For all Reiner’s success, friends said he remained modest and likeable. “He’s a loving, giving guy, to the point of insanity,” Brooks told the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “If he had hair, I’d marry him.”
Reiner conceived, wrote and acted in The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore portrayed one of television’s most memorable sitcom marriages. The show, which ran from 1961 to 1966, won four Emmys for best comedy. Reiner, who based the show on his own life, won another three Emmys for writing.
“I wrote it because it was what I knew about,” he told Washington Jewish Week in 2009. “But many young writers have told me, ‘I’m a writer today because I saw The Dick Van Dyke Show when I was 13.’ That gives me more pleasure than anything.”
Reiner was born on March 20, 1922, in the Bronx, New York City. His father, Irving, a Romanian who trained as a watchmaker in Vienna, emigrated in 1906 to the US.
In his 2003 memoir, My Anecdotal Life, Reiner described his father as a self-taught musician and weekend inventor whose patents included an automobile clock.
Taught by his father to recite the alphabet, print his name and write numbers from 1 to 100 before kindergarten, Reiner skipped half of the first grade. He graduated from high school at age 16.
His youth and immaturity made him feel like an outsider at school, entertaining schoolmates by putting both feet behind his head and walking on his hands, he said in his memoir: “But hey, who’s complaining! Being an ‘outsider’ has given me the quiet time to ponder ways to behave like an ‘insider,’ which I think I have mastered.”
He was working as a machinist’s apprentice after high school when his brother urged him to enroll in a free acting classes. His first job, unsalaried, was with an acting troupe that slipped him a dollar when his day job didn’t cover daily carfare to the theatre.
In 1942, while performing comedy sketches at a Catskills resort, he fell in love with the scenic designer’s assistant, Estelle Lebost. They married the next year, before Reiner entered the US Army. He served three years, entertaining troops in the South Pacific.
Reiner won two Emmys for best supporting actor in the nine years he worked with Caesar, earning admiration from others for keeping a straight face while all about him were cracking up with laughter.
His semi-autobiographical first book, Enter Laughing (1958), was adapted into a play and later ran for a year on Broadway. Reiner directed the 1967 movie.
As a director, Reiner’s feature films included four that starred Steve Martin: The Jerk (1979), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), The Man With Two Brains (1983) and All of Me (1984). He also directed George Burns in Oh, God (1977).
His career as an actor proved even longer than the rest of his full life in show business. Reiner acted on television throughout the 1950s. He appeared in 10 movies in the 1960s, from Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) to The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) and The Comic (1969), for which he also wrote the screenplay and directed.
He continued to act into the millennium, reprising the part of Saul Bloom in Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) that he played in the two earlier action-caper movies.
A member of the Television Hall of Fame, Reiner received the Kennedy Centre’s Mark Twain Prize for Humour in 2000. When the sound system failed during the ceremony, he rose to the occasion by calling from the balcony: “Does anyone have four double-A batteries?”
Reiner and his wife, Estelle, were married for almost 65 years until her death in 2008. She had one of the great one-line film roles, in When Harry Met Sally (1989), directed by their son, Rob. As Meg Ryan’s character noisily fakes an orgasm in a New York delicatessen, Estelle turns to a waiter and says: “I’ll have what she’s having.”