The most exciting day in Dick Van Dyke's life was winning a race in front of a roaring crowd as a gawky underdog
He won three Emmy Awards in a row for The Dick Van Dyke Show, but his biggest triumph was a random race he unexpectedly won as an awkward high school freshman.
Dick Van Dyke is a legend for his performances, known for physical comedy. On The Dick Van Dyke Show, he won three Emmy Awards back-to-back-to-back from 1964 to 1966 for his portrayal of Rob Petrie, who could do just about anything on cue.
In his career, he’d go on to snag one more Emmy as a producer on Van Dyke and Company, a Grammy for his recordings for Mary Poppins, and he’d eventually receive multiple lifetime achievement awards, all momentous celebrations of his fantastical talent for making audiences laugh.
You’d think one of these stellar days in Van Dyke’s career would stand out as the most exciting, after a lifetime winning top awards, the respect of his peers, even a People’s Choice Award that showed how popular he was with just about everybody.
But for Dick Van Dyke, when he sat down to write his 2011 memoir My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business, he realized the most exciting day of his life actually happened before he ever even stepped foot on a stage.
Growing up, Van Dyke felt distant from his dad, who was a traveling salesman whose schedule decided where his family would live and how often he would see them. Dick remembers growing up feeling like he was a nobody with not one ounce of personality in him, but then his dad moved the family to Indiana just before Dick started high school. Out of nowhere, Dick started getting really into running.
"I came into my own," Van Dyke wrote in his memoir. "It was not a personality change as much as it was the realization that I had a personality. I also found out that I could run and jump pretty well, and I got on the freshman track team."
Dick got so interested in running that he started heading across the street on weekends to attend collegiate track meets at local Wabash College. His high school track coach usually served as an officiant at the meets, and Dick liked to see how fast the older boys could run, imagining whether he could keep up.
That’s how it happened that he was up in the stands when randomly his coach asked him to join the race.
"Do you want to run?" his coach asked.
"Are you kidding?" Dick asked, looking over the older college boys as his sudden competition.
"They need a man!" his coach said, explaining someone had turned his ankle and had to drop out at the last minute.
Dick said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to compete against these college boys. He had to know if he had what it took to beat them. So he jumped up and got into the race, even though he wasn’t even wearing track shoes and “in those days the tracks were layered with cinders.”
That didn’t matter. Victory was all he could think of.
"Yes I told my coach," Dick wrote.
When the race began, Dick started out slightly behind, as anyone might expect.
It wasn’t because Van Dyke was slower, though. It was because he was sizing up the speed of his competition. Once he realized his competitor wasn’t that fast, he pushed himself to go full throttle.
"I ran hard, gained ground every few steps, and passed him on the outside, with about twenty yards to go."
Van Dyke remembered the crowd roaring as he kept that lead the whole race, crossing the ribbon well ahead of the college boy. This wasn’t some shiny gold statuette being handed to him under a spotlight. This was cold-sweated, heart-racing victory. Even as a distinguished actor looking back, he couldn’t contain his pride in sharing this memory.
"I won," he wrote. "A high-school freshman. Amazing."
After that race, Dick was no longer an introverted boy with no personality who shrank whenever his dad wasn’t around.
"Success on the track added to my self-confidence," Dick wrote, insisting that when he thinks back on this particular race, "that still stands out as the most exciting of my life."
After that, his personality became like we saw on The Dick Van Dyke Show: uncontainable.
He said he got voted the most popular boy in his freshman class that year and because he saw the race as his lucky charm to building confidence, he figured he would grow up to become a track star.
Very quickly, a doctor conducting a routine physical examination dashed those dreams, though.
"The doctor informed me that I had a heart murmur and prohibited me from running, thus ending my high-school athletic career," Van Dyke said. "I took the news hard."
His memoir is called "My Lucky Life," but lucky for us fans, this was the moment that Van Dyke instead discovered acting.
"I joined the drama club instead — and found my true calling," the Hollywood legend wrote.
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Now me, I had just the opposite experience. I was thought of as a pretty fast runner at my grammar school. In fact, that reputation followed me into high school as well(where do you think I got the name, Zip?).
Well, at my first intermural track meet, with high expectations, I tanked it and lost my first(and pretty much only one I was slated to run) race that day. Boy, was that a blow to the ego.
I was still fast, and later gained my nickname from my classmates of first "Speedy" and then "Zip", but I just wasn't fast enough that day.
Don't know the name of the guy(s) who beat me, but maybe one of them was named Dick Van Dyke. Nah... Pretty sure he wasn't in grammar school in the late 70's.
You know the most effective actors are the ones who have a life beyond their career aspirations. Meaning their self-worth isn't measured by success or failure. But the merit found, is in the doing of it. All that may sound tritely obvious. But the mixture of experiences develops character (meaning personality). Real emotions can’t be faked. But good actors know how to express them with purpose.
I stopped by a local thrift store today, and on one of the DVD shelves was the first Season of "Lost in Space" for $5.95. Although I'm not any kind of a "Lost in Space" junkie, I do kind of prefer Season 1 (the black and white season) because Dr. Smith was more of an antagonist than a class clown...
That said, the most interesting thing on the 8 DVD set was the unaired pilot called "No place to Hide". There was no robot or Dr. Smith, and the plot was more adventure-based. Even some of the special effects were better than the later episodes. CBS used clips from that unaired pilot to sell the show to sponsors.
It's a shame the resulting series didn't continue that "adventure feel". (I know... everyone else is gonna tell me I'm wrong, and that "Lost is Space" is a classic *because* of the robot and Dr. Smith!)
To wiki’s synopsis: “The astronaut family w/ a pilot & robot (1997) travel to another planet. Dr. Smith, a saboteur from an unnamed govt. slips aboard, reprograms the robot to destroy the ship. Smith is trapped aboard. His extra weight alters the flight path, veering the ship in the path of a meteor storm. Smith saves himself by prematurely reviving the crew. But the overall damage leaves everyone “Lost In Space.” Smith remains “as a source of comedic, cowardice and villainy, exploiting the eternal forgiving nature” of the heroes.” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_in_Space
So in selling anything to a network for general audience consumption, it has to be relatable. Bottom line. (And that's why ST:TOS was such a stretch!). What might sound good as a premise, is only as good as expressed through (performances) by the characters/actors. It's my hunch why the Show drastically changed, and capitalized on Will & Harris (and because of chemistry!). The emphasis being on the idea of FAMILY versus self-interest (as in Swiss Family Robinson vs the villain) and not just another space adventure for exploration - but survival, as probably the writers intended to present.
The dates are interesting. LOS (65-68) and ST:TOS (66-69). My hunch is the audience got divided into two groups once the comparison was evident. Youthful/family entertainment (LOS) and a multi-generational Sci-Fi/Anthology interest.
The point being: is that the “Swiss Family Robinson” appeal is hard to sustain because the only resolution is rescue! Whereas ST:TOS is truly an ongoing adventure because its seeking out ….. .“ And you get the drift.
Thanks for initiating the backstory, always fun to explore. And made me look up stuff!
In the pilot, all of the Robinson family members as well as assistant flight officer Don all had education and credibility. Even 9-year-old Will Robinson was tops in his class. In one scene, young Will is soldering and repairing a 'sound telecope'... and in another he kills a giant predator with a ray gun in order to protect his father and Don from imminent injury or death...
It really flowed better than the aired first episode with Smith stowing away and causing them to be lost in space. Even the planet they'd landed on had a mix of different backgrounds and plot potentials...
Oh, well. That was back in 1966. It's all conjecture now...