Born in the Bronx, Reiner began his New York stage career as a serious Shakespearean thespian, but he found that comedy was what paid the bills. He worked as a Borscht Belt joker at the Allaben Acres resort in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, where he met his future wife, singer Estelle Lebost, and he learned the skills that served him as a comedy writer under actor Maurice Evans in the U.S. Army’s entertainment unit in Hawaii during World War II.
After the war, Reiner landed two jobs with one audition: summer entertainment director at the Lake Spofford Hotel in New Hampshire, and replacement for star Jules Munshin in the touring production of the revue Call Me Mister. Roles such as the latter, as well as in Broadway musicals Inside U.S.A. and Alive and Kicking, led to his casting in the sketch company of Sid Caesar’s landmark live-TV comedy series Your Show of Shows. Throughout the 1950s, Reiner would work as a performer and writer on Caesar’s various shows, working with a legendary team of scribes that included Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and Woody Allen. He also wrote his first book, 1958’s Enter Laughing, an autobiographical novel about his early days as an actor.
Reiner drew from his own life to create his first sitcom, Head of the Family, about a young, recently married TV-sketch-comedy writer, in which Reiner also starred. The show was a flop until Reiner retooled it with a new leading actor and actress and took a supporting role as the sketch show’s egotistical host, Alan Brady. The result was The Dick Van Dyke Show (which was on-air from 1960 to 1966), an innovative series that made Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore into stars and earned Reiner several Emmys for the show’s mix of sexy, sophisticated comedy and silly slapstick.
As Dick Van Dyke wound down, Reiner moved on to Hollywood, with a prominent acting role in the 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. He made his directing debut in 1967 with the screen version of Enter Laughing. Over the next 30 years, he’d direct such comedies as black-comedy cult hit Where’s Poppa? (1970), Oh, God! (1977), Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin’s 1984 All of Me (perhaps the best film Reiner or Martin ever made), the underrated 1987 Summer School, and the 1993 spoof of modern-day noirs Fatal Instinct.
Reiner, who in a 2013 interview described his job as “talent scout,” was instrumental in launching or jump-starting the careers of numerous funny people. He made TV stars out of Van Dyke and Moore and a film star out of Martin, whom he directed in four movies, including Martin’s first lead role in 1979’s The Jerk. Reiner introduced a new generation of fans to George Burns (then 81), revitalizing the veteran comic’s film career by directing him in Oh, God! He launched British musical-theater star Robert Lindsay’s movie career with 1989’s Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool, which Reiner wrote for Lindsay. Reiner and his wife, Estelle, brought All in the Family star turned film director Rob Reiner into the world (and two other children, author Annie and artist Lucas). And, of course, he helped make his fellow Sid Caesar sketch writer Mel Brooks famous via the pair’s “2000 Year Old Man” routines.
The comedy routines, worked out by Reiner and Brooks at parties before being immortalized on records, in books, and in an animated TV special, involved Reiner as an interviewer and Brooks as a guy old enough to have known everyone important throughout history—and to have been less than impressed by all of them. Brooks delivered all the punch lines, but Reiner was a master straight man, coming up with tricky questions that would prompt Brooks to think of more outrageous answers. “My premise is that you force a genius comedy brain into a corner and they’ll get out, but make it tighter and tougher to get out and they’re funnier and funnier,” Reiner explained. “To save their life, they’ll come up with something funny.”
Reiner continued to be in demand as an actor well into his 80s and 90s. Most famously, he played con man Saul Bloom, whose age and frailty turn out to be assets, in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its two sequels. He was a frequent TV guest star on shows from Mad About You (where he reprised his Alan Brady character and won his ninth Emmy) and Hot in Cleveland (as a suitor to his contemporary Betty White) to Parks and Recreation and Two and a Half Men (in a recurring role as a suitor to Holland Taylor).
His writing career also flourished in the new millennium; of the 15 (TK) novels and memoirs he published, he wrote all but 6 of them after he turned 80. In 2012, the year he turned 90, he published a memoir, I Remember Me, whose e-book version took advantage of the new electronic format’s multi-media capabilities to include old photos, documents, and video clips of Reiner-family home movies. That same year, he joined Twitter.
In his 90s, Reiner kept up a daily routine that included writing and tweeting each day, then having fellow widower Brooks over to his Beverly Hills home to eat dinner and watch movies. (Reiner lost wife, Estelle, in 2008, after 65 years of marriage; Brooks’s wife of 41 years, actress Anne Bancroft, died in 2005.) “Writing makes it possible for me to stay interested,” he said at 84. “And if you stay interested, you stay alive.” In 2017, he starred in the HBO documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, titled after one of his own quips. “I rarely go out these days,” he told Vanity Fair upon its release. “Only for very special occasions. Mostly I hang around the house.” Then he laughed. “But I’m still having so much fun!”
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