"Honey, it's never the right thing to do unless you do feel miserable."
Sunday, July 10, 2011
A sweep is as lucky as lucky can be
Ok, everybody sing along:
So you think that you've got trouble? Well, trouble's a bubble, So tell old Mr. Trouble to "Get lost!".
Why not hold your head up high and, Stop cryin', Start tryin', And don't forget to keep your fingers crossed.
When you find the joy of livin' Is lovin' And givin' You'll be there when the winning dice are tossed.
A smile is just a frown that's turned upside down, So smile, and that frown Will defrost. And don't forget to keep your fingers crossed!
What do you mean you don’t know the tune? Of course you do.
It’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it?
That the show’s theme song was a song with lyrics is something I learned from reading Dick Van Dyke’s memoirs, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business. I also learned the lyrics were written by Morey Amsterdam who played Buddy Sorrell on the show.
Something else I learned was that Van Dyke’s lover and companion for thirty-five years was Michelle Triola, the plaintiff in the infamous Lee Marvin palimony suit. Which means that I learned that for thirty-odd years Van Dyke wasn’t married anymore to his wife, Margie. That bit of news had passed me by. Of course at the time it became news I wouldn’t have been paying attention. I probably thought I knew everything I needed to know about Dick Van Dyke.
He was the head writer for The Alan Brady Show. He and his wife Laura lived with their son Ritchie at 148 Bonnie Meadow Road in New Rochelle, New York. Their best friends were their next door neighbors Jerry and Millie Helper. He grew up in Danville, Illinois, had a brother named Stacy who sleepwalked and played the banjo, often at the same time, and served in the Army and was stationed at Camp Crowder where he was boxing champ of his barracks and where he met and fell in love with his future wife, Laura Meehan, who was a seventeen year old dancer with a USO troupe when they married. He was a brilliant comedy writer but didn’t consider himself a real writer and worked on and off on writing a novel.
Before you “Oh, Rob!” at me, I know. But I’m sure I’m far from the only fan of The Dick Van Dyke Show for whom Rob Petrie and Dick Van Dyke might as well be the same person.
The confusion is actually built into the show. The Dick Van Dyke Show’s creator, chief writer, and guiding spirit, Carl Reiner not only gave Rob Petrie pieces of Van Dyke’s biography, including the brother who sleepwalked and played the banjo. He worked important aspects Van Dyke’s personality into Rob’s.
There are differences. For instance, Rob is a bit of a klutz because Van Dyke wasn’t. Rob had a tendency to bump into things, trip, stumble, fall , touch hot objects, knock things off shelves, break things (like a tooth or a violin over his head), and otherwise expose himself to pain and embarrassment because Van Dyke was a brilliant physical comedian and Reiner and the other writers were always on the lookout for an opportunity to show off his talent for making pain both funny and as graceful as a dance by Fred Astaire, who was a Van Dyke fan, by the way.
And five or six years of Dick Van Dyke’s life weren’t given to Rob Petrie (which makes Rob five or six years younger than Van Dyke), so Rob didn’t have time between getting out of the Army and starting work on The Alan Brady Show to travel the country as a peripatetic nightclub comic, turn down a contract offer from a “manager” who was actually a front man for the mob (although at one point Rob, Buddy, and Sally were asked to write a monologue for a mobster’s nephewwho wanted to break into show biz), put in several stints on live television, local and network, and get his big break starring in a Broadway musical which led to his getting his own sitcom whose devoted fans mistook him for the character he played to the point that they believed he was actually married to the actress who played his TV wife.
Another difference between the two men is that Van Dyke is the more spiritual and for a long time the more conventionally religious. He is also the more politically engaged. There are hints that Rob and Laura are nominally Catholic, but they seem to spend Sunday mornings at home and the only time I recall their going to church was for Laura's cousin’s wedding. When he was young, Dick Van Dyke was a regular attendee at whatever Dutch Reformed Church was nearby and when he was working in television and then on Broadway in New York City he found time to teach Sunday School.
How many young actors teach Sunday school? How many young actors are awake on Sunday morning?
Rob was involved in various worthwhile local causes and even ran for city council. But Van Dyke shared a podium with Martin Luther King, campaigned for Gene McCarthy, spoke out against the War in Vietnam, and cheerfully and proudly declares that of the Presidents he’s met, and he’s met four of the nine who served since 1963, Barack Obama is his favorite.
At eighty-five, Van Dyke seems to have scaled back some of his political and social activism, and he eventually drifted away from organized religion. (The drift began when he quit the church he belonged to because the board of elders balked at inviting members of the congregation of a neighboring black church to their services.) But he is still curious and thoughtful on the subject and reads and re-reads books on theology, spirituality, and philosophy. What exactly he thinks and what questions he wants answered, however, are left somewhat vague. Van Dyke shies away from self-examination and self-reflection whenever things threaten to become intensely personal. He does that on almost every aspect of his life, including the biggest difference between himself and Rob Petrie, which I’ll get to.
One more difference, not as big but still important considering that this is a book review. Rob is a writer not an actor, and he writes a lot like Carl Reiner. If he wrote his autobiography, it would be more like Reiner’s My Anecdotal Life than like Van Dyke’s My Lucky Life. Which, it almost goes without saying, means it would be funnier. But it also means that it would be a writer’s book and writers, because they can’t help themselves, tend to see everything as a story. A comedy writer, like Rob or Carl Reiner, will see it as a funny story.
Van Dyke has a sense of humor and, obviously, knows how to tell a joke, and he writes well. But he isn’t a storyteller. He knows he has a story to tell and diligently sets about telling it, but it’s one big, long story, the story of his life, and he tends to treat major events and minor incidents, the things that happened to him and the things that he did, as pieces of the larger narrative rather than as stories or anecdotes in their own right. For instance, a visit with President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office that Reiner and Van Dyke made together takes up half a chapter in Reiner’s book but gets a couple of paragraphs in Van Dyke’s. Now, that visit is really Reiner’s story to tell because the focus is on how the President and Reiner’s brother Charlie hit it off (and Reiner tells that story beautifully), but Van Dyke doesn’t even mention that Charlie was there. The point of telling us that he met President Clinton is that it happened.
And that’s how the book goes. This happened, then that happened, and then the next thing happened. There’s something very journalistic about My Lucky Life and I mean that it often reads like an extended magazine article (think The New York Times Sunday Magazine not TIME or The New Yorker and definitely not People or Entertainment Weekly, earnest, thorough, informative, not particularly stylish but not trivial, chatty, or phonily personal either) but also that it reads like a fleshed out journal.
Readers used to contemporary memoirs being confessionals might find themselves perplexed by how little confessing Van Dyke does. There’s much recounting and accounting but not much in the way of revealing or unveiling. One thing happens after another because that’s how it went, and along the way, as the players in his life make their entrances and their exits, we’re introduced to the people Van Dyke got to know, professionally and personally.
Gene Hackman makes a cameo appearance as the annoying kid cousin of Van Dyke’s best friend back in Danville, tagging along after Van Dyke and his high school buddies, two of whom weren’t, apparently, Donald O’Connor and Bobby Short, even though they were in the same class.
Walter Cronkite storms in, demanding to know why Van Dyke is firing him from the morning talk show they’re working on together, Van Dyke hosting and Cronkite delivering the news.
Cary Grant stops by to admire his tailoring and offer him a part in That Touch of Mink and to this day Van Dyke can’t understand why he turned it down.
Fred Astaire slips onto the set of Bye Bye Birdie unnoticed just for the pleasure of watching Van Dyke dance.
Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy’s former press secretary, enlists him in his ultimately losing campaign for United States Senator from California.
Warren Beatty calls and not just refuses to take no for an answer but refuses to even hear it and so Van Dyke winds up cast in Dick Tracy despite himself.
He meets and becomes friends with Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton. Harold Lloyd wants him to play him in a movie version of Lloyd’s life, a movie I wish had been made instead of The Comic, a rather strange tribute to Laurel, Keaton, and Lloyd that gives aspects of all their careers to a a fairly unlikeable character named Billy Bright.
Frank Sinatra makes dinner but refuses to sing. Debbie Reynolds tells Van Dyke he doesn’t know beans about making movies. Cloris Leachman does her best to help him quit smoking cold turkey. Michelle Obama gives him a big hug and declares that The Dick Van Dyke Show is still her favorite of all time, a statement President Obama is on hand to confirm. The President also asks Van Dyke to teach him some moves.
Julie Andrews, Chita Rivera, Carol Burnett, and Angie Dickinson sing, dance, mug, and slink their way onto his life’s stage to, pointedly, not have affairs, despite what some people assumed, and become instead Van Dyke’s very good friends.
After a while, a pattern becomes noticeable. All these famous people come and go without being the subjects of stories. Van Dyke doesn’t tell stories about them. It’s more as if he’s showing us their photographs in the family album and then, hurriedly, turning the page. And then it begins to dawn that he’s deliberately avoiding telling stories and even that not telling stories is part of the point.
Of course, what I’m saying is that this is a show business memoir that is surprisingly lacking in gossip.
And it begins to seem to be the case that it’s because Van Dyke doesn’t have any gossip to dish.
A theme of the book is that Van Dyke deliberately tried not to live a life that would make him a topic of gossip or a witness to others making themselves topics of gossip.
Not that he would dish it if he had to dish. Van Dyke comes across as someone who wouldn’t say anything about an enemy let alone a friend that he wouldn’t say to their face and that he hadn’t cleared with them first to see if they minded if he said it. Even the dead are protected by his inherent tact and discretion and compassion.
There are exceptions and one of them is the great character actress Maureen Stapleton who we learn was eccentric, phobic, and, when she’d had too much too drink, and she drank too much too often, sometimes carrying fortification in a paper bag on the set, inclined to making clumsy plays for other women’s husbands in front of those women.
About Stapleton Van Dyke does have a story to tell and he tells it. During the filming of the movie adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie, in which Stapleton was playing Van Dyke’s mother, despite being his exact same age, thirty-eight at the time, Van Dyke and his wife, along with Stapleton and another Bye Bye Birdie co-star, the acerbic character actor Paul Lynde, went to a party at the director’s home, at which Stapleton got drunk and embarrassed herself and her friends in a variety of ways before winding up naked in the director’s swimming pool and calling on all the other guests to join her.
Not the most salacious or scandalous of tales, but just about nobody else in the book is shown at so much less than their best as Stapleton in this instance, and the question is why her?
The answer is that it’s the party Van Dyke is writing about not Stapleton, he just appears to have decided he couldn’t write about it honestly without telling us what Stapleton got up to or down to. Possibly if he could have thought of way to disguise her he would have, but there may not have been any point, either because the story’s well-known and oft-told in Hollywood or because Stapleton herself was in the habit of telling it. The important thing is that that was the Van Dykes’ first Hollywood party and while it wasn’t their last, it was their introduction to a side of the movie business and celebrity-hood they resolved never to become part of.
But there’s another reason for his telling the story. Stapleton, along with Lynde, who, although he didn’t wind up naked in the pool, also wasn’t on his best behavior at that party, and Dean Martin, shown arriving drunk on the set of Van Dyke’s next movie, What a Way to Go!, were what Van Dyke thought alcoholics looked and acted like, which is why it took him so long to recognize the alcoholic who was threatening to ruin his life.
That’s that big difference between Dick Van Dyke and Rob Petrie I was talking about.
In his acknowledgements, Van Dyke thanks his collaborator, Todd Gold. But that’s the only credit Gold is given. There’s no “as told to” or “with” on the title page implying that Gold was a true co-author if not the actual writer. There’s something about the writing that suggests Van Dyke did most of it himself. There are no signs of a ghost writer’s touch. No rhetorical effects, no narrative or dramatic surprises. No mixing it up for variety’s sake. One sentence is crafted like the last. Paragraphs are neat, well-ordered, exemplary, but too much so. This isn’t prose you’d pay someone to write. It’s prose you’d pay someone to correct or, rather, to make sure was as correct as you intended and worked hard to achieve. And from the impression Van Dyke gives of himself, I think he wouldn’t have undertaken the book if he hadn’t felt he could do most of the work himself. This would have to be his book, as in his job to do, his responsibility to meet. This was a book written out of a sense of duty.
I’m not sure who all he feels he owes this duty to. His children, obviously, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His fans. But also, I think, to his ghosts. His parents. Michelle Triola, who died of lung cancer in 2009, just as he was setting out to write the book. Margie, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2007 and with whom he appears to have felt still married in a strange but still deeply loyal way until the end of her life. His grand-daughter Jessica, a budding poet who died of Reye’s Syndrome when she was only twelve.
The first epigraph in My Lucky Life is an exchange between Van Dyke’s comic idols, Laurel and Hardy, from their movie Block-Heads:
Stan: You remember how dumb I used to be?
Stan: Well, I’m better now.
But as a second, he’s chosen to quote himself:
If I’m known for giving people decent entertainment and raising good kids, that’s all right. I’ll have lived a good one.
With that, of course, he’s setting himself up to be judged. With the Laurel and Hardy quote too. He has to show us. Has he lived a good life by his lights and ishe better now?
As I said, My Lucky Life isn’t a confessional, either in tone or effect, but it is an accounting. Van Dyke has given himself the job of honestly laying out the facts of his life that would allow readers to judge whether or not he has led his life the way he intended to live it, and honesty requires him to face up to the ways he failed at that. He did, after all, cheat for years on his wife and then leave her for the other woman, and he was an alcoholic---emphatically was. Van Dyke is not a graduate of AA, he dried out on his own and doesn’t feel compelled to say is an alcoholic, not after nearly thirty years of sobriety. But his point isn’t that he overcame his drinking problem but that he had one and he counts himself lucky that it didn’t destroy him.
That’s the other reason Maureen Stapleton appears in the book the way she does. It’s not her that Van Dyke wants to call attention to her as much as to her behavior that night, self-abusive, self-destructive, because it portended a way Van Dyke’s life could have gone, should have gone.
That he was able to get away with so much that so many alcoholics can’t---a stellar career of uninterrupted work, a happy family life, a lifelong reputation as a good, decent, responsible and reliable adult---is one of many reasons he considers himself to have been lucky.
My Lucky Life isn’t just a title. It’s a statement of one of the book’s main themes.
Van Dyke writes with a healthy dose of humility. But although he’s a humble man, he’s not a falsely modest one. He’s aware of his considerable talents. He knows what he was able to do and he knows its value. He believes the work speaks for itself. He’s willing to give himself credit where credit is due, but only in order to share it. He knows the difference between himself and his idols like Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton and Carl Reiner. And an honest accounting of his life requires him to show how lucky he was in having met and been able to work with so many people who were, by his lights, more talented and more dedicated and more deservingly successful in their ways than he was.
So he’s emphatic that he owes his having had any sort of show business career at all to his first partner, Phil Erickson, who almost literally dragged him out the door to take their act on the road. That he was able to enjoy and depend on a relatively calm and normal family life is due to his having been lucky to have met and married Margie who saw to it that their children grew up happy and fairly well-adjusted. He was also lucky to have Margie there to help and support him when he faced up to his drinking and set out to stop. His Tony Award-winning performance in Bye Bye Birdie was, as far as he’s concerned, pretty much all the doing of the director and choreographer Gower Champion who saw something in Van Dyke he didn’t see in himself and brought it out onstage. Mary Poppins couldn’t have been what it was without Julie Andrews and Walt Disney and the composing and songwriting genius of the Sherman Brothers. And, of course, The Dick Van Dyke show was, when you got down to it, Carl Reiner’s show.
But even as he’s expressing his gratitude to people, Van Dyke maintains a detachment and reticence as if he’s afraid to say any more about them because he’ll wind up saying too much and revealing things about them, and about himself, he doesn’t believe it’s his business to reveal.
There are, however, a few individuals for whom his feelings are so great that they carry him away despite himself and cause him to open up in ways that not only enliven the book but fill it with joy. One is Triola, another is Margie, and a third is Reiner, who comes across here (and almost everywhere else I’ve heard or read about him) as everybody’s over-achieving, too good to be true big brother who is successful at everything he does, including and especially at loving you and taking care of you in exactly the way you want and need to be loved and taken care of.
Another is, hilariously but also touchingly, Van Dyke’s co-star in my second favorite Dick Van Dyke movie, Lt Robin Crusoe U.S.N. No, not his leading lady, Nancy Kwan. The actor named Dinky who played his sidekick, an astronaut Crusoe finds marooned on the island he washes up on.
Well, not an astronaut, exactly.
Van Dyke and Dinky hit it off on the set and developed, Van Dyke persuasively insists, a real friendship. Dinky gets almost as many pages devoted exclusively to him as Carl Reiner, a fact I like to think Reiner has noted and takes pleasure in pointing out every chance he gets. One of the more heartwrenching scenes in the book is when Van Dyke and Dinky say good-bye for the last time in the zoo where Dinky has been, you want to say, imprisoned.
But the person who rivets Van Dyke’s attention, the one who makes his heart and his prose soar, the one who makes him happiest to write about, is Mary Tyler Moore, with whom he is still, after fifty years, madly, wildy, and joyfully in love. And she with him.
Theirs is and has always been a completely innocent and Platonic love affair. The two seem to have been made for each other, although neither---they were each married to other people when they met---would ever have done anything about it. But they couldn’t help letting their feelings show when they were on camera as Rob and Laura. And it wasn’t just as if, like their fans, they confused themselves with the characters they played, at least for the time they were playing them. It was, and still is when you watch, as if they were and are in touch with that alternative universe where Rob and Laura are real people, where it is still and always will be 1961, and Sally and Buddy have come over for dinner and they and Laura and Ritchie are waiting for Rob to arrive home a little late from work, and that ottoman is in exactly the wrong, which is to say, the right place.
In the movie, he played golf and he was incredible. We also played poker. One day he was sick. I think he had a temperature of 103. In the scene, we were playing cards. He was supposed to be able to see my cards in the shaving mirror behind me. Amazingly, he looked up and smiled on cue. But the second that [Byron Paul, the director] said Cut, he would groan and lie down, ill.
I turned to the trainer and Byron. I wanted [Stewart, the trainer] to help him and Byron to praise him. This chimp was a pro.
The downside was that when he misbehaved, the trainer took him away and hit him. I hated that. In one scene, I came sliding down a coconut tree, but I startled Dinky, who was seated at the base of the tree. I saw all of his hair suddenly stand on end. So did Stewart. He balled up a chain he kept with him and threw it at the chimp. He saw the look on my face. It was one of surprise and anger.
“He would’ve attacked you,” he explained.
I never got used to that part of working with the chimp. To me, he was a doll. I forgot that he was an animal being cajoled, if not forced, into performing acts that did not come naturally to him. Later I heard he was doing a Tarzan movie in Mexico and bit an actor in the face. I was told the actor picked him up and pinched him, an in turn Dinky nipped his face. That was the end of his film career.
He was ten years old, so he was pretty close to retirement anyway. After I heard he’d been placed in the Los Angeles Zoo, I went there to see him, knowing he had been raised in a house---he had never been in a cage. When I got there, he was sitting in the middle of a large circular pen. It was outdoors, but it was still a cage---and I saw the effect it had on him.
I called out his name. He looked up and recognized me immediately. He ran over as close as he could. I could tell from the expression on his face that he was asking me to get him out of there. It looked like he was saying, I’m in here with a bunch of monkeys. Take me home.
The whole visit upset me. I knew he thought that I had come to take him out, which I would have if it had been possible.