American Jewish comedy legend Carl Reiner is dead at 98

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Reiner, whose career began before World War II and continued to his last moments, set the standard for the Jewish-inflected humor that reshaped Hollywood and influenced all of American society.

Actor Carl Reiner, June 26, 2012 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Actor Carl Reiner, June 26, 2012

(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Carl Reiner, the legendary Jewish-American comedy producer/writer/director/actor who created The Dick Van Dyke Show, movies such as The Jerk and the comedy skit, “The 2000 Year Old Man,” passed away at his home in Beverly Hills, California on Monday night at the age of 98, according to Variety.

Reiner, whose career began before World War II and continued to his last moments, set the standard for the Jewish-inflected humor that reshaped Hollywood and influenced all of American society. In one way or another, his Jewish identity was always an integral part of his work.

And, as the father of director/actor Rob Reiner, he was the patriarch of a comedic dynasty.

An enthusiastic Twitter user who posted several tweets on his last day on Earth, he regularly weighed in on the issues of the day or anything that piqued his interest.

His passing was mourned by a diverse group of luminaries on Twitter, including Steve Martin, Bette Midler, Natasha Lyonne, Mitzi Gaynor, Mel Brooks’ son Max Brooks,  Dan Rather, Bill Kristol, Josh Gad, Ed Asner, Joy Behar, Alan Alda, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and David Simon.

He was among of a group of elderly celebrities featured in an ad urging Americans to lobby Congress to allow people to vote by mail six weeks ago.

“Although we’re dying to vote, we’d much rather just vote and not die,” he says in the ad.

He appeared just last week on an episode of the web series, Dispatches from Quarantine, where he spoke about his life and career.

Born in the Bronx in 1922, Reiner was already dabbling in acting workshops run by the Works Progress Administration before he was drafted into the US Air Force during World War II. He eventually served in a performing arts troupe in the military.

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After the war, he performed in Broadway shows and became a sketch comedian and writer on two television shows with Sid Caesar, Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour. These programs drew an incredibly talented writing staff, and Reiner worked alongside such up-and-comers as Brooks and Neil Simon. He and Brooks became lifelong friends and sometime collaborators, teaming up for the two-man comedy sketch “The 2000 Year Old Man,” in which Reiner was the straight man to Brooks’ Yiddish-accented oldest living human.

The two started improvising this skit at parties and went on to perform this constantly changing and expanding routine on television and on stage. It was captured in five comedy albums, one of which won a Grammy, and a 1975 animated television special. This routine was always laced with Jewish humor. “I have 1500 children and not one of them ever comes to visit!” Brooks lamented frequently. When Reiner asked him for the first book he ever read, Brooks answered in Yiddish, then translated the title to “See Moses Run.” American audiences lapped it all up, including the Yiddishisms.

In 1961, Reiner created the hugely successful and influential series, The Dick Van Dyke Show, which focused on a comedy writer, his co-workers and his family (his wife was played by Mary Tyler Moore in her breakthrough performance), which is considered by many to be the greatest sitcom of all time. The show featured a Jewish character, Buddy Sorrell, played by Morey Amsterdam, who was one of the writers on the show-within-a-show, and he cracked many Yiddish and Jewish jokes.

The Jewish side of the show culminated in a remarkable 1966 episode, “Buddy Sorrell, Man and Boy,” in which Buddy is sneaking around and Van Dyke thinks he is cheating on his wife, but it turns out he is meeting a rabbi to study for his bar mitzvah. He dons a black kippah to study his parsha with the rabbi, and recites several lines in Hebrew.

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The rabbi explains to an incredulous child that when Buddy was 13, he had to go out to work to support his family. When Van Dyke hears the truth, he says, “Well, Shalom,” but Amsterdam corrects him, saying the proper phrase is, “Mazel Tov.” The episodes ends with nearly five minutes showing the bar mitzvah, an extraordinary display of Yiddishkeit on US network television over 60 years ago.

Reiner himself appeared in a recurring role on the show as Van Dyke’s boss, the tyrannical comedian Alan Brady, who was said to have been based on Caesar.

Reiner went on to produce and direct several other iterations of the Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as other series and movies.

One of his biggest hit movies was the 1977 Oh, God! starring George Burns, another Jewish comedian.

Reiner also collaborated with Steve Martin on several popular comedy films, including All of Me, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and The Jerk.

He continued to act throughout his life, and younger audiences may know him best as Saul Bloom in the Ocean’s Eleven series. In 2019, he voiced the character of Carl Reineroceros in Toy Story 4.

His semi-autobiographical novel, Enter Laughing, about a young actor trying to get his first break, was made into a movie in 1967, which he also directed. He followed it up with another novel, Continue Laughing, in 1995. In recent years, since he lived such an active life, continuing to write, tweet and grant interviews in spite of his advanced age, Vanity Fair suggested he might have titled a third book, Exit Laughing.

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A day before his death, he tweeted, “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.”

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