I’ve known only two perfect people in my life. One is that son of a bitch Martin Short; the other is Carl Reiner.
I met Carl in 1979 when I asked him to direct my first film, “The Jerk.” Carl was the go-to comedy director of the day, having made hits like “Oh, God!” as well as respected art fare like “Where’s Poppa?” Carl said yes, and I was thrilled. Exhausted by my previous 10 years on the road and a bit personally lost, I would now get to hole up face-to-face with Carl Reiner while we worked on a movie script. Rather than hibernating in my barely furnished condominium — the road had left my personal life bereft — I would hang out at his home on Rodeo Drive, where the sofas and pillows held indented impressions representing years of family and friends.
I was a novice film actor-writer wannabe, and I got lessons right away. Minutes after I arrived, he opened the script and said, “Here’s the first thing I do.” He started going through page by page making occasional marks. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m changing all the nights to days.” Carl was saving cast and crew the pain of unnecessary night shoots, where your body clock is severely whiplashed, as though you’ve taken a quick weekend round trip to China.
My goal as a co-writer of the script was a joke on every page; Carl’s was too, but all through the process he stressed and bolstered the tangential romance that was in the early drafts until it was in the forefront. Carl’s most valuable contribution to the movie was its emotional center, and I suspect it was those heart tugs that made the film a success.
“The Jerk” was filmed during the gas crisis, so Carl would pick me up for work every day in his Honda Civic. That seemed reasonable, so I bought a Honda Civic. Carl had seltzer water in blue bottles delivered weekly by the last remaining seltzer-water delivery service in Beverly Hills. That seemed reasonable, too, so I had seltzer water delivered to my WASP-y bachelor household. Carl’s influence on me was just beginning.
On the first day’s drive to the set, he confided, “Whenever I start a film, I hear the child’s voice in my head singing, ‘We’re makin’ a movie, we’re makin’ a movie!’” I was already excited, but I was glad to see this old pro so gleeful at starting yet another project. On these drives we began conducting little thought experiments to see if we could improve the day’s work. Once, we got so giddy over a scene we had to pull over. Here was the scene:
My character, Navin Johnson, was hitchhiking from a small farm in Missouri to the big city. A car pulls over to give me a lift. The driver shouts to me, “St. Louis?” Puzzled, I say, “No, Navin Johnson.”
The joke didn’t play as well as we expected — I finally admit 41 years later — but it did give us an afternoon of uncontrolled hysterics.
Carl knew how to direct comedy, of course, and while we were shooting, he gave me the best comic direction I ever received. We were filming a scene and slightly stuck. After about the fifth take, he stopped shooting and took me aside. I was expecting a lengthy discussion of motivation, character and possibly a discourse on comedy, but he said only, “Funny it up.” Not a Stanislavsky direction, but one I could understand.
At the end of the film, I got another practical tidbit. He invited me to a “color temperature” screening, a mysterious affair where the movie is shown to the director and cinematographer to determine if the color is accurate. We watched without sound and at double-speed to make the process easier. At the end of the screening, Carl said to the cinematographer, Victor Kemper: “Great. Now lighten it up two points.” I surreptitiously whispered, “Why?” He said, “Lighter is funnier.”
During my five or six creative years with Carl, we had lunch together almost every day. We ate at Ma Maison, a restaurant where a young Wolfgang Puck created innovative dishes that Carl and I marveled over.
Those lunches at Ma Maison were fascinating. The names Sid (Caesar) and Dick (Van Dyke) came out of his mouth regularly, accompanied by stories, reminiscences and, to break it up, his current political outrages, which he would dissect with rabbinical clarity. The stories were so vivid I can recall them from memory. One lunch, he described a foreign spy sketch he did with Sid:
“I approached Sid on a railway station. I told him all he had to do was deliver a briefcase to the next stop. I said, ‘When you get off the train, you will see an exceptionally beautiful blond woman with long luxurious legs. That woman will be me.’”
Another time, he told me this story about the maddest he ever got:
“I wanted to hire Dean Jones for an episode of ‘Dick Van Dyke.’” (Dean, a born-again Christian, was booked to do some intermittent religious duties exactly when Carl needed him.) “But Dean wanted to do the show, so I worked out a schedule where I would shoot two different shows shuffled together over two weeks. I could shoot Dean on Monday on Script 1, then on Tuesday shoot part of Script 2, then get Dean back on Thursday to shoot for two days, and then repeat the process the next week. I was moving actors around, moving shooting days around and moving locations around. When I called Dean to tell him the plan, he said, relieved, ‘I knew the Lord would find a way.’”
I’ve heard several people say Carl was like a father to them. But, to me, Carl was not fatherly. He was exemplar. Five years and four films later, I was a different person because of a subtle osmosis of traits from Carl to me. Carl’s manner on the set taught me how to behave on the set. His interaction with people gave me a template of how to be better, nicer, how to lead with kindness. His directorial results were the same as the nastier directors I ran into later in my career. He taught me about modesty, too. I called him late one evening to discuss the next day’s shooting. I asked, “Am I interrupting you?” He said, “No, I’m just lying here going through a litany of my failures.”
When I perform comedy, I can still hear echoes of my influences coming through. Jack Benny, certainly, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, Steve Allen, Carl Reiner, too. But it is not Carl’s comedic advice I cherish. Rather, it was how he affected my everyday life, the part that has nothing to do with movies or acting. Sometimes I deal with people in meetings, social dinners and plain-old conversation with a buoyancy foreign to me and realize, “Oh, that’s the way Carl would have done it.”
So Carl, I raise my glass of seltzer and flip through the Rolodex of words that apply to you: talent, energy, wisdom, humor. But, for me, one of your qualities stands out that is not often cited in the legacies of the famous: decency. All along, it was your decency that infused and invigorated your incredible gifts.
Thank you, goodbye, and a salute, Carl Reiner.