Comedy legend Carl Reiner died on Monday night at the age of 98, after a career spanning seven decades. He first achieved stardom in the earliest days of television, as writer and performer on the landmark “Your Show of Shows” sketch-comedy series. He later teamed with fellow “Your Show of Shows” writer and best friend Mel Brooks for the classic “2000-Year-Old Man” sketches and series of albums. In the 1960s, he created the Emmy-winning “Dick Van Dyke Show,” starred in Oscar Best Picture nominee The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, and directed the cult favorite The Comic. He went on to direct the hits Where’s Poppa? and Oh, God and launched the movie career of Steve Martin with The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains, and All of Me. A new generation got to know him as part of the all-star ensemble of the Ocean’s Eleven films. He was extremely active on social media up until the day he died.
The following are excerpts from our 1987 Film Journal phone interview with Reiner, prior to the release of his comedy Summer School, featuring future “NCIS” star Mark Harmon.
Summer School finds the director tackling his first film about teenagers, a subject he wasn’t exactly hungry to explore. “At first, I didn’t want to read the script—who needs these rotten kids, I said. The way some adults react—oh, it’s about kids—and they end up loving the kids and loving the picture. It’s the same thing: I started reading and I said, this is funny! I’m an eclectic guy—I can laugh at a lot of different things.”
Reiner seems to agree with the film’s less-than-rigorous attitude toward education. “I was very happy when I left school. But I do remember teachers that made me want to come to class and listen. The teachers who bored the shit out of me, I think they should have been arrested and given a ticket. Anytime a kid falls asleep in class, it’s usually the teacher’s fault.”
Reiner, who has been known to shake up TV talk shows by destroying Johnny Carson’s suit or sitting on David Letterman’s head, says he brings the same jovial spirit to the movie set, though he cautions, “I don’t encourage lack of discipline. I don’t like horsing around when we’re working, but I do like fooling around when we’re not working.”
Reiner says the hardest part of directing comedy is “keeping it spontaneous. Getting a master angle where the take is perfect, and then getting the close-up to be as good. In a close-up the other actors are away from you and you’re looking toward a camera with a guy standing next to it; it’s not the same organic moment as when you’re working with people beside you. Only the best technicians—actors—who have ways of keeping themselves fresh can make it work. Thank God I’ve worked with those guys.”
No interview with Carl Reiner would be complete these days without discussing his son Rob, whose third film as a director, Stand by Me, became the sleeper hit of 1986. “It’s a very exciting thing for a parent to watch a child grow and develop into what Rob’s become,” the elder Reiner says proudly. “When someone says he’s followed in my footsteps, I say, ‘Are you kidding? He entered my footsteps and ran way ahead of them. Now I’m following his.’ I don’t know another director who only does pictures I love—from This Is Spinal Tap to The Sure Thing to Stand by Me, and now his new picture is going to have people singing his praises. The Princess Bride is a beaut—boy, has he learned to be a director!”
[Note: The Princess Bride is now a beloved classic, and Rob Reiner went on to direct the hits When Harry Met Sally…, Misery, A Few Good Men, and The American President.]
“He has a great sense of integrity in his work,” Carl Reiner continues. “He’s much less commercial than I am—by that I mean, I look to be more commercial. He’s a serious filmmaker. Stand by Me, even though it has a lot of fun in it, is a very serious movie. It’s great for this business that a picture like that made money.”
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