Mary Poppins first opened back in 1964, and so audiences have had a long time to get to know and love both the movie and its cast of characters. Then, more than 50 years on, sequel Mary Poppins Returns was released, bringing fans a new adventure featuring both the Banks family and the eponymous nanny herself. And those who have seen the follow-up film may recognize one actor who also appeared in the original: Dick Van Dyke.
While Van Dyke was on the promotional trail for Mary Poppins Returns, though, he made a revelation that may have raised some eyebrows. Yes, not only did the actor have two roles in the first movie, but he also had to fight Walt Disney himself for that double casting.
That’s probably not the only Hollywood secret that Van Dyke could spill, either, given his many decades in show business. And along the way, he’s appeared in some big movies, with Bye Bye Birdie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Night at the Museum franchise and, of course, Mary Poppins among them. Not only that, but the veteran star has been well rewarded for his work; currently, he has a Grammy, a Tony and five Primetime Emmys.
In Van Dyke’s youth, though, he didn’t think of being an actor; thanks to his religious background, he instead once considered becoming a man of the cloth. Yet even though he ultimately chose stardom, he apparently believes that there are parallels between preaching and his work on screen. “I suppose I never completely gave up my childhood idea of being a minister,” Van Dyke wrote in his 2011 autobiography, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business. “Only the medium and the message changed. I have still endeavored to touch people’s souls, to raise their spirits and put smiles on their faces.”
And Van Dyke has certainly done that. Prior to embarking on an acting career, though, he took drama classes at high school, following which he embarked on a period of service in the U.S. military as both a radio announcer and a Special Services entertainer. The future star was never actually permitted to serve in combat as he was below the minimum weight limit at the time.
When Van Dyke made it into show business, however, it was in a big way, as he scooped the lead in a 1960 production of Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway. His lack of previous dancing experience didn’t stand in the way of him winning a Tony, either. After that, the actor went to TV and The Dick Van Dyke Show, during which he ultimately won the part of chimney sweep Bert in Mary Poppins.
Walt Disney personally chose the actor, in fact. “I thought [Disney] hired me because I was such a great singer and dancer. As it turns out, he had heard me in an interview talking about what was happening to family entertainment,” Van Dyke told CNN in 2009. “That’s why he called me in, because I said something he agreed with.”
Yet while making Mary Poppins was a collaborative affair to some degree, one person had more sway than others. Yes, P.L. Travers, the author of the original Mary Poppins books, provided plenty of input when it came to the direction of the production. And among her demands were that there be no romance between Poppins and Bert – although the movie can still be read in that way.
Meanwhile, on the set, Van Dyke apparently entertained one of the young actors with whom he worked. “Dick Van Dyke became a father figure to me,” Karen Dotrice, who starred as Jane in the original movie, told The Guardian in 2013. “He was like a big baby. He would [mess] about on the sidelines, then, as soon as the camera started rolling, put on a straight face.”
Then, when Mary Poppins finally came out, audiences absolutely loved it. The Academy’s voters seemed to like the film, too, since it set a new record for Oscar nominations received by Disney films: 13 in total. Of those many nods, moreover, the picture won five awards – among them the Best Actress honor for Julie Andrews.
Travers loathed the movie, however. And Van Dyke spoke about that aversion in a 2013 interview with The Daily Telegraph. “It took Walt 20 years to talk [Travers] into giving him the rights for the picture, and then she fought him tooth and nail all the way through it,” he said. “She hated me [and] she hated Julie Andrews; she didn’t think either one of us were right.”
Indeed, even after the movie was finished and being shown, Travers still wanted it to be changed. “After the premiere, she met Walt in the lobby and said, ‘All the animation has to go,’” Van Dyke told The Daily Telegraph. “Walt said, ‘Pamela, the boat has sailed.’” And it had. But despite the author’s objections, Mary Poppins went on to be a classic.
Then, in 2013 Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the making of Mary Poppins, was released, starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, Yet while neither Van Dyke or Andrews appear in the movie, both nevertheless showed up at the film’s Los Angeles premiere and sang “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.”
One person who always knew that Mary Poppins would be a hit, however, was Disney himself. He even banked on this assertion to use the movie’s 1964 premiere to raise money for his new project, the California Institute of the Arts. In front of the film, he also included a short called The Cal Arts Story.
The California Institute of the Arts was ultimately built, of course. And it’s produced lots of notable artists over the years, too – many of whom rather neatly wound up working for Disney companies. They include Tim Burton, Brad Bird, John Lasseter and Nancy Beiman.
The incredible success of Mary Poppins is even partly responsible for the making of Disney World in Florida. That’s due to the film earning the equivalent of $252 million in today’s money, which allowed Disney to purchase 27,000 acres of Orlando land. And now, of course, a massive theme park celebrating all things Disney stands there.
Yet while Mary Poppins may be fondly remembered, one aspect of the classic film is still consistently mocked. Yes, the fake cockney accent that Van Dyke put on for his role is much maligned to this day. In 2003 the star even came second in Empire magazine’s list of the worst accents in cinema.
But Van Dyke himself has taken the ribbing all in good humor. “People from the U.K. love to tease me,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “I invented a whole new dialect. I never could do a British accent, not even in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
And the star has a good excuse for his rather inaccurate accent: it turns out that his voice coach for the movie wasn’t cockney either. He was actually an Irishman called Pat O’Malley, and as Van Dyke told Peter Sagal while on the game show Not My Job in 2010, O’Malley “didn’t do an accent any better than I did.”
The actor even expressed regret about his Mary Poppins voice when he received a special honor in 2017. Upon receiving BAFTA Los Angeles’ Britannia Award for Excellence in Television, he said, “I appreciate this opportunity to apologize to the members of BAFTA for inflicting on them the most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema.”
However, Van Dyke was far from done with the Mary Poppins franchise at that point, despite his advancing age. Disney had been keeping a sequel on the back burner for many years, despite Travers’ reservations. The author also had her own rules about how her creation should be depicted; she refused to let Disney have Poppins wear red, for instance.
But by the 2010s, things had changed. Travers had died back in 1996, and the time seemed right for a newer take on her work. In 2015, then, The Hollywood Reporter announced that a sequel to the 1964 movie was indeed on its way. And Rob Marshall, director of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, would be its director.
After that, a search took place for a woman who could fill Julie Andrews’ shoes and play the magical nanny. But it wasn’t a long process. Marshall had already worked with British actress Emily Blunt on Into the Woods, after all, and he thought that she would be perfect for the role. “There was no choice. I knew what this character needed, and Emily checked off every single box,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018.
Even so, it was a big and nerve-racking step in Blunt’s career. “[Mary Poppins is] such a nostalgic film for so many people,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “So, when Rob Marshall called to offer me the role, my first reaction was pretty much abject terror.” Nonetheless, she accepted.
And although Julie Andrews, the original Poppins, was offered a cameo role in the new movie, she declined – albeit for a good reason. Speaking to Variety in December 2018, Marshall revealed what the actress had told him. “This is Emily’s show, and I want her to run with this,” he said, quoting Andrews. “She should run with this. This is hers. I don’t want to be on top of that.”
Furthermore, Blunt admitted to Variety that she felt a bit relieved by that decision. “There was discussion about, you know, that maybe [Andrews] would come and do a bit in the movie, and she was so generous actually,” she said. They had also both worried that if audiences saw Andrews in the film, they would consider her “the real Mary Poppins.”
So, Marshall had Poppins’ casting covered. But what about Bert? Well, when it was announced that Van Dyke would be returning for the sequel, it seemed a fair bet that he was playing an older version of the chimney sweep. That didn’t turn out to be the case, however. Instead, the film’s male protagonist is a lamplighter called Jack, with Broadway star and Hamilton creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, in the part.
However, Jack still has a connection to Bert. That’s right: in the movie, the lamplighter states that he used to be an apprentice to the chimney sweep. The sequel also cleared up the question as to whether Bert had died in between films. He hadn’t, as Jack informs Mary Poppins that Bert is alive and well and traveling the world.
And in a 2018 interview with Screen Rant, Miranda went into detail about the relationship between Jack and Bert. “I think Jack apprenticed to [Bert] and was just kind of his – I just picture a little mini-Bert running around after him,” he said. “I think what Bert and Jack share is that they don’t lose the imagination that comes with childhood.”
Both Van Dyke and Miranda would team up, though, for the Mary Poppins Returns promotional campaign. In particular, they appeared together in the ABC 20/20 special for the film. And it was there that Van Dyke told Miranda all about his second role in the first Mary Poppins film and what he had done to get it.
Yes, in the original film, Van Dyke played another role in addition to Bert, although he was so hidden under makeup that people might never have noticed that it was the same person. Specifically, he portrayed Mr. Dawes Sr., an elderly bank director, after having gone to great lengths to get the part.
For one, Disney didn’t want Van Dyke to play Dawes as he thought that the actor wasn’t old enough. “I had to go to Walt and ask him for the part. He wouldn’t give it to me. I said, ‘I’ll do it for nothing,’” Van Dyke told Miranda. And that revelation surprised his co-star. “Really? I didn’t know that,” he said.
“Actually, I had to give [Disney] $4,000,” Van Dyke went on. “I paid him to do the part!” The actor once explained, too, where that money had ended up going. The cash had been donated towards Disney’s California Institute of the Arts, thereby indirectly contributing to the careers of hundreds more movie-makers.
And Van Dyke seemingly had a huge amount of fun playing Dawes, too. “When he was in costume, he was unrecognizable,” Mary Poppins songwriter Richard Sherman told The Guardian in 2013. “He used to wait till lunch on the lot, when people would be going by on scooters, and start to slowly shuffle across the road ahead of them, making them stop. Once they’d gone by, he’d run right past them and start shuffling out again.”
Plus, Van Dyke was happy to have paid out the money for the role. “I’d do it again!” he told Miranda. Yet although the actor presumably didn’t whip out his wallet to appear in Mary Poppins Returns, he did take on a similar character in the sequel: that of Mr. Dawes Jr., the son of the original character.
“[The studio] made me a gorgeous head of hair and a beard and everything,” Van Dyke told Miranda of the part. “I said, ‘Do you know you’re making-up a 91-year-old man to look like a 91-year-old man?’” But the role involved more than just makeup; Van Dyke would also have to tap dance on a desk for one scene.
“[Van Dyke’s] got the glint in his eye that he has had his entire career, and they asked a lot of him. He has a tap solo on top of a desk,” Miranda explained during an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers in December 2018. He and Blunt were also present in the tap-dancing scene, and they were somewhat nervous.
“The week before, [Blunt and I] had contingency plans. ‘If [Van Dyke] can’t get up on the desk, maybe you get under his leg. Emily, you’re spotting,’” Miranda told Meyers. “That is precious cargo, you’re not letting him touch the ground. We had all these plans in place, and then he came in, and he’s human caffeine.”
“[Van Dyke] sort of waves us away, and it was a big lunge onto a chair and onto the desk,” Blunt told USA Today in January 2019. “And he just hoofed away on that desk like there was no tomorrow. [Marshall] was so touched, he couldn’t even say cut. He was crying.” Not only that, but the then-91-year-old did the routine three more times.
So it appears, then, that Van Dyke’s tap-dancing scene went off without a hitch. And Mary Poppins Returns itself has proved to be a hit both at the box office and with critics, many of whom have praised the actors’ performances. The film has ended up gathering four Oscar nominations, in fact: Best Original Score, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design and Best Original Song for “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”
In fact, Mary Poppins Returns has been so successful that a sequel is being talked about in certain circles. Certainly there’s lots of potential source material, since Travers actually wrote eight Mary Poppins books. Van Dyke could easily return for the next movie, too, whether as Mr. Dawes or Bert – and, hopefully, he won’t have to pay for the privilege either.