Jewish Comedy Icon Carl Reiner Dies at 98

June 30, 2020
The 2014 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF). L-R: George Schlatter, Carl Reiner, Phil Rosenthal and LAJFF Executive Director Hilary Helstein. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival

TV legend Carl Reiner, the Emmy-winning writer, producer, director and actor who created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” has died at 98. He passed away of natural causes at his home in Beverly Hills.

Born in The Bronx, N.Y. on March 20, 1922 to Jewish immigrant parents from Austria and Romania, Reiner got his showbiz start in summer stock, the Borscht Belt and an entertainment unit in the Army. After World War II, he appeared in a couple of short-lived musical comedies on Broadway before he was hired as a writer and cast member on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” There, he met and formed a friendship and creative partnership with Mel Brooks. Their “2000-Year-Old Man” routine became an instant and enduring hit, winning a 1998 Grammy Award for spoken-word comedy album.

In 1959, inspired by his experiences in TV, Reiner created a sitcom in which he intended to star. It didn’t sell. But trying again with Dick Van Dyke in the lead, he hit the jackpot. The series ran for five seasons and earned Reiner five Emmys. He was belatedly honored for playing Alan Brady as well: He reprised the role in an episode of “Mad About You” and won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in 1995.

Carl Reiner enjoying the 2014 LAJFF opening night gala’s cake just for him. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival

Reiner reflected on his favorite roles in a 2003 interview with the Journal noting, “‘The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming’ is a favorite. “The Dick van Dyke Show, of course. I didn’t appear but once in a while because I couldn’t take time off writing,” he said. “But it was great fun, and of course any time I worked with Mel was great.” The two remained dear friends, most recently appearing together in an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

As a director, Reiner is known for the hit comedies “Oh God” with George Burns, “The Jerk” with Steve Martin, and “All of Me,” with Martin and Lily Tomlin. He continued to act, playing Saul Bloom in “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels, and in recent years lent his voice to animated movies, most recently in “Toy Story 4” in 2019.

Reiner authored several memoirs and novels, beginning in 1958 with “Enter Laughing,” which was based on his own experiences. A film version followed five years later, marking his directorial debut. His other books include “Continue Laughing,” “My Anecdotal Life,” and “I Remember Me.”

“I’m so glad that I learned how to write late in life. I enjoy that more than anything. It lets people know who you are and what you’re about,” he said. “You don’t need any help besides your own brain and personal computer.”

From left, Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks and Norman Lear in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” Photo courtesy of LAJFF.

In 2014, Reiner was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 9th annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, where he participated in a discussion for the documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” in which he appeared. In it, he offered his advice for a long life. “The key to longevity,” he said, “is to interact with other people.”

Although he was not an observant Jew, Reiner strongly identified with his heritage. “Traditionally, we were very Jewish,” he told the Journal. “My mother lit candles on Friday but I don’t ever remember her saying any prayers. My father believed in God but he didn’t go any place to pray. But we lived in a very religious community. All my friends were very Orthodox, and I went to shul with them. They always wanted to know where my father was and I had to lie about it.” 

At 13, he had what he called “a bootleg bar mitzvah,” getting lessons from a rabbi for six months. “I learned the letters but I couldn’t really read,” he said.  “On a Thursday morning before Mincha, I was bar mitzvah-ed in front of 10 old Jews.” 

His nine decades of illustrious credits notwithstanding, Reiner was proudest of his family, the three children he had with his late wife, Estelle. “They’re really great human beings,” he said, praising writer-director-actor-activist Rob Reiner and his siblings, Lucas and Annie. 

In 2018, Rob told the Journal that his father was his greatest inspiration. “Yes, there is the pressure of having to live up to certain things,” he acknowledged. “But I admired him tremendously and looked up to him. I wanted to be like him.” 

On June 30, Rob posted on Twitter, “Last night my dad passed away. As I write this my heart is hurting. He was my guiding light.”

When he was asked to share a bit of wisdom that comes with a life lived long and well in 2003, Carl Reiner referenced the passage of time: “When you’re young you think you’re absolutely invulnerable, and now you realize how important time is and the many things you have to do that you will never get to do before you leave,” he said. “There are always things left undone.”

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