Carl Reiner’s Best Life Possible

The Daily — Jul 1, 2020
Carl Reiner in 1967

Just hours before he passed away on Monday night at the age of ninety-eight, Carl Reiner sent out a string of tweets praising the dry wit of British playwright Noël Coward. A little over a week ago, Reiner was fielding questions from his home in Beverly Hills about his groundbreaking career as a writer and performer in the earliest days of television, which would lead to a close, decades-spanning friendship with Mel Brooks, the creation of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the launch of Steve Martin’s movie career. It’s fitting, though, that a few days later he would go back to his habit of throwing the spotlight on another artist who had amused him. “Reiner was a funny man,” writes NPR’s Ted Robbins. “But if there's a theme to his career, it was that he made other comics funnier. He was a mensch.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Reiner and his older brother, Charlie, accompanied their Jewish immigrant parents on “regular trips to the cinema to see Marx Brothers movies,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, adding that “you can hear flashes of the brothers’ peripatetic cadences, their vaguely surreal loopiness, in so many of the jokes Reiner wrote for others.” It was Charlie who told sixteen-year-old Carl about a free drama workshop sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. Reiner caught the bug, and when he was drafted during the Second World War, he wound up being transferred to Special Services and spent two years entertaining the troops throughout the Pacific theater.

Back home, he appeared in several Broadway musicals before he was cast in 1950 in Your Show of Shows, a weekly variety show starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Reiner referred to himself as a “second banana,” but as the AP’s Mike Stewart points out, Caesar had a comeback: “Such bananas don’t grow on trees.” In the New York Times, Robert Berkvist and Peter Keepnews write that Reiner “specialized in portraying the voice of sanity, a calm presence in a chaotic universe.” And they quote from Caesar’s 2003 memoir: “Most people still don’t realize the importance of a straight man in comedy, or how difficult that role is. Carl had to make his timing my timing.” Caesar called Reiner “the best straight man I’ve ever worked with.” The NYT’s James Poniewozik observes that Reiner’s work during this period “helped define what TV would become. It would be playful, experimental, fast-paced. It would be mouthy and expressive, a medium that blew your lapels back.”

Several top comedians of Reiner’s generation cut their teeth in the writers’ rooms of Your Show of Shows and its successor, Caesar’s Hour: Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, the list goes on . . . but Reiner had an immediate favorite. One day, while pitching an idea that wasn’t flying, Reiner turned to Mel Brooks and announced that here was a man who had been present at the crucifixion. “I knew Christ,” Brooks ad-libbed, “Christ was a thin lad, always wore sandals. Hung around with twelve other guys. They came in the store, no one ever bought anything. Once they asked for water.”

The “2000 Year Old Man” eventually gelled into a routine that Brooks and Reiner performed at parties, and as Brooks told Ari Karpel in the NYT in 2009, “nothing was ever talked about before we did it. We didn’t write anything, we didn’t think about anything. Whatever was kinetic, whatever was chemical, we did it.” Reiner said that he’d “learned a long time ago that if you can corner a genius comedy brain in panic, you’re going to get something extraordinary because they fight—they don’t want to die. And he’s a genius.” Fearing that the comedy was too Jewish for a general audience, the duo reserved the routine for private affairs. But one night, Reiner recalled, “George Burns came by with a cigar and said, ‘Is there an album?’ I said no. He said, ‘Well, you better put it on an album, or I’m going to steal it.’”

Steve Allen ultimately persuaded them to record 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks in 1960. Reiner liked to tell the story about Cary Grant asking for a dozen copies to take with him to England. When he returned, he announced that it was a hit at Buckingham Palace, where he’d played it for the Queen Mother. “And then Mel says,” Reiner told NPR’s Scott Simon in 2009, “Well, if the biggest shiksa in the world loves it, we're home free.” Four more albums and an animated special followed.

In 1958, Reiner wrote all thirteen episodes of what was to have been Head of the Family, a series in which Reiner would more or less play himself, a comedy writer who returned from the city to his wife and son in New Rochelle each evening. The suits at CBS were not impressed with the pilot, so the show was recast with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. The Dick Van Dyke Show was a hit, running for five seasons in the early 1960s, and it was “probably the most thrilling of my accomplishments because that was very, very personal,” Reiner once said. Mike Stewart notes that one 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.” Reiner “had a deeper understanding of the human condition than I think even he was aware of,” tweeted Van Dyke yesterday. “Kind, gentle, compassionate, empathetic, and wise. His scripts were never just funny, they always had something to say about us.”

Reiner also wrote novels, children’s books, and memoirs, and in 1963, Joseph Stein turned Reiner’s first novel, the semi-autobiographical Enter Laughing, into a well-received Broadway play featuring Alan Arkin—with whom Reiner would costar in Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966). In 1967, Enter Laughing, the story of a young man struggling to launch a career as an actor, became Reiner’s debut feature. Writing for the Decider, Glenn Kenny notes that there are a few “remarkable character bits from luminaries such as Jose Ferrer and Elaine May.”

The Comic (1969) stars Van Dyke as a silent-era comedian, and in Where’s Poppa? (1970), George Segal plays a lawyer trying to scare his eighty-seven-year-old mother (Ruth Gordon) to death. “Even fifty years later, Poppa? is, with good reason, very tough to take for some,” writes Kenny. “As the years went on, Reiner’s directorial efforts became more anodyne (in a sense, how could they not?). You don’t get more ingratiating, for instance, than casting beloved old-time comic George Burns, in 1977 a hale eighty-one years of age, as The Almighty himself in Oh God! That movie spawned a mini-franchise—but for Reiner it was one and done.”

Two years later, Reiner teamed up with Steve Martin, whose stand-up act was filling stadiums, and “in the course of playing a happy idiot” in The Jerk (1979), wrote Janet Maslin in the NYT, “Martin proves himself—often hilariously—to be nobody’s fool.” The noir parody Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) ingeniously incorporates clips from classics featuring the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck. Stephanie Zacharek notes that The Man with Two Brains (1983) “contains one of the greatest jokes ever about unpronounceable names (occasioned by the meeting of a Dr. Hfuhruhurr and a Miss Anne Uumellmahaye, the latter a disembodied brain with the voice of an uncredited Sissy Spacek).” Reiner and Martin’s fourth and final film together, All of Me (1984), thrillingly showcases Martin’s physical dexterity as he plays a man who finds that his body is suddenly being shared by an eccentric millionaire (Lily Tomlin).

As a director, Reiner never again scored a hit as big as the films he made with Martin, who has tweeted a goodbye “to my greatest mentor in movies and in life.” Reiner’s last film behind the camera was That Old Feeling (1997) with Bette Midler. As an actor, though, he was introduced to a new generation when he appeared as con man drawn out of retirement by Brad Pitt’s Rusty Ryan in Steven Soderbergh’s trilogy of Ocean’s movies in the 2000s. And just last year, he was the voice of Carl Reineroceros in Toy Story 4.

Also last year, when he was asked about some of the funniest people on Twitter, “he wasn’t dismissive in that old-guy ‘nobody’s funny anymore’ kind of way,” writes Vulture’s Christopher Bonanos. “Instead he responded, ‘Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer. Mel Brooks, when he tweets. Rob Reiner, of course.’ A few days ago, he and Brooks posed with Reiner’s daughter, Annie, in T-shirts reading BLACK LIVES MATTER—once again, using his understated fame to showcase something worth seeing.”

Annie is a playwright, poet, and singer; her younger brother, Lucas, is a painter and photographer; and of course her older brother, Rob, has directed This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Stand by Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), and When Harry Met Sally . . . (1989), whose most famous line, “I’ll have what she’s having,” is spoken by his mother, Estelle Reiner, whom Carl married in 1943. She passed away in 2008. Mel Brooks’s wife, Anne Bancroft, died in 2005, and for the past several years, the two nonagenarian comedians dined together nearly every evening while watching Jeopardy! and a movie. In February, Hadley Freeman paid them a visit and wrote a lovely dual profile for the Guardian. “Nothing pleases me more,” Reiner tweeted on Sunday, “than knowing that I have lived the best life possible by having met and marrying the gifted Estelle (Stella) Lebost—who partnered with me in bringing Rob, Annie, and Lucas Reiner into to this needy and evolving world.”

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