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Interview with Dick Van Dyke

Dick Van Dyke's new film is titled "Divorce American Style," and he can't get over it.

A lot of people will think it's funny that I'm in a picture with a name like that," Van Dyke fretted the other day. "We'll get letters. I mean, it just doesn't sound like one of my pictures."

He lounged in an overstuffed armchair in the penthouse of the Ambassador East and filled an ashtray with half-smoked cigarette stubs.

"I suppose a lot of people will figure out that with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds in it, the movie can't be too racy," he said. "But it sure is a departure from 'Mary Poppins,' I guess.

"Just think. This is the first picture I've ever been drunk in, and I'm drunk twice, at that. And once it's in a prostitute's living room."

He shook his head. "I don't know what I'm coming to," he said. "My next movie, believe it or not, is going to be based on a novel by Ian Fleming." A James Bond novel?

"Not exactly," Van Dyke said, his face splitting into a grin when the bait was taken.

"It'll be called 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.' That's spelled C-h-i-t-t-y. It's based on Fleming's only book for children."

Uh, what's it about?

"It's about this ancient old automobile that has magical properties," Van Dyke said. "When it starts up, it goes chitty chitty bang bang. And it can fly. I play a nutty inventor, and there's a girl in it with a typical Fleming name: Truly Scrumptous. She's played by Sally Anne Howes. And Gert Frobe and Robert Morley will be in it, too."

Van Dyke continued to talk about his next movie. But a curious thing had happened. As he lounged in the armchair in the penthouse, the skyline of Chicago opening out beyond him and a waiter standing next to a portable bar, there was the strange illusion that this was all a scene from the movies.

His voice pronounced each word slowly and sincerely, with just a hint of boyish enthusiasm. His eyes crinkled, and he looked exactly as he does on the screen. He was pleasant, open-faced, tall, tanned. Here was a guy you could trust. Middle class, a solid citizen - but a good Joe, too, and with a sense of humor . . .

The mirage snapped, and it was just Van Dyke talking again.

"A lot of actors seem to dislike typecasting, these days," he was saying. The funny thing is, that's a fairly recent development. It used to be that actors wanted to be typecast, so audiences could remember them and identify with them."

He sipped on a tomato juice with Worcestershire, salt, pepper and lemon in it.

"Take me, for example," he said. "A lot of people have this idea of me as a nice guy kind of a character, because that's what I was on TV and, up until now, in the movies. Now suddenly here I am playing a guy who gets a divorce and plays around a little bit. And even when the guy goes back to his wife, you know it's still a shaky marriage. They haven't really patched up their problems. "Now a lot of people come to expect you to play the same kind of role all the time. Who ever expected to see me in a picture like this? We'll hear from fundamentalists and everybody. But, let's face it, Debbie Reynolds isn't Tammy anymore and neither am I.

"So when this role came along, I was happy to take it. Norman Lear, who wrote the script, didn't want a heavy for the part. It's more of a comedian's part, although it's not really a comic role. It's move natural comedy - you know, developing out of the situation. Like when Debbie and I have our big marital blow-up after the party, and we come home and start to undress.

"And there's this scene where we open and slam the closet doors, cabinet doors, bathroom doors, with perfect timing. We worked several days to get the choreography right, but once we got it the scene was pretty realistic. When two people live together for years, they get so adjusted to each other's habits that even when they're mad they can't get out of step sometimes.

In the film, Van Dyke and Miss Reynolds play a couple who got along happily during years of struggle and penny-pinching. But after Van Dyke becomes successful and they move to the suburbs, the marriage starts to run aground. "Except for the fact that, thank heavens, I'm still very happily married, the plot sort of resembles what happened to me," Van Dyke said. "My wife and I met when we were high school students down in Danville, III. We dated for five years before we were married, and we've been married 18 years, with four kids. "At first it was rough, I had a partner and we did night club dates, doing pantomimes to records. That was very big right after the war. I remember we had one thing we did to a Spike Jones record.

Van Dyke smiled nostalgically.

"Good old Danville he said. "Is Kickapoo, State Park still in operation?" Kickapoo State Park, was, and is, the site of the most secluded Lovers' Lane and the finest skinny-dipping facilities in central Illinois. Van Dyke recalled a day three years ago when he went back to Danville for Dick Van Dyke Day.

"The funny thing is, it was raining all morning," he said. "They had some ceremonies in an auditorium, and then there was supposed to be a parade to City Hall. Well, we walked outside and suddenly the rain stopped. It was sunny for half an hour. Just long enough to get to City Hall. Then it started raining again."

He sipped his tomato juice. "It was just a coincidence," he explained. "Well, anyway, after everything had been said and done a gentleman came up and said he had been surprised by the way I acted. I asked what he meant. He said I didn't act like a star, or anything, I seemed like just a normal, middle-class guy."

Van Dyke grinned. "This may sound funny," he said "but, you know, I guess I am. It was strange. Somebody else could have said that and it would have been funny. But Van Dyke said it, and it wasn't funny because he was right.

And that explained the earlier mirage, the illusion that the whole interview was a scene from the movies. Here was a rare specimen, an actor who behaved pretty much the same way on the screen and off. Here was an actor who seemed to have no hang-ups, who had been married 18 years to his high school sweetheart, who didn't snarl at waiters, who had courteous answers to routine questions, who was pleasant and didn't take himself too seriously and - well, who was just a normal, middle-class guy, as the man in Danville said.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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