In a career spanning seven decades, beginning at a time when the television medium was in its infancy, pioneer is the best word to describe the legendary Carl Reiner.
Born on March 20, 1922, in the Bronx, New York, Reiner, of course, is immediately remembered for creating CBS sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show. The series ran from 1961 to 1966, winning 15 Emmy Awards, and was considered ahead of its time with its sophisticated style of modern storytelling.
Reiner, who originally cast himself as Rob Petrie in the failed pilot Head of the Family (opposite a completely different supporting cast), retooled the series with Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, and appeared on a recurring basis as egocentric Alan Brady.
In a fitting ending, Reiner was awarded with the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (his 11th — and final — statuette) for reviving the character on NBC’s Mad About You in 1995. But Alan Brady — and The Dick Van Dyke Show — was just one piece of the puzzle for this accomplished actor, comedian, director, producer, writer and author.
Huge Comedy Legacy
“Carl Reiner’s legacy in comedy is enormous, not just because of what he did, but because he nurtured everybody,” Mad About You star Paul Reiser said in a podcast with Spectrum News NY1. “He was such an avid fan of comedy and he would always shine the light on someone else. You can find a list of hundreds of comedians and actors for whom Carl was the personal ‘Yoda.’ ”
One such individual, known for her long tenure as host of one of the most successful variety series in television history (among so many other accomplishments), is Carol Burnett.
“Carl was very funny in his own right, but he was also a brilliant straight man and he knew just how to give Sid (Caesar) the comic foil he needed,” said Burnett, who recalled watching live NBC sketch comedy Caesar’s Hour in the 1950s.
Widely considered a continuation of Your Show of Shows, Caesar’s Hour featured Caesar, Reiner and Nanette Fabray, among others, and a young writing staff that included Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and eventual M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart.
“When I got my own show, I realized I needed my Carl Reiner, and that made me want to go after Harvey Korman,” Burnett said. “At one point, we kind of hinted around with the idea of Carl being our executive producer. He was busy at that time, but he suggested doing something that I used to do on The Garry Moore Show, and that was go crazy over a good-looking guest like Peter Lawford or Robert Goulet. He said, ‘What you need to do is hire a good-looking announcer.’ And that is how we got Lyle Waggoner.”
In 1960, Reiner teamed with Mel Brooks as a comedy duo on The Steve Allen Show, which expanded into five comedy albums and an animated television special, and introduced the duo’s "2,000 Year Old Man" sketch.
Reiner also accumulated a wide list as an actor in a number of comedy theatricals, including It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966). His first feature film as a director was Enter Laughing, based on Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Other films in his early career directing included comedies Where’s Poppa? in 1970, Oh, God! (with George Burns) in 1977, and The Jerk, starring Steve Martin, in 1979. He also worked with Martin in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains and All of Me.
RELATED: Ones for the Ages
Said Martin in an article he penned for The New York Times on July 9: “I’ve heard several people say Carl was like a father to them. But, to me, Carl was not fatherly. He was exemplar. Five years and four films later, I was a different person because of a subtle osmosis of traits from Carl to me. His interaction with people gave me a template of how to be better, nicer, how to lead with kindness.”
Added Burnett: “Every time Carl appeared on our show, I just knew we were in for a wonderful and funny week. He excelled at his craft, and he was just a cheerful, positive and generous man. I simply adored him; we all did.”
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Marc Berman is editor-in-chief for media-centric The Programming Insider (programminginsider.com), which pioneered the email newsletter format at its inception in 1999. Marc has written for a wide range of publications including Broadcasting + Cable, Next TV, Forbes, Newspro, Campaign US, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Known as “Mr. Television” at Mediaweek (now Adweek), Marc has appeared on camera on Entertainment Tonight, Extra, Inside Edition and CNN and MSNBC, among other series and outlets. He is a member of The Television Critics Association and The Broadcast Journalists Television Association. And Marc put his TV historian hat on as author of desk calendar Today in TV History.