By KJ Doughton | September 28, 2005

Gabbing with comedian, actor, and writer Paul Reiser is a pleasantly ego-free experience. The gregarious, curly-haired star of TV’s “Mad About You” (which ran from 1992 through 1999) talks precious little about himself, preferring to heap praise onto those he admires. For example, he gushes excitedly about Peter Falk, his co-star in “The Thing About my Folks.” When I credit Falk with having a relaxed, “lived-in” quality, Reiser compliments my word choice. “Yeah… ‘lived-in’ is right,” he surmises, pondering the term. Then, in pure Reiser fashion, he expands on it. “He’s accessible, and familiar in the best sense. People feel comfortable with him. As soon as he comes onscreen, people say, ‘I know this guy.’”

Accessible. Familiar. Comfortable. All three adjectives might also apply to Reiser, whose considerate, friendly nature makes one want to invite him home for dinner to meet the wife and kids. As proficient at standup comedy as he is at acting, Reiser can even get away with recounting his own obscene, sleazy version of a blue show-biz joke in “The Aristocrats” and emerge relatively unscathed.

If he weren’t in show business, one can imagine Reiser making ends meet as a social worker or marriage counselor. Relationships are the man’s special forte, and he’ll be the first to admit it. “I recently realized that ‘Mad About You’ was all about relationships,” he confesses. “About husband and wife. So are my books, and my act – my standup. It’s where my brain goes. And this movie was a chance to look at the real source of it. Let’s get to mom and dad, and their relationship.”

“The Things About my Folks,” which Reiser wrote, produced, and stars in, follows a middle-aged son and his complex troublemaker of a dad as they embark on a fateful road trip. Ben Kleinman (Reiser) is a relatively well-balanced, successful, Manhattan-based writer. Married with two young daughters, Ben is startled at the unexpected arrival of his father one night.

Sam Kleinman (Falk) is a scruffy, stubborn sonofabitch who does whatever he damn well pleases whenever he damn well wants to. Ben rolls his eyes at the patriarch’s many annoying quirks – such as Sam’s tendency to slather on talcum powder thicker than an artist might apply paper mache to a sculpture. Rumpled and disorganized, Sam enters Ben’s home to announce that Muriel, his wife of forty-seven years, has just left him. Ben is aghast at news of his mother’s departure, but not altogether surprised. As a child, Ben found a farewell letter written by his mother. Addressed to the emotionally inaccessible Sam and volatile in its frustrated critique of their marriage, the message was never sent. But the emotions expressed within forever color Ben’s perception of his father as a lousy, self-involved husband.

Fast-forward to the present, following Sam’s visit to the younger Kleinman’s household. During a road trip through the colorful fall foliage of upstate New York, the elder and his offspring wreck their car and exchange verbal fisticuffs in a heated argument. “Ben then gives his father the letter,” Reiser details, explaining the dramatic explosion that transpires next. “He’s been carrying it around for thirty years, and is giving it to his dad as hard evidence that he’s no damn good.

“Then his dad says, ‘Here. Let me tell you the other side.’ Wow! Okay. And the son is in for a rude awakening. There’s a whole vibe that the letter opens up, which forces out denial, and pettiness, and anger, and all kinds of stuff. And the anger leads Sam to a feeling of, ‘Hey – if she’s gonna go out and merry-make, I’m gonna go out and merry-make, too.’”

And make merry he does. After Sam impulsively plunks down money for a new car, father and son partner up for a male bonding odyssey that involves fishing, drinking, eating peaches from a roadside produce stand, and watching high school football. Oh, yeah – and hitting a bullying frat boy in the balls with a pool cue. In other words, it’s a way for Sam to make up for all the times he was absent during Ben’s youth. But “The Thing About My Folks” doesn’t take the easy way out by condemning Sam’s parenting days. In fact, the film makes clear that this busy, industrious carpet manufacturer was busting his hump for the family, and making serious sacrifices of his own.

“Part of what I wanted my character to get,” explains Reiser about the younger Ben, “was to see who this guy was before he knew him as ‘dad.’ Oh – you wanted a car in college, and you dad didn’t give it to you? Wow! I thought that only happened to me! Then Sam initiates this thing in the film, where he buys a car and says, ‘Let’s get in and go!’ Ben says, ‘Really? Jeez – okay.’ Suddenly, his father was full of surprises. The son says, ‘I didn’t know you played pool, and could beat up a guy with a pool cue.’ They spend that kind of time together, where Sam proves to be more than a dad that you just roll your eyes at. He’s a funny guy with a big, deep heart – and some perspective that the son doesn’t have. He says, ‘Let me tell you some things about your mother that you don’t know!’”

I ask Reiser if Muriel was right to condemn Sam for her misery during the earlier years of their union together. After all, even if he wasn’t an emotional treasure trove, the man was certainly upstanding and hard working. Isn’t each person responsible for his or her own happiness? Is it right to pin that responsibility onto someone else? “Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own happiness,” suggests Reiser. “But at the same time, you want to be as generous and available to the other person as possible. That’s what makes marriage so hard. She’s one person and you’re one person, and there’s no reason on earth that this should work. But it can.

“I think it’s worth hearing, if your partner of many years is miserable and you don’t know it. I think that’s information worth having. Ultimately, you can only do what you can do, you know. I know that in my own life. There are certain things that my wife can’t give me. Certain itches get scratched through work, or being alone, or whatever. Somebody in the audience once told me that to them, the movie was about imperfect people trying to love more perfectly. And I thought that was beautiful. And all you can do is aim for it – you’re never gonna get it. But it’s worth going for.”

Certainly, the authenticity of an onscreen relationship – especially one as long-lived and complex as that of Sam and Muriel Kleinman – relies on savvy casting chemistry. Olympia Dukakis, the wise-eyed dame from “Moonstruck,” is an inspired choice for Falk’s emotional sparring partner. “They had never met until the day they shot,” says Reiser of his two onscreen “parents.”

“Suddenly, they kissed and joked, and boom – they had been ‘married’ for 47 years. (Dukakis) is radiant. One scene in the film featured her in this badly lit hospital room, just beautiful, with so much emotion in her face. As a writer, I can say it was a favorite moment, even though there’s no writing involved – no one is saying anything. It’s just the two of them, and the looks between them. You can’t write that. You can’t direct that. It’s just good, smart actors.”

And despite stellar supporting players like Dukakis and Elizabeth Perkins, “The Thing About My Folks” is The Peter Falk Show, plain and simple. And truth be told, Sam Kleinman has a lot in common with Lt. Columbo, the legendary T.V. crime fighter whom Falk embodied from 1967 (“Prescription: Murder”) until his most recent boob-tube incarnation in 2003 (“Columbo Likes the Nightlife”). Sam is compact and wrinkled, like a well-worn tire, and no fashion plate. His hair is often Einstein-scary, and he’s fond of raising an eyebrow or finger to accent a point. As Reiser aptly puts it, “Peter has got some miles on him. As a fan, I just wanted to see him say all these things I heard it in my head while writing the screenplay. When he said it, I said, ‘Yeah – that’s exactly what I hoped it would sound like.’ There’s a whole range of stuff. He gets in a fistfight. He gets the girl. He’s the buggy dad asking dopey questions. He’s just someone who’s so fun to watch.

“And,” confirms Reiser of Sam’s penchant for breaking wind at night, “he’s the kind of guy you don’t want to be sharing a double bed with.” Alongside its other pleasures, “The Thing About My Folks” provides audiences with the chance to watch Columbo pass gas.

The interview continues in part two of PAUL REISER: THE THING ABOUT FALK>>>

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