"Oh, yes. It's funny," Rob Reiner says, not laughing about the role that won him two Emmys -- Michael (Meathead) Stivic on "All in the Family."
"They still call me Meathead. This morning . . . Jane Pauley asked me about that. I said I'll have to win the Nobel Prize and then it'll still say 'Meathead Wins Nobel Prize.' It doesn't matter what I do -- it's always going to be there."
Slumped in his chair, jeans fading, plaid shirt rumpled, head gleaming like a cue ball with fringe, Reiner looks as if he's having a hard time living up to the flier on the hotel room table. It says "Celebrity of the Day."
A new sort of celebrity: At 38, Rob Reiner is making a name for himself behind the camera -- his directorial debut was the hilarious spoof "This Is Spinal Tap" and his new film is a romantic comedy called "The Sure Thing."
Meathead isn't all he's linked with. His father is comedian, writer and director Carl Reiner. Not long ago, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety ran an ad linking the director of "Spinal Tap" and the director of "All of Me."
"Actually, we weren't up for anything," Reiner admits, a tad sheepishly. "It's just that I had noticed 'Spinal Tap' made a bunch of '10 best' lists, one of which was Judith Crist's, in which 'All of Me' also got mentioned. And I thought, 'I don't think this has ever happened in the history of motion pictures, that a father and son have directed films and made a 10-best list in one year.' I thought, 'Gee, this is interesting,' so I called my father up and we decided to take out this ad, just to congratulate each other."
Which is a very California thing to do, though there's something about Rob Reiner that suggests the stereotypical New Yorker -- a cultured slobbishness, a certain weariness. His father, Sid Caesar's foil on "Your Show of Shows," headed west when Rob was 12. "I've obviously been living in California for a long time and adjusted to that and that's my home now," Reiner concedes. "But I've always felt like a New Yorker who lives in California."
For all his years in television sitcoms and for all his involvement in comedic films, Rob Reiner seems terribly somber. Then again, compared with his flamboyant father, Cheech or Chong would seem somber. Which suggests growing up funny was a trying experience.
Life in the Reiner household wasn't especially raucous, Rob Reiner recalls.
"But there were parties at my house that were attended by Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar and Neil Simon and Norman Lear, people who are very funny. When they get together and they're in a group, they're on, because they're all trying to make each other laugh and entertain each other. So there were times when very funny things were going on in my house, and my father in general is a funny man. But you know, from day to day, it wasn't a laugh a minute.
"Of course, my father would find any opening to entertain if he could. He'd always do that."
"We are a contrast," Rob Reiner admits. "I'm anxious a lot of the time. He's very nervous. This guy's a very nervous guy. I think how we differ is I'm much more serious than he is. He's much more of a performer type and I'm much more introspective."
Rob Reiner's new film, "The Sure Thing," puts a different spin on a lot of the social and sexual situations that are staples in teen-oriented films these days. It's no "Catcher in the Rye," but at least it's not "Porky's" either, which makes it almost reactionary.
"What happens is you get a picture like 'Animal House' or 'Porky's' and if it's successful, they just want to keep making those pictures over and over again. To me there's all different sides to young people's lives, and the side that many filmmakers have chosen to exploit or examine in the last few years is the raucous side, the raunchy side. And that side certainly exists -- it's not like teen-agers and young people don't throw food at each other. They do. But they also fall in love and have deep feelings and are serious at times, and there's nothing wrong with trying to show that side."
"The Sure Thing," which has been described as "It Happened One Night 1985," has opened to generally good reviews, which may be a bit of a comedown after the raves that greeted Reiner's directorial debut, the fake "rockumentary" "This Is Spinal Tap." There's also a danger that Reiner could become pigeonholed as a director of youth-oriented films, though he insists "Spinal Tap" wasn't directed specifically at young audiences.
"The people who liked 'Spinal Tap' were in their thirties and forties, people who grew up with rock 'n' roll. 'Spinal Tap' appealed to anybody who got satire, which is a certain segment of every age. Satire by nature appeals to a more sophisticated, intelligent audience, and I don't care what age you are."
His first look at the mechanics of comedy came when he started watching his father as creator, director and actor on the set of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
"I'd go with him, especially when I was off school in the summer. I'd watch him write and watch him work with the actors on the set and I wanted to be like that. Here I was, 13, 14 years old, but I couldn't figure out why I couldn't write scenes for Rob and Laura Petrie. I mean, I couldn't come up with anything, and it used to frustrate the hell out of me."
The writing would come later, when Reiner became involved with several improvisational theater groups, the Session (which included a young Richard Dreyfuss) and the Committee. "The nature of that work is to write on your feet and it gave way to being creative," which eventually led to writing jobs on television (for Glen Campbell, the Smothers Brothers, Andy Griffith).
Reiner and another writer ended up doing a theatrical show titled "An Evening of Dirty Plays." "I acted in one of them and directed the other two. And we were hired to adapt one play into a screenplay." The movie was never made, but one of the people who hired Reiner was Garry Marshall. Hissister Penny, the star of "Laverne and Shirley," eventually became Reiner's wife. They are now divorced.
Besides the writing, Reiner acted in a number of sitcoms ("just episodic stuff"), which eventually led to an audition for the role of Michael Stivic on "All in the Family," which premiered in 1971. The show's producer was Norman Lear.
Reiner remained as Archie and Edith's son-in-law for eight years, certainly longer than he had expected. "The third year was very difficult for me on that show. The first year was very exciting because we were doing something new and different, and that was really terrific. And the second year we were a big hit and it was exciting to be number one and all that. And then the third year it kind of hit me that, oh my God, I might do this for the rest of my life! And that was very depressing. And then I kind of adjusted and said, 'Well, this is what you're doing now and it's a good show and it's an important show, so go with this.'
"And I also wasn't uncomfortable about doing the character each week because I got to write for the show and helped develop the stories and did a lot of the editing. I got to express myself more than just as an actor. I think if I had just been an actor on the show and had to come in and just do my lines, I probably would have been bored out of my mind."
Over the last five years, Reiner has done very little acting (two television movies), preferring to work behind the camera.
"Spinal Tap," a razor-sharp satire on British heavy metal whose script was essentially improvised, grew out of a 1977 television special featuring "Spinal Tappers" Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. McKean had played Lenny on "Laverne and Shirley," and Guest recently married actress Jamie Lee Curtis at Reiner's Coldwater Canyon home.
Now Reiner's mother, Estelle, is getting into the act. She has a new career as a cabaret singer. "Yeah, she's a real late bloomer," Reiner laughs. "She's doing good. She sings every Wednesday night at the Gardenia Club in Los Angeles. She just started two years ago, but she's really good. And she's having the best time of her life."
Although he makes a Hitchcock-like appearance in "The Sure Thing," Reiner insists he wasn't tempted to cast his mother as the older woman who drives two young students crazy with incessant show tunes. "No, I like to keep those things separate. You know, it's hard enough being her son; to have to be her director . . ."
He has worked with his father several times. "We did a play on Broadway that lasted a very short period, that he directed and I acted in. And I did a little bit in 'Where's Poppa?' and a tiny, tiny bit in 'Enter Laughing.' It was tough, but we did okay, you know. We respect each other, but I want to be a director, too. You can have two directors in the family, but to have two directors working together at the same time, that's hard."
Reiner concedes that the good reviews for "Spinal Tap" "made people in the industry think of me as a director."
His next project is "The Body," which Reiner describes as "a very different film from the other two. There's comedy in it, but it's basically a dramatic film based on a Stephen King short story. And it's totally uncharacteristic of anything you would ever expect of Stephen King: not a horror piece, not supernatural, but an autobiographical piece about his growing up in Castle Rock, Maine, in 1960 as a 12-year-old, being one of four boys who go on this adventure and how he started to validate himself with the help of his friends."
Which sounds like the kind of autobiographical detail Rob Reiner can relate to.