My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir, by Dick Van Dyke. New York: Crown Archetype, 2011. 304 pp. $25 (hardcover).


As a kid, I did not know much about Dick Van Dyke. But I certainly knew Bert, the chimney sweep who danced on the rooftops of London, rode through the countryside on a carousel horse with Mary Poppins, and laughed and laughed until he was so light he could do somersaults in the air or have tea on the ceiling. That guy was awesome.

So when I heard about My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir, I smiled at what the title suggested: that the actor who gave me and countless others so much joy growing up has had a long life he looks back on with joy.

In this new memoir, Van Dyke takes readers through his childhood, his service in World War II, his attempts to make a living doing what he loves, his memories making The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Poppins, and the many other things he has done since, including becoming a grandfather. As it turns out, Van Dyke weaves it all together nicely because from the start he loved to do one thing above all else: to entertain his friends, especially by making them laugh. Toward that end, Van Dyke says he “cultivated an arsenal of tricks [as a kid], whether it was a funny face, a pratfall, a joke, or all of the above” (p. 16).

Just before Van Dyke turned seventeen, he landed a job as a part-time announcer for the local CBS radio outlet. Although his friends were making eleven bucks per week working at the market when the radio station was offering only eight, the pay disparity did not bother Van Dyke in the least. As he puts it:

It was a dream job. In this little station, I did everything: I played records, read the news, gave the weather report, wrote my own commercials, and even sold my own advertising. If a breaking story came in from New York, I patched it in myself.

Even if nothing big happened, each night was a thrilling adventure, an experience that made life seem large and important. I felt like I was at the center of the world, and in a town as small as Danville [Illinois], I was. (pp. 19–20)

It would not be the last job Van Dyke would consider himself fortunate for getting.

In fact, throughout the memoir, Van Dyke views even his worst experiences as fortunate in a way. Although he notes how painful they were—and getting evicted on the same day that your wife has a miscarriage most definitely qualifies—for the most part Van Dyke writes about each as being beneficial for having taught him something important. Notably, he does not let such experiences or the inner pain he felt when they happened steal much of the focus from the good experiences, such as filming The Dick Van Dyke Show and working with Mary Tyler Moore.

Regarding the sitcom, Van Dyke shares some of the behind-the-scenes fun and credits nearly everyone for its accomplishments. But he says especially kind things about the show’s writer, Carl Reiner, who “envisioned a show that would be timeless” and therefore “never contained references to the time period” but instead “emphasized work, family, friendships, and human nature” (p. 87).

After reading the script for and shooting the pilot show, Van Dyke was sure that the series was going to be good. In a particularly memorable passage, Van Dyke tells readers how he felt when Reiner called him to share the news that CBS had agreed to run the show for a season.

I hung up with Carl and danced around the living room with Margie, who was pregnant with our fourth child. I don’t remember exactly where I was later, whether I was standing outside our house before getting into the car to drive into the city or had paused next to the artists’ entrance at the theater, staring up at the New York skyline, but I do remember feeling blessed, like something greater than me was happening, and yet, it was happening to me. (p. 81)

Because he did not plan for either the show, with its great writing and cast, or the amazing response it received, Van Dyke counts himself lucky for having been involved. Indeed, it is one of the major events that led him to title his memoir My Lucky Life. Another major event in Van Dyke’s life was also unplanned in a sense, but stemmed from Van Dyke’s decision “to [only] make movies that my children can see” (p. 110). This worried his agent considerably, at least at first. But, says Van Dyke,

I didn’t share his worries. I had a longterm vision in mind. . . . I knew that having a well-defined standard would ultimately help my representatives find the right material, and if they did their jobs right, and I did mine, ultimately the material would define me in a way that would make me comfortable for the rest of my career. (p. 111)

This decision earned him the admiration of Walt Disney, who recognized that Van Dyke was perfect for Mary Poppins, a movie Disney had been planning to make for nearly twenty-five years.

On that project, Van Dyke relays how Disney invited him to his office in Burbank, showed storyboards for the movie in room after room, and then took him to meet Richard and Robert Sherman so they could play him some songs. From there, Van Dyke says they dived into “Su percalifragilisticexpialidocious” and then “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and others, including “A Spoonful of Sugar.” At the end, they played Disney’s favorite—“Feed the Birds”—and after that Van Dyke clapped.

I wanted to say something along the lines of “That was spectacular,” but the music had left me speechless. Imagine hearing those songs, now such an established part of the movie musical lexicon, for the first time. It was a stunning experience. . . . Those songs didn’t just get my under my skin, they became part of me then and there, and thinking about it now, they’ve never left. (p. 114)

My Lucky Life is full of such wonderful moments, including memorable ones from movies you may have forgotten about or, if you’re from a later generation, never even heard of.

Along the way, most often in between TV shows, Van Dyke shares the struggles as well as the joys of his life off-screen. Although his bouts with alcoholism may alter how you view him, more likely than not you will end up liking Van Dyke even more after reading about his addiction and the way he dealt with it.

Simply based on the highlights I’ve shared above, you may already conclude that the title of Van Dyke’s memoir—My Lucky Life—is misleading. And I would agree. Van Dyke worked hard and thought carefully about his career path, taking a bold and principled stand he stuck by over the decades. As such, and as Mary Tyler Moore puts it on the back cover, “luck has little to do with Dick’s life.” Van Dyke clearly earned his success and happiness.

This memoir will certainly please Van Dyke’s well-earned fans, but even those who have not yet heard of him may enjoy it. In recounting the details of his amazing life, Van Dyke not only inspires; he shows that—after all these years and without resorting to profanity, crassness, or putdowns—he is still able to make people laugh.

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