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Dick Van Dyke's memoir reveals what it was really like to work with Walt

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Dick Van Dyke's memoir reveals what it was really like to work with Walt

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So how exactly did Dick Van Dyke wind up playing Bert in "Mary Poppins" ? According to his just-released memoir, "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business" (Crown Archetype, May 2011), Dick landed his role in that Disney classic because an earlier film of his - 1964's "What a Way to Go!" - hadn't gone quite according to plan.

As Van Dyke explained, that Shirley MacLaine movie's script ...

... had been a pleasure to read, but the final version (of "What a Way to Go") included some colorful ad-libbing that made it significantly different, more adult in tone, and had I known that initially I would have turned it down.

Copyright 1964 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved

I met my agent, Sol Leon, for lunch at the (studio) commissary, and talked through my concerns. He asked the obvious questions. What kind of films did I want to make? Where did I see myself going in terms of movies? What sort of scripts should he look for?

"I've thought about this," I said, "and I'm pretty clear on it. I only want to make movies that my kids can see."

"Only kids' movies?," he asked.

(L to R) Dick Van Dyke, his son Barry and his grandson Shane on the set of "Murder 101"

"Not kids' movies," I clarified. "I want to make movies that I can see with my kids and not feel uncomfortable."

So where does Disney enter this equation? Well, as Dick recalls, Walt ...

... read an interview in which I stated my intention to stick to family movies. He liked that. He thought it made me perfect for his type of Disney movies - and specifically for the one he was about to start working on, Mary Poppins.

Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

So how did Walt woo Dick to come play Bert the chimney sweep? As Van Dyke recounts in this frank but fun show business memoir, there wasn't any wooing at all.

There have only been two times in my career where I have known that I had a chance to be involved in something special. The first was The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the second was when I read the script for Poppins. I will never forget putting it down, turning to (my then-wife) Margie, and telling her that (Mary Poppins' script) was sensational.

Though "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business" covers the length and breadth of Dick Van Dyke's fabulous career, its highs (i.e. his multiple Emmy wins for playing Rob Petrie) as well as its lowest (i.e. Van Dyke's struggles with alcoholism), the reason that Disneyana fans will immediately want to run out and buy a copy of this 304-page hardcover is Dick's up-close-and-personal take on Walt.

Walt Disney with the composers of "Mary Poppins" score, Robert B. Sherman (L) and
Richard M. Sherman (center). Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

He impressed me as a nice man, really an old shoe. I later heard that he was a tough taskmaster, but I only saw his easygoing side, the side that led others to refer to him as Uncle Walt.

Mind you, not all of Van Dyke's memories of "Mary Poppins" are fond. The dance rehearsals for that film's "Step in Time" number sound particularly brutal.

We practiced on Disney's back lot for six weeks if not longer during a heat wave that would have made Moyave feel cool.

Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

 "I Love to Laugh" sounds like a difficult number to have worked on as well. But not for the reasons that you might think. Dick found this number in "Mary Poppins" strenuous to do because ...

... my diaphragm ached from laughing all day. I (actually) wondered if it might be possible to hurt your diaphragm from too much laughing. I guessed so. There was also a lot of hanging around in the air on high wires as lights were adjusted, cameras changed, and retakes done while we were supposed to be floating high above the floor.

Poor Ed (Wynn), who was in (his) eighties and not well, was absolutely wonderful and worth the price of admission just to see him going through various acrobatics ...

Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

A couple of times we broke for lunch and the crew started to leave, forgetting Julie, the kids, Ed and I were all strapped into wires and hanging thirty feet above the ground. I yelled, "Guys, don't forget about us."

There's a lot of these sorts of stories in "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business." Which talk about how - through hard work and a lot of lucky breaks - a kid from Danville, Illinois got the chances to go to Hollywood and make some truly memorable movies & TV shows. Not to mention meeting many of his screen idols like Cary Grant, Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton.

But you want to know the best part of Dick Van Dyke's memoir? Its lack of pretense. Take - for example - the section that talks about the big budget musical that he made after shooting Disney's "Never a Dull Moment."

Copyright 1968 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

From there, I went straight into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a movie I repeatedly turned down. Based on Ian Fleming's only children's novel, it's the story of an eccentric inventor whose magical automobile is coveted by foreigners with nefarious intentions. The film's producer, Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, known for his tight-fisted control of the James Bond movie franchise, desperately wanted to re-team Julie Andrews and me.

I can't speak for Julie's reasons, but both of us turned him down. I thought the script had too many holes and unanswered questions. However, each time I said no, Cubby came back with more money. I'm talking serious money - more than seven figures, which in those days was mind-boggling, plus a percentage of the back end, which I never counted on.

I still wanted to say no, but my manager reminded me that not too many years earlier I was scrambling to win two hundred dollars on Pantomime Quiz. Although I was in a different position now, I understood - and just in case I didn't, he left me know that if I turned down this much money I was basically declaring myself officially crazy.

Copyright 1968 United Artists. All rights reserved

After one more round, I finally agreed (to do Chitty).

And you're a Disneyana fan and/or an entertainment history buff ... Well, you'd have to be officially crazy to pass up the chance to read Dick Van Dyke's memoir, "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business." So don't press your luck. Go out and buy a copy today.

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  • Just wanted to post a comment concerning Dick Van Dyke.  HE LOOKS GREAT!!!  I saw the interview with AL this morning.  I have watched him since I was a little girl. I'm 41.  I'm looking forward to reading his book.

  • I watched up with Al and it was great to see dick van dyke I am a big fan and he looks great .I watched the dick van dyke show when I was a kid and marry poppins is a favorite of mine .I love the show diagnosis murder is another favorite of mine .He is a great actor and I hope we see more of him. Thanks susan

  • I only knew him from Scrubs.

  • My husband and I re-discovered Dick Van Dyke (we were little in the 60s) when his show came out on DVD and we were looking for some short and fun dining entertainment. After going through the whole series, twice, we think he is pretty special as an entertainer and a regular guy-- he's enduring and endearing and, even being big fans of Cary Grant, DVD has no real peer. Hope he hangs in there, keeps up his health and his love of life, and i hope i still have a chance to meet him someday!

  • Dick Van Dyke is a wonderful entainer and human being.  His book My Life In and Out of Show Business is a can't put it down book.   I wonderful read.

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