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“The nicest man in show business”: Random remembrances of Carl Reiner

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When Carl Reiner died this week at the age of 98, he left behind a comedic legacy as one of the all-time greats. But that greatness extended well beyond his work. Reiner was truly one of the nicest guys in show business, going above and beyond not just to make people laugh but to make them feel valued. Of the many people I’ve interviewed for The A.V. Club, I’ve spoken to several who worked with Reiner in various capacities—when I heard the news of his death, I decided to delve into the archives to pull out their recollections of working with him. I also had the good fortune to speak with Reiner myself a few years ago, and although it wasn’t for The A.V. Club, I managed to tie it back to an interview that I did do for the site, as you’ll see below.

Mel Brooks

“I want you to know I’m completely unprepared. But that’s the way I always am! It’s better. It’s so much better, I find. You know, the first two records that Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks made [as] The 2,000 Year Old Man, we weren’t in business yet. We were kind of still entertaining ourselves and some friends. Like, we’d go to a dinner party with friends, and they’d say, ‘Do The 2,000 Year Old Man!’ So I never knew what Carl would ask me, and it always turned out to be somewhat more insane and funnier that way.


“The first two albums we did, 2,000 Years and 2,001 Years, were just off-the-cuff. Ad-libbed. After that, we made a third one, which I think was called At The Cannes Film Festival, and we had to have subjects, at least. Not jokes. We never wrote jokes. But we wrote subjects. Who would the characters be, and where were the settings and stuff, so I’d get an idea. Quite often, it was better if he said like, ‘I’m here in the studio of the famous Greek sculptor, Andreas Vutcenis,’ or whatever! And then we would talk for a while, and then we’d either get lucky or not lucky.

“Quite often, we’d get lucky. Like, if he said, ‘That’s beautiful! Why did you create it, and why do you display it in such a strange place as above your doorway?’ I’d say, [In the voice of The 2,000 Year Old Man] ‘Well, that’s not really one of my sculptures. I didn’t really make it. Somebody brought it in and put it there. It’s called the air conditioner.’ So we’d get lucky just being foolish and ad-libbing. That’s why I wanted you to know I’m totally unprepared: depending on what you ask, you might get an answer in a Jewish accent.


“I still see Carl two, three times a week. We entertain each other. I remember once about—oh, I don’t know, was it a year ago or so? He took a band off a cigar that he’d been given—he doesn’t smoke anymore—and it was so beautiful, the cigar band, that he put it on his finger and was admiring it. And I said, ‘Where’d you get that ring? It’s a beautiful ring.’ He said, ‘No, it’s just a cigar band.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? They wouldn’t take the time and trouble. Look at all the work that went into that! That’s not a cigar band. That’s a ring, man!’ And, you know, we’d go back and forth with that. Once in a while, we crack up and fall on the floor. Just two Jews in a room, no audience.”

Lily Tomlin
All Of Me (1984)—“Edwina Cutwater”

“That role I got because of Carl [Reiner]. I don’t know if they asked someone before me. Sometimes I do actually ask people, ‘Was I your first choice?’ That way I can see who they were looking for before and how I match up to that. It doesn’t matter to me; it just gives me an indication of their sensibility.

“I absolutely loved All Of Me. Carl’s great. I mean, can you believe him? Even now. He’s incredible. He’s in his nineties now, but he’s just amazing. The best part about that whole foursome [of Carl and Estelle Reiner and Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft] was that Estelle would go and sing in local clubs and stuff. And if you’d go early—and a couple of times I just happened to get there earlier—Mel and Anne were always there. They were always going to be in the audience. And there’s Carl, running cable for Estelle and hooking up speakers.”

Mark Harmon
Summer School (1987)—“Freddy Shoop”

“People wanted a teacher like Freddy Shoop. Heck, I wanted a teacher like Freddy Shoop! I give all that credit, every bit of it, to Carl Reiner. He was so special, and it was so much about his opinion. I had an agreement with him going into that movie. He was the one who grabbed me and said, ‘I want you to do this role. You, specifically.’ And it’s funny: He made that decision based on an interview he saw me doing on The Today Show with Bryant Gumbel when I was promoting The Deliberate Stranger.


“The backstory is that Bryant was a cub sports reporter at NBC when I was playing football at UCLA, and on Thursday afternoon, when everybody was heading off the practice field and looking to take a shower, Bryant was sitting there trying to find an interview with anybody, and I usually sat and talked to him. So I knew him from that, and the interview that we did on The Today Show, as I recall, was kind of fun. It was about rehashing stuff and was much lighter than some of the stuff that he normally did there. And Carl saw it, and then from that, it was Carl’s confidence that convinced me that this was the right choice at the time. But that movie…

“You know, whatever it represents to whoever, whether it’s the people who liked it or the people who hated it, I just think that, for me, the experience to share a set with Carl Reiner and get to know him. That’s what I’ll remember from that. That’s not unlike the time with Karl Malden or Michael Caine or some of the others I’ve had the chance to meet and work with and gain from just because of who they are as people.


“A couple of years ago, they called and were going to reissue Summer School on DVD as a special edition after 20 years or whatever. They said, ‘We’d like you to do a commentary with Carl.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? A chance, now that I’m older and wiser, to get to sit down with Carl Reiner and just tell him personally what he means to me? Yeah. Sign me up. Count me in!’ So, yeah, that’s what I’ll take from that experience.”

Scott Bakula
Sibling Rivalry (1990)—“Harry Turner”

“Carl Reiner came to my trailer when I was shooting Quantum Leap and asked me if I wanted to be in this movie with Kirstie [Alley], and I jumped at the chance. And that was [a] wild, eclectic group of actors: Carrie Fisher, Frances Sternhagen, Bill Pullman—people forget that he was in that movie—and, of course, Kirstie. There were lots and lots of people. But getting to work with Carl Reiner, I can’t even… It’s kind of indescribable.


“If you were to ask me, ‘Who do you want to work with in the business?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know,’ because there’s so many people that I want to work with. But to have had that experience and time with Carl… I mean, he’s so funny, he’s so kind, and he was so organized and civilized. We wrapped at five o’clock, he went home to have dinner with his wife, and that was the way the work day went, you know? There wasn’t anything like, ‘Oh, we’re waiting for the perfect light.’ It was, ‘Okay, it’s five, we’re done.’ Friday afternoon, there’d be a band on stage, and they’d have sushi and Coronas out, so that as people were wrapping up they could finish the week with food and a beer. It was just great.”

George Segal
Where’s Poppa? (1970)—“Gordon Hocheiser”

“You know, that was Carl Reiner, and he was at the top of his form. I had idolized him during Your Show Of Shows, so the idea that this guy from Your Show Of Shows was going to be directing this movie blew me away. I’ve had these experiences a couple of times of being awed by the people I’m working with. And, of course, Carl being such a humanist, you get by that immediately and get into his orbit and realize you’ve got nothing to worry about.”


Garrett Morris
Where’s Poppa? (1970)—“Garrett”

“[I]n that movie he has one of the funniest images ever in show business, I think, where—without a word, with just a split second of looking—you’ve got the real import of racism. He has Ron Leibman dressed in a gorilla outfit hailing a cab, but right before him is a Black [woman] hailing a cab… and the cab driver passes the Black [woman] and stops for the gorilla!”


Jami Gertz
Sibling Rivalry (1990)—“Jeanine”

“I have a particular picture of Carl and I together, where he’s showing me how to slurp spaghetti seductively. And I’m kind of looking up at him, and he has this long piece of spaghetti hanging out of his mouth, showing me how to slurp it seductively. So it was really a lovely opportunity to be around funny people and recognize how they were doing it. It just seemed so effortless for them.”


 David Warner 
The Man With Two Brains (1983)—“Dr. Alfred Necessiter”

“I remember phoning [Reiner] up and saying, ‘Oh, Carl… Mr. Reiner, thank you so much for casting me in this part.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s all right. You were the cheapest!’”


Christopher McDonald
Fatal Instinct (1994)—“Frank Kelbo”

“I’ve really only done two spoofs—the other one is Superhero Movie—but the first of them was [Fatal Instinct], working with Carl Reiner. It was originally called Triple Indemnity, which I thought was a really funny title. […] The movie didn’t really resonate, but it was a really fun movie to do, and I still see and talk to Carl Reiner. He’s the nicest man in show business. He’s just nothing but great.


“And the reason I got the part… this is very funny. I go into audition, there’s 10 or so other guys in the movie, and I thought I went pretty well. But as I was leaving, I asked, ‘Is there any other way you want me to do? I can play this guy any kind of way.’ And to prove it, I grabbed my crotch. And Carl started laughing so hard. He goes, ‘That guy’s funny.’ So that’s what he told me afterward. I thought, ‘Oh, god, that’s great.’”

Sherilyn Fenn
Fatal Instinct (1994)—“Sandy”

“You know, those Airplane! type of movies, they’ve never been my cup of tea. But it was fun making it, and Carl [Reiner] is amazing, obviously, and a legend. Kind and good and funny. He actually said to me, ‘What role do you want to play?’ I said, ‘I want to play the girl Friday.’ He said, ‘Oh, you don’t want to play the vixen?’ I said, ‘No. I want to play the girl Friday.’ He said, ‘Okay!’”


John DiMaggio
Father Of The Pride (2004)—“The Snout Brothers”/“Rabbits Gary and Lamont”/“Tom the Antelope”

“That show was supposed to be so much bigger than it was, but it didn’t hit. Talk about a cast. It was ridiculous. Carl Reiner? I got to be in the studio with him for a little bit. That was the coolest thing ever. It’s, like, with this gig, you get to be in the room with the people that just blow you away. You’re like, ‘Is this really happening?’ Carl fucking Reiner, man.”

In June 2017, I was able to check an item off my bucket list when I interviewed Reiner for Vanity Fair in conjunction with the release of his documentary about still-active nonagenarians, its title derived from a remark he’d made in regards to one of his morning rituals: If You’re Not In The Obit, Eat Breakfast. 

During the course of the conversation, I couldn’t resist asking Reiner about the anecdote his buddy Mel had told me during our earlier interview, and he immediately laughed at the memory of the cigar-band ring, after which he promptly offered his side of the scene Brooks had described.


“Yeah, we call that a ‘really?’” said Reiner. “We’ve done a lot of those. And the funny thing is, we did it with no one else in the room. We did it for ourselves! I took the cigar band and I handed it to him, and I said, ‘Doesn’t that look like a real ring?’ And he held it up and showed it to me. And I said, ‘What’d you do?’ He said, ‘What’d I do?’ ‘Did you take off your real gold band? What are you holding?’ ‘I’m holding the paper you gave me.’ ‘No! Give it back to me.’ He gave it back to me. I said, ‘Oh, my God, it is the paper!’ We did about a dozen variations on that. We see each other almost every night. We watch movies and comment on the world every night… and now we have Trump to work with!”

He continued to work on his Trump material until the day he died, posting these tweets that very day. No, they weren’t particularly funny, but then again, neither is Trump. Still, you’ve got to hand it to the guy: as a writer, Carl Reiner was a creative force of nature, and he kept creating to the bitter end.


And he was also a man of his word: During our interview, I mentioned that I had my cherished copy of his book My Anecdotal Life at arm’s length, and he immediately replied, “Oh, you’ll have to give my secretary your address, because My Anecdotal Life was only the beginning.”

Thanks, Carl. For everything.