Getting cast in Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's 11," says Carl Reiner, was kind of like a scene from the Las Vegas heist movie.
In the film -- a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack flick -- two crooks played by George Clooney and Brad Pitt, recruit fellow con men by paying each a surprise visit. In a case of life imitating art, "Ocean's" producer Jerry Weintraub recruited Reiner by urgently ringing his Beverly Hills doorbell last year.
The legendary actor-writer-director was hosting a dinner party, but Weintraub -- who'd produced Reiner's 1977 film, "Oh, God!" -- said he had a problem on his hands. "Ocean's 11" was scheduled to begin shooting in Vegas the following week, but cast member Alan Arkin was in the hospital. Would Reiner, 79, step in to play Saul Bloom, the eldest member of the heist team?
Reiner -- creator of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and straight man to Mel Brooks' 2,000-Year-Old Man -- wasn't actively looking for acting gigs. He'd quit directing since his last film, "That Old Feeling," starring Bette Midler, had wrapped in 1997. But then again, "Ocean's" was tempting.
There was the chance to work with wunderkind Soderbergh ("Traffic," "Erin Brockovich") and the grumpy, rumpled, Rolaids-popping Bloom was too hilarious a role to pass up. "We first see him in the cheap seats at the dog track," Reiner notes. "He was probably a brilliant con artist in his day, but now he doesn't even have enough money to play the horses."
The fictional Bloom is one of two Jews on the "Ocean's 11" team (the other is Ruben Tischkoff, a Liberace-esque ex-casino owner, hilariously played by Elliott Gould). In the course of the elaborate casino scam, Bloom gets to impersonate a wealthy, European businessman of indeterminate origin."Soderbergh let me pick my accent, so I decided to be a Russian," says Reiner, who is so facile a mimic that in the course of an interview with The Journal he perfectly impersonates Stalin, Cary Grant and Edward G. Robinson. "Every time I turned to my henchmen, I'd use a phrase from this Russian-language song, 'Black Eyes.' I thought it was so funny because there I was pretending to be Russian and I was just mouthing song lyrics."
Bronx-bred Reiner -- whom Brooks calls the "tall, bald Jew" -- has been funny practically since birth. "As a kid, I could always make people laugh, and I could perfectly tell and retell jokes I heard at the movies," says Reiner, who was a big fan of the Marx Brothers. His first performance occurred when he put one leg behind his head and hopped on the other in front of his rapt kindergarten teachers and classmates. A smaller crowd watched his Orthodox bar mitzvah, which he says took place "on a Thursday morning before mincha, with just a minyan of old Jews."
By 1950, Reiner was writing and performing on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," where he met a short, outrageous fellow writer named Mel Brooks. "Mel Yiddishized everything," Reiner recalls. "I'll never forget he used to do this character called 'The Jewish Pirate.' Instead of a Jolly Roger, he had a Jolly Magen David."
While hanging out in the writer's room one day, Reiner made history when he turned to Brooks and ad-libbed, "Here was a man who was at the scene of the crucifixion 2,000 year ago. Did you know Jesus?" Brooks instantly lapsed into a thick, Yiddish accent and replied, "Thin lad, wore sandals, came into my store, but he never bought a thing."
Over the next 10 years, Reiner shlepped a tape recorder to parties to capture their 2,000-Year-Old Man shtick, though he says he and Brooks refused to cut a record because "we were afraid the accent would play into anti-Semitic stereotypes." It wasn't until after they had recorded the album in 1961 that Reiner received the penultimate confirmation that the 2,000-Year-Old Man was universal.
His notoriously cheap neighbor, Cary Grant, had schnorred a dozen copies of the album to take along on a trip to England; when he returned, he knocked on Reiner's door. "She loved it," Grant gushed. "Who?" Reiner asked. " The Queen Mother."
"The biggest gentile in the world," marveled Reiner, who became a founding father of the TV sitcom when he created "The Dick Van Dyke Show," based on his home life during "Your Show of Shows."
In 1979, Reiner again made history by directing "The Jerk," the movie that would catapult Steve Martin to superstardom. He went on to direct three more films with the Texas-born comic, who proved to be a very different kind of collaborator than Brooks. "Mel is loud, noisy, abrasive and hilarious, while Steve is quiet and hilarious" says Reiner, who is dad to "When Harry Met Sally..." director Rob Reiner. "But funny is funny."
The septuagenarian could say the same of himself. During the six-week "Ocean's 11" shoot, he regaled his young co-stars with amusing Hollywood stories. "Of course, while they knew who I was, they didn't really know what I'd done," Reiner confides. But he didn't mind. "The only thing I don't accept is people who don't know who Hitler is," he says.
"Ocean's 11" opens today in Los Angeles. Reiner will offer a tribute to the Marx Brothers during a film festival on Turner Classic Movies from Dec. 17-21. For more information, visit www.turnerclassicmovies.com .