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Carl Reiner, Actor, Director, Writer, Producer And Mensch, Dies At 98

Jun 30, 2020
Originally published on June 30, 2020 5:59 pm
Actor, director and author Carl Reiner, pictured at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., in May 2003.
Damian Dovarganes / AP

Carl Reiner's career began at the dawn of television comedy in the 1950s and lasted more than six decades. The actor, director, writer and producer died of natural causes Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills.

Reiner belonged to a generation of Jewish comics who helped define American comedy in the 20th century. He was born Carleton Reiner in the Bronx in 1922 to parents who had emigrated from Europe. He began as a serious actor, then a stand-up comic.

Reiner (top center), Sid Caesar (left), and Howard Morris bother railroad commuter Nanette Fabray on an episode of the sketch comedy show Caesar's Hour in 1955.
AP

In 1950, comic actor Sid Caesar hired Reiner for the pioneering live TV sketch comedy program, Your Show of Shows. Reiner was a writer alongside Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks. He also acted as a supporting player.

"Being a second banana to such a massive first banana ... wasn't a comedown at all for me," said Reiner. "I realized I was working with the best."

Reiner always seemed to work with the best — Caesar, Brooks, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, George Clooney, Amy Poehler.

Along with Brooks, Reiner co-created one of American comedy's most memorable characters — the 2,000-year-old man. It began as a party joke, and became a huge hit on albums, in clubs and on television. In the skit, Reiner would interview Brooks, who played the oldest man in the world.

YouTube

"My job is the job of the audience," Reiner told NPR's Scott Simon in 2009. "I'm asking all the questions the audience would die to ask a man who lived for 2,000 years."

It was a combination of truth and incongruity that made it work.

Reiner's most memorable solo creation came in 1960, when he wrote a script for a TV sitcom called Head of the Family. It was about a TV comedy writer and he was the star. But Reiner couldn't sell the show until someone else was cast in the lead — that someone else turned out to be Dick Van Dyke.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was a milestone in American TV sitcoms. Reiner wrote many episodes and he played Alan Brady, the arrogant and egotistical star of the show within the show. The show ran from 1961 to 1966. It made stars of both Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore.

"He's not only been my mentor and good friend, but possibly the best comedy writer who ever lived," Van Dyke said of Reiner in a 2015 NPR interview.

Reiner won an Emmy award for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy for The Dick Van Dyke in 1963.
AP

Reiner directed more than a dozen movies, including four with Steve Martin. "We became very, very close," Martin said. "He was like a father to me — although I wouldn't let him bathe me like he wanted to."

Reiner was a funny man. But if there's a theme to his career, it was that he made other comics funnier. He was a mensch. He won nine Emmys and a Grammy. And yet whenever it was time to take credit for something, Reiner would almost always deflect the credit to his partners, whether it was to his longtime collaborator Mel Brooks ("Mel Brooks is the single funniest human being that I ever met") or his wife of almost 65 years, Estelle ("I never felt that I had enough words to be a writer, but my wife is the one who gave me the key.")

Estelle Reiner died in 2008. They had three children, including Rob Reiner who — inspired by his father — has also directed and acted in dozens of movies and TV shows.

Reiner was active well into his 90s. On Parks and Recreation he played a politically-powerful senior. He did voice-overs for the TV series Bob's Burgers. And he tweeted.

The two old friends — Brooks and Reiner — had dinner together almost every night. In 2012, they did an episode of Jerry Seinfeld's Web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. As Seinfeld walked out the front door of Reiner's house, he just had to tell one more joke.

"Hey Jerry," Reiner called. "You know the difference between a Jew and a Frenchman? A Frenchman leaves without saying goodbye. A Jew says goodbye and never leaves."

Goodbye, Carl Reiner.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're going to take the next few minutes to celebrate the life of Carl Reiner. He was an actor, a director, a writer and a producer. Reiner's career took off at the birth of television comedy and lasted for more than six decades. Carl Reiner died yesterday at age 98. NPR's Ted Robbins has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TED ROBBINS: If he did nothing else, Carl Reiner would be known for helping create one of American comedy's most memorable characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARL REINER: Sir, is it true that you are 2,000 years old?

MEL BROOKS: Oh, boy.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBBINS: The 2,000-year-old-man began as a party joke with Reiner's lifelong friend Mel Brooks. It became a huge hit on albums, in clubs and on TV. They wrote the bits together, with Reiner playing the straight man to Brooks's 2,000-year-old man. He described his role to NPR's Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

REINER: My job is the job of the audience. I'm asking all the questions that your audience would die to ask a man who lived for 2,000 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REINER: Could you give us the secret of your longevity?

BROOKS: Well, the major theme is that I never, ever touch fried food.

(LAUGHTER)

REINER: What was the means of transportation then?

BROOKS: Mostly fear.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBBINS: Carl Reiner belonged to that generation of Jewish comics who helped define American comedy in the 20th century. He was born in the Bronx in 1922 to immigrant parents. He began as a serious actor, then a standup comic. In 1950, Sid Caesar hired Reiner for the pioneering live TV sketch comedy program "Your Show Of Shows." He was a writer alongside Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks, among others, and he acted as a supporting player.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

REINER: Being a second banana to such a massive first banana didn't - wasn't a comedown at all for me. I realized I was working with the best.

ROBBINS: Carl Reiner always seemed to work with the best, from Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks to Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin to George Clooney and Amy Poehler. His most memorable solo creation came way back in 1960, when he wrote a script for a TV sitcom called "Head Of The Family." It was about a, well, TV comedy writer - the star, Carl Reiner. It didn't sell until another actor was cast in the lead.

(SOUNDBITE OF EARLE HAGEN'S "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW THEME")

ROBBINS: "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was a milestone in American TV sitcoms. Carl Reiner wrote lots of episodes of the show, and he played Alan Brady, the arrogant and egotistical star of the show within the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW")

REINER: (As Alan Brady) Listen, you guys. You know, these advertising guys are very sensitive, and they have to be romanced. So I'll do all the talking.

MARY TYLER MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Yeah, and I'll do all the romancing.

REINER: (As Alan Brady) If I need any help, I'll ask for it.

RICHARD DEACON: (As Mel Cooley) Yes. If Alan needs any help...

REINER: (As Alan Brady) Shut up, Mel.

DEACON: (As Mel Cooley) Yes, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

REINER: (As Alan Brady) OK, fellas. We'll grab a quick bite and then get over there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I couldn't eat a thing.

REINER: (As Alan Brady) I'm treating.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm starving.

ROBBINS: The show ran from '61 to '66. It made stars of both Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. Here's Dick Van Dyke on NPR talking about Carl Reiner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DICK VAN DYKE: He's not only been my mentor and good friend but possibly the best comedy writer who ever lived.

ROBBINS: Carl Reiner directed more than a dozen movies, including "The Jerk." Steve Martin played Navin, a white dope raised by a Black family. Here, he learns that he was adopted.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JERK")

MABEL KING: (As Mother) Navin, you're not our natural-born child.

STEVE MARTIN: (As Navin) I'm not?

KING: (As Mother) You were left on our doorstep, but we raised you like you were one of us.

MARTIN: (As Navin) You mean I'm going to stay this color?

ROBBINS: Carl Reiner and Steve Martin made four movies together. Here's Martin at the American Film Institute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN: We became very, very close friends. He was like a father to me, although I wouldn't let him bathe me like he wanted to. And I...

ROBBINS: If there's a theme to Carl Reiner's career, it's that along with being funny himself, he made other comics funnier. He was a mensch, a good guy. He won nine Emmys and a Grammy. Yet whenever it was time to take credit for something, Carl Reiner would almost always deflect the credit to his partners, from Mel Brooks...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REINER: Mel Brooks is the single funniest human being I've ever met.

BROOKS: That's...

REINER: And I met him in...

ROBBINS: ...To his wife of 65 years, Estelle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REINER: I never felt I had enough words to be a writer, but my wife is the one who gave me the key.

ROBBINS: Estelle Reiner died in 2008. They had three children, including Rob Reiner, who - inspired by his dad - has also directed and acted in dozens of movies and TV shows. Carl Reiner was active well into his 90s. On "Parks And Recreation," he played a politically powerful senior.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

REINER: (As Ned Jones) Look; I don't have a lot of time.

ADAM SCOTT: (As Ben Wyatt) Oh, God. I'm so sorry. Is it cancer?

REINER: (As Ned Jones) No. I don't have a lot of time before my swim aerobics.

ROBBINS: He did voiceovers for the series "Bob's Burgers," and he maintained an active Twitter account. In their old age, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks had dinner together many nights. In 2012, they did an episode of Jerry Seinfeld's Web series "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee." As Seinfeld walked out the front door of Carl Reiner's house, he just had to tell him one more joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REINER: Jerry, what's the difference between a Jew and a Frenchman? A Frenchman leaves without saying goodbye.

JERRY SEINFELD: Yeah.

REINER: And a Jew says goodbye and never leaves.

ROBBINS: Goodbye, Carl Reiner.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS-JOEL THIOLLIER PERFORMANCE OF "SUITE BERGAMASQUE: CLAIR DE LUNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.