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Interview: Director Rob Reiner on Latest Film ‘And So it Goes’

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CHICAGO – Rob Reiner has lived two distinct show business lives. He played a major role in one of the most famous television shows in history, “All in the Family,” and broke out afterward as a classic American film director, with hits such as “This is Spinal Tap” and “The Princess Bride.” His latest film is “And So it Goes.”

The film stars Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton, as an older couple discovering a connection that on the surface seems highly unlikely. This is Rob Reiner’s 15th feature film as director, after such classics as “The Sure Thing,” “Stand By Me,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” “Misery,” “A Few Good Men,” “The American President” and “Ghosts of Mississippi.” Michael Douglas last worked with Reiner when he portrayed the title character in “The American President.” Reiner himself performs a small supporting role in “And So it Goes.”

Michael Douglas, Rob Reiner
Michael Douglas (left) and Rob Reiner on the set of ‘And So it Goes’
Photo credit: Clarius Entertainment

Robert “Rob” Reiner was born in the Bronx, New York, and is the son of famed television producer Carl Reiner (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”). His boyhood home in New Rochelle, New York, was the inspiration for Rob Petrie’s address in his father’s show. His family eventually moved to Los Angeles, and after he graduated from UCLA he began doing bit parts on classic TV sitcoms such as “My Three Sons,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “That Girl,” and “Gomer Pyle: USMC” (see story below). He also did a stint as a writer on the “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” at the height of the show’s controversial stands on the divisive issues of the 1960s, such as the Viet Nam War.

His major acting breakthrough came in 1971, when he was cast as Mike Stivic – AKA “Meathead” – on the groundbreaking TV series “All in the Family.” The show took on the “conservative versus liberal” arguments long before it became a national obsession, exposing the bigotry of Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) versus Mike’s attempts to argue the other side. The show also starred Jean Stapleton as Archie’s wife Edith and Sally Struthers as Mike’s wife (and Archie’s daughter) Gloria.

HollywoodChicago.com got the opportunity to talk to Rob Reiner on his latest film, his career as a sitcom superstar and actor, plus his legacy as an American director and storyteller.

HollywoodChicago.com: Since you’re a show business veteran and man about town, can you remember the first time you met Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton, and what were the circumstances?

Rob Reiner: The first time I met Michael Douglas, I was in my early twenties. We did a film together called ‘Summertree’ [1971], and I portrayed his roommate in a college-campus-activist-1960s type of movie. It was directed by Anthony Newley, of all people [laughs]. The first time I met Diane was in the early 1980s, at a party.

HollywoodChicago.com: This is a film about a couple confused a bit about the twilight of their years, and the regrets that sometimes come with that period. What did you want to emphasize most in Mark Andrus’ script about regret in ‘And So it Goes’?

Reiner: What I was trying to focus on is that you shouldn’t have regrets, you should embrace life. You only get this one chance, and as you get older you realize that all those clichés that people tell you when you’re young – that you intellectually understand but you don’t really internalize, you have to start to live. Life is precious and it is limited, and you should embrace it at every turn. If love or friendship presents itself, you should grab it, because you don’t want those regrets.

HollywoodChicago.com: What adjustments did Michael Douglas want to make to his character, regarding the presentation of a man who has shut out his son and his previous life, and is almost coerced into beginning again?

Reiner: What we wanted to do with that character, was to show that he has checked out of life. He has turned his back on everything that is really important to him. He is ready to sell his house, which is really important to him, and he’s basically going to leave it all behind to retire to Vermont. What happens in that course is meeting the Diane Keaton character, and having his granddaughter dropped on his doorstep, whom he didn’t even know existed. Those two factors bring him back into life. For Michael, he wanted the character to be way out there and unlikable, so that when he came back to life you could see where he had to go.

I liked the idea of the female influence – whether it is the little girl or the Keaton character. I believe that women in general are more emotionally mature and evolved than men. Men need women to show them what is important, and to help raise them up – in many of my films, that’s what happens. The woman knows what she wants, knows what’s important, and the man runs around like an idiot trying to figure it out, until he comes to a realization, thanks to the woman.

HollywoodChicago.com: What kind of set do you like to have, as far as letting the actors on your playground, and consulting with the inevitable crew you have to work with – how do you achieve balance on set between the two functions?

Reiner: The first thing I like to do is create an atmosphere in which everyone is comfortable. That everyone can contribute to it, that it’s a safe place and with no worries that about saying something, because it might lead to something good. If everyone is in that space, we all can do our best work.

My feeling is, you want to make a good film – and hopefully you’ve got a good script and good actors – but ultimately I want to make it a good experience. The film itself, the finished product, is for the audience. That is their experience. But the experience for those on set is the making of the film, so I want that experience to be as pleasant, creative and fun as possible.

HollywoodChicago.com: You’ve had a California lifestyle for a long time, what element of your life emphasizes your New York City roots?

Rob Reiner
Rob Reiner (left) & the Cast of ‘All in the Family’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Reiner: I was born in the Bronx, and we lived in a tiny apartment, and I shared my bedroom with my sister. My father [Carl Reiner] became successful, and then we had things, but we didn’t in the beginning. In fact, my father was on television before we owned a television [laughs]. We eventually bought one, because we wanted to watch him.

HollywoodChicago.com: What year was that?

Reiner: It was 1951 or so, right as he was doing ‘Your Show of Shows’ [an early TV variety show that Carl Reiner wrote and performed on], and it was a tiny six inch screen, and of course black and white.

HollywoodChicago.com: I want to explore a bit about your extraordinary string of guest appearances on classic TV shows of the 1960s. It must now seem like a blur, but do you remember any distinctive elements of those sets, and a particular appearance from you on them?

Reiner: I was basically a resident Hollywood hippie [laughs]. If they needed a hippie, I was who they called on, and I did ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ ‘Room 222’ and ‘The Partridge Family’ in that role. My favorite moment is when I did ‘Gomer Pyle,’ and I sang the song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ with a group of fellow hippies and Jim Nabors, who portrayed Gomer Pyle. It’s classic.

HollywoodChicago.com: You have always expressed how Carroll O’Connor was more liberal than you were, at that time of your youth. What did Mr O’Connor want to always express about Archie Bunker, since he was approaching him from his progressive nature, and was there anything he wouldn’t do to express the character because of his political leanings?

Reiner: No, I think that was what was great about his performance of the character. Carroll knew those guys – the blue collar guys on the loading dock – and he tried to portray Archie Bunker as honestly as he could. The experience of ‘All in the Family’ was about presenting both sides, and letting the audience debate it and discuss it, and understand where they stood on it.

One of the favorite plays of Norman Lear [the creator of ‘Family’] was George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Major Barbara.’ Now Shaw was a major liberal, but if you view the play you would feel that both the pro and anti-war positions were eloquently expressed – and he would let you make up your own mind. So that was the philosophy of our show, and Carroll was totally committed to playing that character the way it was supposed to be played.

HollywoodChicago.com: You had an amazing chemistry with Jean Stapleton on the show, at times it was touching. What was the key to that character relationship, and how was she able to help you explore it?

Reiner: Jean’s character Edith had a lot of growth as the series progressed. She began under Archie’s thumb, but as the woman’s movement took root, the producers grew her character along with it. To my character, she made Archie human. Because she would love someone like that, it showed Mike Stivic that there were sides to Archie that he wasn’t aware of, and I think that was the key to my relationship with Jean’s character.

HollywoodChicago.com: Why do you think The Smothers Brothers were made to be scapegoats for the lack of courage that CBS showed toward their show? Or was it a more internal fight?

Reiner: I think that Tommy Smothers was a brilliant comedian, and a man committed to social change, and I was fortunate as a young guy to be working on that show. At the time, I was a real rabble rouser, and I would get angry when Tommy had to make a political compromise with CBS, to keep the show on the air. I had no idea the level of push back he was getting from them.

The Smothers Brothers weren’t so much a scapegoat as they just really pushed the envelope. There was nothing like that on television at the time, there was no one on the major networks talking against the Viet Nam War the way they were, and certainly no one taking a pro-integration stance. The network had a hard time with Tommy.

HollywoodChicago.com: Where did you come up with the name Marty DiBerghi, and how do you think it represents the certain filmmaker you wanted to be in the middle of in ‘This is Spinal Tap’?

Reiner: It came from Marty Scorcese, based on his work in the documentary ‘The Last Waltz,’ about the rock group ‘The Band’ and their last time together. Marty was also in the film. And I loved that, so I basically took the character from there.

HollywoodChicago.com: Aaron Sorkin famously said about ‘A Few Good Men’ that he didn’t know anything about the military when he wrote it. Since you also had never served, what was crucial for you in getting the presentation of the military correctly, and who was your main consultant?

Rob Reiner
Rob Reiner in Chicago, June 18, 2014
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

Reiner: We actually had a wonderful Brigadier General, David Brahms, as an technical consultant, making sure we got it right. It’s also true that Aaron’s sister was in the JAG corp [the military’s legal department] and the case that the story was based on was an actual case in Guantanamo Bay, and Aaron’s sister was on the case. That’s how he knew about it.

HollywoodChicago.com: We all reach a point in our lives in which we become separated from our father’s influence. Since you and your father Carl are in the same business, at what point did you become most separated from his influence?

Reiner: It happened later for me. When I was a kid growing up, he was an idol to me, I loved what he did and I loved him so much. I wanted to be like him. My mother tells a story about when I was eight years old I came up to her, and told her I wanted to change my name. Immediately she thought, ‘Oh, the poor kid, it’s the pressure of living under the shadow of a famous father.’ She asked me what I wanted to change my name to, and I answered, ‘Carl’ [laughs]. I wanted so much to be like him.

So really our major ‘separation’ came later in life, after I became single again in my early thirties, after being married for 10 years. I made the film ‘Stand By Me,’ which for the first time really reflected my point of view, which was separate and apart from anything he would have done. I had to find my own voice, and I finally did it.

HollywoodChicago.com: You are a famous progressive, you express that in your art and you are also an activist. What do you want to communicate now to a divided America, about the hope of being progressive and including the most amount of citizens in this experiment of democracy?

Reiner: We’re going through a very bad time in this country. I’m not talking economically or any other wise, but politically we’re really divided. I thought it was rough when the religious right had influence on the Republican Party, but now we’ve got troglodytes [persons who intentionally are ignorant] influencing the Party. It’s difficult to move things along when people are intentionally not reality based.

Those types of people control such a significant part of the Republican Party, that it is difficult to move forward. For example, if you have a country in which 90% of everyone there believes that we should have universal background checks for gun purchases, and even 75% of the National Rifle Association believes that, and you can’t get it through Congress, that speaks volumes regarding how broken our system is.

HollywoodChicago.com: As an activist, what do you think the solution to something like that is?

Reiner: It can become unbroken. Regarding the gridlock, it simple can’t get any worse. Gridlock is gridlock. I’m hoping we can break through that, because nothing is getting done. Right now, one of the ways we can break through is to elect a President, because they have the power of nominating Supreme Court justices. As an activist, that is the way I’m trying to work now.

“And So it Goes” opens everywhere on July 25th. Featuring Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Sterling Jerins, Frances Sternhagen, Frankie Valli and Rob Reiner. Written by Mark Andrus. Directed by Rob Reiner. Rated “PG-13.” To watch Rob Reiner sing “Blowin’ In the Wind” with Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors, click here.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

Mr. Leland's picture

Good one

I’m surprised you got him to open up so specifically about his politics. His in-house gig as a hippy on several shows is pretty funny. I’m surprised he has such a good humor about it.

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