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Carl Reiner, Who Turns 97 Soon, Is Still Working On Projects


Carl Reiner turns 97 years old in March. A comedian, writer, actor, director, producer, tweeter - he's a noted critic of President Trump. Reiner was part of the golden days of television, writing for 1950s comedy star Sid Caesar on a team that included Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. He helped create "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and directed Steve Martin's films "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" and "The Jerk." These days, Reiner's producing lots of books. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to Beverly Hills to talk about the latest one.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Carl Reiner lives on Rodeo Drive - not the glitzy part, the tasteful, still expensive other part. He's lived there since 1961. His longtime wife, Estelle, died there 10 years ago. She and Carl loved going out to the movies. And Estelle was in a movie, "When Harry Met Sally..." directed by their son Rob Reiner. She delivered this iconic line.


ESTELLE REINER: (As Older Woman Customer) I'll have what she's having.

STAMBERG: Alone now but for a staff of helpers, Carl writes about his favorite films in several books. The newest one, done last year, is called "Approaching Ninety-Six: The Films I Love Viewing And Loved Doing (1951-2017)." He saw his first movie, a silent, at age 4. His parents took him.

CARL REINER: And it was "Faust." They couldn't leave me at home, my brother and I, so we sat "Faust" like this (ph).

STAMBERG: That's some heavy-duty movie to start with. Here's the guy. He's making a deal with the devil. He's selling his soul. I'm surprised you ever went to another movie after that.

C REINER: (Laughter) I know. Mainly, after that, we went to Marx Brothers movies. And we saw everything.

STAMBERG: Everything. He loved them all - silent films, the talkies. "Random Harvest," a 1942 tear-jerker, is his all-time favorite. Loved the musicals, Emma Stone...

C REINER: She just melts me.

STAMBERG: Carl Reiner was in his pajamas when we spoke, one of those little nose things pumping oxygen into him. Just a few days out of the hospital, he was happy to talk and watch Emma's latest film, "The Favourite," on a huge TV screen by his bed.


OLIVIA COLEMAN: (As Queen Anne) I know. That was what was so troubling about it, though, the thought that I suddenly did.

C REINER: This is not Emma, is it?

STAMBERG: No, this was a bunch of ducks.

We came to talk movies, and we did - briefly. The 1958 musical "Gigi" prompted his imitation of French star Maurice Chevalier.

C REINER: (Imitating Maurice Chevalier, singing) Thank heaven for pretty girls. Pretty girls get prettier every day.

STAMBERG: You know, Carl Reiner, you could have a career in show business with that voice.

C REINER: (Laughter) Yes. Well, I wanted to be an opera singer.

STAMBERG: Over and over again, he played his father's 78 rpm records of the great tenor Enrico Caruso, which prompted another musical interlude.

C REINER: And to this day, (singing in Italian).

STAMBERG: Did you have a big career in opera?

C REINER: No. The only thing I didn't, I sang a little off-key and a little out of rhythm.

STAMBERG: He switched ambitions after seeing a note in the New York Daily News about free acting lessons with Mrs. Wittenberg (ph).

C REINER: First day there, she says, we're going to do - all of us, boys and girls - are going to do the death of Ophelia.

(Reciting) There is a willow grows aslant a brook that shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.

STAMBERG: He's almost 97, and he recites Shakespeare monologues. So thanks to Mrs. Wittenberg, Carl Reiner ended up in all the recent "Ocean's Eleven" through 107 "Ocean's" movies. The original "Ocean's 11" in 1960 starred Frank Sinatra. Carl first saw Sinatra when he and Estelle, just married, went to the 1943 movie "Reveille With Beverly."

"Reveille With Beverly"?

C REINER: We held hands. That's it. That's why he's (inaudible) he is.

STAMBERG: Years later, after he knew Sinatra, the singer asked Carl how he got along with his parents. My mother's my biggest fan, Carl said. What about you?

C REINER: He says, my father never spoke of me.

STAMBERG: Sinatra told his story. One time, the famous young singer went looking for his fireman father in a bar. Anthony Martin Sinatra wasn't there. They said he'd had a fight. Some guy had insulted Frank.

C REINER: He says, he took a bar stool and hit a guy in the head; he defended me.

STAMBERG: Frank went over to the firehouse. His dad's locker was open, and Frank saw it was lined with record covers and photos of his son. But Anthony was Old World. He didn't know how to express pride in his only child.

C REINER: Then he says, I made him sit down and talk to me. And we got it on.

STAMBERG: Sinatra and Reiner became friends - not best friends like Carl and Mel Brooks. Lots of Mel's movies are Carl's favorites - "Blazing Saddles," "The Producers," "Young Frankenstein." He and Mel see each other all the time.

C REINER: Funniest man I know - absolutely the funniest man I know.

STAMBERG: The two met in the 1950s writing TV skits for Sid Caesar's "Your Show Of Shows." A few days after being introduced, Reiner saw Brooks in the writers' room.

C REINER: I just started talking. I said, we are lucky to have with us today a man who's 2,000 years old. I just said it to him. I said, you knew Jesus, didn't you? He says, wait a minute. Thin lad - right? - always wore sandals, walked around with 12 other guys. They were nice boys.

STAMBERG: And thus, the legendary comedy classic, the "2,000 Year Old Man," was born - totally ad-libbed, not a script in sight. They did it at parties for about 10 years. Then they made a record, invited a bunch of friends in, ad-libbed for two or three hours, cut it down to 47 minutes, handed out vinyls to friends. Cary Grant bought 12 copies and took them to England.

C REINER: When he came back, he said, she loved it. Who? The queen mother. And I said to Mel, we're home free. The biggest shiksa in the world loved the "2,000 Year Old Man."


C REINER: (As Interviewer) Sir, could you give us the secret of your longevity?

MEL BROOKS: (As 2,000 Year Old Man) Well, the major thing - the major thing is that I never, ever touch fried food.


STAMBERG: Carl Reiner was pretty frail at the start of our conversation. But telling his stories, he got more and more animated. After an hour, it was time to leave. On the way out, a staffer handed me a big bag of oranges from Carl's tree - not quite ripe but I loved saying, would you like an orange from Carl Reiner's tree? After a few days, though, the oranges became as sweet as their owner.

In Los Angeles, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MCCOY TYNER'S "WHEN SUNNY GETS BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.