Retro TV: Carl Reiner

Carl Reiner

Television lost one of its authentic geniuses a few months ago, on June 29, when Carl Reiner died at the age of 98. Given his advanced age, this shouldn’t have been surprising, and yet it was. He seemed in good health and, as recent as the morning of his death, he was tweeting to his multitude of fans. One of his last tweets showed him, with his daughter Annie, at his good friend Mel Brooks’ 94th birthday party.

Reiner’s television career started when he was a writer and on-screen straight man to Sid Caesar on Caesar’s classic Your Show of Shows (1950-1954) and then Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957). At the time, Reiner didn’t receive credit for his writing work but was recognized with two Emmy Awards for his work as a supporting actor.  Once Caesar ended his television shows, Reiner became the head writer and a performer on The Dinah Shore Show.

Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar & Imogene Coca on the groundbreaking Your Show of Shows
Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar & Imogene Coca on the groundbreaking Your Show of Shows

(While working with Caesar, he developed a friendship with fellow writer Mel Brooks. Brooks was more brash than the cerebral Reiner, but they forged a close lifetime friendship. The two of them developed a sketch that they loved to perform at parties in which Brooks played a 2000 year old man, with Reiner interviewing him about the events of his life. Friends loved the routine and urged the pair to develop it into an act. Eventually they performed it on television and produced five comedy albums of The 2000 Year Old Man.

Reiner and Mel Brooks performing their famous “2000 Year Old Man” routine, 1960
Reiner and Mel Brooks performing their famous “2000 Year Old Man” routine, 1960

The same year as his success with The 2000 Year Old Man, Reiner wrote several scripts that he planned for a television series called “The Head of the Family.” In it, he would star as the head writer of a fictional TV variety show hosted by a very talented, but extremely egotistical comedian, named Alan Sturdy — a composite of several of the comedians that Reiner knew and had worked with. Reiner’s character (Robert Petrie) would work with two other writers, Buddy and Sally. The show would also focus on the domestic life of the Reiner character and his wife, Laura, and son, Richie. The idea was that Petrie’s domestic life would give him ideas to use for sketches on “The Alan Sturdy Show.” A pilot was filmed, but ultimately not picked up.

Enter actor and producer Sheldon Leonard, who viewed the pilot and thought the premise of the show was good, and that the script was solid and very funny. The only problem he found was in the casting of Reiner in the lead role as Robert Petrie. Leonard met with Reiner and suggested re-casting all of the parts including his own. They eventually found a rubber-limbed Broadway actor named Dick Van Dyke – and the rest is history. With a new cast — including Van Dyke as Rob, Mary Tyler Moore as Laura, Rose Marie as Sally, Morey Amsterdam as Buddy, Richard Deacon as producer Mel Cooley, and Larry Matthews as Richie — a new pilot was shot and The Dick Van Dyke Show began its run.

Reiner was the head-writer, producer, and occasional actor on The Dick Van Dyke Show, playing the tyrannical show host Alan Brady. For the first few seasons, he was mostly heard, and not seen, as Brady. If he was seen, it was from the back (so his face was never shown) – until the fourth season when some shows would feature his character.

The Dick Van Dyke Show would run for five years (1961-1966) and 158 episodes. It was one of television’s most honored series, earning 25 Emmy Award nominations and winning 15 of them, including 5 awards for Reiner in the fields of writing and outstanding series.

Reiner would do audience warm-up before the taping of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Here he is with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, 1962
Reiner would do audience warm-up before the taping of The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Here he is with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, 1962

Reiner wrote two films during the run of The Dick Van Dyke Show – The Thrill of it All (1963) and The Art of Love (1965). In 1967, he starred opposite Eva Marie Saint in Norman Jewison‘s The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming. That same year, he wrote and directed the film version of his semi-autobiographical novel and stage play, Enter Laughing. 

Over the next two decades, Reiner would write and/or direct several films including The Comic (1969), with Dick Van Dyke giving a superb performance as a troubled silent screen comedian, and Where’s Papa (1970) starring George Segal — and then he had his biggest hit with Oh God! (1977) starring George Burns as a God with a knack for Vaudeville one-liners. He then turned his attention to the movie career of Steve Martin, directing several of the comedian’s most popular films: The Jerk (1979), film noir spoof Dead Men Wear Plaid (1982), The Man with Two Brains (1983) and All of Me (1984). Reiner also co-wrote both Dead Men Wear Plaid and The Man with Two Brains.

Beginning in 1979 Reiner began a creative partnership with comedian Steve Martin. Here they are on the set of their first film The Jerk
Beginning in 1979 Reiner began a creative partnership with comedian Steve Martin. Here they are on the set of their first film The Jerk

Reiner would continue making occasional films, both as an actor, including the updated Oceans Eleven movies, and as director, his final film being That Old Feeling (1997) with Bette Midler. He also would appear in guest roles on television series including Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Two and a Half Men, Parks and Recreation, Hot in Cleveland – and would reprise the character of Alan Brady in an excellent episode of Mad About You (1995), winning an Emmy Award for his appearance. He also appeared in the 2004 special, The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited, wrote several books and was active in political affairs. In all, Reiner would be awarded 11 Emmy Awards, out of 18 nominations, and a Grammy Award. He would also be inducted into the Television Hall of Fame (1999) and win the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (2000). 

When he died, several friends and colleagues paid tribute to him:

DICK VAN DYKE: “Kind, gentle, compassionate, empathetic and wise.  His scripts were never just funny, they always had something to say about us.”

MEL BROOKS: “Carl was a giant–unmatched in his contributions to entertainment, he created comedy gems.”

STEVE MARTIN: “Goodbye to my greatest mentor in movies–and life.”

GEORGE CLOONEY: “Carl Reiner made every room he walked into funnier, smarter, kinder.  He made it all seem effortless.”

ALAN ALDA: “His talent will live on for a long time, but the loss of his kindness and decency leaves a hole in our hearts.”

His son, actor/director Rob Reiner, tweeted, “Last night my dad passed away. As I write this my heart is hurting. He was my guiding light.”


Here are my picks for the Five Best Episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, written by, or featuring, Carl Reiner.

1) “Coast-to Coast Big Mouth” (9/15/1965): Laura appears on a TV game show and accidentally reveals that Alan Brady is bald. A tour-de-force episode for both Mary Tyler Moore and Carl Reiner. The scene between the two of them in Brady’s office is a classic, with Brady saying to the assorted toupees surrounding his desk, “Fellas, there she is. There’s the little lady who put you out of business.” Brady then asks Laura what he should do with all of his now useless hair pieces, and Laura replying that there must be “needy bald people.” This episode won an Emmy Award for writing for the comedy team of Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. TV Guide selected this episode as #8 in its list of the 100 Greatest TV episodes.

Reiner as Alan Brady on the classic Dick Van Dyke Show episode “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth
Reiner as Alan Brady on the classic Dick Van Dyke Show episode “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth

(2) “October Eve” (4/8/1964): Shortly after her marriage to Rob, Laura commissions a demure painting of herself wearing a favorite outfit of Rob’s, but the painter, Sergei Carpetna, paints her as he ‘sees’ her — in the nude — and several years later when he is an established painter, the painting is on display at an exhibition. “October Eve” is an obvious play on the famous 1911 painting “September Morn” by French artist Paul Émile Chabas. Reiner has a lot of fun playing the avant-garde Carpetna who calls everybody “peasants” if they don’t agree with his bohemian ideas.

3) “Never Bathe on Saturday” (3/31/1965): This is the final solo script that Reiner wrote for the “Van Dyke Show” and it’s one of his best. Told in flashback, Rob and Laura go on a romantic weekend getaway that quickly goes wrong when Laura gets her big toe stuck in the faucet of a bathtub, and Rob has some hilarious encounters with the maid and house detective as he tries to get into the locked bathroom. This is a great take-off on French bedroom farces.

4) “Baby Fat” (4/21/1965): Alan Brady talks a reluctant Rob into ghost writing a lackluster comedy script by the great Harper Worthington Yates (who I always believe is based on Tennessee Williams). The scenes between Rob and Alan in the theatre dressing room – where Alan introduces Rob to Yates as his tailor (so Yates won’t find out his script is being rewritten) – are priceless. 

5) “Where Did I Come From?” (1/3/1962): A screamingly funny first season episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show has Rob telling the story of the day Richie was born. A nervous Rob tries to prepare for the birth of their son by sleeping in his clothes and practicing how to get out of bed quickly to get Laura to the hospital. Eventually Rob goes to work in wrinkled clothes, which he sends out to the dry cleaners, when the call comes that Laura is in labor. He leaves the office, having to borrow Buddy’s pants, which are too big and short for him. This episode shows the very funny Van Dyke at his comedic best.


–Charles Tranberg for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Charles’ Retro TV articles here.

Charles Tranberg is the author of eight books on such film and television stars as Agnes MooreheadFred MacMurrayMarie WilsonRobert TaylorFredric March and William Conrad.  He has also written books on “The Disney Films” and “The Thin Man” film series.   He is also the author of several articles for Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age.


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2 Responses to Retro TV: Carl Reiner

  1. Jeanelle Kleveland says:

    Annmarie, I loved your article. Dick Van Dyke is one of the best comedy shows ever. The cast was perfect. I agree with George Clooney that Carl Reiner made things funnier, smarter, and kinder. We can use a lot more of all three of those.

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I wish we had more Carl Reiners in today’s world.

    Jeanelle Kleveland

  2. Pingback: Retro TV: My Christmas Eve Programming | Classic Movie Hub Blog

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