Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Carl Reiner, Movie Not-Quite-Star

Many hats have been worn by 91-year-old Carl Reiner over the years and one of them was a subject of a column by National Enterprise Association writer Erskine Johnson in 1959. At that point, Reiner had finished his career writing and performing with Sid Caeser. He’d moved on to writing for another variety show and performing as a supporting player in films. Johnson figured that was worth a profile. Here is it, appearing in newspapers beginning November 27th.

Hollywood Glances

HOLLYWOOD (NEA)—Carl Reiner wears a hat labeled “Second Banana” with such an amusing flair that it’s always slipping just a little. When he was Top Banana Sid Caesar’s accomplice in TV laughter, it always seemed to me that Carl made things seem much more amusing than they really were. Emmy voters agreed and gave him a pair of best-supporting-actor awards.
Now that Carl is in the movies, he’s again “Second Banana,” to David Niven in “Happy Anniversary” and to Glenn Ford in “Gazebo,” and again things are turning out in hilarious fashion.
The story of how Carl ribbed Monique Van Vooren, the doll who thinks she’s another Zsa Zsa on the set of “Anniversary” will fracture you. Carl met Monique for the first time and insisted she was an old friend, a female impersonator named “Mike.”
He was still insisting she was old friend “Mike” when the film was completed and everyone went home—all New Yorkers who know Monique are still laughing.
Now that Carl and Charles Isaacs are writing all of Dinah Shore’s TV scripts, things are funnier than before, too.
Like the first time Carl typed out Dinah’s opening line:
“Hello and welcome to our show.”
The pixie added the stage directions:
“Dinah says this line with a smile.”
Even on Hollywood’s party circuit it’s anything-for-a-laugh Carl. As a transplanted New Yorker unaccustomed to Hollywood’s grandiose ways, Carl lifted both eyebrows the other night when he went to a party at Steve Allen’s home. A white-frocked lad opened his car door, handed him a numbered ticket and said, “I’ll park it, sir.”
While the other guests pocketed their parking tickets in blase Movietown style, Carl clutched his in hand and went straight to host Steve to say:
“Will you please validate this for me?”
How Carl Reiner landed in the movies, after 17 years of dreaming about leaving New York for Hollywood, could have been right out of his recently published book, “Enter Laughing.”
He came to Hollywood a year ago to play a role in “Tunnel of Love” but had to bow out, after waiting around for three months, because of an eastern TV contract.
When his agent phoned him months later at his New York home to say he had been cast in “Happy Anniversary,” Carl said:
“Great. When should I leave for Hollywood?”
“You’re not going to Hollywood,” the agent informed him. “They’re filming the picture in New York.”
Today he’s settled in Hollywood, doubling as an actor-writer, and there’s an air of permanency about his future here.
He's among those predicting a big movie revival since men in trench coats as private eyes and men in buckskin as Western heroes have knocked comedy off home screens.
Comedy faded from TV, he believes, when comedians started playing it too safe to compensate for increased production costs which do not permit room for failure. “But room for failure, a little more daring,” he says, “could revive comedy on television.
“On Sid’s show we would think of something so outrageous or so outlandish that it either had to be great or an outright disaster.
“But we would try it and if it worked it was fun and we were heroes.
“If it flopped we’d learn something. But at that time the whole 90-minute show cost only $18,000. Today the same show would cost $150,000, just for the network time alone.
“You can’t take chances with comedy at those prices — you have to play it safe. There’s no room in the budget for taking a chance on the outrageous or the outlandish.”

Johnson’s column skips one of Reiner’s accomplishments because it wasn’t really an accomplishment at that point. Reiner had spent a good portion of 1958 writing 13 episodes of a sitcom with himself as the top banana. A pilot episode was shopped around. There were no takers. However, a couple of months after Johnson’s column, Reiner reworked his ideas a smidgen at the behest of producer Sheldon Leonard and turned them into “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” No more second banana for producer Reiner. He had found his greatest success.

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