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R.I.P. Carl Reiner

The A.V. Club logo The A.V. Club 6/30/2020 Randall Colburn and Lara Unnerstall
Carl Reiner wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone © Photo: Jeff Kravitz (Getty Images)

Carl Reiner, Jewish American comedian, director, author, creator of the Dick Van Dyke Show, and longtime comedy partner of Mel Brooks, has died. His assistant, Judy Nagy, confirmed to Variety that he died of natural causes on Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 98.

Over the course of Reiner’s career, he won—among other accolades— 12 Emmys, one Grammy award, the Mark Twain prize for American humor, and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.

Reiner was born on March 20, 1922 in The Bronx to Jewish immigrant parents—a watchmaker and a housewife, respectively. His entrée into the arts came when Reiner’s brother Charlie, who noticed that Reiner was always making the people around him laugh, encouraged him to take a free acting class at a school run by the Works Progress Administration. There he found a passion for performance, so much so that he joined a theater company at the age of 17. He continued to hone his craft during wartime, when he served in a troupe that toured and performed for his fellow World War II G.I.s.

Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s sophisticated comedy in just 10 episodes

After the war, Reiner continued his acting career, performing in several Broadway musicals. He married a woman named Estelle Lebost, a jazz singer that he’d met during the war, in December of 1943. They would go on to have three children together and remained married for 64 years, until her death in 2008. (She notably delivered the “I’ll have what she’s having” line in their son Rob Reiner’s 1989 film, When Harry Met Sally.) In 1950, Reiner entered the burgeoning world of television when he was cast in Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. There he met Mel Brooks, who would go on to become his longtime comedic partner and close friend.

Under the tutelage of Caesar, a titan of comedy in his day, Reiner and Brooks shaped a voice and style of comedy that would eventually define their careers. Both of them went on to work on Caesar’s Hour, a variety show that earned Reiner his first Emmy award, in 1957.

The next few years would be extremely prolific and successful for Reiner. Brooks and Reiner first appeared as a comedic duo on The Steve Allen Show in 1960; their routine, with Reiner playing a straight interviewer to Brooks’ zany 2000-year-old man (a character Brooks created while ad-libbing with Reiner), became so popular that they eventually expanded it into five comedy albums and an animated TV special. In 1961, a television pilot that Reiner developed blossomed into The Dick Van Dyke Show. The series was immensely popular, star making lead actors Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, and establishing Reiner as an actor, director, writer, and producer.

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner

Over the next few decades, Reiner juggled these creative roles while working on a variety of film and television projects. In 1970 he directed Where’s Poppa?, a controversial dark comedy about a nice Jewish boy who considers killing his overbearing mother. A few years later, Reiner was handpicked by Steve Martin to direct his first film effort after crossing over from standup comedy. Together they developed 1979’s The Jerk, which went on to gain critical acclaim and huge box office success. This collaboration endured for three more of Steve Martin’s early film successes: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), The Man With Two Brains (1983), and All of Me (1984).

Reiner continued to direct films throughout the ‘80s, though his directorial career tapered off in the late ‘90s. Despite this, he remained active in the arts, appearing as an actor in a wide variety of film and television, including Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Two And A Half Men (2009-2014), and Bob’s Burgers (2014).

He also became a prolific author and storyteller, publishing a number of memoirs including I Remember Me in 2013, I Just Remembered, in 2014, and What I Forgot to Remember in 2015. His other recent work includes 2015’s The Secret Treasure of Tahka Paka, a young adult adventure novel. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Reiner remarked that many of the anecdotes relayed in his memoirs popped into his head unexpectedly during the daily walks that kept him active into his 90th decade. “You find things that you remember and you don’t ever remember that you remember them until you remember them,” he said on the subject.

In a 2015 interview with CBS News, Reiner said of writing, “I wake up every morning anxious to get to my…what do you call it? We used to call it a typewriter. My computer!” He carried over that energy and love for writing to Twitter, where he remained one of the oldest active celebrities on the social network, tweeting daily witticisms, photos, and chapter titles for upcoming books.

Reiner recently reflected on his career in comedy with The A.V. Club, saying to make someone laugh is “the best feeling in the world.”

“It’s like when you’re handing somebody a good meal or something and they say thank you,” he said. “It’s food for the soul.”

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