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Reiner, Carl (1922—)

Reiner, Carl (1922—)

Among the most influential comedic actors, writers, directors, and producers of his generation, Carl Reiner has been associated with many of the brightest lights in American comedy during the post-World War II era, including Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, and Steve Martin.

Reiner was born in the Bronx on March 20, 1922. During the Great Depression he got his first taste of show business as a writer and actor in a dramatic workshop sponsored by the Works Projects Administration (WPA). He was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, and further developed his performing abilities while acting in a South Pacific service troupe directed by Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans.

After the war, Reiner was part of the first generation of writer-performers on the new medium of television. In 1950 he was signed to write and co-star on NBC's variety series Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Reiner appeared on-screen, serving largely as a straight man to Caesar and Coca's antics. In the writer's room, Reiner worked alongside such greats as Neil Simon, Joe Stein, and a young, maniacal Mel Brooks. Brooks and Reiner developed a rapport for mad improvisation—Reiner would introduce Brooks as a Jewish pirate, for example, and Brooks would begin offthe-cuff dialogue. On one such occasion, Reiner asked Brooks about witnessing the Crucifixion. Brooks's persona became the genesis of the 2,000-Year-Old Man character. The pair developed the routine at show business parties during the 1950s, and on the advice of Steve Allen and George Burns, they recorded an album of the routine in 1960. It became a best-seller and spurred four more records.

Reiner wrote the critically acclaimed autobiographical novel Enter Laughing in 1958, which Joe Stein adapted into a hit Broadway play. Reiner realized that the story of his life—a young husband and father who wrote comedy—would also make a good TV situation comedy. The idea eventually became The Dick Van Dyke Show, which debuted in 1961 and ran for five seasons. The series was a beautiful combination of physical shtick, verbal jousting, and ensemble acting, and turned Van Dyke and co-star Mary Tyler Moore into TV superstars. Reiner eventually made guest appearances as Alan Brady, the demanding, vainglorious star for whom Van Dyke's character was writing.

During the 1960s and 1970s Reiner branched out as a successful film director. His 1969 movie, The Comic, starred Van Dyke as a silent screen comedian. Reiner's next film was the cult classic Where's Poppa? (1970), a blissfully off-color farce with something to offend everyone (the film ends with the middle-aged protagonist about to go to bed with his aged mother). He directed the 1977 surprise hit, Oh, God!, starring George Burns as the Almighty; the film was written by fellow Caesar alumnus Larry Gelbart, and its style echoed the 2,000-Year-Old Man routines.

Reiner found his ideal film collaborator in stand-up phenomenon Steve Martin. Reiner directed Martin's first starring role, The Jerk (1979), which grossed well over $100 million. Reiner and Martin teamed up three more times, most famously on the 1984 hit, All of Me (co-starring Lily Tomlin).

By the 1990s, Reiner was an elder statesman in the comedy field. He reprised his Alan Brady character (and won an Emmy) in a 1995 episode of the popular Mad about You sitcom. In 1998 he and Brooks recorded their first 2,000-Year-Old Man album in a quarter century, for which the pair won a long overdue Grammy. "Thirty-nine years ago we were nominated for a Grammy, and lost," Reiner said in his acceptance speech. "We can't wait another 39 years!"

Reiner married singer Estelle Lebost in 1944, and they have three children. The eldest is actor/director Rob Reiner, known for such films as This Is Spinal Tap and A Few Good Men. Estelle is probably best remembered for her one line—"I'll have what she's having"—in the deli scene in son Rob's 1989 hit, When Harry Met Sally.

—Andrew Milner

Further Reading:

Reiner, Carl. Continue Laughing. New York, Birch Lane Press, 1995.

——. Enter Laughing. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1958.

——, and Brooks, Mel. The 2,000-Year-Old Man in the Year 2000: The Book, Including How to Not Die and Other Good Tips. New York, Harper Collins, 1997.

Waldron, Vince. The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book. New York, Hyperion, 1994.

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