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'Paging' Carl Reiner: Stories of a lifetime

The actor, straight man, comedian and emcee extraordinaire insists his career chronicle 'is 96% absolutely true.'

May 06, 2003|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

Steve Martin has called him an "icon of 20th century comedy," and Jerry Seinfeld once told a theater full of Mark Twain fans that Twain would be lucky to type his script changes. To longtime friend and colleague Mel Brooks, "he's a literal fount of information."

That's all fine, but actor, director, writer and producer Carl Reiner says he thinks of himself first as a master of ceremonies. Whether hosting the Directors Guild Awards every year, packing UCLA's Royce Hall at last month's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books or chatting with a reporter, Reiner wants everyone to have a good time.

"His main thrust in life is making other people happy and keeping the world which he inhabits moving," agrees his son, filmmaker Rob Reiner. "He's what they used to call in the Catskills a tummler -- somebody who keeps people engaged and stimulated. He always gets a sense of the room he's in and expresses what's on everybody's mind."

Consider, for instance, his onstage interview at the Festival of Books with Times film critic Kenneth Turan. After singling out two audience members who left early, he leaned forward to confide to everyone else in Royce Hall: "This is the best part. You were smart to stay."

How could anyone leave? His still-rubbery face and body in continual motion, the 81-year-old Reiner re-created such adventures as being a misguided Shakespearean actor, straight man for Sid Caesar, inquisitor to Mel Brooks' 2,000-year-old man and creator of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." And if they liked his anecdotes onstage, he reminded his audience, they'd love them in his new book, "My Anecdotal Life" (St. Martin's Press).

Down memory lane

In "An Anecdotal Life," Reiner emcees what he calls "a literary variety show." Johnny Carson, Billy Wilder and even former President Bill Clinton get shots onstage along with film stars he's directed, his parents, brother Charlie, three kids and his wife of 59 years, Estelle. The book, he writes, is both his "complete, official, abridged autobiography" and "96% absolutely true."

Sitting in the Beverly Hills home office where he wrote that book, not to mention most of his "Dick Van Dyke" scripts, Reiner busily plays host for an audience of one reporter. After his offers of both coffee and water are declined, Reiner pauses, then suggests bringing in a saw to get rid of potentially dangerous corners on the coffee table. And when his guest recalls a word that Reiner can't seem to remember, she is rewarded, on the spot, with a dime.

But there really is very little Reiner doesn't remember, and that's essentially how his new book came about. After lunch and shared reminiscences at the Friars Club with a group of funny guys Reiner calls Romeos -- "retired old men eating out" -- comedy writer Aaron Ruben suggested that Reiner go home and write down his amusing stories.

"A lot of people have said that, but he was the one who said it at the moment I was most vulnerable," says Reiner, also author of three novels and a book of short stories. "I was without book. It's like being without child. You're gestating and you don't know you're gestating. I started writing immediately."

A 17-year-old machinist's helper when his brother spotted a newspaper item about free, WPA-sponsored drama classes, Reiner has been writing roughly as long as he's been acting. Even his early Army sketches involved what he calls "talking writing."

Once producer Max Liebman hired him to be Caesar's straight man on "Your Show of Shows," Broadway actor Reiner was as likely to create characters and story lines as to inhabit them. As he told his Royce Hall audience, he was in the fabled Writer's Room, an uncredited "writer without portfolio," from the third week on.

That's where, in 1950, 28-year-old Reiner first turned to 24-year-old Brooks and asked him what he remembered about being at the Crucifixion. As Reiner explains in his book, it was only after 10 years of doing 2,000-year-old-man routines for friends that they finally made an album when George Burns told them to record it or he'd steal it. It was a huge hit, spawning several sequels.

As variety and revue shows like Caesar's were shoved aside by situation comedies, Reiner and his wife weren't much impressed by the scripts he was offered. When Estelle Reiner suggested that he could surely write better material, says Reiner, he asked himself a crucial question: "What piece of ground do I stand on that nobody else stands on? Well, I live in New Rochelle, I have a wife and [then] two children, I went downtown every day for nine years to work on 'Your Show of Shows' and 'Caesar's Hour.' The home life of an actor didn't intrigue me, but the home life of a writer did. And I said that's the piece of ground I stand on."

'Dick Van Dyke' today

So began "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which won Reiner seven of his 12 Emmys. And besides playing the toupee-wearing variety host Alan Brady -- his show's Sid Caesar -- Reiner turned out scripts for 40 of the first 60 shows.

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