Pete Hammond

Thursday night I had the honor of hosting the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences tribute to the legendary Carl Reiner, which also featured a surprise appearance at the end of the two-hour show from Carl’s Ocean’s 11, 12 & 13 co-star George Clooney who presented him with the enormous crystal trophy for his remarkable career in entertainment. The packed house (with an overflow turnaway crowd watching on video next door to the Academy’s Goldenson Theatre in North Hollywood) greeted him with a massive standing ovation after comedian Paul Reiser welcomed him to the stage. The star-studded tribute also marked the last official Academy event for Chairman John Shaffner as he noted in his opening remarks welcoming the crowd, Shaffner will turn over his job after next month’s election to a new Chair (Warner’s Bruce Rosenblum is running opposite current Vice-Chair Nancy Wiard).

I had previously hosted the Academy’s  Betty White 60th Show Biz anniversary tribute and Bob Newhart’s 50th last year and this was another amazing night for a true show business icon, the indefatigable Reiner who at “89½” is well-deserving of this “mid-career tribute”  as I noted in my own introductory remarks. He’a a man for all (TV) seasons  and does everything including a lot of  Master of Ceremonies gigs. “If Carl could host his own tribute tonight I’m sure he would,” I said before cueing the opening clip reel which included an overview of his career from the classic Sid Caesar Your Show Of Shows and The Dick Van Dyke Show to current jobs (he’s a semi-regular as a senior stud on both Two and a Half Men and Hot In Cleveland as well as a recurring character on the animated The Cleveland Show). Several top names associated with Reiner then came on to tell stories and sing his praises but none was more entertaining in telling tales than the honoree himself who thanked Reiser for the guest star role on Mad About You as Alan Brady (the character he played on Van Dyke’s show which Reiner created) which brought him his 12th Emmy. He had promised to divide his Emmys among his three kids after his death and was worried how he was gonna do it with only 11. This solved the problem, he told the crowd.

Guests Reiser , Gary Shandling and Bonnie Hunt all stopped by to tell how much Reiner’s career had influenced their own (along with Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Ray Romano and Brad Garrett on tape and creator Phil Rosenthal in the front row), particularly the Van Dyke show which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month and just signed up for another run on TV Land. Shandling created a very funny pre-taped bit saying he was too sick to show up but then surprised Reiner by walking on stage after the video was over. After we talked about the many films in which Carl directed Steve Martin including The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and All Of Me, Martin brought down the house (via a pre-taped greeting –   Reiner whispered to me, “This is gonna be good”). “I really wanted to be there tonight Carl but I am across the street having dinner. … I don’t throw around the word ‘genius’ very often. I just want you to know that,” he said in the closest the event got to roast-level humor. Martin’s All Of Me co-star Lily Tomlin then appeared, applauded Reiner for the working experience she had but remembered the 1984 comedy classic most for another reason. “I recall going to your house to discuss the project. I was looking for a new home at the time and walked in and said this was exactly the one I wanted,” she told Reiner. He replied, “I am 89½ now. Keep driving by.”

His The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming co-star Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint reminisced with Reiner about a harrowing small plane ride through a storm on location in which they thought they were all going to die. She also said Carl was her “favorite leading man,” a heady statement considering she has worked with Cary Grant, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, among others.

Perhaps the highlight of the show was the section devoted to The Dick Van Dyke Show which Reiner created, produced for five seasons and wrote the majority of scripts in the first two seasons (40 out of 60, a task he said nearly killed him). Actually as he explained he had initially shot a pilot in 1959 called Head of the Family in which he played Rob Petrie (the character that eventually became Van Dyke’s) but it didn’t sell. When it finally did two years later as The Dick Van Dyke Show,  exec producer Sheldon Leonard explained at the time they finally figured out what it was missing: “an actor other than you!”

The series’ theme music is so catchy and memorable I got the entire audience (and Reiner) to sing it along with me before 85-year-old Van Dyke appeared when we played the actual theme (written by Earle Hagen). Van Dyke and Reiner talked about how co-star Morey Amsterdam actually wrote rarely heard lyrics to the theme and without missing a beat or a word, veteran song and dance man Van Dyke proceeded to sing the entire song. They also explained the famous opening credit bit in which Rob enters his house and either trips or walks around the chair near the entrance was actually shot  two ways one night after a taping. They liked both so they decided to alternate them, always keeping the viewers guessing which it would be week to week. “It became an actual betting game,” Van Dyke said. After the clips, clips cast members Rose Marie (in a wheelchair), Larry Matthews, who played young son Ritche and writer-producer Bill Persky joined on stage and told stories of the making of the series including dish on famous episodes like the “walnut show” and the flashback where Rob and Laura thought their baby had been switched with another couple’s at the hospital only to find out in the famous punch line of the show, that other couple was black. It’s a bit that drew the show’s biggest studio laugh ever and even caused some controversy pre-airing when the sponsor was worried about the racial implications of the joke.

Reiner’s best friend since the days of Your Show Of Shows and his Grammy winning 2000 Year Old Man recordings Mel Brooks was also set to appear but canceled early in the day after having an MRI for extreme hip and leg pain. Rob Reiner also had to miss it because of a sudden bout of walking pnemonia, according to his dad.

Whatever disappointment those announcements brought was more than compensated by Clooney’s appearance, which really seemed to stun Reiner. Carrying the large and very heavy award Clooney told a hilarious story about his aunt Rosemary’s singing tour with other legends (he does a great Martha Raye impression) before saying how all his Ocean’s co-stars used to just sit around transfixed by Carl Reiner’s endless stream of show business stories.

It all ended with a champagne toast to a true legend. He’s defiinitely one of a lost breed.

Rocci Chatfield produced for the Academy. It was streamed live on the Acad’s website as well.

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