Judge Reinhold reminisces about 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High'
Posted October 31, 2018 1:05 p.m. EDT
ATLANTA -- In 1982, Judge Reinhold played Brad Hamilton, a key character in the seminal teen comedy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."
But as Reinhold ruefully joked later, the film propelled Sean Penn's career, not his.
Still, over four decades, the actor has appeared in more than 75 films and TV shows and will be part of the 15th annual Rome International Film Festival in Georgia this weekend. (This is not to be mistaken for the Rome Film Fest in Italy, which concluded October 28.)
On Friday at 8:30 p.m., Reinhold will screen and discuss a 1980 comedy he starred in with Elizabeth Perkins called "Over Her Dead Body," which he said "got caught in a legal mess and never made it into theaters." On Saturday night at 7 p.m., the festival will host "Fast Times" with Reinhold taking questions afterwards.
Reinhold's credits include the three "Beverly Hills Cop" films, "Ruthless People," the "Santa Clause" trilogy and an Emmy-nominated guest stint on "Seinfeld" as the "close talker."
Terrell Sandefur, development director, said he brought Burt Reynolds to the festival last year. Festival director Seth Ingram ran into Reinhold at Reynolds' funeral in September and invited him as a guest.
Reinhold's connections to Reynolds go back to the 1970s when he worked as an apprentice at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Florida. He helped build the theater as a teenager and recalled Reynolds at the height of his fame.
"He was really larger than life," Reinhold said. "He loved getting us together and telling us stories. We were in awe."
Though Reynolds was born in Michigan, he moved to Florida at age 5 and lived in Florida most of his life. "He was a Southern movie star," Reinhold said. "Even though none of us looked like him, we thought, 'Wow! Burt can be a star. Maybe we can get into movies too!'"
One clear memory he had: how to manage the drunken women who wanted to meet Reynolds at the theater. Frequently, Reynolds wasn't there. So if the ladies were getting too loosey-goosey during the play, Reinhold came up with a strategy: He'd promise them that Reynolds would be around and told them to wait in the bar area. But then he'd have to "break the news" that the film star wasn't coming back and call a cab for the inebriated lady. "This way," he said, "the show wasn't disrupted."
After his stint in at the theater where he acted in plenty of Neil Simon comedies and met his future acting coach James Best (Sheriff Roscoe on "Dukes of Hazzard"), Reinhold moved to Hollywood.
At the time, coming-of-age teen comedies were entering theaters. He tried out for a few, including the incredibly juvenile 1981 film "Porky's," which is now best known for featuring future "Sex and the City" star Kim Cattrell. "I wanted that one so badly," Reinhold said, despite its raunchiness. "It was a way in."
He instead landed a big role in Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling's "Fast Times." Despite some rather explicit moments, the film played far smarter and realistic than many teen films of that era.
"The marriage of Amy and Cameron's sensibilities were perfect, if not God given," Reinhold said. "It was kismet. Cameron provided this affectionate authenticity about what it was like to be a teenager. But Amy gave it a feminist spin."
It helped, he said, that Universal Pictures was so focused on -- ironically -- a Reynolds/Dolly Parton vehicle at the time, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," that the execs left "Fast Times" alone. "They forgot about us," he said.
But Universal almost didn't release it widely. Reinhold said producer Art Linson convinced big-time producer Irving Azoff to include songs from big-name artists in the film, including Jackson Browne, whose "Somebody's Baby" was the backdrop to Stacy losing her virginity; Tom Petty, whose "American Girl" was the soundtrack to the opening school day montage, and Led Zeppelin, whose tense, pounding "Kashmir" played during the most awkward first-date drive ever between Mark "Rat" Ratner and Stacy.
Then there was the legendary "fantasy" moment when Brad imagines Stacy's friend Linda (Phoebe Cates) coming on to him while not being the master of his domain and then (horrors!) getting caught.
He recalls screening the film in 1982 with a bunch of teens and "you could hear a pin drop," he said. "They were mortified and although I was in my 20s, I felt mortified as well." But when adults saw the film, he said, "we got some of the biggest laughs."
Reinhold said he expects he'll have to one day explain the scene to his daughter, who is now in elementary school. Brad, at that point in the movie, had lost his girlfriend and his primo job at the local All-American Burger. He was seriously depressed. "This was a guy having the worst year of his life," he said. "That was the narrative."
His character earned a true comeback moment while working late at night at the Mi-T Mart instead of going to the prom. A man tried to rob him and he throws hot coffee in the dude's face and grabs the man's gun. Better yet, Penn's Spicoli bears witness. "Awesome!" Spicoli raves. "Totally awesome!"
The actor who played the robber, James Russo, was totally method, Reinhold recalled, acting kind of crazy on set. "He scared the hell out of me," he said, until the scene was finished. "Then he was suddenly this sweet guy asking if I was OK."
The 36-year-old film, in Reinhold's mind, "remains a touchstone for people of a certain generation. But college age and high school kids see it, too. It's passed down to a new generation as well."
His next big role came supporting Eddie Murphy in 1984's "Beverly Hills Cop" and its sequels as Detective Billy Rosewood to Murphy's Axel Foley. Reinhold was actually cast before Murphy when Sylvester Stallone originally wanted the film to be a straight action flick. "I was the rookie cop who would die in the second act," he said.
But the film became too pricey and Stallone took many of his ideas and turned it into "Cobra." "Beverly Hills Cop," in the meantime, took a 180-degree turn and became a comedic Murphy vehicle. Director Martin Brest loved Reinhold from his "Fast Times" role and kept him around as Rosewood. This time, he doesn't die.
Reinhold said it was difficult to keep a straight face during Murphy's often improvised Foley commentary. But he found a way to keep himself from losing it: "When you see me with my hands in my pockets, it's because I'm pinching myself so I wouldn't ruin a take. I'd go home and find blood blisters and bruises." (John Ashton, who plays Sgt. Taggart, would rub the bridge of his nose to stay in character.)
He said his career trajectory went sideways when he let his ego go to his head after a few films he starred in bombed. The big studios stopped calling, "I was a punk," he admitted. "I started calling people out when I thought they didn't care. I really pissed off some people. It's not something I'm proud of."
He ended up doing some quality indie films with the likes of Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. "I got to work with some of my heroes and learned some wonderful stuff," he said.
And he spent a week in 1994 shooting "Seinfeld," playing a man who would talk too close to people.
"It was the easiest work I've ever done," he raved. He recalled creator Larry David looking at him and warning him that the show was a "no hug" zone. So naturally, before he left, he gave David a huge bear hug. "Everybody laughed," he said. "David kept saying, 'This is not funny! This is not funny!' He was very uncomfortable!"
Reinhold ultimately escaped the Hollywood glare decades ago, residing to this day instead in Sante Fe, New Mexico.
The good news: he saved his dollars from his big films and manages to live a comfortable life only taking acting gigs when he wants to. "I had a pretty good 15-year run," he said. "I had a really good manager, a good lawyer. I did some sequels."
He and his wife, Amy, have optioned a couple of true stories they'd love to turn into movies including that of Ray Wallace, a man who in 1958 created the modern myth of Bigfoot and inadvertently helped prop up a town via tourism.
"I have a 5-year-old daughter who is my moon and my star and I have a fantastic marriage," he said.
Nowadays, he said, "I want to have a creative life. That's more important to me than just being in a boffo movie. I have nothing but gratitude that I can make a living doing what I love. I'm proud of the comedies I've done and the impact they've had on people. The collective experience of sitting in the back of a theater and watching an entire audience laugh is still a peak experience in my life. Nobody can take that away."
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