By Amy R Handler.
Behind every outstanding man, there’s an even more brilliant woman, and the legendary comedian, writer, director and actor, Carl Reiner agrees wholeheartedly. Of his late wife, and dearest friend, Estelle Lebost Reiner, Carl Reiner proudly admits that Estelle taught him everything he knows.
I had the rare pleasure to catch up with Carl Reiner and talk to him about his most extraordinary life, and his newest book, I Remember Me, also available as an iBook. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.
Amy R Handler: When did you first begin to write, Carl?
Carl Reiner: In letters to my wife… I was in the army so long and I wrote to her. That’s where I got the idea of writing. I knew I could write stories. So when I got home from the army, I started using the typewriter.
Are you a 2-finger, journalist-typist?
No, I use all my fingers but make lots of mistakes. That’s why the computer’s so good.
Do you still have the letters you and Estelle wrote to each other?
I’m looking at a box now that’s filled with letters to my wife. I was away for a year and a half, after we were married, and we wrote every day. We never wrote less than 4-6 pages a day. Just a few days ago, I woke up and I’m looking at the box and said, “What am I going to do with those?” I don’t know what I’m going to do…
Have you thought about publishing them?
They could be published but I’d have to read them all and find the ones that have information about what’s going on in the world at that time – and my world – because they’re all love letters.
Even though there’s a distinctly personal tone in your book [I Remember Me], you clearly document world issues, throughout.
I think I can find [those] in the letters.
The letters might also make an interesting movie.
(Laughs) From your mouth to my ears.
Will you work on a new book, now that I Remember Me is written?
Yes. I’m writing another book now that I call, I Just Remembered. I’m thinking about 7 or 8 stories so far.
How did this project come about?
I was writing the last page of the book and was just thinking about…
…all the stuff you left out of your memoir?
Yes. When my book went to press, I kept walking around the block – that’s where I get my ideas – and that’s when I thought about, I Just Remembered.
Do you walk around the block with a little notebook?
No, I usually remember – and then when I come home, I jot down my thoughts, or I’ll just remember [them].
How did you choose the title of your memoir?
It came to me in a quick flash – because they’re all memories – and I was remembering my life. I Remember Me was so natural. By the way, as soon as I thought of the title, and people would ask, “What are you calling the book?” – I always got a smile or a laugh out of somebody. That gotta be a good title.
Yeah, it’s definitely, catchy and provocative. Do you think of yourself as a writer first, before all the other stuff we know you do?
Well, I do now, because that’s what I do, really. I wake up in the morning and that’s what I think about doing.
I read your book in one day – and even read it aloud to my family, in spots. We all live in Boston. It’s amazing how your book came to life.
You know, everything good that happened to me, happened in Boston.
Yes, absolutely. I did my first Broadway show with a touring company in Boston, where I got rave reviews. My son Robbie was conceived in Boston.
How long did it take you to write I Remember Me?
It was close to a year.
To do the research?
No. I’d walk around the block and then I’d write a story. After it was written, I’d go through it and make some tweaks. I didn’t rush.
Tell me more about your intriguing wife, Estelle. You mention that she was a draftswoman. Was she an engineer?
No, she was an artist. When I met her, she was a graduate of the National Academy of Design. During the war, people were making blueprints, but most people couldn’t read 3- dimensional blueprints because they only understood one dimensionally. And so they called upon real artists to make 3-dimensional drafts. So that’s what Estelle did. She was employed by Sperry Rand. She was their first female, isometric draftsman. Sperry Rand never hired female draftsmen before, so Estelle broke their code.
Amazing! You know, we watch you every night on Me TV. We see you on
The Dick Van Dyke Show, Night Gallery, and just about everywhere else.
When did your television career begin?
About 1949, when I worked with Sid Caesar – who was a great man…
I’ll say… How did The Dick Van Dyke Show come about?
After I left Sid – after 9 years – I was offered situation comedies but they were not well written. My wife said, “Why don’t you write one?” And I said, “I never wrote funny before.” We were on Fire Island at the time, and I wrote a pilot called Head of the Family, and sent it to my agent. He sent it to Peter Lawford, who said he would finance it. In this pilot, I played the lead role [as Rob Petrie] with a girl named Barbara Britton [Britton, of Mr. and Mrs. North fame, played Laura Petrie in Reiner’s pilot] – along with Sylvia Miles [who played Sally Rogers]. It was an ok show – but it wasn’t that great… While I was at Fire Island, I’d written 13 episodes. I figured if I’m gonna be in the show, I’d better have a bible for other writers when they come.
Yeah – good point.
So I wrote 13 episodes but no one bought them. So I just went about my business, and got a job at Universal writing a Doris Day film, The Thrill of it All.
Wow – then what happened?
I was working on a second one, and I got a call from my agent. He had those 13 episodes lying on his desk and it killed him that he couldn’t sell them. So he called Sheldon Leonard who had a production company called T & L Productions [a collaboration of Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard], and they called me in, and I was told that they loved the scripts. I told Sheldon that I didn’t want to fail twice with the same material – and I do this all the time – I impersonated him. [Carl impersonating Sheldon Leonard, and talking out of the side of his mouth as Leonard was famous for, when playing gangsters.] Carl, you won’t faillll… We’ll get a better actor to play youuu…
Haah! And that was Dick Van Dyke?
Yes. And that was that.
What was it like to work with Dick Van Dyke?
Anything we asked of him, he’d not only do, but he’d make it funny. If I wrote a funny line, he’d make it funnier. It’s what you hope an actor will do, but not all of them can do that.
That’s for sure.
He could do it with his body, and with his face – incredible.
Tell me how you cast Mary Tyler Moore opposite Dick Van Dyke?
I said to Sheldon, I don’t know what I’m looking for. And she [Mary] came in one day, and she was very sad. I asked her to read something, and she read one line, and I heard a ping in her voice. I looked at her. And she looked like Mary Tyler Moore of course, with her beautiful legs, and I made my hand to like – cool off – like that claw-machine at the Fair that picks up candy or toys?
I went across the room and grabbed the top of her head like the claw. I walked her down the hall to Sheldon and said, “We found her!”
What was so great was that she had this wonderful rapport with Dick, and we really believed they were a married couple. How often does that happen?
They both admitted later that they had a thing for each other, but they never did anything about it.
That’s refreshing. Most people had actual morals then. Today everyone acts upon everything.
Yes, today everything’s different.
I’ve often thought about Dick Van Dyke’s amazing talent. How do you think he’d do today, if he were just starting out?
Well you know, you go with the flow. You deal with the mores of the times. Also, whatever rules you have about the game in your own head, you don’t break those rules.
Exactly, you have to be true to yourself and your art. Did you have any censorship issues during The Dick Van Dyke Show?
Oh, of course. They wouldn’t let me use the word pregnant.
When the boy [Richie] asked his mother, “Where did I come from?” – and I wrote, “You came from your mother” – they said, “You can’t say that!”
So what did you do?
I told them, “But everyone in the world knows that.” And I treated [the scene] well. I wasn’t going to make fun of it.
I imagine that was aggravating.
I talked to a psychiatrist and he said that’s the best thing you can do, because when children are ready to ask that question, they’ll ask their parents. They won’t get it from someone else. Parents will tell them whatever they want. They’ll tell them they came from a cabbage, or they’ll tell them the truth.
Exactly. So what happened next?
I was ready to quit the show that day – and I was only just starting. And it was one of the best shows I wrote – and it became one of the best shows I wrote.
Did you eventually get around the censors, so your meaning was understood?
What I did was sort of clever. He [Rob Petrie] reaches for Dr. Spock’s book and says, “This explains it.” And he realizes later, that he would show him [Richie] what Dr. Spock said. So he told the audience, if you have that question, go to Dr. Spock.
How much of The Dick Van Dyke Show came from your own life?
For the first 13 episodes, all of it. I mean, as you keep living, things happen, and I had things on my desk that [really] happened to me, and I couldn’t figure out how to get them in. I had one show on my desk for two years called, The Check Grabber. And then it finally came to me how to do it, and it made a very good show.
After the 13 episodes that you wrote, other writers were taking over.
After the 13 episodes, it was difficult until I got Bill Persky, Sam Denoff, and Garry Marshall… I had written for two and a half years by myself. I was the producer, story editor, and had no help. So what happened was that in the third year I got them and in the fourth year I made them story editors. If I didn’t have them, I think I would have gone crazy.
One of the segments I loved in your book was when you describe what it was like when your wife was pregnant with your youngest son, Lucas, and about baby Lucas’ early friendship with Martin Landau’s baby daughter, Susan, who was about the same age.
Yes, they’re 4 days apart. The [babies] were crawling on the floor trying to negotiate two little stairs to the living room, and all of a sudden Lucas stood up. We were all there, Estelle, Martin [Landau] and Barbara [Bain]. Then Susie grabbed Lucas by his diaper and pulled him down, but he got up again and started to walk away. And he never crawled again.
Hilarious! Are Susan and Lucas still friends?
What does Susan do for a living?
Susie’s a producer, and has a darling child.
Lovely. Did you ever work with Martin Landau?
We were both in a film called, The Gazebo. I haven’t seen Martin in a long time.
He’s a very interesting and nice man. I interviewed him for Film Threat magazine. I think I sent you that interview – where I learned that he started out as a cartoonist.
Of all the people that you mention in the book, with whom are you still close?
Well Sid is very sick…
Oh, that’s so sad. How old is he?
Sid is 6 months younger than I am. Yes, it’s very, very sad. He was the strongest man in the world…
Does he have family close by?
He has a daughter who helps him.
That’s good. You know, every time I look at the old footage of Sid Caesar, I’m convinced he was the most hilarious comedian of all times.
He was the greatest comedian who ever lived. I’ve never worked with anybody as great as Sid.
So who else are you friendly with from the early years?
Well, my best friend is Mel Brooks.
He’s an amazing talent.
He doesn’t stop.
I just saw him in an American Masters documentary for PBS.
It was brilliant – the best I’ve ever seen. He’s still got it.
Absolutely! Tell me the truth about all your comedian-cohorts that you write about in the book. Were they really serious folks?
All comedians are serious. They know what’s going on in the world so well, that they can make fun of it. If you’re not of the world, you can’t make anyone laugh. People laugh at what they know about and skewer the things that bother them.
What do you want people to know about your book?
I want them to do what you did – read the book.
I can’t praise your book enough. It made me laugh and cry, simultaneously.
You know, I just got a call from Charlotte Rae. Do you know Charlotte Rae?
The Facts of Life, Pretty-Little-Liars, Charlotte Rae?
Yes, she did a lot of things, even Li’l Abner on Broadway. She’s a great performer. Charlotte’s in New York and she has a friend who’s not doing well. She called me yesterday, and told me that she was trying to pep up her friend. She started reading her my book. Charlotte said that at first her friend didn’t react – but then all of a sudden, she started to laugh.
It’s important to laugh! I know my family had the same reaction when I read portions of your book aloud to them.
I love hearing that.
You show us how human you are, and that’s pretty rare to capture that in a book. We all know your accomplishments, but it’s so great to see that the man behind the mask, is a lot like us.
It’s funny. I sent the book to some friends and they all said the same thing you’re saying.
I read that the iBook is interactive, and contains some of your independent films.
Yes. I shot 8mm film through a hand-held, wind-up camera.
Oh my goodness. People will be able to see Estelle – and the kids – especially, Rob, as a child! What’s Rob doing these days?
He’s in Connecticut right now, making a new movie with Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton.
A love story, I hope?
Yes – an adult love story. It’s a beautiful movie.
I love how proud you are of your very creative family. Thanks for the wonderful interview, Carl.
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.