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Later this month, Van Dyke will receive a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).“Dick is the consummate entertainer,” says the the union's co-president Ken Howard, of why they decided to give him the award.Calling themselves The Merry Mutes, they mimed to records by Bing Crosby and Doris Day. Finding himself in Los Angeles, he persuaded the producers of a programme called Bride and Groom to let him marry his high school sweetheart, Margie Willet, on-air, thus saving himself the cost of the wedding and honeymoon. “We rented a little duplex here on the beach in Malibu for more than we could afford,” he tells me.“The lowest day of my life was when Margie miscarried [she was pregnant with twins] and we came back home and all our clothes and belongings were on the highway.” The couple had been evicted.They provide a clue to Van Dyke’s own brand of comedy. One day he looked Stan Laurel up in the local phone book and dialled his number; the two men became firm friends. “I asked Fred Astaire once when he was about my age if he still danced and he said ‘Yes, but it hurts now’. “I’m emotionally immature and she’s very wise for her age so we kind of meet in the middle.” Van Dyke sits at a polished wooden table in his home, drinking a cup of coffee, his wirehair terrier Rocky weaving between his legs, which are so long that he sits sideways at the table.
“My first wife, Margie, used to say she could see no difference between Rob [the husband he played on The Dick Van Dyke Show for five years] and me. You are exactly the same on screen as you are at home.’” His apparently effortless brand of deadpan humour – plus a talent for pratfalls – became his trademark, and made The Dick Van Dyke Show a sensation.He left me his bow tie and derby and told me that if they ever made a movie about him, he’d want me to play him.” Sadly this has not transpired. Around the room are several Emmy awards and a Grammy.As for the SAG award, presented annually to an actor who fosters “the finest ideals of the acting profession”, Van Dyke – referring to the all-encompassing nature of the award – says: “I’ve found a home here because actors have always said ‘He’s really a dancer’ and dancers said ‘No, no he’s a singer’ and singers said ‘No I think he’s an actor.’” I ask him what he sees himself as.But she only lasted a year.” After the miscarriage, Dick and Margie went on to have four children and remained married for 36 years.Despite Dick’s burgeoning career – by then he had done several major movies as well as The Dick Van Dyke Show – Margie persuaded him to move to Arizona.
First airing in 1961, it was grown up, sophisticated and ahead of its time in its treatment of marriage, equality and celebrity culture.