The couple separated in 1976 after Van Dyke admitted he had started an affair with Michelle Triola, as he explained in his memoir “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business.” But Van Dyke and Willett didn’t formally divorce until the mid-1980s.
Willett died in 2008 at age 81 after battling pancreatic cancer.
Van Dyke was recognized during this year’s Kennedy Center Honors. The ceremony was recorded in May and is being broadcast tonight (June 6) at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on CBS. It’s also being streamed on Paramount+. Van Dyke’s current wife, Arlene Silver, attended the event with him.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Willett Dumped Her High School Boyfriend for Van Dyke
Willett and Van Dyke grew up together in Danville, Illinois. It’s a small town located along Illinois’ eastern border with Indiana.
In his memoir “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business,” Van Dyke described Willett as a “local girl” he had known for years. They started dating in 1945 when Van Dyke was 20. Van Dyke wrote that Willett had dumped her high school boyfriend in order to be with him:
All through high school, she had dated a boy who was on both the football and wrestling teams. His neck was thicker than my entire body. After she ditched him for me, he wanted to kill me. We would be sitting in her parents’ living room and suddenly hear him out front yelling, “Van Dyke, come out here! I’ll bust you up!” Given that he loved to fight, I took that as my signal to race out the back door. He never did catch on or catch me.
Van Dyke wrote he and a friend opened an advertising business after he started dating Willett. But the business didn’t last long and Van Dyke returned to a local radio station, where he had worked as a high school student.
2. The Couple Got Married on a Radio Show
Van Dyke and Willett decided to tie the knot. But as he told The Guardian in a 2016 interview, the couple was “too broke to get married.”
But a radio show changed that dynamic. Van Dyke and Willett exchanged vows in 1948 on an ABC show called Bride and Groom. According to Distractify, about 1,000 couples were married during the show’s tenure.
Van Dyke told The Guardian that in exchange for participating on Bride and Groom, the show paid for a honeymoon. Van Dyke said about 15 million people listened to their marriage ceremony.
3. Willett & Van Dyke Were Evicted From Their Malibu Apartment As She Suffered a Miscarriage in the Late 1940s; They Went on to Have 4 Children
Willett and Van Dyke lived in Malibu early on in his acting career. Van Dyke wrote in his memoir that the couple found a duplex and “loved living at the beach.” Willett became pregnant with twins during this time period but the pregnancy ended with a miscarriage.
Van Dyke explained that while they were at the hospital, their landlord in Malibu evicted them for failure to pay rent. Van Dyke’s career involved traveling the country after that. According to CNN, he performed with comedic partner Philip Erickson from 1947 to 1953 as “The Merry Mutes.” Van Dyke was then based in Atlanta until 1955 as a television emcee.
As Van Dyke continued to pursue his acting and comedy career, he and Willett went on to have four children: Christian, Barry, Stacy and Carrie. According to CheatSheet, their sons were born in Atlanta. Their first daughter was born in New Orleans in 1954. The youngest daughter arrived in 1961 in Los Angeles.
4. Willett Wasn’t a Fan of Hollywood & Preferred the Family’s Ranch in Arizona
As Van Dyke’s career in Hollywood took off, Willett wasn’t always comfortable with her husband’s fame and the lifestyle that came with it. He opened up to The Guardian about how Willett struggled with it. “[Margie] was shunted aside at showbiz events by people wanting to chat to me. She wore her hair short and eschewed makeup, and we were often mistaken for brother and sister,” Van Dyke said. “Once, when I appeared on a magazine cover, Margie snapped up six copies and the cashier asked if she was my mother.”
According to an excerpt from his memoir published by The Daily Mail, Van Dyke wrote that Willett “didn’t like Hollywood, or its stars, but she made an exception when, in 1972, we were invited to dinner – cooked by Frank Sinatra.” Van Dyke said Willett had badly hoped Sinatra would sing that night but Sinatra had not been in the mood to perform.
5. Willett Checked Into Rehab for an Addiction to Antidepressants as Van Dyke Struggled With Alcoholism
Van Dyke had an iconic career in Hollywood but it wasn’t without struggles. He struggled with alcoholism and checked himself into rehab in 1972. According to an excerpt from his memoir published by The Daily Mail, Van Dyke learned about Willett’s own struggles with addiction when she came to pick him up from rehab:
On my last day, Margie came to pick me up. However, after a few minutes, the counselor came in and said that Margie was taking over my room. ‘She just checked herself in,’ he said. It turned out Margie had a problem with Librium. She’d been taking the drug for anxiety and depression and become hooked. I had no idea. We were quite a pair – a drunk and an addict.
Van Dyke went on to explain how he started confiding in his agent’s secretary, Michelle Triola, in 1975. Their relationship became romantic and by 1976, Van Dyke admitted to Willett that he had been having an affair. He and Willett were separated from that time on. He told The Guardian their divorce was finalized in 1984.
Willett died in 2008 from pancreatic cancer. She was 81. There is no record of Willett ever remarrying following the divorce from Van Dyke. He told The Guardian he “lost a part of myself” when Willett died.
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