Following the death of legendary comedian Carl Reiner, we’re taking a look back at some of his greatest contributions to television and film, from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Jerk.
Innovative, original and downright hilarious — these words describe late comedian, writer, producer and director Carl Reiner. Reiner, who was a pioneer in the television and film industry, passed away in his Beverly Hills home on June 29 at the age of 98.
Reiner was a driving creative force behind some of television’s most-watched shows, such as Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, The Steve Allen Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show. And he later went on to act in and direct several feature films, even propelling Steve Martin’s comedy career with productions such as The Jerk and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. While Reiner’s portfolio is full of comedic triumphs, this list explores his top contributions to television and film — titles any cinephile will want to add to their watchlist.
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Your Show of Shows (1950-1954)
Reiner’s first breakout role was on Your Show of Shows, a live, 90-minute variety show also featuring Sid Caesar. It was here that Reiner met fellow director, writer and actor Mel Brooks, leading to a life-long friendship and comedy partnership that led to many collaborations, including their famous routine, “The 2000 Year Old Man.”
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966)
The 1966 film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, follows a Soviet submarine as it runs aground in a New England harbor. As Russian soldiers come ashore seeking help, the local townspeople go into a frenzy believing they’re under attack by communists. Carl Reiner plays Walt Whittaker, a playwright visiting the Nantucket-esque beach with his wife Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint) and his two children Pete and Annie (Sheldon Collins and Cindy Putnam).
This was Reiner’s first starring role in a feature film. At the time of its release, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was revered for its topical satire, given the recent events of the Cold War. The film ultimately went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical Picture.
The Jerk (1979)
The Jerk was a pivotal turning point in both Carl Reiner’s and Steve Martin’s careers. For Reiner, the film was his first breakout success as a feature-film director. For Martin, it was the first film he starred in and co-wrote. The Jerk follows Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin) as he leaves his adoptive family and ventures out into the city, where he finds his naïvete to be both a blessing and a curse.
The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with critics citing it as one of the funniest films of all time, although it’s an open question whether the film would be successful if it were released today, given changed social norms. Martin told The Hollywood Reporter, “I haven’t looked at The Jerk in a long time. But looking back, everyone was treated with such respect.”
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was the second film Reiner directed with Steve Martin in the lead role. This neo-noir comedy follows Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) as he attempts to discover who’s responsible for the death of a cheesemaker.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was stylistically influenced by and parodied previous noir films and features footage from movies in the genre such as Suspicion and Lost Weekend. For film buffs it’s a fun exercise in identifying the movie where each intercut scene originated from, while also being a hilarious spoof.
The Spirit of ’76 ( 1990)
Hailed for its comedic, sci-fi perspective on 1970s American culture, The Spirit of ’76 follows a group of time travelers from the year 2176 who, in an effort to retrieve the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, accidentally travel back in time to 1976 instead of 1776.
Reiner starred in the movie as Dr. Von Mobil, which was co-written and directed by Reiner’s son Lucas and featured his other son, Rob. The film was also co-written and produced by Roman Coppola, and even included a cameo of Sofia Coppola. The star-studded cast and crew, punch-in-the-gut jokes and a plot featuring a series of adventurous mishaps combined to create a cult classic.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Fans of edge-of-your-seat heist films were instantly won over by Reiner’s quick-witted comedic turn in Ocean’s Eleven. The film follows de facto leader Danny Ocean (George Clooney) as he and his team of 10 con artists make a plan to steal money from three Las Vegas casinos.
Reiner portrays Saul Bloom, an elderly con man who comes out of retirement to help Danny pull off the complex heist. Reiner is also featured in Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen, and made a cameo in Ocean’s 8, although his scenes were not featured in the theatrical cut of the film. Reiner’s comically polished attitude added to the sophistication of the franchise, something often lacking in films today.
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961- 1966)
This list would not be complete without mentioning Reiner’s most notable contribution to television, The Dick Van Dyke Show. Following his stint on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Reiner created The Dick Van Dyke Show for CBS, which ran for five seasons and earned 15 Emmy Awards. At the time, the series was revolutionary for reinventing the American family ideal while adding new dimension to how household breadwinners were portrayed on television. The show featured title actor Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie and Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie. Reiner himself also appeared as the eccentric Alan Brady.
The Dick Van Dyke Show launched the careers of several actors, notably helping Mary Tyler Moore land her own show in 1970. Today, The Dick Van Dyke Show is still highly regarded and considered one of the most successful television comedies.
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