Over this past weekend we lost one of the funniest and most versatile entertainers of the last 60+ years. He was renowned as a comedian, actor, director, screenwriter and writer. He made us laugh and entertained us for seven decades. He was associated with some of the most iconic tv shows and comedy routines of his day.
Carl Reiner was born on March 20, 1923 in the Bronx, NY. His parents were immigrants. His father, a watchmaker, was from Austria; his mother was from Rumania. He had an older brother, Charlie, who, though not associated with the entertainment business, played a small, but significant role in his life.
At the age of 16 Carl was working as a machinist when Charlie told him about a free drama workshop that was being sponsored by the Works Progress Administration and convinced him to try it. That turned out to be a lifechanging decision, and Carl always credited Charlie with changing the course of his life and, as we shall see, entertainment history.
Carl attended Georgetown University until he was drafted into the Army in 1943. At first, he worked as a French interpreter and a teleprinter operator. Eventually, however, he was assigned to Special Services whose job was to entertain soldiers stationed overseas. For once, the Army, much mocked for trying to cram square pegs into round holes, got it right.
After his discharge Carl, like most would-be entertainers, bounced around for a while from one nondescript job to another. Finally, in 1950 he got his big break when he was cast as a comic actor on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. For the benefit of those of you under the age of 75 Caesar was one of the most successful entertainers in the early years of tv, and “YSOS” was a huge hit. Carl got to showcase his comedic talents by appearing in various skits on live tv. He won Emmys in 1955 and 1956 for Best Supporting Actor.
In the mid-1950s he became a comedy writer for another Caesar show, Caesar’s Hour. During this time he worked alongside some of the greatest comedy writers of the day such as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon, each of whom was to become famous in his own right.
Carl and Brooks became a very successful comedy duo. Starting in 1960 they appeared together on the Steve Allen Show. During this time they developed the famous comedy routine, the 2000 Year Old Man. Brooks played the oldie, and Carl was the straight man. It was hilarious. If you have never seen it I recommend you find it on U-Tube. The routine won them a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Comedy Album. Additionally, the routine gave a huge boost to both of their careers. Brooks’ biographer, William Holtzman, called the routine “an ingenuous jazz improvisation.”
Carl’s next big project was probably my personal favorite. In 1958 he had written a television comedy series, starring himself, named Head of the Family, which was loosely based on his own life. The network did not pick it up, supposedly because it did not like Carl in the lead role. However, in 1961 the show was recast with a young up-and-coming comedian named Dick Van Dyke in the lead role supported by a young, sexy former dancer, Mary Tyler Moore, as his wife, and veteran comedians Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie. It was about a group of comedy writers, headed by Van Dyke, who wrote for a crusty, temperamental comedian played by, you guessed it, Carl Reiner. The show was a huge hit. It ran from 1961 – 1966 and syndicated for many years thereafter. When I was in college we watched the show every day at 11:30 partly because it was so funny and partly to gawk at the sexy Moore. I highly recommend this show as well.
In his long career Carl wrote, directed and/or acted in dozens of movies and tv productions, too many to name here. For me, the best movies were The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), Oh God (1977), and The Jerk (1979). Along the way he mentored many other comedians, such as Steve Martin, who starred in the Jerk. Perhaps, my favorite tv show on which he appeared was The Carol Burnett Show, a hugely popular program that starred Burnet, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway in some of the funniest skits you will ever see on tv.
In an interview in 1981 Carl shared his philosophy on comedy writing, “you have to imagine yourself as not somebody very special, but somebody very ordinary … very normal. … If it makes you laugh, it’s going to make everybody laugh.” Although Carl was Jewish he was not the least bit religious. In fact, he described himself as a “Jewish atheist.”
Unlike most entertainers, Carl enjoyed a very stable home life. He was married to the same person, former singer Estelle Lebost, for 64 years. In addition, one of his sons, Rob, is a successful actor (“meathead” in All in the Family) and director (When Harry Met Sally) in his own right. The other son, Lucas, is an actor and director; and his daughter, Annie, is a poet, playwright and author. Some of you may recall that Estelle appeared in one scene in When Harry Met Sally and got to utter one of the funniest lines in movie history: “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Among his many awards Carl won 11 Emmys, one Grammy and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Moreover, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2017 he and his son, Rob, became the first father-son duo to have their footprints and handprints placed on a concrete slab at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Carl passed away on June 29 at the ripe old age of 98. He went out the way we should all go, at home, surrounded by his family. Rest in peace, Carl. You made us laugh and entertained us for seven decades. You will be sorely missed, but your work will live forever.