Carl Reiner is a show-business legend. At age 95, he’s churning out new comedy projects at a rate that puts younger compatriots to shame, making the title of his new book, Too Busy to Die, hilariously apt. While writing is now the primary outlet for his creativity, it’s merely the latest stage of the actor-writer-producer-director’s illustrious career. After first cutting his teeth in TV — where he worked with Sid Caesar and Steve Allen, and created and co-starred on The Dick Van Dyke Show — Reiner quickly proved himself a formidable multihyphenate. He established a long-running partnership with friend Mel Brooks that gave birth to their legendary “2000-Year-Old Man” routine.
Before long, the movies came calling, and that’s where he confirmed his directing credentials, helming four of Steve Martin’s finest early films. With the third of those big-screen ventures, The Man With Two Brains, recently debuting on Blu-ray, we caught up with Reiner to discuss his current prose endeavors, his collaborations with Martin, and his upcoming appearance in next year’s Ocean’s 8 — reprising the part of Saul Bloom that he originated in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven trilogy.
You’ve managed to stay immensely busy, as evidenced by your recent documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, about artists working into their 90s. What’s the secret to your longevity?
It’s just getting up and having something in your head you want to do. Every morning, something pops, and I have not stopped doing it. My latest book, Mel [Brooks] gave me a title when I finished my last three biographies: Remember Me, I Just Remembered, and What I Forgot to Remember. I said, “What do I do now, Mel?” He says, “Too busy to die.” So I have a book called Too Busy to Die. I finished that, and I came up with an idea for a book called How to Live Forever by Sumwon Hoohaz. I love it. It’s a 120-page book which I’m giving out for free, as a bonus, if people buy Too Busy to Die. I can’t tell you what it is because it’s such a crazy book … 120 pages of madness.
What’s the impetus for this amazing creative output?
It keeps me busy, and it keeps popping like popcorn. I just finished two new books, which we’re about to publish — finished them the other day. It’s two volumes of every movie I’ve seen since I was 6 years old. Putting the posters in, and four clips from the movie on the other page, and so it’s a 900-page work in total — 400 pages and 500 pages. One from the time I was 6 to the time I went into the Army, and then the other from the time I was in the Army until yesterday. Including movies I love viewing and loved doing, in the second book.
Were any of those movies particularly fun to revisit and write about?
Every one of them. But my particular favorites of all time, I mention those, and the love story of all time is Random Harvest. Have you seen that?
I have, years ago.
Watch it again with someone you love. And if there’s not a tear in her eye, dump her!
Do that for me. Get a copy of that and watch it. I’ve seen it six times. Every time I find somebody who hasn’t seen it, I sit them down in my living room and watch it with them to see how they react. It’s one of the best-written movies ever. The other ones that you cannot resist are The Princess Bride, Robbie [Reiner, his son]’s picture. And When Harry Met Sally. And The Count of Monte Cristo  is my favorite of all, because it’s a story of comeuppance, where the villains are the most villainous, and they get the worst comeuppance. Robert Donat was my favorite movie actor; I just loved him.
Any movies of yours that you look back on especially fondly?
Absolutely. There are a few of them. As a matter of fact, it was not only the way the movies came out and were accepted by audiences — it was the doing of the movies. The fun I had doing them. The four Steve Martin movies were among my favorites, because as you can tell, after doing The Jerk, we were like two peas. We just kept popping them. So those four movies were among my favorites — The Man With Two Brains and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and All of Me.
Just a month ago, I showed my family The Jerk for the first time, and they thought it was hilarious.
There are things in that movie that are so crazy. What just came to mind is when he hooks his car up to a church, and he’s telling the police, “It’s a big church pulled by a car. So any church you see being pulled by a car — that’s the one I’m talking about.”
After The Jerk, what compelled you and Martin to spoof specific genres, both with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and The Man With Two Brains — the latter of which just came out on Blu-ray?
That movie [The Man With Two Brains] came about because Steve and I were looking for something to do, and he says, “You know, I used to love a thing called Donovan’s Brain. Let’s do something with the brain.” That’s how it started. We sat down, along with [screenwriter] George Gipe, and we put that together. It was a labor of love. Just the idea of keeping the brain alive in a jar of Windex, to find the proper body for the brain that he loves. [Laughs]
That movie has one of my favorite scenes ever, with the little 4-year-old girl. She’s standing on the corner watching, and Steve has just run over Kathleen Turner and almost killed her, and she’s lying there and he needs help. He says to the 4-year-old girl, “Listen, take these instructions,” and he gives her the most complicated instructions — has her call the ER and gives her four telephone numbers, and then he gives her 10 different kinds of medical treatments. And he has her repeat it, and she repeats it to him, word for word. I’ll never forget that, because I thought we’d be there all day. Luckily I took a close-up of her, because she repeated it word for word and that’s the only take we ever took.
I figured she was reading a cue card just off-camera.
No, no, she was 4, she couldn’t read! And by the way, one day I was at a store, and there’s a woman who’s an executive there, and she says, “We know each other.” I say, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t recall.” She says, “Remember that girl from The Man With Two Brains,” and I said, “Oh my God!” She was like 35 years old. That was one of my favorite human beings ever, that little girl!
You didn’t immediately put her on the spot and have her recite the scene again?
No, I didn’t. [Laughs]
One of the things about your Steve Martin collaborations is the way they crazily bounce between various gags. Were they heavily scripted, or was there a lot of improvisation during shooting?
The only one that wasn’t scripted was Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, because that was like a crossword puzzle. Steve was doing Pennies From Heaven at the time, and myself and George Gipe, we put a wall full of little one-liners on it. We said, “Now our hero will be talking to this guy,” and we got his name — when Charles Laughton calls somebody “Mr. Rigby,” I said, “Well, that’s his name: Rigby.” And then someone else calls him “Reardon,” so that’s how his name became “Rigby Reardon.” [Laughs] We got everything from something that was done before. That was like doing the Sunday crossword puzzle, and getting it done.
How did you settle on Turner for The Man With Two Brains? Was it made easier by her desire to play off of her breakout Body Heat role?
Yes. She was so beautiful, and then she turns out to be this terrible human being. Steve looks at her when she’s lying there, and she’s just given her husband — who’s an aficionado of tropical fish — dinner, and he says “This fish is delicious; where did you get it from?” And she says, “From that tank.” [Laughs] And then she kicks a cat, and the cat hits the wall and its claws rip a Renoir. He dies of a heart attack. And that’s when she gets hit, and Steve says, “An angel!”
Were you surprised that Martin’s slander of Turner — “Scum Queen” — became such a popular insult around the time of the film?
No, I was happy. Because if it made me laugh, I knew it would make others laugh. That’s a line that came out of his head — he ad-libbed that line.
That movie has a lovely ending, where he keeps the brain in Windex looking for a body, and he finds somebody and it turns out that this woman he doesn’t know is obese. When he meets her, she says she’s really sorry about her appearance, and he says he never noticed. Even the credits are funny, because he carries her into her house, and he lifts her up, and she finally collapses on him. A very romantic ending. [Laughs]
At what point did you decide to segue into film directing?
I wanted to direct film when I saw a film of mine that was directed by somebody else, something I’d written, and I said, “You know something, the next picture I write, I’m going to protect it by directing it myself.” I knew better how to make a comedy than these guys. They were very good guys, but I was just upset with some of the cutting. So to protect what I’d written, I decided to direct.
As we’ve been discussing, you had tremendous success with Steve Martin. What made your collaborative relationship work so well?
Even on the first one, The Jerk — and by the way, he brought that to me; it was written, and so I did some work on it with him — we saw eye to eye. In fact, we went to work every day driven together, and on the way to the set, he’d have an idea and I’d say, “We’ve got to get that into the script.” I remember once, it was a scene we’d already done, and I said, “Hold it, hold it. Don’t tear that wall down. It’ll be the side of a house.” This was when he was leaving home. Navin — and by the way, Mel Brooks gave us the name Navin. He said it was from the fact that, in the southern African-American community, some African-Americans had names that were a little off. Way back, literacy was a problem, and they would hear a name like “Irving” and it would become “Earvin.” And Mel said, “Maybe they were trying to say ‘Nathan’ and they said ‘Navin.’” That’s how he got the name Navin.
So Steve is coming around the corner and going out into the world for the first time, and his father stops and says, “I don’t know if you’re ready, son. You need to know certain things. You see that down there,” and Navin says, “I don’t know.” And the dad says, “That’s shit.” And then he holds up a can of shoe polish, and he says, “And this is Shinola.” And then he points to one and says “Shit,” and then to the other and says “Shinola.” And when Navin repeats it, he says “Son, you’re ready to go.” [Laughs]
Why did you choose to stop directing features after 1997’s That Old Feeling?
I started getting old! It’s a very wearing thing. You come on the set, you’re the first one there — before the actors, because you have to set things up — and you’re the last one to leave, and then you’re still working, with the cutting and selling the film. So it’s very wearing.
In the years after that, you made a memorable impression in the Ocean’s Eleven movies. Do you have anything to do with the upcoming sequel?
It’s funny. The new one coming out next year, Ocean’s 8, which is done with women — Sandra Bullock, and Anne Hathaway, and wonderful women. Sandra Bullock is one of my all-time favorite actresses — I just adore her work. The Net, I must have seen three or four times. It’s another one of those comeuppance movies, where terrible people get what they deserve in the end. She’s so wonderful in it. So I had a very short scene with her. The Ocean’s 8 women are going to steal some art, and so just a little two-minute scene I had with her, and I was able to tell her, “I absolutely adore you and everything you do.” It was lovely just to do a little scene with her.
Besides Ocean’s 8, and all your books, what else is on your busy plate?
It’s going to be another book. I just had another idea for a book just two days ago. I woke up two days ago and went, “Oh, that’s a good one.” Because this whole book project on the films I loved viewing and doing — all of a sudden something occurred to me. I won’t tell you about it, because if you tell about it, you don’t do it. But it’s in the works now. And hopefully I’ll get something after that. I wrote a book called All Kinds of Love that someone’s now adapting into a Broadway musical too, so there a couple of things like that going on that are interesting.
And I’m also hawking my book, Too Busy to Die, which is maybe one of the best things I’ve written. It has some things in it that I’m so proud of, and I also have a thing at the end about the 15 things I know about God that nobody else does, and that is almost worth the price of admission alone. I’m telling everybody, if they buy Too Busy to Die, they get — free of charge — How to Live Forever. Everybody wants to live forever, so I think it’s a good deal. And if you order through Random Content, you’ll get an autographed book!
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