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COUNTERPUNCH

Happy memories of the 'In-Laws' she adored

June 02, 2003|Penny Peyser | Special to The Times

When I dropped by the Show Biz office and filled out my application back in the '70s, there was a cardinal rule. If you were going to remake a movie, the studios at least had the decency to wait until the original stars were dead.

It was a kinder, gentler time. All right not really, but at least a simpler time in the world of movies. The Spielberg/Lucas blockbusters were en vogue but the phrase "tent pole" hadn't become a common term in the trades. Imagine my surprise when I learned that a remake of "The In-Laws" was in the works -- a picture in which I happily co-starred in 1979. Stunned, I called my agent. He took the call, which stunned me again.

"This can't be happening!" I screamed. "I'm still breathing! I still pay full fare for a bus ride. I haven't had anything lifted, nipped, sucked or tucked!" With his usual sensitivity he mumbled, "I dunno, maybe they think you're dead."

In the original "In-Laws," I played Alan Arkin's daughter, Peter Falk's soon-to-be daughter-in-law and the word "play" was primary. One of the big challenges throughout filming was to not ruin takes with laughter from behind the scenes.

The cast and crew struggled to hold it in while Peter Falk dementedly described tsetse flies carrying off small brown babies in their beaks. It took us three days to shoot that scene because of the "laughing problem." Director Arthur Hiller was finally forced to yell at us spoilers when all discipline dissolved on the set.

Hiller guided the unfolding of a lunatic character and a sane one's descent into lunacy. Without the pressure of special effects and $100-million budgets, there was time to let the characters discover each other and us them. The scene in the diner when Alan is recovering from being chased and shot at and Peter is regaling him with CIA stories in full voice, secrecy be damned, is one an audience would rarely see today in a big studio comedy. A fight, a gunshot, a crash or chase would have to interrupt the conversation to keep the pace going. I don't remember what the budget was for "The In-Laws" but it was probably equal to the craft services bill on the remake. However we had something no budget can buy -- the magical chemistry between Alan Arkin and Peter Falk.

I have no disrespect for the new model, which made me laugh, and my friend Nat Mauldin, co-writer of the remake, paid a small homage to me by naming Albert Brook's character "Peyser." Still, I genuinely miss "my" movie. It was short on gimmicks and long on character. It's a work that has made many comics' top 10 list for funny films and I'm proud to have gotten a few laughs myself in the proceedings. I remember sitting outside with Alan in our PJs, playing guitars while waiting to shoot the bedtime scene, and thinking, "This can't be work, it's too much fun." I guess I feel defensive about an "In-Laws" remake because: a.) It remains my fondest show business experience, and b.) I'm not dead.

*

Penny Peyser is (still) an actress and is currently producing a documentary about jazz legend Jack Sheldon with her husband, Doug McIntyre, host of KABC's Red Eye Radio.

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