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“A man and a number — if you don’t have that [in your title], and you’re not making an R-rated sex comedy, then they don’t want it,” cracks Rob Reiner, the star of All in the Family (1971-1979) who went on to direct the instant-classics This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Stand by Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally… (1989), Misery (1990), A Few Good Men (1992) and The American President (1995). These days, not even someone with a track record like Reiner’s can easily secure financing and distribution for a passion project, as he has been reminded with his most recent film, LBJ. He unveiled it at the Toronto International Film Festival shortly before we sat down there to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. A week later, it still is on the market.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet and Michael Moore.)
Reiner, 69, is the son of Carl Reiner, the legendary comedy actor, writer, director and producer who is now 94 and going strong. “I wanted to be like him,” the younger Reiner recalls. “I wanted to do what he did. I looked up to him and I admired him so much.” On summer breaks, Reiner accompanied his father to the set of The Dick Van Dyke Show and studied what he did. “I was fascinated by it even then,” he says, although he kept his creative ambitions close to the vest until his senior year at Beverly Hills High School, when he signed up for drama class and landed a job with a summer stock company in Plymouth, Mass. He then enrolled at UCLA in the theater arts department, directing his first play at the age of 19. “That was the first time I got any kind of approval from my dad,” he notes.
“I knew that there were going to be comments about nepotism,” Reiner says of his decision to pursue a career in show business. But that was not enough to dissuade him, since he knew the truth: “I never asked him for help, I never asked him for advice.” While at UCLA, Reiner and classmates Larry Bishop (Joey’s son) and Richard Dreyfuss formed an improv group, The Session. Then Reiner and Bishop broke off as a double act. Then, during his third year at UCLA, Reiner began landing acting and writing jobs on top TV shows and dropped out of school. And then, when Reiner was 23, Norman Lear, an old family friend who had recognized talent in Reiner before his own father did, cast him in the part that would change his life: as Meathead, the liberal son-in-law of arch-conservative Archie Bunker, on CBS’ All in the Family.
Over the course of eight years and more than 200 episodes, Reiner became a star, winning two Emmys along the way. (He also wrote several episodes of that show, and others, with his writing partner Phil Mishkin.) But when the show’s run was over, he turned down “an enormous amount of money” to do a spinoff with Sally Struthers because, he says, “I didn’t think I was going to be able to make a career as an actor … I always wanted to be a director.” He felt confident that he could make the transition; others were less certain. “It took me four years to get [This Is] Spinal Tap off the ground because people didn’t like the idea that a TV sitcom guy was going to direct films.”
That groundbreaking mockumentary (“We didn’t intend to create a genre”) put to rest any doubts that Reiner could direct — but neither it nor the second film he directed, the rom-com The Sure Thing (1985), felt to him like they were his own. “Stand By Me was the first time I felt like, ‘Okay, I’m really establishing my own identity and personality with a film,'” he explains. “It was the first time I was making a film that really reflected my sensibility and my personality. It had humor in it, it had melancholy in it, it had a dramatic element to it, and it blended those things.” That film, an adaptation of Stephen King‘s most personal work, for which Reiner cast and spent weeks grooming four child actors (Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, River Phoenix and Will Wheaton), fell apart two days before production was to commence when Embassy Pictures was sold to Columbia, which didn’t want it and withdrew financing. Lear saved the day by writing a personal check for $7.5 million, and the rest is history.
Reiner next adapted another prized literary property, William Goldman‘s The Princess Bride (“My favorite book of all time … which my father gave to me”). That film wasn’t an immediate hit — “It took a long time for people to catch on to it,” he says, noting, “I think the title hurt us” — but it since has become one of the most cherished movies of all time. The same year it came out, Reiner and four others established Castle Rock Entertainment, named after the town in Stand By Me and many other King writings, which went on to become one of the most successful production companies in history. “We wanted to start a little film company,” he marvels — and Castle Rock did make seven movies of King’s works alone, including The Shawshank Redemption (1994). But then they decided to expand to TV, as well, and wound up producing, among other shows, Seinfeld (1989-1998), a cash cow for the ages.
In the ensuing years, Reiner continued to gravitate toward scripts to which he felt a personal connection. He signed up to do When Harry Met Sally… while down on his luck about love — and then met and fell in love with his future wife, Michele Singer, during the making of it, and gave it a more optimistic ending. (In that film, he also cast his mother, Estelle Reiner, to deliver a topper for the ages, concocted by Billy Crystal for the moment after Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in a deli: “I’ll have what she’s having.”) A year later, he made Misery, a King adaptation far darker than anything he had done before. “I related to it,” he says, “because I knew what it felt like to be trapped by success and not be able to break out and do what you want to do.” (Kathy Bates won the best actress Oscar for her terrifying performance in the film.)
In the early 1990s, while looking for someone to write the movie Malice, Reiner read and then saw the Broadway play A Few Good Men, which was scribed by Goldman mentee Aaron Sorkin, and decided to hire Sorkin to adapt it into a film. In this case, he related to the desire of Tom Cruise‘s lawyer to emerge from his father’s shadow. Not many know that Reiner actually worked with Sorkin to rewrite chunks of the script and “plug up some plot holes.” This apparently didn’t cause any strain in their relationship, because three years later they reteamed for The American President. “That,” Reiner notes, “became the basis for The West Wing.”
In the years thereafter, Reiner has made films much more sporadically. “I got very involved in politics,” he says, and then his family went through a tumultuous period after his teenage son, Nick Reiner, became addicted to drugs. Years later, the two worked to heal their relationship by collaborating on a project about what they had been through, Being Charlie, which was co-written by Nick and directed by his father. “It was tough, very emotional, very difficult, but ultimately, creatively, very satisfying,” says Reiner, who premiered the film at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
This month, Reiner returned north of the border with the 19th feature he’s directed, LBJ, one of several recent projects about America’s 36th president. “We set about trying to make him human and show all sides of him,” says Reiner. “And Woody Harrelson [playing the title character] is insane — it’s off-the-charts how good he is.” Reiner is hopeful that the film will find a buyer so that a larger audience will be able to see it — but not in a rushed way. “I don’t think it’ll be able to come out this year. Once we have a distributor, you have to build a marketing campaign and a distribution plan and all of that, and that’ll take some time. So it’ll come out next year sometime, hopefully.”
In the meantime, he’s already onto directing his next film, Shock and Awe, a drama about the handful of journalists who in 2003 questioned George W. Bush‘s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (the justification for the Iraq War), which reunites him with Harrelson, a fellow loud-and-proud liberal. As for the 2016 presidential election, he volunteers, “I’m rooting for the gal that Meathead would have voted for [Hillary Clinton], and I believe she will win. I think, at the end of the day, the American public will be smart enough to see that they’re not going to vote for a con man and a person who has lied to them about virtually everything he’s said and who’s racist and misogynistic and all those things [Donald Trump]. I think, hopefully, the American people will be able to see through that.”
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