By Steve Gorman and Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Veteran actor Dick Van Dyke, best known for his hit television comedy of the 1960s, survived a car fire unscathed on Monday when a passerby pulled him from the smoldering vehicle before it burst into flames on the side of a Los Angeles-area freeway.
A spokesman for the California Highway Patrol confirmed that the 87-year-old performer was the driver seen slumped over the steering wheel of a Jaguar that was reported to be on fire on the shoulder of the Ventura Freeway.
Van Dyke said a group of motorists who stopped to render assistance, one of them apparently an off-duty firefighter, saw him huddled in the driver's seat while he was trying to place a call for help and pulled him out of the car to safety.
"They thought I had passed out so they yanked me out of the car," Van Dyke recounted in an interview with the celebrity news website TMZ.com, saying he had not initially realized that his car was burning.
"It just started making a noise, and I thought I had a flat at first, then it started to smoke, then it burned to a crisp," he said smiling. He added that he was unhurt and got out of the vehicle "long before" it went up in flames.
Still, he counted himself lucky to be alive.
"Not only that, there was a fireman, a nurse and a cop just happened to be passing by. Somebody's looking after me."
The actor's publicist, Bob Palmer, said the car, a "brand new" Jaguar, inexplicably caught fire after Van Dyke heard an unusual noise while driving and pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway.
He quoted Van Dyke, who had been on his way to a dental appointment, saying afterward, "The only thing I'm embarrassed about is that I could never figure out that damned car."
'HE'S FINE, THANK GOD'
Firefighters were "quickly able to extinguish the flames and evaluate the driver's medical condition. He did not require transport to a medical facility," Los Angeles city fire department spokesman Erik Scott said.
Palmer said the actor was back at his home and was fine.
A six-second video clip posted on Twitter by Van Dyke's wife, Arlene, showed the performer's charred vehicle on the freeway and a brief glimpse of the actor talking to officials at the scene. Van Dyke appeared unharmed in the video clip.
A caption accompanying the clip said: "Van Dyke's melted car ... He's fine thank God!!"
The tall, lanky actor, whose air of affability and gift for physical comedy helped make "The Dick Van Dyke Show" one of the most beloved sitcoms in U.S. television history, received a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild in January.
The sitcom, co-starring Mary Tyler Moore as his wife, ran on CBS from the fall of 1961 to the fall of 1966 and continued on in syndicated reruns for decades. His role as the comedy writer and family man Rob Petrie, earned him three Emmy awards.
Van Dyke also starred in the family musical movies "Mary Poppins" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," and the original Broadway cast of the Tony-winning musical "Bye Bye Birdie." He reprised his stage role for a 1963 film version of that show.
He scored another prime-time hit with the crime drama "Diagnosis Murder" in the 1990s and early 2000s.
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)