The most exciting day in Dick Van Dyke's life was winning a race in front of a roaring crowd as a gawky underdog
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.
Weeknights 10p ET | 7p PT