Carl Reiner was one of the most influential and prolific figures in postwar American comedy, writing, producing, directing and acting for seven decades.
In a career rich in accolades, we should highlight his eight-year association with Sid Caesar in the 1950s, the Dick Van Dyke Show, which he produced, wrote and appeared in throughout the 1960s, and the four films he later made with Steve Martin – the jerk, Dead men don’t wear plaid, The man with two brains and All of me.
Born in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, where his father worked as a watchmaker, Reiner found a job at 16 as a machinist’s helper in a hat factory. He was also accepted for free evening classes at drama school, and quickly found himself in a jazzy version of The Merry Widow.
Years later, he turned the experience of combining a boring day job with exhilarating nightlife into an autobiographical novel, Enter laughing, which was later adapted for the Broadway stage in 1963.
At the start of World War II, Reiner entered the Signal Corps and teamed up with fellow future American comedy star Howard Morris, with whom he subsequently toured the Pacific for 18 months in GI journals. After his release in 1946, he landed the lead role in a touring production of Call me sir, and appeared in the Broadway musical Alive and in great shape.
His big breakthrough came in 1950 when he was spotted working as a stand-up comedian in the Borscht belt in New York state by producer Max Liebman and then put together the young team. who would support the great find of post-war comedy, Sid Caesar, in Your show of shows. Reiner has become Caesar’s main sidekick or straight man. Although he admired Caesar’s talent, Reiner preferred spending time with the show’s writers, including Mel Brooks and Neil Simon, and began to come up with sketch ideas.
Although he never received credit for his writing efforts on Your show of shows, or more Caesar’s hour, Reiner received the first of eleven Emmy Awards, in 1956, for his work as a supporting comedy actor for Caesar.
Away from the cameras, Reiner also became the right man of Mel Brooks, whose gift for improvisation was known only to a small circle of friends and co-workers at the time. In a double act, they became Manhattan’s most popular guests, performing improvised skits in the blink of an eye.
One of those, 2000 year old man, was finally recorded and turned into an animation. What started as an after-dinner ride at Reiner’s in New Rochelle became a minor American cult in the 1960s. Reiner would introduce Brooks as “a man who was present at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ” and then ask questions of foreground on his life and his time. With their combined acting skills, Reiner and Brooks were able to distinguish between inspiration and sacrilege.
In 1958, after the cancellation of Sid Caesar’s third and final series, Reiner spent the summer writing the first 13 episodes of Householder, a semi-autobiographical sitcom featuring the exploits of comedy writer Rob Petrie, hearing it as a vehicle for himself. The pilot didn’t find any takers, but CBS producer Sheldon Leonard figured it might work with a brilliant young comedy star named Dick Van Dyke leading the way.
Again, that meant that another talent took the lion’s share of the credit, but since he was the show’s writer and producer, as well as the role of Alan Brady, the selfish boss of the show. Petrie’s television star, Reiner knew her work would be recognized by those who mattered. It also made him extremely wealthy. The Dick Van Dyke Show, which also starred Mary Tyler Moore as Petrie’s wife, enjoyed five series and became the first sitcom to address the issue of work-life balance.
In the 1970s, Reiner and Van Dyke returned with Dick Van Dyke’s new show, but Reiner was frustrated with the growing censorship imposed by CBS that he felt cramped in the show’s sophisticated style. He left the show when CBS executives banned an episode in which one of Petrie’s children wandered into the bedroom as he cuddled up to his wife.
Reiner had a parallel career in films throughout the 1960s and 1970s, both as an actor (It’s a crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy world, Russians are coming, Russians are coming, a guide for the married man etc) and director (Where is dad ? Oh my God! etc), and with the enforced demise of his professional association with Dick Van Dyke, he teamed up with up and coming Steve Martin to create a series of acclaimed comedy classics.
In the underrated Dead men don’t wear plaid, filmed in black and white, Reiner managed to get Martin’s 1940s private investigator to interact with stars such as Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner, using cleverly interposed scenes from film noir classics from before -war. Reiner himself contributed to an appearance as a psychopathic Nazi.
In 2003, Reiner published a dissertation, My anecdotal life, recalling funny incidents from his long career, including the time he captivated Sidney Bechet and his band by reading Kafka’s book to them Metamorphosis during a thunderstorm in the Catskill Mountains in 1942.
In recent years he has played the role of Saul Bloom in the Eleven from the ocean series and appeared in documentaries such as Broadway: beyond the golden age and If you are not in the Obit, have breakfast. The latter’s title is inspired by his morning ritual. âEvery morning before I have breakfast,â Reiner said in the movie, âI take my journal, I take the obituary section and I see if I’m listed. If I’m not, I’ll take my little- breakfast.
Of his life spent playing second fiddle to bigger names, Reiner once said, âI aspired to be the best banana until I realized how much of a second banana I am. I have the ability to enjoy all kinds of comedy and point them in the right direction when they aren’t focused enough.
Carl Reiner, actor, born March 20, 1922, died June 29, 2020