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Carl Reiner, multifaceted master of comedy, is dead at 98
Carl Reiner, right, and Mel Brooks record their comedy album "2000 and Thirteen" in Los Angeles in August 1973. Reiner, who as performer, writer and director earned a place in comedy history several times over, died Monday night, June 29, 2020, at home in Beverly Hills. He was 98. D. Gorton/The New York Times.

by Robert Berkvist and Peter Keepnews

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Carl Reiner, who as performer, writer and director earned a place in comedy history several times over, died Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 98.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Annie Reiner.

Carl Reiner first attracted national attention in 1950 as Sid Caesar’s multitalented second banana on the television variety show “Your Show of Shows,” for which he was also a writer. A decade later he created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” one of the most celebrated situation comedies in television history, and teamed with Mel Brooks on the hugely successful “2000 Year Old Man” records. His novel “Enter Laughing” became both a hit Broadway play and the first of many movies he would direct; among the others were four of Steve Martin’s early starring vehicles.

He won praise as an actor as well, with memorable roles in films like “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” and, more recently, “Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels. But he spent most of his career just slightly out of the spotlight, letting others get the laughs.

His contributions were recognized by his peers, by comedy aficionados and, in 2000, by the Kennedy Center, which awarded him the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He was the third recipient, after Richard Pryor and Jonathan Winters.

In his performances with Brooks and before that with Caesar, Reiner specialized in portraying the voice of sanity, a calm presence in a chaotic universe. But despite his claim to the contrary, he was never “just the straight man.”

“He was a comedian himself, and he truly understood and still understands comedy,” Caesar said of Reiner in his book “Caesar’s Hours” (2003), written with Eddy Friedfeld. “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.”

Reiner was, Caesar added, “the best straight man I’ve ever worked with.”

As part of a stellar supporting cast that also included Imogene Coca and Howard Morris, Reiner proved his versatility week after week on “Your Show of Shows,” which ran from 1950-54 on NBC and established the template for sketch comedy on television. He played everything from a harried commuter to a frenzied rock ’n’ roller to an unctuous quiz-show host. But he is probably best remembered as an interviewer, solemnly posing questions to a mad professor, a spaced-out jazz musician or some other over-the-top character played by Caesar, and adding to the humor simply by being serious.

Reiner contributed behind the scenes as well. He took part in the frenzied writing sessions that shaped the show, bouncing jokes off the walls of the writers’ room with the likes of Brooks and Neil Simon.

“I became a writer because of that room,” he recalled. “I’d say something, and somebody would yell: ‘What do you know? You’re not a writer.’ So I became a writer.”

He characterized his later career moves with similar self-effacing humor in an NPR interview: “I acted like a director. I acted like a producer. I sat in front of a typewriter and acted like a novelist.”

Reiner’s association with Caesar encompassed three different series: After “Your Show of Shows” the two worked together on “Caesar’s Hour,” which had a three-year run on NBC, and “Sid Caesar Invites You,” a failed attempt to recapture the “Show of Shows” spirit that lasted less than one season on ABC in 1958.

The Party Piece
The next phase of Reiner’s career found him again in the role of deadpan interviewer. This time the interviewee was Brooks.

“The 2000 Year Old Man” began as an act Reiner and Brooks performed for friends at parties. When they put it on record, it became a phenomenon. There were ultimately five “2000 Year Old Man” albums, one of which won a Grammy, and all of which are treasured by comedians and comedy fans.

Brooks was the star of the largely improvised routines, reflecting on what it was like to be two millenniums old (none of his thousands of children ever visited) and reminiscing about historical figures like Sigmund Freud (“He was a good basketball player; very few people know that”) and Shakespeare (“He had the worst penmanship I ever saw in my life”). But it was Reiner who came up with the questions that lit Brooks’ comedic fuse.

Indeed, it was Reiner who spontaneously started the ball rolling one day during a quiet moment in the Caesar writers’ room.

“I turned to Mel and I said, ‘Here’s a man who was actually seen at the crucifixion 2,000 years ago,’ ” he told The New York Times in 2009, “and his first words were ‘Oh, boy.’ ”

“I always knew if I threw a question to Mel he could come up with something,” Reiner said. “I learned a long time ago that if you can corner a genius comedy brain in panic, you’re going to get something extraordinary.”

As Brooks put it, “I would dig myself into a hole, and Carl would not let me climb out.”

In 1960, the same year he and Brooks made their first album, Reiner wrote and starred in a pilot for a TV series, based on his own life, about a writer who works in New York for a larger-than-life, difficult-to-please comedian.

The show, “Head of the Family,” was not picked up. It became a series only when it was recast with Dick Van Dyke as the central character.

The workplace scenes in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — featuring Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie as Van Dyke’s fellow writers, with Reiner making occasional appearances as their boss, Alan Brady — were inspired by Reiner’s time with Caesar (although Reiner insisted that his character was only partly based on Caesar). The domestic scenes, with Mary Tyler Moore as Van Dyke’s wife, were set in New Rochelle, New York, where Reiner lived at the time, and Moore’s character was modeled on his wife, Estelle. Reiner later attributed the show’s success to the choice of “somebody with more talent to play me.”

Seen on CBS from 1961-66, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” won a total of 15 Primetime Emmy Awards for its cast and crew, five of them for Reiner as writer and producer. (He won nine Emmys in his career, including two for his on-camera work on “Caesar’s Hour”; one as a writer on a 1967 special that reunited the “Show of Shows” cast; and one for a guest appearance, as Alan Brady, on an episode of the sitcom “Mad About You” in 1995.) It is widely regarded as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.

Someone else once again played Reiner, or a character very much like him, on Broadway and in the movies. “Enter Laughing,” his autobiographical novel about a stage-struck delivery boy from the Bronx who decides to become an actor, was published in 1958 and adapted for the stage by Joseph Stein, another former member of the Caesar writing staff. With Alan Arkin in the lead role, it opened in 1963 and ran for more than 400 performances.

From Actor to Director
When “Enter Laughing” was sold to Hollywood, Reiner shared screenwriting credit with Stein for the 1967 film adaptation, starring Reni Santoni. It was Reiner’s third produced screenplay, after “The Thrill of It All” (1963) and “The Art of Love” (1965). More important, it was the first film he directed.

That same year he made his Broadway debut as a writer and director with “Something Different,” the story of a playwright suffering from writer’s block. It received generally good reviews (Walter Kerr of The New York Times praised Reiner’s “nifty habit of approaching a gag at high speed, passing it on the outside, and then noticing where it went in the rearview mirror”) and had a respectable three-month run. By that time, however, Reiner’s focus had shifted westward.

He had already appeared in a number of Hollywood movies by the time he and his family moved to Beverly Hills in the late 1960s, and he would continue to show up on screen occasionally. But for the next three decades, most of his work in Hollywood was done behind the scenes.

Carl Reiner was born in the Bronx, New York, on March 20, 1922, to Irving Reiner, a watchmaker, and Bessie (Mathias) Reiner. After graduating from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, he went to work as a machinist’s helper and seemed headed for a career repairing sewing machines.

Then one day his older brother, Charlie, mentioned seeing a newspaper article about a free acting class being given by the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal jobs agency. Carl tried his hand at acting, found he was good at it, hung up his machinist’s apron and joined a theater troupe. He also acted in summer stock.

During World War II, Reiner served in an Army entertainment unit that toured U.S. bases in the South Pacific. After his discharge he joined the road company of the musical revue “Call Me Mister” as the comic lead, and within a year he was in the Broadway production.

In the 1949-50 television season he was a regular on “The Fifty-Fourth Street Revue,” a variety series, and in 1950 he was back on Broadway in “Alive and Kicking,” where he caught the eye of Max Liebman, the mastermind of “Your Show of Shows.”

Reiner married Estelle Lebost in 1943. She died in 2008.

In addition to his daughter, an author and psychoanalyst, he is survived by his sons, Rob, known for directing “When Harry Met Sally,” “A Few Good Men,” “This Is Spinal Tap” and numerous other films and for his role as Archie Bunker’s son-in-law on the groundbreaking sitcom “All in the Family,” and Lucas, a painter and filmmaker; and five grandchildren.

‘The Jerk’ and Beyond
Reiner’s first major box-office success as a director was “Oh, God!” (1977), starring George Burns as a very down-to-earth deity and John Denver as the man he chooses to spread his message. Two years later he teamed with Steve Martin, then at the height of his fame as a comedian, for what proved to be a mutually rewarding collaboration.

Reiner first directed Martin in “The Jerk” (1979), a film largely inspired by Martin’s manic stand-up act. The critical response was lukewarm, but the movie was a box-office smash and now often shows up on lists of the best American comedies.

“The Jerk,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982), “The Man With Two Brains” (1983) and “All of Me” (1984) defined Martin’s on-screen persona as a lovable goofball and made him a movie star. They also established Reiner as an imaginative director — especially “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” a black-and-white spoof of film noir set in the 1940s, in which he integrated vintage clips featuring actors like Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck into the action.

On Monday, Martin praised Reiner on Twitter as “my greatest mentor in movies and in life.”

Reiner returned to Broadway twice after moving west, but neither visit was triumphant. In 1972 he directed “Tough to Get Help,” a comedy by Steve Gordon about a Black couple working in an ostensibly liberal white household, which was savaged by the critics and closed after one performance. In 1980 he staged “The Roast,” by Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall, two writers he had worked with on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” That play, about a group of comedians who expose their darker instincts when they gather to roast a colleague, ran for less than a week.

The movies he directed after he stopped working with Martin — among them “Summer Rental” (1985), with John Candy, and “Sibling Rivalry” (1990), with Kirstie Alley and Bill Pullman — did only somewhat better. In his 70s, he decided that filmmaking demanded “just too much energy.” He gave it up after making “That Old Feeling” (1997), with Bette Midler and Dennis Farina.

But he remained active in front of the camera, notably as a crook lured out of retirement by the prospect of sharing in the loot from a Las Vegas casino robbery in Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of the Frank Sinatra caper film “Ocean’s Eleven.” He reprised the role in “Ocean’s Twelve” (2004) and “Ocean’s Thirteen” (2007).

On television he had recurring roles on the sitcoms “Hot in Cleveland” and “Two and a Half Men” and guest-starred on “Parks and Recreation,” “House” and other series. He also did voice-over work for several cartoon shows.

Reiner wrote a number of books in addition to “Enter Laughing,” including novels, children’s books and several memoirs, among them “My Anecdotal Life” (2003), “I Remember Me” (2013) and “Too Busy to Die” (2017). His daughter said another book would be published soon.

In 2017 he was prominently featured in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” a documentary about people who remained active into their 90s. And in his last years he maintained an active Twitter account, which he used primarily for political commentary.

A photo showing Reiner, Brooks and Annie Reiner wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, taken on Brooks’ birthday, was posted on Twitter this week.

Toward the end of “I Remember Me,” Reiner said a friend of his had recently asked if he had thought about retiring. Noting that his role on “Hot in Cleveland” gave him “the opportunity to kiss Betty White — thrice — and on the lips,” he offered a succinct response:

“Retire? I may be old, but I am not crazy!”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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