Carl Reiner, Who Always Left Them Laughing, Dies at 98

Carl Reiner - Getty - H 2017
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After starting out with Sid Caesar, he did the '2000 Year Old Man' routine with pal Mel Brooks, created 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' and directed such films as 'The Jerk.'

Carl Reiner, the quintessential straight man for Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks who based the beloved sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show on his own life and jump-started Steve Martin’s big-screen career, has died. He was 98.

The influential writer, director, actor, author and multiple Emmy Award winner died Monday night at his Beverly Hills home of natural causes, his assistant, Judy Nagy, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Son Rob Reiner, the actor, writer, director and Oscar-nominated producer, said in a tweet Tuesday morning: "Last night my dad passed away. As I write this my heart is hurting. He was my guiding light."

TMZ first reported the news of his death.

Born in the Bronx, Reiner came to prominence in the 1950s as a performer and writer on Caesar’s legendary live variety programs Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, the wacky live primetime variety shows that also served as career springboards for Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Howard Morris, Imogene Coca and others.

From those writers rooms, he and Brooks began a lifelong friendship, and the two birthed one of the great two-man comedy routines of all time, The 2000 Year Old Man. The off-the-wall shtick yielded five comedy albums, TV appearances with Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen, a 1975 animated television special and a Grammy Award.

In 1959, after Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, Reiner was being offered sitcom work but didn’t like any of the scripts he was reading. His late wife, Estelle, told him he could write a better one.

“I’d written a novel, Enter Laughing, but I’d never written a situation comedy,” he recalled in a 2011 interview with the WGA West. “And I remember talking to myself. … The question I asked myself at Franklin Roosevelt Drive and 96th Street was, ‘Reiner, what piece of ground do you stand on that no one else stands on? Write about that.’

“And I said, ‘Well, I live in [New York City suburb] New Rochelle. I’m married. I have two kids. I work in New York. I’m a writer on a television variety show, Your Show of Shows. Write about that.’ And that’s how Head of the Family, which would become The Dick Van Dyke Show, was born.”

Reiner wrote 13 episodes and then starred opposite Barbara Britton in the pilot, but with the television landscape then dominated by Westerns, every network passed on it. He was not eager to try again a year later, but producer Sheldon Leonard told him, “We’ll get a better actor to play you.”

That, of course, would be Dick Van Dyke, who portrayed the clumsy Rob Petrie. He worked with fellow comedy scribes Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) and Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) on the fictional Alan Brady Show, and Mary Tyler Moore, only 24 years old when the show premiered, played his wife, Laurie (Van Dyke was 35).

“Carl Reiner is the best writer in the world,” Van Dyke told David Steinberg on Showtime’s Inside Comedy. “He understood everyone’s way of speaking, the cadence, the intonation, everything. He wrote for everyone the way they talked. I didn’t have to act; all I had to do was read the lines. He was that good.”

In addition to producing the show and writing the first 39 episodes himself — and having a hand in all 158 installments during the life of the series — Reiner appeared occasionally as the toupee-wearing, cavalier comedy star Alan Brady. He once said he based that character not on Caesar but on a composite of Milton Berle, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason, guys who rarely deigned to talk to their writers.

The Dick Van Dyke Show aired for five seasons from October 1961 to June 1966 and forged new ground when it aired reruns that first summer (while its tough in-season competition, NBC’s The Perry Como Show, was on hiatus). The revolutionary move attracted viewers who missed the show the first time, and ratings grew for season two.

The series went on to amass 14 Emmys, including five for Reiner.

“Most of the shows [on the air then] were battle of sexes. [I Love] Lucy certainly was a battle of the sexes,” he said in a 1998 interview with the Archive of American Television. “A lot of deception, a lot of people fooling everybody. The Van Dyke show was based on my wife and I. We were worthy adversaries, we argued about things — but we were two against the world.”

Estelle, his wife of nearly 65 years, died in October 2008 at age 94. She was best known for her cameo in their son Rob's 1989 film When Harry Met Sally when, in a restaurant, she reacts to Meg Ryan’s character, who was faking an orgasm, by saying, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

In addition to Rob, survivors include another son, Lucas, and daughter Annie.

Carl Reiner was born on March 20, 1922. His father was a watchmaker who worked out of the family’s three-room apartment. After graduating from Evander Childs High School, Reiner was making $8 a week as a machinist when his older brother Charlie told him about a free dramatic workshop in Manhattan sponsored by the Works Progress Administration.

Reiner did plays near Central Park for a dollar a week, and that led to a two-year stint with a summer theater company outside Rochester, New York, where his pay graduated to room and board.

During World War II, Reiner trained as a radio operator in the Air Force and later was assigned to Georgetown University to study French so he could become an interpreter. He served in the Pacific as a comedian and actor with the Special Services Entertainment Unit (run by future Bewitched actor Maurice Evans), which put on plays for the troops.

Reiner spent time after the war honing his chops as a stand-up comedian and emcee at a resort in Keene, New Mexico, and was the lead in the national company production of the musical revue Call Me Mister, about men coming home from war.

In 1948, Reiner made his Broadway debut in another musical revue, Inside U.S.A., with Jack Haley, and played a bothersome photographer on an early TV series, The Fashion Story. He joined the live primetime show The Fifty-Fourth Street Revue, which featured dancer Bob Fosse, before hooking up with Caesar on NBC’s Your Show of Shows in 1950. In one of their many popular sketches, Reiner interviewed Caesar’s "Professor," a bluffing German who sounded smart but was in reality a buffoon.

Caesar then took Reiner to his new NBC variety program, Caesar’s Hour, where Reiner starred in such recurring sketches as “The Commuters” as a suburbanite on a crowded train and as one of “The Three Haircuts,” which spoofed the hairstyles of rock ’n’ roll singers.

The 2000 Year Old Man was created as Reiner and Brooks were fooling around during a lull in the writers room at Your Show of Shows.

In the finest straight man tradition laid down by Bud Abbott and George Burns, Reiner played an earnest TV reporter interviewing the bombastic Brooks, who used a Yiddish accent, as the oldest man in the world.

“I turned to Mel and I said, ‘Here’s a man who was actually seen at the crucifixion 2,000 years ago,” and his first words were, ‘Oh, boy.’ We all fell over laughing,” Reiner, in describing the genesis of the routine, told The New York Times in 2009.

“I said, ‘You knew Jesus?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Thin lad, wore sandals, long hair, walked around with 11 other guys. Always came into the store, never bought anything. Always asked for water.’ Those were the first words, and then for the next hour or two I kept asking him questions, and he never stopped killing us.”

Reiner and Brooks were asked to bring out the bit for years at parties, and Edward G. Robinson wanted to make a Broadway play out of it. After Burns threatened (probably not jokingly) to steal the routine, Allen rented out studio space for the duo to record an album. The 2000 Year Old Man was a best-seller in 1960.

They gave the record to Cary Grant, who took it to London and played it for the Queen Mother. “She loved it,” the actor told them. Noted Reiner, “Well, there’s the biggest shiksa in the world; we must be all right.”

"Carl was a giant, unmatched in his contributions to entertainment," Brooks told THR in a statement. "I met him in 1950 when he joined Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows, and we’ve been best friends ever since. I loved him.

"When we were doing The 2000 Year Old Man together, there was no better straight man in the world. So whether he wrote or performed or he was just your best friend — nobody could do it better."

Reiner stepped out from his straight-man shackles to star in the Norman Jewison comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) as the father of a vacationing family in New England.

He also played con man Saul Bloom in Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans Eleven flicks, was on a panel that roasted the insecure late night host of The Larry Sanders Show, won his final Emmy for portraying “TV legend” Alan Brady on Mad About You and appeared as a movie producer on Two and a Half Men.

Behind the camera, Reiner was instrumental in the movie career of Martin, who had been a writer with Rob Reiner on CBS’ The Smothers Brothers Show. He directed the stand-up genius in four films, including his big-screen starring debut, The Jerk (1979), in which Martin’s Navin R. Johnson, who “was born a poor Black child,” leaves his adoptive sharecropper family to find riches (and then rags) in the outside world.

The two also teamed up for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and The Man With Two Brains (1983), both of which they wrote together, and All of Me (1984).

When Reiner was honored in 2011 by the TV Academy, Martin joked in a video, “I really wanted to be there tonight, Carl, but I am across the street having dinner.”

Reiner also directed such features as The Comic (1969), starring Van Dyke as a silent film star; the dark comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970), starring George Segal and Ruth Gordon; Oh, God! (1977), with a script by Gelbart that had Burns playing the Man Upstairs; Summer Rental (1985), starring John Candy; the spoof Fatal Instinct (1993); and That Old Feeling (1997), with Bette Midler and Dennis Farina.

Reiner also penned the film comedies The Thrill of It All (1963), starring James Garner and Doris Day, and The Art of Love (1965) with Garner, Van Dyke and Elke Sommer.

He created two 1970 sitcoms: The New Dick Van Dyke Show, with the actor now playing the host of a TV show in Phoenix, and Lotsa Luck, starring Dom DeLuise as the manager of a bus company’s lost and found department.

In the 1960s, Reiner also served as a frequent game show panelist and host. He presided over The Celebrity Game, where he would ask questions of nine formally dressed guest stars, and the contestants would guess their answers. The show was canceled, but the next year, the producers tweaked the format, stacked the stars in cubicles and renamed it The Hollywood Squares.

Reiner’s 1959 autobiographical novel, Enter Laughing, about a young man trying to break into show business, was adapted by his Show of Shows cohort Joseph Stein into a play that was directed by Gene Saks. It ran for a year on Broadway, and Alan Arkin won a Tony for playing the character based on Reiner.

He and Stein then wrote the Enter Laughing movie (with Reiner making his feature directing debut) that was released in 1967 and starred Reni Santoni, José Ferrer and Shelley Winters.

The prolific Reiner also wrote such books as All Kinds of Love, which skewered the California lifestyle; How Paul Robeson Saved My Life, a collection of short stories; Just Desserts: A Novellelah; NNNNN: A Novel; the children’s book Tell Me a Scary Story … But Not Too Scary!; and the memoirs My Anecdotal Life and I Remember Me.

He and Rob participated in a handprint/footprint ceremony outside the TCL Chinese Theatre at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival.

In 2000, Reiner was the recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He was the third person ever so honored. Jerry Seinfeld was on hand for the coronation.

“I think Carl Reiner is funnier than Mark Twain,” Seinfeld said. “[Twain is] funny, don’t get me wrong. But what was his best bit?

“I’m sorry, but this guy is not touching Carl Reiner. Twain would be working to type script changes for Carl Reiner. Twain should be so lucky to be here today so he could get the Carl Reiner Prize.”

Ryan Parker contributed to this report.