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.