...We talked about Mel Brooks, His Son Rob, Sex and George Burns, and his 'greatest passion'
I first met Carl Reiner in 1998 when he was a mere 76 years old. He came into the CNN studios in Hollywood to appear on Showbiz Today, a show on which I served as a writer-producer. He stopped by with his pal Mel Brooks to talk about their book The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000, the latest installment of their long-running comedy routine in which Reiner, ever the straight man, played an interviewer asking questions of the world's oldest man.
Two years ago, a few months after Reiner turned 96, I got to speak with him at length by phone, and the subject again turned to the 2000 Year Old Man routine.
"We loved doing that. That was a labor of love that took 10 years before we put it on record," he recalled. "We always did it at parties for friends. We figured it was only for our Jewish friends and our non anti-Semitic gentile friends."
He shared another anecdote about the first 2000 Year Old Man album he did with Brooks.
"When the record first came out, I was at Universal doing movies. I had a bungalow there. Next door to me was Cary Grant, and he came by one day, and I gave him a record. I said, 'This just came off the press. Hope you like it,'" Reiner told me. "He came back the following day and said, 'Can I have a dozen?' I said, 'What do you need a dozen for?' He said, 'I'm going to London and I'd like to take them with me.' I said, 'You're gonna bring these to London?' He said, 'Yeah. They speak English there, you know.' Mel and I were wondering whether people there were really going to get it, and he came back and said, 'She loved it.' And I said, 'Who?' And he said, 'The Queen's mother. I brought them to the Palace.'"
Reiner died Monday night in Beverly Hills, at the age of 98. My phone interview with him in June 2018 was to discuss an HBO documentary he starred in and narrated, If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. The film, about living with vitality past the age of 90, featured Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Norman Lear, Tony Bennett, Betty White and others. He explained to me where the film's elaborate title came from.
"Every morning I would actually look at the obituaries before I had breakfast. And as a joke I said if I was not in it, I would have the breakfast. But one day I read the obituaries, and there was a picture of me and Polly Bergen," he recounted. "She had passed away and it looked like we had both passed away and I wondered why they used that picture. Because Polly Bergen must have had friends that were closer with her than I was. I did one little show with her, but it was a good picture... My greatest passion is to read the obits and to see anybody over 100."
One of the most remarkable and touching things about Reiner was how generous he was about other people in the entertainment industry. That was evident when I asked him about earning an Emmy nomination as Outstanding Narrator for his work on If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. His competition in that category included Sir David Attenborough and Morgan Freeman.
Of Attenborough, he said, "He's deserving of anything you wanna give him. He's a real producer of fine work, no question about his abilities."
Turning to Freeman, he observed, "Morgan is God, no question about it... He is the voice of truth and God. I think if there is a God, he's gonna sound like Morgan."
I reminded him that he had worked with the Almighty before--referring to the film Oh, God!, which he directed, starring George Burns. That prompted a story.
"He was a pleasure to work with, this man [George Burns]. I'll tell you the last thing I said to him after the movie was over. I went to his dressing room to say goodbye, I said to him, 'George, I'm 60, but I noticed you're always... '-- His wife had passed awhile ago -- I said, 'In pictures of you in the newspaper, you've got a girl on each arm. What do I have to look forward to sexually in the coming years?' And this is a quote -- you can use it or not. He said, 'Carl, you ever try to put an oyster in a slot machine?'"
During our conversation Reiner heaped praise on a variety of people, including Samantha Bee, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert. He also expressed pride in his son Rob's work as a director.
"When I’m a little depressed or need a little pickup, I just watch one of Rob's movies. The Princess Bride -- if you're not smiling, you're not living. It's just one of the best movies. 'My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.' It's just one of those movies, every time it is worth watching. One after another he's done movies that remain in your memory: A Few Good Men, When Harry Met Sally. He gave his mother the best, most famous line in movies, 'I'll have what she's having.'"
About that film, in which Rob Reiner cast his mother Estelle as a diner in a restaurant, Carl expanded, "She said [to Rob], 'What are you flying me to New York for? There's a million women in New York who can do [the role].' 'Not like you, ma,' he said. It's absolutely true. His mother had a way of putting things. Rob's sister Annie is two years younger than him. When she was 16, Rob said to her, 'What do you want for your birthday, a nose job like your friends?' I said, 'Rob, just a minute. My wife has a bigger nose than Annie, and look at the handsome man she got.' Then, my wife said, 'Yes, it's not the size of your nose that counts. It's what's in it." I told that to Steve Martin while I was making The Jerk. Ten years later he called Estelle, and he said, 'I'd love to use your line in my new movie, [Roxanne]. "It's not the size of your nose, it's what's in it.""
Reiner excelled as an actor, writer, producer and director. I asked him about his proudest accomplishment.
"I'm most proud of, I think, being the creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I would say that," he commented. "Right now, I'm most proud of the fact I'm turning out one book after another. I've got about four books in the works. One is The History of Radio, which is just coming out."
I began our conversation by asking how he was doing.
"Fair to middling," he answered. "I'm at the age now when you see doctors every day. The last four or five months I saw my hearing aid doctor, my shin -- I hit my shin, I had a physical two days ago. They tell me I'm all right, so that's why I'm talking to you."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.