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Carl Reiner's summers on Fire Island fueled his creativity

Writer-comedian and film director Carl Reiner after an

Writer-comedian and film director Carl Reiner after an interview in New York City on Oct. 15, 1993. Credit: AP/Crystyna Czajkowsky

Fire Island lit a fire under Carl Reiner. It was on that slender sandpit isle, where he and his family summered alongside other writers, actors and playwrights in Ocean Beach in the 1950s, that the comedy great wrote his novel "Enter Laughing" and the first 13 episodes of what would become "The Dick Van Dyke Show." And it was there that he and Mel Brooks would develop their classic recurring improv sketch "The 2000 Year Old Man."

Small wonder, then, that Reiner's Smith-Corona typewriter from his home there found a new home at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

Reiner, his wife Estelle and their then two children, future director Rob and future author Annie, first vacationed in Ocean Beach in 1951 at the suggestion of fellow comedy writer Mel Tolkin. On the Reiners' first Saturday on Fire Island, their houseguest was Mel Brooks, then in his mid-20s and a writer on "Your Show of Shows," Sid Caesar's live variety series that included writer-performer Reiner.

Reiner and Brooks by this time had stumbled onto their "2000 Year Old Man" shtick at the office, where Reiner one day poked fun at a public-affairs series that included recreations of newsmakers' purported conversations. Finding the premise "ridiculous," Reiner said in one memoir, he turned to Brooks and introduced him as "a man who was actually at the scene of the Crucifixion, two thousand years ago." Brooks' ad-lib replies convulsed the room.

Throughout the '50s, Reiner as straight man and Brooks as 2000 Year Old Man did improv interviews at dinner parties on Fire Island. "I bought a portable Revere, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and taped all of our sessions," Reiner wrote. "Along with my recordings, Mike Elliott, a Fire Island friend who had a professional recording setup at his home, presented me with copies of the dozens of sessions he recorded." From those sessions, Reiner and Brooks in 1960 would release the first of five albums with "2000 Year Old Man” routines.

Earlier, during five weeks in the summer of 1957, Reiner wrote his first novel, the semiautobiographical "Enter Laughing." Among the first people to read the manuscript: famed novelist Herman Wouk ("The Caine Mutiny"). The two summer acquaintances ran into each other aboard the Fire Island Queen ferry crossing the Great South Bay to Bay Shore. Reiner had his car and was driving to Manhattan to drop the book off to his editor. Wouk cadged a ride in, and Reiner took him up on his polite offer to read it. The book was published the following year and later adapted into a successful Broadway play. 

By the following summer, the second of Caesar's successor variety series had been canceled. Reiner planned to pen a sequel to "Enter Laughing," but his agent convinced him to try to star in a sitcom. Not finding any offered scripts to his liking, Reiner heeded his wife's suggestion he write his own.

As Reiner recalled in 2015, "I wrote 13 episodes over a summer out on Fire Island. We shot a pilot called 'Head of the Family' and it didn't go, so I put it aside. One day I got a call from [producer] Sheldon Leonard; he'd read the scripts and thought they were wonderful. I said, 'I don't want to fail at this twice.' He said, ‘Don't worry! We'll get a better actor to play you!' That was Dick Van Dyke" — and that was the classic namesake series.

And though Reiner lived in New Rochelle, like that show's Rob Petrie, his heart was in Suffolk County. "In 1960," he said in "My Anecdotal Life," "the two things my wife and I missed most when we transplanted our family to California were our house on Fire Island and our friends in New York.”

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