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Carl Reiner (1922–2020), legendary comedy writer, director, and performer

by Linnea Crowther

Carl Reiner was a legendary comedy writer and performer who created “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and directed films including “The Jerk.”

Shaping a half-century of comedy

One of the most influential and revered comic minds of the 20th century, Reiner found success as a writer and performer on television, in movies and even on records with his frequent collaborator Mel Brooks and their classic “2000 Year Old Man” routine. He helped shape the careers of actors Dick Van Dyke and Steve Martin as well as his own son, the director and actor Rob Reiner.

Born in New York City in 1922, Reiner was the son of Jewish immigrants. His first exposure to the world of entertainment was through a dramatic workshop hosted by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. During World War II, he served in the Army’s entertainment section and toured the Pacific theater entertaining troops. After the war, he continued live performing as a stand-up comedian and dramatic actor on Broadway.

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TV comedy roots

In 1950, he was cast as a supporting sketch performer on Sid Ceasar’s (1922 – 2014) “Your Show of Shows,” which ran from 1950 to 1954. The 90-minute live variety show was an inspiration for “Saturday Night Live” and featured the work of some of the top comic writers of the time, including Brooks, Reiner, and Neil Simon (1927 – 2018).

Brooks and Reiner became fast friends, and a tape recording of some of their improvised banter at a party led to the creation of “The 2000 Year Old Man.” In this routine, Brooks would play a 2,000-year-old man, and Reiner would question him about the historical events he witnessed. It proved a hit at the party, and soon led to TV appearances and eventually five comedy albums between 1961 and 1997.

“The Dick Van Dyke Show”

After his work with Caesar on “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour,” which ran from 1954 to 1957, Reiner wrote and starred on his own television pilot based on his experiences as a TV writer. The resulting show, “Head of the Family” was not picked up. However, when Dick Van Dyke was recast in the lead, CBS enthusiastically bought the show, now titled “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” The sitcom, which ran from 1961 to 1966, was a hit, and Reiner still managed to find some on-screen time playing the egotistical star Alan Brady, who employed Van Dyke’s writer character.

Feature films

Following the end of the run of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Reiner turned his attention to directing feature films. His first was 1967’s “Enter Laughing,” an adaptation of the stage play, which in turn had been adapted from Reiner’s 1958 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.

Reiner also directed 1977’s “Oh, God!” that starred George Burns (1896 – 1996) and was written by fellow Caesar alum and “M*A*S*H” TV series creator Larry Gelbart (1928 – 2009). In 1979, Reiner teamed up with a comic from a new generation, Steve Martin, in his first feature film. “The Jerk” (1979) was huge success, and the two would collaborate on three more movies, 1982’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” 1983’s “The Man With Two Brains” and 1984’s “All of Me.”

Later roles

In his later years, Reiner had a supporting role as aging con man Saul Bloom in Stephen Soderberg’s popular “Ocean’s” trilogy of heist flicks alongside George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. He also made frequent guest-starring appearances on TV, winning an Emmy Award for reprising his role as Alan Brady on “Mad About You” in 1995 – one of nine total Emmys he won. In 2000, Reiner received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Reiner on his secret to enduring success

“Enjoy the good times, and walk away from the bumps. That’s it. Even failures can turn into something positive if you just keep going. I wrote a television pilot called ‘Head of the Family.’ CBS didn’t want it. It was considered a failure. But we reworked it. A year later, it became ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’” —from a 2017 interview with AARP Bulletin

What people said about him

Full obituary: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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