Like father, like son

Carl and Rob Reiner still don't understand why they're being given the Israel Film Festival in LA's Achievement in Film Award.

carl rob reiner 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
carl rob reiner 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"If I ever get the Nobel Prize, the headline is going to say, 'Meathead Wins Nobel Prize,'" suggested Rob Reiner, referring back to his role as Archie Bunker's son-in-law during the 1970s 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 touched on their Bronx roots, presidential politics, Jewish identity, the future of Jewish humor and the Ten Commandments. The Reiners - father and son - will be honored on June 11 by the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles with the 2008 Achievement in Film Award. Other honorees include 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," interjected Rob. "No," corrected Carl. "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 two or three, 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, said Carl, but the amazing thing was when the men swapped jokes, "he laughed at all the right places." Moving from the specific to the general, Carl points out that whereas American Jews once had a virtual monopoly on stand-up comics, the torch seems to be passing to other ethnicities. "It's always the downtrodden people who produce the best comics, such as [the black] Chris Rock or [the Hispanic] Carlos Mencia," said Carl. How about Jerry Seinfeld? "No," insisted Carl. "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 thousands of years." SOME OF the DNA was obviously passed on to Rob, who has emulated his father's versatility and multi-tasking. He 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. 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 [Franklin] 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 seven or eight, 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," answered Rob. 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?" asked Carl. "Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. But they were good gangsters." ON POLITICS, which means Democratic politics, the Reiners disagree, with the father backing Sen. Barack Obama and the son supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I felt that Hillary was more electable," said Rob. "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. Still, despite their successes and do-gooding, the Reiners weren't quite sure why they were getting the awards from the Israel Film Festival. "When you get old," mused Carl, "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.'" At this point, Carl remembered something else. "When I was 13 years old, I had some close friends in a Zionist youth group called Betar. They wore uniforms and kept talking about Palestine on both sides of the Jordan. I didn't care about that, I just wanted to be with Shloime and Moishe." At the end of the interview, the reporter asked if there was anything the Reiners wanted to add. "No," Rob stated. "We've said too much already. They might not give us the awards."