How World War II Helped Set Dick Van Dyke Up For His Career

In 1944, at a U.S. Air Force recruiting office, a skinny teenager stood nervously on the scale and watched the counter slide into balance: 135 pounds. At 6-foot-1, the recruiting officer told him, he'd have to gain 6 pounds if he wanted to enlist. The young man was determined to fight, though. He slipped out of the office and got his hands on a bunch of bananas. He ate them all, drank as much water as he could handle, and returned to the recruiting office, belly uncomfortably distended. He just barely made it. 

No one knew, at the time, that swallowing 6 pounds of bananas and water was the first serious comedic performance of a legendary American actor, Dick Van Dyke. Now aged 96, the beloved film and TV star owes his entertainment career to his two years in the Air Force during World War II (via Coffee or Die).

Out of danger and onto the stage

"Cowardice got me into showbiz," Dick Van Dyke said recently. As hard as he tried to get into the military, he had a change of heart when he heard that he was likely to be assigned a tail gunner role in a B-24 Liberator. These were massive bombers, and as such massive targets for German fighter planes. The Aviation History Online Museum notes that on March 6, 1944 — around the time young Dick Van Dyke was enlisting — 68 B-24s were shot down in one day over Berlin.

Van Dyke loved the country, but certain death wasn't the way he wanted to express it. When he heard an officer mention that airmen with special talents could be given non-combat roles, Van Dyke had an epiphany. The lanky teen could sing decently well and tap dance: surely that counted as a special talent? His officers agreed, and soon Van Dyke was in the USO, dancing and entertaining the troops overseas. The role suited him so well that he never stopped. As of 2022, IMDb still shows him making movies.