On June 29, Carl Reiner, the much acclaimed actor, comedian, director, screenwriter, and author, whose career spanned seven decades, passed away prompting an outpouring of love. During the early years of TV comedy, 1950 to 1957, he played second banana to the iconic comedian Sid Caesar and contributed sketch material for Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour.
In the 1960s, Reiner was the creator, producer, writer, and actor on The Dick Van Dyke Show and was second banana to Mel Brooks in their hilarious 2000 Year Old Man album. In his remarkable career Reiner won 11 Emmys, 1 Grammy and The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. (He was also best friends with Brooks for over 70 years!)
Unfortunately, I never got to meet Carl. But, on my agent’s speaker phone, I heard him seem to give me an unbelievable compliment. (I’ll let you decide if it was or wasn’t.)
My agent, Sandy Ruben, was an intelligent and sophisticated woman who had endless energy and knew everyone in Hollywood. (For 28 years she was married to Aaron Ruben, a TV writer, director and producer of The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and Sanford and Son.)
As a young writer, I was extremely fortunate to get Sandy to represent me. She also mentored me and taught me about the art of writing. (And, on occasion drove me a little crazy, though I’m sure it was mutual.) Seemingly scattered at times, reminiscent of Gracie Allen’s stage character, when we’d go through my script, she was all business and all brilliant.
Evidently, Sandy had sent some of my writing to Carl because, one day he called while I was there. She put him on the speaker and signaled for me to shush. Just hearing a comedy God the likes of Carl Reiner mention my name was a thrill.
At one point Carl referred to me as “precious talent,” to which I thought I was going to faint. That is, until Sandy hung up the phone and mused out loud, “I wonder if he meant it as a compliment.”
I had no idea there was a negative definition of precious but I didn’t want her to know of my ignorance. I rushed home, grabbed a dictionary and, to my horror, here’s what I found. Precious: 1: great value or high price, precious jewels. 2 : highly esteemed or cherished, a precious friend. 3: excessively affected, precious manner. (Of #3, it might as well have read, “You don’t want to be this, Jack.”)
Weeks later, I was still wondering about the “precious talent” comment, even as Sandy drove us to Burbank studios to meet Carl who was directing a Steve Martin movie. Unfortunately, as we arrived “production problems” caused our appointment to be canceled. (And caused my “precious talent” paranoia to grow.)
Before we could re-schedule, Sandy needed to devote more time helping care for her grandchildren and we ultimately parted ways. I hadn’t thought about Carl and “precious talent” until years later when I wrote and directed a play at the Church in Ocean Park, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… Irving!”
The play was about Holocaust survivor, Irv Zupperman, who had been misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s because, while ever sarcastic he was completely lucid but insisted he was…a super hero. (And proudly wore a t-shirt with a big “Z” in the middle.)
One night after the show, George Shapiro, Jerry Seinfeld’s business manager (and Carl’s cousin) wanted to meet me. That night my senior citizen cast had dropped props and missed cues so I sheepishly apologized to George. “Nonsense,” he said, “it’s uncanny how your play reminds me of Carl’s early work.” (Referring to “Enter Laughing.”)
After becoming a tennis buddy of George’s, I occasionally thought of repeating the “precious talent” story but thankfully I didn’t. Then, in December 2016, I read Carl was coming to the Santa Monica Main Library to promote his new book, Carl Reiner, Now You’re 94.
I thought about approaching Carl after the book signing, mentioning Sandy and then somehow asking if he ever used the term “precious talent,” in a negative way. A good friend correctly insisted, “All these years later, you’ll sound like a wacko stalker.” Yikes!
In addition to his children, his grandchildren and his world of friends and fans, just about everybody who’s ever watched TV has mourned, or are still mourning, Carl’s passing. That includes his lifelong best friend, Mel Brooks, whose son, Max said, “Is in deep shock,” however joking like his dad might under other circumstances, “their friendship was old enough to collect Social Security.”
While there was always plenty of doubt about my “precious talent” there’s absolutely no doubt Carl was a first class mensch. It’s Yiddish for the highest praise a person can receive, “Someone of enormous integrity, humility and honor.” May he rest in peace.
Please go to YouTube and type “Carl Reiner, a founding father of TV comedy.” Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.