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Carl Reiner, multifaceted master of comedy, is dead at 98

NEW YORK — Carl Reiner, who as performer, writer, and director earned a place in comedy history several times over, died Monday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 98.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Annie Reiner.

Carl Reiner first attracted national attention in 1950 as Sid Caesar’s multitalented second banana on the television variety show “Your Show of Shows,” for which he was also a writer. A decade later he created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” one of the most celebrated situation comedies in television history, and teamed with Mel Brooks on the hugely successful “2000 Year Old Man” records. His novel “Enter Laughing” became both a hit Broadway play and the first of many movies he would direct; among the others were four of Steve Martin’s early starring vehicles.

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He won praise as an actor as well, with memorable roles in films “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” and, more recently, “Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels. But he spent most of his career just slightly out of the spotlight, letting others get the laughs.

His contributions were recognized by his peers, by comedy aficionados and, in 2000, by the Kennedy Center, which awarded him the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He was the third recipient, after Richard Pryor and Jonathan Winters.

In his performances with Brooks and before that with Caesar, Mr. Reiner specialized in portraying the voice of sanity, a calm presence in a chaotic universe. But despite his claim to the contrary, he was never “just the straight man.”

“He was a comedian himself, and he truly understood and still understands comedy,” Caesar said of Mr. Reiner in his book “Caesar’s Hours” (2003), written with Eddy Friedfeld. “Most people still don’t realize the importance of a straight man in comedy, or how difficult that role is. Carl had to make his timing my timing.”

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Mr. Reiner was, Caesar added, “the best straight man I’ve ever worked with.”

As part of a stellar supporting cast that also included Imogene Coca and Howard Morris, Mr. Reiner proved his versatility week after week on “Your Show of Shows,” which ran from 1950-54 on NBC and established the template for sketch comedy on television. He played everything from a harried commuter to a frenzied rock ’n’ roller to an unctuous quiz-show host. But he is probably best remembered as an interviewer, solemnly posing questions to a mad professor, a spaced-out jazz musician, or some other over-the-top character played by Caesar, and adding to the humor simply by being serious.

Mr. Reiner contributed behind the scenes as well. He took part in the frenzied writing sessions that shaped the show, bouncing jokes off the walls of the writers’ room with the likes of Brooks and Neil Simon.

“I became a writer because of that room,” he recalled. “I’d say something, and somebody would yell: ‘What do you know? You’re not a writer.’ So I became a writer.”

He characterized his later career moves with similar self-effacing humor in an NPR interview: “I acted like a director. I acted like a producer. I sat in front of a typewriter and acted like a novelist.”

After his work with Caesar, Mr. Reiner’s next career phase found him again in the role of deadpan interviewer. This time the interviewee was Brooks.

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“The 2000 Year Old Man” began as an act Mr. Reiner and Brooks performed for friends at parties. When they put it on record, it became a phenomenon. There were ultimately five “2000 Year Old Man” albums, one of which won a Grammy, and all of which are treasured by comedians and comedy fans.

Brooks was the star of the largely improvised routines, reflecting on what it was like to be two millenniums old (none of his thousands of children ever visited) and reminiscing about historical figures such as Sigmund Freud (“He was a good basketball player; very few people know that”) and Shakespeare (“He had the worst penmanship I ever saw in my life”). But it was Mr. Reiner who came up with the questions that lit Brooks’ comedic fuse.

In 1960, the same year he and Brooks made their first album, Mr. Reiner wrote and starred in a pilot for a TV series, based on his own life, about a writer who works in New York for a larger-than-life, difficult-to-please comedian.

The show, “Head of the Family,” was not picked up. It became a series only when it was recast with Dick Van Dyke as the central character.

The workplace scenes in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — featuring Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie as Van Dyke’s fellow writers, with Mr. Reiner making occasional appearances as their boss, Alan Brady — were inspired by Mr. Reiner’s time with Caesar (although Mr. Reiner insisted that his character was only partly based on Caesar). The domestic scenes, with Mary Tyler Moore as Van Dyke’s wife, were set in New Rochelle, N.Y., where Mr. Reiner lived at the time, and Moore’s character was modeled on his wife, Estelle. Mr. Reiner later attributed the show’s success to the choice of “somebody with more talent to play me.”

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Seen on CBS from 1961-66, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” won a total of 15 Primetime Emmy Awards for its cast and crew, five of them for Mr. Reiner as writer and producer. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. “Kind, gentle, compassionate, empathetic and wise. His scripts were never just funny, they always had something to say about us,” Van Dyke said, via Twitter, on Tuesday.

Mr. Reiner would win nine Emmys in his all, including two for his on-camera work on “Caesar’s Hour”; one as a writer on a 1967 special that reunited the “Show of Shows” cast; and one for a guest appearance, as Alan Brady, on an episode of “Mad About You” in 1995.)

Someone else once again played Mr. Reiner, or a character very much like him, on Broadway and in the movies. “Enter Laughing,” his autobiographical novel about a stage-struck delivery boy from the Bronx who decides to become an actor, was published in 1958 and adapted for the stage by Joseph Stein, another former member of the Caesar staff. With Alan Arkin in the lead role, it opened in 1963 and ran for more than 400 performances.

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When “Enter Laughing” was sold to Hollywood, Mr. Reiner shared screenwriting credit with Stein for the 1967 film adaptation, starring Reni Santoni. It was Mr. Reiner’s third produced screenplay, after “The Thrill of It All” (1963) and “The Art of Love” (1965). More important, it was the first film he directed.

That same year he made his Broadway debut as a writer and director with “Something Different,” the story of a playwright suffering from writer’s block. It received generally good reviews (Walter Kerr of The New York Times praised Mr. Reiner’s “nifty habit of approaching a gag at high speed, passing it on the outside, and then noticing where it went in the rearview mirror”) and had a respectable three-month run. By that time, however, Mr. Reiner’s focus had shifted westward.

He and his family moved to Beverly Hills in the late 1960s, and he would continue to show up on screen occasionally. But for the next three decades, most of his work in Hollywood was done behind the scenes.

Carl Reiner was born in the Bronx on March 20, 1922, to Irving Reiner, a watchmaker, and Bessie (Mathias) Reiner. After high school, he went to work as a machinist’s helper and seemed headed for a career repairing sewing machines.

One day his older brother, Charlie, mentioned seeing a newspaper article about a free acting class being given by the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal jobs agency. Carl tried his hand at acting, found he was good at it, hung up his machinist’s apron, and joined a theater troupe.

During World War II, he served in an Army entertainment unit that toured bases in the South Pacific. After his discharge he joined the road company of the musical revue “Call Me Mister” as the comic lead, and within a year he was in the Broadway production.

He married Estelle Lebost in 1943. She died in 2008.

In addition to his daughter, an author and psychoanalyst, he leaves his sons, Rob, known for directing “When Harry Met Sally,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” and numerous other films and for his role as Archie Bunker’s son-in-law on the groundbreaking sitcom “All in the Family,” and Lucas, a painter and filmmaker; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Reiner’s first major box-office success as a director was “Oh, God!” (1977), starring George Burns as a very down-to-earth deity and John Denver as the man he chooses to spread his message. Two years later he teamed with Steve Martin for what proved to be a mutually rewarding collaboration.

Mr. Reiner first directed Martin in “The Jerk” (1979), a film largely inspired by Martin’s manic stand-up act. The critical response was lukewarm, but the movie was a box-office smash and now often shows up on lists of the best American comedies.

“The Jerk,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982), “The Man With Two Brains” (1983), and “All of Me” (1984) defined Martin’s on-screen persona as a lovable goofball and made him a movie star. They also established Mr. Reiner as an imaginative director — especially “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” a black-and-white spoof of film noir set in the 1940s, in which he integrated vintage movie clips.

Mr. Reiner returned to Broadway twice after moving west, but neither visit was triumphant. In 1972 he directed “Tough to Get Help,” a comedy that was savaged by the critics and closed after one performance. In 1980, he staged “The Roast,” by Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall, two writers he had worked with on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” That play, about a group of comedians who expose their darker instincts when they gather to roast a colleague, ran for less than a week.

The movies he directed after he stopped working with Martin — among them “Summer Rental” (1985), with John Candy, and “Sibling Rivalry” (1990), with Kirstie Alley and Bill Pullman — did only somewhat better. In his 70s, he decided that filmmaking demanded “just too much energy.”

But he remained active in front of the camera, notably as a crook lured out of retirement by the prospect of sharing in the loot from a Las Vegas casino robbery in Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of the Frank Sinatra caper film “Ocean’s Eleven.” He reprised the role in “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Ocean’s Thirteen.’’

On television he had recurring roles on the sitcoms “Hot in Cleveland” and “Two and a Half Men” and guest-starred on “Parks and Recreation,” “House,” and other series. He also did voice-over work for several cartoon shows.

In 2017, he was prominently featured in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” a documentary about people who remained active into their 90s. And in his last years he maintained an active Twitter account, which he used primarily for political commentary.

A photo showing Mr. Reiner, Brooks and Annie Reiner wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts was posted on Twitter this week.

Toward the end of his memoir “I Remember Me,” Mr. Reiner said a friend of his had recently asked if he had thought about retiring. Noting that his role on “Hot in Cleveland” gave him “the opportunity to kiss Betty White — thrice — and on the lips,” he offered a succinct response:

“Retire? I may be old, but I am not crazy!”