With the death of comedy legend Carl Reiner, tributes poured in from around the world. Steven Levitan, executive producer of Modern Family, shared with Variety his memories of the historic television comedy that Reiner created.
Early in the Modern Family race, I received a call from the publicist on our show asking me if I would be ready to do a photo shoot on Saturday for one of the trades. “Saturday?”, I complained. “I try to spend Saturday with my children.” She continued, “It would be with Eric Stonestreet, Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner.” My eyes widened. “F – children. I’m not even sure they are mine. “
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago with a regular diet of Spaghetti-O’s, Grape Nehi and reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (God bless WGN). Like countless comedy writers today, I do what I do in large part because Carl Reiner did so gloriously what he did.
From the first time Rob stumbled upon this ottoman, I wanted to be an actor. Never mind that, living in a world far from Hollywood, I might as well have said that I wanted to be an astronaut (which, I admit, I did a little thanks to a crush on Barbara Eden in “I Dream Of Jeannie”). My father’s office had an adding machine; I wanted to work in an office with a dart board and a piano and people who made me laugh. I wanted to organize dinners where everyone got up and performed. At my parents’ dinners, at best, maybe someone would have too many martinis and fall. If it weren’t for Rob Petrie, Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell joking around in this office, insulting Mel Cooley every time he walked through this door, I would still be in Chicago to write a copy of the Pillsbury Doughboy.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was intelligent, mature and revolutionary. It was a TV show before people made TV shows. Most importantly, it was hilarious. Laura Petrie accidentally told the world that Alan Brady was bald, the self-inflating liferaft, “Robby Baby” on this scooter, the nuts, Lake Sisimanunu, Laura’s toe stuck in the end of the tub, Charades’ passive-aggressive play after Rob and Laura heard Jerry and Millie on the baby monitor… these are just a few of the moments I’ve tried to experience in the past thirty years.
It was also daring. Rob accidentally dying with black hands just before accepting a race sensitivity award must have raised quite a few eyebrows in the early sixties. And, after Rob Petrie is convinced that his baby was accidentally changed in the hospital, I will never forget the moment when Mr. and Mrs. Peters walked through the door, which gave rise to one of the most laughs. biggest and most authentic I have ever known. heard on TV.
All of this is even more impressive considering that Carl Reiner produced thirty-one episodes in the first season and 32 episodes in the following four seasons. Most of the first two seasons, he wrote himself! Modern Family made 24 episodes per season with a team of twelve people and we were completely exhausted by episode 15.
The Saturday photo session was held in Mr. Reiner’s home in Beverly Hills. Going up on the lawn, I couldn’t have been more nervous. I thought about the night my wife went into labor with our first child and how I went to bed to practice putting my hat on like Rob Petrie did the night Laura gave birth to Richie. (Years later, on Modern Family, when we needed Mitch and Cam to do a music number at a family reunion, I chose “Carolina in the Morning” because that’s what Rob and Laura sang.)
I rang and Carl Reiner opened the door. Just like that. He was warm, courteous and always funny. He casually introduced me to Dick Van Dyke. Just like that.
I had surreal moments in this affair. Having a beer in a bar with Norm, Cliff and Woody after the filming of “Cheers”, befriending Norman Lear, then 89 years old (another idol) in our girls’ high school class, but hanging out in Carl Reiner’s house with Dick Van Dyke almost blew up that Chicago kid’s mind. I knew Eric felt the same way because we looked at each other like, “Can you believe this is happening?
After taking the photos, Eric asked for an autograph and Mr. Reiner wrote: “Eric – I should ask you for your autograph!” I went further and pulled out a framed map of Rob and Laura Petrie’s house at 148 Bonny Meadow Road in New Rochelle that I keep on the wall of my office. Mr. Van Dyke signed “Home Sweet Home!” Which, according to all accounts, was. Mr. Reiner wrote, “Steve, Keep this house dusted and the lawn watered. Love, Alan Brady. “
Just like that.