When Tony-, Emmy-, Grammy-, and SAG Award-winning star of stage and screen Dick Van Dyke appeared as the Gnome on The Masked Singer this week — setting a record for the oldest contestant in the series’ nine seasons, at age 97 — the judges were honored and exhilarated to be in what host Nick Cannon called “the presence of greatness.” Judge Nicole Scherzinger told the legend through tears, “You’re our childhood,” while Ken Jeong said, “You are comedy,” and Jenny McCarthy-Walhberg exclaimed, “You’re the G.O.A.T.!”
“… But nobody guessed me! Which is funny,” Van Dyke chuckles over the phone, recalling that before he removed his pointy-hatted elf-head, the panel actually speculated that he was Dustin Hoffman, Mel Brooks, or even Robert DeNiro. “Wait just a minute. Those guys can't sing!”
Van Dyke certainly can sing, as evidenced by his delightful “When You’re Smiling” performance on this week’s Masked Singer premiere, and he can do just about everything else. As Yahoo Entertainment caught up with the beloved icon, he discussed a few highlights from his more than 75-year career, from his controversial Mary Poppins Cockney brogue, to Mary Tyler Moore’s controversial too-tight slacks on The Dick Van Dyke Show, to the 60th anniversary of Bye Bye Birdie and how that role changed his “entire life.” And of course, we had to ask him how he stays so young. This conversation with the G.O.A.T. had us smiling from beginning to end.
Yahoo Entertainment: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Mr. Van Dyke. It’s an honor. I may start crying, just like Nicole Scherzinger did when she finally saw who you were. Everyone was so excited to see you. Did you enjoy going on The Masked Singer?
Dick Van Dyke: Oh, it was so funny. It was the weirdest experience. They have a great crew there, and they took good care of me, but the minute I got out of the car, they covered my head! I never got to meet or see anybody! I'm going to have to go back and meet them in person, because nobody ever saw me and I never saw them. It was weird.
Maybe if you sang in your famous Mary Poppins accent, everyone would've figured out it was you. But I understand some people don't appreciate that accent...
Oh, Americans really weren't too critical of it, but the British have never let me off the hook to this day about my terrible Cockney accent! You know, [Disney Studios] sent me a guy to coach me for that named [actor] J. Pat O'Malley. He was an Irishman. He came to my house one day after dinner for a couple of hours, and he taught me about the English accent. His Cockney wasn't very good to start with. I couldn't understand that: Here I was, I was surrounded with actors who were all British, and nobody had ever said anything about my accent! I just did the best I could. But the British, they’re still kidding me — like, “Um, what part of England were you supposed to be from, again?”
Well, since you just made a big splash on TV this week, I want to go back to your television beginnings, because The Dick Van Dyke Show was so groundbreaking…
Yes, it was only show back then that showed what the guy did it for a living. [Show creator] Carl [Reiner] had worked on Sid Caesar’s show and he did all of the writing, so it was his brilliant idea to show a writing team at work. I thought that was the best idea. And I think we got the most comedy out of it too.
I also feel it was the first sitcom of that era where the married couple was actually seemed hot for each other. There was genuine chemistry and romance between Rob and Laura Petrie.
Well, that was real easy, because Mary [Tyler Moore, who played wife Laura Petrie] and I kind of dug each other in real life, you know! I thought she was pretty great. And so, I think that translated onto film.
So, how come Rob and Laura had to have separate beds? Was that still a TV rule back then?
Yes! And what made me mad was that Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette got to share of bed [on The Bob Newhart Show, which aired on the same network, CBS, a few years after The Dick Van Dyke Show ended], and they wouldn't let us. I’m still mad about that!
Oh, really? Did you actually argue for that? Like, did you have conversations with the network about wanting the Petries to share a bed, but were told no?
Yeah, I did. And they just wouldn't let us at the time. And the other thing was they thought Mary's Capri pants were a little too tight in the rear end — and they actually made us let it out! It showed a little bit too much of her butt!
What? Those pants were iconic! Another iconic part of The Dick Van Dyke Show was the opening sequence. Did you ever hurt yourself tripping over that ottoman?
No, I never did. I did it a couple of times and they just reused them. I never have actually hurt myself [while performing]. Carl knew how I loved to do physical comedy falls and all that, and he always gave me a chance whenever he could to do a fall or something stupid. He let me have such fun with it.
Were you able put your physical comedy skills to use on The Masked Singer at all?
No, I didn't get a chance to, really. I almost fell down from not knowing where I was walking, though! It was dark in there [the Gnome costume].
Well, you certainly are at home performing on a stage in costume. I want to ask about Bye Bye Birdie — you won a Tony Award for originating the role of Albert Peterson on Broadway, and this year marks the 60th anniversary of the movie adaptation, in which you also starred. You do an amazing dance sequence in that to “Everything Is Rosie.”
Well, of course I was a Fred Astaire fan, and many, many years ago I was driving to work listening to a disc jockey interview Fred Astaire, and he asked Fred, “Who do you like today?” And Fred said, “I like the way Dick Van Dyke moves.” I almost drove off the freeway! Because I never had any dancing lessons; I just kind of copied other people. So, that was such a thrill for me. I’d never danced before Bye Bye Birdie. I told Gower Champion, the director [of the original stage musical], when he hired me, “You know, I don't dance.” And he said, “We’ll teach you.” And sure enough, they did.
Wow. Any other Bye Bye Birdie memories?
Well, the movie became kind of a vehicle for Ann-Margret and altered it quite a bit. The stage production is a heck of a lot more entertaining, I think. … Real show business is on a stage. There's nothing like it where you're working with an audience; a film just isn't the same. … [The stage musical] was such fun. Of course, working [on Broadway] with Chita Rivera, who's the best of all time, was just great. I learned a lot from her. You know, Chita Rivera, being the lady that she is, we were in Philadelphia and they were still writing new songs. They came down with “Put on a Happy Face” — and they wrote it for Chita, not for me! But Chita said, “Oh, Dick’s got nothing to do in the first act. Why don't you let him do it?” And that changed my entire life. I won a Tony because of that song, and that got me the television show.
And you’re still doing television! You are now officially the oldest contestant to ever compete on The Masked Singer, beating 91-year-old William Shatner's record from last season. Nicole was calling you "gorgeous" and "handsome," and you exuded such energy and joy on the stage. So, my last question is: What is your secret for staying so youthful? I need to know!
Genes, I guess, for one thing. Having a beautiful young wife half my age to take care of me [Arlene Silver, age 51, who Van Dyke married in 2012] — that works! My positive attitude, I get that from my wife. And one other thing is, I wrote a book called Keep Moving: I still go to the gym three days a week and work out. And I advise everybody to do that, because that's what ages people — it's just a stiffening up and not exercising their muscles and their lungs. Exercise is the answer.
OK, then! I am going to the gym right now.
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This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.