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Sing Along To These Dick Van Dyke Facts

You might remember him as Bert in the classic Disney film "Mary Poppins," or maybe you've seen him star as Rob Petrie in "The Dick Van Dyke Show" or as Caractacus Potts in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Perhaps you've even heard his voice on recent episodes of "Kidding." Today, generations of moviegoers know Dick Van Dyke, the man who rose from being a radio announcer to a television host to a movie star. From his hometown of Danville, Illinois, he eventually made his way to Broadway stages and Hollywood movie sets.

Van Dyke is now well into his 90s, and with many years of successful films and television shows under his belt, he has plenty to look back on and be proud of. But even if you're familiar with Van Dyke's work, you might not know how he got his start as a performer, how he landed his iconic role on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," or the accent he'll never be able to get people to stop teasing him about. Let's learn a little more about the long life and career of Dick Van Dyke.

He wanted to be a minister

Dick Van Dyke was raised in a devout Presbyterian family. When he was a teenager, he served as a deacon in his church, and he also taught Sunday school. For a while, he even considered becoming a minister, but he eventually decided against the idea. But clearly, he always loved having an audience!

Although Van Dyke is no longer part of any organized religion, he says that he does believe in a higher power, and he often finds peace through prayer. "I don't know whether you're praying to yourself or to the Almighty, or what. I'm just saying that it works. It helped me a lot. And I still do," Van Dyke explained in an interview on "Bullseye with Jesse Thorn." He continued, "There's something that — I don't know what it is — wholesome about it. But it's almost like a confession, getting things off your mind. I — for me, it's worthy of doing."

He performed for the troops

Dick Van Dyke didn't dream of becoming an actor when he was a child. He left high school early to join the military in the midst of World War II. But his military service didn't play out exactly the way he expected: He was initially rejected because he was underweight. Yet Van Dyke was persistent — he knew that he wanted to join, so he tried to enlist twice more before he was finally accepted.

However, Van Dyke didn't go into combat. Instead, he became a radio announcer. Later, he also began performing in shows for service members. He never thought that joining the military would one day prepare him for a career in Hollywood. While he grew to love being a radio announcer, he didn't think that he necessarily had a future in the entertainment industry. He began to daydream about becoming a television announcer, but at the time, his chances seemed so slim that he didn't take the idea seriously.

He almost went into advertising

When Dick Van Dyke's time in the military was over, he had to figure out what he was going to do next. He was no longer interested in dedicating himself to religious life, but he wasn't quite sure if he could make a career out of being a radio announcer or performing. So he decided to try something entirely different. Instead of pursuing acting, he attempted to carve out a more stable career in advertising.

After he was discharged from the military in 1946, Van Dyke went home to Danville, Illinois, where he promptly opened up his own advertising agency. But his agency only remained open for a year — he couldn't drum up rough business, and the company shut its doors. After closing his agency, he began looking for opportunities to perform again. After all, giving show business one more try certainly couldn't hurt. In the end, the failure of his advertising agency turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

He was a mime

Throughout his career, Dick Van Dyke became known as a triple threat — a talented actor, singer, and dancer. But he got his start as a professional entertainer in an unexpected way: After leaving the advertising world, he joined up with a friend to create a pantomime act. They called themselves "The Merry Mutes," and they would lip-sync to songs in nightclubs, adding comedic elements to the show. The Merry Mutes traveled all over the country to perform, and while Van Dyke enjoyed it, he still wasn't sure if he could turn this skill into a career somehow.

"I thought that was a lark and one day I'd go home and do something serious with my life, but one thing happened after another, I never got out of the business," Van Dyke said in an interview on "Bullseye with Jesse Thorn." He performed as one-half of The Merry Mutes from 1947 through 1953, when he began working in television and appearing as a host on various game shows.

He auditioned for Bye Bye Birdie on a whim

In the early 1960s, Dick Van Dyke tried his hand at musical theater. He didn't expect to find success on the stage — he just needed to make money and figured that it couldn't hurt to go to a few auditions. He earned a small part in the musical The Girls Against the Boys, and once the show's short run was over, he decided to go out for a part in "Bye Bye Birdie." The only problem? He had no dance experience, and he would need to dance for his audition.

"I, like many other times in my early career, my heart was in my mouth. I was scared to death. And I got up and sang a little song from 'Music Man' and did a little soft-shoe," Van Dyke said on "Bullseye with Jesse Thorn." After unexpectedly landing the role of Albert Peterson, he told director and choreographer Gower Champion, "You know, I really can't dance." Thankfully, it turned out that Van Dyke did have a talent for dance. "It was like flying, learning those dance steps," he continued. "My god, it was fun for me."

He nearly missed out on his biggest role

Dick Van Dyke was already a successful actor by the time he began starring as Robert Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," but this was the role that took his career to a whole new level. However, Van Dyke very nearly missed out on playing this important role. Originally, Carl Reiner wrote the show with himself in mind as the star. But when Reiner filmed the pilot, the crew quickly realized that he wasn't a good fit — and Van Dyke shared their opinion.

"I saw the pilot. And he really was not right," Van Dyke admitted on "Bullseye with Jesse Thorn." "I mean, he was good. He was anxiety-ridden and nervous. And it didn't — it really didn't sell — it wasn't funny. So he let me, literally, play myself." Reiner already liked Van Dyke's work, so he sent him several scripts, which Van Dyke found hilarious. He dropped out of another pilot he was supposed to film and went to work on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" instead. He was able to change the role to "play himself," and the series became a major success, going on to win 15 Emmy awards.

His embarrassing Cockney accent

Dick Van Dyke played Mary Poppins' friend and jack-of-all-trades Bert in "Mary Poppins" — and he also made a brief appearance in the film as Mr. Dawes Senior. While the film is beloved by people of all ages, Van Dyke has been teased about his Cockney accent for decades. The film takes place in England, so naturally, Van Dyke couldn't stick with his natural American accent — but unfortunately, the accent he adopted for the movie was so inauthentic that it became a running joke.

"People in the UK love to rib me about my accent, I will never live it down," Van Dyke told The Guardian. He continued, "I was working with an entire English cast and nobody said a word, not Julie [Andrews], not anybody said I needed to work on it, so I thought I was all right."

Van Dyke was so embarrassed about his Cockney accent that he once formally apologized for it after winning a BAFTA award, telling attendees, "I appreciate this opportunity to apologize to the members of BAFTA for inflicting on them the most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema."

He struggled with alcoholism

As Dick Van Dyke rose to prominence as an actor, he hid the struggles he was dealing with in his personal life. Although it seemed like everything was working out in his favor, few people suspected that behind the scenes, he spent more than two decades grappling with alcoholism.

It's easy to imagine that Van Dyke was naturally social and extroverted, but he actually felt quite anxious around new people, and he began drinking to ease the awkwardness of social situation. "I was very shy — with strangers — I couldn't talk to people," Van Dyke said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. "And I found if I had a drink, it would loosen me up. The barriers went down and I became very social. That's what got me started." Van Dyke spent 25 years struggling with alcoholism before deciding to make a change. He tried going to two different rehab centers, but neither program helped him heal. Eventually, he grew tired of how sick drinking made him feel, which motivated him to focus on staying sober for good.

He loves animation

When Dick Van Dyke began acting, animation looked nothing like it does today — and the idea of computer-generated imagery was a futuristic fantasy. But as filmmakers began incorporating CGI into their movies, Van Dyke became intrigued by this exciting new medium. When he worked on "Mary Poppins," he was fascinated by the way the animators blended live-action footage with cartoon visuals.

"When I wasn't filming I was hanging out with the animators," Van Dyke told the Los Angeles Times about his time on set. After working on the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which also combined live acting with animation, Van Dyke decided that he wanted to try his own hand at animation. He purchased the technology necessary to work on it at home and took it up as a hobby in his spare time. Eventually, as new technology hit the market, he invested in equipment that he could use to practice working with CGI.

"In those days, if you had 15 frames to render it took all weekend. It was very, very primitive but I just got hooked on it," Van Dyke said. He developed quite a talent for animation, and he even contributed imagery to "Diagnosis Murder," a television series which he starred in. Today, he still works on his own CGI animation at home.

He keeps a daily journal

Dick Van Dyke has a certain ritual to help him get things off his mind at the end of the day. Before going to bed at night, he takes some time to write in his journal. He feels that by writing his thoughts down, he can let go of his worries. In the morning, he can come back to what he wrote and reflect on what is truly important.

Van Dyke says that when he's feeling anxious or has something weighing on his mind, putting his thoughts in his journal allows him to hand the problem over to the universe or a higher power. In other words, he doesn't have to keep mulling over a problem that he might not have the power to solve. In his journal, he also writes down his plans for the next day. He admits that at his age, he doesn't try to plan much beyond one day ahead.

He still lifts weights

Now in his 90s, Dick Van Dyke does his best to stay active. He wants to make the most of life at any age, so he tries not to allow himself to stay sedentary. While he can't push himself too hard in the gym, he does make it a point to go most mornings and do what he can.

"I do a treadmill. And then I do regular lifting weights. The whole routine of weightlifting. I never overdo it. If I — my body starts to feel tired, I quit. I don't have — I'm not bound to do the whole circuit. And I do a lot in the water, get in the pool," he explained on "Bullseye with Jesse Thorn." He continued, "Keeping moving's the answer. And blueberries for breakfast."

For Van Dyke, his golden years weren't something to fear. He has learned how to embrace all of the positive things that life has to offer, and by taking care of his health, he can still appear in the occasional movie or TV show — fortunately for the rest of us.

His parents kept his real birthday a secret from him

In his 2011 memoir "My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business," Dick Van Dyke recounted the story of how he learned about the secret, scandalous circumstances surrounding his birth and that his birthday wasn't really what he thought it was. As Van Dyke recalled, he told his mother in February 1943 of his plans to enlist in the World War II-era Air Force rather than wait to get drafted into the infantry upon his 18th birthday, a month away. That's when his mother told him he didn't need to wait — because he'd already turned 18, technically. His mother explained that his birth was premature, so she and his father told him his birthday was what it was supposed to have been.

Wanting the story fleshed out a little more, Van Dyke consulted his paternal grandmother who lived nearby, who told him that his mother was still lying. The real reason his parents had falsified his birthdate was to avoid creating a scandal in their small town of Danville, Illinois. Van Dyke's parents weren't married at the time of his conception. They'd eventually marry, temporarily decamp to Missouri for Van Dyke's birth, and then return home, making it look like he'd been born after the wedding — which involved lying about the baby's birthdate.

Dick Van Dyke graduated high school at age 78

Dick Van Dyke, solidly 18 years old at that point, made good on his plans to join the U.S. military's efforts in World War II, and in 1944 enlisted with the Army Air Forces, according to The Washington Post. Already a seasoned performer thanks to his participation in high school drama and choir, Van Dyke was assigned to a soldier entertainment division, as the Armed Forces figured that would best utilize the young man's skills and strengths. 

However, in order to join the fighting overseas, Van Dyke had to leave high school earlier. He permanently departed Danville High School in March 1944, during his senior year and just a few months before his impending graduation. When the war ended, Van Dyke returned to the U.S. and began his career in entertainment, which never really stopped. As a result, he never officially completed high school.

Finally, in 2004, 78-year-old Van Dyke received his diploma. According to The News-Gazette, Van Dyke received his certificate of graduation from Danville High School at the end of a homecoming weekend celebrating the actor, now a member of the class of 1944.

Dick Van Dyke was involved in the production of WandaVision

The hit Disney+ series "WandaVision," set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, concerns the grief journey of Scarlet Witch, aka Wanda Maximoff, stuck in a surreal, artificial world made up of classic American sitcom elements and references. The early scenes of the series, in costumes, sets, and narrative, take a lot from the 1960s series "The Dick Van Dyke Show." In their drive to make "WandaVision" look and feel like that sitcom as much as possible, the series' creative team sought the input of Dick Van Dyke. "The chance to talk to him about tone, about style and about the day-to-day of that show and how they put 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' together was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," "WandaVision" director Matt Shakman told D23.

Van Dyke's advice was apparently crucial and rounded out the consistency and humanity the makers of the comic book-based series wanted to establish. "I was very curious how they maintained control over tone, because that show is timeless and it resonates just as much today as when it first aired," Shakman explained. "He said, 'If it couldn't happen in real life, it wouldn't happen on the show.'" Van Dyke explained that the writing process for "The Dick Van Dyke Show" began with the writing staff telling funny stories about their real families, and they'd build episodes around those.

Dick Van Dyke was on The Masked Singer

Nearly 100 years old and about 60 years removed from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Mary Poppins," Dick Van Dyke is still making headlines and entertaining huge audiences. In 2023, Van Dyke appeared on the celebrity singing competition series "The Masked Singer." His identity concealed in an elaborate gnome mask with a leaf-covered cloak while singing Billie Holiday's "When You're Smiling," Van Dyke was the first contestant eliminated on Season 9 of "The Masked Singer," but when he took off the headpiece, he received a thunderous ovation from the studio audiences and the celebrity judge panel.

"I would say it's the weirdest thing I've ever done," Van Dyke told Entertainment Weekly about his experience on the series, which he did because he didn't think audiences would guess it was him under the mask or someone of such an advanced age. He brought the house down again with an unmasked performance of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" from "Mary Poppins."