The screenwriter, actor and director Carl Reiner, who has died aged 98, was a man of remarkable talent and energy.
He was one of the key figures in US TV comedy during the 1950s and 60s and began his career as a writer and performer on the comedy series Your Show of Shows, which starred Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, before moving on to create The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Reiner insisted that The Dick Van Dyke Show was “hands down” the thing he was most proud of in his career. Not because of its 15 Emmy awards but because it inspired generations of comedy writers. “When I wrote the show,” Reiner said, “I knew the one thing that was absolutely necessary was to not use slang of the day. Because I knew this would have lasting value.”
His work as a writer and director was enhanced by performances from gifted comic actors including Steve Martin, with whom he made four films in five years. The Jerk (1979) had Martin as the adopted white son of poor black sharecroppers, who makes it big as an inventor, only to be sued by a director (played by Reiner) who has become cross-eyed thanks to one of Martin’s inventions. Its daft rags-to-riches-to-rags plot was a great vehicle for Martin’s engagingly absurd, physical style of comedy.
So too was Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), which gave the impression, thanks to the clever technique of inter-cutting film noir excerpts from the 40s, that the private eye played by Martin was interacting with stars including Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck. The terminally silly, but hilarious The Man With Two Brains (1983) had Martin as Dr Hfuhruhurr, who falls in love with some pickled grey matter. In All of Me (1984) Martin delivered a tour-de-force performance as Roger Cobb, half of whose body is taken over by the spirit of a recently deceased, cantankerous millionairess (Lily Tomlin).
As was the case with his colleague and close friend Mel Brooks, Reiner had a facility for anarchic, absurd comedy, laced with New York Jewish humour. He was born in the Bronx, to Jewish immigrants. His mother, Bessie (nee Mathias), was from Romania and his father, Irving, was a watchmaker from Austria. At first, Carl aspired to be a baseball player or opera singer, but, aged 16, while working as a machinist repairing sewing machines, he turned to studying acting at the WPA (Works Progress Administration) Dramatic Workshop.
When the second world war broke out, Reiner was drafted into the army, eventually achieving the rank of corporal. He trained as a French interpreter, and helped entertain the troops for two years, before being honourably discharged in 1946.
The following year, he quickly landed a leading role in the touring musical revue Call Me Mister, then two revues on Broadway, Inside USA (1948) and Alive and Kicking (1950).
Then, Reiner was offered the chance to play straight man to Caesar on Your Show of Shows as well as being part of the writing team that included Brooks, Mel Tolkin and Neil Simon (whose 1993 Broadway play Laughter on the 23rd Floor was inspired by their working methods).
Reiner spent nine years with the programme and its sequel, during which time he also collaborated with Brooks on comic recordings in which Reiner, again as a straight man, interviewed Brooks as the 2000 Year Old Man. (Explaining his longevity, the man says: “The Angel of Death ain’t kissing me! I’m full of garlic!”)
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) was born out of Reiner’s own experience of balancing his work on Your Show of Shows with his suburban home life. Most of the humour of the sitcom came from the merging of the chaotic domestic life of Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), who lives in suburban New Rochelle with his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and a cute son Richie (Larry Mathews), with his job as head writer trying to come up with funny material for Alan Brady (Reiner) on the fictional Alan Brady Show.
“Carl Reiner was a comedy genius,” Van Dyke said. “He didn’t care how silly people got, as long as it was believable, as long as there was a reason. He heard our speech patterns, and could write to it. Nobody ever had to change the line. He had Mary talking like Mary and me talking like myself. He was that good. People believed that Rob and Laura were really married in real life.”
Simultaneously with his acting and writing on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Reiner was appearing as a supporting actor in feature film comedies, gaining top billing in the cold war farce The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! (1966). He played a TV writer convinced that Soviets had invaded the US, starting with his house. He also wrote two fluffy comedy screenplays: The Thrill of It All (1963), starring Doris Day, and The Art of Love (1965), with Van Dyke as a struggling artist in a studio-shot Paris.
These movies, in which he also appeared, prompted him to move behind the camera. In 1967, Reiner made his directorial debut with the aptly titled Enter Laughing, based on a semi-autobiographical novel he had published in the 50s, which had become a Broadway play. Shot on location, on a low budget, in only 32 days, the film was blander than the theatrical production, but was nevertheless a funny, overtly Jewish comedy about the experiences of a struggling young actor.
His second film, The Comic (1969), which starred Van Dyke as a silent film comedian, gradually losing fame and hitting the bottle, revealed a tendency towards a blending of pathos and laughs. Van Dyke said of The Comic: “Very few people saw that movie, but we were proud of it.”
A deft hand at sight gags, Reiner was an ingenious director best suited to broad comedy such as Where’s Poppa? (1970) in which George Segal played the harassed son of a stereotypical Jewish mother, whom he tries to kill. Reiner brought out the best in George Burns (Oh God!, 1977), Henry Winkler (The One and Only, 1978), John Candy (Summer Rental, 1985) and Kirstie Alley (Summer School, 1987), but the most felicitous pairing was with Steve Martin.
Among Reiner’s frequent homages to past styles of entertainment were the musical Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool (1989) and the screwball comedy Sibling Rivalry (1990). Apart from directing, Reiner popped up in a number of films and TV series, most prominently as a veteran conman in Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its sequels.
In 1943 Reiner married Estelle Lebost, who performed as a singer under her married name. She died in 2008. Reiner is survived by their sons, Rob and Lucas, and daughter, Annie, and five grandchildren.
• Carl Reiner, screenwriter, director and actor, born 20 March 1922; died 29 June 2020