In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Carl Reiner

He was an iconic name of television and film with a career spanning seven decades making him one of the most respected comedic figures of his time. Carl Reiner was a true legend of the industry if there ever was one, and while his career only amounted to between 25 and 30 film appearances his legacy as a performer on the big and small screen deserves to be commended and remembered as an example of how quality is so much more memorable than quantity. Reiner lived to the ripe old age of 98 passing away on June 29, 2020 and while his legend has come to a close his legacy remains one of the most important in entertainment over the last hundred years. Whether you’re familiar with his sketch comedy work, his comedy writing for TV or for his newer films like the “Ocean’s” Trilogy, almost everyone with basic knowledge of the industry knows his name. Today I’m going to revisit this comedian’s contributions to the medium focusing particularly on his film career while also taking time to explore some highlight beyond his big screen appearances as there’s a lot this man did to leave his permanent mark on entertainment. This is In Memoriam: Carl Reiner.

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A Young Carl Reiner

Carl Reiner was born in 1922 in the Bronx to a pair of Jewish immigrants. Both Reiner and his brother Charlie served in the military. His brother was in the 9th Division in World War II and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery while Reiner was drafted into the Air Force in the 40s also serving in World War II achieving the rank of corporal. His service led him to learn French as an interpreter with education from Georgetown University where it could be said his career as an entertainer officially began. While at the school he directed a production by Molière spoken entirely in French. In 1944 he was slated to be stationed in Hawaii but that all changed after he auditioned for actor and major Maurice Evans who had Reiner transferred and sent him around the Pacific theater to perform for the troops for the next two years. He was honorably discharged in 1946 and took his talents to Broadway where he performed in several productions before his big break in 1950.

Vanity Fair
Courtesy of Vanity Fair

That year Reiner was cast in Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” where he bonded with eventual comedic partner Mel Brooks. His work on the show earned him a pair of Emmy’s in 1955 and 1956. Reiner would collaborate with other comedic legends during this time and in 1959 Reiner took his talents to the big screen for his first pair of films, “Happy Anniversary” and The Gazebo”. The late 50s also saw Reiner contribute to several shows as a writer or actor. Starting in 1960 Reiner and Brooks took their partnership to “The Steve Allen Show” where their legendary sketch comedy act “2000 Year Old Man” was born. An album of the comedy sketch would eventually win a Grammy in the 90s. In 1961 Reiner would join “The Dick Van Dyke Show” where he served as a writer and recurring performer. The show would become iconic and become Reiner’s single biggest contribution to entertainment. By the end of the decade Reimer had racked up eight Primetime Emmy wins most thanks to his work on the show. Throughout the 60s Reiner would firmly establish himself as a mainstay in comedy films with features like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, “Gidget Goes to Hollywood”, and “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming”. He also started dabbling in direction with his first directorial effort being 1966’s “Enter Laughing” followed by a film he directed and acted in, “The Comic” both of which he also helped write. “Enter Laughing” was even based on a semi-autobiographical book that Reiner himself penned in the late 50s.

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Carl Reiner and Steve Martin had a longstanding partnership with Martin making his big screen debut in the Reiner-directed “The Jerk”

The 70s weren’t as busy for Reiner on the big screen. He directed four films, “Oh, God!”, “The One and Only”, “The Jerk”, and “Where’s Pappa?” and also appeared in 1978’s “The End”. He continued his television writing and acting including bringing “The 2000 Year Old Man” to TV as a special and penning episodes for “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Lotsa Luck” but overall it was a slower decade for the multi-talented entertainer. Possibly the biggest contribution Reiner made to film in the 70s was introducing moviegoers to Steve Martin who made his big screen debut in “The Jerk”. The 80s weren’t much more active as Reiner appeared in buddy Mel Brooks’ sketch comedy film “History of the World, Part 1” in an uncredited performance as God and teamed again with Steve Martin in 1982’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” which Reiner also directed and wrote with Martin and George Gipe. Reiner also directed 1983’s “The Man with Two Brains” again also sharing writing credits with Martin and Gipe. His only other acting credits in film for the decade were for “In the Mood” and “Summer School” which he also directed. Reiner directed a further three films during the 80s, “All of Me”, “Simmer Rental” and “Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool” the latter of which he also wrote.

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Reiner became known to modern moviegoers for his role in the “Ocean’s” trilogy; Screenshot Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Reiner further slowed down in the 90s where he only recorded three big screen acting credits, three directorial credits and took a break from writing for television. His 90s acting appearances included “The Spirit of ‘76”, “Fatal Instinct” and “Slums of Beverly Hills” while he also directed the the latter two films in addition to “Sibling Rivalry” and “The Old Feeling” which would be his final directorial effort in 1997.  The 2000s introduced Reiner to a whole new generation of moviegoers through one franchise in particular. In 2001, he appeared as Saul Bloom, one member of the team in the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy which saw films released in 2004 and 2007 as well. While these were his only real notable film credits in that ten year span, they pushed Reiner back into the spotlight as younger viewers explored his career highlights to learn about his contributions to the industry. Reiner also revitalized his television career with appearances in “Father of the Bride”, “Ally McBeal”, “Crossing Jordan”, “House M.D.” and “Two and a Half Men”.  The 2010s would be Reiner’s final decade where he appeared in numerous small screen guest roles including shows like “Family Guy”, “Justice League: Action”, “Bob’s Burgers”, “Parks and Recreation”, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”, “American Dad”, and “The Cleveland Show” (even directing one episode). His final film roles in the 2010s included 2014’s “Dumbbells” and the animated film “Duck Duck Goose”. He was slated to reprise his role as Saul Bloom for the spinoff film “Ocean’s 8” but his cameo was cut from the final production. His final film role was as Carl Reineroceros, a toy in “Toy Story 4” named after himself. This also proved to be his final small screen role in the 2019 spinoff web series “Forky Asks a Question”.

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Carl Reimer and his director son Rob Reimer; Photo Courtesy of thehill.com

Beyond film Reiner was a relatively non-controversial man, but he was open about what he believed. He maintained his Jewish heritage throughout his life but described himself as a Jewish atheist citing the Holocaust as a defining factor in his belief or disbelief of a higher power. He was a lifelong Democrat most recently showing open support for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential elections and was even an active Twitter user becoming one of the oldest celebrities on the platform remaining active on the day he died. He was only ever married to one woman, Estelle Lebost, for 64 years. Many know her as the woman who delivers the iconic line “I’ll have what she’s having” in “When Harry Met Sally”. She passed away in 2008 at the age of 94. Reiner’s children also inherited his love of the arts and have been very successful on their own. His son Rob Reiner is an Academy Award nominated director and Emmy winning television performer. His daughter Annie Reiner is a poet, playwright and author and his youngest child Lucas is a well respected painter and occasional actor and director.

aarp.org
Courtesy of aarp.org

Reiner saw comedy as a humble art often viewing his scripts and skits from the perspective of an every man believing that the key to comedy was to make the average person laugh not just someone who was in on the joke. He famously stated that believing you are special will make your art feel boring. This perspective reflected in a career filled with relatable material, fun sketches, and timeless writing that still serves as a highlight of comedy on the big and small screen to this day. While the film industry wasn’t always his primary source of entertainment his ability to jump between different mediums successfully made him one of the most versatile talents of his time. I got to know him watching “Dick Van Dyke” reruns in my living room with my dad growing up eventually becoming more familiar with him thanks to the “Ocean’s” trilogy  but I hope that future generations will also have the chance to get to know this legendary performer who showed the world what great comedy was all about. His legacy is an important one and should remain a guiding inspiration for future comics of the big and small screen to examine to know how to do it right.

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