Charlotte Jewish Film Festival Fall Flicks will present two films and a special guest. First, on Saturday, October 26, at 7:15 PM, there will be a screening of Surviving Birkenau: The Susan Spatz Story, in Gorelick Hall. Tickets are $8 and are available at charlottejewishfilm.com.
On Sunday evening, along with a showing of Crossing Delancey, the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival will have as its special guest Peter Riegert, star of Crossing Delancey, Animal House, Local Hero, and many other films and television shows.
As a lead up to his arrival in Charlotte, Riegert spoke with The Charlotte Jewish News about his life and career. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The majority of your roles have been playing obviously Jewish characters, yet each some seems so different from the others. How do you feel about portraying Jews and where do you get the inspiration to make them so distinctive?
Of all the stuff that I’ve done, I don’t know what percentage is Jewish characters, but to me … I just look at the material. In other words, it raises an interesting question: what’s a Jew? So, we all have our biases of what we thing people are, and what they are for me as an actor first is human. Now they could respond to being Jewish, because that’s the fact of their life, I wouldn’t say I go out of my way to act Jewish. … The material dictates the Jewishness. But each character is different because each movie or play or TV show is different. … [M]y job is to help bring to life the character that was created by the writer. I’m the conduit. … It’s not my creation, I’m part of the creation. But the character is really created by the writer and it’s my job to fool the audience into thinking I’m actually saying those words that were written for me.
When you come here, we will be showing Crossing Delancey. Can you talk about how relationships between Jewish couples was perceived in the late 1980s and how you might see it differently today? Would this movie be made differently today?
Yes, any time you change the place or time of a project, then just by nature it would change. In other words, I can’t imagine remaking Crossing Delancey just because it’s 30 years later. It is what it is. … I think people are affected by their circumstances and by the times they live in. Some times are more complicated than others, you know that from history. I wouldn’t have a clue what the difference is except that people go through the same problems in their time, all the time. … I wouldn’t act differently today, I would apply whatever my skills are, what my technique is to the job at hand.
Do you think when people come see Crossing Delancey (in October) will people still relate to it?
Yes and no. … I think it holds up pretty well. And I think people today will look at it with their 2019 eyes. It was fresher 30 years ago because it was new. It’s got very traditional story elements. One character is being pursued by two people and doesn’t know which is the right choice to make. And that’s a classic love story. How the audience will react will be interesting because I remember what it was like in 1988 so it will be interesting to see what they think today.
What was your favorite role (or roles) and why?
I don’t necessarily have favorite roles. I have favorite experiences. It’s hard to say cause it’s almost 50 years of doing this. It’s a lot of different parts. One of my favorite parts was the character of Mac in Local Hero. … The screenwriting was so terrific. (Editor’s note: screenwriter and director was Bill Forsyth.) And the degree of difficulty to make it work was high cause it was so understated. … I was in almost every scene in that movie and it was the first time I was given that kind of responsibility. And I was happy with the results. I also got to work in Scotland and got to work with Burt Lancaster. It had all the appeal for me that I find interesting as an actor, starting with the screenplay. … It had all of the elements of wonder to it. The hardest thing about any acting job is its success once it’s released because it’s important to the actor for it to succeed then we’ll get more work. Animal House made a fortune and I was able to draft off that and have an identity and my name and my face sort of became one. That’s a very rare thing to accomplish as an actor. … I want everything I’m in to do well, but I am first most interested in doing well in the work so that if it succeeds financially I want to be proud of it.
You mentioned the screenplay was part of the appeal when you worked on Local Hero. Is that something you always look for when you accept a role?
That’s the thing that gets my attention. I try to be selective in my life as an actor but there are some times you have to pay the rent. And those jobs might pay more but they are probably less well done. That’s why actors are paid so much money so that they will work on something that is so mediocre. And you have to convince them to do it by paying them.
You once played Richard Nixon. How is it different to become a real person as opposed to a fictional character that you can imbue with your own ideas?
I treat them both the same. If I’m doing a movie, and it’s a real person, it’s still fiction to me. Because I’m not the person. It’s not a documentary. … The hard part about playing someone like Richard Nixon is that he’s so well known. When I did that project in 1984, he was probably the most well known politician in the world. And he was easily imitated. And I didn’t want to do that.
That’s the danger, isn’t it? To not do an impersonation instead of playing a role?
That’s right. You have to figure out a way to be conscious of the fact that you’re not imitating someone’s voice or behavior. The way I look at it is, you have to suggest what’s known to the audience, cause they’ll know more. They’ll have their own opinions. The detail is what’s unknown and that’s the magic of good writing and good acting and good directing. … I was playing Nixon when he was very young, 36. Most people’s memories of Nixon in 1984 was of the shaking jowls and that voice that everybody imitated, so I had a little leeway there. And it was kind of written like a murder mystery. So I basically tried not to do an imitation of him. I was going to be criticized no matter what. Cause if it’s just a great impersonation and the story isn’t any good, then the impersonation only lasts five minutes cause I’ve nothing to say except doing this impersonation, which is basically a parlor trick.
You will be in Charlotte, NC, at the end of October. Were you surprised to find out that we had such a vibrant Jewish community and cultural life?
No, I wasn’t. I took a movie I directed called King of the Corner around the country. I went to 27 cities. And there were community centers everywhere. And I also know my own history, and there are Jews everywhere! … Of the Jewish diaspora, America is one of the more fascinating places where Jews have cultivated their lives.
Tell us a little more about your Jewish upbringing and background, and how you live your Judaism today.
I was born in the Bronx and all my grandparents came through Ellis Island in 1907, essentially from Belarus, a town called Vitebsk, which is where Chagall was from. We weren’t religious, we were atheists. But we were Jewish. My identity is Jewish. … I identify with Jewish culture and Jewish history. I’m fascinated by all of it. … But I’m not devout, I’m not religious, but I’ll put myself up against anybody else.
People will want to know what it’s like to work with other stars. I know you get asked about John Belushi a lot, but I am interested in hearing about Burt Lancaster.
He was somebody I was familiar with since I was maybe four or five. … My memory is that there was a variety show on television. There was an actor who was doing an impression of Burt Lancaster arguing with Kirk Douglas. I didn’t know who they were but everybody in the audience was laughing. And the actor who was doing the impressions was Sammy Davis, Jr. Implanted in my head was my father and my mother telling me why this was funny. … That was my introduction to his name. Then I saw some of his movies. We had up here what was called “Million Dollar Movie.” And there’d be things like The Crimson Pirate that would be playing on television. Then I would see him in the movies, like The Train. And then, in 1963, I went to the March on Washington for the Martin Luther King, Jr. speech and I was one of those 250,000 people there. When I got home, my folks, who normally would have gone to something like that with me, had stayed home and watched it on TV. And they described what they saw. And one of the things they saw was a number of celebrities who were at the March on Washington: Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, and Burt Lancaster. So when I did Local Hero, I met Burt Lancaster and I asked him, “Were you there?” And he was. He was actually in France making The Train with Paul Scofield. And he had collected 2,000 signatures of Americans living in France and brought it to the March of Washington to give it to Martin Luther King, Jr., who he knew because he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and whenever Martin Luther King, Jr., would come to California, he would very often stay with Burt Lancaster. It’s always fun to work with people you admire. I’m fan first, obviously cause I go to the movies, I turn on the television but you only have a couple of hours to be in awe. And then you’ve got to go to work.
Is there anything else you want our community to know about you or your visit here?
In truth, I’m flattered to be asked. It’s always fun to talk to an audience about what you do. … It’s rare that I get to meet the audience that sees the things that I’ve done. It’s fascinating. It’s challenging. I like to hear the questions. I’m looking forward to meeting the community and talking to them.