Carl Reiner was a man of many talents: A writer and performer on Sid Caesar’s legendary “Your Show of Shows,” Mel Brooks’ sidekick on the party-gag-turned-hit-album “The 2000 Year Old Man,” a gifted emcee, an author, and a director, including multiple collaborations with Steve Martin on films like “The Jerk” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”
His signature achievement, however, remains “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the pioneering comedy series that accounted for many of Reiner’s dozen Emmys, and thanks to reruns, retrospectives and the occasional primetime special, never seems to go away.
The various stories about the show — which premiered in 1961 — have been told through the decades, but Reiner’s death, at the age of 98, is enough reason to celebrate and retell them all over again. How Reiner, for starters, was supposed to star in the series — a pilot was shot — before they opted to cast Van Dyke, with Reiner shifting into the occasional role of his mercurial boss, Alan Brady.
Drawing from Reiner’s experiences with Caesar, Van Dyke played Rob Petrie, the head writer on a Brady’s comedy show. The stories oscillated between Rob’s life at work and at home, finding comedy gold in both venues.
The series also launched the career of Mary Tyler Moore, playing Rob’s wife Laura. As Reiner always told it, he had auditioned numerous actresses — and was beginning to despair about finding the right one — when Moore came in and began reading.
“I made my hand like a claw like in the machines at the carnival that get candy out of the things, and I went across the room, I went to her head, and I grabbed the top of her head and said, ‘Come with me,'” Reiner recalled on Conan O’Brien’s show several years ago. He then walked her down the hall to producer Sheldon Leonard, exclaiming, “I found her!”
More than 150 episodes followed, including a number of memorable classics. Highlights included Rob convincing himself that they had brought the wrong baby home from the hospital, Laura imprudently announcing to the world that Brady wore a toupee, and the couple’s son, Richie, discovering the origins of his unusual middle name, Rosebud.
Reiner has said he consciously avoided topical references in writing the show, one reason it has proved so timeless. In a 2003 interview, he recalled balking at producing a sixth season despite being offered a lot of money to continue. “We knew we had started to repeat ourselves, and when you get to that, it’s time to stop,” he said.
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” might have stopped, but Reiner never did. Citing activity as a key to longevity, he became the oldest Emmy nominee ever in 2018, for the HBO documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” about people remaining vital into their 90s and beyond.
“If you can’t laugh,” Reiner says in the documentary, “life would be pretty empty.”
By that measure, Reiner spent his life making everyone else’s a bit fuller.