DGA Honorary Life Member: Carl Reiner

A correction was made to this article on Feb. 1, 2007.

Hosting the DGA’s awards gala for the 20th time, Carl Reiner will receive the guild’s Honorary Life Member kudo.

Of course, the honor recognizes much more than just Reiner’s emcee chores; it represents the achievement of a comedy career that spans nearly 60 years. Daily Variety was particularly interested in one notable achievement, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the groundbreaking CBS sitcom that Reiner created and ran 1961-66. What was a TV writer’s room like in those days? After starring in the pilot, why did Reiner duck behind the scenes? And how did Mary Tyler Moore get away with wearing those Capri pants on TV in ’61? Staffer Anthony D’Alessandro recently got Reiner and Van Dyke together on the same phone line to talk about these things and more.

THE WRITERS’ ROOM

Daily Variety: Carl, tell us about the way you ran the writer’s room.

Carl Reiner: There wasn’t a writer’s room. I wrote 40 out of the first 60 (episodes). So for the first year, I had writers coming in to OK storylines and they’d go out, write ‘em and come back and I’d rewrite them. Until we got ( producers Bill) Persky and (Sam) Denoff in the fourth and fifth year — I would have died if I didn’t have them because I was alone. Today you see 25 names on a show, and I don’t think it’s efficient that way. I think it’s efficient by having one guy. David E. Kelley is my idea of a writer. And Susan Harris, who used to write “Soap.” I used to look at the screen and say, “Look at that. Every week she writes.” I wrote almost as many, but not quite.

Daily Variety: Was that in reaction in any way to your experiences on “Your Show of Shows,” or was that the nature of the sitcom?

Reiner: It was the nature of writing a sitcom of something I knew about — my life as an actor-writer on a variety show. So it was very personal and it came out very easily. It was my reality. I wrote a show in four days. When I had to do a rewrite, it took me eight days to rewrite a show by somebody else, but I couldn’t live without them helping me out.

Daily Variety: What was Sid Caesar’s reaction to the character of Alan Brady?

Reiner: He knew it wasn’t based on him. He and I were friends, and we used to eat lunch all the time when we worked together. Alan Brady was a composite of Milton Berle, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason, who never spoke to his writers. Jackie used to have the writers slip their scripts under his hotel room door.

Daily Variety: Dick, how involved were you in the writing of the show?

Dick Van Dyke: The five days of rehearsal were mostly rewriting days. There were great changes made every day. And Carl was good about letting us all contribute. He would select the good stuff and throw out the rest. I was never a writer, but I got to contribute a lot.

Daily Variety: When your younger brother Jerry guest-starred as the sleepwalking banjo player in season one, was that your idea? Did you say, “Hey, my brother can play a wonderful banjo”?

Van Dyke: It was the other way around. Very often when you told Carl a story about something that had happened to you or a relative of yours, it would wind up in a script. I told him about my brother’s penchant for sleepwalking when he was young.

Reiner: By the way, I think that’s a wonderful genesis. I remember so vividly we were around the table and Dick was reading a Playboy magazine — somebody gave it to him — and his brother had a wonderful review in it. He had been playing the Playboy clubs and Dick was saying, “Look at what my brother’s doing.” And I asked, “When did you see your brother last?” He said, “Oh, not for a couple of years.” And I said, “Would you like to see him?” He said, “I’d love to!” I said, “Why don’t I write a show for him since he’s so funny?” And then I said to Dick, “Tell me a little about him. Just something I might be able to use.” He said, “When he was young, he was a sleepwalker.” And I said, “That’s it.” It was funny because I started writing the script and I called Dick in the middle of the night and said, and I never forgot this, “By the way, Dick, this is turning out to be one of the funniest things I’ve ever written. I don’t think I can finish it. We’ve never done two-parters. We’ll do it in two parts. Dick, it’s a tough part. Can he act?” And Dick said to me, “Oh, sure, he can act!” And I said, “How do you know?” And Dick said, “If he can’t, I’ll kill him!” Dick, I’m sitting in the very spot where we had that conversation in my office looking out at the backyard.

THE PILOT

Daily Variety: Carl, in the original pilot, “Head of the Family,” you were the star.

Reiner: Now you can see why if I played in that, we wouldn’t be talking. If it had gone on, it would have gone on for a third of a season, been canceled and we’d be talking about different things today.

Daily Variety: So what happened? By today’s standards, it’s almost unheard for a network to reconsider a revised pilot.

Reiner: No, you know something, when we did that pilot I had written 13 episodes knowing that I was going to be in it. I wrote 13 episodes to have it in the bank so that other writers would know what the thing was going to be about. I had 13 episodes. I had the same agent that (series producer) Sheldon Leonard had, and he was so upset that these 13 episodes were so fallow. I said, “That’s the best I can do. I can’t write better than that.” And this is the best line I ever heard and it’s the truth about the situation: Sheldon Leonard’s agent prevailed upon us to get together and I said, “Sheldon, I don’t want to fail at the same thing twice. That’s the best I can do. I just don’t want to do it.” And Sheldon, with his New York accent, said, “We won’t fail. This time we’ll get a better actor to play you.” And that’s exactly what we did. We got a better actor, a much better actor, to play me, and that’s exactly why we’re talking today.

FUNDING THE PILOT

Daily Variety: Now, Peter Lawford fronted the money for the original pilot?

Reiner: Yes.

Daily Variety: What were the circumstances surrounding that?

Reiner: I was a William Morris Agency client and I sent them the script. He was a client, too, and looking to become a producer, so they married the two of us. The funny part about that was I had to send the script to Florida. I said, “Who is in Florida?” He said, “Joseph P. Kennedy. He doesn’t want any money that’s in the Kennedy family to be used for anything that he considers morally offensive.” I said, “That man is going to be an arbiter to my morals? He was sleeping with Gloria Swanson when he was married. Also, he sells liquor!”

Van Dyke: He was a rumrunner!

Reiner: Anyway, he liked it. So we did the pilot. Luckily it didn’t get sold.

A SITCOM SEXUAL REVOLUTION

Daily Variety: Now “The Dick Van Dyke Show” gets credited as the first sitcom to introduce sex and sexual innuendos. Is this an over-analysis by critics?

Van Dyke: I think so.

Reiner: You wanna know something? Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore — there was chemistry between them. If they hadn’t been married, they might have even gone for tea. And I think the audience was aware of it. Also, it was not a show about two against each other. It wasn’t a battle of the sexes, which many television shows were starting with — even “The Goldbergs” and “I Love Lucy.” They were always fighting with each other (Desi and Lucy) about “I want to get on the stage. He thinks I’m dumb.” These two people (Rob and Laura) had real family arguments, and they were bonded, and they didn’t say “I love you,” but they did kiss. They wouldn’t have been in twin beds if it weren’t for the censors, and the audience was aware of that.

Daily Variety: So it was because of the censors that t
hey were in twin beds?

Reiner: Absolutely. I fought and I said, “Dick sleeps in a queen-sized bed.” They said, “No, no, what would it suggest?” I said, “Where did the kid come from? Did they jump from the next bed to do it?”

Daily Variety: What do you think, Dick?

Van Dyke: I think Carl is right. Mary and I really were attracted to each other. We liked each other a lot and I think a lot of that just translated to the screen.

Reiner: Another quotient, too, was that Mary and Dick were young. Most of the stars of situation comedies in those days were people who had other careers; they were stars in radio or motion pictures, like Danny Thomas. So they were of an age. Mary and Dick were the youngest couple, and I think that’s what made it more sensual.

Daily Variety: Mary Tyler Moore was 23 when she started the show?

Reiner: Right.

Daily Variety: Dick, you were…?

Van Dyke: 11 years older.

Reiner: Dick made such a fuss about that. He said, “She’s wonderful, but won’t people say she’s too young for me?” And I said, “Did anybody say Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn? We accept that.” Dick is arrested development. He’s really a kid. He was youthful in his attitude. Look at his body. As a matter of fact, I’ll put him up against any 50-year-old right now in dancing and jumping around.

Daily Variety: Was it Mary’s idea to wear capri pants?

Reiner: Oh, absolutely. That’s what she wore, and we had to defend the fact that this was modern. We wouldn’t tell a girl how to dress. She was stylish and lovely. We had to defend her right to be that.

BACKSTAGE PASSES

Daily Variety: Any off-camera moments that stick with you? It was such a vibrant show, we can only imagine it was a carnival off-set.

Reiner: Dick, the thing I most remember is when Mary punched you in the eye, and you wrestled her to the ground and everybody jumped on top of you to try and pull you apart. It took about an hour. It was the worst day of my life!

Van Dyke: I don’t remember that!

Reiner: I know! (Laughs.) I’m just making it up! When they want incidents like that, you give them ones like that! What I want to say is that the longer you go away from something is that it all melds into the five best years of my life.

Van Dyke: Me, too.

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