Carl Reiner, who died Monday at 98, was the rare untortured genius of comedy, his career a story of laughter and camaraderie, of innovation and triumph and affection. Reiner’s persona was so warm and approachable — everyone’s friend or favorite uncle — that you could forget that he was an architect of modern comedy, a “North Star,” in the words of Billy Crystal.
As a writer and director, he mastered a genial, but sophisticated brand of humor that Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld and others emulated. As an actor, he was the ideal straight man for such manic performers as Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar and dependably funny on his own. As an all-around talent, he helped perfect two standard television formats — sketch and situation comedy.
Tall and agile, equally striking whether bald or toupeed, he entertained in every medium available to him, from movies and vinyl records to Broadway and Twitter. But he will be remembered best for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the landmark series which aired from 1961-66 and was a master class of wit, ensemble playing, physical comedy and the overriding good nature of Reiner himself.
Based on his time in the 1950s with Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” the forerunner to “Saturday Night Live,” it was among the first sitcoms about TV itself and inspired such future hits as “Mad About You” and “30 Rock.”
As millions of fans know, Van Dyke starred as comedy writer Rob Petrie, who worked for the demanding, eccentric Alan Brady (Reiner) and lived on Bonnie Meadow Road in suburban New Rochelle with his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore, in her first major TV role) and young son. Petrie’s fellow writers were veteran character actors Morey Amsterdam as Buddy Sorrell and Rose Marie as Sally Rogers.
Reiner originally had a very different title and cast in mind. The pilot was called “Head of the Family,” which starred Reiner and Barbara Britton, and aired as a single episode in July 1960. But CBS executives worried that Reiner would make Petrie seem too Jewish, so Van Dyke was cast instead.
Reiner likely needed the time spared from playing the lead. Besides acting in and producing the “Van Dyke” series, he wrote or co-wrote dozens of episodes — a feat that exhausted Reiner and amazed the cast and others in the business. Some of the more notable shows: Laura inadvertently revealing to the public that Alan Brady was bald; Rob on a radio marathon, delirious from lack of sleep, calling out to a kitten he’s learned is stuck in a tree; Rob as a jury foreman, clumsily smitten by the attractive defendant (Sue Ann Langdon), and unaware that Laura is in the courtroom.
“I can explain… nothing,’’ a sheepish Rob later tells his wife.
“Although it was a collaborative effort,″ Van Dyke wrote in “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, a memoir published in 2011, “everything about the show stemmed from his [Reiner’s] endlessly and enviably fascinating, funny, and fertile brain and trickled down to the rest of us.” On Tuesday, Van Dyke called Reiner “kind, gentle, compassionate, empathetic and wise.”
Reiner and Co. had parodied current events and popular culture on the Caesar program, but for the Van Dyke show he deliberately avoided topical references, hoping it would seem timeless. The sitcom remained highly popular in re-runs, with Laura Petrie’s plaintive “Oh, Rob!” a lasting catchphrase.
One famous fan, Orson Welles, was known for rushing to his bedroom in the afternoon so he could be near a TV set when the show was on. First lady Michelle Obama once joked that she preferred watching “Dick Van Dyke” to viewing her husband’s debates.
Reiner had broken through in television’s early days, before he even owned a TV: He joined “Your Show of Shows” in 1950 after performing in several Broadway plays, and much of his early work came as a “second banana.” Reiner was part of an extraordinary writing team that included Brooks, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart, and a performing cast featuring Caesar and Imogene Coca. He was never funnier than as an unhinged mechanical figure from a Bavarian clock, never steadier than in a spoof of “This Is Your Life,” in which he is the host and Caesar a surprise honoree who desperately — violently — doesn’t want the honor.
“As second banana,” Reiner 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.”
Off stage, Reiner and Brooks had a rapport which launched a comic franchise. During the “Show of Shows” years, they started improvising skits which became the basis for “The 2000 Year Old Man.” Reiner was the interviewer, Brooks the old 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.”
Their routine was an instant favorite at parties, and Reiner recalled that Steve Allen insisted they should turn their banter into a record. “2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks” came out in 1960 and was so popular that Reiner would later tell NPR even Britain’s Queen Mother, “the biggest shiksa in the world,” loved it. The duo updated their shtick over time and won a Grammy in 1998 for their “The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000,” the same year Reiner received the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor. When the sound system failed at the start of the ceremonies, Reiner called from the balcony, “Does anybody have four double-A batteries?”
After the Van Dyke show, Reiner appeared in such hit movies as “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” films that starred George Clooney. He directed George Segal and Ruth Gordon in “Where’s Poppa?”, George Burns in “Oh, God!” and Steve Martin in “The Jerk” and “All of Me.” He took pride in his books, notably “Enter Laughing,” a “bio-novel” which later became a film and Broadway show.
Reiner was the father of actor-director Rob Reiner, who starred as Archie Bunker’s son-in-law on “All in the Family” and directed “When Harry Met Sally…” Rob Reiner said in a tweet Tuesday that his “heart is hurting. He was my guiding light.”
Carl Reiner, a son of Jewish immigrants, was born in 1922 in New York City, and raised in a three-room apartment. He loved to mimic voices and tell jokes, and, after high school, attended drama school. He then joined a small theater group. “It was a terrific experience, but I wasn’t getting any money for it,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal in 1963. “I got uppity one day — after all, the audience was paying from 22 to 88 cents for admission — and I demanded to be paid. They settled for $1 a performance and I… became their highest-priced actor.”
During World War II, Reiner served in the Army and toured in GI variety shows. After the war, he landed several stage roles, breaking through on Broadway in “Call Me Mister.” He married Estelle Lebost, in 1943. Besides son Rob, the couple had another son, Lucas, a film director; and a daughter, Sylvia, a psychoanalyst and author. Estelle, who died in 2008, had a memorable role in “When Harry Met Sally…” — as the woman who overhears Meg Ryan’s ersatz ecstasy in a restaurant and says, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Reiner, winner of multiple Emmys and other awards, was in the business for life. In the 1990s, he won an Emmy by reprising Alan Brady for an episode of “Mad About You” and more recently made appearances on “Two and a Half Men” and “Hot in Cleveland.” In the 21st century, he was writing books and commenting daily through his Twitter feed, venting anger at the presidency of Donald Trump. Most nights, Brooks came over and the two ate dinner together. In the mornings, Reiner had a ritual that provided the title for the 2017 documentary he hosted and received an Emmy nomination for, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.”
“Every morning before having breakfast,” Reiner said in the movie, “I pick up my newspaper, get the obituary section and see if I’m listed. If I’m not, I’ll have my breakfast.”