It’s “Diagnosis Murder,” and it’s the best thing Dick Van Dyke ever did. My wife and I just finished binge-watching all of the episodes of the murder-mystery show that ran for long years on CBS––more than a decade, 1991-2002, when you factor in the related TV movies. America’s best-loved dad, still going strong at 96 and evidently the new Betty White, Dick Van Dyke is truly putting the “DVD” in our DVD-player in more ways than one.
He and wife Arlene Van Dyke (gorgeous and 45 years his junior!) made the news a few weeks ago when they released a video in which the two sang and danced to a Doris Day song, ably accompanied by Dick’s barbershop quartet, the Vantastics. Look for it on You-Tube. Dick and Arlene make a cute couple, proving age really is just a number.
“I kissed a lot of frogs before I met my prince,” Arlene said a few years ago.
“I’m very immature, and she’s very mature,” Dick quipped, “so we meet somewhere in the middle!”
For the recording, Dick used the same microphone once used by Frank Sinatra. It was all done, of course, at a Los Angeles studio. Pulling up to the speaker at the studio gate, the ever-sunny Dick, comfortably ensconced in the back of a limousine, was at his typically whimsical best.
“Tell ’em it’s Richard von Lesbian!” he joked.
Talking of which, one prominent Internet news source––let’s just say it’s run by the sort of Swiftian yahoos for whom old Jonathan would surely have a “modest proposal”––recently and repeatedly referred to the venerable comic actor as “Dick Van D***.” Yep, with three asterisks, as if his surname were somehow a pejorative. Looney liberalism run insanely amok. God help.
It’s a sad irony, as Dick himself is a lifelong Democrat. Back in those godawful 1960’s, he, his late friend, Robert Vaughn, and another pal (an actor whose name escapes me now) formed a group, “Democrats for Something or Other” (its exact name likewise escapes me). Dick loves Obama, hates Trump and is generally possessed of a blithely progressive bent. Again, how sad.
For anyone else, that would be a dealbreaker. But with Dick, you forgive a lot, y’know?
He’s just so darned nice, this humble guy from rural Illinois, and it’s genuine. The soul of professionalism, he also embodies real warmth and friendliness to all. Everybody loves him, and you can’t find anyone who’ll say anything bad about the man. In all of show business, there’s only one other actor who comes to my mind of whom everyone had nothing but good things to say; a man beloved by all who knew him, even his former servants: the late Edward Woodward, star of “The Equaliser” and so much more. And Ricardo Montalbán, star of “Fantasy Island” and countless films, was also much liked and respected by everyone around him. His career was grounded in and guided by his profound Catholicism.
Similarly, Dick walks the walk. Fifty years ago, at the height of his fame, this multiple award-winning star took time out from his busy film and television career to teach Sunday School at his Presbyterian church. He did so for long years. But he isn’t showy about such things, and (unlike the Kirk Camerons of the world and other such fatuous, pharisaical types) he doesn’t wear his Christianity ostentatiously on his sleeve. Dick does what Christ Himself did––letting that inner goodness shine through and allowing folks to draw their own conclusions. Walk humbly, and serve others. Say nothing; don’t draw attention to it; and let them figure it out.
“I’ve always gone out of my way to try to make other people happy,” he once observed.
And from sleight-of-hand magic tricks (he’s quite the magician) to clean jokes to that dazzling smile, simply making everyone around him feel important, Dick does just that. He is a sure cure for the blues. Depressed? Take two Dick Van Dykes, and call me in the morning. It’s impossible to feel bad when watching this man.
In “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” 60 years ago, he and the late Mary Tyler Moore created magic. Dick played a character based upon producer Carl Reiner, and the show was ahead of its time. Ten years later, he recaptured some of that same magic in “The New Dick Van Dyke Show,” which was produced by Bernie Orenstein.
“No one else on any show ever worked as hard as he did,” Orenstein recently recalled, extolling Dick’s work habits, which extended to coming in alone on weekends for blocking work and more, thus meaning seven-day workweeks for him. “He could feel what worked and what didn’t. And when we got to the camera rehearsal, he knew what he was going to do. I admired him greatly. I spent many of those weekends with him, going through every movement of the script. A genius at work. Hell, it was an honour to work with him.”
In between those eponymous TV shows, there were movies. Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and other feel-good films come easily to mind. And though best known for and surely best at playing a version of his likeable self (as in “Diagnosis Murder”), Dick played ambivalent, maybe even semi-villainous parts in The Comic, Cold Turkey and other movies. But those films were too blackly sardonic. Despite their commendable casts, the writers and directors had clearly no clue what to do, and I think those movies are now deservedly forgotten. You can’t hit it out of the park every time.
Dick is in fact very good at playing a villain. He had a memorable turn as a fed-up photographer who kills his wife (Ida Lupino) in a very good 1974 episode of “Columbo.” And in 1976, it was he, not Gregory Peck, who was the first choice to play (against type) Robert Thorn in The Omen––a noteworthy horror film that remains chilling, if theologically problematic. Dick noted years ago that playing Thorn, a beleaguered ambassador who unwittingly becomes the adoptive father of the Antichrist, would’ve changed everything for him.
“That’s the one part I regret turning down,” he observed.
And in the 1980’s, he played a murderous judge on an episode of “Matlock,” starring his good friend, Andy Griffith. There’s another good one.
A man of seemingly boundless energy, Dick persevered into his 80’s, with such projects as “Murder 101” (2006-08). In this TV movie series, he played a criminology professor with a knack for getting involved in murder cases. He was joined respectively by his real-life son and grandson, Barry and Shane Van Dyke.
But for my money, Dick is indelibly and for ever the star of “Diagnosis Murder,” the genial genius, Dr Mark Sloan, chief of internal medicine at Community General Hospital in downtown Los Angeles. Sloan is a consultant to the LAPD, where Barry (as his son, Steve Sloan) is a lieutenant, a veteran of both Vietnam and the homicide division.
Like the Barrymores before them, the Van Dykes are truly an acting dynasty. In addition to the real-life father-and-son team of Dick and Barry, all of Barry’s kids––sons Carey, Shane and Wes and daughter Taryn––show up in many of the later episodes. You may chuckle, when you notice the obvious family resemblance, at seeing Barry opposite characters, played by Shane and Carey, who aren’t related. But brothers John and Lionel Barrymore pulled off the same trick in many movies more than 80 years ago, so why not? And Dick’s daughter, Stacy (a fine contralto, her “Have Yourself a Merry, Little Christmas” is worthy of Karen Carpenter), stars in two episodes, and his late brother, Jerry Van Dyke, is in another.
Fooling the network suits
When novelist and television producer Joyce Burditt created “Diagnosis Murder” as a spin-off of “Jake and the Fat Man,” and the former was pitched to CBS, the network was sceptical of having Dick Van Dyke as the lead. Then already 65, he was considered old and washed-up.
“Isn’t he a has-been?” the corporate suits asked.
But he proved ’em all wrong. And if you don’t think this old man could solve a mystery, you don’t know Dick. Though 75 by the show’s end, this roller-skating, electric scooter-riding, singing, dancing, juggling physician of fun and forensics still maintained a joie de vie so great that he truly was a Dr Feelgood in the best possible sense. He was then the oldest star of a major television show––a record only recently surpassed by Tom Selleck, still doing “Bluebloods” at 77.
Check out Diagnosis Murder: The House on Sycamore Street, a television movie from 30 years ago. This one is a lot of fun, and the highlight is seeing Dick perched precariously and racing on roller-skates, pursuing a criminal in a high-speed chase through downtown Los Angeles. A real hoot!
And Dick is a big hit across the Pond. Sure, he took a ribbing for his self-admitted botch-up of a Cockney dialect in Mary Poppins.
“But what does it matter? It worked!” as his good friend and fellow reformed alcoholic, Sir Anthony Hopkins, put it some years ago.
Dick and Hopkins both quit drinking not 50 years ago. Both are advisers to the same LA-based chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, so good for them.
British fans love Dick. One of them is English critic Natalie Haynes of The Guardian.
“…‘Diagnosis Murder’ is, without any trace of competition, my favourite detective show of all time, bar none, ever,” Haynes recently wrote. “I like it so much that the theme music by the ever-excellent Dick DeBenedictis is the ringtone on my ’phone. Even bad news sounds good when prefaced by that cheery clarinet! I like the show so much that I am replacing my glass of water on a ‘Diagnosis Murder’ coaster in between typing sentences. Yes, I have four. And they were a Valentine’s gift. Envy me. I like it so much that I have a signed photo over my desk of Dick Van Dyke in his ‘Diagnosis Murder’ doctor’s coat, holding a skull quizzically. It says, ‘Hi, Natalie! God bless, Dick Van Dyke.’ And if there were a fire I can honestly say I would get it before I made sure all the living people were out of the building.
“DVD is not just a global treasure, he’s a multi-skilled one,” she continues. “In early episodes, Mark Sloan is frequently seen roller-skating, even though DVD is slightly older than the Queen, and everyone says how great she is for her age when she never roller-skates. Or if she does, it’s certainly not on film. In one episode, he interrogates a suspect while tap-dancing. And don’t even start me on his occasional singing with a barbershop quartet, or I will cry with joy!”
And yet for all that, Dick remains humble, eating at Denny’s (look for him singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” at said restaurant, on You-Tube) and still maintaining a sincere aw-shucks outlook, as free of what the late Mike Nesmith called “celebrity psychosis” as it’s possible to be.
“I can’t act; I can’t sing; and I can’t dance,” Dick observed recently. “But I just do what I do, and somehow it seems to work.”
He still gets up every day, looking forward to its activities and maintaining that sunny outlook. Seemingly made of rubber, each day he still hits the gym, goes swimming, and he sings. He still takes the stairs (“Don’t favour one leg. You’ll throw your hip out!”) and lifts his legs impossibly high while following Arlene and her sexy dance moves. He hopes to run the 100-yard dash in the Senior Olympics when he turns 100.
And above all, perhaps, Dick remains philosophical.
“Just knowing you don’t have the answers is a recipe for humility, openness, acceptance, forgiveness and an eagerness to learn,” he said, “and those are all good things.”