Carl Reiner, comedy legend and "Dick Van Dyke Show" creator, dies at 98

Published June 30, 2020 1:02PM (EDT)

Carl Reiner (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty)
Carl Reiner (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty)

This article originally appeared on Variety.


Carl Reiner, the writer, producer, director and actor who was part of Sid Caesar's legendary team and went on to create "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and direct several hit films, has died. He was 98.

He died of natural causes on Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills, his assistant Judy Nagy confirmed to Variety.

Reiner, the father of filmmaker and activist Rob Reiner, was the winner of nine Emmy awards, including five for "The Dick Van Dyke Show." His most popular films as a director included "Oh God," starring George Burns, in 1977; "The Jerk," with Steve Martin, in 1979; and "All of Me," with Martin and Lily Tomlin, in 1984.

Read more from Variety: Rob Reiner, George Clooney, Alan Alda and more pay tribute to "comedy legend" Carl Reiner

Rob Reiner tweeted on Tuesday morning, "Last night my dad passed away. As I write this my heart is hurting. He was my guiding light."

In his later years, Reiner was an elder statesman of comedy, revered and respected for his versatility as a performer and multi-hyphenate. He was also adept at social media. He maintained a lively presence on Twitter up until the last day of his life. He was vocal in his opposition to President Donald Trump.

Reiner remained in the public eye well into his 80s and 90s with roles in the popular "Ocean's Eleven" trio of films and on TV with recurring roles on sitcoms "Two and a Half Men" and "Hot in Cleveland." He also did voice work for shows including "Family Guy," "American Dad," "King of the Hill," and "Bob's Burgers."

In 2017, Carl Reiner, his longtime friend and frequent comedy partner Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Kirk Douglas and other nonagenarian Hollywood legends were featured in the HBO documentary "If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast," examining the secrets of longevity in a fickle industry.

Read more from Variety: Carl Reiner's Twitter musings remained hilarious and essential until the end

Reiner first came to prominence as a regular cast member of Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," for which he won two Emmys in 1956 and 1957 in the supporting category. He met Brooks during his time with Caesar. The two went on to have a long-running friendship and comedy partnership through the recurring "2000 Year Old Man" sketches.

Before creating CBS hit "The Dick Van Dyke Show," on which he sometimes appeared, Reiner and "Show of Shows" writer Mel Brooks worked up an elongated skit in which Reiner played straight man-interviewer to Brooks' "2000 Year Old Man"; a 1961 recording of the skit was an immediate hit and spawned several sequels, the last of which, 1998's "The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000," won the pair a Grammy.

Producer-director Max Liebman, who cast him in the 1950 Broadway show "Alive and Kicking," also hired Reiner as the emcee and a performer on NBC's comedy/variety program "Your Show of Shows."

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Reiner then freelanced as a panel show emcee on "Keep Talking," as a TV guest star and in featured film roles in "The Gazebo," "Happy Anniversary" and "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." Reiner's 1958 novel "Enter Laughing," loosely based on his own experiences, was optioned for the stage by producer David Merrick. Reiner did a legit adaptation in 1963 and then directed the film version in 1967, marking his motion picture directing debut.

For Broadway he wrote and directed the farce "Something Different," which ran for a few months in 1967-68; helmed "Tough to Get Help" in 1972; penned the book for the musical "So Long, 174th Street," which had a very brief run in 1976; and directed "The Roast" in 1980.

In 1961 Reiner drew on his experiences with Caesar to create and produce "The Dick Van Dyke Show," a ratings cornerstone for CBS for the next five years. Reiner made guest appearances as the irascible variety show host Alan Brady. The show won Emmys for writing its first three years and for producing its last two. In 1967, Reiner picked up another Emmy for his writing in a reunion variety show with Caesar, Coca and Morris.

Though the "Enter Laughing" movie was modestly received, Reiner continued to direct steadily over the next few decades. "Where's Poppa?," an offbeat comedy he directed in 1970, became a cult favorite. Similarly, two other Martin vehicles, the gumshoe spoof "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" and "The Man With Two Brains," found bigger audiences after their release in theaters.

There were also several less-than-successful films, such as 1969's "The Comic," to which Reiner also contributed some of the script; two similarly titled mid-'80s misfires, "Summer Rental" and "Summer School"; "Bert Rigby, You're a Fool"; 1990's "Sibling Rivalry"; and a 1993 spoof of "Basic Instinct" called "Fatal Instinct." He also appeared in most of these pics.

While the last film he directed was the 1997 romantic comedy "That Old Feeling," starring Bette Midler and Dennis Farina, Reiner was an active presence in guest roles on television and in supporting roles in films during the 1990s and 2000s, even as he neared and then surpassed his 90th birthday.

He guested on "Frasier" in 1993; reprised the role of Alan Brady on an episode of "Mad About You" in 1995 and won an Emmy for it; and guested on "Ally McBeal," "Boston Legal" and "House."

Bigscreen appearances included 1990's "The Spirit of '76," directed by his son Lucas; "Slums of Beverly Hills" (1998); and all three films in the "Ocean's Eleven" series.

Born in the Bronx, he graduated from high school at 16 and worked as a machinist while studying acting. After brief stints in summer stock and on the Borscht Belt circuit, he entered the Army during WWII. His acting talents brought him to the attention of Maurice Evans' special services unit, where Reiner first met future "Show of Shows" cohort Howard Morris. For the remainder of the war he toured South Pacific bases in G.I. revues.

He hit the ground running in New York after the war, landing a part in G.I. revue "Call Me Mister" and in 1948 appeared in the Broadway musical revue "Inside U.S.A.," starring Beatrice Lillie and Jack Haley. Concurrently he was appearing on television as a fashion photographer in ABC's "Fashion Story."

In early 1950, Reiner became part of the storied team working in front of and behind the camera on Caesar's NBC variety show "Your Show of Shows," a 90-minute comedy-variety show that aired live on Saturday nights. The writers room was packed with future showbiz legends including Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen.

After "Your Show of Shows" ended in 1954, Reiner and series regular Howard Morris moved on with Caesar to star in another NBC variety show, "Caesar's Hour," which ran on NBC from 1954 to 1957. When Reiner decided to shepherd his own sitcom, he teamed with producers Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard to produce "Dick Van Dyke Show."

Van Dyke was the fourth partner in the production company Calvada, which has long maintained ownership of the classic comedy. "Dick Van Dyke Show" featured Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore as Rob and Laura Petrie, a version of Reiner and his wife Estelle living in the suburbs of New Rochelle while Reiner commuted to Manhattan to work on Caesar's shows.

In 1995 Reiner received the Writers Guild's Laurel Award, a lifetime achievement award for a career in TV writing. In 2000 he won the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, presented by the Kennedy Center. In 2009 he was presented with the WGA's Valentine Davies Award, recognizing both his writing legacy and valued service to the guild, the entertainment industry and community at large.

He authored several memoirs and novels, including a sequel to "Enter Laughing," "Continue Laughing," "My Anecdotal Life" and "I Remember Me."

In the 2003 "My Anecdotal Life," he observed, "Inviting people to laugh with you while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be a fool but you're the fool in charge."

Reiner's wife Estelle, to whom he had been married since 1943, died in 2008. In addition to Rob Reiner, survivors include his daughter Sylvia Anne and son Lucas.

— Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.

By Carmel Dagan

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Carl Reiner Dick Van Dyke Show Obituary Variety