When Paul Reiser co-created and starred in the 1990s hit sitcom, "Mad About You," -- about a secular Jew married to a Christian -- he helped spur a new trend in TV comedy: the cute but neurotic Jewish leading man. Along with Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis ("Anything But Love"), he elevated male Jewish characters from whiny sidekicks to leads that remained appealing, despite their anxieties and preoccupation with exasperating parents.
Reiser's new film, "The Thing About My Folks," also revolves around a secular Jew, Ben Kleinman (Reiser), who is preoccupied with exasperating parents. In the comedy-drama, Ben bonds with his father, Sam (Peter Falk) on an impromptu road trip after mom (Olympia Dukakis) unceremoniously leaves dad. During assorted misadventures, Ben learns more about his father -- indeed his parents -- than he ever knew before.
The Jewish Reiser began writing the script around the time he starred in the 1980s coming-of-age film, "Diner," in part because he was curious about his own parents.
"[I'd] look at pictures and go, OK, you were a young, handsome, beautiful couple," the 48-year-old said. "How do you go from 24-year-olds who kiss for the first time in a car to 70-year-olds falling asleep watching Mike Wallace?"
The film explores their journey in fictional form; it's also an ode to Reiser's late father, a crusty, scrappy businessman who apparently did not reveal much about himself. Then, one day in 1983, the actor heard his father laugh hard while watching Falk -- who excels at playing crusty, scrappy characters -- in Neil Simon's "The Cheap Detective." It was a rare, much treasured glimpse into the inner life of the elder Reiser, who seldom belly-laughed, the actor said recently at the Four Seasons Hotel.
"I said, 'Huh, Peter Falk is the only guy that always makes my dad laugh,'" Reiser recalled. "The next morning, I woke up and thought, OK, I've got to make up a movie ... with Peter Falk as my father."
Perhaps because of his father's affection for Falk, Reiser, too was a big fan: "I fell in love with him ... from the first time I saw him in 'Robin and the Seven Hoods.'" he said. He later noticed similarities between the two older men, who both seemed unpretentious and down to earth.
Yet over the years, Reiser did not complete his Falk project, in part because he was intimidated by the personal nature of the material, he told the Bradenton Herald. It was only after Sept. 11 reminded him that life was short that he sat down and wrote the script in just two weeks He promptly sent it to Falk, the son of Eastern European Jews, who accepted the role the next day. Apparently the fictional Sam fits into his long acting portfolio of cops, G.I.'s, husbands and other men who "don't have a pretentious bone in their bodies," Falk ("Columbo") told The Journal. "This man can be wrong, but he's never fake."
Unlike Reiser, the older actor became a television star in an era when it was seldom acceptable for a show to revolve around a Jewish character. Hence his famed 1970s TV detective was the Italian Catholic Columbo, although he just as easily could have been named Goldberg. Conversely, the fictional Sam exhibits distinctly Jewish values.
"He works hard and he believes in this: You provide for your family. You provide for your children. You provide for your wife and you don't cheat," Falk said.
Reiser, for his part, is more Jewishly active than the fictional Ben, participating in Jewish charities and at his synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, The Forward said in 2003. Yet he does not regard the feature as a Jewish movie. It's a universal film about parents and children.
"We have been taking 'Folks' from city to city, and finding out this is so resonating with people in every market, in every demographic," he said.
The film opens Friday in Los Angeles.