Reiner’s assistant, Judy Nagy, confirmed his death. She said he died of natural causes on Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills. Reiner’s son, the actor and filmmaker Rob Reiner, posted on Twitter: “Last night my dad passed away. As I write this my heart is hurting. He was my guiding light.”
Reiner was a comedy stalwart for nearly seven decades, a ceaseless worker who got his start on Fifties variety shows and was still providing high quality entrainment as the voice of “Carl Reineroceros” in last year’s Toy Story 4. Although it’s impossible to single out the thing Reiner is “most famous” for, several potential options include: creating, writing, directing and co-starring in The Dick Van Dyke Show; directing classic comedies like Oh, God! and The Jerk; and forming the long-running sketch duo, “2000 Year Old Man,” with Mel Brooks.
Over the course of his career, Reiner won nine Primetime Emmy Awards, most for his work on The Dick Van Dyke Show. He and Brooks also won Best Comedy Album at the 1998 Grammys for The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000.
Reiner’s death elicited an outpouring of grief and remembrances from fans, peers and the myriad comedians he influenced. “Goodbye to my greatest mentor in movies and in life,” wrote Steve Martin, whom Reiner directed in four movies.
Sarah Silverman tweeted: “Not only did he make my favorite TV & movies (see: Where’s Poppa) but his humanity was beyond compare. His heart was so full of love. Never left his house empty handed — book, space pen, Swiss Army knife. RIP to a man that embodies the word mensch.”
In a statement shared with Variety, George Clooney, who worked with Reiner on Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13, said, “Carl Reiner made every room he walked into funnier, smarter, kinder. It all seemed so effortless. What an incredible gift he gave us all. His was a life well lived and we’re all the better for it. Rest in peace my friend.”
Reiner was born in 1922 in New York City and gained early experience as a performer in summer stock shows and working the resort circuit in the Catskills in upstate New York known as the Borscht Belt. He further honed his craft in, of all places, the U.S. Army, spending much of his time there during the tail end of World War II performing for troops in the Pacific as part of the Special Services.
After returning to New York in the late Forties, Reiner continued to act, securing jobs on Broadway and small TV shows. His first break came in 1950, when he joined Sid Caesar’s hit variety show Your Show of Shows as a writer and actor. He continued to work with Caesar on the comedian’s follow-up program, Caesar’s Hour, ultimately winning a pair of back-to-back Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in 1957 and 1958.
While working on Your Show of Shows, Reiner and Brooks met and began to craft one of the most famous comedy routines of all time, “2000 Year Old Man,” in which Reiner played a straight-man TV interviewer speaking with an outrageous and incredibly old man played by Brooks. In a 2009 interview with The New York Times, the pair said the bit began as a way to break-up lulls in the Show of Shows writers room, with Reiner throwing out random questions to Brooks. They expanded it for close friends, but were wary of bringing it to a wider audience because they were unsure of how the thick Eastern European Jewish accent Brooks used would be received. Ultimately, Steve Allen convinced them to record the sketch, and in 1960, they released the 2000 Year Old Man LP. Four more albums would follow, the last arriving in 1998, while an animated comedy special was released in 1975.
During that Times interview, Reiner claimed Cary Grant asked him for a dozen of copies of 2000 Year Old Man to take to England: “I said: ‘Why do you need 12 of them? You’re going to play it in London?’” Reiner recalled. “‘Yes, they speak English there,’ [Grant replied]. He came back. He said, ‘She loved it.’ Who? ‘The Queen Mother.’ ‘You took it to Buckingham Palace?’ ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well there’s the biggest shiksa in the world, we must be all right.’”
At the start of the Sixties, Reiner was also working on another new project, rooted in his time at Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour: It was a workplace/family sitcom, centered around Rob Petrie, the head writer of a comedy variety show. A pilot for Head of the Family was filmed in 1960, but failed to go anywhere; Reiner then set about reworking and re-casting the project, with Dick Van Dyke as the lead.
The Dick Van Dyke Show would become a ratings smash for CBS, running for five celebrated seasons. Along with writing and producing the show, Reiner took on a recurring role for himself as Alan Brady, the host of the variety show Van Dyke’s Rob works for. In a 1988 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Reiner explained why he took the part, saying, “I was looking for a major star. And I knew I couldn’t get a major star… and [give] him so many small scenes to do. So I said, I’ve got to find somebody who they would think was a star. And then I cast mysel — well, I was a second banana, but I was close to being a star.”
Amid the success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Reiner began picking up small roles in films like The Thrill of It All and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. After The Dick Van Dyke Show wrapped in 1966, Reiner threw himself into Hollywood: That same year he starred in Norman Jewison’s comedy, The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming, and made his directorial debut with Enter Laughing, an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel he’d published in 1958 (before hitting the big screen, Enter Laughing was adapted as a Broadway play in 1963).
Success in Hollywood, however, didn’t come immediately. Reiner’s 1970 film Where’s Poppa? failed to make a box office dent, and while it eventually became a cult favorite, Reiner didn’t direct another movie until 1977. The one he made that year, however, Oh, God! was an undeniable smash, with John Denver playing a supermarket manager who’s enlisted by God — played by George Burns — to spread His message.
Two years later, Reiner teamed with Steve Martin for the first time on The Jerk, the wildly successful comedy that helped launch Martin’s film career. Reiner and Martin would work together on three more films over the next five years: 1982’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, 1983’s The Man with Two Brains and 1984’s All of Me.
“Steve Martin is a genius, no question about him,” Reiner recalled during a 2014 interview with Tom Green. “I did four pictures with him and each one was a joy… He wrote a biography, it’s called Born Standing Up, it’s one of the best written books you’ll ever see. He also writes about art, he is so knowledgable about art. The fact that he plays a banjo — I forgive him. I forgive him that. But he does pluck really well at the banjo. He’s one of the most creative people I know.”
Following his run with Martin, Reiner continued to direct films through the Eighties and Nineties, with his last one, That Old Feeling, arriving in 1997. But while he ultimately stepped away from filmmaking, he never stopped acting and started picking up more voice over work. In 2001, he was introduced to yet another new generation with a memorable role in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 (he’d reprise it in the two sequels as well). He was also a go-to guest actor on an array of television shows like King of the Hill, The Bernie Mac Show, Ally McBeal, House, Parks and Recreation, Bob’s Burgers, and Family Guy.
Reiner was a prolific writer throughout his career as well, publishing a mix of novels, children’s books and memoirs (between 2012 and 2015 he released trio of autobiographies with the increasingly ridiculous titles: I Remember Me, I Just Remembered and What I Forgot to Remember). Into his Eighties and Nineties, he was also a happy adopter of new technology, even joking on a 2014 episode of Conan that he’d come up with a new take on the “selfie” called a ”selfishie,” in which one person hogs the camera frame in a group photo. Fiercely political, too, Reiner regularly turned to Twitter in recent years to voice his thoughts on President Donald Trump, while just a few days ago a picture emerged of Reiner, his daughter Annie and Mel Brooks all wearing Black Lives Matter shirts.
In a 2016 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Reiner reflected on the breadth of his career and explained — with some quintessential zen wit — how he’s never allowed himself to get bogged down in criticism. “I love what I do because I don’t let it get out there unless I’m proud of it,” he said. “So everything that people comment and say they like, I agree with them. And the things that I did that sucked, I agree with them, too. But I didn’t do so many things that I’m not proud of.”