BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — “The best things that ever happened to me happened when I was in Boston,” Carl Reiner says.
That’s Reiner’s style — humorous and light, with an easy charm. Greeting a Boston visitor to his home, he radiates warmth, sitting in his favorite chair in the cozy living room. He’s dressed in a blue suit jacket and tie, but black sneakers, waiting for his ride to “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” when he launches into a story.
Reiner’s first job fresh out of the Army was in the cast of a revue, “Call Me Mister,” which made a long stop at the Shubert Theatre on its way to Broadway. He got the call backstage, after a performance in March 1947, that his first child, Rob, had been born in New York. Three and a half weeks later, his wife, Estelle, and the baby came to join him.
“Boston was so interesting,” he says. “Somebody rented us an apartment in the cellar. They had ceilings that were a foot over your head. They took a cellar and made a three-room apartment out of it. A little kitchen. And they charged a lot for it. Well, a lot in those days. And so Estelle and I stayed in that. And I remember the little tiny bedroom we had.”
Recollections and ideas flow freely from the 90-year-old Reiner, who helped to define television sketch comedy as an actor on “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour”; created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” on which he played abrasive, toupeed host Alan Brady; and directed Steve Martin in “The Jerk.” Reiner has always let his impish mind lead him to whatever project felt right, whether the Broadway stage, playwriting, live television, feature films, or improvising with best friend Mel Brooks on the Grammy Award-winning “2000 Year Old Man” recordings. Lately, Reiner has popped up on the sitcoms “Parks and Recreation” and “Hot in Cleveland.”
He’s penned a new memoir, too. “I Remember Me” boasts a foreword by Billy Crystal and an unusually heavy-hitting roster of blurb-writers for a self-published title: two Brookses — Mel and Albert; Jerry Seinfeld; Jay Leno; and Kimmel. The memoir, which is coming out in a multimedia iBooks version, is the reason for his visit to Kimmel’s show, where he is greeted in his private greenroom with a note from the talk-show host and a present. It’s a pink Spaldeen ball, the kind that, Reiner mentions in his memoir, he received as a bar mitzvah gift. A producer shortly materializes to deliver the matching stickball bat. Reiner, a self-identified Twitter addict, poses with the bat for a photo to tweet to his fans, looking every bit as tough as his “Ocean’s Eleven” alter ego, Saul Bloom.
From the greenroom couch, Reiner watches some of the introductory comic sketches on the monitor. When Cambridge native Mindy Kaling appears on screen for her spot, Reiner is pleased to see her, a fan of her work. “I love the way she talks,” he says. Then it’s his turn, and he heads down the hallway to the studio. Seated beside Kimmel, he tells a story Jack Benny once told him, and participates in the show’s running gag: abusing Boston’s native son Matt Damon, calling him “one of the worst human beings ever” and claiming he travels with a fake family.
But Reiner is a man generous with praise, and he tells Kimmel that he and Mel Brooks were watching a recent “Kimmel” episode featuring Damon — Reiner and Brooks get together almost nightly to watch TV and movies — and Reiner felt compelled to tweet that it was the funniest hour of television he’d ever seen, going back to the days of Jack Paar. “The idea that you and Mel Brooks are watching my show could petrify me, could turn me to stone,” Kimmel replies. “It’s mind-boggling to me.”
In the alley on the way back to the SUV that will take him home, Reiner finds a couple of autograph seekers and a reporter for the gossip site TMZ, who asks him how it feels to be “rockin’ 90.” What’s surprising is how positive the interaction is; this is TMZ, after all. But Reiner seems to elicit that sort of treatment from people.
“I had the best time,” he will say later. “The adrenaline kicks in and you lose about 10 years. Maybe more.”
A comic’s history
A couple of days after the Kimmel show, Reiner is in his living room, looking through a mountain of letters from a carton he normally keeps in his bedroom. He smiles and laughs, reading especially good lines until he gets stuck at a particular batch. “These are mushy,” he says. “I can’t read you these.”
The letters represent years of correspondence between Reiner and Estelle. Reiner details their 65-year relationship lovingly in the memoir, from their courtship to the birth of their children, Rob, Lucas, and Annie, and ending with Estelle’s death in 2008. In one of the last chapters, he describes her final moments, something he found painful but rewarding to set down. “[It was] very hard,” he says, “but absolutely the best chapter I wrote. When the book was still in its manuscript form, a women’s club called Women Who Write called me, so I read some of it.” He regarded even this experience with a craftsman’s eye, noting the effect of his prose on his audience. “Twenty-five, 30 people weeping,” he says. “No question about it. It works because it was true.”
Reiner’s house is neat and clean but lived-in. A chair in the hallway and a table in the living room hold small piles of books and DVDs. A photo Reiner’s father took of himself, using a homemade shutter timer, is on the mantel. All of these memories and potential stories have accumulated over decades. “I’ve been here since 1961,” says Reiner. “That’s a long time to live in a house. Nobody lives in houses that long. They come and go.”
When the iBooks version of “I Remember Me” is released on March 6, readers will get to see and hear Reiner and friends through embedded audio and video. Reiner searched his home for the right mix of artifacts to include. There are photos of him dancing on Broadway and a home movie of Mel Brooks strolling the beach on Fire Island. Reiner says the iBooks layout is an improvement over standard printed memoirs. “It was revelatory,” he says. “It’s a whole new different world to me. We used to know about bookstores. Now there’s none left.”
He recently acquired an
iPad, which he is learning to use. “It’s great because if he wakes up at 3 in the morning and has a tweet, he can just get it right out,” says George Shapiro, who is Reiner’s nephew and manager. “Which he’s done. I think he’s the oldest living tweeter.”
Reiner says he has always been an early adopter. “I’m excited about new things,” he says. “I don’t understand certain things. I don’t understand music that happens today. We used to have music that had lyrics you could understand and [wasn’t] totally repetitive. I love Taylor Swift because she sings songs. And Adele. I love Adele.”
With praise, Reiner is lavish. When theater director Stuart Ross pops in to return some DVD screeners and borrow a couple others, Reiner calls him “one of the best directors ever.” Robert Clary, best known as Corporal LeBeau on “Hogan’s Heroes,” calls to say how much he enjoyed the book, prompting Reiner to tell a visitor Clary’s story of surviving a concentration camp as a child. He extolls Clary’s artistry, too, using a Clary painting on the wall as evidence. Reiner likes to put people and their work in the spotlight.
“The happiest I am is if I can tell somebody to go see a particular movie,” he says, naming Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary “Searching for Sugarman” as his current rave. “And my biggest success I’ve ever had is things I’ve done for free, which is emceeing events. I can get onstage and just say the truth. Say what people are thinking and they laugh. Whatever’s on my mind is on their mind, too. I get the greatest pleasure out of saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here she is.’ Whoever it is, if they’re entertained by somebody I just introduced, I’m in the afterglow. And I realized I’m a master master of ceremonies.”
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Reiner turns the spotlight on his interlocutor. There is a particular bit of advice he is eager to pass on. “Can I look at your wallet?” he asks. The wallet, handed over somewhat reluctantly, provokes an immediate reaction from Shapiro, who was an executive producer of “Seinfeld.” “That’s a George Costanza wallet!” Shapiro says.
It’s true. The leather is straining to contain old receipts, rewards cards, business cards, medical cards, a bank card, a small amount of cash. Reiner appears amazed. “Look at this that he’s got in here!” he says. “And you’ve got your money in here. That’s so stupid!”
He counsels a very specific corrective: Swap the wallet for two rubber bands, one for cash, the other for only the cards needed on a regular basis. “I want you to call me and tell me if you’ve done it,” he says, “and have your wife — I want her opinion on how I’ve changed your life for the better.”
And this is the thing about Reiner. For all of the stories he can tell about cultural heavyweights like Jack Benny, Cary Grant, Sid Caesar, Shelley Winters — any number of entertainers or politicians with whom he has crossed paths — in the end, celebrity doesn’t seem to hold much weight for him. He made a point of including a lot of non-show-biz stories in “I Remember Me.” Much of the memoir is devoted to his family.
“That’s more important than show business,” Reiner says. “That’s where your life is. Show business is only 8 to 12. And the rest is your family. You’re only doing it so you can have a family and a house. Without a wife and children, show business means nothing. You’re doing it to make a living, but enjoying doing it and getting paid for something you love to do.”
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino