CATEGORIES Movie NewsSure, "Diner" is a landmark movie, one that launched numerous careers (including those of Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, and director Barry Levinson). But is it really the most influential movie of the last 30 years?
Vanity Fair seems to think so. According to an article in the March 2012 issue, "Diner" -- released 30 years ago today, on March 5, 1982 -- is indirectly responsible for "Seinfeld," "The Office," "Pulp Fiction," and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Such writers as Nick Hornby, Stephen Merchant, and Judd Apatow acknowledge its impact on the way they write scenes that others omit, scenes were guys reveal what matters most to them by chatting over coffee about things that don't matter at all.
Like its trivia-obsessed characters, "Diner" is full of unspoken tales beneath the surface. Even fans may not know how closely life imitated art in the alliances, rivalries, pranks, and power games that helped make the movie -- and also nearly sank it. Read on to learn the secrets behind "Diner," and let us know if you're not going to finish that roast beef sandwich.
1. The diner in the film was based on a real restaurant, the Hilltop Diner in Baltimore. "The diner became the place to go after you took your date home," Barry Levinson recalled. "Sometimes you didn't have a good date, and then you couldn't wait to drop her off and get back to the action. You'd make these little excursions out with the girls then run back to the guys."
2. Also real: the grueling football trivia quiz that Baltimore Colts fan Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) makes his fiancee pass. Levinson has claimed one of his cousins inflicted it on his bride.
3. In 1981, Levinson was a veteran screenwriter who'd had some success with Mel Brooks comedies (he co-wrote and played a cameo as a bellhop in "High Anxiiety") and had even been nominated for an Oscar, alongside then-wife Valerie Curtin, for the script to the Al Pacino legal drama "And Justice for All." The "Diner" screenplay had poured out of him over the space of just three weeks, and he was able to sell it to MGM as his directing debut, for which he was allotted a modest $5 million budget.
4. Levinson's team saw hundreds of actors in New York to play the sandwich-and-French-fry-munching ensemble. Michael O'Keefe ("Caddyshack") almost won the part of Billy that ultimately went to Tim Daly. John Doe, lead singer of the seminal punk band X and later a successful character actor, read for Fenwick, the part that Kevin Bacon ultimately won.
5. Guttenberg had the most film experience of anyone in the cast. He'd already played lead roles in such flops as "The Chicken Chronicles" and "Can't Stop the Music," and he'd worked opposite such imposing veterans as Laurence Olivier, Geraldine Page, and Gregory Peck. But he still had a wide-eyed naivete that made him right for the role of nervous groom-to-be Eddie.
6. When he was cast as the charismatic, self-destructive Boogie, Mickey Rourke had just a couple of film credits to his name. He'd made his debut in a bit part in Steven Spielberg's "1941" and was already earning buzz for his small but crucial role as an arsonist in "Body Heat," a movie then still months away from release.
7. Daniel Stern had first made an impression as one of the four stars of bicycle-racing drama "Breaking Away" and had gone on to appear opposite Jill Clayburgh in "It's My Turn" before landing the role of Shrevie.
8. Bacon, who'd had bit parts in such movies as "Animal House" and soaps like "Search for Tomorrow," was then best known for his work in Off-Broadway plays. He had a 103-degree fever when he auditioned, but his woozy delivery turned out to be perfectly suited for the often drunk Fenwick.
9. Neither the studio nor producer Jerry Weintraub wanted to hire stage actress Ellen Barkin, complaining that her looks were too offbeat. But she was Levinson's only choice for Beth, so he and cinematographer Peter Sova sabotaged the other auditioning actresses by shooting them with wide angle lenses and unflattering camera angles. Nearly three decades passed before Weintraub learned of Levinson and Sova's trickery.
10. Paul Reiser was a New York stand-up comic who'd accompanied a buddy to the audition. While he was waiting, he went to Macy's nearby to buy socks for an upcoming gig, he ran across casting director Ellen Chenoweth, who heard him riffing and urged him to audition. Without meaning to, he'd won the part of Modell.
11. Daly didn't have much in the way of credentials except for a famous father and sister (actor James Daly and actress Tyne Daly). Other than his immediate family, his closest brush with fame had been tiling "Saturday Night Live" guru Lorne Michaels' bathroom.
12. The first read-through took place at a Baltimore Holiday Inn. As the actors arrived, a corpse was being taken out. "A hooker got murdered up the stairs," Rourke recalled. When Barkin arrived at the hotel, she mistook producer Weintraub for a bellman and asked him to take her luggage to her room.
13. The diner used in the movie was one the filmmakers found in a diner graveyard in New Jersey and trucked down to Baltimore. By the time the set designers fixed it up and parked it in a vacant lot, it looked so realistic that hungry truckers would stop by, hoping to order a meal.
14. Unlike the other actors, Reiser was encouraged to go off script, to improvise and riff, in order to add comedy and keep the others on their toes. Many of the conversations were ad libbed, and Levinson's Robert Altman-like use of overlapping dialogue (a happy accident resulting from budget and time constraints that forced Levinson to shoot conversations in single takes) made the film's celebrated talkiness sound like real speech.
15. Rourke did his own makeup and hair; in fact, he often overdid them until Sova told him, "Mickey, we're not doing 'Dracula.'"
16. The fraught triangle among Shrevie, Beth, and Boogie echoed the real-life tensions among Stern, Barkin, and Rourke. Stern and Barkin didn't get along at all; Barkin and Rourke became close friends, while Stern and Rourke had a more contentious friendship.
17. In one famous scene, Boogie's movie date reaches into the popcorn box on his lap and is horrified to discover his penis poking through the bottom of the box into the popcorn. To get an authentically shocked response, Rourke hid a dildo in the popcorn.
18. The test screenings went terribly. Audiences didn't get it, and neither did studio executives. (One exec urged Levinson to cut the roast beef sandwich scene, which seemed to him to halt the story in its tracks. Levinson tried to explain that those seemingly meaningless conversations were the story.) MGM was going to dump the movie in a handful of cities and write it off. The studio wasn't even going to open it in New York. But producer Mark Johnson personally flew a print to New York to screen it for The New Yorker's Pauline Kael (who happened to be a friend of his mother's). She loved it. Her rave forced a New York playdate. The film took off and played for seven months, ultimately grossing $14 million.
19. After the movie became a cult hit, Baltimore native Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass claimed to be the inspiration for Rourke's character. He started a chain of restaurants called Boogie's Diners.
20. Levinson earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It lost to "Gandhi."
21. "Diner" was the first of four films set in the Baltimore of Levinson's youth; followed by "Tin Men" (1987), "Avalon" (1990), and "Liberty Heights" (1999).
22. In 1983, CBS purchased a "Diner" TV series pilot, written and directed by Levinson. Mike Binder played Eddie, Michael Madsen played Boogie, James Spader played Fenwick, and Paul Reiser reprised his role as Modell. The network ultimately passed on turning it into a series.
23. Guttenberg cites "Diner" as his favorite filmmaking experience, even more so than his bigger '80s hits like "Police Academy" or "Three Men and a Baby." Barkin, too, says that, of all her roles, the insecure Beth is the closest to who she was in real life at the time it was being filmed.
24. Levinson's son Sam, not yet born when "Diner" was released, made his directing debut in 2011 with "Another Happy Day,", which popped up along the festival circuit before hitting DVD last month. It's an ensemble piece in which Ellen Barkin stars as a bridegroom's nervous mother. Barkin, now 57, has called it the best role she's had in 30 years. She's also started dating Levinson, who is 31 years her junior.
25. A Broadway musical version of "Diner" is in the works for late 2012, with a book by Barry Levinson and music by Sheryl Crow.