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Carl Reiner, comedy’s rare untortured genius, dies at 98

NEW YORK (AP) — Carl Reiner, who died Monday at 98, was the rare untortured genius of comedy, his career a story of laughter and camaraderie, of innovation and triumph and affection. Reiner’s persona was so warm and approachable — everyone’s friend or favorite uncle — that you could forget that he was an architect of modern comedy, a “North Star,” in the words of Billy Crystal.

As a writer and director, he mastered a genial, but sophisticated brand of humor that Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld and others emulated. As an actor, he was the ideal straight man for such manic performers as Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar and dependably funny on his own. As an all-around talent, he helped perfect two standard television formats — sketch and situation comedy.

Reiner died of natural causes at his Beverly Hills, California home, assistant Judy Nagy said.

Tall and agile, equally striking whether bald or toupeed, he entertained in every medium available to him, from movies and vinyl records to Broadway and Twitter. But he will be remembered best for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the landmark series which aired from 1961-66 and was a master class of wit, ensemble playing, physical comedy and the overriding good nature of Reiner himself.

Based on his time in the 1950s with Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” the forerunner to “Saturday Night Live,” it was among the first sit-coms about TV itself and inspired such future hits as “Mad About You” and “30 Rock.”

As millions of fans know, Van Dyke starred as comedy writer Rob Petrie, who worked for the demanding, eccentric Alan Brady (Reiner) and lived on Bonnie Meadow Road in suburban New Rochelle with his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore, in her first major TV role) and young son. Petrie’s fellow writers were veteran character actors Morey Amsterdam as Buddy Sorrell and Rose Marie as Sally Rogers. Reiner originally had a very different title and cast in mind. The pilot was called “Head of the Family,” which starred Reiner and Barbara Britton, and aired as a single episode in July 1960. But CBS executives worried that Reiner would make Petrie seem too Jewish, so Van Dyke was cast instead.

Reiner likely needed the time spared from playing the lead. Besides acting in and producing the “Van Dyke” series, he wrote or co-wrote dozens of episodes — a feat that exhausted Reiner and amazed the cast and others in the business. Some of the more notable shows: Laura inadvertently revealing to the public that Alan Brady was bald; Rob on a radio marathon, delirious from lack of sleep, calling out to a kitten he’s learned is stuck in a tree; Rob as a jury foreman, clumsily smitten by the attractive defendant (Sue Ann Langdon), and unaware that Laura is in the courtroom.

“I can explain … nothing,” a sheepish Rob later tells his wife.

“Although it was a collaborative effort,” Van Dyke wrote in “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, a memoir published in 2011, “everything about the show stemmed from his (Reiner’s) endlessly and enviably fascinating, funny, and fertile brain and trickled down to the rest of us.” On Tuesday, Van Dyke called Reiner “kind, gentle, compassionate, empathetic and wise.”

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