Van Dyke brothers Dick and Jerry let the ‘Sunshine’ in with Neil Simon comedy
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
THE SUNSHINE BOYS
Eisemann Center for Performing Arts,
2351 Performance Drive,
Richardson. Sept 8–9.
Casa Manana Theatre, 3101 W. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth. Sept. 10. Ticketmaster.com.
All showtimes 8 p.m.
It is 8:31 a.m. Pacific time when Dick Van Dyke calls for our interview, and he apologizes for being one minute late. “I had been to the grocery store and was unloading when I looked at my watch and said, ‘Oh, I have a call to make!’” he says.
The thought of Dick Van Dyke doing his own food shopping is peculiar enough, but so early? But at age 85?
“My wife makes me,” he explains.
No, his wife is not Mary Tyler Moore, though in the 1960s, it would have been difficult to convince most of America they weren’t a real-life couple. Even though they slept in separate beds on The Dick Van Dyke Show, they had real chemistry — the first sitcom marrieds who seemed to actually have sex.
“Although Bob Newhart was the first guy who actually got to share a bed with his wife,” Van Dyke points out.
There’s something about Dick Van Dyke that makes you want to chat about the old times, as if you shared them together. In some ways, you did: He started on Broadway, nabbing a leading role in the hit musical Bye Bye Birdie opposite Chita Rivera. But the performer famous as a “song-and-dance man” could barely keep a beat when he landed the role.
“I love being called that because I didn’t start out as a singer or a dancer,” Van Dyke says. “My dancing style was eccentric, really — [director/choreographer] Gower Champion just took what I could do and worked around it. When we were out of town, the [songwriters] wrote ‘Put on a Happy Face’ overnight for Chita. Gower said, ‘The skinny kid doesn’t have anything to do in Act 1 — give it to him.’ That changed my life and I won a Tony.”
Soon after, he launched The Dick Van Dyke Show, a critical and popular success than ran five seasons and brought him an Emmy. Movies followed, especially the family-friendly musicals Mary Poppins and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, as well as the film version of Birdie.
“They really did Hollywoodize it,” he sighs. “The Broadway show was a two-hour romp; the movie was used as a vehicle for Ann-Margret. They lost a lot of the musical numbers and lost the energy — and Chita! Chita Rivera was the star of the play — probably the most electric performer who ever walked on stage. Janet Leigh was fine, but Chita was irreplaceable.”
He has similar kudos for queer icon Paul Lynde, who actually was irreplaceable — along with Van Dyke, he was the only original cast member to reprise his role in the film.
“Nobody was like him,” Van Dyke says admiringly.
Van Dyke brings it all full-circle this week, returning to the stage — and to Dallas — to star in a limited-run production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, opposite his brother Jerry and Dallas’ own Denise Lee.
It’s been a while since Van Dyke was in Dallas last, but he remembers it well: “We played at the Adolphus Hotel in the late 1940s when I was doing my nightclub act,” which consisted mostly of lip-synching to albums. (“It was very popular at the time,” he says.) But while he doesn’t miss the grind of eight shows a week, he still likes live performing the best.
“Stage [performing] is probably the most fun — you’ve gotta have an audience. On the TV show we had an audience, so it was like doing a little play every week. They do their half of the work,” he says.
The Sunshine Boys also offers brothers Dick and Jerry a rare professional union.
“We did four episodes of the Van Dyke show, and he did a guest spot on Diagnosis: Murder, but that’s it,” he says.
To make the show work required some rewriting, though.
“It’s really about two old Yiddish comedians,” he says. “We took a whole Yiddish comedy sketch and took that out and put in our own stuff. Neil Simon approved of the whole thing, which was great because people who have worked for Neil say every ‘I’ has to be dotted perfectly — he writes a comedy with a certain rhythm.”
One of the change-ups involves a gag with Dick and an ottoman, echoing the opening-credits gimmick of his sitcom.
“I put it in early when we did it in rehearsal one day,” he says. “We had two, actually: One where I trip, and one where I step around it. We found out years later people were gambling on which one it would be each week.”
Van Dyke seems comfortable about his iconic status, joyfully answering questions about his favorite shows (The Music Man — “I did that show for a year and never ever got tired of it”) and favorite songs (“I love ‘I Have You Two,” a song I sing with the children in Chitty — I love that song. And ‘Hushabye Mountain’”), as well as his missteps.
“The Runner Stumbles was probably my biggest failure as an actor,” he readily admits. “They talked me into doing it and knew I was in over my head. But I did a movie for television called The Morning After about a middle-aged, middle-class alcoholic; I think it was the best thing I ever did dramatically. They show it in treatment centers I hear still — it does not end happily.”
Thankfully, for him and the rest of us, Dick Van Dyke’s story does seem destined for a happy ending.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 2, 2011.