Back in 1966, exactly 50 years ago, Rob Reiner, then a student at UCLA, formed a comedy troupe, The Session, with his pals Richard Dreyfuss and Larry Bishop (Joey Bishop’s kid) and officially entered show business. But it wasn’t a leap. As the son of Carl Reiner, he already had Hollywood in his genes. Now a partner in Castle Rock Entertainment, which has produced hits from When Harry Met Sally … to Seinfeld, the politically engaged Reiner, 69, will unveil LBJ, his 19th feature as a director, in Toronto.
You’ve been tweeting a lot about Donald Trump lately.
I’ve never tweeted before. I only started because to me it was — it was so upsetting, I figured, I gotta weigh in here. I usually try to just react to whatever’s going on — yesterday [Aug. 18], he made that speech where he said, “I regret having hurt people.” So I tweeted like two hours ago, three hours ago, something. It says, “Media must press Trump. Who does he regret hurting? Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks, Gays, the Khans, women, the disabled, Jews? Who exactly?”
Have you gotten much abuse from Trump supporters?
Oh yeah. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been “Meatheaded” [a reference to Reiner’s All in the Family character] since I joined Twitter. People will come up to me every once in a while and ask me, “Do people still call you Meathead?” And I’ll say, “You’re the first one today.” I’ll make that joke. But now I’m getting “Meatheaded” like it’s going out of style.
How do you feel about the fact that Steve Bannon, Trump’s new campaign CEO, has a piece of the profits from Seinfeld, which Castle Rock produced?
I found that out two days ago, and it’s the craziest thing. We were owned by Ted Turner, and when Ted Turner sold his entire company to Warner Bros., he must’ve employed Goldman Sachs and this guy Steve Bannon. How he got a percentage of Seinfeld, I don’t know. But it’s very disturbing to me that that guy is making money off Seinfeld. I mean, all these conspiracy things that he throws out there, it’s ugly, ugly stuff.
If All in the Family were on the air today, would Archie be a Trump supporter?
Absolutely, 100 percent. Trump is from Queens. Archie is born and raised in Queens. They have the same kind of mentality. Archie was a bigot, and the things that come out of Trump’s mouth are totally bigoted. So yeah, he definitely would be. That would be some good arguments we’d being having.
Whose side would Edith be on?
If it was the first year of our run, she probably would’ve been, “Oh!” a little taken aback. I don’t know if she’d have voted for him or not, but she wouldn’t have been outspoken. But toward the end of the run, she definitely would’ve been outspoken against him. I think Edith would’ve thought he was disgusting.
How do you reach out to that Archie voter — or do you think he’s unreachable?
I think you can reach certain Trump supporters. But Trump said something very prescient in the beginning of his campaign when he said, “I could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and I wouldn’t lose any votes.” And to a degree, that’s true. Look at the demographics: It’s mostly white males who don’t have college degrees. And, you know, that’s Archie. Then there’s also a very serious strain of racism that runs through his followers. And that’s a kind of disturbing thing, and I don’t think you ever reach those people. I think that they’re impossible to turn around. It’s very disturbing because a lot of these racist ideas have kind of been dormant for a while, and he’s given voice to them — he’s kind of unearthed it. And the thing that’s most disturbing is to discover that there’s so many people that still hold those views. If it isn’t overt racism, it’s this kind of a desperate attempt at holding on to some version of America that they think was there once. They’re really threatened by our diversity, and what’s so great about the experiment of democracy is that it celebrates diversity and diversity is what makes it strong. If at some point America has no clear majority, where there’s such a mix of ethnicities and races and religions, and it can work as a democracy, that is the ultimate beacon to the rest of the world of how we should all live.
Reiner with Clinton in 2008, when he supported her first presidential bid.
What was your own experience of the seven seasons you spent on All in the Family?
When we first started working on it, it was very exciting because we all knew we were doing something that had never been done on television before. We weren’t pushing the envelope, we just ripped up the whole envelope. The idea that people were talking about it, and it was on everybody’s mind and it was everywhere — that was exciting. But the third year was like, “Oh no, this could be the rest of my life here,” and I got a little bit down about it. But then in the fourth year, I made peace with myself, and I said, “You’re going to be doing this for a while; just learn as much as you can.” So I spent time hanging out in the writers room, and I wrote a few of the scripts. When there were scenes that I wasn’t in, I’d go up to the booth and watch how they staged the cameras, so it was an incredible education for me.
You basically grew up in the Bronx and then New Rochelle, N.Y. Did it feel like you grew up in a show business environment?
I’ve made this joke many times, but it’s true: When you’re a kid, you just think your family is like every other. You don’t have anything to compare it to; you’re just living in that world. But then I’d go over to my friends’ houses and it wasn’t as funny over there. Because the people that came to our house, there was Sid Caesar and Norman Lear and Mel Brooks. So yeah, I guess I knew that. When we lived in the Bronx, my dad was on The Fifty-Fourth Street Review. And then he worked on Caesar’s Hour. I remember when I was like 4, 5 years old, it was live television and he used to say, “When we take the bows at the end, I’m not allowed to wave, but I’ll go like this. I’ll adjust my tie, and that’ll be me saying hello to you guys, and I love you, and go to sleep,” And that was on Saturday night.
When your father went on to write for The Dick Van Dyke Show, did he include incidents from your own life?
Sometimes. The first three years I think he wrote over 60 scripts himself. He would hole up in his den and I’d be hearing the old typewriter — not the computer — and I always knew he was trying to figure out what to do. He would come sometimes into my room and he would say, “Anything interesting happen to you lately?” So I knew he was probably stuck at those points.
When you went to UCLA had you decided to become an actor or a director?
It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I kind of knew that that’s what I wanted to do. [We’d moved to Los Angeles and at Beverly Hills High School] I got in a drama class, and all of a sudden I felt comfortable with the kids there. They felt familiar to me. It was a pretty wild drama class because not only Rick Dreyfuss and Larry Bishop [Joey Bishop’s son] were there, but Julie Cobb, who was Lee J. Cobb’s daughter, and Melinda Marx, who was Groucho Marx’s daughter. So there was a lot of celebrity kids there. It felt familiar and comfortable. And then I graduated high school at 17 and went to work as an apprentice at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Then I went to UCLA and I was in the theater arts department. That first summer after my freshman year, I went back and did summer theater again as part of a resident acting company called the Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Albert Brooks went with me and we did plays. We’d do one play a week, and that was good training. But I was more interested in directing, even then. And when I came back and was 19, I directed theater in Beverly Hills. I did a production of No Exit that Rick Dreyfuss was in as well. And then I’d started my own improv group, The Session, with Rick and Larry Bishop.
Did your dad give you any career advice?
Here’s what’s weird: We never talked about any of that stuff. Which was fine. I do remember though, when I directed this production of No Exit, he came backstage after the show, and he looked me in the eye and he said, “That was good. No bullshit.” And that’s the first time I’d ever heard anything from him where it was totally validating, and then, I remember the next time, I went over to his house and I was sitting with him in the backyard, and he said, “You know, I’m not worried about you.” He said, “Whatever you want to do, it’s going to be OK.” And that was the first time I got that kind of validation, and that was a pretty great thing.
One of your first IMDb credits is a walk-on on the Batman ABC series in 1967.
I was in a scene where I brought room service to Burgess Meredith, who was playing the Penguin. I did a lot of shows like That Girl and Gomer Pyle and The Beverly Hillbillies. And then, when I was about 21, I started working with [the improv group] The Committee. The Committee had a company that came down to L.A. from San Francisco and I was with them for a while. Tommy Smothers came in to see us and he was hiring writers for a show that was actually a summer replacement show for The Smothers Brothers Show — it was The Summer Brothers Smothers Show with Glen Campbell — and I was hired along with [Jaws writer] Carl Gottlieb out of that company and we went to work there, and Steve Martin and I were kind of put together I guess, because we were the youngest. So I was there working for Glen Campbell for the summer, and then when that was over, then The Smothers Brothers came back on the air and we worked on that show for a while.
It looks as if you easily followed in your father’s footsteps, but did you go through a rebellious period at all?
I was also a child of the ’60s. I was in Haight-Ashbury in 1967, the Summer of Love. And I experimented with all the drugs that were available at the time. The acting jobs I got, I was always playing a hippie. I had done an episode of a show called The Mothers-in-Law — Desi Arnaz produced it, and Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard starred. They asked me to come back and do another episode, and I was improvising — that was my background, improvising — and Desi got really mad at me and stopped the rehearsal. He gets me outside and starts screaming at me, “What are you doing? I pay $10,000 for a script and you’re f—ing around with the lines.” So I said, “OK, I’ll leave.” Rona Barrett, who was the gossip columnist at the time, she said — I’ll never forget it because of the way she phrased it — “Rob Reiner, hippie, psychedelic son of Carl Reiner, got into an argument on the set of Mothers-in-Law and whoops, the bearded bad boy walked off the set.”
With his father, Carl, in 2011 in Beverly Hills.
What inspired This Is Spinal Tap?
I did a show for ABC called The TV Show. It was a variety show, and the idea behind it was, there’d be this guy watching television, and with the remote control, he’d keep changing the channels, and we’d cut into whatever it was he was watching. It was a satire of different things on television before SCTV had done its thing. One of the things we did was a takeoff of Midnight Special, which was a late-night rock show, and in it, I played Wolfman Jack, and I introduced Spinal Tap. We created this band, Spinal Tap, the world’s loudest band, and when we were shooting it, Chris [Guest] and Harry [Shearer] and Michael [McKean] were improvising in character as these British guys, and it was so funny, I said, “Gee, it’d be great to find something for these guys at some point.”
How did Spinal Tap become the first film you directed?
Harry Shearer and I had this idea to do a movie about the backstage of a rock ‘n’ roll tour. And we called it Roadie. but then Roadie came out, which was a film with Meatloaf. So we said, “Screw that, we can’t do it.” And then Chris [Guest] and Michael [McKean] had this idea. It was a tape thing of two British rock and rollers that run into each other in this hotel, and they’re both stoned and they can’t remember whether or not they played with each other at some point. And so I said, “Hey, maybe we could revisit those characters, and we could do a tour,” and so we kind of combined the ideas. There was this company, Marble Arch, it was owned by Lew Grade at the time, and this guy named Michael Starger ran it, and they gave us a deal to write a screenplay, the four of us, and they gave us 60 grand, I think. We started working on it and we realized there was no way we were going to be able to communicate in screenplay form what this thing was going to look like because it was going to be a satire of these rock ‘n’ roll documentaries, you know like The Kids Are Alright and The Last Waltz. So I went to Martin Starger, I said, “Look, give me the $60,000 you’re going to pay for the script, and I’ll make some of the movie, I’ll show you at least what it is.” So I put $25,000 of my money and Harry, Chris, and Michael put $5,000 in, and we had $90,000, and we made 20 minutes of the movie. And Starger said, “Ah, I don’t like this.” So that was the end of that. So I went to a guy named Bill Immerman, and he gave me some money, he said, “If you can get it distributed, I’ll give you some money.” Avco Embassy had just been sold to Jerry Perenchio and Norman Lear. And I talked to Alan Horn, who was an executive [there], because I knew Alan from All in the Family, and I said “Alan, please give me a chance. Let me just talk to Jerry and Norman, I’ll convince them.” So I go into the meeting, and Alan’s there, Jerry, Norman, a couple of other people, and I make this impassioned, crazy pitch for why we need to do it, and then I leave. And this is what I heard happened because I wasn’t in the room when it happened, I heard Norman turned to everybody and said, “Who wants to tell him he can’t do it?” So they stepped up for 2 million bucks, you know, and I made that movie.
In the movie, you played the director Marty DiBergi, a parody of Martin Scorsese in his rock doc The Last Waltz. How did he react?
When he first saw it, he was kind of pissed off. And then, as time’s gone by, he realized, “This is pretty cool. It’s an homage and all that.” We recently talked about it, when I did a part in The Wolf of Wall Street, and he said, “Yeah, I liked it.”
What role did the success of When Harry Met Sally … play in establishing your production company Castle Rock?
Here’s the wacky thing. We were shopping the company around, and Coca-Cola [which then owned] Columbia, had an 18-picture commitment with Nelson Entertainment, a British company that was going to finance movies. They said to us, “Well, why don’t you guys take nine of them? And then they’ll take nine. They’ll have video and foreign, and you’ll have domestic.” So we were able to capitalize the company at $85 million with $30 million in equity and a $50 million line of credit at the bank, which is nothing. But we only had $30 million in cash. While we were working on When Harry Met Sally …, our first production, Nelson had a picture called Winter People, with Kelly McGillis and Kurt Russell, and our participation in that was $5 million. So we went right from $30 million to $25 million, and then the picture was a disaster, and so it was like, “Oh my God, we’re going to be out of business.” Now, we’re two years into it, and we had a $14.5 million budget for When Harry Met Sally …, and we had operating costs, so we only had $9 million bucks to pay for prints and ads. Columbia said, “We’ll give you another $3 million.” If When Harry Met Sally … fails, we’re done. We’re done. We got no more money left. But luckily, it was a success, and we kept going. But we were living hand-to-mouth the whole time.
Reiner — with his wife, Michele Singer Reiner, and kids (from left) Jake, Romy and Nick — received the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award in 2014.
Castle Rock’s now owned by Warners. What’s that relationship like?
They have first-look at anything we do, but the things that we do, they’re not interested in. When I sit in the office, there’s posters of the movies we’ve made. We’ve made like 125 movies [and TV shows] over 29 years. And not one of them could be made at a studio today. Not one. So right now, I’m making a picture here, a picture there.
Do you resent the fact that you now have to go out and raise financing for each new film?
Financing your own films used to be easy. Because basically, whatever film you wanted to make, you had the financing. But now you’ve got to run around. Look, it took Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio six years to get the money for Wolf of Wall Street. And now, there’s even questions about how that happened. But no studio will make these things, so you’ve got to run around. But I like to do puzzles; I love crossword puzzles and Sudoku. I like the idea of putting all these things together. I used to think the business part of me is going to bump up against the artistic part, but you find a way to let them live harmoniously, and they can actually help each other. The past three films I’ve made, they were 25 days, 27 days, 26 days [of shooting], and you figure out ways to do it.
Are any of your movies ripe for remakes or sequels?
People are always saying When Harry Met Sally …, you want to do another Spinal Tap? But to me, it’s like I’ve done these things already. I did it. I’m going to be 70 next year. You start seeing that you have a limited amount of time. I want to do something that’s different.
Looking back, do you regard any of them as a favorite?
It’s like that old stupid cliche. You love all your children. But the truth is — and I don’t know if it’s the best one — but the one I was most connected to when I was starting out was Stand By Me because it was the first time I made a movie that really reflected my personality and really was an extension of my sensibility. Because with Spinal Tap, my father had done satire when he did Show of Shows, and he’d also done romantic comedies, and [my second film] The Sure Thing was a romantic comedy. So it was the first time I was doing something that was so far away from anything he would’ve done. When it became successful, it was a big boost because I thought, “OK, things I like, other people may like too.”
Why did you want to make LBJ, your new film about Lyndon B. Johnson, right now?
When I was of draft age in the 1960s, I hated LBJ because the only thing I could think of was, “He’s the guy who could send me to my death,” and I didn’t believe in that war. But as time has gone by, and as I have been involved in politics in one way or another, and as I’ve gotten certain things accomplished and see how it works, I’ve had a greater appreciation of what Lyndon Johnson was able to do and how smart he was politically. If you take away the Vietnam War, which was his undoing, he would’ve gone down as one of the great presidents of all time. That’s why I wanted to revisit it.
You’ve been a big Hillary Clinton supporter since 2008.
I’ve known Hillary Clinton almost 25 years, and she’s incredibly dedicated and passionate about wanting to make things better and wanting to move thing forward. She’s a real policy wonk. She can work across the aisle. She’s good at it. Once she has a job, Republicans like her because she does listen and figures out ways to forge consensus. My dream is that she wins the White House with enough of a majority, and we take back the Senate. I don’t have any dreams about taking back the House, but if we can diminish the House slightly, and if Paul Ryan has any interest in running for president at some point, he’s going to want to do things. She’s going to be very good at working with Republicans. It may just be pie-in-the sky, but that’s my hope.
Do you think there’s anything that could blow the election for her?
The only thing I could think of is some Julian Assange thing. But there’s nothing in those emails, there’s nothing there, there’s never been anything there. But it doesn’t matter. The other day, did you see what they did? “She’s got a health problem. Look, the pillows.” Who knows what they’ll come up with?
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.