The Second World War Helped Launch Dick Van Dyke’s Acting Career

Photo Credit: MoviePics1001 / Walt Disney Pictures / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: MoviePics1001 / Walt Disney Pictures / MovieStillsDB

Is the fountain of youth real? A lot of movie fans seem to think it is. Actors like Paul Rudd, Jenifer Aniston and, of course, Tom Cruise, all seem like they’ve conquered aging. Another time-defying actor is Dick Van Dyke, who, in his mid-to-late 90s, looks fantastic and is still involved in show business.

One of the legendary actor’s most recent projects is a film that focuses on two Korean War veterans who battle each other for the job of raising the flag over their retirement community. During an interview promoting the movie, Van Dyke revealed that before his decades in film, television and theater he had a run-in with the US Army Air Forces (USAAF).

Dick Van Dyke’s early life

Portrait of Dick Van Dyke
Dick Van Dyke, 1959. (Photo Credit: Bureau of Industrial Service / Young & Rubicam / eBay / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Richard Wayne “Dick” Van Dyke was born on December 13, 1925, in West Plains, Missouri to a salesman and stenographer. Early in his life, the future actor planned to take a much different trajectory, with his goal being a career in the ministry. It wasn’t until he got involved in his high school’s drama program that he considered taking on Hollywood.

In his autobiography, My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business, Van Dyke wrote about the change in his job aspirations, “I suppose that I never completely gave up my childhood ideas of being a minister. Only the medium and the message changed. I have still endeavored to touch people’s souls, to raise their spirits and put smiles on their faces.”

Enlisting in the US Army Air Forces (USAAF)

Consolidated B-24 Liberator in flight
Consolidated B-24 Liberator, 1941. (Photo Credit: Archive Photos / Getty Images)

By the outbreak of World War II, Dick Van Dyke and his family were living in Danville, Illinois. He was a student at the local high school and felt compelled to join the fight, leading him to drop out in his senior year and enlist in the US Army Air Forces.

In Van Dyke’s opinion, he’d make an ideal fighter pilot, despite his “severe allergy to combat,” and he did what he could to make that dream a reality, traveling to the nearest base and taking both IQ tests and physicals. While his intelligence wasn’t of any concern, one thing was: his physique. “I took the physical three times,” he recounted. “The first time I couldn’t make the weight. I was 6-feet-1, I weighed 135 pounds. You had to be 141.”

Funnily enough, he only succeeded the third time because he snuck off to the bathroom to gorge himself on bananas and chug water. With a full stomach, he weighed just over the mandatory 141 pounds.

After attending basic training in Wichita Falls, Texas, Van Dyke was sent for pilot training in Toledo, Ohio, where he struggled to grasp much of what was being taught to him. When he and his comrades were told the USAAF was going to make a push against Japan, the future actor found himself not joining them. With a talent for singing and dancing, he was sent to the Special Services.

Dick Van Dyke served with the Special Services

Aerial view of Majors Airport
Majors Airport, formally known as Majors Army Airfield. (Photo Credit: United States Geological Survey / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Recounting his transfer to the Special Services, Dick Van Dyke once said, “Getting into the Special Services was the best thing that could have happened to me – and the Air Force,” and later added that his “cowardice got me into showbiz.”

Reassigned to Majors Army Airfield, Texas, Van Dyke was tasked with building and painting sets that were later used for plays in which he and his comrades starred. He also performed comedy variety shows, a hint at just what his future would hold following his exit from the US military.

Outside of physical entertainment, Van Dyke also used his knowledge of radio to become a DJ, reading the news for his comrades and playing the biggest hits of the time. He did this until his discharge in 1946.

Entering the entertainment industry

Dick Van Dyke sitting with his hand outstretched
Dick Van Dyke, 1960. (Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)

Following his service with the US military, Dick Van Dyke launched an advertising agency and took gigs in the radio industry. He also teamed up with Phil Erickson to form the comedy duo Eric and Van – the Merry Mutes, with the pair touring the West Coast with the mime and lip-synching act that eventually granted them their TV debut in the early 1950s.

While that was Van Dyke’s first taste of what it was like to appear on the small screen, it wasn’t until he was cast in two episodes of The Phil Silvers Show (1955-59) that he began to learn the ropes. He followed this with a few stints on Broadway, performing in The Girls Against the Boys and Bye Bye Birdie. The latter earned him the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

Dick Van Dyke scores big with Mary Poppins (1964)

Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews, Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber as Mr. Dawes Sr., Mary Poppins, Jane Banks and Michael Banks in 'Mary Poppins'
Mary Poppins, 1964. (Photo Credit: MoviePics1001 / Walt Disney Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

It wasn’t until 1964 that Dick Van Dyke scored his big break as Mr. Dawes Sr. in Disney‘s Marry Poppins. Starring alongside Julie Andrews in the half-live action, half-animated production, he earned acclaim for his singing and dancing (although his cockney accent could have used more work). He followed this up with movies that allowed him to team up with the likes of James Garner and Shirley MacLaine.

Van Dyke returned to TV with The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) and The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-74), during which he found himself privately struggling with a drinking problem. He also guest-starred on an episode of Columbo (1968-78), showing his versatility as an actor by taking on a darker character.

Over the subsequent decades, Van Dyke continued to appear in a variety of TV shows and films, but it wouldn’t be until he landed the role of Mark Sloan in Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001) that he saw a resurgence in his Hollywood career. It also allowed him to act alongside his son, Barry Van Dyke.

Still going strong well into his 90s

Dick Van Dyke standing on a red carpet
Dick Van Dyke at the Kennedy Center Honors, 2021. (Photo Credit: Paul Morigi / Getty Images)

While many of his former co-stars have sadly left us, Dick Van Dyke has continued to go strong. Well into his 90s, he’s not only kept acting, but also taken on other endeavors, including a stint on the singing competition, The Masked Singer (2019-present).

One of the things he credits with keeping him young? His wife, Arlene Silver, who is 40 years his junior. The pair wed in 2012, with the actor calling their union “one of the smartest moves I ever made” in an interview with Parade. He added, “She’s very mature for her age, and I’m very immature for my age, so it’s just about right!”

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With a career spanning decades, Van Dyke shows no sign of slowing down. Over his time in Hollywood, he’s been the recipient of four Primetime Emmys, a Grammy and a Tony, and was honored with the Disney Legends award in 1998. On top of that, he was among those to be recognized at the 2021 Kennedy Center Honors.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE