The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Dick Van Dyke

If you had to define the concept of comedy with the career of a single person, Dick Van Dyke would have a pretty good shot at being that person. Some people might remember him from his unfortunately accented role as Bert the Chimney Sweeper in Disney's "Mary Poppins," but that's just one tip in the whole mountain range of icebergs that is his lengthy tenure in the world of entertainment. In fact, as people of a certain age know, and everyone else is about to be reminded, Van Dyke is comedy. Just think of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," the legendary sitcom bearing his name. He technically played a variety show writer called Rob Petrie, but as he has said in an appearance in Bullseye with Jesse Thorn (via Maximum Fun), he essentially played himself. 

Van Dyke's physical brand of humor influenced TV comedy to such an extent that he was called in to teach the makers of Disney+'s "WandaVision" how old-school sitcom should be done. Still, the man's happy career doesn't mean that he has danced from victory to victory in life. Comedy and tragedy are often two sides of the same coin, and despite his undeniable accolades on the field of making people happy, Van Dyke's own life has often been far from joyous. But what struggles has the famous entertainer faced, and how has he kept his smiling composure throughout the difficult times? Let's take a look at the tragic real-life story of Dick Van Dyke. 

Dick Van Dyke struggled with social anxiety

Is there anyone on the planet who's more fun and infectiously happy than Dick Van Dyke? Though a quick peek at his IMDb page reveals that his most long-running role is, oddly enough, the crime-solving Dr. Mark Sloan in the comparatively serious "Diagnosis: Murder," the highlights of his excessive filmography almost invariably feature him in roles in which his assured, slightly goofy happiness and considerable knack for physical comedy are at the forefront. 

Due to his reputation as an affable sort of comedic genius, it's very easy to assume that Van Dyke is a huge extrovert who just can't help but flash that famous grin every time he sees a fellow human being. This could not be further from the truth. In a 2016 interview with Entertainment Tonight, Van Dyke revealed that he has struggled with extreme shyness, to the point that he found it difficult to approach others. "I was very shy — with strangers — I couldn't talk to people," the entertainer said. He soon found a way to treat this debilitating bashfulness, though the cure would eventually prove far worse than the ailment. "And I found if I had a drink, it would loosen me up," he said. "The barriers went down and I became very social." 

Dick Van Dyke and alcohol addiction

During a 2016 appearance in "Oprah: Where Are They Now?" (via Entertainment Tonight), Dick Van Dyke revealed that his attempts to minimize his shyness with alcohol ultimately led to a lengthy struggle with addiction. "It took me a long time to get over it," he said. In fact, he confirmed to the Bullseye with Jesse Thorn podcast (via Maximum Fun) that he didn't quit drinking until middle age and opened up on his situation before that happened. " I drank at home," Van Dyke said. "But instead of having a martini, I would have three or four martinis. ... I had no idea that I had addiction in my personality." 

Van Dyke eventually managed to stop drinking, and his decision to open up about his personal substance use issues has done plenty of good. In fact, he said that many people have found strength from his confession. "I get a lot of letters from people, who say all of a sudden they weren't ashamed to admit they had a drinking problem and they got help," he said. "So I'm very proud of that."

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

He was depressed

Dick Van Dyke struggled with alcohol addiction for a long time, and in a 2013 interview with The Telegraph (via The Fix), he said that it took a toll on his mental health. He reportedly became very depressed and even considered self-harm. "I was in deep trouble, you get suicidal and think you just can't go on," Van Dyke said. "It was just terrible." 

As strange as it is to imagine Van Dyke like this, the National Institute of Mental Health reminds that depression is a common mental health issue that can affect all kinds of people. Van Dyke was ultimately able to resolve his alcohol-induced bad situation when he grew weary of alcohol itself. "But then, suddenly, like a blessing, the drink started not to taste good," he described the change. "I would feel a little dizzy and a little nauseous and I wasn't getting the click. Today, I wouldn't want a drink for anything." However, he noted it wasn't a solo effort, and that at various points of his life he's sought help from everywhere from rehab to Alcoholics Anonymous.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

He says he almost died in a strange surfboard accident

In a 2010 interview with Craig Ferguson (via The Guardian), Dick Van Dyke shared a story of a real-life close call that would seem too much to believe if it came from anyone else — that he was once stranded at sea and got saved by a group of porpoises. It all started, he said, when he fell asleep atop a surfboard and jolted awake to discover that he was in great peril after the tide had carried him out in the sea. "I woke up out of sight of the land," the actor said. "I started paddling with the swells and I started seeing fins swimming around me, and I thought, 'I'm dead!'" However, the visitors weren't sharks. "They turned out to be porpoises, and they pushed me all the way to shore."

To be fair, the primary source for the porpoise story appears to be Van Dyke's own account, so it would possibly be a good idea to enjoy it with a pinch of salt. Still, as Today notes, dolphins, at least, have been known to aid the occasional surfer in peril, so who knows? After all, if there's one guy who would avoid certain death thanks to a whimsical chance encounter with a pod of sea mammals, it would probably be Van Dyke.

His car caught fire on a freeway

Dick Van Dyke said in 2010 that porpoises once saved him from the open sea (via The Guardian), and only a few years later, he had another, far less poetic brush with death. On August 2013, the entertainment legend's official Twitter account posted an image of an utterly destroyed Jaguar sports car, accompanied with the text, "Used Jag for sale REAL CHEAP!!" This was not just a strange little social media joke. According to The Guardian, the then-87-year-old Van Dyke had indeed been driving on Route 101 in California, when suddenly, his sports car caught fire. The actor managed to pull up safely but had to be rescued from the smoking vehicle by passersby. 

TMZ, which first reported the incident, wrote that the car was already aflame when Van Dyke was pulled out, so the situation seems to have been quite risky. Thankfully, he emerged from the burning vehicle with no injuries. As his tweet about the situation attests, his comedic timing was also as impeccable as ever. 

Dick Van Dyke's smoking problems

Even at an age in which most people would be content to lounge in a rocking chair and watch daytime soaps, Dick Van Dyke has managed to stay active. According to Chicago Tribune, he was still happily hitting the gym on a daily basis at 89, and he's written a book that discusses advanced-age fitness. However, he's very familiar with unhealthy habits, such as cigarettes. The comedian smoked for quite a long time, and as The Washington Post notes, it was far from a casual vice. In fact, he smoked up to three packs a day and fully admits that he was addicted to nicotine. 

Van Dyke has called cigarettes "the worst of all addictions." It was so difficult for him to quit smoking that he ultimately had to be literally scared away from the habit. "I tried for several years to quit smoking," the actor said. "It's just the worst. Then a doctor showed me an X-ray. He said, 'These are little emphysema scars on your lungs.' I stopped right there."

Van Dyke's smoking days are long gone, but it may not be entirely coincidental that his lungs have given him trouble in his later days. Reportedly, he's had to deal with pneumonia, and one of his lungs has even collapsed. 

The death of his long-time partner

A long-time partner's death is always a tragedy, and even though The Washington Times tells us that Dick Van Dyke's long-time love — Michelle Triola, aka Michelle Triola Marvin – died in 2009 at a fairly advanced age of 76, that's virtually middle age for the long-lived Van Dyke. As The Guardian notes, Triola and Van Dyke were together for a long time, though Triola's better-known relationship is arguably her six-year one with Lee Marvin. Triola never married either Marvin or Van Dyke, though she did take Marvin's name. This ended up making legal history after they separated in 1970, and Marvin stopped his agreed payments to her. The ensuing, lengthy legal battle established the concept of palimony — "divorce" payments in cases of unmarried couples who live together but break up (per Cambridge Dictionary). 

Triola's death was hard for Van Dyke for more than just the obvious reasons. He'd just lost his ex-wife to cancer in 2008, and though he had an idea of what the end result of Triola's lung cancer diagnosis would be, he was determined to remain confident that there was a chance she'd survive — at least on the outside. "When she asked if she was going to die, I pretended I didn't know — the hardest acting I have ever done," Van Dyke said.

He suffered from a strange neurological problem

Imagine having a strange neurological disorder that causes you no end of discomfort, and that no one seems to be able to properly diagnose. Now, imagine having to live with it for a whopping seven years, and you have an idea of what Dick Van Dyke went through, per Entertainment Tonight (via The Huffington Post). The actor's condition consisted of a strange, heartbeat-like sound inside his head, and none of the numerous treatments and tests he'd gone through managed to solve the problem. Over the years, it got so bad that it severely affected his ability to function, due to the sheer fatigue it caused.

In 2013, Van Dyke revealed the situation when he took to Twitter to crowdsource solutions to his mystery ailment. "My head bangs every time I lay down," he wrote. "I've had every test come back that I'm perfectly healthy. Anybody got any ideas?" This openness may have led to a breakthrough, because a few weeks after his initial tweet, his Twitter account posted that Case Throbbing Head was finally solved ... and that the root cause of the problem was his famous smile. "It seems that my titanium dental implants are the cause of my head pounding," Van Dyke wrote. "Has anyone else experienced this? Thanks for all your replies."

Dick Van Dyke had an affair that ended his marriage

Not all tragedies in a person's life necessarily happen to them. Sometimes, bad behavior can lead to tragedy — like when Dick Van Dyke had an affair that ended his marriage with Margie Willett (per Country Living). In 1972, Van Dyke and Willett were both treated for addiction — he to alcohol, she to prescription drugs. Van Dyke later told The Guardian that he feels this was a sign of even bigger troubles, since he led the high life of a famous star, and she had little interest in such matters. "Our addictions were symptomatic of deeper problems in our relationship and we were drifting apart," he said. Unfortunately, he decided to deal with this by starting an affair with Michelle Triola, who worked for his agent and was a former actress herself. "I was involved with a woman other than my wife," Van Dyke wrote in his memoir. "It was unbelievable. I was writhing in guilt. By 1976 I had to do something. I had to be honest."

Said honesty was the final nail in the coffin of their marriage, seeing as Willett and Van Dyke decided to live apart and eventually divorced in 1984. Still, while their relationship ultimately ended because of his infidelity, Van Dyke says that Willett's illness and death in 2008 took a heavy toll on him. "Even though we were long divorced, with her death I lost a part of myself," he has said.

His 13-year-old granddaughter died from a rare disease

In 1987, Jessica Van Dyke, Dick's 13-year-old granddaughter by his son Christian Van Dyke, was living in Cleveland, Ohio, with her mother and stepfather. On March 30, sick with the chickenpox, she tried to treat her symptoms with aspirin. Her condition grew worse, and she started vomiting, which her family took as another symptom. But when Jessica became delirious three days later, she was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with Reye's syndrome.

Reye's syndrome is a rare disorder than can develop while recovering from a viral infection like chickenpox. According to the NIH, the cause is unknown, but there may be a link to aspirin use in younger people. The condition results in fat accumulation in the body's organs, with particular pressure put upon the brain. There is no cure, and treatment is based on preventing or mitigating brain damage.

Jessica died several days after being diagnosed with Reye's syndrome. Besides her grandfather, she was survived by her father, mother, stepfather, and two siblings.