By Alan Hurst
He was the man Sid Caesar once called the best straight man in comedy. He was also the creative brain responsible for one of the best comedies in television history; he discovered Mary Tyler Moore; and he was singularly responsible for Steve Martin’s early success on film. Carl Reiner died Monday evening at the age of 98.
As a performer, writer and director Reiner had tremendous success on stage, television, Broadway and recordings.
His first big success was as one of the regulars on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and the follow-up Caesar’s Hour. As both sidekick and one of the stable of writers working for Caesar (along with Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen), Reiner used his experiences as the idea for a TV pilot about a comedy writer and his home life. Entitled Head of the Family and starring Reiner, it didn’t sell but when he recast the project with Dick Van Dyke in the lead, and added Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam and newcomer Mary Tyler Moore, he struck gold. The Dick Van Dyke Show won 15 Emmys during it’s five year run and is among the top television comedies of all time. Reiner himself popped up from time to time as the Caesar inspired fictional star and Van Dyke’s boss, Alan Brady.
The Dick Van Dyke Show remains Reiner’s crowing achievement. In an era where sitcoms used broad humour (The Beverly Hillbillies) or gimmicks (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie), for five seasons The Dick Van Dyke Show remained a witty and perfectly constructed half hour, effortlessly balancing both the homelife and office life of the lead character. Reiner always took special pride in the emergence of Mary Tyler Moore as an expert comic actress – he was insistent on casting the inexperienced Moore as Dick Van Dyke’s wife and began writing more and more for her to do once he saw what she was capable of.
During the show’s run Reiner also started writing for the big screen and enjoyed a major success with 1963’s The Thrill of it All, a very funny send-up of suburbia and Madison Avenue with Doris Day and James. Garner. He also enjoyed another success as the star of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), one of the decades biggest comedies. His film appearances weren’t frequent so when he popped up in a major role in Ocean’s Eleven (2001) it was a treat to see him on screen in that company and delivering a standout performance.
He authored the best-selling and autobiographical “Enter Laughing” which he adapted in successful Broadway play and film in the late sixties, but it was the seventies that saw his emergence as a respected director of film comedy, beginning with the surprise success of Oh, God! (1977) with George Burns as the almighty. That was followed by a series of films starring Steve Martin, starting with The Jerk (1979) and quickly followed by Dead Mean Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), The Man With Two Brains (1983) and the All of Me (1984) with Martin and Lily Tomlin both delivering two of their best performances. Both The Jerk and All of Me are near the top of any list of the top comedies of the era.
Once he retired from directing (his last film as director was the 1997 Bette Midler vehicle That Old Feeling) you would see Reiner pop up on numerous sitcoms including Mad About You (one of his nine Emmy wins), Two and a Half Men and Hot in Cleveland. He always brought his expert comic touch to every scene, every line.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.