Bobby Van was born Robert Jack Stein to vaudeville parents in The Bronx, New York City, and grew up backstage to many memorable Depression-era acts. Originally, Van took King as his stage name (after his father's stage name, from the trio "Gordon, Reed and King"). He finally opted for Van, supposedly after seeing a Van Johnson poster hanging in his sister's bedroom.
Van began his career as a musician, playing trumpet. When his band played a venue in the Catskills, Van was asked to fill in as a song and dance man for another act. His act drew rave reviews, and gave Van a thrill out of performing live as a solo act.
In the early 1950s, while Van was married to starlet Diane Garrett, he appeared in several films and television shows, including the title role in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis and a role in the classic MGM musical Kiss Me, Kate (both 1953). However, most of Van's roles involved singing and dancing, and the era of the Hollywood film musical was waning.
In the 1960s, Van did comedy work with Mickey Rooney in films and television. He also did some choreography , as his father had years earlier. In 1968, Van married Broadway actress Elaine Joyce, and together they appeared on 1970s game shows like Tattletales and Match Game. Van also hosted short-lived game shows Showoffs, The Fun Factory and Make Me Laugh. Their only child, daughter Taylor, was born in 1977.
In 1973 he appeared in the ill-fated musical remake of Lost Horizon, the last occasion on which he took his traditional song-and-dance persona to the big screen. His novelty dance number from Small Town Girl (1953) was featured in That's Entertainment, Part II (1976). Van's last television appearance was as the host for the Mrs. America Pageant in 1980, which he had emceed for several years.
In 1979, Van was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He survived the initial surgery, but after a year-long battle with cancer, he succumbed to the disease in Los Angeles at the age of 51 and was interred at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park in Burbank.