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Audrey Kupferberg: Carl Reiner And Danny Thomas

The names of two comedy legends have come to mind in the past few weeks. The first is Carl Reiner who died on June 29 at the age of 98.  Reiner is best remembered for his work on the 1960s hit TV series The Dick Van Dyke Show where he was creator, producer, writer, and performer.  Reiner played Alan Brady, Rob Petry’s formidable boss.

Reiner began contributing sketch material to pioneer television star Sid Caesar in 1950, while he was still a teenager and television was in its infancy.  Throughout the run of Caesar’s Hour and Your Show of Shows, Reiner appeared on-screen with Caesar and other talented regulars, such as Imogene Coca and Howard Morris.  Many of the Sid Caesar programs survive and are available on various sources from YouTube to DVD.  Reiner is a bundle of energy performing in dozens of satirical skits.  One particularly funny sketch s called “Break Your Brain,” lampooning the popular TV quiz shows.  During the fifties and sixties, Reiner had several Emmy Award nominations and wins.

That was just the start of one of the most successful comedy careers in modern American history.  He moved on to The Dick Van Dyke Show.  He wrote, directed, and appeared in hit movies during from the 1960s onward, and continued winning major awards for his work.  With his best pal Mel Brooks, Reiner conceived and performed a series of cheeky comedy skits called “The 2000 Year Old Man” which are treats on audio formats and also as television sketches.

In many ways, Reiner’s style of comedy harkened back to vaudeville, but he always maintained a modern touch.  He could tailor his writing and his performances to bring out the strongest qualities of whichever star with whom he was working.  What a talent!  He will be missed.

None of us can watch television for too long without seeing a spot about St Jude’s Childrens Hospital.  We see the front of the building with the name of the hospital followed by “founded by Danny Thomas” in big letters.  The other day, I saw a spot which included a young mother with her sick child.  She said, “Before I came here, I didn’t know who Danny Thomas was.” 

I was taken aback.  In my older age group, who Danny Thomas was is a given.  To the under fifty population, the identity of Danny Thomas is associated with creating St Jude’s.  A few days ago, I asked a fifty-year-old friend who he was, and she hesitated before saying, “Marlo’s father?”

So… for those who do not know, Danny Thomas was one of the most popular comedy stars in the United States. He also played piano, sang beautifully, and acted capably in all genres. His fifties and sixties TV shows, Make Room for Daddy and The Danny Thomas Show won the hearts of TV watchers across the country.  He played a version of himself, a successful nightclub entertainer, a loving and affectionate father and terrific husband, and a kind-hearted soul.

Thomas also was a movie actor.  He starred opposite Peggy Lee in one of several versions of The Jazz Singer in 1952.  He wasn’t Jewish but he played the son of a Cantor in that film.  In the fifties, it was difficult to fit into Hollywood lead roles if you were ethnic.  Thomas was very ethnic, a Lebanese-American who didn’t have his nose trimmed for acceptance at that time.  He was good-looking, charming, and the first television father to show both physical affection and a realistic temper with his TV children.  That was a time when Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet offered father characters who never raised a voice and never offered children more than a pat on the head.  For me, Danny Thomas’ ethnic portrayal of the loving immigrant American father hit close to home.

Reiner and Thomas come together in the most oddball episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show – an hilarious sci-fi satire called “It May Look Like a Walnut” from late in season 2.  It’s available through IMDB TV and Amazon Prime and on DVD.  If you have never seen it, take a look.  It was written by Reiner, features Thomas as the alien Kolak, and was produced by the two of them.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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