June 5, 2008
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.
"Anyhow, Aaron went to Israel, and when he came back, he said that when he got there he took a taxi and the driver asked him, 'Is this your first visit to Israel?' 'Yes, it is,' replied Aaron. And the taxi driver said, 'Shame on you.'"
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