Like Leo Spivak, the character he plays in “King of the Corner,” Peter Riegert is on the road, selling his wares. But unlike the troubled Spivak, who is trapped in a job he increasingly dislikes — running focus groups for home-safety systems — as he undergoes a massive midlife crisis, Riegert is traveling across the country to dozens of cities, opening in his first full-length directorial effort at theaters, holding question-and-answer sessions with audiences, and generating an enormous groundswell of popular support for a film in which most major distribution companies showed little interest.
Selling his own films is a new career for someone who has worked constantly as a noted actor for a quarter of a century, from his debut as an out-of-control Jewish fraternity brother in 1978’s “Animal House” to Sam “the pickle man” Posner in Joan Micklin Silver’s beloved “Crossing Delancey” a decade later and recurring roles on “The Sopranos” and “Law & Order: SVU.” From the start, Riegert has been praised for his nuanced comic and dramatic performances that have, in their own way, defined a broad variety of Jewish characters in American cinema. In many ways, the popularity of these films, and characters, have had a significant social and cultural effect not only on how general audiences viewed Jewish characters but also on how Jews looked at themselves.
But Riegert, the artist, is less interested in the sociology of his work than in what it says about the complexity of being human. In a phone interview with the Forward, he spoke about how he came to direct “King of the Corner,” which opens in New York on August 21 at the Metro Twin Theater, and what it’s like being on the production and promotion end of the business.
Riegert’s journey into producing and directing began accidentally.
“It wasn’t a project I was seeking out,” he claimed, “but it found me.” In 2000 Riegert directed a short film, “By Courier,” based on an O. Henry story — which was nominated for an Academy Award that year — and was invited to screen it at the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. At the screening, he found an envelope and note from author Gerald Shapiro, who teaches literature there but was out of town at the time, along with a copy of “Bad Jews and Other Stories.” Riegert continued: “I read the stories on my way to Los Angeles. I called him the next day, introduced myself and suggested that we work on a project. I loved his writing, his sense of irony — that is very important, irony is, in a sense, a very Jewish genre — and his ability to find such simple, effective ways to present very complicated issues.” And boy, are they complicated. Spivak is a contemporary Willy Loman, but “King of the Corner” doesn’t give him death as an easy out.
As Riegert and Shapiro worked on the script, it became clear that the story of Leo Spivak was about a lot more things than an unhappy man’s midlife crisis. The film has a full, complicated plot: Spivak is dealing with his failing marriage to his wife, Rachel (played by Isabella Rossellini), his dying father, Sol (Eli Wallach), his overly ambitious, much younger, assistant, Ed Schiffman (Jake Hoffman), and a crazily un-Orthodox rabbi named Evelyn Fink (Eric Bogosian). But the broad emotional scope and intensity of the film are remarkable.
“What I loved about this, and I think that all of the actors involved felt it, as well, is that Leo is a is a different type of heroic character,” Riegert said. “Actually he isn’t heroic at
all, except in small ways of being human.”
Writing and producing a film these days is certainly a near-heroic project, and Riegert’s efforts have been hugely successful. After he and Shapiro finished the script, they held a staged reading — with noted actors such as Wallach, Bogosian and Harris Yulin, among others — that was highly successful.
“Actors are not looking for favors, but for good material,” Riegert said. “They really responded to Leo Spivak and his story — I think because, unlike a lot of films, the action here grows out of the characters, and the story grows out of events.”
After the script was in place, Riegert formed a small production company that offered the cast and crew profit participation, and the actors all worked for scale — $800 a week — and “King of the Corner” was filmed in 20 days, with everyone working 12 hours a day. Not a record — Riegert points out that the old studio system could do this, as well — but again, a heroic effort with a small budget, limited resources and a director who never had done a feature-length film.
When asked if he was nervous about directing, Riegert — who has worked with some of the best directors around, including Bill Forsyth, Alain Berliner, Steven Soderbergh and John Landis — said that while he learned from all of them, especially about film technique, he drew inspiration from a quote by Walt Whitman, who once, during a newspaper interview, spoke of “the genius of the average.”
“In a sense, this is the heart of the film,” Riegert mused. “Leo Spivak is just an average guy making his way through the world. This is why people relate to him. We watch him wrestle with a whole host of issues — his daughter growing up, his relationship to his father, his fear of getting old.”
The theme that runs through all of Shapiro’s stories — in his first collection as well as the second, “Little Men” — is not just “What does it mean to be a Jew?” but specifically “What does it mean to be a nonpracticing Jew, to have an identity as a nonobservant Jew?” This problem is what first sparked Riegert’s interest.
“One of the central conflicts in the film is Leo’s dealing with what he calls his being a ‘bad Jew,’ an unobservant Jew who is trying to make sense of the world. He is so aware of his predicament — his lack of emotional, and maybe even moral, grounding — that he can trace his ‘bad Jew’ roots back to the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf when Moses comes down the mountain. That is taking being a bad Jew pretty seriously.”
Riegert’s Spivak, in all his glory and misery, is yet another fine example of the actor and director’s art. Riegert notes that he got his “Jewish sense of irony and humor from his father and by osmosis,” and he is always surprised when he is asked by Jewish audience members in his Q&A sessions, “How will this play to non-Jews?”
“How will it play to non-Jews? Just like it does to Jews. It’s the ‘genius of the average.’ It’s about life.”