LOS ANGELES – “If I ever get the Nobel Prize, the headline is going to say ‘Meathead wins Nobel Prize,’ ” suggests actor-turned-director Rob Reiner, harking back to his role as Archie Bunker’s son-in-law during the 1970s run of “All in the Family.”
“I’m very proud of that appellation,” he adds. “The show was an enormous success, also in Israel, by the way.”
The throwaway line is part of a three-way phone interview with Reiner and his father, Carl Reiner, ranging across their Bronx roots, presidential politics, Jewish identity, the future of Jewish humor and the Ten Commandments.
The Reiners, father and son, were honored June 11 by the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles with the 2008 Achievement in Film Award. Other honorees were actor Kirk Douglas, Israeli producer-director Menahem Golan and Jeffrey Berg, the chairman of the talent and literary agency International Creative Management.
Carl Reiner, the winner of nine Emmy Awards and an American institution as an actor, director, producer, writer and comedian, was born 86 years ago in the Bronx, the son of a Romanian-born watchmaker and a Hungarian mother.
“I was born in the Bronx, too,” Rob interjects.
“No,” Carl corrects. “I was delivered at our home in the Bronx. You were born in a hospital in Manhattan.”
Rob was a precocious lad.
“When Rob was 2 or 3, before he could read, he had somehow learned to recite Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘To be or not to be,'” the proud father recounts. “Only he had trouble with his ‘l,’ so instead of ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, it came out as ‘swings and arrows.’ “
A few years later, young Rob would sit on the steps listening intently when the likes of Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar visited the Reiner home.
Rob was basically a serious kid, Carl says, but when the comic legends swapped jokes, “He laughed at all the right places.”
For Rob, 61, it wasn’t a given that he would enter the entertainment business. But, he says, “I always looked up to my father and wanted to be like him.”
Carl breaks in with another anecdote.
“When Rob was 7 or 8, he came to me and told me he wanted to change his name,” the father says. “I figured that the Reiner name weighed on the kid and he didn’t want to feed off it.
“‘So what would you like to change your name to?’ I asked, and he answered, ‘Carl.’ “
Rob has emulated his father’s versatility and multi-tasking. He has scored major successes as a film director with such critical and commercial hits as “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Stand By Me,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “A Few Good Men.” His most recent release was “The Bucket List.”
While Rob may have followed in his father’s footsteps, It took Carl longer than his son to break into show business.
“I was working as a mechanic’s helper in a sewing machine repair shop in the 1930s when my brother saw an ad that the WPA, the Works Progress Administration established by President Roosevelt, was offering a free drama workshop, and that was the beginning,” he recalls.
“I’ve always maintained that I owe my career to two men – my brother Charlie and FDR.”
American Jews once had a virtual monopoly on stand-up comics, but the torch seems to be passing to other ethnics.
“It’s always the downtrodden people who produce the best comics, such as [the African-American] Chris Rock or [the Hispanic] Carlos Mencia,” Carl says.
How about Jerry Seinfeld?
“No,” Carl insists. “Seinfeld is not a Jewish comedian. He is a comedian who happened to be Jewish.”
But Carl hasn’t lost hope.
“As long as we’re persecuted, we’ll have Jewish humor,” he says. “It’s in our DNA, it’s been inbred for thousands of years.”
Like voting Democratic. Father and son disagreed this year on the presidential candidates, with Carl backing U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and Rob supporting U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I felt that Hillary was more electable,” Rob says. “She was also very helpful in my California campaign against smoking and for better child care.”
But both Reiners promise to work hard to elect Obama.
Like many Jews, especially in do-it-yourself California, the Reiners have fashioned their own identity.
To the question, “What kind of a Jew are you?” Rob responds, “The best kind of Jew – one who tries to do good things for others.”
Carl offers more detail.
“I’m not a believer, I call myself an atheist,” he says. “It was man who invented God.
“I once wrote that there are 15 things I know about God, and one is that he is allergic to shellfish. There are far too many commandments and you really only need one: Do not hurt anybody.”
So why do the Reiners call themselves Jewish?
“It’s what binds us together,” Rob answers. “We celebrate Passover. That’s our heritage, our race.”
Carl again corrects his son.
“I don’t know about race, that’s still a big argument,” the elder Reiner says. “But I remember that my parents were always very proud of Jewish accomplishments. Christ, Karl Marx, Freud, Einstein. We’ve turned the world around.”
Rob chimes in, “We always wanted to know which stars were Jewish. Edward G. Robinson. Paul Muni. And Kirk Douglas. That was really a big deal.”
“How about the gangsters?” Carl asks. “Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. But they were good gangsters.”
The Reiners weren’t quite sure why they were being honored by the Israel Film Festival.
“When you get old,” Carl muses, “people want to give you awards. We’ve never been to Israel and we don’t really have much of a connection.
“Which reminds me, I met Aaron Ruben, the director and writer on ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ which by the way was full of Yiddishisms, though people didn’t realize it.
“Anyhow, Aaron went to Israel, and when he came back he said that when he got there he took a taxi and the driver asked him, ‘Is this your first visit to Israel?’
‘Yes, it is,’ replied Aaron.
And the taxi driver said, ‘Shame on you.'”
Carl then recounts, “When I was 13 years old I had some close friends in a Zionist youth group called Betar. They wore uniforms and kept talking about a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan. I didn’t care about that. I just wanted to be with Shloime and Moishe.”
At the end of the interview, the Reiners are asked if they want to add anything.
“No,” Rob says. “We’ve said too much already. They might not give us the awards.”