Carl Reiner is a legend of American comedy, having achieved great success as a comic actor, a director, producer and recording artist. He has won nine Emmy Awards, three as an actor, four as a writer and two as a producer. He also won a Grammy Award for his “2,000 Year Old Man” album, based on his comedy routine with Mel Brooks.
Reiner was born in The Bronx, to Bessie (Mathias) and Irving Reiner, a watchmaker. His father was an Austrian Jewish immigrant and his mother was a Romanian Jewish immigrant. At the age of sixteen, while working as a sewing machine repairman, he attended a dramatic workshop sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. The direction of his life was set.
In the 1970s, some sources claimed that Reiner made his movie debut in New Faces of 1937 (1937), but that is unlikely as he would have only been 15 years old at the time. (the movie shares the same plot as his erstwhile partner Mel Brooks’ 1968 classic, The Producers (1967), with a crooked producer planning to fleece his “angels” by producing a flop and absconding with the money). He didn’t appear on screen, silver or small, until he made his TV debut in 1948 in the short-lived TV series, The Fashion Story (1948), then became a regular, the following year, on The Fifty-Fourth Street Revue (1949), another TV series with a brief life.
Reiner made his Broadway debut in 1949 in the musical “Inside U.S.A.”, a hit that ran for 399 performances. His next Broadway show, the 1950 musical revue, “Alive and Kicking”, was a flop, lasting just 43 performances. Max Liebman, the producer/director/writer/composer, had been called in to provide additional material after the show’s troubled six week out-of-town preview in Boston. It didn’t help — the show closed after six weeks on Broadway — but an important contact had been made.
Leibman was a producer-director on Your Show of Shows (1950), one of the great TV series, and he hired Reiner to appear on the show in the middle of its first season. Reiner’s first gig on the revue-like show was interviewing “The Professor”, a character played by Sid Caesar. He became central to the comedy portions of the show and, in 1953, he racked up the first of six Emmy nominations for acting. (In all, he was nominated for an Emmy Award a total of 13 times). When, in 1954, “Your Show of Shows” was split up by the network into its constituent parts, Reiner continued on with Sid in Caesar’s Hour (1954). (Imogene Coca was given her own show, which lasted one season, and Leibman was allowed to produce specials).
“Your Show or Shows” had been a Broadway-style revue, featuring skits such as dancing (including a young Bob Fosse) whereas “Caesar’s Hour” was pure comedy. “Your Show of Shows” had had a great cast, another other than Coca, most of the cast, including Reiner, Howard Morris, and Nanette Fabray (who went on to win an Emmy) moved over to “Caesar’s Hour”. In his three seasons on the show, he was nominated three more times for a Best Supporting Actor Emmy, winning twice in 1957 and 1958. But it was its stable of comedy writers that was essential to the great success of both “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour”. In addition to Mel Brooks, the writing staff included Neil Simon, his brother Danny Simon, Larry Gelbart and Mel Tolkin. (There are rumors that the young Woody Allen served as the writing staff’s typist).
Reiner had sat in informally with the writers during “Your Show of Shows”, but he began writing formally for “Caesar’s Hour”, having learned his craft from all of the other writers. As a self-described uncredited “writer without portfolio”, he was able to leave writers’ meetings at 6PM, if he wanted to. This gave him the time to work on a semi-autobiographical novel. Published in 1958, Enter Laughing (1967) is about a young man in 1930s New York trying to make it in show business. It was transformed into a play and, eventually, adapted into a movie in 1967, and a musical, many years later.
In 1959, he created the pilot for a TV series, “Man of the House”, in which he would play a writer, “Rob Petrie”, who balanced his family life with the demands of working as a writer for a comedy show headlined by an egotistical comedic genius modeled after Sid Caesar (a “benign despot” who lacked social skills, according to Reiner). The series was rooted in his experience on “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour”. The network didn’t pick up the pilot at first, as CBS executives claimed the main character, which was clearly autobiographical on Reiner’s part, was too New York, too Jewish and too intellectual. In 1960, Reiner teamed up with Mel Brooks on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show (1956), and their routine “The 2000 Year Old Man” was a huge success. Reiner played the straight man to Brooks in the routine, which was spun-off into five comedy albums, bringing them a Grammy Award. They also made an animated TV special based on their shtick in 1975.
Though CBS turned down “Man of the House”, with the two-time Emmy-winning comedian Reiner as the lead, it was still interested in the series. However, they wanted a WASP in the role of “Rob Petrie” to ensure the broad appeal of the show, and the casting of the protagonist came down to Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke. Carson was a game show host of no great note at the time, but Van Dyke was in the smash Broadway musical, Bye Bye Birdie (1963), for which he won a Tony Award. He got the part and another chapter of TV history was made, when Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam all were cast in leading roles. Reiner, himself, would eventually play the role of “Alan Brady”, the abrasive Sid Caesar-like comic convinced of his own genius, in the last few seasons of the series’ five-year run.
Another milestone in TV comedy, The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961), brought Reiner five more Emmies, three for writing and two as the producer of the series. In 1966, Reiner and the other principals, including executive producer Sheldon Leonard and Dick Van Dyke, decided to end the series at the height of its popularity and critical acclaim. (The show won Emmies as best show and best comedy in 1965 and 1966, respectively). Twenty-nine years after the show was ended, Reiner reprised the role of “Alan Brady” on Mad About You (1992), winning his eighth (and so far, last) Emmy Award, this time as Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.
It was on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” that Reiner first became a director. His feature film debut, as a director, was with the film adaptation of the play Joseph Stein had adapted from his 1958 novel, Enter Laughing (1967). His work as a writer-director, with Dick Van Dyke, in creating a Stan Laurel-type character in The Comic (1969) was not a success, but Where’s Poppa? (1970) became a cult classic and Oh, God! (1977), with George Burns, and The Jerk (1979), with Steve Martin, were smash hits. The last movie he directed was the 1997 comedy, That Old Feeling (1997).
Reiner’s career has continued on into the 21st Century, when most of his contemporaries had retired. He was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2000 and, starting in 2001, he acted in the remake of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its two sequels. Most recently, he has appeared as a voice artist in the animated series, The Cleveland Show (2009) (he even wrote an episode for the series rooted in his “Your Show of Shows” experience) and has appeared as a regular on the TV series, Hot in Cleveland (2010) (with fellow nonagenarian Betty White), as well as appeared on an episode of Parks and Recreation (2009) in 2012.
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