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Dick Van Dyke gets award of a lifetime

LOS ANGELES – He’s acted, danced and sang his way through movies, television and the stage, making Dick Van Dyke an entertainment triple-threat long before Hollywood used such hyphenates.

The 87-year-old actor, best known for the 1960s hit comedy “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and Disney’s big-screen musical “Mary Poppins,” can now add lifetime achievement honoree. He picked up that honor at Sunday night’s 19th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

“I’ve knocked around in this business for 70 years and I still haven’t quite figured out exactly what it is I do,” Van Dyke said after accepting his trophy from presenter Alec Baldwin.

“The years have been full of surprises for me and a lot of fun. Aren’t we lucky to have found a line of work that doesn’t require growing up?”

Van Dyke’s career has spanned eight decades, starting with work as a disc jockey and a standup comic in the late ’40s. He even worked as a national TV morning-show host, with no less than Walter Cronkite serving as his news anchor.

But perhaps Van Dyke’s most critical career break came in 1960, when director Gower Champion hired him as the male lead opposite Chita Rivera in the new Broadway-bound stage musical “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Van Dyke had no professional dance experience, and out-of-town tryouts did not go well. Nevertheless, Champion refused to fire the actor, who would go on to New York with Rivera and win a Tony award for his performance.

About a year later, Van Dyke was starring in his own sitcom, in the role of TV comedy writer Rob Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Three prime-time Emmys for Van Dyke and more than 50 years later, the series remains revered by many critics as one of the earliest models of great workplace comedy.

“ ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ was the most fun I ever had and the most creative period of my life,” he said on the red carpet.

During the series’ run, Van Dyke also enjoyed big-screen hits, including the 1963 “Birdie” movie and the 1964 all-star comedy, “What a Way to Go!” But biggest of all was “Mary Poppins,” in which he introduced the Oscar-winning song “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”

“I’m world-famous for my Cockney accent,” Van Dyke kidded in his acceptance speech. He has said his British-born co-star, Julie Andrews, told him he never got the accent right.

Van Dyke also saluted the room full of actors who gave him a standing ovation.

“I’m looking at the greatest generation of actors in the history of acting. You’ve all lifted the art to another place now,” he said. “Besides that you’re everywhere. You’re in Darfur, Somalia, Haiti. You’re all over the place trying to do what’s right.

“This very heavy object here means that I can refer to you as my peers. I’m a happy man, God bless.”

Last year, Van Dyke presented the same lifetime achievement honor to his former TV co-star, Mary Tyler Moore.

These days, Van Dyke sings with his vocal group, The Vantasix, and enjoys life with his wife of one year, makeup artist Arlene Silver. The couple met seven years ago at the SAG Awards.

“They tell me you never work again once you get this award,” Van Dyke said on the red carpet. “I’ll have to let them know I’m available.”

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