‘Cowardice Got Me Into Showbiz’ — How World War II Launched Dick Van Dyke’s Career

December 14, 2021Mac Caltrider
van dyke

Dick Van Dyke left high school early to serve in the Army Air Forces during World War II. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

People magazine named Paul Rudd 2021’s sexiest man alive, and with the accolade came a slew of memes questioning how the 52-year-old actor has seemingly defied the aging process. Along with Rudd, actress Betty White — who is rapidly approaching her 100th birthday — also seems to know the location of the fountain of youth. But neither celebrity can hold a candle to World War II veteran and working actor Dick Van Dyke. 

Known for popular roles in The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Poppins, the 96-year-old American icon is still working and appears to be sharp as a tack. According to Van Dyke’s IMDb profile, his latest project is an upcoming film about two Korean War veterans — a soldier and a sailor — who fight over which of them gets to raise the flag over their retirement community each morning. In a promotional interview for the film, which is in development, Van Dyke recounts dropping out of high school to join the Army Air Forces during World War II.

Dick Van Dyke
US Army Air crews experienced some of the highest casualty rates of World War II. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“I took the physical three times. The first time I couldn’t make the weight. I was 6-feet-1, I weighed 135 pounds. You had to be 141,” Van Dyke says of his failed attempt at becoming a fighter pilot. 

Still determined to serve, Van Dyke hid in a bathroom while he chugged water and ate as many bananas as he could before getting weighed a third time. Bursting with bananas, Van Dyke finally tipped the needle to 141 and barely made the cut. 

Toward the end of basic training, his instructors informed his class that most of them would be going overseas as tail gunners for B-24s. With less than 25% of aircrews surviving the war unscathed, tail gunner was one of the military’s most dangerous jobs. When Van Dyke heard the Army recruits with special abilities could be placed in other positions, he sprang into action, literally.

Dick Van Dyke
Dick Van Dyke singing and dancing in Mary Poppins Returns in 2018 at the age of 91. Screenshot from YouTube.

“I tap-danced and sang right on the spot,” Van Dyke quipped in the interview. “I got into USO shows […] and entertaining [troops]. So cowardice got me into showbiz.”

Van Dyke now boasts a career that spans seven decades. Despite portraying doctors, judges, and priests, Van Dyke never finished high school because he left as a senior in March of 1944 for the US Army Air Forces. His alma mater awarded him his high school diploma in 2004 at a ceremony honoring the beloved actor and veteran. 

With more work on the way and an active social media presence, Van Dyke remains as busy as celebrities half his age. Although he might not be 2021’s sexiest man alive, he’s still a national treasure that must be protected at all costs.

Read Next: John Wayne and ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’: 5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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