Dick Van Dyke turned 98 years-old just before Christmas, a remarkable run for an actor who has been a household name for generations.

Perhaps best known for his Emmy Award winning television program, aptly named The Dick Van Dyke Show the seemingly eternally spry entertainer is also beloved for his starring roles in the classic family movies, Mary Poppins and Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang.

Born in Missouri and growing up in Illinois, Van Dyke was bitten by the entertainment bug in high school. He dropped out to join World War II.

Disqualified to fly due to his low weight, the teenager served as a radio announcer for the Special Services, an entertainment division of the military.

Discharged in 1946, Van Dyke’s earliest pursuits centered on radio and the stage. Fame and stardom didn’t really come until his Broadway work on “Bye Bye Birdie” eventually led him to the television show bearing his name. By then he was married with four children. After reading and studying the Bible, he was determined walk the narrow and moral road.

Writing in his memoir, My Lucky Life, In and Out of Show Business, he recalls a key turning point in his career and conversation with his agent:

What kind of films did I want to make? Where did I see myself going in terms of movies? What sort of scripts should he look for?

“I’ve thought about this,” I said, “and I’m pretty clear on it. I only want to make movies that my four children can see.”

“Only kids’ movies?” he asked.

“Not kids’ movies,” I clarified. “I want to make movies that I can see with my kids and not feel uncomfortable.”

I wanted to be able to talk about my work at the dinner table and hold my head up on Sundays when my wife and I led our children into the Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where I was an elder. You were not going to see me acting up at Hollywood parties. For the most part, you weren’t going to see me at any Hollywood parties. I stayed home.

Around the same time, Van Dyke wrote publicly about his Christian convictions in Guideposts Magazine, and specifically about interacting with a young man who questioned the reliability of the Bible.

Take the objections my young friend had: the writing is old-fashioned, he said. Well, I suppose that’s true, if you’re talking about the King James Version. After all, it was written more than 300 years ago. But the Bible has been translated many times before and since.

And as for the notion that the Bible is full of negatives, that’s mostly nonsense too. The Bible is a handbook for living. And so it does contain rules — rules hammered out over the centuries on the anvil of human experience.

There’s tragedy, sure, and violence and all the great clashing human emotions: courage and cowardice, greed and selflessness, hatred, jealousy, pride, anger … all the ingredients that go into any great love story or great action story.

And out of these ingredients the men who wrote the Bible drew conclusions about what works and what doesn’t work in human affairs. That’s why the Bible, far from being something to run from, is a book to live by.

Anyone who does try to live by the Bible sooner or later comes across a text that seems designed especially for him. For me it’s that tremendous question in Matthew 16:26: What does it profit a man if be gain the whole world but lose his own soul?

If that’s where the Dick Van Dyke story ended, or at least where his Christian testimony began, there would be little doubt where the actor is spiritually today.

 If only.

Van Dyke became disillusioned with his church in the 1970s over what he saw as hypocritical behavior regarding a racial issue. Tragically, he walked away and soon succumbed to alcoholism. His near 40-year marriage ended due to an affair.

It’s not clear where Van Dyke is spiritually these days, though his memoir, written when he was 85, points to something of a universalist theology.

 “Was there one way?” he asks. “No, not as far as I could tell – other than to feel loved, to love back, and to do the things that make you feel as if your life has meaning and value, which can be as simple as making sure you spend time helping make life a little better for other people. I decided if I could manage that I wouldn’t have any serious problems were there to actually be a Judgment Day.”

CBS Television produced a special to celebrate his birthday last month and titled it, Dick Van Dyke: 98 Years of Magic. It featured career highlights and his legendary singing and dancing. In reality, there’s been nothing “magical” about Van Dyke’s last century. Instead, it was God who gifted and equipped him, raising up a rare and enviable talent that has entertained millions for decades.

Dick Van Dyke has given many of us years of enjoyment on the big and small screens. As Christians, it’s now our turn to give him our prayers that he would finish well and in fellowship with His creator.


Image from Getty.