Im­mense comedic tal­ent in­spired gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers

The Irish Times - - Obituaries - Carl Reiner

Born: March 20th, 1922 Died: June 29th, 2020

The screen­writer, ac­tor and di­rec­tor Carl Reiner, who has died aged 98, was a man of re­mark­able tal­ent and en­ergy. He was one of the key fig­ures in US TV com­edy dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s and be­gan his ca­reer as a writer and per­former on the com­edy se­ries Your Show of Shows, which starred Sid Cae­sar and Imo­gene Coca, be­fore mov­ing on to cre­ate The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Reiner in­sisted that The Dick Van Dyke Show was “hands down” the thing he was most proud of in his ca­reer. Not be­cause of its 15 Emmy awards but be­cause it in­spired gen­er­a­tions of com­edy writ­ers. “When I wrote the show,” Reiner said, “I knew the one thing that was ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary was to not use slang of the day. Be­cause I knew this would have last­ing value.”

His work as a writer and di­rec­tor was en­hanced by per­for­mances from gifted comic ac­tors in­clud­ing Steve Mar­tin, with whom he made four films in five years. The Jerk (1979) had Mar­tin as the adopted white son of poor black share­crop­pers, who makes it big as an in­ven­tor, only to be sued by a di­rec­tor (played by Reiner) who has be­come cross-eyed thanks to one of Mar­tin’s in­ven­tions. Its daft rags-to-riches-to-rags plot was a great ve­hi­cle for Mar­tin’s ab­surd, phys­i­cal style of com­edy.

So too was Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), which gave the im­pres­sion, thanks to a clever tech­nique of in­ter­cut­ting film noir ex­cerpts from the 1940s, that the pri­vate eye played by Mar­tin was in­ter­act­ing with stars in­clud­ing Bette Davis, Humphrey Bog­art, James Cag­ney and Bar­bara Stan­wyck. The ter­mi­nally silly, but hi­lar­i­ous, The Man With Two Brains (1983) had Mar­tin as Dr Hfuhruhurr, who falls in love with some pick­led grey mat­ter. In All of Me (1984) Mar­tin de­liv­ered a tour-de-force per­for­mance as Roger Cobb, half of whose body is taken over by the spirit of a de­ceased mil­lion­airess (Lily Tom­lin).

As was the case with his col­league and close friend Mel Brooks, Reiner had a fa­cil­ity for an­ar­chic, ab­surd com­edy, laced with New York Jewish hu­mour. He was born in the Bronx, to Jewish im­mi­grants. His mother, Bessie (née Mathias), was from Ro­ma­nia and his fa­ther, Irv­ing, was a watch­maker from Aus­tria. At first, Carl as­pired to be a base­ball player or opera singer, but, aged 16, while work­ing as a ma­chin­ist re­pair­ing sew­ing ma­chines, he turned to study­ing act­ing at the WPA (Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion) Dra­matic Work­shop.

Wartime ef­fort

After the sec­ond World War broke out, Reiner was drafted into the army, even­tu­ally achiev­ing the rank of cor­po­ral. He trained as a French in­ter­preter, and helped en­ter­tain the troops for two years, be­fore be­ing hon­ourably dis­charged in 1946.

The fol­low­ing year, he landed a lead­ing role in the tour­ing mu­si­cal revue Call Me Mis­ter, fol­lowed by roles in two re­vues on Broad­way, In­side USA (1948) and Alive and Kick­ing (1950).

Then, Reiner was of­fered the chance to play straight man to Cae­sar on Your Show of Shows, as well as be­ing part of the writ­ing team, which also in­cluded Brooks, Mel Tolkin and Neil Si­mon (whose 1993 Broad­way play Laugh­ter on the 23rd Floor was in­spired by their work­ing meth­ods).

Reiner spent nine years with the pro­gramme and its se­quel.

The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) was born out of Reiner’s own ex­pe­ri­ence of bal­anc­ing his work on Your Show of Shows with his sub­ur­ban home life. Most of the hu­mour of the sit­com came from the merg­ing of the chaotic do­mes­tic life of Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), who lives in sub­ur­ban New Rochelle with his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Richie (Larry Mathews), with his job as a head writer try­ing to come up with funny ma­te­rial for Alan Brady (Reiner) on the fic­tional Alan Brady Show.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Reiner was ap­pear­ing as a sup­port­ing ac­tor in fea­ture film come­dies, gain­ing top billing in the cold war farce The Rus­sians Are Com­ing, The Rus­sians Are Com­ing (1966). He also wrote two fluffy com­edy screen­plays: The Thrill of It All (1963), made into a film star­ring Doris Day, and The Art of Love (1965), with Van Dyke as a strug­gling artist in a stu­dio-shot Paris.

In 1967, Reiner made his di­rec­to­rial de­but with En­ter Laugh­ing, based on a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel he had pub­lished in the 1950s, which had be­come a Broad­way play. Shot on lo­ca­tion, on a low bud­get, in 32 days, the film was blander than the the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion, but was a funny, overtly Jewish com­edy about the ex­pe­ri­ences of a strug­gling young ac­tor.

His sec­ond film, The Comic (1969), which starred Van Dyke as a silent film co­me­dian, grad­u­ally los­ing fame and hit­ting the bot­tle, re­vealed a ten­dency to­wards a blend­ing of pathos and laughs.

A deft hand at sight gags, Reiner was an in­ge­nious di­rec­tor best suited to broad come­dies such as Where’s Poppa? (1970), in which George Se­gal played the ha­rassed son of a stereo­typ­i­cal Jewish mother, whom he tries to kill. Reiner brought out the best in George Burns (Oh, God!, 1977), Henry Win­kler (The One and Only, 1978), John Candy (Sum­mer Rental, 1985) and Kirstie Al­ley (Sum­mer School, 1987), but the most fe­lic­i­tous pair­ing was with Mar­tin.

Among Reiner’s fre­quent homages to past styles of en­ter­tain­ment were the mu­si­cal Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool (1989) and the screw­ball com­edy Sib­ling Ri­valry (1990).In later years Reiner popped up in a num­ber of films and TV se­ries, most promi­nently as a vet­eran con­man in Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its se­quels.

In 1943 Reiner mar­ried Estelle Le­bost, who per­formed as a singer un­der her mar­ried name. She died in 2008. Reiner is sur­vived by their sons, Rob and Lu­cas, and daugh­ter, An­nie, and five grand­chil­dren.

– Guardian

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Reiner had a fa­cil­ity for an­ar­chic, ab­surd com­edy, laced with New York Jewish hu­mour

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