Friday, June 24, 2011

My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir by Dick Van Dyke (audio)

Goodreads Book Description:
Dick Van Dyke, indisputably one of the greats of the golden age of television, is admired and beloved by audiences the world over for his beaming smile, his physical dexterity, his impeccable comic timing, his ridiculous stunts, and his unforgettable screen roles.

His trailblazing television program, The Dick Van Dyke Show (produced by Carl Reiner, who has written the foreword to this memoir), was one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1960s and introduced another major television star, Mary Tyler Moore. But Dick Van Dyke was also an enormously engaging movie star whose films, including Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, have been discovered by a new generation of fans and are as beloved today as they were when they first appeared. Who doesn’t know the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?

A colorful, loving, richly detailed look at the decades of a multilayered life, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, will enthrall every generation of reader, from baby-boomers who recall when Rob Petrie became a household name, to all those still enchanted by Bert’s “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” This is a lively, heartwarming memoir of a performer who still thinks of himself as a “simple song-and-dance man,” but who is, in every sense of the word, a classic entertainer.

When I was little the Dick Van Dyke Show was one of my favorite shows.  The reruns are still favorites of mine, I especially enjoy watching them nowadays on Netflix - instant gratification.  I grew up on the Dick Van Dyke Show.  Rob and Laura were the perfect married couple to me.  Laura was so pretty and Rob so funny, the whole scenario of the show was just perfect.  I loved the whole idea of being a comedy writer for the Alan Brady Show.  So many of the episodes were a scream.  My particular favorite was the one in which Laura gets her toe stuck in the bathtub faucet at a hotel while on a second honeymoon. 

To say the least, when I heard about this audiobook, I grabbed it and gobbled it up!  Narrated by Dick himself, it's an inside look at his unplanned career and his life in general.  He's a great guy and I really enjoyed learning about him.  He's exactly what I thought he'd be like: a genuinely good man and decent human being.   Listening to him on audiobook, I immediately thought he sounded older than I expected him to sound.  A slight slurring in his speech due to false teeth?  Maybe, maybe not.  Once that initial impression passed, he became the Dick Van Dyke of my memories - aka Rob Petrie.  He's now in his 80's but still working and keeping himself busy and sharp.    It was like having him join me in my kitchen over a cup of coffee and talking, talking, talking.  His narration is natural and easy - conversational and amusing. 

If I had to say there is a theme to Dick Van Dyke's memoirs it's that he marvels at the fact that he wound up in this kind of career and was blessed to be part of such a perfect TV show.  In fact, most of Van Dyke's life is a a charmed one.  He came from a very normal Mid-West sort of background, growing up during the Depression.  His stint in the army reminded me of Rob Petrie's army career.  He began to sing and dance and do his part entertaining troops at the tail end of WWII, though he never went overseas.  He married a home town girl, Margie and haphazardly joined a traveling act lip syncing to popular songs.  Their early married years had their ups and down financially until finally Dick got a few breaks and had a radio show in Atlanta.  From there, he landed a job in New York hosting some game shows until finally he got his big break starring on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie

We get Dick's thoughts - and fears - of being in a Broadway show - a star, no less!  He's such a regular guy, I could just imagine what it must have felt like for him, starring with Chita Rivera and Dick Gautier.  The show was a huge success, but success didn't go to his head.  Still, very much a family man, he commuted from Massapequa, Long Island into the city.  By this time, he has a few kids and life is good.  Carl Reiner, the creator of the Dick Van Dyke Show saw Dick in Bye Bye Birdie and knew he was perfect for the role of Rob Petrie.  It was a no brainer.  He brought Dick and his family out to LA and so began TV history.

As Dick says in the first few lines of his book, if you're looking for scandals and tell alls in this book - look elsewhere.  Dick is just about as wholesome as he appears on screen.  If you're familiar with his role as Rob Petrie, then you know what Dick Van Dyke is really like.  He was Rob Petrie!  Over and over everyone says he was simply playing himself.  In addition to his TV career, he made a decision that he would not make any movies that he'd feel uncomfortable watching with his kids.  I admired him for this and sticking to his decision.  It probably prevented him from making a lot more money, but he still made plenty as it is and he had fun doing it too.  Dick honestly really loved his career and had fun.

I found it fascinating when he described making Mary Poppins. I loved him as Bert and for some reason, "Chim Chim Cher-ee" brings tears to my eyes to this day when I hear it.  It's a very nostalgic movie for me, one of my very favorites as a kid.  He mentions more than once what a lousy English accent he had for the role and how strenuous the role was as well.  His first meeting with Walt Disney was memorable and you can't help feeling he was very fortunate to be part of that very special movie.

But, in addition to the good things that happened in Dick's life, there's always a down side to things and one of the things that happened to Dick while in Hollywood was his propensity for drinking.  Before moving to Hollywood, he and his wife didn't drink at all!  But, he fell into the routine (as so many of us do) of having a drink or two after work when you get home.  One drink began to lead to another.  He never really thought he had a drinking problem, he never drank at work or during the day, it was only at home before and after dinner or at parties.  Many would say he was a social drinker.  But, at around the time he started to analyze his life, in his late 40's he realized he had a problem and got help and stopped drinking.  Interesting he chose not to go through AA.  It wasn't easy and he fell off the wagon several times, but eventually he stopped altogether, he just didn't like the way it was making him feel sick.   He stopped smoking too.  Around that same time, he fell in love with another woman.  He didn't expect it or see it coming and though he loved his long time wife, Margie, they had grown apart and wanted different things in life.  She eschewed the Hollywood life and she didn't even want him to act anymore.  She was happiest away from Hollywood, and they lived in Arizona for a long time.  He loved his acting career and longed to talk about it with someone who could relate to it.  That someone wound up being a young woman he got to know, Michelle, who became his partner for the next thirty years until her death from cancer.  (Ironically, she was Lee Marvin's ex-girlfriend who made the word "palimony" a household word.)

Even though Dick and Margie split, he was a gentleman about it, though he felt terribly guilty at first sneaking around behind her back with Michelle.  He made sure Margie was always taken care of for the rest of her life.  They remained friends and he was with her when she too died from cancer.  He's a good father, grandfather and great-grandfather.  I felt terrible for him when he described his eldest granddaughter's heartbreaking death when she was 11 years old from Reye's Syndrome.  He has a big heart and a sense of justice and equality.  No longer as politically active as he was for a time in the 1960's, he still helps many people, visiting and spending time in shelters with the poor and homeless.  I really, really like him!

This is a short audiobook, the book itself is less than 300 pages long.  It only made me like Dick Van Dyke even more.  There are loads of amusing anecdotes and observations in regard to his co-workers, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Carl Reiner, Walt Disney, Julie Andrews, Ann-Margret, Janet Leigh, Jean Stapleton to name a few.  It's a great look at Hollywood and the early days of TV in the 1950's and '60's.  I loved every bit of it, I only wish there had been more of it.  I admit, his later years weren't as interesting to me, since I never watched any of his later TV shows like Diagnosis Murder, but no matter what, he always remained a good man in whatever he did.

Anyone who is a fan of Dick Van Dyke should read or listen to this book, you'll love it too!  How can you not love it? It's Dick Van Dyke!



Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Sounds beautiful! I just heard him interviewed and he looks fantastic - still has that spark and zest for life. I think I'll pick up this audio book. Thanks.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Julia, you're welcome, I'm sure you'll agree with me. He really is a fine individual, so upstanding and practices what he preaches. He's not a phony at all.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...


Really enjoyed reading your post...and if you're interested, I'm hosting a blogathon on The Dick Van Dyke Show on October 3rd to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its TV premiere. We'd love to have you -- even if I have to give up "Never Bathe on Sunday" (the show you mentioned in your post)!

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Ivan thanks so much for the invite! I'm looking forward to your blogathon but I'm going to pass on writing in it- although thank you for offering to give up " never bathe on Sunday". (it's a scream isn't it with his David Niven mustache talking into the mirror!). I'm eager to see what you write about it! It really was a great show, just as good today in reruns as it ever was. I've got to hand it to Reiner for sticking to his five year rule and ending the show despite it's continued success. (reminds me of what Seinfeld did too). Thanks for commenting and I'm glad to have discovered your blog it looks great and a lot of fun!

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