Carl Reiner & Rob Reiner

In a first-ever joint interview, the talented Reiners—the elder a 12-time Emmy-winning TV pioneer; the younger an Emmy-winning actor and director—reflect on their father-son relationship.

Carl Reiner once said he wasn't quite good enough as a scholar to fulfill his father's ambition and become a doctor. He did become a one-man band—comedian, actor, director, producer, voice artist and author. He created The Dick Van Dyke Show, which became one of the most famous sitcoms in TV history and catapulted Mary Tyler Moore to fame, and continues to make small-screen appearances, most recently on the hit series, Two and a Half Men. An inductee of the Television Hall of Fame for his accomplishments over six decades, Reiner has also spent a great deal of time as an activist and in charitable work.

Rob Reiner followed in his dad's footsteps and began acting at age 16. He transitioned from two-time Emmy-winning actor—for his role in the groundbreaking hit series, All in the Family—to versatile filmmaker and one of the industry's top directors. Under the banner of Castle Rock Entertainment, his box office hits include some of Hollywood's most popular and influential films, such as Misery, When Harry Met Sally... and A Few Good Men. Reiner is also a children's advocate, political activist and committed environmentalist. His next feature is the romantic comedy, And So It Goes.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with one of the great pioneers of television, writer and performer Carl Reiner, and his equally talented son, writer, director and actor Rob Reiner who earned two Emmys for his work on “All In The Family” and has gone on to direct comedy classics like “This is Spinal Tap” and “When Harry Met Sally.”

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation about fathers and sons with Carl Reiner and Rob Reiner coming up right now.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Actor and director Rob Reiner who’s given us such great comedies like “This is Spinal Tap” and “When Harry Met Sally” grew up in a household dominated by laughter generated in no small measure, of course, by his father, one Carl Reiner, one of the pioneers of television who, among his many credits, created “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

He was also part of “Your Show of Shows” with Sid Caesar, of course, and with his good friend, Mel Brooks, created “The 2000 Year Old Man” – love that. He has a new memoir out now. It’s titled “I Just Remembered.”

Before we begin our conversation, though, we’ll start with a look at a clip from Rob’s latest movie, “And So It Goes.”

[Clip]

Tavis: Only Rob Reiner could get Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas. This has never happened before.

Rob Reiner: No. They’ve never acted with each other. They both were dying to do it and they’re sensational together. They’re just really great. Great chemistry.

Tavis: Give me a bit about the story line.

Rob: Well, it’s basically about finding love later on in life. I mean, when we did “Bucket List” and we did the press tour on it, everybody would ask us the question, “What’s on your bucket list?”

And whenever they asked Jack Nicholson, he would say, “One more great romance” and that gave me the idea to do a film about two people who find each other later on in life. It’s a love story for adults.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, Rob. “Bucket List” did quite well at the box office.

Rob: It did very well, yeah.

Tavis: What’s happening or what has to happen in this contemporary moment for a movie starring actors who are chronologically gifted, shall we say [laugh]…

Rob: Very kind of you, Tavis, very, very kind.

Tavis: I mean, how do you make that work in Hollywood? Because the rub is that – you know, the adage is that this stuff doesn’t make money.

Rob: Well, it does. I mean, “The Bucket List” did, as you say, quite well and there is an audience of baby boomers. There’s a very large segment of the population. We made the joke when we screened “Bucket List” that there was 100% desire to see amongst our demographic with a 40% ability to get them to see it [laugh].

So we’re hoping that they will get to the theater. If there’s something there that they like, they’ll come, yeah.

Tavis: So I’m going to talk to your dad, of course. I’m so glad – I’m just honored to have the two of you here together on this couch. What was it like – and I was just stunned – actually, maybe stunned is too strong a word. I was tickled when I saw this. Your father was on television before your family owned a television.

Rob: That’s right.

Tavis: Is that true?

Rob: That is absolutely true. He started in television in 1946-47. We first got a television, I think, it was ’49 or ’50 when he was doing “Show of Shows.” It was the “Admiral Broadway Review” and then it became “Show of Shows.” And we used to gather around this little tiny television. It was about that big.

Carl Reiner: 10-incher.

Rob: 10-inch small television. I was like four or five years old. I was a little kid. And he would say to me – and it was on Saturday night, you know, so it was late at night.

And he would say to me, “You know, when we say goodnight at the end of the show, they don’t want us waving. I can’t wave at you like this. But what I’m going to do is I’m gonna let you know that I know that you’re watching. I’m gonna adjust my tie.”

He would adjust his tie like that and that meant I love you and it’s time to go to sleep. So he did that every night, Saturday nights, and we watched, yeah.

Carl: And Carol Burnett used the ear [laugh].

Tavis: And what do you make all these years later, Carl Reiner, that your son has not just followed in your footsteps, but…

Carl: Oh, he jumped over my footsteps. Rob has made my favorite movies of all time. “The Princess Bride” comes on televisions sometimes. I cannot leave it until it’s over. I find myself laughing. The very first movie he ever made…

Rob: “This is Spinal Tap.”

Carl: “This is Spinal Tap,” brilliant. Every movie he’s made, save one, and thank goodness…

Rob: More than save one [laugh].

Carl: No, because if they’re all perfect, then they’ll hurt him. Somebody will hurt him. They’ll say he’s too good. Well, he’s not perfect. One movie didn’t work. But his movies, I consider him the best director-writer on television – on motion pictures today.

Tavis: Which one is he talking about?

Rob: There’s a couple of stinkers in there [laugh]. But, you know, we love all our children equally [laugh].

Tavis: So your friend Mel Brooks was here…

Carl: Yes, I know.

Tavis: A few weeks ago.

Carl: We watched together.

Tavis: Thank you for watching. We had a wonderful time talking to him and he absolutely adores you. I mean, when you mention your name to Mel Brooks, he just lights up like a…

Carl: Oh, it’s mutual. We love each other. He’s my very, very best friend in the world. And for 10 years, I questioned this guy. In this “200 Year Old Man,” he never knew what I was going to ask him and I never knew what he was going to say. I had to bite my lip most of the time not to get a laughter on the track.

Tavis: Tell me about “2000 Year Old Man” and your recollection of it.

Carl: Well, the beginning of it was very funny because I didn’t know who he was. I came to do “The Show of Shows” as a straight man for Sid, and there’s this guy standing up. He’s working for Sid at the time. He’s not working for the show. He’s getting $50 a week for Sid for jokes.

But he’s standing up and he’s doing a Jewish pirate [laugh]. And I’ll never forget the first three lines. He says, “You know what it’s costing to buy a yard of sailcloth these days?” He says, “$3.95 for a yard of sailcloth. I can’t afford to pillage or rape anymore.” For the next 10 years, I questioned him. We never put it on record until 10 years later.

Tavis: You still got your friend, Mel. I assume you miss your friend, Sid Caesar.

Carl: Oh, boy. Well, how can you not miss the man who made your career for you? I mean, I worked with Sid for seven years nose to nose and saw the greatest comedian that ever lived, the greatest sketch comedian that ever lived.

I think he formed the sketch comedy world by his performance. Every comedian today owes something to him.

Tavis: Rob, how does one go – this is an age old question, but how does one go about trying to find his or her own voice, come into their own talent, when you have this sort of luminous…

Rob: It’s very, very difficult. I mean, you know, when I was a little boy, they tell the story ’cause actually obviously I did it and they tell the story that I was about eight years old and I went to my mother actually. And I said to my mother, “I want to change my name.”

And she thought, oh, my God, this poor kid, you know, having to live up to Carl Reiner and then living in that shadow, and she felt so bad for me. She says, “Well, what do you want to change your name to?” and I said, “Carl.”

I loved him so much and I admired him so much and I looked up to him that I wanted to be like him, but it was not easy. I mean, the greatest, funniest people in the world came over to our house, you know.

And if you think about “The Show of Shows” and what it has spawned, anything that you laughed at in the second half of the 20th century, you can look back to that show. I mean, between Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and Neil Simon and Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart and Aaron Ruben and Joe Stein and Mike Stewart, I mean, these are – you know, the output of their work.

I mean, just between, you know, Woody Allen and Neil Simon alone and then Mel Brooks, I mean, it’s astounding when you think about it.

Tavis: I could see you deciding to run 180 degrees in the other direction because there is so much pressure and expectation. All these people you mentioned are at your kitchen table every other night. I mean, why set yourself up for that kind of pressure?

Rob: You know, that’s a good question, Tavis. I don’t know why I did it…

Tavis: Why do it to yourself?

Rob: I don’t know why I did it, but all I know is I loved so much what he did. I was so fortunate because, when I was like 13, 14, 15, 16 when he was doing “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” I know I must have been a pain in the ass, but he let me come every day for the summer when I was off from school in the summertime.

I’d go down to the Desilu Cahuenga Studios. I’d sit there and I’d observe and I’d watch, you know, him working with the other writers and with the actors and watch the director stage the scenes.

And it was like a tremendous experience for me and I always just wanted that. But it was overwhelming. I didn’t know how I could quite ever do that.

Carl: Oh, there’s no question about it that Robbie Reiner is one of the smartest people I know. And he’s been smart since he’s a little kid, very serious. When he was three or four years old and we used to do the “2000 Year Old Man,” he would sit on the steps.

He would get it. He would get it. There’s a very good brain in there. There’s no question about that he had to become who he became.

Tavis: Carl, let me ask you…

Carl: By the way, his brain mainly is from his mother [laugh]. I said this many times and I really meant it. His mother was an extraordinary woman, Estelle Lebost Reiner. I said she raised three great kids. He has two siblings that are – I’m so proud of all my kids.

But I said she raised three great kids and one great husband. Of course, I was eight years younger when I married her and she informed everything I knew about everything, the social meanings…

Rob: Social justice, yeah.

Tavis: See, you’re starting to answer a question that I want to ask. Let me just ask it anyway, which is how in this industry which is notorious for what it does to families, how you have maintained this intact, loving family structure. How’d you and your wife do that?

Carl: Well, you know, there’s one thing that keeps it. The thing that matters most to my wife and I are the kids. The thing that should matter to everybody more than anything is the children.

What you send out to the world, nontoxic people keep this world – and if you can send people out that you’re proud to have raised, there’s nothing that you could have done in movies or anything else in the world.

Maybe cure every disease in the world, but that’s not even – but sending out like the three kids I have, my grandchildren, I have five grandchildren. They’re all part of that thing of sending out wonderful people in the world.

They’ve done it with their kids. My son Lucas is doing it with his kids. My daughter is a doctor of philosophy and a psychoanalyst. Sending those people into the world is the best thing I’ve ever done or ever will do.

Tavis: Have you ever, Rob – we’re talking about this and this is a Father’s Day conversation. Have you ever felt that you were disappointing your father? And if you ever felt that, how’d you navigate your way through that? Maybe you didn’t, but this is a whole lot of…

Rob: Well, yeah. I mean, not that I was disappointing him, but that I…

Tavis: Not measuring up or…

Rob: Yeah, that kind of thing certainly. I mean, I was always wanting his approval and I think that – you know, I remember very distinctly when I was like 19 years old and I had directed a production of “No Exit” which is a pretty, you know, adventurous thing to do at 19. Richard Dreyfuss was in the show.

And I remember my father – the thing that I love about him aside from a million other things is that he would never BS me, you know. He never did. So I remember him coming backstage after it and he looked me in the eye and he said, “That was good.” No BS, and it made me feel really good.

I was not living at home at the time and I came to see him the next day at his house. We sat in the backyard and he said, “I’m not worried about you. Whatever you do, it’s gonna be okay.” And that was a big deal.

I was at age 19. It was a very big deal for me to get that. I didn’t ask for it, but he went and gave that. I knew it was honest and real because he would never just say that.

Carl: By the way, I asked him a question because it was some of the best directing I’ve ever seen. I said, “No Exit” is about adults. I said, “How did you get them to give that performance?” He told me something that was so brilliant. He said, “I told them don’t play older people. Play yourselves. Play your own age.”

And doing that made it all come to life. If they had put on any kind of character, it would have been false. It was so true, but he knew enough to say, “Play your own age.” They all were honest.

Tavis: When you, Carl Reiner, when you were watching Rob play Meathead on “All in the Family,” we know what we were seeing. What were you seeing watching him play this iconic character now?

Carl: Well, first of all, it was the best piece of acting I’ve ever seen. I mean, he played himself because he had a lot of those feelings about – you know, he was a liberal in the world of reactionaries.

But he was so comfortable in his own skin and the relationship with Archie, I mean, they did some of the funniest sketches I’ve ever seen. There was one sketch with shoes. They adlibbed in the – tell them that one.

Rob: In rehearsal, yeah. It’s the one scene that whenever anybody comes up to me…

Tavis: Is that the shoe and the sock…

Rob: Yeah, the sock and the shoe.

Tavis: I love that scene [laugh].

Rob: Everybody says to me…

Tavis: It’s a classic scene, yeah.

Rob: It happened in rehearsal when I started putting on my sock and then my shoe. And Carroll says, “What are you doing?” I said, “What do you mean? I’m putting on my socks and shoes.” He says, “You don’t do it that way.” And then we got into it in this rift and we put it on.

Carl: Which one put the shoe and the sock…?

Rob: I put the sock and the shoe. To this day, I still do it. I put on one sock and then one shoe, then one sock and one shoe [laugh].

Carl: He had very good logical thinking. He says, “Suppose you go out and it’s raining. At least you can hop around while one foot…”

Rob: Stays dry. Your way, you’re getting wet all the time [laugh]. But, I mean, it was just – you know, that was the…

Tavis: But, Rob, what’s amazing about this wonderful familial story here is that the chances are like slim that the father ends up doing iconic work in television and that the son does the same thing. I mean, when you look at the list, I mean, anybody’s list, of the best TV shows ever done, both you and your father are on the list.

Rob: Yeah. And, you know, one year they had these – you know, they have these Top 10 lists, you know, for movies. And one year, I remember he directed “All of Me,” the Steve Martin movie, and that was the year I did “Spinal Tap” and we both were on these Top 10 lists. So I thought that was even more incredible that directors – there are no father-son directors that both achieve at that high level.

And I’ve had this conversation with Michael Douglas who’s a good friend. We count on one hand the number of people whose fathers achieved at a very, very high level whose children also, you know, did well. And there’s not a long list, you know.

Tavis: It’s clear how this relationship with the guy next to you has advanced you professionally, personally, spiritually, psychologically. That’s obvious. What’s the drawback? What’s the challenge to being the son of a guy like this in this town?

Rob: The challenge is early on [laugh]. It’s not now. I mean, the challenge is early on when you’re just starting out. I mean, the classic thing of, you know, the name opens the door, but if you don’t deliver, the door gets shut very, very quickly.

So that part of it is the most difficult part. But once you get your foothold in there, then if you can deliver – I mean, you look at Ken Griffey, Sr. and Ken Griffey, Jr. If you can actually hit the ball out of the park, they’ll keep you around, you know. So it’s that kind of thing.

Carl: Yeah, but there was no worry about him because he is so smart. He really is on any subject. I was so proud of him. He was sitting with a bunch of reactionary people on – was it the Bill Maher Show?

Rob: It might have been.

Carl: Whatever the subject is, the letter of the law. He knows it and he was pounding away. I’m most proud of you about that.

Rob: You talked about, you know, mom helping raise you and giving you, you know, your sense of social justice and all that. It’s true. I mean, these things were talked about in the household as a kid growing up. You know, civil rights, the Vietnam War.

These were things that we talked about, so I was raised in that. I mean, people talk about where they were when Kennedy was shot and I knew where I was obviously.

And I also knew where I was when Medgar Evers was shot. You know, I wound up making a movie. Van Evers was here, you know, one of Medgar’s sons. It was part of our way of talking.

I mean, my mother was part of the group, Another Mother for Peace, which was an antiwar mothers together to stop the war. And, you know, dad walked in the moratorium. So it was part of how we were raised, you know.

Carl: By the way, his mother was a very left wing as a young girl in the 30s. If you weren’t a left wing then when the world was formative, you weren’t thinking. So civil rights for Blacks and whites was a big thing with her.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, Rob, because I was going to ask you. I mean, those of us who have known you over the last 20 or 25 years – you’ve been at this a lot longer – we have seen not just your advocacy, but the results of your advocacy up and down the state of California on any number of major propositions, etc., etc. So this kind of social justice work came – you got it honest.

Rob: It came naturally and then, to be honest, working on “All in the Family” and seeing Norman Lear and seeing how he used his celebrity and his influence in launching people for the American way, that made me think. There’s a way of utilizing your, you know, for lack of a better term, celebrity.

I don’t think you should necessarily listen to a celebrity just because he is one. But if you can marshal your celebrity and really steep yourself in whatever issue you’re trying to promote, it can actually move the ball forward, and we’ve done that. We’ve done it with Early Childhood. We did it with Proposition 8, in overturning Proposition 8 here in California.

So you can get things done, but you have to know what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’re just another celebrity just mouthing off.

Carl: By the way, a lot of people notice what he knows and the depth of his understanding. They wanted him to run for governor a few years ago.

Tavis: Yeah. A lot of people were like, “Is Rob Reiner gonna run for governor?” especially after Arnold did. We figured if Schwarzenegger could do it…

Rob: We had a meeting in my house and there was some serious talk about it. You know, I have three kids and I basically polled 40% in my own family [laugh]. So once I realized I couldn’t carry my own family, I figured that maybe that wasn’t a good idea.

Tavis: Carl Reiner has product. I love this. So it’s not just his son. Rob loves him, we all love him, but it is really cool when you have two books out, one called “I Remember Me”…

Carl: That’s last year’s book.

Tavis: That’s last year’s book with a foreword by a great comedian named Billy Crystal.

Carl: Right.

Tavis: And then a new book called “I Just Remembered” with a foreword by some guy named Jerry Seinfeld.

Carl: Right, right.

Tavis: It must be really cool to be so regarded and respected by all of these younger cats.

Carl: Well, I respect them more than they probably respect me because both of those guys – Billy Crystal the other day doing “700 Sundays,” I couldn’t believe his brainwork he has in that brain. Of course, Seinfeld may be the most original comedian we’ve ever had.

But what I love about these books is that I finished the first book. I walk around the block, things pop out into my head and I’d say, oh, I should put that down. And after I finished the book, another popped and I’d say, oh, I just remembered.

Tavis: “I Just Remembered” [laugh].

Carl: And by the way, there’s a third book on my computer right now. It’s called “I Had Almost Forgotten That I Remembered Something That I Hadn’t Put…” [Laugh] Anyway, I’ve seven chapters of a new book.

Tavis: You got another one coming out.

Carl: And I hope you allow me to come on when it’s finished.

Tavis: You are welcome here any time. You can co-host.

Rob: I think that Billy Crystal would be very happy that you called him a younger cat.

Tavis: Okay. Well, I was trying to be charitable.

Rob: Very nice of you [laugh].

Tavis: Trying to be generous. So before I let you go, the book that came out last year, Carl Reiner, is “I Remember Me.” That’s last year’s book and he remembered a few more things. So there’s one out now called “I Just Remembered.”

Carl: By the way, this is my favorite book I’ve ever written because not only has it some of the best stories I’ve ever remembered, it has one story that’s gonna get me in not a lot of trouble, but I talk about Castro, Cuban castration, a very serious thing that Jack Paar – there’s a lot of people who are gonna run it.

But most of it is very funny. But also it has 190 photos in it. Every story has a picture. Here’s young Mel Brooks. Wherever I open it up, oh, here’s Batista. Oh, this is the one that’s gonna get me in trouble. But look at this. There’s my mother…

Tavis: My favorite part is on the back of both books…

Carl: Oh, this is a book within a book [laugh].

Tavis: A book within a book, yeah.

Rob: This here book.

Carl: It’s by Carl Reimer.

Tavis: Yeah.

Rob: No. Cark Reimer.

Carl: The K and the L key. I always hit the L key. So one day, I said, oh, I’ll leave it Cark and I’ll write it Cark Reimer. I’ll write a romance novel about myself and it’s not my very self. So it’s a three-page romance novel which I’m very proud to say has the longest title in the history of titles. Guinness Book of Records title. 199 words, three-page…

Rob: You can’t even tweet that title.

Tavis: My favorite part of both of these is the gorgeous photo of you and your wife on the back of both.

Carl: Yes, I do love that.

Tavis: You and your wife on the back of both of these.

Carl: And that’s LMOL, love of my life.

Tavis: I love it. Rob Reiner, I am always honored to have you on this program. And to bring your daddy with you is a special treat. So thank you for coming.

Rob: Yeah, it’s been a pleasure.

Tavis: Congrats in advance on the new movie.

Rob: Thank you.

Tavis: Opening…

Rob: July 11.

Tavis: July 11, starring Diane Keaton and…

Rob: Michael Douglas.

Tavis: Michael Douglas.

Carl: And I’ll bet anybody a dollar to a penny that it’s a sensational movie.

Tavis: Well, your son did it. How could it not…

Carl: He doesn’t do anything with…

Rob: It’s the movies.

Tavis: Carl Reiner, I’m delighted to have you on this program. Thank you.

Carl: Not as delighted as I am to be here.

Tavis: We had a great time.

Rob: Everybody’s delighted.

Tavis: Yes, we are [laugh].

Rob: Isn’t that nice?

Tavis: On that note, we’ll say goodnight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 16, 2014 at 4:04 pm