It's Meathead! Oh, yeah, he's wearing a tie and a little blue blazer and he speaks in complete sentences and he's so laid-back he could be teaching Zen consciousness in Encino and his hair has gone the way of all hair except Robert Redford's, but it is indeed, Meathead. "I have this vision," says Rob Reiner, who has directed five hit films and will probably achieve a sixth in "A Few Good Men," which opened Friday, "that when I have this terrific career break, and the headline reads, 'Meathead wins Nobel Prize'!" Reiner shakes his head at the unbearable irony of it; like the Ronny Howard who is forever cute little Opie, a certain part of him will always be Archie Bunker's lumbering, painfully earnest and indefatigably liberal son-in-law. But another irony is that Meathead and Opie, in their adult careers as film directors, have inevitably pursued projects that reflect their televised youths; Howard's films are unassailably cute and wholesome, and Meathead's films have been lumbering and painfully earnest, as witness the lumbering, earnest and indefatigably liberal "A Few Good Men." Drawn from Aaron Sorkin's hit Broadway play, it's about a slick young naval attorney, simply passing a three-year hitch out of obligation to the memory of a dead father, who gets what appears to be an open-and-shut case: two Marines at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, have killed a third, a member of their platoon. His first impulse is to plea-bargain and forget it; but, shamed by another naval attorney (a woman), he sallies forth to mount a defense and begins to tumble to astonishing discovery after astonishing discovery, finally uncovering a conspiracy that leads up the chain of command to a charismatic pure-warrior colonel. Reiner wasn't exactly working with second-stringers on this one, what with Tom Cruise as the young attorney, Demi Moore as his colleague and the great Jack Nicholson as the titanic Col. Nathan R. Jessep. "The easiest part of my job was convincing them to take the parts. Tom and Jack both said yes right away. That's because they're all actors. The reason some actors become something called a movie star is because they're good. But you don't throw somebody in because he's a movie star; then you're in trouble." Reiner is actually a little shy of big-name stars; his first four films -- "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Sure Thing," "Stand by Me" and "The Princess Bride" -- all featured relative unknowns. Even his most recent, "When Harry Met Sally" and "Misery," used second-tier performers, though they made first-tier performers out of some of their participants, such as Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. But Cruise and Nicholson are the biggest of the big. "It used to be you got all excited about movie stars. Now, if you have more than one, people ask, 'Hey, what are all those stars doing there?' But the stars just want to act. The movie-star part of it is just an addendum to the thing. "Jack Nicholson came in and literally worked his ass off. He had his big speech at the end, and he gave it time after time after time, the same way every time, while I was getting all the covering shots of extras and the like. I said to him, 'Hey, you don't have to work this hard.' He said, 'I just like to act!' " Nicholson, says Reiner, showed up ready to go. "At the first reading, when everybody was just feeling their way into their parts, he gave a full-out performance. He somehow raised everyone's game. He's like a great court leader, a Magic Johnson, in that he makes everybody look good, which in turn makes him look good." Reiner has enjoyed unusual success in getting performances from his performers, and the current film is no exception. It's certainly Cruise's best work since "Rain Man," and may be Moore's best work ever. "I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I was once an actor," says Reiner, who still dabbles in performance himself, appearing most recently as a scummy producer in Mike Nichols' "Postcards From the Edge." "I know what actors go through. I can communicate with them because I can actually act it out. I can show them what I want. It's a very useful tool." ste and power Reiner also appears to be blessed with two virtues that rarely go hand in hand in Hollywood: taste and power. Evidence of this is found in his decision to wrest "A Few Good Men" away from its original producers, Tri-Star Pictures, for his own company, Castle Rock. In so doing, he also eliminated one of the ranking movie idiocies of our time. Tri-Star had decided that the pairing of Demi Moore and Tom Cruise was so hot that the two of them had to go to bed, despite the fact that the original playwright had never permitted the tryst and that such a cross-rank groping (he's a lieutenant junior grade, and she's two ranks up as a lieutenant commander) would utterly short-circuit the military hierarchy and destroy both their careers. "I wanted the sexual tension between them. It's so much better that way; I was amazed they couldn't see it." However, he wasn't quite powerful enough to get official Marine approval. he movie in some sense contrasts the liberal, secular Navy with the parochial, Jesuitical Marine Corps, to the ultimate benefit of the former and the embarrassment of the latter. "The Navy was all for it. But I think the Marines talked them out of it. I made an impassioned plea, but they still refused. I don't see it as an indictment of the Marine Corps but as a celebration of the military justice system." But for Reiner, the stars, the script, the production all come later: First and foremost, he's got to discover his own emotional connection to the story. "When I saw the play on Broadway, I was certainly struck by its emotional power, but what was more important for me was the fact that the hero, Daniel Kaffee, was struggling with some of the same things I've struggled with. He had to extricate himself from the shadow of a famous father, exactly as I had to." Reiner is, of course, the son of Carl Reiner, one of the veterans of two golden ages of television. The elder Reiner, with Mel Brooks, was one of the brilliant players on Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows" back in the heyday of live television in the '50s; then, in the early '60s, he was one of the creators of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and thus helped invent the format of the filmed half-hour television comedy. He's gone on to a career as an actor and director and enjoys a reputation of being one of show business's most loved and respected men. To find your niche "In the play," says Reiner, "that was just a minor note, but I worked with Aaron and we tried to make it something more resonant. Then, when I was working with Tom, I tried to explain to him that the difficulty isn't getting your father's approval, it's to find your niche, where you're comfortable with what you're doing and to feel good about how you and your dad differ. But it can be hard: I was compared to my father when I was 19 on 'All in the Family' and he was a mature man of 45 at the peak of his career. No fair. Now I'm 45; it's taken me that long to catch up." What made it possibly more difficult for Reiner was that his father, far from being a tyrant or a dominating patriarch, was one of the most decent men on the planet. "To me, he was enormous in every respect. My whole life, I'm hearing, 'Oh, he's a terrific person.' Everybody loved him. And he's supported me so completely through the years." In fact, a reporter who interviewed the elder Reiner some years back can recall how completely pleased he was that his son's career was flourishing. In a larger sense, Reiner acknowledges looking for that personal connection in each of his films, including the horror movie "Misery." "That's just my nature. I'm drawn to a lot of different things. I'm not conscious of moving from genre to genre. In most cases, I'm drawn to something in a character that I've gone through. I look for a main character I can look into." He says that, believe it or not, "Misery" was his most identifiable film. "I had gotten one kind of success doing one kind of thing when I knewthere was something else I did better. You have to face the problem of abandoning your constituency, and that's what Paul had to do in 'Misery.' I kept running into people who would say to me, 'Just keep doing more "Harry Met Sallys." ' But you have to change." He's gone through two massive changes in his career; the first was moving from actor to director after the end of "All in the Family," with his first film, "This Is Spinal Tap." But the second was changing directions again, from a comic director to a dramatic one. "I had to go from 'Spinal Tap' and 'The Sure Thing' to 'Stand by Me.' I was so worried I wouldn't do well that I signed up to do 'Princess Bride' before 'Stand by Me' came out, because I didn't want to lose my comedy credentials. And of course 'Stand by Me' was one of my biggest hits."