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It’s hard to think of anyone who took the natural gifts, unexpected opportunities and simple strokes of luck that crossed his way over a life two years short of a century and did more with them than Carl Reiner.
Reiner’s death on Monday at the age of 98 is a time for celebration, not mourning, because of what he represents. He is a shining example at this dark and unpatriotic moment of what this glorious country can do for an American child who is willing and eager to seize the bull by the horns and make his mark on the world.
A stage star in his 20s, a TV star in his 30s, an innovative sitcom creator in his 40s, Reiner wrote successful novels, successful plays and successful films and directed hit movies. Along the way, he and Mel Brooks recorded the greatest of all comedy routines — their three-album series centering on the character they created together called the 2000 Year Old Man.
He could, perhaps, have done none of it.
Reiner’s mother, who never learned how to read, came to this country at the age of 3 and began working full-time at the age of 7 in the needle trades. His father immigrated at 14 and earned his keep as a watchmaker, while at least one of his patented inventions (a battery-operated clock) made millions only after his patent expired.
Such a person could have grown up bitter, believing the country was out to beat him and that it had beaten them. But as he relates in his 2003 memoir, “My Anecdotal Life,” his parents made a good life for themselves on Arthur Avenue in The Bronx.
They loved each other, and they loved him. And that may have been more than enough to provide Carl with the solid base from which he would find himself on a strikingly frictionless career that began in the Catskills before he shipped off for World War II military service in 1943 and concluded 76 years later with a voice-over in “Toy Story 4,” just last year.
His personal life was frictionless, as well, featuring as it did a famously contented 64-year marriage with Estelle Reiner (who delivered the immortal line “I’ll have what she’s having” in their son Rob’s movie “When Harry Met Sally. . .”). He spent the years following her death having dinner every night with his fellow widower and friend of seven decades, Mel Brooks.
In his book, Reiner describes how he was the subject of an immensely boring episode of the often-heartwrenching 1950s profile show “This Is Your Life” — because he had never done anything dramatic: “I had no alcohol or drug addictions and so no rehabilitation stories to tell or any heroic war stories or major diseases that I beat because of my deep faith in the Almighty.”
Like all great straight men — and Reiner was one of the very greatest, serving as the joke-setter-upper not only for the nonpareil Brooks but for Sid Caesar before him — Reiner was himself hilarious. There’s a great moment in “Oh, God!,” which he directed to massive box office in 1977, when Reiner shows up as a talk-show guest and does a sidesplitting imitation of split pea soup as it’s coming to a boil.
In the most interesting movie he ever directed, the inventive detective-film parody “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” with Steve Martin (1982), he has an indelible scene playing a Nazi general who slowly goes mad with rage as Martin interrupts his account of the conspiracy he’s hatched. “It is customary in these situations for the developer of the plan to describe it!” he says. “It is my right!”
He was reborn as a great character actor at the turn of the 21st century as the octogenarian conman Saul Bloom in the “Ocean’s Eleven” series of films. He should have won an Oscar for the first.
And then, of course, there was the TV show Reiner created about his life as a New Rochelle husband and father who works on a hit TV show as his day job. In its original version, Reiner was the star as well. But CBS found the whole thing too Jewish. Whereupon Reiner’s fellow Bronx Jew, producer Sheldon Leonard, said they should try this guy starring on Broadway in “Bye Bye Birdie.”
That was Dick Van Dyke, and the show that bore his name remains Reiner’s greatest accomplishment and a solid candidate if they ever give out a prize for the most wonderful of all sitcoms.
Such a life Carl Reiner had.
What can you say about the passing of a man who made the most of what God gave him, including the incredible gift of having been born an American? Can one say anything better than that?
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