'Fresh Air' Remembers Carl Reiner, A Legendary Writer, Producer And Performer
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Carl Reiner, who entertained and influenced many generations of audiences and artists with his comedy work as a performer, writer and director, died of natural causes Monday at age 98. His show business career spanned more than 70 years and included triumphant successes on stage, screen, TV and the recording industry. Among his greatest hits - co-starring opposite Sid Caesar on television's "Your Show Of Shows" on which he also was part of the writing staff; creating "The Dick Van Dyke Show," based on his own life as a TV writer; teaming up with Mel Brooks on a best-selling series of comedy albums about the 2,000-Year-Old Man; writing and directing plays and movies, including Alan Arkin in "Enter Laughing" and Steve Martin in "The Jerk" and playing the veteran con man in the series of "Ocean's Eleven" movies.
Today on FRESH AIR, we remember Carl Reiner by listening back to interviews with him as well as with his best friend Mel Brooks and his "Dick Van Dyke Show" star Mary Tyler Moore. But first, as a TV critic and historian, I'd like to offer my own appreciation.
Carl Reiner is such a major part of TV history that he's a central figure in early television's best and smartest shows in two different genres - the variety series and the situation comedy. In variety, his NBC sketch series "Your Show Of Shows," which starred Sid Caesar, ran from 1950 to 1954 and set the template that "Saturday Night Live" is still following. It was broadcast live for 90 minutes every Saturday night and featured guest hosts and performers and a repertory company of regular comedy sketch players.
One of Reiner's many roles in that company was as the reliable straight man, feeding lines so Caesar could react - as in this sketch in which Reiner interviews a famous magician played by Caesar and unexpectedly dazzles him by performing the most basic of magic tricks, making his extended finger disappear beneath a handkerchief.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS")
CARL REINER: (As amateur magician) Professor, there is one thing that interests most magicians is how a magician starts - the first trick that gets them interested in magic.
SID CAESAR: (As professor) The first trick...
REINER: (As amateur magician) I remember my first trick. It was so simple, and yet it was that trick that caused me to get interested. It was as simple as this. I remember as a child doing it. I put my finger under a handkerchief and I say, hocus pocus - finger disappear, and the finger would disappear. Now that was my very first trick, and it got me interested.
REINER: (As amateur magician) What was yours, professor?
CAESAR: (As professor) Where's the finger?
BIANCULLI: After "Your Show Of Shows," Reiner and another veteran of that same writing room, Mel Brooks, performed and recorded a series of ad-libbed comedy bits that became hit record albums. Reiner was the straight man throwing unscripted questions at Brooks who claimed to be the 2,000-Year-Old Man.
Reiner and Brooks also did the circuit of TV variety shows, but Reiner's next move back into series TV was to write a sitcom about a situation he knew quite well - being a dad in New Rochelle who commuted in New York City to write for a network TV variety show. He wrote scripts for 13 episodes and even filmed a pilot called "Head Of The Family." But CBS didn't buy it - not with him playing the lead, Rob Petrie, and Barbara Britton as his wife Laura.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HEAD OF THE FAMILY")
BARBARA BRITTON: (As Laura Petrie) Robert, your son dislikes you.
REINER: (As Rob Petrie) What are you saying? How can he dislike me? I'm his father.
BRITTON: (As Laura Petrie) Some children have been known to hate their fathers.
REINER: (As Rob Petrie) He's only 6 years old. He doesn't know me long enough to hate me.
BIANCULLI: But rather than let the project die, TV producer Sheldon Leonard persuaded Reiner that the scripts were fine but the cast needed a complete overhaul, including Reiner. The new version, named after its new star, was called "The Dick Van Dyke Show." He played TV writer Rob Petrie. Mary Tyler Moore played his wife Laura. And in time, Reiner got to play a recurring role as Alan Brady, the Sid Caesar-like star of the variety show within the show.
In one of the sitcom's most famous episodes, Laura reveals on a TV game show that Alan Brady is secretly bald, which leads to her visiting his office to beg for forgiveness and her husband's job.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW")
MARY TYLER MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Well, I remember telling Rob. And I told him to tell you - did he ever tell you? 'Cause I told him to tell you how very nice and natural and warm you look that way.
REINER: (As Alan Brady) Sure, like a father figure. Right?
MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Oh, no. No, Alan, just the opposite.
REINER: (As Alan Brady) Bald mother figure?
MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) No...
MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) ...No, Alan - like a very mature, warm, real person.
REINER: (As Alan Brady) A little more snow in here, we can ski.
BIANCULLI: "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which ran from 1961 to 1966, was a top 10 show for most of its tenure. It won 14 Emmys and remains one of the best and funniest sitcoms ever made. But it was more than that because Reiner was a comedy pioneer in more ways than one. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was one of the first sitcoms to split its time equally between work and home. The show dealt on occasion with racial and sexual issues at a time when almost no show on TV did. And the show's finale episode, long before most TV series provided finales, was so subtle that many viewers missed the joke, namely that Reiner was bringing it full circle by having Dick Van Dyke's Rob Petrie write a story about his life with a final twist which Rob describes to his wife and friends, including Reiner's Alan Brady, after returning from the publisher.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW")
DICK VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) Are you ready for a little bit of good news?
MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Yeah, I think so.
VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) I heard from the publisher today.
MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Yeah?
VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) He hates, boy.
VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) He said it reminded him of about 50 other books.
MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) He's kidding.
ROSE MARIE: (As Sally Rogers) No, no. That's what they said.
MOREY AMSTERDAM: (As Buddy Sorrell) That's right. One editor said it stunk.
MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Well, why's everyone so happy?
VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) Because Alan read it and he loved it.
REINER: (As Alan Brady) What do I know from style?
VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) Honey, Alan wants to produce it as a television series.
MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Your book's going to be a television series?
REINER: (As Alan Brady) It's true. Of course, I won't do it till after my series is defunct, which may never be.
VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) Alan is going to play me.
BIANCULLI: That's so brilliant. And it's very much like what Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld would do 30 years later on "Seinfeld," presenting episodes in which their TV counterparts would pitch the concept of the very TV show on which they were starring.
Carl Reiner once told me that over the years, more than 50 TV writers had come up to him and said that "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was their inspiration to pursue their career - that before watching his show, they didn't know there was such a job as a TV writer much less that it looked like so much fun.
And finally, with his death, Carl Reiner retires undefeated with a record no one else in show business will ever be able to claim. He's the only performer to have appeared as a guest on every incarnation of NBC's "Tonight Show," from Steve Allen to Jimmy Fallon. Carl Reiner spoke with Terry Gross, too, in 1989. She asked him if it was hard to break into show business and if his parents thought he was foolish to try.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
REINER: Oh, no. My parents were very proud of the fact that I wouldn't be a bum and I wanted to be an actor. See, they thought - they revered actors because when I was a kid - you see, I - being of Jewish heritage, when you have an image of the actor, it was Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni. And then when they found out that Basil Rathbone was Jewish - say you're going into a good business; a lot of Jewish people go in that business.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter).
REINER: And they were very happy I became an actor. They just wanted me to be an actor in my neighborhood. They didn't want me to go away. And so when I did radio in New York and some plays in New York when I was very young, they were very happy. Then when I went to summer theater when I was 18, they were pretty upset. They say, you're going away to act? Why can't you act here? That was the only objection they ever had, though.
GROSS: You started in serious roles in the theater, didn't you? How did you get into comedy?
REINER: Well, the Army - well - no, actually, I got into comedy because my first year that I didn't do serious stuff, I've done a Shakespearean tour. I'd been in summer theaters doing about 36 plays before I got to do my first musical variety review. And that was in a summer - again, a summer situation where I was a straight man actor in sketches. And I really took to sketches very well because I had a background of theater, so I'd play them real. But I was a basically a silly person, so I was able to find the fun in it.
And then in the Army, you couldn't ask people to mount a play for you, so I got up in front of a microphone and started doing stand-up material. And I really became a comedian in the Army. It's a good place to become a comedian. If you keep your sense of humor there, you'll stay a little saner than most.
GROSS: You did "Your Show Of Shows." You were one of the stars of it. You were one of the writers on it. And it really turned into one of the most important shows in the history of television. Did you have any sense...
REINER: Well, it was the first...
REINER: ...Of its kind, and I think that makes it important. It was the first of its kind, and luckily, it was excellent.
REINER: I mean, the first of its kind sometimes isn't revered. It's just that you break some ground. But this was the first of its kind, and it was peopled by extraordinary writing and performing talent. Max Liebman had a great eye for selecting people that might be stars someday. And he found Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Before that, he had worked with Danny Kaye, so he really had a good eye.
GROSS: How did he find you?
REINER: He found me in a Broadway show. I was performing in a Broadway show. And the first full year of "Your Show Of Shows" was about to go on the air, and he needed somebody to support Sid Caesar. And I had been a first banana up until that time. I had been a leading comedian. And he invited me to become the second banana. When I - I had seen Sid in "Tars And Spars" and another venture on Broadway, "Make Mine Manhattan," and I thought this guy was an extraordinary talent. And being a second banana to such a massive first banana didn't - wasn't a come-down at all for me. I realized I was working with the best.
GROSS: So being second banana to Sid Caesar, did he want to get all - was he the kind of performer who wanted all the good lines for himself? Was he a...
REINER: No, no.
GROSS: ...Hog in any way?
REINER: As a matter of fact, he was very good about the piece being right. And if you got a laugh - and if you did something funny, he would never say, oh, let me do that. He'd just let you do it. As a matter of fact, Sid was the best double-talker in the whole world. He'd double-talk French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese, what have you. And I also was pretty good at double-talk, and I knew I would never get to do my double-talk impressions. And so I came up with the idea of doing foreign movies. In the third week of the "Show Of Shows" that was on the air, the third week it was on the air - and it was such a success - as a matter of fact, that's the way I became a writer without a portfolio. Up to that time, I'd been just an actor. And now I was just an actor but who had some ideas, so I was always in the writers' room from then on. I never - we never got credit in those days for writing. Actors were actors, and writers were writers. But I did learn my craft working with those brilliant writers.
GROSS: So you started hanging out with the writers and sitting in on all the writing meetings and contributing ideas.
REINER: Oh, it started in the third week, and it was nine years of that. And I became actually a writer without a portfolio. I considered myself a writer at that point because I worked on things that even - I was not going to be in. I worked on some of his monologues. And Mel Brooks and I did a lot of work on the - and Sid did - on the professor, where I asked him questions, which was actually the genesis of my asking Mel Brooks about the 2,000-year-old man.
GROSS: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
REINER: That's another second banana role that I relish.
GROSS: In the writers' meetings for "The Sid Caesar Show"...
GROSS: ...Was there ever an air of complete desperation where you had this whole room of really funny people, but they were just on the verge of killing themselves because they weren't coming up with what they wanted to?
REINER: Oh, I tell you - you're reminding me now of a moment. When - after we had been on about two or three years and we had done five sketches a week for maybe two or three years - and that was an hour and a half show - and one day on a Monday, we came in, and we sat around trying to fill some of the forms. And everybody came up blank. Everybody had dried up at the same time. And we all decided that was it.
There were - we said to Max Liebman, and we said, we're going to come on the air and just sit there, the four of us - Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, myself and Howard Morris - and just stare at the set. And then we go blank, and somebody would come and say, ladies and gentlemen, there is no more comedy. We have done all we can - no more. This is it. Good night. And we were going to do that.
And we laughed about that. As a matter of fact, we decided to try a sketch where we just - we started a sketch, like, four - a general, a vice president - people being ushered into a room, into a salon where they were going to obviously perform a sketch. One by one, they'd say, Lord Trickster (ph) and General so-and-so. They'd come in, and they'd sit down on a couch and just sit there without doing anything. And we showed it to Max. We said, this is the sketch. We just sat there. And he's, what is that? What is that?
REINER: We sat for five minutes. He - and, of course, everybody broke up. They said they're not going to do anything. They're just going to sit there. That's it, Max. There's no more comedy.
REINER: We couldn't come up with an idea. So we think we'd like to do that. America will tune in and say, they're just sitting there. They haven't moved in five minutes. One guy crossed his leg, and that was it. We were that desperate at that point. Of course, that week, we probably came up with the best show we ever did.
BIANCULLI: We're remembering Carl Reiner, who died Monday at the age of 98. Terry Gross interviewed him in 1989. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "CAST YOUR FATE TO THE WIND")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1989 interview with comedian, writer and director Carl Reiner, who died Monday at age 98. His first big break in TV came in 1950, when he was hired for a brand-new NBC variety sketch series called "Your Show Of Shows." And he was hired not only as a cast member but as a member of the writing staff.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: There were some - several of the writers on the program were Jewish - you, Mel Brooks - toward the end of...
REINER: Mel Brooks is Jewish?
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, I...
REINER: That's a shock.
GROSS: That's what I heard. That's what I heard.
REINER: That's a shock.
GROSS: Woody Allen worked on the show toward its end, and who knows who else I'm not mentioning here. But I was wondering if you were allowed to do Jewish characterizations, to have Yiddish words or to use a Jewish accent on a show.
REINER: Oh, we - no, I don't think we ever used a Jewish accent. I didn't know - after the war and during the war and before the war, it became well, it wasn't - people decided that making fun of any ethnic group was not good for people who were being slaughtered by somebody who thought they weren't worthy of living. So we - but we did use a lot of Yiddish words, and especially in our Japanese movies we did. I remember some of the names - Shtarker Yamagura (ph) - Shtarker meaning strong. But it had a Japanese sound to it. Baron Kashamoto (ph) - Kasha is a word - is a food. But we always - anytime we used a Jewish word, we didn't allow that to lay out there alone. We always had another joke that everybody who didn't understand the word would be watching at the same time that joke was happening. We were very responsible to our audience - not to the inside jokes that only some people would get.
GROSS: I bet there were a lot of Yiddish-type sketch ideas that you came up with behind the scenes that you ended up tossing out since it wasn't appropriate for TV.
REINER: Well, as a matter of fact, the 2,000-year-old man was in the office with us every day. And every time I got bored, I turned to Mel, and I'd interview the 2,000-year-old man...
GROSS: Oh, really?
REINER: ...Who basically was of the Hebrew persuasion. (Laughter) So we had that.
GROSS: How did you come up with the idea for 2,000-year-old man? What was the story behind that?
REINER: Well, it was a very simple story. I came in one morning having seen something irresponsible on television and somebody who actually claimed to have been someplace they couldn't have been. And I said, oh, that's a ridiculous thing. I don't know why they put that on the air. And in anger, I said to Mel, I understand you were actually at the scene of the crucifixion, sir. He said, oh, boy, and then started a 10-year interview that I did. Every time we got bored in the office, I'd turn to Mel and question about all the people he knew having lived 2,000 years - from Jesus Christ on to the present day.
GROSS: Now, how did that end up being recorded and being done on television?
REINER: Well, we had done it for years at parties. We were always invited to parties, sort of like command performances. And we didn't feel we wanted to do that. We figured we had enough stature to be just invited to eat and talk. But we always - I was brought a tape recorder with me, and I felt that I loved hearing Mel do this, and I wanted to have a record of it.
So I had about 10 years of - maybe 10 years of this stuff before we got into a situation where Joe Fields, who was a big writer, producer on Broadway, he used to love it. And every time he'd have a party, he'd invite Mel and I to do it. And he did it on the coast once - and this is the West Coast - and every major star was there. And George Burns came up to us and said, you better put it on record, or I'm going to steal it. Eddie G. Robinson came up. He says, make us - make a Broadway play out of it. I want to play that man.
And Steve Allen came up and said, why don't you put it on record? And we said, no, no. He said, why did you let me pay for the tape? I have a little record company. If you don't like it, you can tear it, burn it, expunge it, whatever you want. And we did it. We did it in front of a crowd of 200 people, this whole adlib tape of - for two hours. We cut it down to 47 minutes, and it worked. And then we did four more albums after that.
GROSS: Let me ask you a little bit about "The Dick Van Dyke Show." I've always assumed that the show was based on your experiences writing for and performing in "Your Show of Shows."
REINER: Did you come that - did to come to that on your own, or did you read it some place?
GROSS: All right, all right (laughter).
GROSS: OK, so it's obvious (laughter).
REINER: No, no, but it - yeah, it was based on my life as a writer, actor on the "Show Of Shows." And it was my home life fantasized and satirized and lied about. No, but basically it was - the husband and wife on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was my wife and myself. I mean, that's all I knew. I knew - I don't know - I knew no other marriage intimately. And we've been married 45 years, and at that time it was about 20 or 30 years.
GROSS: Does that mean that when you came home every night you said, hi, honey, I'm home?
REINER: No, because usually the kids heard me first. And there's a car coming in the driveway, a dog barking, a big dog. She knew I was home when I came home. I never said hi - (laughter) as a matter of fact, hi, honey, I'm home was probably hardly ever said. I think maybe I used it once because that was a cliche of all situation comedies. And I rarely used that. I mean, he probably said it one or two times. But most of the time we started with the script. He had - if he said, hi, honey, I'm home, it was for a reason, not just to start a script.
GROSS: Did you ever trip over the divan on your way into the living room?
REINER: I'm a klutz. My wife - I didn't do that, but I don't know how many thousands of times I stepped onto the back of her scuffs while she was walking and I was walking behind her and had her, you know, trip forward. I think most men are klutzy in some areas. I mean - oh, except for maybe Baryshnikov. I think Baryshnikov and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Cary Grant never tripped.
Although I did see Cary Grant trip once. We shared offices near each other, and I saw him coming out of his car and tripping on the curb all by himself. But he did such a graceful trip. He turned around like Cary Grant does and he looked at what he tripped at and then sort of danced away from it. He was all by himself. But most people are klutzy. I think most men are klutzy, and I think it's an endearing quality we have that we are not totally graceful.
REINER: Carl Reiner speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. The co-star and staff writer of "Your Show Of Shows," creator of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and director of "The Jerk" died Monday at age 98. After a break, we'll continue their conversation, and we'll also hear stories about Carl Reiner from Mary Tyler Moore, star of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and from Carl's lifelong best friend Mel Brooks. And I'll review the new movie version of the musical "Hamilton," premiering today on the Disney+ streaming service. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "I FOUND A MILLION DOLLAR BABY (IN A FIVE AND TEN CENT STORE)")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 1989 interview with Carl Reiner, who died of natural causes Monday at age 98. Of all his impressive credits - writing, performing and directing for movies, TV, comedy albums, books and the theater - Reiner arguably is best known for creating "The Dick Van Dyke Show." In that classic '60s sitcom, Dick Van Dyke played TV writer and family man Rob Petrie, a character Reiner had based on himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: On "The Dick Van Dyke Show," it always seemed like Dick Van Dyke saw himself as the sane person in the middle of all these really crazy people. Did you ever feel that way?
REINER: I always felt that way. I am basically always the sane person in a madhouse. Starting in my very first show on Broadway called "Call Me Mister," I remember the producer saying - when I went on the road, he said, now, I don't ever want you to ask me for a raise because you're supposed to get great reviews. If you don't get great reviews, you don't deserve to be in this play. So don't send me great reviews and say you want a raise after you leave New York. And I never did. But when I got to Chicago, they had - the reviewer had seen it in New York a few months before and said, I'm not going to like this company any better than I like the one in New York, and then proceeded to write a glowing review of me, saying that I changed the show from what she didn't like to what she did like. And I said, boy, what a time to ask for a raise, and I knew I couldn't.
However, I had a bunch of nuts in the company. They would tear phones out of the wall. They couldn't - they fought with each other. They'd keep coming to my dressing room to say, can I dress with you? I had the star dressing room down stairs. I can't dress with so-and-so. A real bunch of nuts - and if I told you their names, you'd say, oh, yes, you're probably right. Well, I wrote to the producer and said, I'm not sending you the reviews, but I do believe I deserve a raise just for being the company psychiatrist. This company would fall apart if I weren't there to minister to it. And, you know, he sent me a $35 raise.
GROSS: Hey (laughter).
REINER: I got a $35 raise for being the company psychiatrist. I really have the - I'm supposed to be the sane one in every situation. I really am not, but I certainly know how to play it.
GROSS: "The Dick Van Dyke Show" is - has become one of the really classic sitcoms from television. Was it nevertheless a difficult show to sell to the network after you had created it?
REINER: No. As a matter of fact, the network bought it right away. They knew the quality of the show, and they knew the performances were very winning. Our ratings the first year weren't the best because we were on opposite Perry Como, who was riding real high at the time, had a wonderful show, a variety show. And they were thinking of canceling us the second year because we were only half-sponsored. But Sheldon Leonard, our executive producer, got the other half sponsored. And I voted for a very sort of dramatic thing that was not being done at the time - to rerun it during the summer. I said, people who didn't see us can sample us now. People who watched Perry Como can sample us. And it happened. They sampled us, and they stayed with us the following year and for the next five years.
GROSS: How did you cast yourself as Alan Brady, the star of the show?
REINER: How - why did I cast myself doing it originally?
GROSS: Yeah. How did you cast yourself doing it? Yeah.
REINER: Oh, you mean Alan Brady. Well, I was looking for a major star, and I knew I couldn't get a major star to play a major star by - and giving him some of these small scenes to do. So I said, I got to find somebody who they would think was a star. And then I cast myself. And I said, well, I was a second banana, but I was close to being a star. And the first year, I didn't turn around. I used the back of my head. I used myself on a phone or under a towel when I was being shaved or something. And I didn't show my face because I didn't want the audience to say, oh, is that the star? He's not big enough. But by the second and third year, the scripts got so elaborate - and they seemed to like Alan Brady - that I turned him around and showed who he was. And it turned out to be me, and nobody was terribly disappointed, so we stayed with it.
GROSS: Why did you end up switching to films after working in television?
REINER: Well, I had done 15 years of television almost weekly for 15 years. And the bigger the screen, the bigger the challenge. And I grew up watching movies, and I knew someday - I wanted someday to be on that screen. Actually, I got on the screen as an actor before I started directing in a few pictures, but the best of them being "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming." I had a starring role in that. But right after that, I directed my first movie, "Enter Laughing." And that was the most exciting thing of all.
GROSS: Several of your movies have been collaborations with Steve Martin. How did you start working together?
REINER: I was asked to come in on a picture that they were doing called "Easy Money," which turned out to be "The Jerk," as a director. And I worked with him on the script, and we had such a good rapport that - and beside having a good rapport, that wouldn't have made us do more movies together. But the first picture we did together grossed so much money that they said, hey; these guys are good. They ought to stick - keep them together. Actually, we decided to do things together and took it to the studios. We had a good time. That's why we stayed together. He's a delightful man.
GROSS: You directed Steve Martin in "All Of Me," and that's the movie in which his body is supposed to be invaded by the spirit...
GROSS: ...Or the soul of Lily Tomlin.
GROSS: And so he has to act as if his body is the shell for her.
GROSS: How did you work with him on getting the gestures and movements on that? It was such a good performance.
REINER: It's funny. Steve Martin is another one of those graceful ungraceful men. He does - he has very big hands and big feet, and there's no way - he doesn't have the ballet hands. And that's the only thing he missed. As a matter of fact, that's one of the few things I instructed him on - how the hand might be a little more graceful. But other than that, he came in one day and showed me a scene when - the first time Lily Tomlin's soul gets into his body, where he was trying to walk like a man and the woman's sensibilities and soul would take over. This schizoid personality - when he showed it to me, it was just brilliant. He had come in and worked in the house with his walk and this half man, half woman approach. It was brilliant. It was very difficult to keep straight, by the way - to know when the man was in charge and when the woman was in charge.
GROSS: Let me ask you about your son, Rob Reiner. He first became an acting star on "All In The Family" as Meathead, and then he became a director, directing movies like "Princess Bride," "Spinal Tap," "Stand By Me." Did you ever expect him to go into show business?
REINER: Not when he was very young, although he had a tremendous ability to remember everything he'd ever seen. I mean, he's one of these kids who absorbs - he was one of those kids who absorbed everything he saw on television and movies. But he never stated it loudly that he was going to do, but in his heart, he wanted to be a director always. Isn't that amazing? And he only told us about it later.
When he was about 19 years old, I saw him direct - Ricky Dreyfuss and he were friends when they were in high school, and he directed a version of "No Exit" by Sartre. And it was brilliant. He was only about 18 or 19 at the time. At that point, his road was starting to be paved. He wanted to be a director, and there's no question that he knew that. And he wasn't telling it to everybody because, you know, when you're young and say, I want to be a director, I'd say, get out of here. And he had it in his mind. I'm sure all the time he was on "All In The Family," he was planning it.
GROSS: Do you show each other your work?
REINER: Oh, yes. Last - you're asking something very, very current. You're the first one - FRESH AIR has got the first piece of information about this. Last night I saw a preview - not a preview, a rough cut of Rob's new movie, which he's not sure of the title yet. So far, it's "Harry, This Is Sally" or "Sally, This Is Harry" - I'm not sure of the title - with Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby. Well, I'm going to go on record as saying it is the most beautiful, successful, glorious romantic comedy that I have ever seen. I called Rob today and I said, gee, whether I'm your father or not has nothing to do with this. I mean, that is a masterwork of moviemaking.
GROSS: One last thing - does writing comedy help make life any more enjoyable? Can you put a comic spin on things in real life?
REINER: Oh, yes, because writing comedy and writing it successfully, having your pictures made and people laugh at it, you know what happens? They give you money for that.
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
REINER: And you take that money, you buy a house, you buy a nice car, get good clothes, good food. And, of course, when you get older, you can't eat the really good food. You got to eat the simpler food. But it does make life very pleasant.
GROSS: Carl Reiner, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you.
REINER: Well, thank you for - and FRESH AIR is such a wonderful title.
GROSS: Oh, I'm glad you like it.
REINER: I hope we kept the air fresh.
BIANCULLI: That was Carl Reiner, creator of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. He died Monday at age 98. After a break, we'll continue our tribute to Carl Reiner with an interview from our archives with one of the stars of that show, Mary Tyler Moore, and with an excerpt of my interview with Mel Brooks. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET'S "FAR MORE BLUE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. When Carl Reiner's sitcom pilot starring him as TV writer Rob Petrie was rejected by CBS, producer Sheldon Leonard rescued it by persuading Reiner to replace the entire cast, including Reiner himself. The result, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," was a major TV hit and made a star of its then-unknown leading lady, Mary Tyler Moore. Terry Gross spoke with her about the show and her TV character in 1995.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: What were you told about the character of Laura?
MOORE: Just that she was going to be a wife, a television wife, and that really had its classical parameters and dimensions. And they were established, and they hardly ever varied, except as to whether or not the wife was the star of the show, in which case she was the funny one or if she were the straight man for the male star and she was then totally supportive. But all these wives were kind of obedient and, you know, a representative of the vows to love, honor and obey. They hardly varied from that. And with Carl Reiner's character, the way she was written, Laura actually had opinions of her own. While she was asserting herself, she also didn't make Dick Van Dyke look like a dummy. It was a matter of two people.
I mean, society's expectations at that point still said, hey, wait a minute, lady, you only go so far here. But I think we broke new ground, and that was helped by my insistence on wearing pants, you know, jeans and capri pants at the time. Because I said I've seen all the other actresses and they're always running the vacuum in these little flowered frocks with high heels on, and I don't do that and I don't know any of my friends who do that. So why don't we try to make this real and I'll dress on the show the way I do in real life?
GROSS: But it wasn't that easy. The sponsors were afraid you'd look brazen.
MOORE: Right. They pointed specifically to - they used a term, cupping under, and I can only assume that that meant, you know, my seat, that there was a little too much definition. And so they allowed me to continue to wear them in one episode - one scene per episode and only after we checked to make sure that there was as little cupping under as possible.
GROSS: Cupping under referring to the fit of your pants.
MOORE: The fit of the pants, yes.
GROSS: On your behind.
MOORE: On my behind, right. But within a few weeks, we were sneaking them into a few other scenes in every episode, and they were definitely cupping under, and everyone thought it was great.
MOORE: The funny thing is, you know, women liked me. They were not envious of the fact that their husbands had a crush on me. It was OK with them. They were the first to - you know, when I would meet people, they'd say, my husband loves you so much, and he thinks you're so sexy. And this was an odd thing because they were also able to identify with me as a friend, as a girlfriend. There was no resentment and no fear.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I think that speaks so well for the character and your portrayal of her. Did you do a lot of rehearsing with Dick Van Dyke or did you just have to do it minutes before the actual broadcast?
MOORE: Oh, the whole show was done in what they call multiple camera technique. It's still done today. But back then, we were maybe the sixth or seventh show to use the technique. It began with Joan Davis, not Lucille Ball as everyone thinks. Joan Davis did a show called "I Married Joan."
GROSS: (Singing) What a girl, what a world, what a life.
MOORE: Hey, good for you.
MOORE: And then Lucy and several other shows followed. But in that show, it's a little like doing theater that's captured on film. You rehearse for five days, and then on the evening of the fifth day, the audience comes in. And the camera's having blocked their moves and yours lined up with them, you film it from top to bottom in continuity. So during those five days, it was - at least the first three days, it was very much a matter of rehearse and contribute and attempt things and not be afraid to fail, to make a fool of yourself. Just pick yourself up, and if it didn't happen this time, then the next time you experiment, maybe it will. It was a wonderfully supportive, creative environment.
BIANCULLI: Mary Tyler Moore speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks met in the writers room of "Your Show Of Shows" in 1950 and remained best friends from that point on. I spoke with Mel Brooks on FRESH AIR in 2013 and asked him about the recurring comedy bit that he and Reiner made famous, the series of interviews Reiner conducted with Mel's "2000 Year Old Man."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
BIANCULLI: You started this act at parties. You recorded an album. You won a Grammy. You went on from there. I figured, before I ask you my questions about the "2000 Year Old Man," I'd give a taste. This is from you and Carl on "The Andy Williams Show" from 1966.
MEL BROOKS: Oh, good. I don't remember that. Let me hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW")
REINER: (As interviewer) Of all the discoveries of all time, what would you consider the greatest? Would you say it was the wheel, the lever, fire?
BROOKS: (As 2000 Year Old Man) Fire. Fire. Far and away, fire. Fire was the hottest thing going. Fire, you can't beat fire.
REINER: (As interviewer) Really?
BROOKS: (As 2000 Year Old Man) Fire used to warm us and light up our caves so we wouldn't walk into a wall, so we wouldn't marry our brother, Barney. Fire. Yes, fire.
REINER: (As interviewer) That's...
BROOKS: (As 2000 Year Old Man) And cooking - oh, you can't beat fire.
REINER: (As interviewer) When did they first learn to cook with fire?
BROOKS: (As 2000 Year Old Man) It was an accident. That was an accident.
REINER: (As interviewer) It was?
BROOKS: (As 2000 Year Old Man) A chicken walked into the fire by mistake and - (mimicking explosion) - and over, burnt up.
REINER: (As interviewer) What, a pet chicken?
BROOKS: (As 2000 Year Old Man) Yes. We didn't used them to eat. We kept them around the cave as pets.
REINER: (As interviewer) I see.
BROOKS: (As 2000 Year Old Man) We loved to hear, (grunt). We loved that.
BROOKS: (As 2000 Year Old Man) So we took it out to give it a funeral, you know, bury it because it was our pet. And we all went, (sniffing), hey, that smells good.
BROOKS: (As 2000 Year Old Man) So we ate him up. And since then, we've been eating chickens.
REINER: (As interviewer) You know, I've heard this story. But I've heard that the animal that wandered into the fire accidentally was a pig.
BROOKS: (As 2000 Year Old Man) Not in my cave.
BIANCULLI: That's Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in one of their...
BROOKS: I remember that.
BIANCULLI: ..."2000 Year Old Man" sketches. Do you remember how much of that, if any, was improvised?
BROOKS: Well, actually, when we were on television, we laid out the jokes. We laid out what we would do. When we made our first two albums, I said to Carl, don't tell me anything, nothing in advance. Just hit me with questions. And when I can't come up with a good answer, cut it. When I come up with a great answer, keep it in. And that's the way we did our first two albums, you know? Various characters and, of course, the "2000 Year Old Man" emerged as the leading comedy force in the albums.
BIANCULLI: Carl Reiner is widely and rightly acknowledged as one of the great straight men of all time, and working opposite him must've been a joy. But your friendship with him goes far past the projects you've done together. And now you're getting together almost every night to watch movies and have dinner. It sounds like such a nice thing to do.
BROOKS: Yeah. Well, it is. He's my best friend. And, you know, we're like Bialystock and Bloom, we're joined at the hip. And he lost his wife, maybe, two years ago. I lost my wife, maybe, 10 years ago, so - it's actually eight, to be exact. It's - we miss them. And they loved each other, too. So we can't find any other people that understand our ancient references, you know?
BROOKS: And so you know, we're very comfortable with each other because we never have to worry about images, what we say or what we do. And he still, you know - he's still - Carl is still a pretty damn funny guy.
BIANCULLI: And Carl is - what - is Carl 90 now?
BROOKS: No, he's not 90, no. He's 91.
BIANCULLI: (Laughter) Sorry to have insulted him. Yeah.
BROOKS: Yeah, yeah. Don't insult him. He's 91. And he's really doing what a lot of guys, you know, half his age or, you know, could not even think of doing.
BIANCULLI: Mel Brooks on FRESH AIR in 2013 with the last word in our tribute to writer, director and comedian Carl Reiner, who died Monday at age 98. The two spent the last several years by meeting nightly at Reiner's house, eating dinner and watching "Jeopardy!" It was a ritual immortalized, just like their famous friendship, in an installment of Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee" filmed way back in 2012.
After a break, a treat for Independence Day weekend. The Disney+ streaming service has just released the movie version of "Hamilton" the musical more than a year earlier than planned. I'll have a review. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES - INSTRUMENTAL")
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