The Best Life Possible: Remembering Carl Reiner

Carl Reiner, considered one of the most creative minds in television, was an actor, comedian, director, screenwriter, and publisher with a legendary career that spanned seven decades. Reiner’s credits include some of the most iconic works in entertainment history and he won award after award for his artistic contributions. From his early days in the military to his creation of The Dick Van Dyke Show to his most important personal relationships, here’s a look at the life of the beloved Carl Reiner.

Born In The Bronx

15th September 1955: American actor and comedy writer Carl Reiner with a pencil protruding from one ear.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On March 20, 1922, Carl Reiner entered the world. He was born in the Bronx, New York City, to Jewish immigrants. His father, Irving, was a watchmaker from Austria while mother Bessie (née Mathias) hailed from Romania.

Reiner grew up during the Great Depression and developed an interest in performing and writing after he took a government-funded drama class sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He had an uncle, Harry Mathias, who was the first entertainer in the family.

His Brother Charlie Was A World War II Hero

Carl Charlie
carlreiner/Twitter
carlreiner/Twitter

Carl’s older brother Charlie served in the 9th Division in World War II. In 2018 he tweeted this photo of the two of them together. “My brother Charlie was a true World War II hero. He fought in 11 major battles, including the 1942 Invasion of North Africa,” he wrote.

“How proud I was when, at Arlington Cemetery, his name was engraved on the Niche Wall, and he received a 21 gun salute.” It was Charlie who had told Carl about the WPA’s free drama class, changing his little brother’s life forever.

Carl Reiner’s Military Service

Portrait of American actor, film director and producer holding binoculars, circa 1955.
Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Reiner was drafted into the Army Air Forces in 1943. He served during World War II and eventually reached the rank of corporal. Although he initially trained to be a radio operator, he was instead sent to Georgetown University for ten months of training as a French interpreter due to a bout with pneumonia.

During this period he directed his first play, putting on a Molière play in French. After his language training was over, he was sent to Hawaii to work as a teleprinter operator.

Fate Intervened

Comedian Carl Reiner poses for a portrait in circa 1955.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The night before Carl was scheduled to ship out for an “unknown assignment” in the Pacific, fate intervened. He got the chance to audition for the English actor Major Maurice Evans and a man named Captain Allen Ludden, who were there to entertain the troops. Ludden would later become a famous game show host and the husband of Betty White.

The audition was a success, and Carl was transferred to the entertainment sector. Until he was honorably discharged in 1946, Reiner traveled and entertained troops all around the Pacific theater.

Sid Caesar Was His First Television Boss

A writers' meeting for the NBC comedy sketch programme 'Your Show of Shows
Pictorial Parade/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Pictorial Parade/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Comic actor and writer Sid Caesar was a 1950s television pioneer who was best known for his 90-minute weekly program Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner got his start on TV when he was hired by Caesar as a writer and cast member.

On the sketch show, Reiner was frequently the “straight man,” grounding Caesar’s over-the-top comedy moments. Pictured is a writers’ meeting for the show, with Caesar seated and Reiner second from right.

He Had A Lifelong Friendship With Mel Brooks

Writer/director/actor Mel Brooks (L) and writer Carl Reiner attend the Mel Brooks hand and footprint ceremony
David Livingston/Getty Images
David Livingston/Getty Images

In 1950, Reiner overheard another writer doing a piece about a Jewish pirate while on the set of Your Show of Shows. That was fellow writer Mel Brooks and the two of them would become lifelong friends and artistic partners.

The comedy legends were virtually inseparable over their seven-decade friendship. In February of 2020, the two sat down with The Guardian and Mel said, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a better friend than Carl.” This photo was taken in 2014.

“2000 Year Old Man”

Actors Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner pose for a publicity portrait for their program
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Together, Reiner and Brooks came up with a sketch called The 2000 Year Old Man, in which Brooks pretends to be a 2,000-year-old man being interviewed by Reiner. It was one of their most beloved routines and personal jokes, first performed at private parties and later recorded and released to the public.

Reiner recalled his fondness for the sketch in Vulture. “I would ask Mel to channel the Old Man, and he would oblige by telling us things that made us laugh and, later, our wives, when we came home and repeated ‘what Mel said’ that day.” This photo was taken in 1974.

He Initially Intended To Star In The Dick Van Dyke Show

Actors Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore with writer, producer, director and actor Carl Reiner in rehearsal for The Dick Van Dyke Show
Earl Theisen/Getty Images
Earl Theisen/Getty Images

Carl Reiner’s experience on the Your Show of Shows inspired him to create The Dick Van Dyke Show. He created and produced the series, making periodic appearances as an egomaniacal character called Alan Brady, who was a comedian and the boss of Dick Van Dyke’s character.

Reiner initially intended to star in The Dick Van Dyke Show but decided against it, giving himself the role of Alan Brady instead. Van Dyke’s character was based on Reiner.

Awards Poured In, Including The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize recipient comedian, director and produccer Carl Reiner (L) answers questions with actor Dick Van Dyke
JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP via Getty Images
JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP via Getty Images

During the course of Reiner’s seven-decade-long television and film career, he racked up a ton of distinguished awards. He earned 11 Primetime Emmy Awards and one Grammy for his work on Your Show of Shows, Caesar’s Hour, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as his standup comedy albums with Mel Brooks.

In 2000, Reiner was awarded the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center and honored by some of his friends and fellow comedians. During the ceremony, Jerry Seinfeld quipped, “I think Carl Reiner is funnier than Mark Twain.”

He And His Wife Were Married For 64 Years

Carl Reiner. May 20, 1963.
William N. Jacobellis/New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images
William N. Jacobellis/New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images

Carl Reiner married singer Estelle Lebost on December 24, 1943. At the time, he was 21 and she was 29. They were married for 64 years until her death in 2008. On June 27, 2020, just days before his death, Reiner tweeted this message: “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 … this needy & evolving world.”

This family photo, taken in 1963, shows the Reiners with two of their children, Rob and Annie.

Carl And Estelle’s Children Are Famous

Carl Rob
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Carl and Stella Reiner had three children, all of them successful in their own right. Sylvia Anne Reiner was born in 1949 and is an American author, playwright, singer, and poet. Their youngest child, Lucas, was born in 1960 and is an internationally recognized photographer, painter, and printmaker.

The oldest Reiner child is a household name. Rob Reiner is a prominent actor, comedian, and filmmaker responsible for films like Stand by Me, This Is Spinal Tap, A Few Good Men, The Princess Bride, Misery, and many more. Pictured are Carl and Rob at a 2011 event.

He And Steve Martin Worked Together On Several Films

Steve Martin with pants down stands with director Carl Reiner in a scene from the film 'The Jerk', 1979.
Universal Pictures/Getty Images
Universal Pictures/Getty Images

Carl Reiner played a big part in actor Steve Martin’s early career. He directed the comedian’s first starring role, in 1979’s The Jerk. He also co-wrote and directed Martin in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains, and All of Me.

Reiner made an appearance in The Jerk, playing a cross-eyed “motion-picture director.” Here are Martin and Reiner on the set of The Jerk in 1979.

He Was A Jewish Atheist

Carl Reiner attends the Opening Night Gala of the LA Jewish Film Festival
Amy Graves/WireImage
Amy Graves/WireImage

Carl Reiner was a self-described himself Jewish atheist and said that his faith in God had ended with the Holocaust. He explained this in a 2019 interview with the Forward. “Well, I was born Jewish I will die Jewish. But I’m a confirmed atheist. There’s no power above us,” he said.

“If you think about it, during the Holocaust, six million people were all praying to God to do something. He must have been very busy. Jews do have a moral code that’s fairly good, though.”

Estelle Reiner Had A Very Important Line In When Harry Met Sally…

deli
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

The 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally… was written by Nora Ephron and directed by Carl’s son Rob Reiner. Starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, the film addresses the age-old question of whether men and women can have platonic friendships.

Carl’s wife Estelle voiced the movie’s most famous line. In the “deli scene” when Meg Ryan’s character fakes intense pleasure, a woman addresses the server to order and says “I’ll have what she’s having.” That’s Estelle!

He Spoke Out Against Elia Kazan’s Lifetime Achievement Oscar

This file photo dated 21 March 1999 shows protestors demonstrating against the Lifetime Achievement Award to be presented to US film director Elia Kazan
HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images
HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images

When director Elia Kazan was given a Special Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999, many in attendance opted not to applaud. This is because 50 years earlier he had provided names to a congressional committee during the McCarthy era, and some didn’t feel he deserved forgiveness for the act.

Carl Reiner was one of those who decided not to celebrate the director. “I’m signing the letter that says, let’s be quiet when he gets his award and just sit there,” he said. “I think it’s very sad that this man is being honored and the people he destroyed are never going to have a chance to be honored.” Pictured is a group of people protesting the award.

Reiner Truly Loved Writing And Was A Prolific Author

Comedian/actor/director Carl Reiner sings copies of his book
Beck Starr/WireImage
Beck Starr/WireImage

Aside from his television and film writing, Reiner also authored a number of books. These include Enter Laughing, Continue Laughing, How Paul Robeson Saved My Life and Other Stories, and My Anecdotal Life: A Memoir, among others.

He explained his love of writing to AVClub. “It is a wonderful thing to make something out of nothing. You’ve got an empty page, you’ve got an idea, and then you start typing and that is the most thrilling thing of all. And then if it becomes a movie or something else that’s a plus, but the original writing of it is what’s very exciting.”

He Continued To Act Into Later Years

Hot In Cleveland
TV Land
TV Land

Reiner continued to work into older age. He appeared in the films Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and Ocean’s Thirteen. He could also be found on the small screen, in shows such as House, Two and a Half Men, and Hot in Cleveland.

He credited his father for his drive to work. “The work ethic, I got from him,” Reiner said. “He worked hard and he never complained about it.”

Carl Reiner And Mel Brooks Watched Jeopardy! Together Every Night

Seinfeld
Netflix
Netflix

Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks appeared in a 2012 episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. In it, the two explained their long friendship and how they keep it going.

Fans were especially touched when they talked about their nightly ritual together. Brooks would head over to Reiner’s house for dinner every night, followed by Jeopardy! and some movies. Reiner said that Brooks “falls asleep with his mouth open” at the end of each of these evenings.

He Was Active On Twitter Until His Final Days

Carl Reiner attends the premiere of HBO's 'If You're Not In The Obit, Eat Breakfast'
JB Lacroix/WireImage
JB Lacroix/WireImage

Reiner was one of the oldest stars to regularly use Twitter. He joined the platform in July 2012 in order to keep up with his grandson but soon found his own voice on the site, racking up more than 300,000 followers. He used the site to muse on life and express his political views.

His fans ate up the humorous observations he made, like this one that came just days before his death. “When you were 16 and attending Junior High School 60 in Th Bronx N.Y., did you commit to memory all the stanzas of the, then pop song, ‘I’m Gonna Leave Ole Texas now There’s no more use for The Long Horned Cow?’…No? Well, I did!”

A Legend Who Will Be Missed By So, So Many

Carl Reiner and Rob Reiner
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

On June 29, 2020, Carl Reiner passed away from natural causes at his Beverly Hills home. He was 98 years old and was surrounded by his loving family.

Tributes immediately began pouring in from friends, fans, and colleagues. Reiner’s own son Rob posted this poignant statement that speaks to their close relationship. Last night my dad passed away,” he wrote. “As I write this my heart is hurting. He was my guiding light.”