December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

You don’t want to rile Dick Van Dyke. All afternoon on the set of CBS’s Diagnosis Murder, the normally easygoing actor (who stars as crime-solving physician Dr. Mark Sloan) has been bantering with the cast and crew and, between takes, doing an old soft-shoe routine from his early stage days. But now, back in his dressing room trailer, sitting near a portrait of his idols Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Van Dyke is doing a slow burn worthy of Ollie. “It’s all demographics and numbers,” he fumes. “The network is so on us to cater to the young audience, the show is being warped out of shape, and I’m worried.” He’s referring to recent attempts to inject more sex and violence into the scripts. “They’re trying to ape what they think the kids want,” he says. “And I’m so sick of pandering to attention deficit disorders.”

What’s remarkable is that Van Dyke, who turns 73 on Dec. 13, has a show of his own to grouse about. After all, as he half-jokingly observes, “I’m the oldest man on television—with the exception of Bob Barker.” And yet, while other actors of his generation—Andy Griffith, Mike Connors, Robert Culp—are either out to pasture or, at best, doing guest shots on Diagnosis, Van Dyke can still draw a crowd. Now in its sixth season, the series consistently ranks among TV’s Top 30. In fact, says CBS Television president Les Moonves, “You can’t kill it with a stick.” Clearly, old man Van Dyke hasn’t lost his touch.

And so, when he frets about the show morphing into a clone of, say, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer or Dawson’s Creek, network executives tend to listen. “I totally understand Dick’s point of view,” says Moonves, “and he certainly is the conscience of the show. We have never tried to do anything he didn’t want to do.”

Part of Van Dyke’s clout stems from the fact that, as his young Diagnosis costar Charlie Schlatter points out, “He knows he can work whenever he wants. He doesn’t need the money.” The syndication payments he has collected over the years as co-owner of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the classic ’60s sitcom that made him a television icon and that still airs on Nick at Nite, add up to “a nice pension,” he says. He and longtime companion Michelle Triola Marvin, 66 (best known for her landmark ’70s palimony suit against actor Lee Marvin), live comfortably in a hacienda-style Malibu home, where they often entertain old showbiz friends such as director Carl Reiner, M*A*S*H producer Larry Gelbart and comedians Tim Conway and Dick Martin. “Michelle is a lot more social than I,” says Van Dyke, “which is good for me, I suppose.”

Indeed, offsetting his amiable public persona and the swell-guy characters he has played, part of Van Dyke remains intensely and intentionally private, even to close friends and relatives. “Dick has always been kind of a private guy,” says younger brother Jerry Van Dyke, 67. “He has a wonderful personality and he’s great to talk to, but it’s hard to really get close to him. Dick’s a loner.” Says Mary Tyler Moore, who played his TV wife for five years: “I didn’t know Dick any better at the end of the series than I did at the beginning.”

As a boy growing up in Danville, Ill., Van Dyke was always shy, despite his gregarious parents. Loren “Cookie” Van Dyke was a traveling salesman for the Sunshine Biscuit Company, “but he should have been in show business,” says his son. “He was just a natural comedian.” Both Dick and his kid brother Jerry (later a star of TV’s Coach) credit their father and their mother, Hazel, a good-humored housewife, with inspiring their own comic sensibilities.

At Danville High School, quiet Dick blossomed into a handsome six-footer—and the class clown. (Humor “was a way of connecting to people,” he says.) In 1944, just shy of graduation, Van Dyke enlisted in the Army Air Corps. But, thanks to his song-and-dance talents, the only action he ever saw was in Army stage shows in the Southwest. Three years later, he and a hometown friend, Phil Erickson, were playing small clubs in L.A. as a pantomime act called the Merry Mutes. “He was a born dancer and singer,” recalls Erickson, now 77, “and never had a lesson.”

But for all his talent, Van Dyke could eke out only a modest income from clubs. In 1948 he and his high school sweetheart, Marjorie Willett, tied the knot on Bride and Groom, an L.A.-based radio show, and won a free skiing honeymoon. “It was the only way I could afford to get married,” says Van Dyke.

Over the next seven years, as the couple welcomed Chris, Barry and Stacey (the first three of their four children), Van Dyke scrambled to forge a new career in the then-fledgling medium of television. In 1955 he landed a seven-year deal with CBS in New York City at $10,000 a year. “It was like I’d won the lottery,” he says.

His euphoria was short-lived. His first network gig, as the host of CBS’s struggling The Morning Show (featuring a young newsman named Walter Cronkite), did little for the show’s ratings—or Van Dyke’s ego. A year later he was reduced to introducing Heckle and Jeckle cartoons. He and CBS parted company in 1958. At that point, he says, “I was willing to try anything but opera.” In 1960 he auditioned for the light romantic lead in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. Van Dyke was hired on the spot. “It changed my life,” he says.

Among those catching Van Dyke’s Tony-winning turn was producer Carl Reiner (a former writer and performer with Sid Caesar), who was then seeking someone to play himself in a TV pilot about a comedy writer. “Dick was perfect for the part,” says Reiner, who sent him some scripts to read. Van Dyke was hooked. After bidding bye-bye to Birdie in 1961, he moved his family to L.A. to begin shooting The Dick Van Dyke Show. “It was called that for lack of a better name,” says Van Dyke, munching a piece of the Nicorette gum he has been chain-chewing since quitting his pack-and-a-half-a-day habit seven years ago. “And because no one had ever heard of me, it almost buried us that first year.” Or as comedian Rose Marie said when she joined the show, “What’s a Dick Van Dyke?”

The audience soon found out, embracing the show and the comic marital byplay between Van Dyke and his costar Mary Tyler Moore. Often it looked as if the ottoman-tripping actor really had fallen head over heels for his leading lady. “Oh, sure, I had a crush on Mary!” says Van Dyke. “Everybody did.” Says Moore: “I knew we must have been attracted to each other because we’d get these raging fits of giggling, which generally means there’s some sort of sexual tension. But it was never acted upon.”

In 1966, after five seasons and multiple Emmys (three of them for Van Dyke), Reiner, wary of the show’s getting stale, decided to end it. Although Van Dyke scored in 1964 with his movie role as Bert, the cheerful chimney sweep in Disney’s Mary Poppins, and again in 1968 with another children’s classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he saw his film career sinking. “I did a bunch that stunk,” he says. As a movie actor, “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. It’s a technique I’ve never understood.”

He kept busy on TV, however, with a string of specials and series, starting with The New Dick Van Dyke Show in 1971. There were some flops, most notably his 1977 gig as Harvey Korman’s successor on The Carol Burnett Show. Van Dyke lasted about 12 weeks. “They had kept the old [sketch] format, and I didn’t fit in that well,” he says.

Things were also going awry in his personal life. By the early ’70s, Van Dyke, who years earlier had begun downing martinis after work, realized he was an alcoholic. He was then up to five drinks a night, “and for me that was way, way too much,” he says. Though he was never drunk in public or on the set, he says, “I couldn’t stop [drinking]…. I think shy people like myself very often find alcohol helps you forget your self-consciousness. Unfortunately, it’s a miracle drug in that respect.” Says Jerry Van Dyke: “Some of the best talks we ever had were when we were drinking. He opened up.” In those pre-Betty Ford days, Van Dyke checked into a hospital psychiatric ward for two weeks. “It did me no good whatsoever.” Finally, in desperation, he turned to prayer. “I don’t proselytize,” says Van Dyke, who has been sober since 1978. “But I prayed: ‘Get this away from me.’ And [the drinking] just kind of fizzled away.”

Unfortunately, in 1978 so did his marriage to Marjorie. “It just ran out of gas somehow,” he says. “To this day I don’t have a clue why.” Soon afterward he took up with Michelle Triola Marvin, then a secretary for his William Morris agent. “It started out as a friendship,” he says. “We were just able to talk and relax. It sort of slowly became [a relationship] without my realizing it.” In the mid-’80s, the two moved in together.

In 1987, the Van Dyke family mourned the death of son Chris’s 13-year-old daughter Jessica from Reye’s syndrome. “She took aspirin, and her brain began to swell,” says Van Dyke. “She went blind almost instantly and died in 24 hours. My God, it was so fast. Chris was destroyed.” Van Dyke remains close to his children—especially Barry, 47, who plays his police detective son Steve on Diagnosis Murder. “The opportunity to work with Barry was one of my main reasons for doing it,” says Van Dyke. “Dad is a reluctant TV star,” says Barry. “He’s retired multiple times. [But] they keep dragging him into new projects.”

His father agrees: “I could have retired some time back. [But] I just couldn’t get away.” He grins. “At least I’m building up a nice estate for my grandchildren,” he says.

That’s not the only legacy Van Dyke’s thinking about these days. “When Lucille Ball died [in 1989],” he says, “the airwaves were full of sketches from her show all day long. Carl Reiner is sitting there watching all this on TV, and he says, ‘Wait’ll Dick dies. If they think [Lucy’s stuff] is good, wait’ll Dick goes, and then they’ll see something funny.’ ”

Michael A. Lipton

Champ Clark in Los Angeles

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