Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Dick York grew up in Chicago, where a Catholic nun first recognized his vocal promise. He began his career at the age of fifteen as the star of the CBS radio program That Brewster Boy. He also appeared in hundreds of other radio shows and instructional films before heading to New York City, where he acted on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy and Bus Stop. He performed with stars including Paul Muni and Joanne Woodward in live television broadcasts and with Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon and Glenn Fordin movies, including My Sister Eileen and Cowboy.
It was while filming the 1959 movie They Came to Cordura with Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth that York would receive a permanently disabling back injury. In York's own words: "Gary Cooper and I were propelling a handcar carrying several "wounded" men down [the] railroad track. I was on the bottom stroke of this sort of teeter-totter mechanism that made the handcar run. I was just lifting the handle up as the director yelled 'cut!' and one of the "wounded" cast members reached up and grabbed the handle. I was suddenly, jarringly, lifting his entire weight off the flatbed—one hundred and eighty pounds or so. The muscles along the right side of my back tore. They just snapped and let loose. And that was the start of it all: the pain, the painkillers, the addiction, the lost career."
In 1960, he played the role of Bertram Cates (modelled on John Thomas Scopes, of "Monkey Trial" fame) in the film version of Inherit the Wind.
York went on to star with Gene Kelly and Leo G. Carroll in the ABC television comedy/drama Going My Way. York was cast in the series as Tom Colwell, who operates a secular youth center.
York appeared in dozens of episodes of now-classic television series, including Justice, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Americans, Wagon Train, and CBS's The Twilight Zoneand Route 66.
York was cast as the first Darrin Stephens in the 1960s sitcom, Bewitched. The show was a huge success and York was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1968. Because of his back injury, which sometimes caused him to seize up in debilitating pain in later years, the scripts for some of his final episodes on Bewitched were written around his being in bed or on the couch for the entire episode. One day, during the fifth season of the sitcom: "I was too sick to go on. I had a temperature of 105, full of strong antibiotics, for almost 10 days. I went to work that day but I was sick. I lay in my dressing room after being in make-up, waiting to be called on the set. They knew I was feeling pretty rotten, and they tried to give me time to rest. I kept having chills. This was the middle of the summer and I was wearing a sheepskin jacket and I was chilling. I was shaking all over. Then, while sitting on a scaffolding with Maurice Evans, being lit for a special effects scene: They were setting an inky - that's a little tiny spot[light] that was supposed to be just flickering over my eyes. That flickering, flickering flickering made me feel weird. And I'm sitting on this platform up in the air...and I turned to Gibby, who was just down below, and I said, "Gibby, I think I have to get down." He started to help me down and that's the last thing I remember until I woke up on the floor. That's about all I remember of the incident...and I'd managed to bite a very large hole in the side of my tongue before they could pry my teeth apart."
From York's hospital bed, he and director Bill Asher discussed York's future. "Do you want to quit?", Asher asked. "If it's all right with you, Billy," was York's reply. With that, York left the show to devote himself to recovery. From season 6 onwards (until the series ended in 1972), the role of Darrin Stephens was played by actor Dick Sargent. Sargent was originally offered the role of Darrin in 1964, but turned it down to do a short-lived sitcom called Broadside.
Largely bedridden, York battled not only his back pain but an addiction to prescription pain killers. In his memoir, The Seesaw Girl and Me, published posthumously, he describes the struggle to break his addiction and to come to grips with the loss of his career. The book is in large part a love letter to his wife, Joan (née Alt), the seesaw girl of the title, who stuck with him through the hard times. York eventually beat his addiction and tried to revive his career. He appeared on several prime-time television series including Simon & Simon and Fantasy Island.
York, a three pack a day smoker, spent his final years battling emphysema. While bedridden in his Rockford, Michigan, home, he founded Acting for Life, a private charity to help the homeless and others in need. Using his telephone as his pulpit, York motivated politicians, business people, and the general public to contribute supplies and money.
Despite his suffering, York said, "I've been blessed. I have no complaints. I've been surrounded by people in radio, on stage and in motion pictures and television who love me. The things that have gone wrong have been simply physical things."
York died from complications of emphysema at Blodgett Hospital in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, on February 20, 1992. He was sixty-three years old.
York is buried in Plainfield Cemetery in Rockford, Michigan.