Few films in movie history — and maybe no other film by a first-time writer-director — proved to be the breakthrough moment for as many talents as a made-in-Baltimore comedy-drama called "Diner."
Viewers still respond to all the people in it, not as old friends but as fresh discoveries. That seductive fellow with the voice that flows as fluidly as his pompadour — my God, it's Mickey Rourke. That gal with the asymmetrically alluring mouth and the heartbreaking way with a line — could it be Ellen Barkin? And that eccentric, dangerous charmer who beats Cornell and Bryn Mawr to the answers on "College Bowl" as it plays on his TV — yes, it's Kevin Bacon.
Along with Paul Reiser, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg and Tim Daly, they're part of why "Diner" still feels spanking new — remarkable considering that it's a comedy-drama about guys hanging out in 1959 Baltimore.
Its writer-director, Barry Levinson, who later won a best directing Oscar for "Rain Man," will mark its 30th anniversary at a gala fundraiser for the Maryland Film Festival on Saturday. And next year it will come out in a whole new form – a musical, on Broadway, with a score by Sheryl Crow.
These days casting for big-studio movies often comes down to deal-making. So signing a cadre of future stars for "Diner" seems even more remarkable, considering how Levinson put together his ensemble.
"I never looked at anybody's resume," Levinson said. "I never looked at what someone did before."
Levinson focused only on bringing his script to life. He judged his actors on whether "they were good for the purposes of the movie — whether they could figure out the characters I had put on the page." He envisioned how they'd project as complex individuals and how they'd click as a group.
In the process, he crystallized the "observational" humor that would dominate American comedy for decades, whether in TV series like "Seinfeld," Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or Judd Apatow's stream of big-screen hits.
Reiser, who played a scrounging diner guy named Modell, said the work he did with Levinson on topics as mundane as roast beef on rye opened up that whole world of humor.
"It helped clarify what could be funny naturally — when the guys are just talking, not reaching for a joke, funny things happen," Reiser said. "Barry is brilliant at toeing the line between funny and not funny."
Watching Bacon, Stern, Rourke, Reiser, Guttenberg and Daly play Mobtown guys who think they can reach manhood on an installment plan — and Barkin as the odd woman out (the Stern character's wife) and Michael Tucker as an elder statesman among diner guys — you understand why they became marquee names for film, stage and television.
Under Levinson's deceptively casual spell, everyone's creative instincts flourished. The movie is about coming of age – or maybe not completing that journey. But for audiences of all kinds — male, female, baby-boomer, Gen X, Y or Z — it functions like a fountain of youth.
Fear and anxiety meet comedy
Reiser played the "sixth man" of the movie's friendship group, coming off the bench in the diner scenes to give them a wild, sneaky spin.
Levinson had never put this character's dialogue on the page. He knew that studio executives would not know what to make of emotion-charged kibitzing that turns jockeying for a half-eaten sandwich into a comic cry from the heart. (Levinson was right. The studio execs didn't understand it even after he filmed it; they wanted it cut out. But Levinson held firm and got his way.)
"Moviemaking is not a science," Levinson said, "even though studios think they can turn it into a science." He can't fully explain why and how he mixed and matched pieces of real-life people into vibrant characters, cast his galaxy of not-yet stars and merged them into an ensemble that had Baltimoreans — and city-dwellers all over the country — saying they knew people just like them.
Take the boy-man at the movie's center: Eddie (Guttenberg), who is getting married on New Year's Eve — except that Eddie resolves he won't get married at all unless his fiancée passes a test about the Baltimore Colts, complete with true and false, multiple choice and short-answer questions. Levinson did have a cousin named Eddie who gave his wife-to-be a football test.
"I wasn't there, and it never took place that way," Levinson said. "It was something I remembered from some conversation. But when I put that in, it evolved to what it is in the movie — having the wedding in the Colts' colors seemed natural. You take little things and you refashion them and build them up and make it feel as if it's truth."
Eddie's fear of marriage ignites his pal Shrevie's realization that his own marriage is unsatisfying. (Stern plays Shrevie.) And it resonates in different ways with everyone in the movie. Boogie (Rourke) likes women and has a rapport with them, but when there's a problem with them, he runs away.
Billy (Daly), the diner guy on his way out of the fold, respects and loves but doesn't understand the one proto-feminist woman in the film, who works at WBAL-TV. And Fenwick ( Bacon), though loyal to a fault, is so wounded by his dysfunctional family that he keeps his core emotions from everyone, male and female alike.
Eddie is as crucial to the film when he's responding to all of them as he is when he's uproariously demanding that Modell (Reiser) just come out and ask for a bite to eat or a ride home.
"I always thought that Guttenberg could be, not just a full-out comedian, but humorous in an honest way," said Levinson of his top-billed actor, who went on to anchor the "Police Academy" franchise. "When he was listening, you could see him processing information, in a way that was amusing — he didn't pretend to have all the answers."
Guttenberg himself, now acting in a Woody Allen one-act on Broadway (part of the Allen-Elaine May-Ethan Coen bill called "Relatively Speaking"), said that he thought what clinched his casting was a conversation he had with Levinson after the audition.
"We were in Los Angeles, and I was telling him about a girl I was dating in New York, and how I was sure I was going to marry her," Guttenberg said. "I didn't."
Reiser almost didn't meet Levinson. The acting student and budding stand-up had merely accompanied a friend to "Diner" auditions in New York. When casting director Ellen Chenoweth saw Reiser joshing with the receptionist, his gift for gab caught her eyes and ears, and she introduced him to Levinson.
When Levinson and Reiser met the next day, they talked about their favorite comedians, especially Mel Brooks. Levinson had helped Brooks write "High Anxiety" and "Silent Movie," and had acted in them, too; indeed, Brooks had prodded him into writing "Diner."
Levinson had also studied acting intensively and had done all sorts of stand-up, improvisational and sketch comedy, often in a team with future "Coach" star Craig T. Nelson. He understood that Reiser, an acting student, too, wanted to show off his thespian skills. But Levinson assured him that what he really wanted to exploit was his talent for schmoozing over coffee.
It was a gift Reiser had actually honed and exploited for his act.
"I did material about the mentality of [New York City] diners and the glaring indifference of the Greek waiters. In the display they had cheesecake, like, on a merry-go-round. It was a diabetic carnival. I had 10-15 minutes on diners, and there I was talking about a movie about diners called 'Diner.' It was all very serendipitous."
Kevin Bacon tried out for Boogie and Billy — "they're the ones who got time with the girls," Bacon said last week from Boston, where he's shooting the movie "R.I.P.D." But Levinson asked him to read for Fenwick.
Levinson said what he responded to in Bacon was his intelligence.
"It's nice of Barry to say that about my intelligence," Bacon remarked. "I didn't know any of the answers on that College Bowl thing" — they came to him in an earpiece. He had just spent two years on "The Guiding Light." When he went out for "Diner," he'd left the security of daytime television and "more money than I'd ever dreamed of." On audition day, he woke up with the flu. But he realized he could use his own feverish haze to flesh out a stoned, febrile character.
Male bonding made easy
Levinson wanted the group life of his characters to overflow the borders of the screen. He planted his cast in a downtown Holiday Inn and planned his rehearsal week around male bonding. When shooting started, with so much done at night, the actors developed their own Breakfast Club, rolling into the hotel's lobby-restaurant at 7 a.m. and ordering Bloody Marys while up-and-at-'em tourists were having bacon and eggs.
All in their early 20s, and, except for Daniel Stern, all single, they pulled off outrageous flirtations and romantic scams, telling potential bar dates they were really race car drivers or, even better, a team of engineers sent to trouble-shoot the Holiday Inn's revolving rooftop restaurant. Bacon still laughs at that one.
"We were supposed to be figuring out how the restaurant could move without getting the pipes and wires all tangled up," Bacon said. "That's a real problem, don't you think?"
Levinson said he wanted Stern because he could picture him as a responsible, "workmanlike young man, not too flashy, but with this sly sense of humor about him." Stern, raised in Bethesda, had already acted in Peter Yates' "Breaking Away" and Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories," and immediately got what Levinson was doing.
"Barry would say 'chuck the script if you want to, just riff and go' — then he would re-craft the improv so we could repeat it and perfect it," Stern said. "He was more interested in the dynamic than in what he typed."
They shot all the "Diner" scenes last. By that time, Stern said, they'd become a pack.
What Levinson loved about Mickey Rourke was that he "had this tough quality and he had this kind of sensitive thing at the same time," like James Dean or Marlon Brando in his "On the Waterfront" days.
"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."
The trickiest part and the last role cast was Billy.
"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.