For a man without a son, Norman Lear makes a pretty good father figure. Four times now, Lear has bailed out movie director Rob Reiner--you remember Meathead?--when nobody else would put up any money.
First there was "This Is Spinal Tap," the zany spoof of a rock documentary that Reiner made for under $3 million. Then "The Sure Thing." Then last summer's sleeper hit "Stand by Me." All directed by Reiner and financed by Lear.
Not that Lear looks at Reiner necessarily for a payoff. Seated across the table from Reiner the other day in the offices of Act III Communications, Lear looked at Reiner as an indulgent father might, describing as "a miracle" Reiner's direction on their fourth movie, "The Princess Bride."
It's the biggest test that Reiner has faced since he left behind his Meathead in Lear's landmark TV sitcom, "All in the Family." "Princess Bride," opening Friday, is based on a 1973 novel by the celebrated William Goldman, who also wrote the screenplay, not to mention movie classics like "All the President's Men" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
So far, so good. But, as Reiner notes gleefully, "This movie didn't not get made for 14 years for no reason!"
According to Goldman, at least two studio heads have gone down with the project, each fired almost as soon as he uttered the line, "I'm flying back to L.A. tomorrow and I want you to know I want to make 'The Princess Bride' more than any other movie in the world."
The book also lost such interested directors as Francois Truffaut, Norman Jewison, John Boorman, even Robert Redford, who once had a yen to play Westley, the farm boy in the story, according to Reiner.
"Everybody has turned it down over and over again," said Goldman. "Ask any studio executive, they'd say, 'Oh . . . not that again.' "
Largely faithful to the book, the movie is about a milkmaid who becomes the Princess Buttercup, the farm boy she loves, an evil prince, a giant and a Spanish swordsman avenging his father's death in a land that takes its fairy-tale quality seriously--but not much else.
Its challenge is to balance what Reiner hopes is "a real emotional love story," carried out by a pair of beautiful unknowns (Cary Elwes and Robin Wright), with the comic performances of Billy Crystal as Max, the pensioned-off miracle man; Carole Kane as Max's excitable hag wife; Peter Cook as the Impressive Clergyman; Mandy Patinkin as the Spanish swordsman; Wallace Shawn as the lisping villain Vizzini and Christopher Guest (who co-wrote and starred in "Spinal Tap") as the sadist Count Rugen.
To further complicate matters, there is a "real-life" grandfather (Peter Falk) trying to interest his grandson in books, an experience the young boy wants about as much as a pinch on the cheek.
Ironically, the book "Princess Bride" was given to Reiner by his own father, comedian-turned-director Carl Reiner.
The son had the good fortune to grow up in a household "filled with the most outrageous comedy," noted Lear, who describes Reiner Sr., a close friend, as "to this day, the best raconteur, the best ad-libber. . . ."
Recalling the moment when he first noticed that 9-year-old Rob was also funny, Lear said it occurred 31 summers ago, when the Reiner and Lear families had neighboring cottages on New York's Fire Island and young Rob sat on the floor playing jacks with Lear's oldest daughter, Ellen.
"I said to Carl, 'He's hysterical,' and Carl said, 'What do you mean he's hysterical?,' because a father doesn't see it that way. I've probably overlooked some things in my own kids." (Lear has three daughters--two in show business. The youngest, Maggie Lear, is a producer of "Beirut," a play about AIDS that appeared on Off-Broadway earlier this year and opens here at the Matrix Thjeater in October.)
Nor did Rob Reiner always share his father's sense of fun. "I was always, and still am, much more serious-minded and much more brooding and quiet and that kind of thing," said the younger Reiner. "My father's group of friends--Norman included, and Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon--they could all hold their own and trade shtick and all of that. I'm not going to fit into that anyway, but when I was a kid, I was certainly not going to fit into that.
"Bucking a father who loves me dearly but also can't see what abilities I have, and his being as visible as he was and as talented and as successful as he was, that's a real tough thing to get by. When somebody who is respected as much as my father doesn't give me the kind of encouragement that I might have to go ahead, that pretty much for most people I think would be enough to say, 'OK, I'm not going to be doing this now as my living,' you know, because whatever it is you're going to do, you want your father or your parents to encourage it.