Interview: 'Keep Moving' an important lesson for and from Dick Van Dyke

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Interview: 'Keep Moving' an important lesson for and from Dick Van Dyke

Appearing in the Tampa Bay Times Newspaper:

 

At age 89, Dick Van Dyke is a genuinely happy fella, peppering his speech with laughter like so much punctuation.

The beloved entertainer explains how he stays that way in Keep Moving and Other Tips and Truths About Aging, his fifth book and the first he was raring to write.

"The publisher would call me with an idea, usually something I don't want to do," Van Dyke said by phone from his home in Malibu, Calif.

"When I turned, I think, 88 or something, they said, 'Why don't you write a book on how to age?' I said, 'That will be a very slim volume: Just keep moving.' "

Yet when Van Dyke began writing, he realized the breadth of his subject, the aches and indignities often thrust upon people of advanced age — even show biz icons like Van Dyke, who tripped over an ottoman and into our hearts on the 1960s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show and remained there through Diagnosis: Murder in the '90s.

"I'm in a bit of a catbird seat," he said. "I'm an old, white-haired guy. If I'm not recognized, I'm treated pretty much like every other elderly. But if people recognize me, it's a whole different thing."

Van Dyke recalled an incident, detailed in his book, when he wasn't recognized during a shopping trip.

"I walked into a clothing store that caters to the young," he recalled, "and the lady met me at the door, telling me: 'Sir, I don't think you'll find anything you'd like in here.'

"I was so shocked I just turned around and left. After that, I said, damn, I should've gone in there and bought something just for spite. ... That attitude is pretty common."

Keep Moving, which comes out next month (Weinstein Books), is Van Dyke's lighthearted manifesto for gray rights, a collection of stories with clear morals about attitude, exercise and the inevitable. Music and dancing are a constant thread in Van Dyke's musings, as one would expect from a performer who chim-chim-charmed Mary Poppins and put on a happy face in Bye Bye Birdie.

The five-time Emmy winner writes candidly about his aging experience, movingly about the 2009 death of his longtime companion Michelle Triola Marvin, and romantically about his second wife, Arlene, who is 46 years his junior.

Later, he'll riff hilariously on aging with friend and mentor Carl Reiner, creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show and a measuring stick of Van Dyke's happiness with Arlene.

"I see Carl often," Van Dyke said. "He's 93, but I'm a son of a gun, all of his marbles are there. He's not so good physically but, god, he's just as sharp and intelligent as ever.

"His love affair with his (late) wife Estelle was classic. He kind of keeps a shrine in her room. I don't think he could ever get married again.

"But I was so lucky in that respect, to have met this gal (Arlene). She's heaven, takes care of everything, takes care of me. She dances, she's an entrepreneur. I can't say enough about her.

"I think being alone, which I hate, I would've started to deteriorate."

The pair met in 2008 while Arlene Silver worked as a makeup artist at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Friendship gradually blossomed into love, and in 2012, they married.

Anyone seeking confirmation of their affection for each other can watch the wedding video on YouTube, or their recent appearance in a Dustbowl Revival music video. You see it in their eyes, their mutual silliness, their balanced maturity. These two are madly in love.

"I've even got Hugh Hefner beat," Van Dyke said, opening the door to a question on plenty of minds: How much does sex matter to the couple these days?

"I can still move around a little," Van Dyke said. "(Sex is) important, and thank god for things like Viagra."

The recurring theme of Keep Moving is you're as young as you will yourself to feel, what Van Dyke calls "dancing with your inner child."

"You know who I used to discuss that with a lot was Walt Disney," the author said, "who was very much about keeping the (inner) child alive. We both decided that kids have the ability to meditate, an instinctive ability that gets forced out of them.

"When you're a kid, you lay in the grass and watch the clouds going over, and you literally don't have a thought in your mind. It's purely meditation, and we lose that.

"That rule about having to act one's age? I just don't buy it."

Not now, and not way back when. As our conversation wrapped, Van Dyke told me about a memorable visit to Tampa Bay, circa 1950, when he and Phil Erickson traveled with a comedy act. Erickson's wife had recently given birth, and residents at the hotel where they performed weren't amused.

"It was a big hotel, a lot of retirees there, and always a lot of people sitting in chairs on the lawn," Van Dyke said. "We're up on the second floor, and the baby was doing a lot of crying. I noticed people looking up, a little annoyed."

Van Dyke grabbed a rubber baby doll, took it on the balcony and pretended to try and stop her crying.

"Suddenly, I just threw (the doll) over the rail," Van Dyke said, giggling at the memory. "I think I caused about five heart attacks. It was one of my best practical jokes."

That is still Van Dyke's gift after all these years, always leaving them laughing, no one heartier than himself.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

WHAT WOULD DICK DO?

Dick Van Dyke offers these suggestions to living a longer life better:

EXERCISE: "I encourage everybody to do that," Van Dyke said. "I tell these old guys it doesn't matter how late in life you start, it'll make a difference. It's going to hurt a little bit but do it."

Van Dyke goes to a local gym at 6 a.m. so often that owners gave him a key to the front door. A typical workout includes treadmill walking, weights ("nothing heavy but resistant") and pool workouts.

TAKE STAIRS STRAIGHT ON: "My first caution to everyone is: Do not start going down steps sideways. It feels good for the knees but the spine starts getting thrown off, and before you know it, you're on a walker. Go down the stairs front ways, and it'll be uncomfortable, your knees will hurt, but by god you'll save your life."

DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING, THEN NAP: "Every morning I have something to do, I'm better off. It's bad to get up and not have something to do. At my age, I'll get up and write a grocery list, or things I want to do. Then by 10 o'clock, I have to have a nap."

SING: Van Dyke sings with Arlene around the house, and with his a cappella group Vantastix, a retirement gift to himself. "I advise everyone to sing or chant or anything vocally," he said. "As you get older, your voice weakens, and it's good for the lungs. I don't know why people don't sing more."

CROSSWORD THERAPY: "I think four times in my entire life I finished the Saturday New York Times (puzzle)," Van Dyke said. "The farther I can get, the prouder I am. That's why I do it in pen; I'm not afraid of failure."

Steve Persall, Times staff writer