February 26, 2020

Q&A with Rob Reiner on LBJ, Trump and Meg Ryan’s Famous Scene

Director and political activist Rob Reiner, 70, is perhaps best known for his iconic films “When Harry Met Sally” and “The Princess Bride.” Before he made a name for himself as a director, he won an Emmy for his role as Archie Bunker’s liberal son-in-law, Michael (aka “Meathead”), on the classic 1970s sitcom “All in the Family.”

While Meathead raged against the Vietnam War, Reiner’s new film, “LBJ” — which opens Nov. 3 — spotlights the president who escalated that conflict in Southeast Asia. But the drama doesn’t cover Lyndon B. Johnson’s war efforts; rather, it focuses on the period when the then vice president was thrust into the highest office in the land after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Jewish Journal: Your father is renowned actor-director-writer Carl Reiner. Did you ever feel competitive with him?

Rob Reiner: I did. As a teenager, I would go with him every day during the summer to where they were shooting “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” One day, I looked at a script he was working on. And I was going, “I can’t do this.” I felt so inadequate. But then when I was 19, I directed a production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” starring Richard Dreyfuss, at a small theater in Beverly Hills. My dad came backstage after the show and said, “That was good. No bulls—.”  That was the first time he had ever basically approved of what I was doing.

JJ: What did you think of LBJ back in the day?

RR: I hated him. I was of draft age during the Vietnam War, which I thought was immoral and illegal. Johnson was my enemy, because he could send me to my death. He was a bully and a browbeat; he cussed and held meetings while going to the bathroom. But later I realized that if it weren’t for Vietnam, he’d be considered one of the greatest presidents of all time. He pushed through the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicaid, Medicare and more. But people generally don’t know that.

JJ: What else did you find compelling about LBJ?

RR: He could be rough and tough, but in reading about him, I realized he was also tremendously insecure. He felt like he wasn’t loved because his own mother had been withholding of her love. And he felt that he was ugly compared to the Kennedys, who were handsome, witty, charming and had sex appeal.

JJ: Speaking of controversial presidents, what would the character of Archie Bunker have thought of Donald Trump?

RR: He’d be saying, “Trump is for guys like me.” They’re both from Queens, and they’re both racist and anti-Semitic. As for Meathead, his head would have exploded by now.

JJ: You’ve said that Jared Kushner has turned his back on Judaism.

RR: How do you not speak out when people with swastikas and Nazi signs are walking around and saying, “Jews will not replace us?” How do you stand by and call yourself an Orthodox Jew? He’s like the Jewish police in the Warsaw ghetto.

JJ: Would you ever consider making a movie about Trump?

RR: I couldn’t do it. I’d have to take a shower every other minute.

JJ: You originally had a different ending for “When Harry Met Sally,” when the characters, played by Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, didn’t end up getting together.

RR: I had been single for 10 years and I just couldn’t figure out how do you ever get with a woman again? I had questions I bring up in the film, like can you be friends with a woman or does sex always get in the way? But then I met Michele, my [wife-to-be], and I changed the ending.

JJ: There’s that famous scene where Sally fakes an orgasm for Harry in a deli. Your own mother plays the deli customer who hilariously says to a waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

RR: When we shot the scene, Meg didn’t do the orgasm full out in the first few takes. So, I said, “Meg, if this is going to work, you’re going to have to really go for it.” But she was embarrassed. So, I sat down across from Billy and I showed her what I wanted her to do. It was, “Oh, yes! Yes!” I’m pounding on the table, and I realized I was having an orgasm in front of my mother. And that was so mortifying.