Obituary: Carl Reiner, legendary US comedy writer, director and performer

Carl Reiner, actor, comedian, director, screenwriter, and author. Born: 20 March 1922 in The Bronx, New York. Died: 29 June 2020 in Beverly Hills, California, aged 98
Comedy legend Carl Reiner in 2003 (Picture: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)Comedy legend Carl Reiner in 2003 (Picture: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Comedy legend Carl Reiner in 2003 (Picture: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Carl Reiner, the ingenious and versatile writer, actor and director who broke through as a “second banana” to Sid Caesar and rose to comedy’s front ranks as creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show and straight man to Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man has died. He was 98.

Reiner’s assistant Judy Nagy said he died of natural causes at his home in Beverly Hills, California.

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One of showbusiness’ best liked people, the tall, bald Reiner was a welcome face on the small and silver screens, in Caesar’s 1950s troupe, as the snarling, toupee-wearing Alan Brady of The Dick Van Dyke Show and in such films as The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

In recent years he was part of the roguish gang in the Ocean’s Eleven movies starring George Clooney and appeared in documentaries including Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age and If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.

Tributes poured in online, including from Steve Martin, who said: “Goodbye to my greatest mentor in movies and in life. Thank you, dear Carl.” Frozen actor Josh Gadd called Reiner “one of the greatest comedic minds of all time”. Actor Alan Alda tweeted: “His talent will live on for a long time, but the loss of his kindness and decency leaves a hole in our hearts.”

Films Reiner directed included Oh, God! starring George Burns and John Denver; All of Me, with Martin and Lily Tomlin; and the 1970 comedy Where’s Poppa? He was especially proud of his books, including Enter Laughing, an autobiographical novel later adapted into a film and Broadway show, and My Anecdotal Life, a memoir published in 2003. He recounted his childhood and creative journey in 2013’s I Remember Me.

But many remember Reiner for The Dick Van Dyke Show, one of the most popular TV series of all time and a model of ensemble playing, physical comedy and timeless, good-natured wit. It starred Van Dyke as a television comedy writer working for a demanding, eccentric boss (Reiner) and living with his wife (Mary Tyler Moore in her first major TV role) and son.

“The Van Dyke show is probably the most thrilling of my accomplishments because that was very, very personal,” Reiner once said. “It was about me and my wife, living in New Rochelle and working on the Sid Caesar show.”

The pilot, written by Reiner, starred himself as Rob Petrie, and aired in July 1960. When the show was reworked (CBS executives worried that Reiner would make the lead character seem too Jewish), Van Dyke was cast and the programme ran from 1961 to 1966. One famous fan, Orson Welles, was known for rushing to his bedroom in the afternoon so he could be near a TV when the show was on.

“Although it was a collaborative effort”, Van Dyke later wrote, “everything about the show stemmed from [Reiner’s] endlessly and enviably fascinating, funny, and fertile brain and trickled down to the rest of us.”

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The storyline had Petrie as head writer for “The Alan Brady Show,” a comedy-variety series not unlike Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, in which Reiner, as Brady, was the egocentric star. Petrie’s fellow writers were character actors Morey Amsterdam as Buddy Sorrell and Rose Marie as Sally Rogers. It was an early parody of the Caesar show, which would later be dramatised in the film My Favourite Year and Neil Simon’s play Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

Besides acting in and producing the series, Reiner wrote or co-wrote dozens of episodes. Although the show was the very best of good clean fun, it wasn’t clean enough for network censors. Reiner often battled network officials over the sleeping arrangements of Rob and his wife; the Petries slept in twin beds. He wanted them to sleep in a double bed.

Reiner had joined the classic comedy revue Your Show of Shows in 1950 after performing in Broadway plays. Much of Reiner’s early work came as a “second banana” – although, as Caesar once put it, “Such bananas don’t grow on trees.” He performed in sketches –satirising everything from foreign films to rock’n’roll – and added his talents to a writing team that included Brooks, Simon and Woody Allen.

“As second banana,” he told TV Guide, “I had a chance to do just about everything a performer can ever get to do. If it came off well, I got all the applause. If it didn’t, the show was blamed.”

It was during the Show of Shows years that Reiner and Brooks started improvising skits which became the basis for The 2000 Year Old Man.Reiner was the interviewer, Brooks the old man and witness to history.

Reiner: “Did you know Jesus?”

Brooks: “I knew Christ, Christ was a thin lad, always wore sandals. Hung around with 12 other guys. They came in the store, no one ever bought anything. Once they asked for water.”

After the pair performed the routine at a party, Reiner said Steve Allen insisted they turn their banter into a record. The album, “2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks,” appeared in 1960 and was the start of a million-selling franchise. The duo won a Grammy in 1998 for their “The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000” and Reiner won multiple Emmys for his TV work.

Besides All of Me, Reiner directed Martin in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains and The Jerk.

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Reiner is the father of actor-director Rob Reiner. The younger Reiner directed When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride.

Carl Reiner was born in 1922, in New York City’s borough of the Bronx, one of two sons of Jewish immigrants. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood, where he learned to mimic voices and tell jokes. After high school, Reiner attended drama school, then joined a small theatre group.

In the Second World War Reiner joined the Army and toured in GI variety shows for a year and a half. Back out of uniform, he landed several stage roles, breaking through on Broadway in Call Me Mister.

He married his wife, Estelle, in 1943. Besides son Rob, the couple had another son, Lucas, a film director, and a daughter, Sylvia, a psychoanalyst and author. Estelle Reiner, who died in 2008, had a small role in Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally – as the woman who overhears Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm performance in a restaurant and says, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

His greatest disappointment was Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool, a 1989 musical he wrote and directed that starred Robert Lindsay, whom Reiner believed could be a new Dick Van Dyke. The film flopped and Reiner’s career as a director faded. Reiner remained involved in other entertainment projects. In the 1990s, he reprised the Alan Brady character for an episode of US sitcom Mad About You.




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