How Rob Reiner became anti-Prop. 8 kingpin

Played critical role in getting gay marriage ban overturned

Rob Reiner was sitting at a table at the Beverly Hills Polo Lounge on Wednesday when his wife Michele called from San Francisco with the breaking news that Proposition 8 had been overturned. He'd wanted to be in San Francisco too but had already committed to a full day of publicity for his new film "Flipped," which Warner Bros. releases Friday.

The fact that he was in the Polo Lounge had a nice symmetry to it -- he happened to be sitting at the exact same table where, just 22 months earlier, he and several friends had first discussed the idea of pursuing a federal court challenge, an idea that many thought was quixotic and some felt downright risky.

"It was crazy," Reiner said of fact that he was back at the table where it all began.

The battle to defeat Prop. 8 had launched the 63-year-old actor-turned-director-turned-political activist into a whole different sphere. Working closely with political strategist and longtime ally Chad Griffin, Reiner helped found the American Foundation for Equal Rights. As Griffin reached out to the gay community, Reiner used his Hollywood insider status to court a handful of millionaires and billionaires including Norman Lear, Steve Bing and David Geffen, who provided the $3 million-$5 million in seed money that allowed the foundation to support the work of high-powered lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies.

Chad Griffin
Now that the case, which at its height employed more than 60 people, is headed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, AFER is about to embark a second round of fundraising, though, Reiner said: "The cost to Ted's firm and to David's firm are so far beyond what we could possibly raise. At the end of the day, way, way more than half of this thing is going to be pro-bono."

Reflecting on the critical role he played in what is shaping up as a landmark legal case, which has restored marriage rights for gays and lesbians in California and which eventually could go all the way to the Supreme Court, Reiner said in an interview with THR: "I am unbelievably proud to be part of this. I couldn't have imagined that I would ever be involved in anything as historically significant as this in my life."

That's saying something. In 1997, he and Michele founded the I Am Your Child Foundation, now known as Parents' Action for Children, which promotes early-childhood development. The next year, he chaired the campaign on behalf of Proposition 10, which taxed tobacco to pay for childhood services. He's even been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, though so far he's chosen to restrict his campaigning to supporting other Democratic candidates.

Reiner and Griffin first met when Reiner visited the Clinton White House to research his 1995 film "The American President." Griffin was a young press duty officer assigned to escort the Hollywood director around.

"I'd never seen anyone with that kind of poise and intelligence for a young kid," Reiner remembered. "It was just striking."

A couple of years later, when Reiner started his own foundation, he convinced Griffin, who was considering a job in the State Department, to come Los Angeles and work for him.

In 1998, Griffin left to set up his own business, which eventually led to his current firm Griffin Schacke. Over the years, he joined forces with Reiner on several ballot initiatives.

Flash back to that earlier Polo Lounge lunch: The Reiners, Griffin and Griffin's business partner Kristina Schake, having campaigned against Prop. 8, were feeling the sting of its passage.

Lots of ideas were tossed around -- like mounting a new initiative down the road. But Griffin strenuously objected. "I'm a political strategist. I make my living by working on political campaigns and running ballot initiatives across the country," he said. "But I do not believe we should submit, ever, ever, one's fundamental, constitutional rights to a vote."

As they debated options, Kate Moulene, a friend of the Reiners, dropped by their table for a few minutes. Later that evening, she called Michele and suggested the group contact Olson, her former brother-in-law.

"We were shocked to hear that. We thought of him as somebody who was so diametrically opposed to the things we were interested in," said Reiner, who knew Olson as the attorney who represented George W. Bush before the Supreme Court in the 2000 case of Bush v. Gore, which settled the contested presidential election in the Republicans' favor.

Griffin was equally dubious, but he agreed to meet Olson in Washington. "I quickly learned that Ted is someone who'd held a view in support of gay marriage far before most gay people were even talking about gay marriage," Griffin told THR.

Olson then came to Los Angeles, meeting with the Reiners in their living room, and the conversation continued. He suggested bringing in his one-time rival Boies as co-counsel and mounting a challenge in federal court.

That strategy was controversial. Other gay groups insisted on taking a state-by-state approach, leery of mounting a federal challenge that could end up before an unsympathetic Supreme Court, setting a precedent denying gay marriage that could stand for years.

Undaunted, in May 2009, Olson and Boies went public with the announcement that they were filing a suit on behalf of two same-sex couples in federal court, alleging that Prop. 8 violated the equal-protection clause of the constitution.

In response, nine gay groups, including Freedom to Marry and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, warned of "filing premature law suits."

As they assembled their forces, Reiner and Griffin met with other groups, such as Lambda Legal and the ACLU, to see whether they would support the suit, "but they were not interested in going that route," Reiner said.

So pulling in other friends and associates including producer Bruce Cohen and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black -- who had collaborated on "Milk," the Oscar-winning biopic about pioneering gay-rights advocate Harvey Milk -- they decided to create their own organization, AFER, strictly dedicated to pursuing the court case.

"There is a difference between AFER and other organizations," Black said about AFER's go-for-broke gambit. "You don't ask for less, and I think that's what other organizations have been doing over the past decade and a half. It's what needed to stop."

When the case, officially known as Perry v. Schwarzenegger, got under way before Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in January, Reiner was front and center.

Olson had been allotted 15 minutes for an opening statement, but the judge immediately began peppering him with questions. Experienced in arguing before the Supreme Court, where justices regularly interrupt with queries, Olson was unflappable.

"He just adapted to it so easily and worked in all the points he wanted to make," Reiner marveled. The director was equally impressed by Boies, who "picked apart" the defense's two witnesses with almost surgical skill.

"Having heard them both argue in court, it's hard to describe the complete brilliance and dedication they bring to this case," Cohen testified.

When word came down that the judge's ruling would be coming Wednesday, the team sprang into action. Griffin flew to San Francisco to prepare for a news conference. Black flew to Los Angeles and found himself seated next to the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, a longtime anti-gay-rights activist who heads the Traditional Values Coalition. "It was bizarre. He didn't know who I was, but we had a very in-depth conversation in which he said the problem with gay people is that they are shoving their lifestyle down our throats -- rather graphic coming from a reverend," Black later laughed.

By Wednesday night, after the San Francisco news conference and a rally in West Hollywood, Reiner found himself toasting the attorneys and the AFER team as they gathered for a round at Lucques.

Although the case could go on for several more years if appealed to the Supreme Court, Walker had issued an extensive, 138-page ruling that unambiguously underscored most of the arguments for marriage equality AFER and its attorneys had been making.

"This is a home run where the ball still hasn't come down," Reiner said to the assembly. "It's still traveling."