On Jan. 27, the Screen Actors Guild will give veteran entertainer Dick Van Dyke its Life Achievement Award, honoring his storied career and humanitarian work, simulcast live on TNT and TBS at 5 p.m. PST. And if that isn’t enough to celebrate, at 86 Van Dyke is a giddy newlywed, having married Arlene Silver, 40, in February. Sitting for an interview in the SAG Foundation Actors Center while Silver texts on the sidelines, he jokes, “When you marry a young girl, you marry her iPhone.”
Whether it’s his marriage or his career, to hear him tell it, Van Dyke has just been lucky to be in the right places at the right times.
Your earliest TV credit is pretty unusual: You were the anchor on the CBS morning show in 1955. How was that?
It was my first jobat CBS, I was 29, and Walter Cronkite was my newsman. When things go wrong on live television, you’re in trouble. I had a guy with a dog sled and dogs. He had it all set up and he said, “Now, during the interview, do not say ‘mush.’ ” So the first thing I did, I get on the sled, I said, “Mush!” and it took off. That sled took down the weather set, the cooking set — this was live television. I jumped right off, but the dogs kept going. You had to be light on your feet.
You starred in “Bye Bye Birdie” on Broadway in 1960, winning the Tony Award. Was that when you knew you had made it?
I knew I had the biggest break a man could possibly get when I got that part. Carl Reiner saw it and offered me the role of Rob Petrie. I took a week off from “Bye Bye Birdie” and did the pilot of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in Los Angeles, and it sold. So then I knew I’d made it because, my God, the comedy writing! Carl was a genius at that. From then on it was just a lot of fun.
Any moments on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” we should know about?
During one episode, in the office, I was supposed to take my hat off and throw it over my head and shoot for the hook. All week I did it and never got it. The night of the show, in front of the audience, I threw it and it went like a wire, right on that hook. And Morey Amsterdam said, “Son of a bitch. He’s been trying to do that all week!” and ruined the shot. Only time I ever heard Morey swear.
During hiatus, you shot one of the most beloved family films of all time, “Mary Poppins.” Even though it came out in 1964, does everybody still ask you about it?
Especially British people, who won’t let me forget my Cockney accent. It’s been 40 or 50 years, and they’re still kidding me about that. We knew that movie would be smashing in the very beginning. Walt Disney took us around, showed us all the storyboards, and we heard the Sherman brothers sing that score. Julie [Andrews] and I both knew we were in something magical.
No backstage mishaps?
I remember when we were doing “I Love to Laugh” and hanging by wires, they used to break for lunch and forget us. We’d say, “Guys, we’re up here!”
Then “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” hit in 1968.
It took over a year to shoot. It was Cubby Broccoli and the whole “James Bond” crew, so they knew their special effects. That car was a beautiful piece of work. The score was by the Sherman brothers again; the music was great. I had some misgivings in the beginning, I think because Walt Disney wasn’t involved. “You can’t do a children’s movie without Walt Disney!” But Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, who did the choreography for “Poppins,” also did it for “Chitty.” They really put me through the paces.
Fast-forwarding to the 1990s, you began another long-running series, “Diagnosis Murder,” costarring your son Barry.
“Diagnosis Murder” was mostly an adventure in nepotism. [Laughs.] My son played a regular part, my two grandsons were on, both my daughters, and at one time I think I had the whole family on. But it was that kind of a show. It always seemed to me that in murder mysteries, everybody is so icy-cool, sophisticated. We wanted this to be warm, and we kept it a loose ship. If anybody had a funny idea and we could work humor in, we did. I think that’s why it lasted so long.
A new generation knows you as the nefarious Cecil Fredericks from the 2006 hit “Night at the Museum.” What was that shoot like?
It was Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais and Ben Stiller — talk about a cast! All we did was laugh. I was the villain, the head night watchman who wants this ancient jewel that will let him live forever. I’ve been told they’re going to do another one, and I can go back and be the villain again. Playing the villain is fun sometimes. You can bring out your evil side. Although every time I play a murderer, somebody will write me — they don’t like to see me do it.
Then back to your good side. You have a 20-year association with the Midnight Mission, which serves homeless people downtown. How did that begin?
I’m a recovered alcoholic, you know. A lot of recovered alcoholics were aware of the Midnight Mission, where a lot of people got straightened out. So I went down at my friend Bob Palmer’s suggestion, to help serve. It was Thanksgiving or Christmas. I fell in love with the place and the work they do there, so I kept going back and slowly became the maitre d’. I meet people and seat them and table hop, sit and talk to people, do a little singing and dancing. I recommend everybody go down there at Christmastime. It’ll change your life.
You’ve won so many awards in your career so far. Does this SAG honor hold any special significance for you?
This is the cherry on top. I always said that I felt like an orphan in this business because actors would think of me as a singer, singers would think of me as a dancer and dancers would think of me as an actor. Now I feel like I’ve been accepted, and I can refer to these people as my peers.
There’s one other reason the SAG Awards are special. Harking back to 2007 ...
I was a presenter to Julie Andrews for her Life Achievement Award. I was in the green room talking to this beautiful actress, I can’t remember her name, and my wife-to-be walked by, this beautiful young lady, and I just said, “Excuse me.” And for the first time in my life, I actually hit on a girl. I sat down and introduced myself, and it was kind of love at first sight. She was not too impressed with me. She said, “Were you in ‘Mary Poppins’ or something?” I realized I had quite a row to hoe. But I was very patient, and we got married last February, and I’m as happy as I can be.