“It’s like playing tennis with somebody, and it just gets faster and they get a little closer to the net, and suddenly you’re just moving and jumping and cutting each other off,” Paul Reiser said of co-starring with Peter Falk in “The Thing About My Folks,” a film that he also wrote, about a man bonding with his elderly father as they drive around upstate New York in a 1940 Ford. “He’s so good–he’s great,” Reiser said of Falk in a recent Dallas interview. “He’s never bad. Peter Falk is never bad; even in the movies that aren’t good, he’s good. It’s sort of like De Niro, or any great actor–Jack Nicholson, for sure–they’re certainly brilliant and certainly great, and yet in every role, you can see them in it. He has such a distinctive way of talking–things that don’t look funny when you read them [he can make funny]. So Peter, in everything you see him in, he has that kind of quirky, stumbling quality, this vulnerability and sweetness. And there’s this fire–he’s just a bull. He’s just from the planet Columbo. In this movie, he gets to do all that as your dad.”
Falk also had a big role in encouraging Reiser to write the script. “I really didn’t know him,” Reiser said, although he had idolized him as an actor for years. “We had met casually, and I went to see him about three years ago. He was doing a play in L.A., a little theater–and it was Jason Alexander and Peter. He was great. And I was leaning forward in my chair like at the circus, like a little kid–I just couldn’t believe how much I loved seeing him, how entertaining he was to me. And so I went backstage and told him, and he grabbed my shoulder–and I had never mentioned that I was working on this or anything–and he looked me in the eye and said [in a pretty good Falk imitation], ‘You are a very good writer–you should be writing more.’ And I thought, okay, do you need a bigger sign from God? And shortly after I went home and started writing.”
Not that the premise behind the screenplay was a new one. “For twenty years this idea was in my head, and I just kept putting it off,” Reiser said. “Twenty pages I started in ’84. My character was 27, unmarried–the kid who can’t commit, the young guy who can’t commit–and Peter would have been 55, I think. (A), I didn’t know how to write it, and (B), I didn’t know where it was going to go. I said, it’ll be there–I believe in it, it’ll be good, whenever it’s ready, it’ll be ready. But it wouldn’t have been the same movie. It’s just that much richer and it makes more sense [now]. I didn’t know what the movie wanted to be until I had kids and realized what fatherhood felt like and how tricky it is. And I had Peter unwittingly saying, ‘Go home and write, dopey.’ But I didn’t have an option, because I couldn’t write it then, and I did write it now, so it became what it became. But I’m glad it took this long because I’m a better writer than I was twenty years ago, and Peter picked up the phone when I called. He wouldn’t have twenty years ago!”
Reiser added, “Post-9/11, when everyone had such a keen sense of mortality–I think [with] that, and having kids, I realized it was time and I just jumped in. I thought, you know, there aren’t that many years in life, that many actors that are old enough to play my dad, and if you wait longer there’ll be fewer. You know, Hume Cronyn is gone! And besides, I’d always wanted it to be Peter. So I wanted to do it before he decided he was done, wants just to play golf or whatever. Once I sat down, it actually came quickly, but as I tell people, it took twenty years–and three weeks. You sit and think for twenty years, and then…”
If finally writing the script was easy, getting Falk to say yes to the role was easier still. “When I finally got the script written,” Reiser recalled, “I said, ‘This is it. This is what I wanted to write.’ The next day, I showed it to Peter, and he called back and he loved it. Okay, now I can die a happy man!” And then shooting and showing the movie turned out to be great fun for him. “Every step of the way felt like a great place,” he said. “When we got the chance to make it–which was touch and go, we went out and did it independently (had every studio say no, so we did it independently)–that was a joy, getting to be in that car and be outdoors in the beautiful foliage–two golden weeks in upstate New York!–driving with my idol, saying words that I wrote–this is a good Tuesday! That all felt good. Then putting it together was wonderful. And the total icing on the icing is now bringing it to people who are responding in a way that’s so much more intense and appreciative than I could have hoped for. When you bring it to strangers and they say, ‘Oh, God, that’s my parents!’–we all grapple with our parents’ mortality and how good or not good we’re going to be as parents or adult children. If you write what’s true, people will respond to it honestly, and people seem to be responding to it regardless of origin. And that makes me very happy. And the other thing is that there’s a gratitude–people are saying, ‘Thanks for making a movie that doesn’t talk down to us, that doesn’t get empty and hollow.’ And it’s really the kind of movie I would love to go see if somebody else would make it. But they didn’t, so I had to make it.”
Him and Peter Falk.