Whether hanging from a second-story window, getting pummeled by co-star Bette Midler or collecting ransom money while dressed in a Bozo disguise, "Ruthless People's" Judge Reinhold maintains a studied comic philosophy behind those deceptively simple antics.
A lanky, 29-year-old actor exuding a Tom Sawyer-like innocence, Reinhold has carved out a niche as a sympathetic comic actor in his performances opposite Midler or Eddie Murphy ("Beverly Hills Cop").
"I like to watch and perform the kind of comedy that comes out of the situation--where the character is really serious and in a tough situation and doesn't realize that the situation is comic," Reinhold said during an interview.
But much as he loves comedy, he almost passed up "Ruthless People," he said, in order to avoid becoming terminally typecast as a buffoon.
"I had decided not to do another commercial, high-concept comedy when 'Ruthless People' came along, but when I read the script, that conviction went out the window," said the actor, who said he cringes "when I hear that word bumbling and 'Mr. Bumbles'--"If there's one way that people have typed me, that's it. People are real quick to jump at the easiest way to define you." Without graduating from college, Reinhold did "a lot of theater work" at the University of Virginia, Mary Washington College and the North Carolina School of the Arts before moving to Los Angeles at 21.
"I hit town in 1978, the same year 'Animal House' opened," Reinhold recalled, "going from a yogurt shop job to a contract with Paramount TV in 1979," which resulted in an audition for "Mork and Mindy."
"I remember sitting there in the (Paramount) office waiting to go in and meet the network executives. I heard this constant uproarious laughter. Robin Williams walked out and I saw the executives wiping tears from their eyes. It was like, 'Do I have to do this?' I was petrified. I had never even been in front of a camera before." Williams, of course, got "Mork," and Reinhold got a dose of slim pickings.
"My first time in front of a camera, I said, 'Wonder Woman, I'm so glad you're here,' " he recalled with a laugh. "That's how I made a living.
"Before 'Animal House' came out to open up a huge market, there just weren't parts for young guys," Reinhold said. "That genre of film was my ticket in. . . . One of my first jobs was with Bill Murray in 'Stripes.' "
Eluding a label either as an Eddie Murphy-style stand-up comedian or as a John Belushi slapsticker, Reinhold preferred--as he still does--to give depth to his comic roles, be it a frustrated teen-ager in "Fast Times," Murphy's policeman sidekick in "Cop" or stereo-salesman-turned-kidnaper in "Ruthless."
"Audiences go to movies to see someone with dignity get through a difficult situation," he said. "I'm more enamored of a story showing someone getting through a humilitating situation than making fun of somebody. My own personal preference is to approach it completely straight.
"I got a lot of recognition from 'Cop' in playing that guy straighter than he was written and making an investment in him as somebody other than just a comic device."
It was an approach that paid off. One result was getting the part of Ken Kessler in "Ruthless People," where Reinhold remains unflappable amid the most outlandish circumstances--even when collecting ransom wearing a Bozo costume. "I was imaginging Al Pacino in 'Dog Day Afternoon' when I was doing that," he said, chortling.
Reinhold's Virginia-bred affability and his theater experience allow him to give wide berth to bigger stars such as Midler, whom he affectionately praises and defends.
"(Bette) is not somebody you can push around. If you extend courtesy and have manners, she's right there for you," he said.
And while describing Murphy's raw comic technique as awesome, Reinhold differentiates it from his own. "Because of their training, actors that have a theater background have a certain respect for the story and the working situation. When you deal with celebrities who didn't really grow up with that kind of discipline, I guess it's more of an arena for them instead of a workplace."
But now, having achieved an independence allowing him to decline a diet of junk-celluloid parts, Reinhold said he is "looking for things of merit. I don't believe in vehicles. You have to have a good story--above all, actors should be good storytellers."
"I've been in very successful films playing a kind of naive character, so it's easy for people to see me one way."
But Reinhold stills enjoys real-life clowning and a good-natured prank. Confronted with a magazine photo spread in which he's wearing a vermilion garter belt over gray pinstripe trousers, the actor blushes.
"You got me there," he says, grinning. "One thing I've learned about photo sessions-- you do that one silly thing they ask for and that's the one they use."