Looking back at 'Diner,' 30 years later
Barry Levinson's film may be 30, but its cast and influence are timeless
A scene from "Diner," which celebrates its 30th anniversary with a week-long series of events, culminating in a gala on Saturday. From left: Ellen Barkin as Beth, Daniel Stern as Laurence, Steve Guttenberg as Edward and Kevin Bacon as Timothy. (Handout photo, Handout photo / December 1, 2011)
Eddie is as crucial to the film when he's responding to all of them as he is when he's uproariously demanding that Modell (Reiser) just come out and ask for a bite to eat or a ride home.
"I always thought that Guttenberg could be, not just a full-out comedian, but humorous in an honest way," said Levinson of his top-billed actor, who went on to anchor the "Police Academy" franchise. "When he was listening, you could see him processing information, in a way that was amusing — he didn't pretend to have all the answers."
Guttenberg himself, now acting in a Woody Allen one-act on Broadway (part of the Allen-Elaine May-Ethan Coen bill called "Relatively Speaking"), said that he thought what clinched his casting was a conversation he had with Levinson after the audition.
"We were in Los Angeles, and I was telling him about a girl I was dating in New York, and how I was sure I was going to marry her," Guttenberg said. "I didn't."
Reiser almost didn't meet Levinson. The acting student and budding stand-up had merely accompanied a friend to "Diner" auditions in New York. When casting director Ellen Chenoweth saw Reiser joshing with the receptionist, his gift for gab caught her eyes and ears, and she introduced him to Levinson.
When Levinson and Reiser met the next day, they talked about their favorite comedians, especially Mel Brooks. Levinson had helped Brooks write "High Anxiety" and "Silent Movie," and had acted in them, too; indeed, Brooks had prodded him into writing "Diner."
Levinson had also studied acting intensively and had done all sorts of stand-up, improvisational and sketch comedy, often in a team with future "Coach" star Craig T. Nelson. He understood that Reiser, an acting student, too, wanted to show off his thespian skills. But Levinson assured him that what he really wanted to exploit was his talent for schmoozing over coffee.
It was a gift Reiser had actually honed and exploited for his act.
"I did material about the mentality of [New York City] diners and the glaring indifference of the Greek waiters. In the display they had cheesecake, like, on a merry-go-round. It was a diabetic carnival. I had 10-15 minutes on diners, and there I was talking about a movie about diners called 'Diner.' It was all very serendipitous."
Kevin Bacon tried out for Boogie and Billy — "they're the ones who got time with the girls," Bacon said last week from Boston, where he's shooting the movie "R.I.P.D." But Levinson asked him to read for Fenwick.
Levinson said what he responded to in Bacon was his intelligence.
"It's nice of Barry to say that about my intelligence," Bacon remarked. "I didn't know any of the answers on that College Bowl thing" — they came to him in an earpiece. He had just spent two years on "The Guiding Light." When he went out for "Diner," he'd left the security of daytime television and "more money than I'd ever dreamed of." On audition day, he woke up with the flu. But he realized he could use his own feverish haze to flesh out a stoned, febrile character.
Male bonding made easy
Levinson wanted the group life of his characters to overflow the borders of the screen. He planted his cast in a downtown Holiday Inn and planned his rehearsal week around male bonding. When shooting started, with so much done at night, the actors developed their own Breakfast Club, rolling into the hotel's lobby-restaurant at 7 a.m. and ordering Bloody Marys while up-and-at-'em tourists were having bacon and eggs.
All in their early 20s, and, except for Daniel Stern, all single, they pulled off outrageous flirtations and romantic scams, telling potential bar dates they were really race car drivers or, even better, a team of engineers sent to trouble-shoot the Holiday Inn's revolving rooftop restaurant. Bacon still laughs at that one.
"We were supposed to be figuring out how the restaurant could move without getting the pipes and wires all tangled up," Bacon said. "That's a real problem, don't you think?"
Levinson said he wanted Stern because he could picture him as a responsible, "workmanlike young man, not too flashy, but with this sly sense of humor about him." Stern, raised in Bethesda, had already acted in Peter Yates' "Breaking Away" and Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories," and immediately got what Levinson was doing.
"Barry would say 'chuck the script if you want to, just riff and go' — then he would re-craft the improv so we could repeat it and perfect it," Stern said. "He was more interested in the dynamic than in what he typed."
They shot all the "Diner" scenes last. By that time, Stern said, they'd become a pack.