Carl Reiner Is Way Too Busy to Die – Vanity Fair
When you’re in your nineties, it’s to be expected that you’re going to have the occasional lapse in memory. But leave it to Carl Reiner to have a good excuse: at age 95, he’s still got so many irons in the fire that, for a brief moment, he wasn’t sure if his chat with Vanity Fair was about his latest book or his latest film project.
As it happens, it was for the latter. Reiner is one of the key participants in the new documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, which premieres on HBO June 5 and looks into the lives of a variety of individuals who are in their nineties or older but aren’t letting their age stop them from keeping busy.
The film was the brainchild of producer George Shapiro, who was struck by inspiration when his ex-wife sent him an article on athlete Ida Keeling—who had crossed the century mark by the time she ran the Penn Relays last year.
“The idea of a person who’s 100 years old and still competing just got me so interested and excited in doing something,” said Shapiro. “But Carl was my closest inspiration, because I’m there all the time visiting Carl, and Mel [Brooks] is always over there, and they’re having such fun together. And another person who I knew very well, Jerry Seinfeld’s mom, she was one of those people who had an infectious personality, and she was at this apartment complex in Florida and met this guy, Abe Wright, who used to be a Flying Tiger in World War II. They met when she was 95 . . . at a dance! So I see these people having fun, having this incredible vitality, and I kept a file. And then Aimee Hyatt, one of the people I work with, kept saying, ‘Pull it out of the file and just shoot it!’ ”
Among the other notable nonagenarians appearing in the film: Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, Stan Lee, Kirk Douglas, Tony Bennett, and the aforementioned Mr. Brooks.
“When he asked me to be in it, I wasn’t yet 90, so I said, ‘I’m much too young for this, George, you’re going to have to wait,’ ” said Brooks. “So when there were some delays in putting it together, I got to be 90, so I said, ‘O.K., I’m here. What do you need?’ And they sat us in Carl’s living room, along with Norman Lear, and we did a session together.”
We spoke with Reiner—who serves as a through line for the film, conducting the interviews with most of the participants—about the resulting film, his own expectations when he reached the big 9-0, his past films, and what he’s doing to keep busy these days.
Vanity Fair: What’s most remarkable about this movie is just seeing the vitality of everyone in it.
Carl Reiner: As a matter of fact, he originally called it Vital at 90, but then somebody switched it over to something I’d said: “If you’re not in the obituaries, eat breakfast.” And I do check the obituaries every morning, first thing. I think a lot of people do. But I look, I check their ages to see when they shuffled off the mortal coil, and I go, ‘Got you beat . . . Got you beat . . . You got me beat . . . ’ ”
One of the other great things about the documentary is seeing you and Mel Brooks together again.
Oh, yes. Well, we see each other almost every night. We watch movies and comment on the world every night . . . and now we have Trump to work with! [Laughs]
You guys clearly still amuse each other. When I talked to Mel several years ago, he told me about how you and he just randomly started riffing back and forth one night about a cigar band.
Yeah, we call that a “really?” We’ve done a lot of those. And the funny thing is, we did it with no one else in the room. We did it for ourselves! [Laughs] I took the cigar band and I handed it to him, and I said, “Doesn’t that look like a real ring?” And he held it up and showed it to me. And I said, “What’d you do?” He said, “What’d I do?” “Did you take off your real gold band? What are you holding?” “I’m holding the paper you gave me.” “No! Give it back to me.” He gave it back to me. I said, “Oh, my God, it is the paper!” We did about a dozen variations on that.
Did it ever occur to you that you’d live to see your nineties?
No. As a matter of fact, many, many years ago, when I was 72, I had a weird infection in two of my vital organs, and I was in the hospital for six or eight weeks. I was out of it for about four weeks. I didn’t even know where I was at! When I woke up in the hospital, I said to myself, “Let’s see: I was born in 1922, it’s now 1994, so I’m 72. Well, I guess that’s it.” I was ready to accept that 72 was the age that I was going to go out! [Laughs] But now here I am approaching 96 . . . and with a new book titled Approaching 96!
Speaking of your books, I should note that I currently have my cherished copy of My Anecdotal Life at arm’s length.
Oh, you’ll have to give my secretary your address, because My Anecdotal Life was only the beginning. After that I did three books—I Remember Me, I Just Remembered, and What I Forgot to Remember—and they’re all really funny. And the last one I did, when I said to Mel, “I don’t know what to do now,” he said, “Start another one and call it Too Busy to Die.” So I did! [Laughs] And now I’ve got Approaching 96, which is a book about the movies I’ve seen since I was four years old and how it influenced my life and how I became who I am by watching movies, and it’s also about the movies I’ve directed.
As far as those directorial efforts go, is there one that you’d consider to be your favorite?
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was my favorite of all the things I ever did, because it was like doing a Sunday crossword puzzle and beating it. Which I can’t do. [Laughs] But for months and months we watched old black-and-white movies and got a line from one after another and said, “This line could be in there!” So we had the movie half done before Steve Martin—who was doing Pennies from Heaven at the time—even came in. All we needed was to put his words to the words we’d gotten from the other movies that were already on the screen.
Do you recall at what point you decided that you wanted to try your hand at directing?
I’d written a movie that wasn’t directed to my liking. The director . . . Well, I don’t want to get into names, but it was cut all cockeyed. You know, when two actors have a scene together and one hits the joke, you don’t cut to the guy who’s said the joke! [Laughs] Anyway, it was cut up so badly that I said, “I’m going to have to protect my movies by directing my own!” And that’s when I directed my first movie: Enter Laughing.
Is there a particular film you’ve directed that you consider to be underrated?
The Man with Two Brains. I had written it and produced it for a company that went out of business after it was finished and ready to be sent to theaters, so it went to another company and . . . they didn’t even know they had it! [Laughs] But I once had a therapist who said that there was this bunch of guys who’d get together and watch the film. He said they must’ve seen it six or eight times, and every one of them could say every line in the film!
That film has one of my favorite scenes ever. It’s the one where Steve Martin hits somebody with his car, and the woman—Kathleen Turner—is lying in the gutter, and he realizes he’s got to get to the hospital. So he goes to a little four-year-old girl who’s standing on the corner, and he gives her a bunch of very complicated orders, including about 20 different medicines, and then he says, “Repeat that back!” And the four-year-old girl repeats it back word for word. But the thing that was memorable about it was that it was done in one take. That little girl had learned it—her mother had taught her, I guess—and she did it very clearly saying these very difficult medical terms!
Thirty years later, I was in some shop or someplace, and this woman was working there who said, “I was in your movie!” I said, “Which one?” She said, “The Man with Two Brains.” I said, “I don’t remember you in that.” She said, “I was the little girl!” I said, “You were that girl? That’s my favorite movie moment of all time!” And the fact that she did it in one take . . . I still just find that amazing.
You’re obviously writing all the time, and you’re still pulling the occasional acting gig: you’re in the new Ocean’s movie.
Yeah, Ocean’s Eight, I think they’re calling it. And I got to work with my favorite actress, Sandra Bullock. I did one little scene with her, and it was such a pleasure. She’s a work of nature.
Do you foresee any further directing in your future?
Oh, no. That takes physical strength and total concentration. I have concentration, but I have no more physical strength to do that. I rarely go out these days. Only for very special occasions. Mostly I hang around the house. [Laughs] But I’m still having so much fun!