“I Think I Banged Lucille Ball” is the title of a recent “Two and a Half Men” episode featuring comedy legend Carl Reiner, so it seems entirely appropriate to stroll down the Memory Lane of “My First Time” with a guy who broke through on stage at the Biltmore in downtown L.A. 67 years ago and hasn’t slowed down since. Who knows what else he might remember?
V: You were in the touring company of “Call Me Mister,” which had been a big hit on Broadway. Did the Variety review help your career?
CR: The review that really changed things was Claudia Cassidy at the Chicago Tribune. If she liked you, you were in like Flynn. She had seen the show on Broadway and hated it. She ripped the sh*t out of it. She said, “Don’t bother stopping in Chicago.” Then she saw the production I was in and she said, “Now this is a great show and it’s because of one man, Carl Reiner.” We played Chicago for six months, which was unheard of in those days.
V: Did the show going over in L.A. make an impact after that?
CR: The columnist George Fisher and George Jessel were in the front row at the Biltmore and Jessel was producing films at Fox at the time. After the show, Fisher told me, “Call Jessel, he’s got a big fat contract on his desk for you.” I went over there and Jessel called someone on the phone and yelled, “I’ve got a kid here in my office who’s going to be the biggest thing you’ve ever seen!” But there was no contract because I wasn’t available to go straight into a show he was doing.
V: Was the competition for roles and opportunities intense for you at that time?
CR: I never thought about the competition. I just believed in showing what I could do. I remember once reading for a part for a movie and they said, “That’s the best reading we’ve had all day, but we’re looking for a Gregory Peck type.” I said, “When they found Gregory Peck, what were they looking for?”
V: Whose success were you aspiring to achieve?
CR: At that time, everybody wanted to be Danny Kaye. Nobody wanted to be Jerry Lewis because he was so completely one of a kind. But I was lucky. After “Call Me Mister” I did “Inside U.S.A.” and “Alive and Kicking” and I’ve had sort of a seamless career. I’ve worked steady ever since.
V: It wasn’t long before you were working with Sid Caesar and then you doing “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Did you call upon your time with Caesar to play the overbearing Alan Brady?
CR: No! Brady was modeled on three stars who were terrible to their writers; Jackie Gleason, who never talked to his writers, Phil Silvers and Milton Berle. They were all nasty to their writers. Sid was a pussycat. He loved writers.
V: What was the best thing about the days when you were just starting out?
CR: My son Rob was born while I was out on the road. We were going across country on a train with a 6-week-old baby. He was born on the way to Chicago!