Carl Reiner, a giant of American comedy, has died aged 98. Probably best remembered for his partnership with Mel Brooks, he went on to work alongside Dick Van Dyke, Steve Martin, George Clooney and many of Hollywood’s biggest names. Over a long career he performed on both big and small screens, as well as on Broadway. However he spent much of his time behind the scenes as a writer and director.
He was born in the Bronx, 1922, to parents Irving and Bessie. This famed straight man nearly had a straight job – that of teenage sewing machine repairman. Yet fate came calling thanks to the New Deal-inspired Works Progress Administration. Reiner took up an offer of free acting lessons and the rest is rib-tickling history.
After entertaining the troops during the second world war, he found fame on ground-breaking sketch series Your Show of Shows. Starring the legendary Sid Caesar, Reiner wrote material and appeared in various roles, including that of an interviewer putting Caesar through his paces.
“Mr. Reiner specialized in portraying the voice of sanity,” writes the New York Times, “a calm presence in a chaotic universe.” His boss regarded him as the best in the business. “Most people still don’t realize the importance of a straight man in comedy,” Caesar said in 2003 tome Caesar’s Hours, “or how difficult that role is.”
Another individual who loved Reiner was Mel Brooks. The pair met in the writer’s room and formed a lasting bond during those “frenzied writing sessions that shaped the show, bouncing jokes off the walls” (New York Times). Watching this blossoming relationship would have been colleague and future scribe Neil Simon, plus other talents.
Reiner and Brooks created a comedy classic with their ‘2,000 Year Old Man’ act. Starting out as banter, the routines eventually went onto vinyl and got rave reviews. Once again, Reiner played interviewer to Brooks’ ancient responder. “I learned a long time ago that if you can corner a genius comedy brain in panic, you’re going to get something extraordinary” reflected Reiner, quoted by the Times.
Your Show of Shows lasted from 1950 to ‘54. By 1961 Reiner was interested in adapting his real experiences supporting the cream of comedy into a sitcom. After a false start, Dick Van Dyke was brought in to star as “Rob Petrie” and his self-titled show was born. With Mary Tyler Moore as wife Laura (a character based on his own spouse Estelle), Reiner played sporadic character Alan Brady. As creator, Reiner bagged several Emmys over the 5 years he and Dick spent on air.
He wrote novel Enter Laughing in 1958, which became a hit play starring Alan Arkin. When it transferred to a movie, Reiner was calling the shots. It was his first film as director. He reunited with Van Dyke for The Comic (1969), an underappreciated tale of a silent era star going off the rails.
1977’s Oh God! cast George Burns as the Almighty. Though it was an enduring partnership with Steve Martin that sent his and Reiner’s profiles soaring. The Jerk (1979) famously featured white idiot Navin R. Johnson, a man convinced he was “born a poor black child”. They made 4 films together, the others being movie mash up Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), The Man With Two Brains (1983) and All of Me (1984).
Reiner continued to direct, finally hanging up the megaphone with Bette Midler/Dennis Farina entry That Old Feeling (1997). As an actor, he took part in the Ocean’s Eleven heist franchise with George Clooney. Reiner played Saul Bloom. His last big screen role was as the voice of “Carl Reineroceros” in last year’s Toy Story 4.
He appeared frequently on TV in later years, either on camera or lending his vocal talents. Hot In Cleveland, Parks & Recreation and Family Guy are just some of his credits. In 1995 he dusted off Alan Brady for an episode of Mad About You, winning another Emmy in the process. The Kennedy Center awarded him the Mark Twain Prize in 2000.
Estelle Lebost was married to Reiner between 1943 and her death in 2008. Their children are the well-known director/comedian Rob Reiner, painter/photographer Lucas and writer/singer Annie. She confirmed the news, together with assistant Judy Nagy. Reiner died at home in Beverly Hills on Monday from natural causes.
“Last night my dad passed away” tweeted Rob. “As I write this my heart is hurting. He was my guiding light.”
Reiner and Mel Brooks spent a lot of time in each other’s company. BBC News writes, “In his 90s, virtually every day in Beverly Hills, Reiner met with Brooks, after they both lost their wives, and they would sit on Reiner’s sofa watching movies, telling jokes and recalling a lifetime of comedy.”
“Carl was a giant,” his friend said in a statement. “I loved him… So whether he wrote or performed or he was just your best friend – nobody could do it better.”
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“My idol, Carl Reiner, wrote about the human comedy” wrote Dick Van Dyke. “He had a deeper understanding of the human condition, than I think even he was aware of.”
“Goodbye to my greatest mentor in movies and in life” said Steve Martin. “Thank you, dear Carl.”
“Carl Reiner made every room he walked into funnier, smarter, kinder” said George Clooney, care of Variety. “It all seemed so effortless. What an incredible gift he gave us all.”