It is hard to imagine modern American movies without Rob Reiner. The Bronx-born actor, director, producer, and activist has directed classic features spanning comedy and drama including This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, The Bucket List, Stand by Me, When Harry Met Sally…, A Few Good Men, and The American President. Along the way, he has picked up an Oscar nomination, multiple Golden Globe noms, and two Emmy wins for his other claim to pop-culture fame—playing the liberal son-in-law to Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker.
As the son of filmmaker/actor Carl Reiner and actress Estelle Reiner, it is perhaps unsurprising that he would end up in showbiz. But, as Rob Reiner told FilmLinc Daily during a recent conversation ahead of this Monday's Chaplin Gala at Film Society of Lincoln Center, it was his future All in the Family boss, Norman Lear, who first recognized Reiner's talent at the age of 8.
Lear continued to play a big part in Reiner's directorial ambitions in the early 1980s when the producer all but paved the way for Reiner to make This Is Spinal Tap, which was far from a sure thing. The film went on to be an '80s classic and ushered in a slew of Reiner-directed films in subsequent decades, many of which have catapulted into classics of their age. “I'll have what she's having” and “Have fun storming the castle” are just two of the famous lines that have reached a cultural crescendo through the years. And his 2007 film helped popularize the term “The Bucket List.”
In today's installment of FilmLinc's two-part interview, Reiner recalls his early days working in theater and later television, and how his foray into the director's chair was far from a sure bet and how his acting career helped him craft his directorial stamp.
FilmLinc: Congratulations on being honored with the Chaplin Award this year.
Rob Reiner: Thank you, it is an honor.
Rob Reiner on the set of When Harry Met Sally.
FL: I want to talk about your extensive work behind the camera as director, but first I want to go back a bit and to ask about your famous TV character Michael “Meathead” Stivic on All In the Family. I watched several episodes of the show recently and it struck me how ahead of its time it really was in terms of social issues, going places that network TV often doesn't dare to go even today.
RR: Norman Lear said this from the very beginning—his favorite play was Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw—but even though Shaw was a liberal, you'd go see that play and come out thinking that he made the case for both the hawk and the dove with equal intelligence and passion. Basically, he left it up to the theater-goers to discuss between themselves which side they were on after the play. That's the idea for All in the Family—present both sides and let the discussion begin. That's why it has such staying power, besides the fact that it's also very funny and gives an honest look at that strata of society. The issues are also still real. We're still a very divided country—we're a red and blue state country. Many of those issues brought up on the show are debated today, so it still has relevance from that standpoint.
FL: Carroll O'Connor of course along with Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers, and you were very much at the center of all that. What were some of the lasting things you took away from your time on All In the Family as you segued into other areas such as directing?
RR: What I did learn from All in the Family and from Carroll is that if you've got a good script and a good story, then as an actor, you really don't have to do a lot. You don't have to do any handsprings or pyrotechnics if you're acting because you let the story and the words you're saying support you. I learned that that is what audiences respond to. We did almost 200 episodes. It was like getting a PhD from film school doing the show, and I learned a tremendous amount from Carroll.
But as far as getting my start, it was really Norman Lear, even aside from being on All in the Family. He helped me get my start as a director. He was the one who said, “Let him do Spinal Tap. Let him give it a try,” because I had been trying for years to get that thing off the ground. I basically got a deal signed with Avco Embassy [Pictures] right before he and [fellow film exec] Jerry Perenchio bought the company and they threw out everything that was on the docket, and one of them was my film This Is Spinal Tap.
I went in to talk to [producer] Alan Horn and I said, “Please let me talk to Jerry and Norman.” I went into the room and just started screaming about how good this one was going to be and how passionate I was about it and I just went on and on and on. And apparently after I had left the room, Norman turned to Jerry and Alan and said, “Who's going to be the one to tell him he can't do this?” Basically, they just let me go ahead. So it was really Norman who gave me the first shot in terms of my directing career.
FL: He's such an icon and trailblazer for television and entertainment in general…
RR: Yeah. He was the first person who ever thought I was funny actually. I was probably 8 years old at the time. I was friends with his daughter who was around my age and they came to where my parents had a place in Fire Island and we were playing jacks. I don't really remember it all, but he said that the way I was explaining to her how to play jacks made him start laughing hysterically and he went to my dad and said, “Boy your son is so funny.” And my dad was like, “What do you mean? That kid?” I was never funny around him, so he was shocked to think other people thought I was funny. Norman Lear was the first to recognize that I had any kind of talent at all…
Rob Reiner on the set of The Princess Bride.
FL: Did you have inclinations at that young age to act or follow in your father's footsteps?
RR: I acted when I was young but at 19 I had my own theater company where I acted but also directed. I also did some theater in Los Angeles. So I was always wanting to direct even before I became an established actor. But Norman was the first to give me a chance. In those days there was a real division between television and movies. People who did television were second-class citizens—you were looked down upon. Movie people were the important people. Now of course everyone crosses over and back and forth, but back then it was tough to make that bridge from television into movies—especially from a sitcom actor into a director.
FL: Now it's amazing to think that This Is Spinal Tap is approaching its 30th anniversary. For that movie, and so many others like Stand by Me and When Harry Met Sally… or Misery—whenever I think of the Rob Reiner stamp I think of this these film's iconic characters—and their rabid fans. How did the acting part of your career enhance the side of Rob Reiner that is a filmmaker and vice versa?
RR: Without question. I approach everything from that [point of view] when I put a movie together. Most of the movies I do are character-driven pieces and so I know actors are going to inhabit those characters and I make sure there's something they can [inhabit]. I'd never ask an actor to do something I couldn't do—not that I'm the best actor in the world—but if I can do it then I know that anyone I hire can do these things. The performances are critical and I've often said that if you look at some of the great filmmakers of all time whether it's Orson Welles, Woody Allen, or even Truffaut or Mike Nichols—all of these people started out as performers—you know, even Milos Forman.
It's a great way to come at the work because ultimately it's about telling a story about people and hopefully they're people you can connect with. So the performances are the key with the kinds of films I make of course. If you're making an action piece then there's all these other things that matter, but for character pieces it's really about the script and the acting. You know, Elia Kazan was an actor. You go down the list of the [filmmakers] I've liked and they always started as actors.
FL: Your father's film All of Me came out in 1984, which was the same year as Spinal Tap. That must've made for interesting fodder during family dinner conversations that year…
RR: It was interesting. As a matter of fact, both of these films made a bunch of top-10 lists that year. We actually took out an ad in Variety, which [highlighted] who could remember a time when father and son directors ever had films that were top-10-list [material]. There have been fathers and sons in the business, but you don't find too many father and son directors, especially with films in the same year. I think that was unusual.
FL: Going back in front of the camera, last year you played Leonardo DiCaprio's dad in The Wolf of Wall Street. You were a loud and zealous father-figure even though it was hard to keep your son at bay.
RR: Yeah, I've made that joke a lot: What's more believable, that Leo is a Jew or that I'm his dad? I said I may be a lot more handsome than I think I am [laughs]. No, I had a great time.
FL: And of course the man behind The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese, will be presenting you with the Chaplin Award here at the Film Society…
RR: Nothing can be more thrilling to me. Martin Scorsese is one of the great filmmakers of all time. I love the fact that I had the chance to work with him and I couldn't be more thrilled that he's agreed to do this. He's of course a former recipient of this honor. It's a pretty amazing company to be in. When they called me for this, I thought maybe there was a typo somewhere. You've got Hitchcock and Chaplin. So many good people on there, so it's pretty thrilling.
[Part 2 of FilmLinc's interview with Rob Reiner will be published tomorrow in which the Chaplin honoree talks about his activism and the changing creative face of Hollywood.]