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Carl Reiner, American comedy pioneer, dies at 98

  • Published at 12:02 pm July 1st, 2020
Actor Carl Reiner and his wife Estelle pose at a premiere of the HBO documentary "If You're Not In the Obit, Eat Breakfast"in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. May 17, 2017 <Strong/>REUTERS<Strong/>
Actor Carl Reiner and his wife Estelle pose at a premiere of the HBO documentary "If You're Not In the Obit, Eat Breakfast"in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. May 17, 2017 Reuters

He was still taking voice roles in his 90s and had a key role in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” a documentary about people who keep busy into their 90s

Carl Reiner, a driving force in American comedy as a writer for television pioneer Sid Caesar, partner of Mel Brooks and creator and co-star of the classic sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” has died at age 98 of natural causes, his assistant said on Tuesday.

His career spanned seven decades and every medium from theatre and recordings to television and movies, including directing “Oh, God!,” three collaborations with Steve Martin and a role as an elderly con man in the revived “Ocean’s Eleven” series.

Reiner passed away on Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills, his assistant Judy Nagy told Reuters on Tuesday.

He was still taking voice roles in his 90s and had a key role in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” a documentary about people who keep busy into their 90s.

Reiner is survived by three children, including Rob Reiner, director of several hit movies and known for playing Archie Bunker’s son-in-law “Meathead” in the hit TV comedy “All in the Family.” 

Reiner’s wife of 64 years, Estelle, died in 2008.

Rob Reiner on Twitter mourned his father’s passing, saying, “As I write this my heart is hurting... He was my guiding light.”

His father was also active on Twitter. His final tweet on Monday was in praise of British playwright and composer Noel Coward, whom he lauded as “the single most prolific writer of musical comedies, plays, songs and films.”

Tributes to Reiner poured in from across the show business spectrum.

Comedian Sarah Silverman noted the comedy legend’s accomplishments as well as his generosity. “Never left his house empty handed - book, space pen, Swiss Army knife. RIP to a man that embodies the word mensch,” she wrote on Twitter.

Late-night comedy host Stephen Colbert simply tweeted “The Greatest” in a post accompanying a picture of Reiner as a young man.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also hailed the enduring comedy of the Empire State native, saying on Twitter, “He made America laugh — a true gift.”

Reiner expressed his approach to his work in his book “My Anecdotal Life,” when he said: “Inviting people to laugh at you while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be the fool but you are the fool in charge.”

Early life

Reiner, the Bronx-born son of a watchmaker, started in entertainment as a teenager in a touring theatre troupe that performed Shakespearean plays. His career took a decisive turn after he joined the Army Signal Corps during World War Two.

Recruited into a special unit that put on shows for the troops, Reiner began writing and performing his own comedy material.

Returning to New York City after the war, Reiner appeared in several Broadway musicals, including a lead in “Call Me Mister,” before he was hired to join Caesar’s popular TV sketch comedy series “Your Show of Shows” in 1950.

Reiner was part of Caesar’s ensemble of performers as well as a celebrated writing team that included then-unknown talents such as Brooks, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart.

Reiner and Brooks remained close into their late 90s with Reiner telling USA Today in 2019 that they got together regularly to watch game shows and movies.

Brooks called him “a giant, unmatched in his contributions to entertainment,” in a tweet on Tuesday.

“A tired cliche in times like this. But in Carl Reiner’s case, it’s absolutely true. He will be greatly missed,” Brooks said.

2000-year-old straight man

Brooks joined Reiner in creating the “2,000-Year-Old Man” routine in which Reiner interviewed the world’s oldest living man, played by Brooks, who deadpans satiric, first-person anecdotes of history in a thick Jewish accent.

Asked why the cross became a symbol for Christianity, for example, Brooks replied: “It was easier to put together than the Star of David.”

Originally ad-libbed by Reiner and Brooks at a party, the sketch evolved into a perennial TV favorite and basis for five comedy albums, the latest of which earned a 1998 Grammy Award.

When “Your Show of Shows” ended its  four and a half year run in 1954, Reiner followed Caesar to his next series, “Caesar’s Hour,” and earned his first two Emmys.

Creating own shows

Encouraged by his wife to develop a TV show as his own, Reiner began work on a sitcom pilot loosely based on his experiences with the Caesar shows, titled “Head of the Family,” casting himself as a TV writer with a wife and two kids.

Network executives initially passed on the project, unhappy with Reiner as the lead character, Rob Petrie. But CBS ultimately picked up the series in 1961, recast and retitled for its new star, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Reiner, who earned several Emmys writing and producing the hit series, played the recurring role of Petrie’s boss, the temperamental variety show host Alan Brady.

A reprisal of his Alan Brady role three decades later, for a guest spot on the 1990s sitcom “Mad About You,” earned Reiner yet another Emmy.

Besides helping transform its creator and star into household names, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” launched the career of Mary Tyler Moore, who played Rob Petrie’s wife. The series, considered a TV sitcom classic, ended its run in 1966.

The following year, Reiner made his feature film directing and producing debut with “Enter Laughing,” which he adapted from a Joseph Stein play that was based on Reiner’s semiautobiographical 1958 book of the same name.

He later directed George Burns in the title role of the 1977 comedy film “Oh God!” before collaborating with Steve Martin for a string of movies, including “The Jerk,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” and “The Man with Two Brains.”

Starting in 2001, he made a big-screen comeback playing elder con artist Saul Bloom, who comes out of retirement to join George Clooney, Brad Pitt and others in the blockbuster remake of the 1960s heist film “Ocean’s Eleven.” Reiner returned to that role in two “Ocean’s” sequels.

Reiner never strayed far from television, continuing to make guest appearances on various shows such as “Two and a Half Men” and “Hot in Cleveland” well into his 90s, as well as keeping up a busy Twitter account.

Reiner wrote four volumes of memoirs, including “I Just Remembered” in 2014, as well as children’s books.sho

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