In the early 1960s, when Dick Van Dyke signed on to star in his eponymous sitcom, he thought casting Mary Tyler Moore to play his wife was absurd.


He was 36 at the time, and she was just 25. “Isn’t she a little young for me?” he asked producers.

That was half a century ago. Today, Van Dyke is 90 years old, and the age gap between him and his current wife, makeup artist Arlene Silver, is, well . . . a little more extreme. She’s 45, or exactly half his age. Back when he was worrying about Mary Tyler Moore being too young, his future wife was still 9 years away from being born.

Dick Van Dyke is living proof that men can get better with age. Or maybe just more gangster. He’s not your typical old guy who marries a younger woman; he’s not the pickled oil tycoon to his wife’s Anna Nicole Smith. Van Dyke is still very much vibrant and active.

He and his wife celebrated his 90th birthday last December with a flash mob and a private bash at Disneyland. (If you make Walt Disney a bazillion dollars by co-starring in Mary Poppins, you pretty much get the run of the park whenever you want.)

His latest book, Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging, will make you feel lazy for every second you sat on your butt when you could’ve been dancing on a roof like a chimney sweep who’d just done the “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” with a younger woman.

We called Van Dyke to ask about his secrets to growing old without becoming old, and to find out once and for all why he and Mary Tyler Moore slept in separate beds.

Men’s Health: How often during an average day do you break into a dance for no apparent reason?

Dick Van Dyke: Quite a bit, actually. You go into any store today and they’re playing music, usually something with a heavy beat. I’ve got what Steve Martin calls happy feet. I hear music and my feet just start moving.

MH: How do people react when you spontaneously start gyrating your hips like a crazy person?

DVD: [Laughs] That’s exactly it. I think most people just assume I’m a crazy old man who’s lost his mind. If they recognize me, it’s okay. They’ll smile and go, “That’s just Dick.” But if they just catch a glimpse of me from behind, I’m pretty sure they’re thinking, “Oh, that poor man. He has no idea where he is.”

MH: Can you still bust out with a Mary Poppins chimney sweep dance?

DVD: Oh sure, yeah. Disney just did a big 60th anniversary tribute, and they invited me to come and do the chimney sweep dance with a bunch of kids. I can still do. I’m not jumping off buildings, but the basics of it I can handle. When I was younger, I met Fred Astaire when he was in his mid-80s, and I asked him, “Do you still dance?” He said, “Yes, but it hurts now.” [Laughs.] I finally know what he means. It’s an honest answer.

MH: It hurts when you dance?

DVD: Sometimes. I’ve got plenty of arthritis. But if you keep moving, it won’t bother you that much. That’s why old guys stiffen up. They forget they have to get out of their chairs and do something. You let the moss grow over, it’s your own fault.

MH: Many guys can’t dance, or at least think they can’t dance, so they avoid it altogether. We don’t want to look like morons. Any advice to get us back on the dance floor?

DVD: There’s that great old saying: “Sing like nobody can hear you, dance like nobody can see you, and love like you’ve never been hurt.”

MH: Yeah that’s super, but the thing is, people actually can see you, and they’re grimacing.

DVD: Well, phooey to them. You just have to ignore the . . . what do you call them? The haters.

MH: Haters gonna hate.

DVD: Exactly! Haters are going to hate. I always loved to dance, but I never had a clue what I was doing. I’ve never been what you’d call a great singer, but I loved to sing. Anyone who doesn’t sing and dance at every opportunity is missing out on the joy of life.

MH: You’ve had no formal training in any of the skill sets you’re famous for. Singing, acting, dancing, you faked your way through all of it.

DVD: [Laughs.] That’s right! That shows you how lazy I am. Once I got a job singing and dancing, a reasonable person might think, “Maybe I should learn how to do this.” But no, I never did.

MH: Is the ultimate lesson of your career, “If you want to be great at something, don’t go to school?”

DVD: No, no, no! [Laughs.] Young people ask me for advice, and I tell them to do what I didn’t do. Get some training. I took jobs that required talents I didn’t have.

MH: And yet it worked out pretty well for you.

DVD: But that’s not the way to do it.

MH: Are you sure? You’re living proof that jumping into the deep end of the pool when you can’t swim doesn’t always end with you drowning.

DVD: I guess that’s true. Okay, never mind, I like your version better. [Laughs.]

MH: What about pratfalls? You’re a master of physical comedy. Were you trained professionally in falling on your ass?

DVD: I taught myself everything. I grew up watching Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, all those slapstick guys. My friends and I just loved them, so we practiced pratfalls in our back yards. By the time I was a teenager, I could fall like a pro. I met Stan Laurel once. I had a million questions for him about comedy. And I found him by accident, in the phone book. I saw his name and thought, “It can’t be the real one.” I called him, and sure enough it was him. He invited me over for a visit.

MH: Some of our readers may not be familiar with what you mean by a “phone book.”

DVD: My gosh, you’re right!

MH: Could you explain what you’re talking about?

DVD: Well, it was a book, made of paper, that the telephone company issued every six months, and it had the phone numbers of everybody in it. It was how you found people.

MH: So it was like Twitter?

DVD: Yes, but it only had numbers in it.

MH: Ah, okay. It was a book of HTML code?

DVD: Yes, in a way. [Laughs.] Isn’t it crazy that we have to explain things like this? The other day, I was talking about a rumble seat. Remember those?

MH: That was before our time.

DVD: It was the seat in the back of a sport coupe. On some cars back then, you had to attach them. They didn’t come standard. I had an uncle who had a car with a rumble seat, and I used to love to ride in that thing. I mentioned this to some kids, and they were like, “What are you even talking about?”

MH: [With a cranky old man impression.] When we were growing up, our cars didn’t have back seats! You had to pay extra!

DVD: Exactly. You had to wind them . . . like men.

MH: And then we’d honk our horns at Hitler.

DVD: It was the only way he’d learn.

MH: What were we talking about again? Pratfalls.

DVD: There aren’t many pratfalls in comedy anymore.

MH: In all your years of doing them, did you ever break a nose or a rib?

DVD: Never. Even today I can negotiate a fall. Last summer, I was in a hotel lobby, and they had this long marble staircase that led down to a marble floor. I tripped on one of the steps and tumbled down the stairs. Everybody ran over to see if the old guy was okay.

MH: Well sure. That’s how people in their 90s die.

DVD: I was fine. I just laughed and said, “Relax, everybody. I do this for a living.” Evidently my bones are still pretty sturdy.

MH: It’s been over 50 years since Mary Poppins. Have you gotten any better at doing a cockney accent?

DVD: Nope.

MH: Still terrible?

DVD: Worse than terrible. And everybody reminds me about it.

MH: Sorry. We shouldn’t have brought it up.

DVD: No, no, it’s not just you. I ran into Helen Mirren a couple of weeks ago and she teased me about it. The strange thing is, when I did the movie, I was surrounded by a cast of British actors. And not a single one of them ever said, “Hey, why don’t you work on that accent a little? You don’t sound even remotely British.”

MH: You made your acting debut playing the baby Jesus in a church Christmas pageant.

DVD: That’s right! I can’t remember how old I was, but I remember getting a laugh.

MH: You were a funny baby Jesus?

DVD: Yes, sir. Got a huge laugh. That’s what got me addicted to performing. I’m not sure what I did, but I know people laughed, and I thought that was pretty cool. Right then and there, I was like, “I need to keep doing this.”

MH: Now that you’re in your 90s, maybe it’s time to play another biblical figure. Noah or Moses or any of those guys who lived into their 100s?

DVD: I would love to be Moses.

MH: Maybe Moses with a jaunty dance number?

DVD: [Laughs.] That’d be great. He probably danced a little, right? You don’t part the Red Sea without having some moves.

MH: And you need to have a few songs. [Sings.] “You Pharaohs outta know/ gotta let my people go!”

DVD: Oh yeah. [Snaps fingers.] That’s real nice. We should totally do this.

MH: Let’s talk about your wife. She’s younger than you, right?

DVD: Just a little. Why, what have you heard? [Laughs.]

MH: Do you have to keep up with her, or does she keep up with you?

DVD: She claims she has to keep up with me, but it’s really the other way around. You want the secret to being with a younger woman?

MH: Please tell us.

DVD: I’ll tell you the secret.

MH: We’re begging you.

DVD: I’m emotionally immature, and she’s an old soul. So we meet in the middle.

MH: Do you sleep in separate beds like on The Dick Van Dyke Show?

DVD: We have separate bedrooms.

MH: No. Seriously?

DVD: I think that’s the answer to a good marriage. Everyone has their own room.

MH: Can you just not sleep in the same bed with her? Does she have the jimmy legs?

DVD: Nothing like that. I just think everyone needs their own private space. And then you make a date. It’s a special thing.

MH: But did the twin beds on The Dick Van Dyke Show make you crazy? You’re pretend-married to Mary Tyler Moore, and you didn’t even get to curl up next to her. That’s so not fair.

DVD: Back in those days, you were not allowed to sleep in the same bed on television. We couldn’t say the word “pregnant” in an episode about being pregnant. The first one that got to sleep in a double bed on TV was Bob Newhart. I called him and said, “You son of a gun!” [Laughs.] If you watch TV now, I think things have gone a little far in the other direction.

MH: There are lots of naked asses on display.

DVD: I’m so tired of seeing rear ends. Just put some pants on, for the love of god.

MH: You’ll never be on a show like True Detective or Game of Thrones?

DVD: Nope. I’ve had offers to do all those shows, but I can’t. I’m the anti-Quentin Tarantino.

MH: But it’d be so great to see you as a chain-smoking, alcoholic cop who sleeps with prostitutes and is investigating a series of grisly cult murders.

DVD: Oh gosh, no. That sounds horrible. I couldn’t do any of that. I could probably play an alcoholic. I’ve had some experience with that.

MH: That’s still hard to believe. We can’t even picture you drunk, much less struggling with an actual addiction.

DVD: I wasn’t a falling-in-the-gutter type. I drank at home because it relaxed me. I was shy around new people, but after a drink or two, I became more sociable.

MH: And your drink of choice was Jack Daniels?

DVD: That was the one.

MH: You know who else drank a lot of Jack Daniels? Keith Richards.

DVD: Who?

MH: The guitarist from the Rolling Stones.

DVD: Oh yeah, that guy. He looks terrible. How old is he again?

MH: 72.

DVD: Just 72? He looks much older than that.

MH: He looks more like 90, and you look more like 72.

DVD: He hasn’t taken the best care of himself.

MH: But neither have you. Didn’t you smoke two packs of cigarettes every day for almost 50 years?

DVD: That’s right. And thank goodness I stopped. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’ve talked to heroin addicts, and they’ve told me that quitting heroin is easier. I have a little COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), but I really don’t notice it.

MH: It’s amazing that you’re still alive. Half a century of chain-smoking, you should be talking out of one of those mechanical larynx things.

DVD: [Laughs.] I really should be.

MH: The booze, the cigarettes, falling down marble stairs. Weren’t you dragged out of a burning car a few years ago?

DVD: Oh yeah. But that wasn’t as bad as the news made it sound.

MH: The car was on fire, and you were inside it.

DVD: Yes, but I was planning on getting out eventually.

MH: Any other brushes with death we should know about?

DVD: Well, there was one time not long ago, I was surfing down in Georgia. I fell asleep on the board and it drifted out to sea. I woke up, and I saw these fins all around me, and I just assumed they were sharks.

MH: You’re chum in the water.

DVD: That’s what I thought. “Well, this is it. It’s all over.” But it was just a school of porpoises. They surrounded me and started pushing me toward shore. They nudged me all the way in.  

MH: Oh come on!

DVD: I’m not kidding. Porpoises saved my life.

MH: Okay, well that settles it. You’re clearly immortal.

DVD: [Laughs.] Well I don’t know about that.

MH: There are half a dozen reasons you should be dead right now. And yet here you are. You are literally invisible. Everybody thinks it’s Keith Richards, but it’s really you. You’ve discovered the secret to eternal life.

DVD: I really haven’t. You know what it is? I’ll tell you.

MH: We’re all ears.

DVD: I originally wanted to call my book “How To Enjoy Yourself While Circling The Drain.” And you know why? Because that’s what life is all about. We all know we’re going to die. We’re all circling the drain. Some of us are closer than others. I’m 90, I know I’m closer to the drain than most people.

MH: And you’re okay with that?

DVD: You have to be okay with that. Because it’s going to happen. If you spend your life thinking, “I wonder if today is when it ends,” you’re going to miss out on everything wonderful. You’re going to die. That’s going to happen. What matters is what you do with your time before you get flushed out.

(This story appeared, in a slightly different form, in the October 2016 issue of Men’s Health.)