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At 95, Dick Van Dyke is still the consummate showman. And he’s desperate to get back onstage.

As the sitcom legend and ‘Mary Poppins’ star picks up a Kennedy Center Honor, he plots another comeback

Dick Van Dyke at home in Malibu, Calif. A career that began in the 1940s has been interrupted by the pandemic. “I really miss getting up in front of an audience,” he says. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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LOS ANGELES — It's springtime in Los Angeles — the second spring of the covid-19 pandemic — and Dick Van Dyke, bearded, vaccinated and finished with his morning workout, admits he's antsy. His last singing gig took place on a Saturday night 15 months ago at the Catalina Jazz Club. He packed the house. They even had to cram in extra tables as Van Dyke, backed by horns, a rhythm section and his Vantastix singers, slid through a set that included Fats Waller, Nat King Cole and the title song from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

“Oh, God, I knew I liked it, but I didn’t know how much I would miss it,” he says of performing. “I really miss getting up in front of an audience.”

The legendary star of one of television’s most revolutionary shows is 95. He’s slowed down slightly in recent years — nagging arthritis and a gait abnormality known as drop foot force him to think before he skips — but compared with most everyone else, Van Dyke remains a step ahead. At home on this morning, he and his second wife, Arlene, 49, have already moved through sit-ups, stretches and the stationary bike.

Bathed in the Malibu sun, Van Dyke talks about a career that’s stretched from the Truman administration and the sitcom revolution of the 1960s to his reinvention as a mustachioed, homicide-investigating doctor before coming full circle with that shiver-inducing leap onto a desk in the 2018 “Mary Poppins” sequel. And Van Dyke can’t get far without praising his late friend Carl Reiner, the man who hired him in 1961 to put on that crisp suit so he could report to work as television writer Rob Petrie in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

“I got the best damn comedy writing in the world,” he says. “And then Walt called me about ‘Mary Poppins.’ ”

There are many who would say Van Dyke’s upcoming Kennedy Center honor is long overdue. Not the recipient. He will often describe his success as a product of coincidence and chance. He even titled his 2012 memoir “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business.” So Van Dyke remains awed by the honor.

“I’m trying to piece that together,” he says. “How in the hell did I get to where I am? How did I get to a Kennedy award? You know, I never trained or did anything. I just enjoyed myself.”

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Just enjoyed myself. That’s the Van Dyke mantra. The notion that simply by laughing, singing or falling over an ottoman — his trademark move in the original “Dick Van Dyke Show” opening — the energy can pass through any screen, big or small, to generate a smile.

“He makes people happy,” says Chita Rivera, a friend since they co-starred on Broadway in “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1960. “His job in this life is to make a happier world.”

“He sets off endorphins,” says comedian Jim Carrey, who started watching Van Dyke as a boy in Canada and has incorporated some of his physical bits into his work. “If you can live a life and your name sets off endorphins, and people feel generally better when they hear your name than they did before they hear your name, that’s amazing.”

There was no plan. There was no backup plan. There was only a poor kid from Illinois who never took a dance lesson, dropped out of high school and, after a decade of bouncing between radio and television gigs, had the good fortune of being handed scripts that were so sharp a club sandwich could have delivered the punchlines. Except that last part is a lie. Words on a page don’t come to life on their own. Reiner called Van Dyke the “most gifted performer I ever worked with” for a reason. The star could play a suburban husband, a frazzled employee or a gregarious party host without changing his tie. He had elastic limbs, perfect timing and the looks of a leading man.

“There’s a little Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy, in him. A little Cary Grant in him. A little Astaire,” says Norman Lear, the “All in the Family” creator. “I can’t think of another Dick Van Dyke.”

Richard Wayne Van Dyke grew up in Danville, Ill., during the Depression. His father, Loren, earned $25 a week — before taxes — selling cookies to grocery stores for the Sunshine Biscuit Co. It was not ideal. As a traveling salesman, Loren came home only on weekends.

Money was tight. One time, Dick, desperate for a bike like the other kids, mowed enough lawns to save up the $7 he’d need. He headed to his savings jar to retrieve it, but the cash was gone. “They had to use it to pay the light bill,” Van Dyke says.

In Danville, the boy spent a lot of time at the movies. Fifteen cents bought a ticket to the Palace to see westerns, Bela Lugosi’s latest or slapstick comedies with Buster Keaton, the moody pratfall master, and Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel, the British-born comic with the bow tie and bowler, was a particular favorite and the young Van Dyke would practice his routines. Years later, after his own rise, Van Dyke tracked down the reclusive Laurel and visited him at home. When Laurel died in 1965, Van Dyke delivered his eulogy with a tearful Keaton sitting in the front row. “God bless all clowns,” he said, delivering his hero’s favorite poem, “The Clown’s Prayer.” “Who star in the world with laughter,/ Who ring the rafters with flying jest,/ Who make the world spin merry on its way.”

A year later, he did the same at Keaton’s funeral.

Van Dyke’s show business career began in 1944, when he dropped out of high school in his senior year and joined the Army Air Forces, working as an entertainer. After World War II, he got a job as a radio announcer and, with a buddy, did a nightclub act that took them to California. That led to a series of small gigs until Van Dyke, now married and with children, bounced from Atlanta to New York, even hosting a talk show for a short time. It was at that last stop that Van Dyke walked into an audition for a new musical being directed by veteran dancer and actor Gower Champion. The show, “Bye Bye Birdie,” was inspired by Elvis Presley and his time in the Army.

It was his big break, and it almost didn’t happen. Early in previews, the show’s producers wanted to dump the very green Van Dyke. But Champion fought them. And in the end, Van Dyke won a Tony for his performance as a neurotic songwriter named Albert Peterson. Of more significance, Reiner came to see the show one night. That’s how he found his star.

Reiner had developed a sitcom, “Head of the Family,” based on his experience on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” In the pilot, he played the lead. But the network wasn’t happy and Reiner cast Van Dyke to replace himself. He renamed the show and brought in newcomer Mary Tyler Moore to play Rob’s wife, Laura.

There were other married men on TV and there were other young couples, but the Petries were not like them. Ward Cleaver did not spring up from the carpet during a dinner party as Van Dyke did in the first episode with his “Drunk Uncle” routine. Harriet Nelson wasn’t about to impulsively bleach her hair after discovering a lone, gray strand, or burst into a hilarious, blubbering torrent of tears over it. And Lucy, the brilliant trailblazer, didn’t don her capri pants often enough to own the look. This wasn’t “Leave It to Beaver,” “Ozzie & Harriet” or “Father Knows Best.”

“You didn’t know what Robert Young did for a living,” says director Rob Reiner, Carl’s son. “You heard that Ozzie was a bandleader, but you never saw him do it. This showed the work life. And also there was a sexuality between Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore that didn’t exist in the shows that preceded it.”

Tina Fey, the future “Saturday Night Live” head writer and star, would watch reruns of the show after school. Later, as she crafted her own behind-the-scenes sitcom, “30 Rock,” she understood the intangible quality possessed by Van Dyke.

“Obviously, he’s a super gifted physical comedian,” says Fey. “But there is just a warmth and likability that brings that show to life. You can have great jokes, but if they’re coming out of a person everyone likes, the jokes are going to play even better.”

“The Dick Van Dyke Show” would run for 158 episodes and five seasons. Two years into it, Disney cast Van Dyke as Bert, the chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins.” His attempt at a cockney accent would be mocked by many — he would later joke that it was the “most atrocious in the history of cinema” — but Van Dyke’s charm overcame everything. Julie Andrews, the film’s star, still remembers the first day in rehearsals, when Van Dyke took her arm and they began to perform “Jolly Holiday.”

“He began that huge, leggy step that he does,” says Andrews. “His legs are like, what are they like, jelly sticks? I don’t know. They bend in all ways.”

Van Dyke lobbied Walt Disney to also let him play Mr. Dawes, the stooped, humorless bank boss. Disney resisted. He told Van Dyke he would have to audition for the role. So he did. Then he told Van Dyke he would not be paid extra for the part. In fact, if he wanted to be Mr. Dawes, the actor would have to contribute $4,000 to Disney’s campaign to fund the California Institute of the Arts. Van Dyke took out his checkbook.

Out here in Malibu, in the modest, single-story home he bought from actress Margot Kidder in 1986, Van Dyke has a life-size, silicone Bert in “Jolly Holiday” colors next to the piano and a few keepsakes on display, including a photograph of President Barack Obama adjusting his bow tie during a 2011 event honoring South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Prominently on display is a portrait of Laurel by Van Dyke’s grandson Wes and a case containing Keaton’s pool cues, a gift from the silent film star.

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On the patio out back, Arlene Van Dyke, a makeup artist who married Van Dyke in 2012, has done her best to assemble sitting areas so that people can visit during the pandemic. Her husband needs that company. He finds it hard to be isolated.

In 2009, Van Dyke’s partner of 30 years, the actress Michelle Triola, died of lung cancer at 76. He’d met Arlene at a Screen Actors Guild event, where she was working.

“I was talking to Cate Blanchett,” he says. “And I saw her go by and I said, ‘Excuse me,’ and went right over. And then I said, ‘Hi, I’m Dick.’ That’s the only time in my life I ever introduced myself to a strange woman.”

He had watched his friends, Reiner and Mel Brooks, adapt after losing their wives. He doesn’t know how they did it.

“I can’t be alone,” he says. “I couldn’t be a bachelor if my life depended on it. I have to have a partner and I found the perfect one.”

“Put on a Happy Face” isn’t just Van Dyke’s signature anthem from “Bye Bye Birdie.” It’s also how he lives, whether onstage or leading an impromptu sing-along of “A Spoonful of Sugar” after getting his vaccine shot.

There is nothing fake about this public persona, though it comes with a caveat. Not everything is for public consumption and not every frustration or tension needs to be shared.

Which is why there are no stories of Van Dyke brooding in his trailer or storming off a sound stage. In 1974, when he went on host Dick Cavett’s talk show and revealed that he was an alcoholic, the general reaction was one of surprise. That’s because he drank by himself, never showed up bleary-eyed on set and always maintained his professionalism and, also, when it came to his personal life, his distance.

“I want to say it so well that I convey how much I really do adore him,” says Andrews. “You never got deeply beneath the surface as one sometimes does with people that you work with. In a way, that’s what I mean by being a little guarded. It was something that he had as an ethic, a kind of friendship ethic, a work ethic.”

To hear Van Dyke describe it, this approach, unruffled even when he’s struggling, is just part of his personality.

“I think you’re born with it,” he says. “I seldom get down or depressed. I don’t want to waste a minute when I could be enjoying life.”

Take Van Dyke’s short, unpleasant run as a co-star of “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1977. He had signed on after Harvey Korman left the cast and, from the start, something just wasn’t right. The writers still seemed to be coming up with material for Korman. Burnett sensed the unrest, yet she didn’t hear much complaining.

“He was putting on this thing like he was okay and it was all right,” says Burnett, explaining how his three months on the show came to an end. “Finally, he said, you know, ‘I’m just not happy. I’m not doing for you what I felt I should be doing.’ He was very sweet and I said, ‘don’t say another word.’ ”

In 1966, Carl Reiner wrapped up “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” He wanted to go out strong and he worried that, after more than 150 episodes, the show would grow stale. As much as Van Dyke wanted to continue, he had plenty of movie offers. But what he found quickly is that Bert and Rob Petrie were not easily forgotten. When he made family-friendly films — “Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.” or “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — audiences responded. When he tried to do something different — Lear’s “Divorce American Style” or Reiner’s underappreciated masterpiece, “The Comic” — he would be ignored or, even worse, called out by critics for playing a “new” Dick Van Dyke. There was also “The Morning After,” a 1974 made-for-television film in which he played an alcoholic. In one scene, Van Dyke crawled on the floor of his bathroom, unshaven and crying uncontrollably.

“The Morning After” had special significance. In the early 1970s, Van Dyke and his first wife, Margie, who had gotten married in 1948, were struggling. She didn’t want to live in Los Angeles and pressured Van Dyke to retire. They bought a horse ranch in Arizona and moved to the desert.

“And I think Dad went nuts,” says Chris Van Dyke, the oldest of his four children. “He could not work and he could not entertain and express himself through everything he does.”

Which led to more drinking and, eventually, the bottom. One morning in 1972, Van Dyke woke up hung over and depressed. He checked himself into a three-week treatment program at a hospital in Arizona. There would be relapses, but by the early 1980s, he had his last drink. He and Margie would also divorce. He went through the same battle with smoking. A doctor took an X-ray that showed Van Dyke on the path to emphysema, which had killed his father. He still chews nicotine gum, but it’s been 30 years since his last smoke.

“It was an incredibly dark time,” says Chris Van Dyke. “His way out of it was to stop drinking, to stop smoking, and he got back to work doing what he loved.”

It did take time to get his footing. A variety show, launched in 1976, lasted only a year. So did a sitcom, “The Van Dyke Show,” he did in 1988 with his son, Barry. Then, in 1991, he played Dr. Mark Sloan in a guest spot on the CBS series “Jake and the Fatman.” That led to “Diagnosis: Murder,” a series that lasted from 1993 until 2001.

“It was just the greatest run for me,” Van Dyke says. “I enjoyed every minute of that. I’ve seldom done anything that I didn’t like. And I found out if I don’t like what I’m doing, I’m no good.”

Which is why some of Van Dyke’s favorite performances have very little to do with ratings or awards.

He thinks about a sketch with Burnett on his short-lived variety show in 1976. He plays an elderly man who’s approached by her classic, purse-clutching, old lady character. He’s working on an origami duck made of folded newspaper, which he agrees to let her hold.

“Be mighty careful with it,” he tells her. “It’s my most treasured possession. I worked on it for 37 years.”

The script calls for her to absent-mindedly unfold and ruin his “most treasured possession” and cut to a commercial break. Instead, after the act, Van Dyke declares, “I wish you hadn’t have done that,” and delivers a left hand below the belt. Burnett punches back and they engage in an all-out, slow-motion brawl, rolling on the ground, smashing into scenery, two minutes of improvised physical brilliance that ends up on the air.

“It was not staged, it was not planned,” says Burnett. “It was one of those things. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done performance-wise.”

He is thinking of that now as the country begins to open up. Van Dyke feels great, but he also knows so many of his friends are gone: Mary, Carl, Tim Conway.

“It’s kind of odd being the age where you can die in your sleep,” he says, a rare, dark reference that quickly passes.

As he talks, Arlene and one of the couple’s assistants bring out mementos and items of significance: a photo with Van Dyke and Astaire posing outside “Birdie,” a drawing by Carrey and note (“without you, there might not have been a me”) showing the younger comic practicing a pratfall as he watched “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the Keaton pool cues. Van Dyke is mildly interested, but he gets excited when he’s asked about performing again. He would like to be up there as soon as he can.

It might not be easy to get the Vantastix, his singing group, rolling right away. His baritone moved to Oregon. But Van Dyke has been mulling another idea.

“I’ve got an hour and a half put together like a one-man show,” he says. “Gregory Peck went out and did it and Cary Grant did it. Just sit in a chair to have a little footage to show and talk about their lives.”

Van Dyke, still in his gray exercise sweatpants and purple shirt, pauses as he considers being in front of an audience again.

“I’ve got so much material.”

The Kennedy Center Honors will air at 8 p.m. June 6 on CBS.