'The Jerk' Co-writer Michael Elias on Lessons Learned From Carl Reiner: "He Was Always Teaching Me"

Courtesy of Michael Elias; Universal Studios/Photofest
Left: Reiner, Michael Elias and a gorilla, circa 1974. Right: Steve Martin, Mabel King and Reiner on the set of 'The Jerk' in 1979.

The scribe remembers how the film's director, who died June 29 at age 98, guided him on everything from TV, to film, food — and toupees.

Screenwriter Michael Elias, who co-wrote 1979's The Jerk, reflects on lessons learned from Reiner on everything from TV to film, food — and toupees.

In 1973, George Shapiro was my manager. He said, "I'm assigning you to Carl Reiner. You'll be his writing partner." It sounded like, "Report to the Forum, you'll be sharing the backcourt with Jerry West."

I arrived at CBS Radford and met Carl. "George Shapiro sent me," I said.

Carl: "I know. We have a meeting this afternoon. But first, let's talk about lunch. Do you like The Brisket Basket on Ventura?"

CBS had taped eight episodes of the upcoming season of the latest Dick Van Dyke series, but the shows didn't work. Carl knew it, Dick knew it, and CBS knew it. Freddie Silverman and his execs drove over the hill to Carl's office to figure out what to do. Toss eight episodes? Recast? Reshoot? Air the episodes then cancel?

Freddie and his minions tossed out ideas, solutions, blah, blah, blah. Carl listened, I didn't say a word. An hour into the meeting, Carl's assistant announced: "Carl, it's 4:30."

Carl stood up. "I have to go."

Silverman: "Go? Where?"

Carl: "Group."

Silverman: "Group?"

Carl: "Group therapy."

Silverman: "But what about the show?"

Carl: "Can't save the show if I'm crazy."

And he walked out. Silverman looked at me. I said, "It's my first day."

We were both agnostic Jews, New Yorkers, Catskill vets and bald. Carl unashamedly owned a set of hairpieces, crafted by a rug-to-the-stars guru. "This one's for when I do Carson, this is for interviews, this is for acting in movies. Want to try one?" He grabbed a comb and danced an imitation of his rug guru, adjusting the hairpiece.

"Go outside, see if anyone recognizes you." I did. His assistant, Sybil Adelman, said, "He must like you, he let you wear the Carson."

Writers know that collaborating is the second most intimate relationship in Hollywood. Carl said, "It's like a marriage, but there's no sex."

I was the junior partner on the team — shy ("Grimmie the ball, Jerry"), writing and polishing episodes of the new show. We worked weekends in his home office on Rodeo. There was a shelf above the window with 13 Emmys. Once we got into a dispute over a line, argued, then Carl paused and pointed at the row of gleaming statues. "OK, you’re right," I said.

He picked up lunch tabs like no one else, but he was cheap when it came to typing names: "I like Jane, so I only have to cross out the 'e' to make it Jan." His favorite words to writers were, "Hey, let's go home."

He loved to shop on the walk back to the office from lunch: "Let's all get shoes, (or electric shavers, tape recorders, fountain pens). I’m buying."

He only stole from himself: "You know what, I haven't done Dick on laughing gas in a few years." In the room, he was patient, kind and reminded me, "Sometimes you have to pitch 10 bad ideas before you get one good one."

He would interrupt any work conversation to discuss pastrami, gravlax (he made his own), share a recipe or describe last night's meal in flawless French. He despised the right people — rightly so, they were usually on the right, and he poured lava flows of love on those who weren't.

He may not have known it, but he was always teaching me: how to write comedy, how to collaborate, how to balance life and art, and how to, ah, I'll say it: how to be a nice guy in Hollywood. I'm not sure I was a perfect student, but he was like a Picasso painting — you experience it and you come away a better person.

There it is: Carl Reiner was not just a great artist, he was great art.

Michael Elias' new novel, You Can Go Home Now, is published by HarperCollins.

This story first appeared in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.