By Joe McGovern
June 28, 2019 at 12:00 PM EDT
AP/Shutterstock; Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images; United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock; Everett Collection
06/21/19
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During the opening credits of 1995’s Toy Story, we see Mr. Potato Head in the crib of a drooling infant girl, who is battering the toy to pieces. Moments later, when the humans are gone, Potato Head is collecting his arm and sourly complaining, “‘Ages 3 and Up,’ it’s on my box! ‘Ages 3 and Up.’ I’m not supposed to be babysitting Princess Drool!”

Audiences at the time — especially those 30 and up — recognized the voice of legendary insult comedian Don Rickles as the grouchy MPH. Rickles died in 2017 at the age of 90, though his voice is still heard in Toy Story 4 thanks to the use of previous recordings. And an incredible quartet of entertainment icons has also been added to the cast this time around.

During a scene in which Woody (Tom Hanks) is relegated to a closed closet, we meet other toys who haven’t been played with for a while. They include a green plastic chair named Chairol Burnett (Carol Burnett), a blue elephant called Melephant Brooks (Mel Brooks), a pink rhinoceros named Carl Reineroceros (Carl Reiner), and a teething toy with a tiger face called Bitey White (yep, you guessed it, Betty White).

“I love that it takes you a second to figure out who it is,” says Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear, Tim Allen. “But then, if you have a certain acumen for it, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I know that voice!’ It’s so much fun that these comedy legends have little roles in the film.”

How did this incredible foursome — with a combined age of 372 years and nearly as many awards for all their triumphs in show business — end up in the movie? It was simple, explains Josh Cooley, the director of Toy Story 4: “When you have a scene where you can cast the greatest comedic legends of all time, you just do it.”

The legends themselves were delighted to be invited to the franchise. “I’m just lucky they asked me to be a part of it,” says White, 97, whose eight-decade career has included Emmy-winning turns on TV classics like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls. “It’s a lovely group, and they’re all friends of mine. It doesn’t get any better.”

Known as much for her love of animals as for her entertainment career, White was especially thrilled to see that her toy character included a tiger design. In 1979 White snuggled up to a 300-lb. Bengal tiger while fund-raising for an animal-rights group. “I’ve had the privilege of cuddling with lots of different animals, and I’ll play with any animal,” she says. “A current friend is a grizzly bear named Bam Bam. So I’m delighted to be able to give a voice to a toy tiger.”

Disney/Pixar

For Brooks, 92, appearing in a Toy Story movie offered the opportunity to blend his humor into family entertainment, a favorite pastime of the Oscar-winning actor-writer-director of The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and Spaceballs. “Toy Story is one of the few movies that can really mix it up between kids’ humor and adult humor,” he says. “When I made Blazing Saddles, there’s a lot of special humor for grownups, but I made sure there was some simple, physical jokes for everybody. Like farting — that’s funny at any age!”

Toy Story 4 also gave Brooks a chance to work alongside his best friend, Reiner, who turned 97 in March. The pair’s 2000 Year Old Man audio recordings in the early 1960s are milestones in comedy. “I met Carl in 1950,” says Brooks, “so we’ve been friends for, oh, 105 or 110 years.” Pixar encouraged Brooks and Reiner to record their lines together — though the session took longer than expected. “Carl kept making mistakes, and I asked him, ‘Why are you making mistakes?’ He said, ‘Because I enjoy this so much and I just want to hang around here more.’”

Reiner, who began writing for television seven decades ago before creating The Dick Van Dyke Show and directing comic gems like The Jerk and All of Me, released his latest memoir, Too Busy to Die, in 2017. Over email he said, “It was fun to partner with Mel Brooks and be a small part of such an iconic franchise.”

Burnett, 86, likens the Toy Story films to the early Disney animated classics. “I remember being in the theater for the first runs of Pinocchio, Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi,” says Burnett, who, as a kid, aspired to be a cartoonist. Instead she pursued journalism before turning to acting. That decision would eventually lead to the phenomenal 11-year run of The Carol Burnett Show, a seminal variety series that featured elaborate movie-parody sketches and hundreds of guest stars, including White and Reiner.

Her only critique of her experience working on Toy Story 4, she says, “is that I was never in the recording studio with Betty and Mel and Carl, who are such good friends, and I love all of them.” However, Burnett did recently get to watch Brooks and Reiner in action at the latter’s home. “Carl invited me for dinner, and Mel was there. And, well, it was one of the funniest things I ever saw. They were just on a roll, and you couldn’t eat and laugh at the same time, or else you’d better know the Heimlich maneuver. It was a joy to watch these two comedic minds and best friends, still at it in their 90s.”

Indeed, Brooks and Reiner, both widowers, have dinner together three or four times a week. “We’ll watch a movie,” says Brooks, “and he falls asleep at the beginning, I fall asleep at the end, and then after the movie’s over we’ll just say to each other, ‘Well, what did I miss?’”

None of the four legends is likely to miss Toy Story 4. Burnett plans on taking her 12-year-old grandson to see the movie with an audience. “I haven’t even told him I’m in it,” she says with a laugh. “When he sees it, I want him to be surprised. I’m pretty sure it’s going to raise my credibility in his eyes.”

Brooks has taken a different tack with his grandchildren. “I’ve told them, and they’re very excited,” he says. “Disney has sold two more tickets because these kids have a grandpa in the film. And then, you know, maybe some other kids will hear my voice and say, ‘What else has this guy done?’ And before you know it, I’ll get rich again.”

Be sure to pick up your copy of EW’s Ultimate Guide to Toy Story on newsstands now.

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