Rob Reiner has been thinking about death lately. The director, who has been responsible for some of Hollywood’s most popular films over his career, turned 65 this year and ageing is on his mind.
“I started thinking about my mortality more than I had ever done,” he admits. “You start thinking about how precious life is and that you’ve got a limited time on the planet. You don’t know how long it’s going to be.”
The question of how best to use the time that is left is what attracted him to his latest project, a gentle comedy called The Magic of Belle Isle. In it, Morgan Freeman plays a grumpy, wheelchair-bound author who moves to a sleepy rural town where he meets a winsome single mother of three (Virginia Madsen). She and her daughters help reignite his literary and romantic passions.
The script’s theme chimes with Reiner’s thoughts about mortality. “As I get older the whole idea is to embrace life no matter what your situation is — you’ve got to find a way to celebrate it,” he says.
Reiner has had much to celebrate in his time. He was born into Hollywood royalty, his father being Carl Reiner, the creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show — a few years ago Rob admitted that when he was 16 and visiting the set he pinched co-star Mary Tyler Moore’s bottom.
He began as an actor and turned his hand to directing in 1984. In the 28 years since then he has spanned an impressive variety of genres — comedy, drama, romantic comedy and children’s fare. Even more remarkable is that he found huge success in every one of these genres.
His first movie was This is Spinal Tap, a spoof documentary about a British heavy metal band. The film has become a cult classic, the kind whose dialogue gets quoted around dinner party tables.
“It’s weird to see it grow in status as the years go by and to know all the things we satirised are things that have happened in real life to rock bands,” Reiner says. “I remember once years ago I met Sting and he told me that he had seen Spinal Tap 50 times. He said: ‘Everytime I watch it I don’t know whether to laugh or cry’.”
Another movie that is clearly close to his heart is the children’s staple, The Princess Bride, which is being re-released this year on DVD to mark its 25th year anniversary. “What I love about it is that kids who saw it first when it came out, now have kids of their own and they watch it with their kids. It’s passed from one generation to the next,” he says proudly.
Perhaps his most fondly remembered film — for audiences anyway —is the one containing one of the greatest one-liners of all time — When Harry Met Sally. The movie was written by Nora Ephron, and he readily admits that the character of Harry was based on him and Sally was based on Ephron. (She died in June at the age of 71).
“She was so smart, so funny, and so witty,” Reiner recalls. “The most fun times I’ve ever had were going over to her house for dinner parties, because you knew you were going to get great conversation, since all her friends were so smart and funny.”
But in what way was Harry — played by Billy Crystal in the film — based on him?
“That film was taken out of my real life,” he confesses. “I had been single for 10 years and making a mess of my dating life and I said: ‘There’s got to be a movie in this because I can’t find a woman so I might as well make a movie about people struggling to find each other’.”
Ironically, while filming Reiner was introduced to a photographer named Michelle Singer who ended up becoming his wife.
He says: “Initially the movie ended where Harry didn’t get together with Sally because I couldn’t imagine how men and women could ever get together. Then when I started dating Michelle, I said: ‘Wait a minute, this is how it works’. And of course my mother [Estelle Reiner] has the funniest line in the movie.”
(For anyone who does not remember, Sally —Meg Ryan — fakes a rather loud orgasm in a crowded deli. When she has finished, a middle-aged woman tells her waiter: ‘I’ll have what she’s having’.
Given the connection with Reiner finally finding wedded bliss, it is strange that When Harry Met Sally is not the film that means most to him. That honour goes to Stand By Me. Made in 1986, it is a nostalgia-rich rite-of-passage teen drama set in the 1950s.
“That was probably the most important film to me,” he says.
“It was the first film I made that was a true reflection of my personality and sensibility. It was funny, it had some emotional stuff and was melancholy in certain ways, and because it did well, it validated the kind of movies I wanted to make. It was almost like the rites of passage that the young boys were going through, I was going through in my own life creatively.
Reiner himself grew up in New York until, at the age of 13, his family moved to Los Angeles. He says that his childhood home was not observant — although he was barmitzvahed, his younger brother was not and his two sons both chose not to be barmitzvahed, a decision that does not seem to worry Reiner at all.
“The most important thing is that you be a good person and you live by the golden rule of do unto others,” he says. “If you live by that, that’s all I care about.”
But his three children have been brought up with a deep understanding of the Holocaust — Reiner’s maternal grandmother survived but many of her family were murdered by the Nazis. “My kids are very much aware of their history,” says Reiner. “To me the Jewish people are a religion and a race, so we let them know about their race, not so much the religious aspects but certainly what it means to be Jewish. And they certainly know about their grandmother.”
Reiner has lately taken up the cause of gay marriage, establishing a group called The American Foundation for Equal Rights which is trying to overturn Propostion 8 — the measure that bans gay marriage in the state of California. He has even toyed with the idea of running for Governor but the idea was overruled.
“I sat down with my family and we all talked about it,” he recalls. “I basically took a poll and I got 40 per cent in my own home. I couldn’t carry my own family.”