Carl Reiner, whose legendary career as a comedy writer, director, and performer stretched across more than six decades, has died at the age of 98. Reiner died of natural causes Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills, his assistant Judy Nagy confirmed to Variety.
Reiner’s work spanned television, film, and the stage, earning him nine Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award, and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. As a performer, he is perhaps best remembered as the straight man to Mel Brooks in their classic comedy routine, “The 2,000-Year-Old Man.” On the big screen, his most memorable recent role was in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 series as the thief and con man Saul Bloom. (Even more recently, he lent his voice to 2019’s Toy Story 4.) As a film director — a career into which his son, Rob Reiner, followed him to his own great success — Reiner’s biggest hits included Where’s Poppa? (1970), Oh God! (1977), and The Jerk.
Reiner was born on March 20, 1922, in the Bronx to Jewish immigrant parents, and made his first foray into entertainment at age 16 when he participated in a free drama workshop sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. After a stint in the Army’s Special Services during World War II, in which he helped stage plays for the troops, Reiner began getting roles in Broadway musicals. In 1950, he headed to TV and joined the cast and writing staff of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, working beside fellow future comedy luminaries such as Brooks, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart. In 1960, Reiner and Brooks began working together as a comedy duo and, at a party in 1961, the two began developing a skit in which straight-man Reiner interviewed Brooks’ character, an acerbic old-timer whose life supposedly stretched back two millennia. The two began performing sketches featuring the “2,000-Year-Old Man” on television, a series of comedy albums, and a 1975 animated TV show.
In the early ‘60s, Reiner cut his teeth as a director on the hit TV series The Dick Van Dyke Show, which he had originally conceived as a vehicle for himself before the network swapped in Van Dyke as the star; Reiner played Alan Brady, a self-important TV host seen by many as a thinly disguised version of Sid Caesar. After that show ended in 1966, Reiner made his feature directing debut with 1967’s Enter Laughing, an adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical comic novel. Reiner had some of his greatest success on the big screen with a series of comedies starring Steve Martin: The Jerk, Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), The Man With Two Brains (1983), and All of Me (1984).
Reiner once explained his philosophy of comedy this way: “You have to imagine yourself as not somebody very special but somebody very ordinary. If you imagine yourself as somebody really normal and if it makes you laugh, it’s going to make everybody laugh. If you think of yourself as something very special, you’ll end up a pedant and a bore. If you start thinking about what’s funny, you won’t be funny, actually. It’s like walking. How do you walk? If you start thinking about it, you’ll trip.” Reiner didn’t have to think about comedy much; it came naturally to him.
Reiner is survived by his three children: Rob, Sylvia Anne, and Lucas. He and his wife Estelle had been married for 64 years until she died in 2008.