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Carl Reiner's big break

CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

It was a tip from his older brother that helped steer the writer-director-actor toward a show business career. At 87, he has two new books out.

October 21, 2009|SUSAN KING

If it wasn't for Carl Reiner's older brother Charlie, "Your Show of Shows" would have been missing one of its funniest regulars, there would be no "2,000 Year-Old Man" routines with Mel Brooks, and no classic sitcom series "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Seventy-one years ago, Reiner was working for $10 a week as a shipping clerk in the garment industry in New York.

"When I graduated from high school, I graduated with a 73 average," explains Reiner on a recent afternoon in his homey two-story place in Beverly Hills, settling into a favorite pastime: telling an amusing anecdote. "You needed an 80 to get into college, so I went to work."

He had graduated early from high school because he had skipped a grade when he was young. "It's the worst thing you can do for a young kid, to skip a whole year," Reiner says. "I missed the first day of algebra and never found out what 'X' was. So I was feeling dumb for the rest of high school."

After working as a shipping clerk, he took over his brother's job helping to fix machines for the millinery trade. "I went down to $8 a week, and I worked for more than a year there."

One day, Charlie read in the New York Daily News about a free dramatic workshop in New York sponsored by the Works Progress Administration and told his baby brother to give it a try.

"He always knew I was funny," says Reiner. "I had acted in the third grade and the principal sat next to my mother and she said to her, 'He's the best one.' I could always make friends laugh."

So Reiner worked during the day and at night he would travel from his home in the Bronx to acting class in Manhattan. After six months, he got a job acting at the old Gilmore Theater on 64th Street off Central Park. "We got no money," says Reiner. "Six days a week we did plays like 'The Bishop Misbehaves' and 'The Family Upstairs.' "

Twenty years later, he wrote about theater in his semi-autobiographical novel "Enter Laughing," about a young man trying to break into theater.

Reiner even had to buy a tux and tails for his role in "The Bishop." But he had to borrow the $10 for the outfit.

"My mother kept those tails," Reiner says. "When Alan Arkin did 'Enter Laughing' on Broadway, he used those tails. They didn't fit him, which made it funnier."

Ironically, Reiner didn't do comedy in his earlier days. He recalls the old English woman who taught him acting at the WPA classes.

"The only thing I remember her saying is, 'Your assignment is to learn Queen Gertrude's speech from 'Hamlet.' "

Reiner breaks into a comic British accent and recites the entire, and quite lengthy, speech. He's astonished when he is letter-perfect. "I swear to God, I have never said that whole thing in 70 years," he proclaims. "I remember the first three lines. I'm glad to know that I can do it at 87."

Besides his brother Charlie, Reiner admits that a visit to the restroom at the Gilmore Theater also changed his career. After a performance, Reiner decided to use the restroom in the main area of the theater. A man standing next to him commented on his performance.

" 'You were very good in the play,' " Reiner recalled. " 'Would you like to go to summer theater?' If I hadn't gone to that urinal, my career might not have started. It was the Rochester Summer Theater. I went there for two years, nothing per week but room and board. But my father used to send me a dollar for a haircut."

He finally got to do some comedy before he went into the service when he worked at the Allaben Acres resorts in the Adirondacks in 1942.

"I was the straight man for the comedian, and doing sketches too. I also handled the game nights and the jazz concerts."

That is also where he met his wife of 65 years, Estelle, who died last year at age 94.

"She was an assistant scenic designer there. We spent the whole summer together, then I went on to the Army and we married while I was in the Army in Washington, D.C.

Reiner looks at the massively large TV screen in the living room.

"I put that in, but my wife never got to see it," he says wistfully. "The last year of her life, she didn't come down. She was upstairs in bed. I bought this for movies. I wasn't going out during that year."

Now he and Brooks, whose wife, Anne Bancroft, died four years ago, watch movies on DVD on that TV every night. But he's far from retired. Reiner is still acting -- he was on the season finale of "House" in May and is looking forward to a guest shot on CBS' "Two and a Half Men."

He is also constantly writing and has two new books out, "Tell Me Another Scary Story . . . But Not Too Scary!" for kids and what he describes as a "novellelah" called "Just Desserts."

In the latter, he reprises the character of romance novelist Nat Noland, whom he introduced in his 2006 book "NNNNN: A Novel."

In this comedic tale, Nat, a Jewish atheist, decides to create an e-mail address to the Almighty and send God a list of ideas of punishments, or "just desserts," for people's indiscretions. Much to his surprise, he receives an answer from God.

Reiner has a lot in common with Nat

"I am an atheist," Reiner declares. "I have a very different take on who God is. Man invented God because he needed him. God is us."

--

susan.king@latimes.com

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