Carl Reiner may not have been the last of his kind, but you would be forgiven for thinking so. Over an extraordinary career that touched nearly eight decades, Reiner’s long run encompassed Broadway, the golden age of television, a comedy act with Mel Brooks, and significant work both in front of and behind the camera on film.
Of course, his specialty was comedy, and despite the change the decades would bring in terms of style and fashion, he was never not funny.
Reiner started out on Broadway in the late ’40s, doing such musicals as Alive and Kicking, Inside USA, and Call Me Mister (his first lead). He soon moved to television, where his legend would take full bloom. As a writer and performer of skits, Reiner made inroads in television on programs such as The Steve Allen Show, Your Show of Shows, and Caesar’s Hour (for which he won two Emmys for Best Supporting Actor). In 1959, Reiner developed a sitcom for CBS titled Head of the Family. The network liked the premise, but didn’t want Reiner in the lead. They recast the part with Dick Van Dyke in the part Reiner had intended for himself, and thus was born one of the best and most loved comedy series in the history of the medium, The Dick Van Dyke Show. The show didn’t just break open Van Dyke’s career, but also Mary Tyler Moore’s as Van Dyke’s wife. Reiner wrote many of the episodes and occasionally stepped in front of the camera in the recurring role of Alan Brady. During the show’s six-year run Reiner won five Emmys for his work. He also began his directing career on the program.
At the same time Reiner was changing the course of television history, he was also performing with Mel Brooks as part of a phenomenally successful comedy duo. Their sketch The 2000 Year Old Man resulted in a series of wildly well-received performances and comedy albums in the early ’60s. The duo would reprise their skit in 1973 and again in 1997, with the latter producing a Grammy winning Best Comedy album.
After The Dick Van Dyke Show ended in 1966, Reiner turned his attention to film. Reiner had appeared in a small role in Stanley Kramer’s all-star comedy It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963, and had a more significant part in 1966’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Reiner then adapted his own semi-autobiographical novel, Enter Laughing (which had already been a success as a Tony Award winning play starring Alan Arkin) for film while also taking the director’s chair on the project. The film was a modest success (although many critics took issue with Reni Santoni in the lead), but did well enough to lead to more directing work for Reiner. His follow up, The Comic (loosely based on the career of Buster Keaton) starring Dick Van Dyke was little seen, but earned some champions, including Roger Ebert. Reiner’s third film as a director, 1970’s manic dark comedy Where’s Poppa? starring George Segal, also divided critics, but did earn writer Robert Klane a WGA nomination, and the film has a substantial cult following.
Reiner returned to series television in 1971 with The New Dick Van Dyke Show. Reiner created the show and wrote and directed many of its episodes. CBS was hoping to recreate the magic of the first series, but after a solid first season, the show’s ratings quickly dropped off and came to a close in 1974.
In 1977, Reiner would have his first huge success in theaters with Oh God! starring George Burns as, well, God, and John Denver as a skeptical grocery store manager. The film did well with critics and was a massive hit at the box office. The film’s script, written by Larry Gelbart, garnered an Oscar nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.
Other than the occasional small part (often in his own films) Reiner focused mostly on directing features for the next twenty years. His follow up to Oh God!, The One And Only starring Henry Winkler, was a flop, but his next film, The Jerk saw Reiner begin a fruitful four-film relationship with Steve Martin. The Jerk may have received mixed notices upon release, but it was a huge box office success. As much as Reiner made the career of Dick Van Dyke on the small screen, it could also be said that he did the same for Martin at the movies. The duo re-teamed in 1982 with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. A film that was both a parody and an homage of film noir classics, using actual footage from several ’40s films to tell the story of a gumshoe hired by the daughter (Rachel Ward) of a scientist and cheesemaker (that’s just funny on its face, right?) to uncover the cause of her father’s death. Critics mostly loved the film, but moviegoers scratched their heads, and the film was only a modest success.
Their next film, the sci-fi comedy, The Man With Two Brains sold even fewer tickets, but would go on to earn a solid cult following. Their final film together, 1984’s brilliant comedy All Of Me, might not have scored quite as well at the box office as The Jerk, but it did do quite well at the turnstiles, and even better with critics. Martin and Lily Tomlin make such a great comedic team that it’s hard to understand why no one ever pushed them into another movie together. Both leads scored Golden Globe nominations for their performances and the film has gone on to achieve classic status. I watched it just a couple years ago and found that it has lost absolutely nothing.
None of the six films that Reiner directed after All Of Me made much of an impact commercially or critically. His final film as a director, 1997’s That Old Feeling, starring Bette Midler and Dennis Farina, came and went quietly, and it seemed that Reiner’s career might fade away as well. But then in 2000, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney cast Reiner as Saul Bloom in Ocean’s 11, an old thief pulled out of retirement by Clooney’s Danny Ocean. While Reiner’s screen time isn’t lengthy, all of it is choice, resulting in a late career peak for the comedic legend. He reprised the role in Ocean’s 12 and 13 in 2004 and 2007. Through the trilogy, Reiner was introduced to a whole new audience.
The remainder of Reiner’s career was spent doing charming guest stints on television and voice over work for projects as disparate as Two and a Half Men and Toy Story.
Starting in the post-war era and running all the way to the current day, Reiner found success on stage, on television, on the silver screen, on record, with acting, producing, writing, and directing. He won nine Emmys, a Grammy, and in 2000 he was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. He is a towering figure in comedy who bridged the gap between vaudeville and the modern age.
It’s also impossible to find anyone who has ever said a bad word about him. The term “national treasure” is often overused. Not in the case of Carl Reiner.
Carl Reiner died yesterday, he was 98 years old.