The ten decades of Carl Reiner
The comedian, writer and director has died, aged 98. We pick one highlight from each decade of an incredible life
As a Jewish boy raised in the Bronx, New York, Reiner’s comedy career started early: he pretended to read prayers at synagogue, in what he called “double-talk Hebrew” — essentially, gibberish. “I was then, and still am, a Hebrew illiterate,” he wrote in the
2013 memoir I Remember Me.
As a young actor embarking on the abundant agonies of auditioning, Reiner botched one such effort by boldly delivering the stage directions as if they were dialogue (at least, according to Reiner’s autobiographical-ish 1958 novel, Enter Laughing).
During World War II, Reiner talked his way into the Special Services at a production of Hamlet and toured revues in the South Pacific; as he later recounted on the Conan O’brien show, troops would throw papayas if they didn’t like the act.
Reiner met fellow Jewish comedian Mel Brooks (below, with Reiner in 1966) while both worked on Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows — the start of a 70-year friendship. “I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’” Reiner recalled to The Guardian of their first meeting. “This guy is the funniest single human being on the planet.”
Reiner often found his muse in the mirror. The Dick Van Dyke Show replays his life as a television writer, only to become a sensation after they recast the lead. It was the perfect joke
— Reiner miscast as himself.
Graduating into a Hollywood player, Reiner directed Oh, God!, which had George Burns as a cigarchomping deity on Earth — a typically subversive act from a devout atheist. “It’s hard for me to believe in God after the Holocaust,” Reiner snarked. “He’s either not listening or he’s very busy making flowers.”
Nurturing Steve Martin’s antic gifts across a quartet of hits, he was the foil behind the camera — most brilliantly in shadow-kissed noir parody Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Reiner’s East Coast disdain for Hollywood frippery is in full swing — Martin ‘shares’ scenes with cinematic royalty, using archive footage.
Thirty-seven years after Enter Laughing, Reiner wrote an autofiction sequel. Continue Laughing picks up where the last book left off, following a Reiner-esque aspiring actor touring the Deep South with a theatre company — a “Jew from the North” in “the land of the Gentiles...catholics, blondes, and crucifixes everywhere”.
Weary of being behind the camera, Reiner stole the Ocean’s series as slippery old goat Saul Bloom. He got the role days before filming started, after producer Jerry Weintraub (his former colleague from Oh, God!) called him up.
Reiner became a prolific nonagenarian tweeter. “I cannot go to bed unless I do an anti-trump tweet,” Reiner once said. His Twitter account was a mix of righteous furies and touching wisdom; three days before his death, he wrote: “Nothing pleases me more than knowing that I have lived the best life possible.”