With his starring role as Rob Petrie on the comedy series “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” whose theme song any baby boomer can hum, and eight seasons as crime-solving physician Dr. Mark Sloan on the mystery series “Diagnosis Murder,” Emmy Award® winner Dick Van Dyke is a beloved television icon. Oddly enough, before landing his career-defining role on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” it looked as if his network TV career had fizzled out without going anywhere. It took a breakthrough Tony Award®-winning role on Broadway in the long-running hit musical Bye Bye Birdie, to make television producers recognize his unique talent.
Born in Missouri and raised in Danville, Illinois, the actor began his broadcast career in radio while serving in the Air Force. Back in civilian life in Danville, after a brief stint in advertising, he formed a pantomime act, “The Merry Mutes,” with another local talent, which landed them a daytime TV spot in Atlanta. In 1955 his Air Force mentor, Byron Paul, now a television director, brought him to New York, where CBS put him under contract. The network started him out as host of their morning show, where he worked with Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite and Merv Griffin, then tried him out in a variety of genres including a children’s cartoon show, a talk show, a game show, and a series pilot. He also was a guest star on popular series of the day like “The Phil Silvers Show.” But nothing seemed to fit his distinctive performing style. Finally he was released from his contract in 1958, four years early, to pursue other opportunities.
Director/choreographer Gower Champion saw the struggling actor in a short-lived stage revue, The Boys Against the Girls and signed him to star opposite Chita Rivera in Bye-Bye Birdie, where he performed the show stopper “Put on a Happy Face” and won a Tony Award® in 1960. When producer/writers Sheldon Leonard and Carl Reiner caught the show, they knew they had found the star for a series they were developing about the life of a television comedy writer. “The Dick Van Dyke Show” premiered in 1961, ran five seasons and won Van Dyke three Emmy® Awards.
The series was still a ratings winner when it left the air, but in the meantime Van Dyke’s movie career was booming. While on hiatus, he had reprised his Broadway role in the motion picture version of “Bye Bye Birdie” and starred opposite Julie Andrews in the classic “Mary Poppins.” He went on to star on the big screen in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN,” “Divorce American Style,” “The Comic,” “Some Kind of Nut,” “Cold Turkey,” and “The Runner Stumbles,” among others.
He returned to series television in 1970 with “The New Dick Van Dyke Show,” which ran three seasons. He then demonstrated his dramatic acting abilities in an Emmy®-nominated performance as a PR executive whose life and career is destroyed by alcoholism in the 1974 television movie, “The Morning After.”
Following an eclectic career path, he starred in thirteen “Van Dyke and Company” variety specials (for which he picked up another Emmy®, this time as a producer), played a troubled priest in Stanley Kramer’s final feature film, “The Runner Stumbles,” and appeared on stage in a Broadway revival of “The Music Man” and a road tour of “Damn Yankees.” He starred in the 1982 special “Wrong Way Kid” and along with several other television movies, mini-series and specials, including “Drop Out Father,” “Found Money,” “Breakfast with Les and Bess,” “The Country Girl,” and “Strong Medicine.”
Van Dyke introduced television audiences to Dr. Mark Sloane in an episode of “Jake and the Fat Man” in 1991. He returned to star as the sleuthing physician in the series “Diagnosis Murder” in 1993, playing the role for eight seasons and in two television movie sequels. Like “The Van Dyke Show,” “Diagnosis Murder” continues to air in worldwide syndication.
Most recently, Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore teamed up again, first to play two lonely retirees in the 2003 PBS Hollywood Theater production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “The Gin Game” and then to reprise their roles as Rob and Laura Petrie in the 2004 special “The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited.”
In “Murder 101,” Van Dyke’s character, criminology professor Dr. Jonathan Maxwell, shares Van Dyke’s passion for high-tech toys and vocal harmony. The actor’s barber shop quartet, the Vantastix, made its debut in 2001 and has performed at numerous charitable events. Van Dyke’s personal charity is the Midnight Mission in Los Angeles, for which he helped raise millions for a new mission which opened in April 2005. He’s been serving meals to the homeless at the mission on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter for the past 15 years.
In addition to his Emmy® and Tonys ®, Van Dyke received the Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Comedy Awards and the Television Critics Association, the Disney Legend Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1995, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
Van Dyke has two sons, two daughters, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.