By Marc Snetiker
December 20, 2018 at 11:30 AM EST
Jay Maidment/Disney
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Dick Van Dyke says that when he heard Disney was developing a sequel to Mary Poppins, his first reaction was, “Can I be in it?” It stands to reason that the only proper response anyone in Hollywood could have to the legend’s question would be another question: Are you kidding?!

“I was so shocked that Dick Van Dyke wanted to do this,” says director Rob Marshall, who cites 1964’s Mary Poppins as the first film he ever saw and can now successfully show off Van Dyke in a scene-stealing cameo in the 2018 sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. “I was so nervous talking to him because, I mean, it’s Dick Van Dyke!” Marshall continues. “He’s a hero of mine. First of all, I’m like his biggest fan. I know there are millions of fans, but I really feel like one of his biggest. I know every Dick Van Dyke Show [episode] intimately. Of course I know Bye Bye Birdie and all of them, but I go even past Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. You know, Robinson Crusoe that he did for Disney, and so, so many others. I just was a humongous fan. And so hopefully he felt that support and love immediately over the phone, because he said ‘yes’ right away. That was an amazing thing.”

To the director, the excitement was not just in getting Van Dyke’s stamp of approval on the movie by virtue of the 93-year-old appearing in it, but also the ease with which the filmmakers were able to find the perfect place for him to pop up. In Mary Poppins Returns, the whereabouts of Van Dyke’s chimney sweep Bert are explained away quite early on as “traveling the world, off to parts unknown.” However, the same cannot be said for the Dawes family, and in Marshall’s sequel, Van Dyke plays banker Mr. Dawes Jr., whose father he played in the 1964 film.

“I thought, ‘Well, this is handy. I’ve grown into the part. I won’t need any make-up!’” Van Dyke said in a press-kit interview with Disney. “And they put mustaches and wigs and muttonchops and everything, and I said, ‘You guys realize you’re making up a 90-year-old to look like a 90-year-old? He actually, for me, looked too good. Mr. Dawes in the first one was kind of scruffy. This guy was pretty well-turned-out!”

But Marshall has a different outlook: “Here he was playing a dual role in the first film and basically playing this old man, and now he is quote-unquote ‘that age,’ but you know what? He still had to play it old because he’s not that at all. He’s so youthful!”

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And yes, reader, to answer your next question: That was Dick Van Dyke, all Dick Van Dyke, Dick Van Dyking all over that table in that brief dance break during the film’s climax in the bank. No stunt double needed — because Van Dyke did all of them.

“Every… one,” promises Marshall. “Oh, I could never… I would never do a double for him. Never. All of that is him, every bit of it. And in fact, when he jumped on the desk, we had put a stool, a chair, and then the desk, and [Lin-Manuel Miranda] was there to help him up. He didn’t use Lin’s hand. He didn’t even use the stool. He just jumped up. We were like, ‘What did he just do!?’ Because he could, and he was so excited to do that. And we did it a few times! It’s not like we just did one take!”

Emily Blunt and Miranda, who play Mary Poppins and Jack (Bert’s apprentice), remember it fondly. “He just waved us away, almost like, ‘Get out of my way.’ He was so game and so agile,” says Blunt, who adds that she and Miranda were reduced to pure grinning mannequins during the scene (so much so, you can even see it in the finished film). “There was no acting required,” laughs Miranda. In fact, when EW was on the set of Mary Poppins Returns in 2017 just a day after Van Dyke, Miranda was still glowing. (“Imagine how cool you think Dick Van Dyke is, and double that — that’s how cool he was,” Miranda had said. “Honestly I just spent the whole time grilling him about Bye Bye Birdie.”)

Although Mary Poppins Returns had its share of emotionally-charged days on set, many members of the production count the day with Van Dyke as far and away the most magical. For Miranda, it was because of an off-script tangent. Van Dyke had already improvised during his time on set — he began reciting the “wooden leg named Smith” joke from the 1964 film, which Marshall decided to keep in his finished cut — but according to Miranda, Van Dyke brought another improvisation, one that struck more of a chord. (Well, a few chords, technically.) Miranda recalls, “He has this beautiful monologue, but then he also sang ‘Feed the Birds.’ Now, I never saw the end of Mary Poppins until I was in high school because when I was a kid, ‘Feed the Birds’ would come on and that melody was so sad, I would burst into tears and turn off the movie. So to have Dick Van Dyke beautifully performing this incredible monologue and then those notes, which still wreck me to this day… it was very tough holding it together.”

Blunt had a special moment of her own with Van Dyke. “He did do this one wonderful thing, which I will probably cry even thinking about,” she says. “We were sitting on set and we were chatting about the original, and there was a little lull in the conversation and he just leaned over and held my hand and [sang], ‘It’s a jolly holiday with Maaary…’ It was so special.”

But Blunt says that more than anything, Van Dyke’s time on set marked “the day that Rob cried, hard. I knew that Rob was struggling to hold it together because Dick finished his speech and there was a huge pause and no one was saying ‘Cut.’” As Marshall tells it, Van Dyke’s monologue to the Banks children did him in. “He tells this story to the kids, and it was so moving to me, I honestly couldn’t say the word. I was weeping. Because it was just the whole thing. All of it. It was him, in this film, in my film, playing this character, in Mary Poppins, still [being] here, plus he’s so good… it was all that.”

On a production where high expectations were rampant since the film’s first announcement, Van Dyke’s presence allowed a small dose of the heft of the project to seep in for cast members like Blunt, who had compartmentalized the pressure of reinventing the iconic role and tried her best to treat Mary like any other character. “We all realized that this really was the next chapter and what an honor it was to carry this on,” Blunt says. “[Rob] kept it so that you didn’t feel the bigness too much — we just focused on this story and these people and this moment — but then when Dick came on set, it was quite disarming for everybody, I think, in an extraordinary way.”

Disarming, yes, but also dazzling. “He’s just so extraordinary,” Marshall says. “He walked on to our set and said, ‘I feel the same spirit here that I felt on the original.’ And for us, that was another dream come true.”

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