Rob Reiner's Quest for Simple Perfection

Director Rob Reiner poses on the red carpet as he arrives for the premiere of his movie 'Flipped' at the Cinerama Dome Theater in Hollywood on July 27, 2010. GETTY IMAGES

If a home reflects its owner, then Rob Reiner's is a perfect fit. It's impressive but understated, grand but charming.

"The person who first owned this house was Henry Fonda. Henry Fonda planted these roses," Reiner tells Sunday Morning's Russ Mitchell as they stroll through his perfectly manicured garden.

Like the house, Reiner himself stems from Hollywood royalty.

The son of actor, writer, director, and producer Carl Reiner, Rob, now 63, grew to follow in his father's footsteps, becoming one of Hollywood's most successful and respected filmmakers.

"You know there are very few people whose parents achieved in this business at a very high level, whose children also achieved at a high level. It's rare. You can count it on one hand," notes Reiner.

These days, it takes too many fingers to count Rob Reiner's triumphs -- from acting in television's "All in the Family," to directing hits like "When Harry Met Sally," "A Few Good Men" and "Misery."

Photos: Reiner's Hollywood Hits

"I make movies about people that live on Earth. Nobody gets exploded, nobody is running around, chasing anything. Basically, they're people in rooms talking."

His latest film, "Flipped," which opens this month, is no different. It chronicles two sides of a first crush.

"I basically tell the same love story over and over," Reiner laughs. "The girl in the story is always much more emotionally mature... the boy is always running around like an idiot trying to catch up, trying to figure out what's going on."

A familiar story that some would argue is a simple reflection of real life.

"It is. I mean, that's my story," says Reiner. "Basically, my wife gave me, made me, a person. I mean you're like half formed when you're a guy... You meet the right woman and she basically helps you grow up."

He and Michelle Singer have been married for 21 years and have three teenage children.

Reiner says today, just as his life has influenced his work, comedy has always influenced his life. After all, he grew up surrounded by his father's work buddies.

"The great comic minds of the second half of the 20th century... Woody Allen and Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and all these people... my dad," he recalls, "and I was aware how funny things were but I didn't think there was anything unusual about it, until I went over to my friend Paul Schindler's house, where I realized things weren't as funny over there. They were a little funnier at my house."

It didn't take long for the young Reiner to realize he wanted to be just like dad.

"When I was eight years old, I said, 'Dad, I want to change my name.' And he got all upset -- maybe I was feeling the burden of having to be his son -- and he said to me, 'Well, what do you want to change it to?' And I said, 'Carl.'"

Sure enough, before even turning 20, he started making his own name in comedy. He was partnered with another young comedian, Steve Martin, as a writer on the controversial "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour".

Then, in 1971, at just 23, he was cast in the role of his life.

"I remember reading the script and thinking, this is such good writing, this is so edgy and so brilliant. There's no way that this is going to fly on American television."

But it didn't just fly. "All in the Family" soared, with Reiner playing Mike Stivic, foil and son-in-law of working-class bigot Archie Bunker.

"We were a country of 200 million people and we got, on average, 45 million people watching the show every week. Now this is a time when there were no VCRs, no Tivo. If you wanted to watch a show you had to actually sit down and watch it when it was on television. That meant 45 million people were having a shared experience at the same time," says Reiner, adding that the show would often prompt family discussions in America's living rooms after it aired. "You don't see that so much anymore."

But another hallmark of "All in the Family" does remain: "Meathead."

"People still call you Meathead," asks Mitchell.

"Yes," replies the Hollywood icon. "On almost a daily basis somebody will call me that, and you know, I love that because I had such a great experience with the show, I'm so proud of it. I've often said, no matter what I do in life -- I could win the Nobel Prize and the headline will read: 'Meathead Wins Nobel.'"

During his years on the show, he married Penny Marshall, who'd star in her own hit sitcom, "Laverne and Shirley," in 1976. The couples' fame was staggering.

"Couldn't go anywhere," recalls Reiner. "I mean, it was insane."

By the end of the 70s, the marriage broke up. "All in the Family" went off the air and Reiner turned to directing. His improvised mock-umentary, "This is Spinal Tap," followed the fictional tour of the fictional band, Spinal Tap -- "England's loudest band."

But doing sitcoms and satires was very much in his father's repertoire. As he approached 40, Reiner wanted to do something that would set him apart. He got his chance with the movie, "Stand By Me."

It follows Gordie and three friends who face adversity while looking for the body of a boy who'd gone missing.

"I thought, 'oh God, I can make this,'" recalls Reiner. "A lot of the feelings that Gordie was having were things that I had when I was young, growing up... It also was very reflective of my sensibility. It was kind of melancholy but also had humor in it."

"Stand By Me" was a critical and financial success. So Reiner decided to try his hand at another story close to his heart, a fairy tale, "The Princess Bride." But first, he had to get permission from the book's author, William Goldman.

"He has this high, squeaky voice and he says, 'Well I just think this is going great. I'm having a great time,' And I said, 'Oh my God'... I was so happy."

Audiences were also delighted, and Rob Reiner was gaining a reputation as a director who'd tapped into the culture of the times -- A theory that was secured two years later when his production company, Castle Rock Entertainment, released "When Harry Met Sally."

"Is the Billy Crystal character any part of you," asks Mitchell.

"Totally me," comes the reply. "It's totally me. 100 percent me. I'd been married 10 years and I was single 10 years, making a complete and utter mess of my dating life, trying to figure all these things out. I mean, you want to have sex, but if you do have sex, does it ruin the friendship and how does it change things and all that?"

That became the basis of the movie.

Perhaps that doesn't sound like a topic you'd involve your mom in, but Reiner did just that. In fact, his mother Estelle, who died in 2008, steals what should have been an un-stealable scene with her unforgettable line, "I'll have what she's having."

Reiner says it didn't take too much convincing to get his mother onboard for the project. "She was just happy to spend the day with me... and sure enough, it became the funniest line of any movie I've ever done."

The funniest, but not his most famous. That honor goes to Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessup in 1992's "A Few Good Men," who uttered the words which would become a pop-culture refrain: "You can't handle the truth." The film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

"It gives me a tremendous amount of pleasure that, you know, you make movies and they make it part of the culture, part of the vernacular."

At his house, there's a small room crammed with points of pride from his life in entertainment. He calls it the "ego room". But there are some defining moments not immortalized within its walls.

Case in point: Seinfeld. One of his production company's hits, it would have been canceled early on if Reiner hadn't personally argued its case to the NBC brass.

"We just had to fight like crazy to keep it on the air," says Reiner, adding that he and the show's other proponents never expected it to do quite as well as it did -- but they knew "it was good."

Maybe it's just that simple. Whether he's directing, producing, acting or writing, Rob Reiner says he just tries to be good, and that means working with what he knows.

"Otherwise, I wouldn't know how to tell the story."

And, of course, he always keeps to his own golden rule: "I don't go in for a lot of tricks. My shooting style is very simple. Basically my philosophy is: 'Give the audience the best seat in the house.' I don't go in for a lot of tricks and gimmicks to make it work."
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