En español | When Dick Van Dyke walks on stage to accept his well-earned Kennedy Center Honors (airing on CBS on June 6, 8 p.m. ET), it will mark the culmination of a true one-of-a-kind Hollywood career. Still spry at 95, the beanpole-thin Missouri native most famously used his signature crack comic timing, silly-putty facial expressions and breezy rapport with his on-screen wife Mary Tyler Moore to help usher in the modern-day sitcom with the brilliant and beloved The Dick Van Dyke Show.
But Van Dyke's puckishly likable talent created just as long a legacy on the big screen as it did on the small one — as you'll see in our list of the great comic actor's 10 most memorable movies and TV shows, from the early ‘60s to as recently as 2018. And grab the grandkids — these gems are fantastic for every age.
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966)
The Dick Van Dyke Show wasn't the first great TV sitcom (The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy got there first), but it fine-tuned the half-hour format and elevated above broad lunacy. The show had wit, intelligence, subtlety and the kind of absurdity that smacks of truth. As TV writer Rob Petrie, Van Dyke managed to find humor in his own workplace exasperation (thanks to his put-upon costars Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie) as well as in his own home (courtesy of his equally put-upon wife, Mary Tyler Moore). Created by Carl Reiner, The Dick Van Dyke Show's dialogue was always scalpel sharp, its jokes coming at a rat-a-tat clip, and Van Dyke and Moore looked like a more relatable version of Camelot. It's as good as TV would get in the ‘60s.
Bye Bye Birdie (1963)
Adapted from a hit Broadway musical that postdated Elvis but predated the Beatles, Bye Bye Birdie stars Ann-Margret as a red-blooded Middle American teenage girl who gets chosen to plant a kiss on heartthrob singing sensation Conrad Birdie before he heads off to the Army. Van Dyke (who gets to sing “Put On a Happy Face") and a brunette Janet Leigh costar as the two songwriting/publicity masterminds who dream up the whole stunt. The song-and-dance numbers still thrum with giddy electricity. They don't make them like this anymore.
What a Way to Go! (1964)
An irresistible Shirley MacLaine stars in this wacky, opulent romantic comedy as a serial widow who tells all to her shrink. With a star-studded roster of hubbies — Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin and Van Dyke — most of whom drive themselves to an early grave in their pursuit of wealth, the film is like a ring-a-ding-ding Rat Pack version of Bluebeard. Van Dyke stands out as the only male in the cast who understands that the film is a comedy. But the movie's style makes up for its broadness. Try not to swoon at MacLaine's Oscar-nominated wardrobe of Edith Head designs.
Mary Poppins (1964)
Arguably the most beloved kids’ film of all time, Disney's Mary Poppins is a candy-colored balm of sheer song-and-dance exuberance. It's a cure for what ails regardless of your age. Julie Andrews, of course, stars as the parasol-toting British nanny with a magical air of infectiously plummy whimsy as she transforms the boring lives of her new charges into a rejuvenated household full of high adventure and showstopping joy. Meanwhile, Van Dyke as a chimney sweep named Bert gets to trot out a laughable cockney accent and steal the screen whenever he turns up covered head to toe in soot. You could say that he and the rest of the film are “practically perfect in every way."
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
As hard as it may be to believe, this runner-up to Mary Poppins in the kids’ classic department was penned by none other than Ian Fleming, the man who created James Bond. Although, if you think about it, it kind of makes sense, since the film's wacky inventions could have easily been cooked up by MI6's Q branch. Van Dyke has a ball here as the oddball tinkerer Caractacus Potts, who regales two young kids with a tale about the villainous Baron Bomburst and his evil plan to get his hands on Potts’ magical, splendiferous car, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. If the movie's late ‘60s special effects haven't aged all that well, its message remains timelessly innocent and charming.
The Carol Burnett Show (1977)
Beginning in 1967 and running for a staggering 11 seasons, The Carol Burnett Show quickly became the gold standard of television variety shows in an era with no shortage of them. Thanks to her brilliant repertory company of regular players (Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner and Vicki Lawrence), the show was the smartest, silliest showcase for sketch comedy on the dial — at least until Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975. Van Dyke was a late addition to Burnett's stable (he filled in when Korman left in 1977), but the TV veteran proved to be a natural at the conceptually ambitious, loosey-goosey, let's-put-on-a-show vibe that turned the program into a decade-long hit.
Watch it: The Carol Burnett Show, on Amazon Prime
DON'T MISS THIS: Carol Burnett Is Still Going Strong and Living in the Now
Dick Tracy (1990)
Warren Beatty's vibrant, stylized homage to the classic ‘40s comic-strip detective remains an underrated gem that was too quickly dismissed when it hit theaters. As the yellow-trenchcoated hero, Beatty (who also directed and produced the film) checks his ego and lets his supporting players shine. Whether it's Al Pacino as the grotesque villain Big Boy, Madonna as the aptly named lounge singer Breathless Mahoney or Van Dyke as the politically ambitious district attorney Fletcher, they all turn this eye-candy slice of pulp fiction into a delirious Day-Glo fever dream.
Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001)
After The Golden Girls and Murder She Wrote proved that TV shows aimed at grownups could be smart, funny and well-plotted (not to mention ratings magnets), Van Dyke returned to the small screen for this weekly mystery series set at the generically named Community General Hospital, where his snowy-haired Dr. Mark Sloan presided over both the young staff and a nonstop spate of seemingly unsolvable whodunits. Aided by his off-screen son Barry Van Dyke, who plays his on-screen son, a homicide detective, Sloan is a bit like Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher with a stethoscope instead of a typewriter. What made the show so addictive is that regardless of who actually dunit, it was always a pleasure to spend an hour in the company of Van Dyke in a lab coat.
Night at the Museum (2006)
In this fun-for-all-ages blockbuster starring Ben Stiller as a night watchman at New York City's Museum of Natural History, where the exhibits come to life after hours, Van Dyke plays Cecil Fredericks, an elderly security guard partnered with Mickey Rooney, who turns crankiness into an art form. While the film is loaded with cheeky star turns (Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, etc.), there's something about Van Dyke's passing of the flashlight torch to Stiller that gives this fantasy free-for-all some heart and warmth. Sure, the special effects are great, but Van Dyke turns out to be the film's secret weapon.
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Many questioned the wisdom of Disney messing with one of its most cherished celluloid classics when this reboot was announced. And while it never quite measures up to the Julie Andrews original (although Emily Blunt is excellent as the new Poppins), it is at its very best when it nods to its predecessor. Take Van Dyke's cameo as a rich eccentric who dazzles with a sprightly song-and-dance number with the athleticism and twinkle of a man half his age. It's a pure blast of happiness. In fact, you could say it's the spoonful of sugar that makes the rest of Mary Poppins Returns go down.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.