Catching up with Peter Riegert of "Animal House"
Actor / restaurateur Mark Metcalf, who writes about movies for OnMilwaukee.com, recently attended a reunion with fellow cast members from the film "Animal House."
Here, Metcalf catches up with actor Peter Riegert, who played Donald "Boone" Schoenstein in the movie.
I started writing about some of the people I worked with in "Animal House" about a month ago when I went to Chicago for a reunion with some of them. It seems such a long time ago that I'm not sure if it's still relevant or not. I have left Peter Riegert until last, quite honestly, because I have been trying to avoid writing about him. He is difficult. He doesn't tell easily communicated stories. When I talk about him, I become even more subjective than usual. I sent him a list of questions to answer but he didn't get to it. So, I am going to have to wing it.
Immediately after shooting "Animal House," I quit acting for almost two years to produce a feature film called "Chilly Scenes of Winter." United Artists, which distributed it, changed the title to "Head Over Heels," marketed it with a ridiculously bad comic poster and watched it fail miserably. My partners, Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne, and I got it back from UA and re-released it as "Chilly Scenes of Winter," which had been the name of the Anne Beattie book on which it was based. It wasn't very successful then, either, but at least it had its correct name.
I bring all that up because Peter was in it. John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt play the leads and Peter plays John's best friend. Joan Micklin Silver wrote and directed the movie and she had known Peter from around New York and didn't think he was right for the part.
She wanted Jeff Goldblum, who she had worked with in "Between the Lines." Amy and I thought Peter would play well off John Heard, but we had to push hard to convince Joan. I don't think we ever did convince her. I think it turned out that Goldblum didn't want to do the part for some reason and Peter was who came up next. It worked out very well. John is a very anxious actor, very complicated, smart but neurotic. He has become a truly great character actor but at the time, he was one of the people that you looked at and thought, "He's going to be the next big thing."
For many reasons, it didn't turn out that way. Peter is solid, steady and dependable; not flamboyant, not calling attention to himself. He is the perfect foil for John. Goldblum would have competed with John. Peter just moved in his own stream next to him and you really believe they are lifelong friends. I always think casting for chemistry is better than casting for star power.
Anyway, when the movie was released, Peter would go by the theater on Third Avenue in New York City every day to check up on how the box office was doing. He quickly developed a relationship with the theater manager and it was he who found out that UA planned on pulling the plug almost before the picture opened.
He called us and we all started a campaign to convince the distribution people at United Artists to give the picture a little bit more of a chance to find an audience than the three days they were looking at, but not telling us about. Peter came along, in fact, it may have been his idea, when Amy, Griffin and I stood on street corners handing out flyers telling people to go see this great little movie that had been well reviewed, but was barely being advertised. It was more like an off-off Broadway play than a big glamorous Hollywood movie. We were all out there for several days and we managed to get enough people into the theatre that they stayed with it for awhile but it was doomed from the beginning with that bunch at UA.
What was happening was that the creative people at UA and the distribution people at UA did not really communicate well at all. The distribution people were determined to teach the creative people that they shouldn't, indeed couldn't, make nice, thoughtful little movies about people and relationships; that they should be making more movies like "Moonraker" or "Rocky III," or whatever they were also making at the time.
The creative people thought they were running the studio and the distribution people knew that they held the keys to the bank and that the money would always talk louder and faster. In two years time, UA opened UA Classics, a division that was designed to handle nice, little films and "Head Over Heels" became "Chilly Scenes of Winter" again and was nicely successful in that less heady atmosphere. Now, of course, each studio has a classics division and independent films are plentiful.
This is supposed to be about Peter.
A few years ago Peter did the same thing on an even larger scale with a movie that he wrote and directed called "The King of the Corner." He had trouble finding a distributor that would handle it the way he knew it needed to be handled, so he took it on the road himself. Using his own money, he went to college towns all over the country to show the movie and talk about it and try to build a following.
It's a nice little movie, but he wasn't what we would call successful in launching it. But, he was successful in following through on his effort. He stayed with his film through to the end as he did with "Chilly Scenes." It was more than just a job to him. He really made a commitment, and stayed with it. He's like that. He does that with things.
I've worked on a couple of different films with Peter and hung out with him in bars in New York and he always has a big, hardcover book under his arm. He reads. He really reads. If you start a conversation with him, you better be prepared to go all the way. He will talk and he tells great stories. I am having trouble remembering them, because they are complicated and lengthy. There is something old school about Peter. He is a hipster, a beatnik; or at least you can see him sitting in those bars having those conversations.
In the Double Secret Probation Edition of "Animal House," that was released five years ago, there is a mockumentary where they interview all the characters as they are now. John Landis put it together and directed it. He went to New York and asked Peter and Karen Allen to meet him, I think it's at the cutting room that Peter was using for the film he was making at the time. When they both got there John just told them to start talking to each other and improvise their relationship as it might be today after the circus of the movie.
I think that what they came up with should be developed into a television series. Their chemistry and the subsequent banter that they came up with is like the dialogue in the early "Thin Man" movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. They are still like that today. Peter brings that with him because he is such a generous actor and a great listener.
peter is in one of my favorite movies called Local Hero. I did see the independent movie he made and it wasn't bad.
Mark, great article! After reading this and researching CHILLY SCENES of WINTER, I hope the opportunity to view it presents itself soon. Any chance of this being released on DVD?
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