The Return of Judge Reinhold
by Terry Keefe
You didn't have to grow up in the 80s to be a big Judge Reinhold fan, but if you went to the movies at all during that decade, you undoubtedly were. It was impossible to miss him, and also impossible not to love him, in films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), in which he played the fast food job-challenged Brad Hamilton; or in Beverly Hills Cop 1 & II (1984 & 1987), where he was the scene-stealing young rookie cop Billy.who very much would like to be Dirty Harry but is stuck policing Rodeo Drive; or in Ruthless People (1986), as Ken Kessler, the audio-visual salesman at the end of his rope who kidnaps Bette Midler to hold her for ransom, only to find that her husband, played by Danny Devito, doesn't want her back. Some of his other prominent films from the period include Stripes (1981), Gremlins (1984), and Vice Versa (1988). Reinhold combined great comic timing with a lovable innocence, which was often a cover for the explosive temper lurking right beneath the surface of some of his characters. Directors seemed to use Reinhold as a secret weapon of sorts. While other actors often had more screen time, the best comedic scenes in those films often belonged to Reinhold and he could always be counted on to bring the entire film to a new level.
After his incredibly successful run in the 80s, Reinhold sort of disappeared from many people's radar screens during the 90s. It wasn't that he stopped working, it was just that a lot of the films he was in were fairly forgettable and didn't really get out to the public at large. To be fair, he also did some very prominent work during the 90s, such as The Santa Clause (1994) with Tim Allen, as well as his role as "Aaron the Close Talker" on a 1994 episode of "Seinfeld" which earned him an Emmy nomination. During our conversation with Reinhold, he reveals that there were other reasons for some of the project choices he made in the 90s, personal issues that go way back to some dark moments in his early childhood and which he felt compelled to confront and resolve during the past decade. Reinhold generously shares much of what he dealt with during those years in our interview below and we've printed the transcript of our talk largely unedited, as he tells his life story far better than we could. It is a story that is at time harrowing but also inspirational, because the young man who charmed us onscreen so many years ago has come out the other side of his inner journey not only whole, but perhaps as a better whole. A great deal of the story is extremely personal, but Reinhold didn't back away from it. "It's the narrative of my life and I want to 'own' it. And if somebody can benefit from hearing this story, then that would be great," he says.
The narrative begins on May 21, 1957 in Wilmington, Delaware, when Judge was born Edward Reinhold. He quickly obtained the nickname "Judge" from his father, inspired by the stern countenance he displayed at only two weeks old. "I looked a lot more like Winston Churchill than a most babies," recalls Reinhold with a laugh. His father was a successful lawyer and thought that his young child reminded him of a particularly difficult judge who he faced regularly in court. The nickname stuck. The family would move to Tidewater, Virginia, to a 500-acre estate with an Antebellum plantation house on it where Reinhold had the run of the place. These years of his life would have what Reinhold describes as a "Huckleberry Finn" element to them as. But there was also that far darker element to his childhood which Reinhold refers to as "out of a William Faulkner story." Reinhold's father would die when he was 19.
When I meet Judge Reinhold, it is in Pacific Palisades, where he and his gorgeous wife Amy have a home, although they spend most of their time in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Besides looking great, Reinhold is brimming with energy and is rightfully excited about a number of new projects that he's involved with. First, He'll be seen on TBS this month in the aforementioned National Lampoon's Thanksgiving Reunion, opposite Bryan Cranston ("Malcolm in the Middle"). Reinhold plays Dr. Mitch Snider, a straightlaced "anesthesiologist to the stars" from Los Angeles, who brings his wife Jill (Hallie Todd of "Lizzie Maguire") and kids to visit the family of his long-lost cousin Woodrow (Cranston), his wife Pauline (Penelope Ann Miller), and their children. Directed by Neal Israel, the film is a broad comedy which is unrelenting in its quest for laughs. There's a joke coming every other second and the film will have you in stitches. To rephrase a famous line from Spinal Tap, the filmmakers and cast start on 10, in terms of the level of comedy, and somehow actually manage to get to 11.
Reinhold is also developing a number of projects as a producer and has quickly put together an extremely engaging development slate. With his wife Amy, he has partnered with independent producer Eric Geadelmann to launch TLP Productions (the TLP standing for "Ten Little Piggies"). The first project Reinhold tells me about is the real-life story of Brother Bill Tomes, entitled Brother Bill, an ordinary man who received a call from God, put on monk-like robes made from everyday rags (in the tradition of Saint Francis), and entered the Chicago housing projects to attempt to keep the peace between rival gangs. Brother Bill literally walks into the line of fire regularly in his mission and although he's been fired upon dozens of times, he has emerged without a scratch. Along the way, he has helped broker peace treaties between the gangs which have saved hundreds of lives. Reinhold has recently received a draft of the script which he is very excited about from writer Angelo Pizzo (Hoosiers). With Eric Geadlemann and Reinhold's manager Gordon Gilbertson, Judge and Amy will also produce a currently untitled film based on the life of Ray Wallace, a logger from the Pacific Northwest who created the myth of Bigfoot when he carved a pair of wooden feet to create footprints of the legendary beast in the woods and managed to keep the hoax going for some 40 years. And with producer Justine Baddeley, who also was the casting director on the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, TLP will produce One Stupid Thing, from a script by John Lavachelli. Says Reinhold of the project, which he also plans to star in, "It's a brilliantly crafted black comedy, about a family's attempt to escape the collective anxiety of an impending terrorism attack. The father takes the family from New Jersey and displaces them horribly to this little town called Nyborg, Wyoming. Then reality catches up with them. It's really about collective anxiety. He's not a hysteric. Metaphorically, it's about how displaced we all are emotionally to some place we've never been before. In a grander sense, that's what the movie's about but it's also very funny."
Had you read the magazine version of National Lampoon much while growing up?
Judge Reinhold: Oh yeah, totally. My earliest relationship with National Lampoon was a real fond one. I also went to see Animal House five or six times and knew all the lines. In a lot of ways, that movie was tremendously helpful to my career. Because I arrived in town the same year that movie opened in '78. And it created this whole new genre of youth-oriented comedies. And a few months later I was in Stripes.
We'll get back to National Lampoon's Thanksgiving Reunion in a minute, but what was that experience of working on Stripes like?
Well, I had done a couple of movies before that which were never released [chuckles]. So this was a huge movie. I remember walking out of my little telephone booth-sized honeywagon thing and watching Ivan Reitman orchestrate these tanks in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and helicopters and all these things. I was absolutely petrified because it was so big and I was so green and inexperienced and I was sure that in the few moments that I had, where this 40 million dollar bohemoth of a movie hinged on me, that I was going to blow it totally [laughs]. I don't know if I've utilized it, but I got a great lesson in audacity from Bill Murray, in terms of putting yourself out on a limb and seeing comedy as an act of audacity. That's what I saw every day in him.
Bryan Cranston from your new film is another guy who seems to subscribe to the school of comedy as an act of audacity. You and he are great together as the Snider cousins.
We had a lovely time together. We were real free with each other. Usually when somebody is that talented comically, they've got some kind of, you know [laughs] but I couldn't find it. He's just a lovely guy, easy to get along with, and totally free with himself. He gives himself such license to be completely ridiculous and sometimes way, way too big and that's okay! I don't work like that. I'm still too worried about looking too broad [laughs].
Of the many classic 80s comedies you did, do you have a favorite?
I think the first Beverly Hills Cop is my favorite. I think it's amazing how Marty Brest juggled tremendous violence and humor. Marty's really, really talented. Some of that violence was just really vicious. I mean, when you see Jimmy Russo shot at point-blank.
Tell us about playing Billy.
I loved the idea of playing a character in a movie who has a very tenuous relationship with reality and can very easily cross into [thinking] he's in a movie! That really interested me and that was my handle on him, a guy who sometimes has a problem differentiating between reality and his love for movies. And I thought, "What a cool thing to play!"
Let's talk about Fast Times At Ridgemont High. The cast is one of the great casts in film and many of them have gone on to stellar careers since then. What was the reaction career-wise for you and everyone else immediately after the film?
Well, Sean took off, as well he should have. But I had to wait another two years to do Beverly Hills Cop. It was a tough time because I expected more right away. Sean was so completely in character all the time, that I didn't really know there was such an intellectual force behind Jeff Spicollo [laughs]. So I really didn't know what to make of Sean. I thought there was a chance that he was a dumb surfer guy who didn't realize how funny he was. I thought there was a chance that he was a dumb surfer guy who didn't realize how funny he was. There was a chance that he might be incredibly brilliant. I really didn't know! [laughs]
I went through this whole whirlwind of success in the 80s and had this amazing run of successful films. I guess I should just touch on what I did in the 90s, because a lot of people wonder. There was a lot of unresolved baggage that had to do with unresolved childhood stuff. My family situation was that my family was tyrannized by my father's misery. That's all I can really say. There was a lot of damage in our lives and I just never dealt with it. Some things that you need to do as a child to survive don't serve you as an adult. And in order to survive my childhood, I had to learn to fight back, to defend myself. Not physically, because all I did was - I was faster than him [laughs]. But like I said, my childhood had a very Huckleberry Finn element to it. I grew up on a beautiful Southern plantation farm in Tidewater, Virginia. There were some really great parallels between myself and Huckleberry Finn, and I stayed away a lot. I stayed out of my father's way. Anyway, my brother wasn't so lucky. I fought back. My brother didn't. He committed suicide in 1988. So enough to say, there was a lot to overcome, right? Well, I flew into this success, not dealing with any of this stuff. The fascinating thing was that I hadn't outgrown this irresistable urge to defend myself. I was still doing what I had learned to do, which served me a child. Anyway, what happened was that, sometimes authority figures and people who rubbed me the wrong way, or people who I had disputes with, I would have this irresistable urge to defend myself and I would be explosive. I could be a real pain the ass. And so I was carrying all this baggage. People would hire me because they believe in me and they wanted me to do well. And I feel like I always delivered. But I was a pain in the ass. They didn't need my problems. Anyway, the whole reason I launched into this, and I hope it doesn't sound too indulgent, is that I wanted to talk about what I did in the 90s. What I did in the 90s is I did this film, Over Her Dead Body, I moved to Santa Fe, and suddenly it's like my soul was afforded the peace to look at the wreckage of my past and say, " I've got to do something. I've got to turn around and confront what's been pursuing me." All through the 80s, everybody gave me license to escape whatever was plaguing me in any way possible, right? And I took advantage of all that. But it turns out that the only real way out of what was ailing me was through it. And what I mean by that is I confronted it all. In terms of the industry, for me, the 90s is like a lost decade in a lot of ways. It's like "What happened to him?" I stopped chasing after work. I just wanted to make a living and deal with what was most important. And it was scary. Because I didn't know whether I'd ruined my career and created a lot of damage. I would kind of venture out of obscurity, like I did "Seinfeld" in 1994. Every once in a while I'd emerge and then go back into whatever I was dealing with. You know, I don't regret it. I had to do it. People make jokes about therapists. These were extremely compassionate, beautiful people that taught me how to slowly step out of my own turmoil and to be able to view my life with compassion, rather than self-hatred. Because I felt like damaged goods for a long time. I believe that redemption is a very real thing. It's not a third act Hollywood gimmick. And true redemption, the real deal, that's where the rubber meet the road. That's where you turn around and face your life. I was forced to face it, because it damn near killed me. I don't want to go into beyond that, but this unresolved childhood stuff almost led to my death a couple of times. So I didn't have a choice. I had burned a lot of bridges. I pissed a lot of people off. So I didn't have a choice. I think everybody has some area in their life that's broken. I think maybe that's part of the life experience. We're given these broken parts in order to have the opportunity to deepen. I came out on the other side. How did I do that? I went from rage to peace through compassion and learning the power of forgiveness. You have to practice forgiveness. I think in my own life and in a lot of lives, the hardest process of forgiveness is towards yourself, because some of your greatest wounds are self-inflicted because of things that happened to you. So the hardest person for me to forgive with myself. But when I looked at my life with compassion, I realized it was easier to forgive myself than I ever imagined. I never knew that I could get to the other side of anything from this kind of trouble. So I was very troubled and thank God that redemption is a very real thing. So in the 90s, I didn't chase after work. I worked to support myself. I worked for travel. Sometimes I really wasn't that concerned with the content of what I did. I refer to this amongst friends, and I don't mind saying it, as my "Underground Film Period." And that doesn't necessarily mean films that were avante-garde, but instead they were films that should have been buried [laughs]. But this was a time of tremendous value and redemption for me. Santa Fe was a time of reckoning for me.
And did you marry Amy during this period?
No, and this was the beautiful thing, is that I didn't get married until I was ready. And I don't think it's any accident. About five years ago, I really feel like I came out the other side. I have to say that I believe in grace. I don't mean to sound like somebody on TV, but I believe in God's grace. I believe that I've been healed. Anyway, my point is that if I had met my wife before all that, I would have wrecked it. Because I've put a lot of people through hell. My first marriage, my wife really loved me, and I was like that Groucho Marx line "I couldn't belong to any club that would have me as a member," right? Let me put it this way, the best definition of redemption that I've heard is that you're placed in the same situation but you do something different. Then you know something's really changed. Otherwise, it's just talk. And that started happening without any effort. It was easier to me to extend grace and compassion to other people because I had learned how to have it for myself. I wasn't carrying it around anymore. And then a year later, I met my wife. And my wife is so beautiful, both physically and in her character. She has such great, deep, true character. Her gentleness has been one of my greatest teachers.
You're obviously pursuing work again now and getting lots of it. Plus you're producing some great projects.
The material is just great. And what's awesome is that this stuff seems to be finding me now. And here I am trying to incorporate this whole journey [of my life]. It's given me so much more depth and possibilities creatively. I don't know what's going to happen. I know I have a great passion for these properties. They're really great stories. And what's cool is because these projects are taking off, it really makes me feel less dependent, you know what I mean? Most importantly, this type of material, especially One Stupid Thing, this is the type of material I should have always been going after. But I was too wrapped up in myself to be able to lend myself to it. But I feel like I'm ready to do this kind of work now.