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REINER TAKES A ‘BRIDE’

For a man without a son, Norman Lear makes a pretty good father figure. Four times now, Lear has bailed out movie director Rob Reiner--you remember Meathead?--when nobody else would put up any money.

First there was “This Is Spinal Tap,” the zany spoof of a rock documentary that Reiner made for under $3 million. Then “The Sure Thing.” Then last summer’s sleeper hit “Stand by Me.” All directed by Reiner and financed by Lear.

Not that Lear looks at Reiner necessarily for a payoff. Seated across the table from Reiner the other day in the offices of Act III Communications, Lear looked at Reiner as an indulgent father might, describing as “a miracle” Reiner’s direction on their fourth movie, “The Princess Bride.”

It’s the biggest test that Reiner has faced since he left behind his Meathead in Lear’s landmark TV sitcom, “All in the Family.” “Princess Bride,” opening Friday, is based on a 1973 novel by the celebrated William Goldman, who also wrote the screenplay, not to mention movie classics like “All the President’s Men” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

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So far, so good. But, as Reiner notes gleefully, “This movie didn’t not get made for 14 years for no reason!”

According to Goldman, at least two studio heads have gone down with the project, each fired almost as soon as he uttered the line, “I’m flying back to L.A. tomorrow and I want you to know I want to make ‘The Princess Bride’ more than any other movie in the world.”

The book also lost such interested directors as Francois Truffaut, Norman Jewison, John Boorman, even Robert Redford, who once had a yen to play Westley, the farm boy in the story, according to Reiner.

“Everybody has turned it down over and over again,” said Goldman. “Ask any studio executive, they’d say, ‘Oh . . . not that again.’ ”

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Largely faithful to the book, the movie is about a milkmaid who becomes the Princess Buttercup, the farm boy she loves, an evil prince, a giant and a Spanish swordsman avenging his father’s death in a land that takes its fairy-tale quality seriously--but not much else.

Its challenge is to balance what Reiner hopes is “a real emotional love story,” carried out by a pair of beautiful unknowns (Cary Elwes and Robin Wright), with the comic performances of Billy Crystal as Max, the pensioned-off miracle man; Carole Kane as Max’s excitable hag wife; Peter Cook as the Impressive Clergyman; Mandy Patinkin as the Spanish swordsman; Wallace Shawn as the lisping villain Vizzini and Christopher Guest (who co-wrote and starred in “Spinal Tap”) as the sadist Count Rugen.

To further complicate matters, there is a “real-life” grandfather (Peter Falk) trying to interest his grandson in books, an experience the young boy wants about as much as a pinch on the cheek.

Ironically, the book “Princess Bride” was given to Reiner by his own father, comedian-turned-director Carl Reiner.

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The son had the good fortune to grow up in a household “filled with the most outrageous comedy,” noted Lear, who describes Reiner Sr., a close friend, as “to this day, the best raconteur, the best ad-libber. . . .”

Recalling the moment when he first noticed that 9-year-old Rob was also funny, Lear said it occurred 31 summers ago, when the Reiner and Lear families had neighboring cottages on New York’s Fire Island and young Rob sat on the floor playing jacks with Lear’s oldest daughter, Ellen.

“I said to Carl, ‘He’s hysterical,’ and Carl said, ‘What do you mean he’s hysterical?,’ because a father doesn’t see it that way. I’ve probably overlooked some things in my own kids.” (Lear has three daughters--two in show business. The youngest, Maggie Lear, is a producer of “Beirut,” a play about AIDS that appeared on Off-Broadway earlier this year and opens here at the Matrix Thjeater in October.)

Nor did Rob Reiner always share his father’s sense of fun. “I was always, and still am, much more serious-minded and much more brooding and quiet and that kind of thing,” said the younger Reiner. “My father’s group of friends--Norman included, and Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon--they could all hold their own and trade shtick and all of that. I’m not going to fit into that anyway, but when I was a kid, I was certainly not going to fit into that.

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“Bucking a father who loves me dearly but also can’t see what abilities I have, and his being as visible as he was and as talented and as successful as he was, that’s a real tough thing to get by. When somebody who is respected as much as my father doesn’t give me the kind of encouragement that I might have to go ahead, that pretty much for most people I think would be enough to say, ‘OK, I’m not going to be doing this now as my living,’ you know, because whatever it is you’re going to do, you want your father or your parents to encourage it.

“Now of course my father’s very proud of me,” he said. Still, “I owe more to Norman that you might think. Norman is really responsible for giving me all the opportunities that I’ve had, not just as a film maker, but as an actor. He got me started with ‘All in the Family’ and everything.

“Just about everything I’ve learned in making films I learned in the course of ‘All in the Family’: what audiences laugh at, how you structure a play. Because to me, TV and film is theater.”

As Lear explains it, he never intended to finance Reiner’s films, but it seems he has the only film company in town that can’t say no to Reiner. (Or “yes” to any other film maker. “Princess Bride” is the second film from Act III, the company that Lear founded in 1986 with his share of the $485 million that he and then-partner A. Jerrold Perenchio got for selling Embassy Communications to Coca-Cola. Act III’s first film was Reiner’s “Stand by Me.”)

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In the case of “Princess Bride,” Lear recalled, he originally deemed it “impossible” to film its mixed elements. “I know,” Reiner replied at the time.

“I think of it as a cross between Monty Python and ‘Captain Blood’ and ‘Love Story,’ ” Lear said. “It was the recognition that it was impossible but that he wanted to make the reach, and that was a reason to do it.”

Lear offered only bridge financing until and if a distributor could be found.

How much of a bridge? Lear was asked.

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“It was a bridge too far,” cracked Reiner. The movie was in development at Embassy when Lear sold the company to Coke, but “Coca-Cola didn’t want it,” he said.

Neither did Coca-Cola want “Stand by Me,” which starred four 12-year-old boys and was produced for less than $6 million. It has grossed more than $53 million domestically at the box office and won Reiner a best-director nomination from the Directors Guild of America.

“Two days before we started principal photography, they decided they didn’t want to go ahead,” Lear recalled. “They wanted to close down ‘Stand by Me.’ Rob was up in Oregon with these four youngsters. . . .”

“We had everything, a whole crew, a cast, everything was there,” Reiner added. “What happened is, Norman stepped in and said, ‘I’ll foot the bill for this, I’ll just go on the line and do this,’ and it was like, Oh my God, this . . . this . . . this . . . godsend!”

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When the movie was completed, distribution was refused by every major studio except Columbia, which had already rejected the film in script form. “They said they didn’t want anything to do with the picture,” Reiner related.

But to Lear and Reiner’s surprise, when the completed picture was screened for Columbia as a last resort, Columbia’s then-president, Guy McElwaine, “loved it, he just loved it,” Lear said. Columbia picked up the movie and a week later McElwaine was gone, replaced by David Puttnam.

No wonder that Goldman once coined his now-famous (and wise) line about the movie business: “Nobody knows anything.”

But to those who “understand” the line, Lear said, “It serves as great inspiration, because it tells you to go with your gut, with what you feel is right, and bank on it.”

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Sidestepping questions about how many dollars he has banked on Reiner (the budget for “Princess Bride” was $16 million), Lear said, “On ‘Stand by Me’ and ‘Princess Bride,’ my contribution was a total conviction that Rob was going to make these films well. I granted understanding.”

The quality that he likes in Reiner, Lear implies, rising up in his chair and raising his voice to execute his Reiner imitation, is, “When he’s excited, and he starts in, and it can be over anything, and he wants you to understand it, he’ll let you know and you’ll understand it!!!”

Reiner likens Lear to a human bee: “He goes around and he pollinates. He sees a little thing there that’s not coming to life and he pollinates it, then he pollinates that and that and that. . . .”

Lear’s relationship with Reiner is like no other, says Mort Lachman, a former “All in the Family” executive producer. “Norman loves him like he’s one of his kids. When he lets Rob speak and makes room for him (Lear almost invariably defers to Reiner when both begin speaking at once), he’s sitting there with his great pride.”

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Reiner’s movies have paid off for Lear, but according to Lachman: “Norman has no feeling that money matters at all. I think it’s thrilling that he became a multimillionaire with that in mind. It’s the best thing about him.”

Reiner said: “The thing that he does better than anything else is, he’s a kochleffl , which is Yiddish for somebody who stirs the pot. On ‘All in the Family’ and all of the other shows that came out of Tandem and T.A.T. and Embassy, if there was a creative impasse or a logjam or something, he’d get in there and get us screaming at each other and force us to really dig into ourselves as deeply as we could go so that ultimately we’d come up with something that was better than what we had to begin with.”

Certainly no one stirred the pot on American TV in the ‘70s more successfully than Lear did, with his lineup of socially conscious sitcoms, beginning with “All in the Family.” But of late, he has seemingly laid low creatively.

He describes movie directing as the closest one can come to “being the Emperor God,” but he hasn’t given himself another shot at it since he directed “Cold Turkey” in 1970.

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Before forming Act III, he spent much time on the nonprofit political organization People for the American Way, which he funded and founded in 1981. But now that People is entrenched, the group complains that it no longer gets enough attention from Lear. “They’re always screaming at me about it,” said Lear aide Betsy Kenny.

Lear, 65, has not been idle. In a tip of the hat to living happily ever after, he just married psychotherapist Lynn Davis, his third marriage. He’s spent the past 20 months building up Act III’s diversified businesses--theater chains that will have a total of 104 screens by the end of this year, two TV stations, and a handful of broadcasting and communications trade magazines (Channels, etc.). As far as new film and TV projects go, Kenny said, “You’ll be hearing from us soon.”

Reiner is in the process of forming his own company, Castle Rock Entertainment, with five other partners. It’s an act that is tantamount to “leaving the nest,” he said. “There’s your father figure and he’s basically saying, ‘Well, goodby, good luck.’ . . . It was just time for me to cut my own way.”

There’s a filial twist to “Princess Bride’s” comic homage to true love, and Reiner’s movie enlarges on it. When Mandy Patinkin, playing the part of the Spanish swordsman to the hilt, says, “I want my father back, you . . .” (the movie’s only use of an obscenity), preview audiences cheered.

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--"Rob also added the notion that (in the beginning) the boy and the grandpa don’t like each other,” said Goldman.

The book ends with all the right fairy-tale characters escaping happily on white horses--or maybe not, but there it satirically ends. The movie doesn’t end satirically.

Instead, Reiner asked Goldman to create a new last scene that belongs to the “real-life” old man and the little boy. “I just wanted something to really show that these two people have been brought together by this experience,” Reiner said.

Goldman calls those final words “the only good thing I’ve ever written in California.” The end result, he said, is “this is the only other movie (I’ve written), along with ‘Butch Cassidy,’ that I can sit there and watch and watch and let it wash over me. Off the record, I love it, but you can’t say that because it sounds like Hollywood bull. I think the reason the project went through so much trouble for so many years is that Rob was meant to direct it.”

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