Israel Film Fest to honor ‘Meathead,’ ‘Alan Brady’


“If I ever get the Nobel Prize, the headline is going to say, ‘Meathead Wins Nobel Prize,'” suggested Rob Reiner, harking back to his role as Archie Bunker’s son-in-law during the 1970’s run of “All in the Family.”

“I’m very proud of that appellation,” he added. “The show was an enormous success — also in Israel, by the way.”

The throwaway line was part of a conference call interview with Rob and his father, Carl Reiner, which ranged across their Bronx roots, presidential politics, Jewish identity, the future of Jewish humor and the Ten Commandments.

The Reiners, father and son, will be honored Wednesday, June 11, by the Israel Film Festival with the 2008 Achievement in Film Award.

Other honorees will be actor Kirk Douglas, Israeli producer-director Menahem Golan and Jeffrey Berg, chairman of the talent and literary agency International Creative Management.

Carl Reiner, winner of nine Emmy awards and an American institution as actor, director, producer, writer and comedian, was born 86 years ago in the Bronx, the son of a Romanian-born watchmaker and a mother from Budapest.

“I was born in the Bronx, too,” Rob interjected.

“No,” Carl corrected. “I was delivered at our home in the Bronx. You were born in a hospital in Manhattan.”

Despite this early handicap, Rob was a precocious lad.

“When Rob was 2 or 3, before he could read, he had somehow learned to recite Hamlet’s soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be,'” recounted the proud father. “Only he had trouble with his ‘L,’ so instead of ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ it came out as ‘swings and arrows.'”

A few years later, young Rob used to sit on the steps, listening intently when the likes of Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar visited the Reiner home.

Rob was basically a serious kid, Carl said, but the amazing thing was that when the men swapped jokes, “he laughed at all the right places.”

American Jews once had a virtual monopoly on stand-up comics, but the torch seems to be passing to other ethnics. “It’s always the downtrodden people who produce the best comics, such as [the black] Chris Rock or [the Hispanic] Carlos Mencia,” Carl said.

How about Jerry Seinfeld?

“No,” Carl insisted. “Seinfeld is not a Jewish comedian. He is a comedian who happened to be Jewish.”

But Carl has not lost hope, saying, “As long as we’re persecuted, we’ll have Jewish humor. It’s in our DNA; it’s been inbred for thousand of years.”

Some of the DNA was obviously passed on to Rob, who has emulated his father’s versatility and multitasking. He has scored some of his biggest successes as film director of such critical and commercial hits as “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Stand By Me,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “A Few Good Men.” His most recent release is “The Bucket List.”

On politics, which means Democratic politics, the Reiners disagree, with the father backing Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and the son supporting New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“I felt that Hillary was more electable,” Rob said. “She was also very helpful in my California campaign against smoking and for better child care.”

But both Reiners promise to work hard for the election of the ultimate Democratic candidate.

It took Carl longer than his son to break into show business.

“I was working as a mechanic’s helper in a sewing machine repair shop in the 1930s when my brother saw an ad that the WPA, the Works Progress Administration established by President Roosevelt, was offering a free drama workshop, and that was the beginning,” he said.

“I’ve always maintained that I owe my career to two men — my brother Charlie and FDR.”

For Rob, 61, it wasn’t a given that he would go into the entertainment business, but, he said, “I always looked up to my father and wanted to be like him.”

Carl broke in with another anecdote. “When Rob was 7 or 8, he came to me and told me he wanted to change his name,” the father recalled. “I figured that the Reiner name weighed on the kid, and he didn’t want to feed off it.

“‘So what would you like to change your name to?’ I asked, and he answered ‘Carl.'”

Like many Jews, especially in do-it-yourself California, the Reiners have fashioned their own identity.

To the question, “What kind of a Jew are you?” Rob responded, “The best kind of Jew, one who tries to do good things for others.”

Carl went into more detail. “I’m not a believer, I call myself an atheist,” he said. “It was man who invented God.

“I once wrote that there are 15 things I know about God, and one is that he is allergic to shellfish. There are far too many commandments and you really only need one: Do not hurt anybody.”

So why do the Reiners call themselves Jewish?

“It’s what binds us together. We celebrate Passover, that’s our heritage, our race,” Rob answered.

Carl corrected his son. “I don’t know about race; that’s still a big argument. But I remember that my parents were always very proud of Jewish accomplishments: Christ, Karl Marx, Freud, Einstein; we’ve turned the world around.”

Rob chimed in, “We always wanted to know which stars were Jewish. Edward G. Robinson. Paul Muni. And Kirk Douglas, that was really a big deal.”

“How about the gangsters?” Carl asked. “Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. But they were good gangsters.”

The Reiners weren’t quite sure why they were chosen to get the awards from the Israel Film Festival.

“When you get old,” Carl mused, “people want to give you awards. We’ve never been to Israel, and we don’t really have much of a connection.

“Which reminds me, I met Aaron Ruben, the director and writer, on ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ which, by the way, was full of Yiddishisms, though people didn’t realize it.

All in the Family


Unlike Billie Holiday, Estelle Reiner will never pen an autobiography quite like “Lady Sings the Blues.” When your husband is comedian Carl Reiner and your son is director Rob Reiner, and you count among your closest amigos Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Norman Lear and Dom DeLuise, chances are that your life is pretty darn upbeat. Yet Estelle shares the legendary chanteuse’s passion for jazz and lounge music — her next singing engagement will be at the Gardenia on June 29.

Estelle has recorded five albums, including “Just in Time” and “Hurry Home.” The material she covers ranges from Berlin (“Blue Skies”) and Porter (“Let’s Do It”) to recent gems by witty composer Dave Frishberg (“Let’s Eat Home”). Estelle stakes a different course on her latest CD, “Ukelele Mama,” which features more uke than an album by Hawaiian crooner Alfred Apaka. She will pick up the ukelele again on her next album.

Most people recognize Estelle as the punchline to one of Hollywood’s most memorable movie moments: her “When Harry Met Sally” cameo in Katz’s Deli, where she one-ups Meg Ryan’s faux orgasmic public display with the unforgettable one-liner, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Lounging in her Beverly Hills living room, Estelle recalls the day when the film’s director, who happens to be her oldest son, was leaving her house and “as an afterthought, he said, ‘Mom, there’s a very good line in the movie and you’ll have to come to New York and it may get cut because it doesn’t advance the plot.'”

Of course, the line remained, and while she had a wonderful day on the set, “it was very uncomfortable for Rob,” who had to mentor Ryan through her sexual outburst by acting it out.

“He said, ‘Here I am having an orgasm in front of my mother,” remembers Estelle with a laugh. “That killed him.”

With husband Carl’s directorial efforts including early Steve Martin classics (“The Jerk,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”) and son Rob having helmed “Harry,” “This Is Spinal Tap” and “Princess Bride” (not to mention portraying Mike “Meathead” Stivic on the groundbreaking sitcom “All in the Family”), one might think that Estelle would hatch her own comedies. Even her acting breakthrough, the 1980 Dom DeLuise film “Fatso,” was directed by longtime friend Anne Bancroft (Brooks’ wife).

“My talent is not in film, but I’m sure of my singing,” says Estelle, who cites Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald as influences. She has performed at Michael’s Pub in New York. But it was her acting turn in “Fatso” that inspired her professional singing career.

“That was a big change for me because it was my first time out of my house,” Estelle says. She refined her acting skills with legendary thespian trainer Lee Strasberg, who singled out her performance in “Fatso” before they even met, she says.

In walks Carl. He sits next to his wife, and soon, the couple gushes with pride over Brooks’ professional renaissance with his record-breaking Broadway adaptation of “The Producers.” Both Carl and Estelle hail from the Bronx, but they did not meet until the 1940s, during a summer up in the Berkshires, where Carl made $37.50 a week playing second banana in sketches and Estelle worked set design. Then came the war, and Carl served. Then his ascension as part of the legendary “Your Show of Shows” TV show, where he met Brooks and crafted classic bits (“2,000 Year Old Man”). Estelle adds that Brooks, a noted songwriter himself, has been an enthusiastic fan of her music. There’s a lyric in a song that she performs referencing a pair of brown shoes that, if Mel is in the house, will be his cue to deposit a pair of obnoxious brown wing-tips onstage.

“In our famly, she’s the only one who has this enormous talent,” Carl said. “Thank God! I’m arhythmic and I sing off key!”

A huge jazz fan himself, Carl is still beside himself recalling the day in the Berkshires when Estelle performed with Sidney Bichet; an era, he says, when only Jewish dancehalls were employing early jazz legends.

“Estelle happened to be there,” remembers Carl. “She picked it up on ‘Lover Man.’ [Trombonist] Sandy Williams said, ‘That lady should record!'”

Estelle gratuitously credits her musicians, including pianist Tom Garvin and sax man Pete Christlieb. But the question remains: when will she record a song copping her famous screen quip? A jazz song titled “I’ll Have What She’s Having” sounds like a natural.

“Somebody already tried writing one for me,” she says, “but I didn’t like it.”

Estelle Reiner plays the Gardenia, 7066 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, on June 29. For more information, call (323) 467-7444. For more about Reiner’s music, visit www.estellereiner.com

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