possibly the most unwieldy acronym in the history of America, made Van Dyke a member at their annual convention in Anaheim, California. On top of this, he sings in a barbershop quartet of his very own. Van Dyke makes up one-fourth of a group called The Vantastix, and has been a member ever since 2000, even releasing a children’s album with them.
6. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was spelled wrong
Getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is one of the established pinnacles of a celebrity’s career. Alongside practising their Academy Award acceptance speech in the mirror, many performers no doubt also dream of the moment that their name is immortalised in the American sidewalk. Given that it is such a big accomplishment and a moment that said celebrity will probably remember forever, it’s pretty mortifying for everyone involved when something goes wrong.
Unfortunately for Dick Van Dyke, when his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was unveiled, something had indeed gone wrong. The legendary performer’s surname had been written out without a space, rendering him incorrectly as Dick VanDyke. Thankfully Van Dyke was able to smile though and even make a joke, cheerfully drawing a line between the two with a pen before posing for photographs.
5. He started out as a lipsync star
We’ve already mentioned the fact that Dick Van Dyke worked as a radio presenter throughout World War Two. What you might not know is that in the years immediately following the war effort, Van Dyke carried on working in radio. Specifically, Van Dyke returned to his home state of Illinois and worked as a radio DJ until 1947. It was while working that job that Van Dyke was recruited to start a comedy duo with comedian Phil Erikson, another Danville local.
The duo were called Eric and Van – the Merry Mutes, and the two comedians toured the act around the American nightclub circuit. During the act, the pair would comedically mime along to classic songs from 70 or more years ago that were in the current domain, which is not so dissimilar from shows like Lipsync Battle today.
4. He used to be the weatherman for Louisiana
Dick Van Dyke’s career has spanned many decades, having run through many major events in American history. Given the length of both Van Dyke’s life and his career, it makes sense that he has had several different kinds of jobs over the years. With that said, even given the range of jobs he took on, most of Van Dyke’s professions have involved communicating or performing.
For example, his time spent teaching at a Sunday school did involve performing and communicating in some capacity, even if it was mostly to children. The best example of this is that Van Dyke once worked in New Orleans as a weatherman, giving the weather report to the people of Louisiana. While it might be funny and surprising to imagine Dick Van Dyke in such a role, it did utilise both his performing skill and natural charm.
3. Diagnosis: Murder was a family affair
Dick Van Dyke might be a certified legend now, but that doesn’t mean that his career didn’t go through bumps in the road. Diagnosis: Murder premiered in 1991, a time when Dick Van Dyke’s star seemed to be on the decline, the actor being seen as a product of a bygone era. Diagnosis: Murder revitalised Van Dyke’s career, and so he took the opportunity to make the very most of it.
This partly took the form of Van Dyke remaining in the starring role after the first season, which he had not initially planned to do, as well as involving his family in the proceedings. Both Van Dyke’s son Barry Van Dyke and grandson Carey Van Dyke worked on Diagnosis: Murder for several episodes. Not only that, but Dick’s daughter Stacy Van Dyke guest-starred on the show in 1993, and again in 1996.
2. He went to high school with two other musical legends
Dick Van Dyke went to a tiny rural high school in Danville, Illinois, which wasn’t considered a particularly remarkable place to grow up. Therefore, it is very surprising that not one, but two other famous performers, also started out their education at the very same school. The first of these was Bobby Short, who went on to huge success as a cabaret singer and pianist.
The second was Donald O’Connor, the famed singer, dancer and actor who is probably best known for starring in Singin’ in the Rain. Considering that actor and novelist Gene Hackman also became good friends with Van Dyke thanks to living in the same town, it’s fair to say that something special really was going on in Danville, Illinois.
1. His high school newspaper predicted he would become famous
Dick Van Dyke might have been convinced from an early age that he was destined for a life in the church, but other people knew better. Specifically, Van Dyke’s high school newspaper seemed to have an uncanny ability to predict his future, even before he knew it himself. On the 31st of January 1944, Dick Van Dyke was interviewed for the Spotlight feature in his high school newspaper.
The feature detailed Van Dyke’s plans to drop out of high school and join the Army, and ended with a word from the newspaper’s editor. The goodbye message to Van Dyke was spookily correct when it came to his post-war plans, and read as follows: “Danville High School wishes you the best of luck, Dick Van Dyke, and hopes your post-war career will see you right at the top of the entertainment world.”