What particularly struck me when I saw the old Dutch paintings again is that they were usually painted quickly. That these great masters like Hals, Rembrandt, Ruisdael – so many others – as far as possible just put it straight down – and didn't come back to it so very much. And – this, too, please – that if it worked, they left it alone. Above all I admired hands by Rembrandt and Hals – hands that lived, but were not finished in the sense that people want to enforce nowadays ... In the winter I'm going to explore various things regarding manner that I noticed in the old paintings. I saw a great deal that I needed. But this above all things – what they call – dashing off – you see that's what the old Dutch painters did famously. That – dashing off – with a few brushstrokes, they won't hear of it now – but how true the results are.
Van Dyke grew up in Danville, Illinois, with his parents Loren and Hazel and younger brother, Jerry, who also became an actor. "Danville was a town of 30,000 people, and it felt as if most of them were relatives," Van Dyke later wrote in his autobiography, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business. His father, Loren, was often away from the family, working as a traveling salesman for the Sunshine Cookie Company.
In November 1959, Van Dyke made his Broadway debut in The Girls Against the Boys. He then played the lead role of Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie, which ran from April 14, 1960, to October 7, 1961. In a May 2011 interview with Rachael Ray, Van Dyke said that when he auditioned for a smaller part in the show he had no experience as a dancer, and that after he sang his audition song he did an impromptu soft-shoe out of sheer nervousness. Gower Champion, the show's director and choreographer, was watching, and promptly went up on stage to inform Van Dyke he had the lead. An astonished Van Dyke protested that he could not dance, to which Champion replied: "We'll teach you". That musical won four Tony awards including Van Dyke's Best Featured Actor Tony, in 1961. In 1980, Van Dyke appeared as the title role in the first Broadway revival of The Music Man.