MY LUCKY LIFE IN AND OUT OF SHOW BUSINESS
by Dick van Dyke
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
I grew up on The Dick van Dyke Show, watching Rob Petrie trip over the ottoman, Buddy Sorrell relentlessly mock Mel Cooley, Sally Rogers trying desperately to land a husband, and Laura Petrie keeping things together on the homefront. The series stands up to the passage of time well and I've raised my children with it, as well as the more traditional of van Dyke's children's fare: Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Meeting your heroes, comedic or otherwise, is often fraught with danger as there is always the unwelcome discovery that your heroes have feet of clay. Dick van Dyke introduces himself in his memoir, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, and in the book he comes across pretty much as one would expect, his feet of clay being the problems that many suffer from, and the don't diminish him.
As befits a memoir, van Dyke's focus in on his own life and his own perceptions. Unfortunately, this means he often doesn't provide context for his life. He describes his early successes on stage as part of a duo whcih lip synced to popular songs without explaining that at the time this was a reasonably widespread practice. Without that explanation, the act seems strange to modern sensibilities. Similarly, when he describes a fantastic offer he received which turns out to be from a mob-run nightclub, he doesn't clarify that at the time, the mob backed nearly all of the clubs where comedy was performed.
However, what van Dyke does include his his memoirs is entertaining. Van Dyke comes across much like his public persona, which he admits he carefully cultivated. Early in his career, he decided he would only play roles in projects which were family friendly. He turned down a few roles because of this, and occasionally, wound up in films which didn't quite match his plans (such as Divorce American Style), but generally was able to adhere to his goals and built a long career out of it. Throughout the book, he discusses his films and television shows and looks at failures as well as hits, trying to explain why he thinks the less successful projects didn't work.
While much of van Dyke's life appears to have been smooth sailing, he hit a rough patch in the 1970s and he is frank about it. Although he never plays up his drinking problem, he also doesn't shy away from the fact that he fought alcoholism for years and went through periods of denial. Although he doesn't go into great detail about the problems which plaques his marriage to Margie, it is clear that they had issues beyond simply growing apart, and van Dyke admits to his own mistakes and temptations as he found solace with Michelle Triola and eventually left Margie for Michelle, attempting to maintain a cordial, if not friendly, relationship with his wife of several decades.
Van Dyke's life hasn't been all hugs and kisses. There are a few areas where it is clear that he did not get along entirely with actors or directors he found himself working with. However, he is quite circumspect about those occasions, indicating that there were issues, but rarely going into detail. The problems could have been caused by a clash of personality, by ego, or unprofessionalism. Van Dyke doesn't feel the need to bad mouth people, although he comes closest when discussing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang director Ken Hughes, who he explained he never felt was right for the job and who apparently cursed in front of van Dyke's young co-stars a little too often.
Oddly, given the personal nature of the book, van Dyke's easily recognizable voice doesn't really come through in his writing. It seems like the cadence is not quite right. Fortunately, this does not inhibit the enjoyment of the book or the chance to see the progression from Bye, Bye, Birdie to The Dick van Dyke Show to Mary Poppins, and eventually to Diagnosis Murder through van Dyke's eyes. The reader cares about van Dyke and the people he cares about, from his children to his wife, Margie, to his long-time companion, Michelle. In the 1960s, van Dyke invited us into Rob Petrie's living room, in this book he invites us into his own life.
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