"Mickey was just awesome, but he was into his own thing," Stern said. "We were actors, and he was really a movie star; he just naturally had that in him."
"He's in a much more complicated dilemma with an independent woman who has a career and is willing to do things these guys would never have imagined before," Levinson said.
Finding Daly was a stroke of luck.
"I ran into Tim's sister" — Tyne Daly — "and I didn't even know her that well, but I said I was casting, she said I should look at her brother, and I had him in."
The easiest casting was Ellen Barkin as Shrevie's dissatisfied wife, Beth.
"There was some kind of gravity about her," Levinson said. "You'd look into her eyes and see a lot of things going on — and you wanted to know all those things. And, like Mickey, she had this toughness and this vulnerability."
Barkin has said that at that point in her life she identified with Beth, a striking, poignant woman who doesn't know what she wants or who she is or whether she is attractive. The studio was urging Levinson to find someone more conventionally good-looking, with a bigger name. But somehow, his first time out, Levinson stuck by his choices. And now they seem miraculously right.
There was one true Baltimorean in the cast: Michael Tucker, who years before he became an Emmy-nominated regular on "L.A. Law," played Bagel, the elder statesman of Levinson's fictitious "Fells Point Diner." In an email Tucker said that when he met Levinson, he made sure he said "Aoh, nao," in his native Baltimore accent.
"I sound exactly like Senator Barbara Mikulski," he said. "So, we had a laugh about that and then figured out who of our friends or relatives knew each other…. And then I got the part."
The irony is, by capturing a bygone world so specifically, Levinson made it timeless. He's aiming to do it again with "Diner," the musical. When asked if they're close to casting, he said, "There are a lot of good people out there — people you might not know about."
We may not know them yet — but if the musical is as immediate, rich and emotionally magnetic as the movie, we'll feel as if we've known these characters our whole lives.
If you go
The 30th anniversary celebration of "Diner" starts 5 p.m. Saturday at Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall, 3400 N. Charles St. A screening is followed at 8 p.m. by a conversation with Barry Levinson and cast members. A dinner with Levinson and the cast rounds out the night.
At Hodson Hall: The documentary "The Band That Wouldn't Die" screens 7 p.m. Friday, and the documentary "Diner Guys" 2:30 p.m. Saturday. "Diner" also screens at 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and "Tin Men" screens 7 p.m. Wednesday at The Charles, 1711 N. Charles St.
Tickets for individual screenings are $5, all screenings and the conversation are $35; admission to the dinner is $275. Call 410-752-8083 or go to mdfilmfest.com.