Comedic genius Carl Reiner, whose adolescent dreams of being an actor paved the way for a legendary, seven-decade-long career in television, film, books and Broadway died Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 98.
The Bronx-born Reiner’s storied career as a actor, writer and director — which started before World War II — led to classic skits such as the “2000-Year-Old-Man,” films such as “The Jerk” and TV comedies such as “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Born on March 20, 1922, to Jewish immigrants from Austria and Romania, Reiner graduated from high school early at the age of 16.
As a 17-year-old machinist’s helper at a small Manhattan hat-making shop, the budding funny-man broke into the acting world thanks to his older brother Charlie who spotted a notice in a newspaper about free drama classes sponsored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in the borough.
“Why don’t you go down to the WPA dramatic school?” Reiner, who graduated from the former Evander Childs High School in Williamsbridge at age 16, recalled his brother asking him during a 1968 interview with The Post.
After several months of training, Reiner moved on to the old Gilmore Theater near Central Park where he got an acting job, negotiating a $1-a-week salary. From there, he landed a role in a touring Shakespeare theater company where he was paid $30 a week.
Don Knotts (left), Carl Reiner, and Peter Falk, hold their awards at the 1962 Emmy Awards.Bettmann Archive
In his 2003 autobiography, “My Anecdotal Life,” Reiner said he considered the gig “to be my first well-paying, professional job in the theater.”
Soon, Reiner was regaling summer crowds at resorts in the Catskills. It was there he met the late Estelle Lebost, who had been working as a set designer and would go on to become Reiner’s beloved wife of 65 years.
They had three children together — actor-director Rob Reiner, artist Lucas Reiner and author Annie Reiner.
Estelle, who in her 60s became a cabaret singer and actress, delivered the famed punchline “I’ll have what she’s having” in the Rob Reiner-directed 1987 romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally.”
Reiner and Estelle married in December 1943, shortly after Reiner was drafted into the Army. His experience serving his country was documented in the 2018 PBS documentary “GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II.”
“I was sleeping on an upper bed when I heard a voice from the other side of the room,” Reiner told The Post at the time, slipping into a thick Southern accent. “ ‘Reiner? Are you a Jewwww?’ I said, ‘Yes, why do you ask?’ He says, ‘Do you know a man named Goldfarb?’ I said, ‘No, where is he from?’ He says, ‘He’s from Shreveport. He owns a grocery store. He ain’t a bad guy. You don’t know him?’ He figured all Jews knew each other.”
“That was also the first time I encountered racism,” Reiner said. “We were taking a signal battalion course and there was a black battalion — they didn’t have their own barracks so they were upstairs in our barracks, but we used the same toilet. One day I was peeing next to one of the black soldiers and when I got back to my foot locker, the guy next to me said, ‘You know who you were talking to? You notice he’s a [N-word]? You think a [N-word] can be smarter than a white man?’ I said, ‘Well, offhand, what about [actor] Paul Robeson?’ who spoke several languages, including Russian. He’d never heard of him. ‘I speak American,’ he said.”
“GI Jews” also explored how Jewish American soldiers felt fighting fascism while liberating loved ones still living in Europe.
“We knew how important it was for us to be there,” Reiner told The Post.
Once out of the Army and back into civilian life, Reiner got serious about acting, taking a leading role in the musical revue “Call Me Mister” in 1947. The show made its way to Broadway.
The prolific comedian, actor, screenwriter and director’s career eventually spanned more than seven decades and myriad genres. He scored his big break at 28 in the groundbreaking live television classic “Your Show of Shows.” He co-wrote and acted on that Sid Caesar vehicle from 1950 to 1957 before segueing into an onscreen role as TV variety show host Alan Brady in his best-known project: “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which ran from 1961 to 1966.
Carl Reiner and Rob Reiner at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival.FilmMagic
Reiner was also one-half of an iconic sketch comedy duo with Mel Brooks and appeared in classic feature films such as 1963’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World” and 1966’s “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” and 2019’s “Toy Story 4.”
After decades of small-screen success he expanded into big screen work. Directing Steve Martin in the 1979 film “The Jerk,” the 1982 flick “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” “The Man with Two Brains” in 1983, and the 1984 movie “All of Me,” and co-starring as con artist Saul Bloom in the 2001 blockbuster crime-thriller “Ocean’s Eleven,” as well as its sequels, are some of the many highlights of Reiner’s storied career.
Among the many awards Reiner would earn in his storied career are nine Emmys, one Grammy and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He also became an inspiration for generations of comedic talents.
In the foreword of his 2012 memoir, “I Remember Me,” actor and comedian Billy Crystal wrote that Reiner “is not just a funny man who has made us laugh in one form or another for a very long time.”
“He has been comedy’s North Star. A constant. I’ve always looked at his career as one of the best ever and most important,” wrote Crystal who called Reiner “a nice genius” and “one of the great sketch comedians of all time.”
In 2018, Reiner made history when — at 96 — he became the oldest Emmy nominee ever for narrating the HBO documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.”
“Every morning before having breakfast I pick up the newspaper, get the obituary section and see if I’m listed,” Reiner says at the top of the 2017 doc. “If I’m not, I have my breakfast.”
Reiner is survived his three children, his six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. His wife, Estelle, died in 2008.
The legend posted the following poignant tweet on June 27: “Nothing pleases me more than knowing that I have lived the best life possible by having met & marrying the gifted Estelle (Stella) Lebost—who partnered with me in bringing Rob, Annie & Lucas Reiner into to this needy & evolving world.”