Dick Van Dyke: A Television Legend Searches for Joy
Have you ever heard of The Dick Van Dyke Show?" I asked Dad. I was ten years old and had just seen a commercial about a "new" old show about to start re-running on Nick at Nite.
Knowing my love for writing, Dad replied, "Yes, son. And you will love that show, because it's about a comedy writer." Dad was right. Twenty years after I first discovered Dick Van Dyke and fifty years after the show first aired, I'm still a fan of the 1961-66 series now considered a television classic. The camaraderie of the cast, the rapid-fire jokes, the slapstick comedy, and the smart set-ups - it's no wonder The Dick Van Dyke Show is still on the air today.
Dick Van Dyke is one of only a handful of performers who excels at expressing profound joyfulness in art. Just think of how brilliantly he infused the lowly occupation of a chimney sweep with dignity and joy in Mary Poppins. (Watch the clip "Step in Time" and you'll what I mean.)
Now 85 years old, Van Dyke has just released his autobiography, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir, which humorously chronicles his illustrious career. The book is an interesting read at a number of levels, but I was most intrigued by Van Dyke's willingness to open up about his desire to know God and the meaning of life:
"Throughout my whole life I have pondered the big questions... I would read the great thinkers and try to figure out what it all meant - my life and life in general. What was the point? What was I supposed to do? Was I getting it right?" (270)
The beginning of Van Dyke's search for God goes back to his modest upbringing in the cultural Christianity of the Midwest. After attending a summer Bible school one year, Van Dyke (who was only eleven at the time) decided to read through the entire Bible. "I struggled through the various books, asked questions, and when I reached the end I had no idea what any of it meant," he recalls (14).
Van Dyke's desire to find answers to life's big questions almost led him into the ministry. "The subject intrigued me intellectually," he confesses. "But pretty soon I lost the fervor that inspired me to carry around a Bible and think deep thoughts. I joined the drama club instead - and found my true calling" (17). Though he pursued acting rather than ministry, Van Dyke's curiosity about spiritual matters never went away, which is evident in the way he peppers his reflections with phrases like "I planned nothing", "I felt blessed", and "Something greater than me was happening."
The road to earthly success was not easy for Van Dyke or his family. But his persistence and work ethic opened the door to bigger and better opportunities. He was already married with four children when he became a television star. Interestingly enough, Van Dyke doesn't credit himself for his success. Throughout the narrative, he constantly deflects praise, mentioning unsung heroes like writers, editors, and producers behind the scenes. He appears to be a genuinely humble man who marvels at his popularity.
Van Dyke's religious upbringing and his desire to maintain normalcy in Hollywood led him to make important choices in regards to his career. He writes:
I met my agent, Sol Leon, for lunch at the commissary, and talked through my concerns. He asked the obvious questions: What kind of films did I want to make? Where did I see myself going in terms of movies? What sort of scripts should he look for?
"I've thought about this," I said, "and I'm pretty clear on it. I only want to make movies that my four children can see."
"Only kids' movies?" he asked.
"Not kids' movies," I clarified. "I want to make movies that I can see with my kids and not feel uncomfortable."
He expressed slight worry that that might limit my opportunities, particularly at this time when standards in Hollywood, like the culture itself, were beginning to change and evolve into what we remember as the more liberal, experimental Sixties. But I didn't share his worries. I had a long-term vision in mind...
I wanted to be able to talk about my work at the dinner table and hold my head up on Sundays when my wife and I led our children into the Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where I was an elder. You were not going to see me acting up at Hollywood parties. For the most part, you weren't going to see me at any Hollywood parties. I stayed home.
Van Dyke's curiosity about God and the world led him to read a number of popular theologians of his day. "I was intensely curious and even passionate about God," he writes. (124) He pondered the works of Buber, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, and Tournier. For the most part, his theological study led him further away from the beliefs of his youth. Though he defends the idea that there is a God to whom we are accountable, his view of life and salvation reflects a moralistic framework:
"Was there one way? No, not as far as I could tell - other than to feel loved, to love back, and to do the things that make you feel as if your life has meaning and value, which can be as simple as making sure you spend time helping make life a little better for other people. I decided if I could manage that I wouldn't have any serious problems were there to actually be a Judgment Day." (125)
Van Dyke's spiritual journey moves from a culturally Christian view of the world to a more amorphous, general sense of seeking the divine. His spiritual trek goes from specific Christian teaching to vague spirituality:
"If knowing, finding, and giving love were the paths to knowing God, I thought people could get there without much additional doctrine." (163)
In the 1970's, Van Dyke's church took an unfortunate stance on racial issues, which pushed him away from organized religion altogether. "I never went back there or to any other church. My relationship with God was solid, but the hypocrisy among the so-called faithful finished me for good." (166)
Unfortunately, Van Dyke's retreat from the church coincided with hypocrisy of his own: severe alcoholism and an adulterous affair that ended his marriage. He describes himself during this time as "writhing in guilt." Along the way, he keeps asking, "What was I going to do with my life? What was going to make me happy? Why wasn't I happy?" (202)
The memoir of Dick Van Dyke ends with the optimistic enthusiasm that has characterized his life. But I get the sense that this is a man who still hasn't found the joy he is searching for. My heart aches for Van Dyke, knowing that even though he has given many people countless hours of happiness through his entertainment, he doesn't appear to have found the everlasting joy that comes from knowing Christ. That's why I'm praying the final chapters of Van Dyke's life will be happier than the last chapter of his memoir. May he receive forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ and joy that never fades!