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Dick Van Dyke's prescription for success

Dick Wan Dyke

By Jane Wollman Rusoff

SAN FERNANDO VALLEY, California -- A television crew is busy gearing up to shoot the next scene: Cameras change positions; lights are adjusted. But where is the star of the show? He's in the corner dancing a little soft shoe.

"Put me on solid ground," says Dick Van Dyke, 72, with a chuckle, "and I'll start tapping! At my age they say to keep moving."

Indeed, on the set of "Diagnosis Murder," CBS' lighthearted mystery-drama series now in its fifth season, the mood is jokey and upbeat. Setting the playful tone is Van Dyke himself, handsome with silver hair and mustache, going through his paces as Dr. Mark Sloan, special medical consultant to the local police department.

The star of the classic "The Dick Van Dyke Show" is celebrating 50 years in show business: He got his start romping for a musical-comedy team called "The Merry Mutes" (more about that later).

In the studio in which "Diagnosis Murder" shoots, the five-time Emmy-winning comedian simply can't stop kidding around. He likes doing drama but, says the actor: "I do miss the rhythms of comedy. And I've never been able to perform very well without an audience. The sitcoms I've done had them. It was like doing a little play."

There is, alas, no audience for the "Diagnosis Murder" filmings -- unless one counts the rest of the cast and crew, who between scenes keep their heads down battling the New York Times crossword puzzle. So does Van Dyke. "We all sit around doing it and compare notes. I've become an addict. You may notice I do it in pen," says the veteran actor, blue eyes twinkling.

Six years ago, Van Dyke was eyeing retirement. Then along came the series, based on a guest-star role he had created for "Jake and the Fat Man" and subsequently went on to play in three TV movies. What made the "Diagnosis Murder" series an offer he couldn't refuse was the chance to work with Barry Van Dyke, his 46-year-old son, who co-stars as Sloan's policeman-son Steve.

"It's one way to get to see your grown kids," Dad jokes. "Last summer Barry's teenage sons were on, and I had my daughter Stacy on the show, too. That's carrying nepotism to its ultimate!"

Last season was the series' highest rated, so Van Dyke wasn't worried when the show was scheduled for its Thursday-night time slot, against "Seinfeld": "The demographics are totally different. We have our own little share of the audience, mostly the over-50. And that's fine. The young people watch 'Seinfeld' and the older people watch us. The audience that has been with us will stay with us."

Van Dyke cheerfully confesses to having nothing at all in common with the character he plays, a physician who helps his son solve tough homicides. He's neither a curious type nor a master of deductive reasoning. "This is a stretch for me," he admits. "It's really acting! Rob Petrie is who I really am -- in personality and general ineffectiveness."

And it is that daffy "Dick Van Dyke Show" character for whom he is, and probably always will be, best known. Petrie, a TV-show writer, was wed to homemaker Laura, played by ("Oh, ROB") Mary Tyler Moore. The couple lived with their young son Richie in suburban New Rochelle, New York.

Van Dyke was starring on Broadway in the musical comedy "Bye Bye Birdie" when actor-writer-director Carl Reiner, who had created the sitcom for himself (originally called "Head of the Family"), tapped him for the lead role.

Initially, the 1961 series, retitled "The Dick Van Dyke Show," struggled in the ratings opposite the popular, well-established "Perry Como Show." After just one season, "Van Dyke" was canceled. The sitcom, however, was saved that summer "by the skin of our teeth," says Van Dyke, when CBS aired reruns, and found an eager audience.

Van Dyke, a tall, lanky comedian prone to lots of physical comedy, was visually perfect for TV. "He seems not so much born whole as wired together," crowed one magazine in 1963. "Where muscles ought to be, there are springs. ... In repose, he might be mistaken for a bent exclamation point."

He also might have brought to mind another physical comedian: film legend Stan Laurel, of the famed Laurel and Hardy team. Van Dyke was not only a dedicated fan of the '20s and '30s star, he became a personal friend.

"By the time I met him, he'd already seen me on the show. I said to him, 'You know, I've stolen a lot from you.' He said, 'Yes, I know.'" laughs Van Dyke, who gave the eulogy at Laurel's 1965 funeral.

Son of a Sunshine Biscuit Company salesman, West Plains, Missouri-born Van Dyke grew up in Danville, Illinois, during the Depression.

"My father made about $25 a week. We always lived just on the edge," he recalls. He describes himself as "a strange little boy" who liked doing magic tricks. As a teen, he acted in school plays.

Out of the service after World War II, "I didn't know what the heck to do with myself," he says, so he went to work at an ad agency, as an account exec. That short-lived career abandoned, he and a pal hit the road as "The Merry Mutes," lip-synching to Spike Jones records and doing opera send-ups. "Really slapstick stuff," he says. Later, he hosted local TV shows, then filled in as summer-replacement host for Jack Paar and Andy Williams.

"I never had a lot of drive, but because I had family responsibilities, I had a lot of tenacity -- the tenacity of a drowning man," he says with a snigger.

By 1958, he was on Broadway in "The Girls Against the Boys." What got him noticed, though, two years later, was playing the lead opposite Chita Rivera in "Bye Bye Birdie." He reprised the part on film but was unhappy with the stage-to-screen overhaul that changed the story's focus to Ann-Margret's ingenue role.

"Those of us who did the show were disappointed with the movie," he says. "But then we just said, 'Oh, well, this is what Hollywood does.'"

A year later, 1964, the tables turned with the release of "Mary Poppins," the multi-Oscar-winning fantasy film in which Van Dyke co-starred with Julie Andrews. He says Poppins books' author P.L. Travers frowned on the casting.

"She didn't like Julie or me. She thought we were both wrong. She felt Mary should have been plump and grandmotherly and that Bert should have been a Cockney."

Cutting himself loose from his still-popular TV series, Van Dyke made more movies, then returned to television, co-starring with Hope Lange for three seasons in "The New Dick Van Dyke Show."

But his most powerful punch of the period was "The Morning After," a 1974 TV movie in which he starred as an alcoholic businessman. The drama aired not long after Van Dyke himself returned from alcohol rehab.

"The producer, David Wolper, knew nothing about my own problem with alcohol," he remembers. "But I thought this was a good chance to get the message across of what a sneaky thing it is. You're addicted before you realize what's happened to you. I have people constantly coming up to me saying they've seen the movie at treatment centers -- I'm just tickled to death. The film was authentic. It wasn't the picture of a Skid Row kind of wino; it was a middle-class guy with a family."

Van Dyke, a divorced grandfather of seven, makes his home in chic Malibu but snubs strolling the sands for tinkering with a fancy computer. And retirement isn't on his radar screen right now no matter how appealing the notion of Barry's taking over "Diagnosis Murder."

Just how long would Van Dyke stay with the series? "I don't know," he says, pensively. Then, breaking out his big grin: "It all depends how well I hold up!"

(c) 1998, Jane Wollman Rusoff. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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