Carl Reiner, The King of Comedy, 1922-2020

by Elisabeth Sereda June 30, 2020
Writer, producer, director and actor Carl Reiner

Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

He wrote comedy history. He made generations laugh. He created one of the most beloved TV shows, including the Golden Globe-winning Dick Van Dyke Show. He won nine Emmys. And in his later years, he mastered twitter and never stopped going after Donald Trump.

Carl Reiner, who passed away in New York at 98, was born in the Bronx. His father was a watchmaker, his mother a homemaker. He graduated from high school and started work as a repair guy for sewing machines. That, thankfully, did not turn into a career after his older brother showed him an ad for an acting class. He joined a theater troupe and toured World War 2 bases to entertain the GIs. In 1943 he married his one and only beloved wife Estelle who died 12 years ago.

He first garnered praise in 1950, when he played second banana to Sid Caesar on the variety program The Show of Shows. Ten years later he created perhaps the most legendary sitcom of all time, The Dick Van Dyke Show, allegedly based on his own life, and he wanted to play the part that would remind everyone of Sid Caesar. But the show only broke records when Dick Van Dyke was instead hired. Mary Tyler Moore’s character is based on Reiner’s wife Estelle.

He also started collaborating with Mel Brooks on The 2000 Year Old Man, which was a huge success. It began as a standup act that the two of them performed at dinner with friends. They got so many laughs at these private gatherings that they smelled money and decided to put it on record. It was a phenomenon that resulted in five albums and one Grammy. He was known as the straight man to his comedy partners’ shenanigans but he was a true comedian himself.

Carl Reiner realized early in his career that the only way he would have a say in his career and those of others was to fully participate behind the scenes as well. He sat in on the writing sessions, in effect being the first to create what is now commonly called the writers’ room. He would bounce jokes, back and forth, with Mel Brooks and Neil Simon. And then he wrote his first novel “Enter Laughing” which became a Broadway hit and a movie. He started directing and found yet another new career behind the camera. His first big success as a director was the George Burns starrer Oh, God. He can be widely credited for making Steve Martin’s career, who starred in four of his films including The Jerk. Another one, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, became a cult classic.

But he also went back to acting with parts in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and later he was lured by George Clooney to play one of the crooks in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels. And he continued writing books, whether they were memoirs, children’s books or novels, and his last one will be coming out posthumously. He once summed up his career with these words: “I acted like a director. I acted like a producer. I sat in front of a typewriter and acted like a novelist.”

Carl Reiner was also a lifelong liberal and activist. Not a day went by when he did not call out number 45 on Twitter. And most recently he posted a photo of himself with his daughter and Mel Brooks in a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt.

Steve Martin called him “my greatest mentor in movies and in life” in a tweet. He is survived by his daughter Annie, a psychoanalyst, sons Lucas, a painter, and director Rob Reiner, as well as five grandchildren.