Dick Van Dyke
Forever Young at 90
By Allan Richter
With more than a half-century on film, television and stage, Dick Van Dyke has done his share of dramatic roles. The performer is best known, however, as a song-and-dance man—the smudge-faced chimney sweep jauntily kicking his legs up across London rooftops in “Mary Poppins” and the bumbling but affable inventor spinning “me ol’ bamboo” in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Decades later, the old hoofer is still dancing. A few months ago Van Dyke, at 89, and his wife Arlene square-danced and showcased some fancy footwork in a music video shot at their Malibu home with the bluegrass band Dustbowl Revival. The video, for the band’s “Never Had To Go,” went viral with more than 2.25 million views.
Dance, and all the positive thinking, optimism and joy inherent in it, is the secret to Van Dyke’s longevity and happiness, as the title to the actor’s new book, Keep Moving and Other Tips and Truths About Aging (Weinstein), suggests. Van Dyke, who has won five Emmy awards, a Tony and a Grammy, turned 90 last month. He celebrated at Disneyland with fanfare and a “Mary Poppins” medley.
Still, to the actor, age is just a number, not a state of mind. It is why he makes no New Year’s resolutions—“I make resolutions from time to time,” he says, “but I’ve never picked New Year’s as the time to do it”—and why it matters little that his wife is 46 years his junior; they fell in love.
He doesn’t only refuse to set limits upon himself just because the calendar suggests he should. Keep Moving is also a manifesto and call to action for others to change their view of older folks. He wants people with a few years under their belts to define life on their own terms, working a little harder to push past any ailments that may arise, when possible. And he wants to see Hollywood, for starters, engage older actors in roles beyond afflicted heart patients in commercials for cardiac care.
Van Dyke spoke about these issues and his outlook in an interview from his Malibu home a few weeks before his 90th birthday.
Energy Times: One of your strategies to keep young at heart is not to acknowledge aging. That sounds good in theory, but how do you do that when there are always reminders of getting older? Suddenly there’s a need for a stronger reading glasses prescription; a creak in the bones that wasn’t there before; a friend or loved one passes away. There’s got to be more to it than simply changing the channel when some heart medicine commercial comes on TV.
Dick Van Dyke: Or when the Neptune Society [a cremation services provider] sends me letters I just throw them away. [Walt] Disney said something to me once, that we were both children looking for our inner adults. There’s a lot to be said for that. There’s a biblical admonition about putting away childish things as you grow up, but I think they meant ego, vanity and that kind of thing. I don’t think they meant imagination, creativity, excitement, surprise, wonder, all those things. I keep seeing that saying: “Sing like no one can hear you; dance like no one can see you.” I sing and dance every day. I remind people that there are primitive tribes all over the world whose daily life includes singing and dancing.
ET: So this attitude really overpowers those reminders of age, what you call “shoulder taps.” Your first shoulder tap was in your seventies, when you were playing volleyball at the beach and you got winded, then you grew tired playing tennis. Despite all that, this positive attitude is stronger.
DVD: I think you have to find other interests that really put you in some kind of rapt condition. I love to do computer animation, 3D animation. It’s the kind of engrossing hobby where the hours pass and you don’t realize it, so I know I’ve found something right. One thing I keep telling my friends is never start going down the stairs sideways; it makes the knees feel better, but then it throws your hip, then the back out of position, and your trouble really starts. That’s when you fall and break a hip. The subtle thing is I think your body notices those twinges before you’re actually aware of them, and you start adjusting instinctively without realizing what you’re doing. If I see somebody going down the stairs sideways I always say something.
ET: So don’t adjust. Stay the course.
DVD: That’s right. It may hurt a little but it’s not going to kill you.
ET: You certainly embraced that attitude when you were injured at age 40 while filming the “Toot Sweets” number on “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and were subsequently diagnosed with severe arthritis that the doctor at the time said would have you using a walker or even a wheelchair within seven years. Your response was to get up right then and there and light into a dance.
DVD: It was one of the things that motivated me to keep exercising because I really feared that he was right. Doing that dance number I tore a big muscle in the back of my thigh because I did not warm up. I was too confident, and that taught me a lesson about warming up.
The idea of getting up dancing and performing was what kept me going. I hadn’t discovered dancing until I was in my 30s, and it was like flying. I just couldn’t give that up. I kind of am surprising myself now that I’m coming up on 90, that I am able to do things none of my contemporaries can, even though I went through a lot.
I go to the gym every morning, and, as much as I don’t feel good if I don’t go, I still have to have a cup of coffee at 6 and make myself go or I’ll talk myself right out of it. There’s a certain amount of discipline you have to start with. Pretty soon it becomes a habit, and you don’t feel right if you don’t do it. But it takes some pushing. And I’ve told the guys in their 80s, when you start, don’t expect to do a full circuit or workout. If you can only do 10 or 12 minutes, go do it, then come home. You’ll start to get better. The thing is getting there and doing something, even if it’s a little.
ET: You have certainly played your share of serious roles—I recall your sociopathic villain in a “Columbo” episode, for instance—though you are best known for your comedic and musical roles. To what degree has being a song-and-dance man contributed to your longevity, your physical well-being and your positive attitude?
DVD: I think it has everything to do with it. You can’t sing and be in a bad mood at the same time. I play Dixieland [jazz] in the morning. There’s something joyous about Dixieland music that really gets me going.
ET: In Keep Moving you write that at age 50 you starred for a year in a traveling production of “Music Man,” and by the time the show ended you were in the best shape of your life. So the physicality of the role contributes as well?
DVD: Oh yes. And that’s a show where you’re never offstage, which I like. I don’t like sitting backstage waiting. I think I lost 15 pounds during that time. It’s one show I never got tired of. It’s the quintessential American musical. I’d do it again if I could.
ET: Keep Moving is not just a memoir of your own approach to healthy aging, but, as the press release for the book says, part manifesto “for a much-needed revolution” that you call the “Gray Rights Movement.” What are you revolting against?
DVD: Bill Maher the other day said the only discrimination still acceptable in our culture is ageism, and it’s very true. People make old jokes, and [elderly] people get pushed aside. If someone recognizes me I get different treatment than if they don’t. If they don’t recognize me I’m just an old man. I walked into a Tommy Hilfiger store, and a young lady came up to me and said, “Sir, I don’t think you’ll find anything you’ll like in here.”
It just seems to me that any veneration for the wisdom of older people is just entirely gone. They’re getting sidelined and warehoused and institutionalized, and it’s just a shame. I’m hoping my book will help a little bit. I have a couple of friends who are in their early 90s, and they’re not in good physical shape but they’re still sharp. Carl Reiner, who is 93, is still as bright and intelligent as ever. I know a couple of writers who by the time they were 60 could not get a job because of their age, and that’s terrible. A waste.
The young, smooth-faced casts in the sitcoms today are almost interchangeable. They could switch them around to other shows, and I’d never know the difference. Once you see somebody on the screen with a little life written on their face, it grabs my interest. The other thing that drives me crazy is laugh tracks. When we did our show we had a live audience. Now there’s hysterical laughter at a door slamming. That humor kind of escapes me.
ET: What’s your diet like, and how does it factor into your health?
DVD: I’m not too particular about diet. Luckily I’m not crazy about meat, and I eat very little. In the morning I have Raisin Bran with blueberries, which are a good antioxidant. I have a big bowl of ice cream every night [laughs]. My sugar level stays pretty much the same; I must burn it off or something. I don’t eat a lot of junk food, but there’s nothing strict about my diet at all. I’ve never had a weight problem. My problem is keeping the weight I’ve got.
ET: I read that you pick up a green protein shake from a vitamin store every day for your wife.
DVD: That’s right. I just got back with it now. I don’t drink them. I don’t like the taste of it, but she does. I take vitamins—B, E, D and C, also calcium. I have a friend, a neurologist, who suggested turmeric as a supplement. It’s supposed to be good brain food.
ET: I was surprised to hear that you favor walking on a treadmill for exercise. You strike me as someone who would seek more outdoor activities for physical fitness.
DVD: The advantage to me is that when you’re through you don’t have to walk back [laughs]. I do a lot of swimming. I swim in the pool three times a week. I keep the pool well heated. I think that’s very important for older people, swimming and stretching.
ET: You mentioned earlier that you do computer animation as a hobby to challenge yourself. What is it about computer animation that helps keep your mind sharp, and what other activities do you engage in to maintain a fit mind?
DVD: I got hooked on computer animation years ago when it took four hours to render something like 15 frames. But now it’s become quite an art. It’s so deep and changes so fast that I can never keep up with it, so it really keeps me working to understand what’s going on.
I’ve never gotten to the bottom of it and never will. The end product doesn’t count; it’s the process. I can just lose a whole evening at the computer, and I don’t know anything about the computer. I just make pretty pictures. I also do the Friday New York Times crossword puzzle. The Saturday one I’ve finished maybe four times in my entire life. But I do it in pen, anyway [laughs].
ET: You once considered plastic surgery on your nose. Do you regret that you never went through with it?
DVD: Never. The director of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” asked the makeup man, “What are we going to do about his hooter?” My friends in high school always made fun of my nose. Nose jokes—I know them all. I went to a plastic surgeon after I got back from [filming “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in] England. He said, “You can’t do it now. You’re established.” I never did it, and I’m happy I didn’t.
ET: You write very touchingly about your dog Rocky, who has his own wheelchair, works out on a water treadmill and undergoes acupuncture treatments. How is Rocky?
DVD: Very bad. For a while, my wife was putting a float on him and letting him swim because his back legs don’t work. But now he can’t hold his head up. She was taking him by the hind legs and wheel-barrowing him around, which he seems to love. She’s just been an angel with him. He should have been gone a long time ago. It’s getting close to time to let go.
ET: I’m sorry to hear that. Do you have any other words of wisdom on aging for our readers?
DVD: I know people who have never changed their minds about anything in their lives, despite new information that comes out. Their minds become kind of like cesspools. They get what I call reptiles of the mind. They still think the same way, vote the same way and don’t accept new information. I think it’s important to keep an open mind and be flexible.
There’s a great book called The Wisdom of Insecurity. Accept the fact that you can feel secure but that there is no such thing as real security. I think it frees people up a lot. One of my granddaughters just got married, and I told her, “It’s nice to have plans, and stick to them, but always be ready for the surprise.”
My whole life has been that. The very fact that I stayed in show business. My buddy and I drove out to Los Angeles in 1947 to do a comedy act, but it was a lark. I didn’t see making a living at it. We were going to go back and do something serious with our lives, and one thing led to another and I just never got out. So many breakthroughs happened that totally surprised me. When side roads open up, don’t ignore them.