Retrospecting Rob Reiner: Meathead and Movie-Maker

Today an homage to writer/director/actor/producer Rob Reiner (b. 1947)

Reiner is a textbook, literal, Baby Boomer: his father, the famous Carl Reiner was discharged from his World War II service in 1946 (see birthdate above). And as the Baby Boomers grew up on a diet of television, Rob Reiner was at Ground Zero. He grew up in, on and around the plug-in-drug. His father began working on Your Show of Shows when Rob was three years old. A decade later his dad created The Dick Van Dyke Show, which has a character (Richie) who is pretty clearly modeled on Rob. Now that I am grown, I perceive the satire in the character — the kid is whiny, needy, over-indulged, and pretty irritating. A Baby Boomer poster child! (But pretty hilarious in the context of the show).

Reiner the Younger went to UCLA film school where he learned stuff he wouldn’t be able to put into practice for a few years as a director. Starting in 1966 and 1967, he became a comedy writer and an actor. He was part of the legendary writing staff for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, working alongside a young Steve Martin. A mere 20 years old at the time, it was reportedly Reiner who kept egging the Brothers on to do more relevant, topical material — a fact which will not startle anyone who follows Reiner’s Twitter feed today. At the same time he was taking guest star roles and bit parts on shows like That Girl, Batman, The Andy Griffith Show, The Mothers-in-Law, Gomer Pyle USMC, The Beverly Hillbillies, Room 222, and The Partridge Family. He also had small roles in his father’s films Enter Laughing (1967) and Where’s Poppa? (1970), where he worked with Alan Arkin for the first time. Another interesting one from the pre-Meathead period is Summertree (1971), directed by Anthony Newley, and starring a young Michael Douglas, whom he would later direct in a couple of films. This was already a healthy start to a productive career, but Reiner still felt overshadowed by his famous father, hence this quote in a TV Guide from the period:

The turning point was of course Reiner’s casting in the stellar quartet at the heart of the hit sit-com All in the Family (1971-78). Reiner played Archie Bunker’s hippie son-in-law Michael “Meathead” Stivic on that show, and appeared in a few episodes of Archie Bunker’s Place (1979). Thanks to this role he was suddenly a bigger star than his father. It’s pretty joyous to watch his development over the first couple of seasons of that show, from tentative to quite confident and sometimes hilarious.

Something else happened in 1971. Reiner married Penny Marshall, soon to be a TV star herself, with the assistance of her brother, producer/writer/director Garry Marshall. In 1974, there were two historic Reiner/Marshall collaborations. One, the classic episode of The Odd Couple, where Reiner guest starred as the boyfriend of Oscar’s secretary Myrna, played by Penny. The pair get married; it was her last appearance on the show. Then, Reiner co-wrote the first episode of Happy Days, created by Garry Marshall. A couple of years later, Penny would co-star in the Happy Days spin-off Laverne and Shirley. And a few years later, Reiner, both Marshalls, and Happy Days star Ron Howard would all become film directors — but we get ahead of ourselves.

First, there’s other stuff. Even while he was appearing in All in the Family, Reiner had other irons in the fire. As early as 1972, he co-created a short lived sitcom called The Super, starring Richard S. Castellano, who’d played Clemenza in The Godfather. He was in an episode of The Rockford Files. He appeared in the Alan Arkin movie (1977) Fire Sale. In 1978 he starred in his own short-lived sitcom, Free Country, in which he played a Lithuanian immigrant in the early 20th century. And he had a small role in Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979) directed by his dad.

In 1981, Reiner and Penny Marshall divorced. These were awkward years for both stars. Reiner was post-All in the Family, but not yet a director. And Laverne and Shirley was sort of imploding; it was finished by 1983. In this little window of time (1982), Reiner co-wrote and acted in a TV movie called Million Dollar Infield. One of his co-stars in the film was none other than Christopher Guest. Guest had played bit parts on All in the Family and Laverne and Shirley. The latter show had also starred Michael McKean as “Squiggy”. In 1984, Reiner, Guest, McKean and Harry Shearer collaborated on the heavy metal mockumentary This is Spinal Tap.

The success of this cult favorite launched Reiner’s career as a director, and Guest’s as well, as he later assumed the reins of similar improvised comedies starring his informal “stock company.” From here, Reiner went on the direct the very charming The Sure Thing (1985), the first of his rom-coms, starring John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga in a very Odd Couple style relationship. Reiner then enjoyed a half dozen truly golden years where everything he directed became a sort of instant classic. He directed two of the best of all Stephen King adaptations, Stand By Me (1986) and Misery (1990), as well as The Princess Bride (1987), Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally...(1989), and Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men (1992), his first political drama.

In between all this, I have to add a short-lived obscurity he co-created, which I was a HUGE fan of, and apparently very few others were. It was a thing about a fictional comedy team from the 1930s and ’40s called Morton and Hayes (played by Kevin Pollak and Bob Amaral), shot in black and white in the style of old comedy shorts. OF COURSE I would love this show! Episodes were directed by Guest (five years before Waiting for Guffman) and McKean. Reiner’s co-producer was Phil Mishkin, with whom he’d worked on All in the Family and The Super. It was all very much in the spirit of Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges and of course it lasted only six episodes.

With the children’s movie North (1994), Reiner’s status as an interesting director seemed to go SOUTH. Previously, it might have been said that of his little circle, the post-TV mafia that included the two Marshall siblings and Ron Howard, he was far and away the one to watch. Starting around this time, he was no longer that. The slide to mediocrity started with The American President (1995), an Aaron Sorkin thing that points the way toward the fairly insufferable The West Wing five years later. This was followed by the well-meaning but derivative Civil Rights drama Ghosts of Mississippi (1996). In the quarter century since, it’s just been a string of hoary, toothless senior citizen rom coms alternating with laugh-out-loud unintentional absurdities like LBJ (2016), the umpteenth movie where a well known actor, in this case Woody Harrelson, dons a Lon Chaney bird beak and goes around grabbing his crotch in imitation of our 36th President. Perhaps the only movie of this entire late period that approaches the classic Reiner of the ’80s is The Bucket List (2007), which has some darkness to redeem it. But those treacly movies are hideous, man!

I find Reiner’s career as a character actor during these last decades more watchable than his films. One always perks up when his familiar face is on screen. In addition to his own films, you can see him in Throw Momma from the Train (1987), Postcards from the Edge (1988), Sleepless in Seattle (1990), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), The First Wives Club (1996), Primary Colors (1998), EDtv (1999), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). He recently turned up as a judge on The Good Fight (2018)!