Carl Reiner on Being Vital After 90
Tips from the late, great comedian, actor, director and writer
(In tribute to Carl Reiner's passing, Next Avenue is republishing this 2017 story about him.)
Carl Reiner admits that a few years ago, he got the bejeebees scared out of him.
The 95-year-old comedy icon explains in HBO’s documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast that he was reading the newspaper, as he does every morning. “Before having breakfast, I pick up my newspaper, get the obituary section and see if I’m listed,” he jokes in the film. “If I’m not, I’ll have my breakfast.”
One day, though, Reiner actually was in the obits, in a manner of speaking. When actress Polly Bergen died at 84 in 2014, the newspaper Reiner was reading published a huge photo of him with Bergen at the 1958 Emmy Awards with her obituary. He began thinking about why some of his friends passed away years ago and why others are still thriving in their 90s. “Was it luck, genes, modern medicine or are we doing something right?” he wondered.
This spurred the idea for the documentary, produced by Reiner’s nephew George Shapiro (who is also Reiner’s manager) and directed by Danny Gold. Reiner serves as host and talks with many of his nonagenarian friends such as Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Betty White, and many others. There are also interviews with Stan Lee, Dick Van Dyke and many other people who are amazing in their 90s or even 100s, even if they aren’t household names.
Just Getting Started
The documentary’s opening song, The Best is Yet to Come, is sung by Tony Bennett, 90, and an original song, Just Getting Started, is performed and co-co-written by Alan Bergman, also 90.
Viewers will also meet Ida Keeling, 101, an American track and field athlete; Tao Porchon-Lynch, 98, who is still a yoga teacher and has done yoga since she was a child and Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, 95, who fought in D-Day and, you’ll see, still sky dives.
One of the younger set in the film, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, has decided that he is going to live to at least 100. In fact, he’s so sure of it that he has reserved the stage at Caesars Palace for his 100th birthday on April 29, 2054.
What’s Reiner’s secret to his longevity?
“What keeps me going at 95 is the things in my head that I have to get out of my head. I don’t want them whirling in there, so I write,” Reiner explains. Since he turned 90, Reiner has written a book a year, and he’s currently working on two more. His most recently released book, Too Busy to Die, begins with his first acting gig — he was 6 years old when he performed at P.S. 92’s production of Six Who Pass While the Lentils Boil. He has written three memoirs about growing up in the Bronx and has got a lot more in him.
Staying Active at Any Age
Reiner says that if you want to keep your vitality, have something in your life that keeps you wanting to get up in the morning.
“If you have something to do, anything, whatever it is, [do it]!” he says. Reiner recommends that you write — even if the only thing you’ve ever previously written is a letter. “Just putting words down on paper about things that mean things to you. I suggest writing as a way to stay connected to yourself and to the world,” he says. “Everybody likes to know of other people’s feelings and experiences about whatever.”
Even if you don’t think you will ever publish your writing, Reiner says, do it anyway. “If you please yourself, you may very well also please somebody else,” he notes.
Besides writing, Reiner says, “The thing that tickles me most now is I’m reliving my life through television, watching things that I remember loving, and watching them again — getting the same pleasure out of them.” (If you’re wondering what his favorite movies are, they’re Random Harvest, The Count of Monte Cristo andThe Princess Bride, directed by his son, Rob Reiner.)
One of Reiner’s television shows that has held up over the years also happens to be his favorite — The Dick Van Dyke Show. Originally, the show was called Head of the Family and was based on Reiner’s career working as a TV writer. Reiner wrote 13 episodes. But after they shot the pilot, starring Reiner, the project was dropped. Reiner went on writing other projects and says that he forgot about the show.
His agent at the time, though, didn’t. “I was called into Sheldon Leonard’s office. He was a producer at the time. My agent was upset that these 13 episodes were lying on his desk and he hadn’t gotten any money for them,” recalls Reiner. “He gave them to Sheldon, and Sheldon said, ‘I love these scripts.’ I said, ‘Sheldon, I don’t want to fail with the same material twice.’ He said, ‘You won’t fail. I’ll get a better actor to play you.’ He suggested Dick Van Dyke. I went to New York and saw him in Bye Bye Birdie and I saw the single most talented man I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Reiner also talked about his late wife, Estelle. She passed at age 94, but didn’t start working as a jazz singer until turning 60. “She recorded 127 songs on seven albums,” says Reiner. “She went and played in clubs from the time she was 60 until she was 94. She did full concerts!”
What Reiner Has Learned About Life
Like her, Reiner shows no sign of slowing down. This past spring, he and Rob put their hand and footprints in cement together at TCL Chinese Theater (formerly known as Grauman’s Chinese Theater). Reiner says that while Kirk and son Michael Douglas have their prints there, he and Rob are the first father-son filmmaking team to have put their prints in at the same time.
Over all his years in comedy and life, what has Reiner learned?
“Don’t take things for granted. You’re smarter than you think. Be yourself — that’s all you can be, and you’re not different than they are,” says Reiner. “We’re all the same!”
The new HBO documentary If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, hosted by Reiner, debuts on HBO on Monday June 5 at 8 p.m. ET.
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