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'Diner' cast members join Barry Levinson at anniversary celebration

MoviesFilm FestivalsTelevisionCollege SportsDaniel SternEllen Barkin

Sherry Korsover waited 51 years for her Forest Park High classmate, Barry Levinson, to sign her yearbook.

"I was so in love with you," she told a smiling Levinson Saturday night, as about 800 "Diner" fans came to Johns Hopkins University to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the movie that would put Levinson — as well as his hometown of Baltimore — on the cinematic map.

"Really?" asked a surprised Levinson, as he signed the Class of 1960 yearbook. And yes, he assured Korsover, he did remember her. Korsover's smile widened; she might have even been blushing a little.

"I had chills," Korsover said after getting her former classmate's autograph. "I was nervous. I couldn't wait."

But she wasn't the only one in love with the Oscar-winning director Saturday night. A trio of stars from the 1982 film, Daniel Stern, Ellen Barkin and Michael Tucker, showed up to reminisce about the project that helped jump-start their careers. But it was the sweet, Baltimore-centric stories that stole the show.

Plenty of other long-time Baltimoreans showed up to tell their tales. Some told them in front of everyone — like the man whose family ran the Hilltop Diner, where Levinson and his buds used to gather. It was those late-night gab sessions that Levinson would go on to use as the basis for his film, and the owner's son was there to thank him for helping keep the family's memories alive.

Others told their stories in private, maybe to the person sitting next to them in Hopkins' Shriver Hall, where "Diner" was screened before the conversation with Levinson and his cast. Some waited until they made it to a reception afterward, maybe even pulling Levinson aside to tell him personally.

"We've never had an event like this before," said Jed Dietz, head of the Maryland Film Festival, which organized Saturday's evening as its annual fund-raiser. "Everyone who bought a table for the reception, they had a story to tell."

Levinson based "Diner" on some of the guys he grew up hanging out with in the Park Heights neighborhood. Many were the nights he and his buddies would spend at the Hilltop Diner (unfortunately long gone by the time the movie was made), talking and bonding and otherwise grappling with the mysteries of women, working and just growing up in 1950s Baltimore.

The actors all praised Levinson for having confidence in them and their abilities to inhabit their characters. Although he was directing for the first time, they said Levinson exuded confidence in his cast's abilities, which helped their performances.

"Barry always knew what he wanted, and how to get it out of us," said Stern, whose starring role in 1979's "Breaking Away" made him perhaps the only cast member with a major film to his credit before "Diner" was filmed. "And when you have someone like that who is your leader, you stand behind him."

It was that sense of camaraderie, experienced both in his diner days and on the set, that Levinson longed to capture in his debut as a writer-director. He eschewed traditional narrative structure in the film, instead focusing on the characters and the interactions on the days leading up to the marriage of one of them. The movie was filled with Baltimore touches, not the least of which was the oral exam on football one character's fiancee had to pass before the marriage could take place.

Despite sound-system troubles that forced the evening's stars to abandon their microphones and moved to the front of the stage, the atmosphere was loose and carefree. Under questioning from film critic Elvis Mitchell, Barkin, Stern and Tucker repeatedly sang their director's praises. And Levinson, who is preparing for next year's debut of a musical version of "Diner," talked about the determinedly loose atmosphere he kept on the set.

He also had the audience laughing, noting how executives at MGM had no idea what to do with the film once it was delivered. Nothing happened, they complained. Where was the action? Where was the "Porky's" style comedy they expected?

But Levinson somehow persuaded them not to change the movie drastically. And although it languished for weeks, as executives debated how to cut their losses, its cause was eventually picked up by several critics who had seen early screenings, including The Baltimore Sun's own Michael Sragow, then writing for Rolling Stone.

"Diner" would go on to inspire a whole generation of observational comedy — there's a direct line that can be drawn from "Diner" to "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

The film's cast, largely unknowns when the film was released, parlayed this start into some of Hollywood's most successful careers. Cast members would earn Tony awards (Barkin) and Oscar nominations (Mickey Rourke), inspire games that would become pop-culture touchstones (Kevin Bacon) and spearhead hit television shows (Paul Reiser).

Levinson, who graduated Forest Park High School in 1960 and attended American University in Washington, D.C., had acted and done stand-up comedy. He'd even worked on some screenplays — most notably for Norman Jewison's 1979 "… and Justice for All," shot in Baltimore and starring Al Pacino as a principled defense attorney trying to make sense of an insane justice system.

But he had never directed before. And while "Diner" wasn't exactly a commercial blockbuster, it quickly established Levinson as a talent worth watching. Indeed, just six years and five films later, he would win an Oscar for directing "Rain Man."

"I think 'Diner' changed the culture," said Barkin, who took a train down from New York to be at the celebration. "It really changed what it meant to be funny. I'm intensely proud to have been part of it."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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