Diner: The Stellar Cast List And Subtle Story That Changed Movies
Barry Levinson's 1982 coming-of-age movie Diner was a small movie with a nothing cast that was only modestly successful -- but its actors went on to become big stars, and it influenced movies and TV in the decades that followed. Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin, Tim Daly, and Daniel Stern were more or less unknowns when they signed on to do Levinson's sentimental project, based on the director's youth as a guy who sat in a Baltimore coffee shop shooting the breeze with his buddies, pondering life's minutiae and (indirectly) its complexities. And if that setup seems familiar, it's because characters have been having trivial conversations in diners ever since, whether they're the neurotic New Yorkers of Seinfeld or the cranky killers in Tarantino movies. Diner does have a plot -- but it's odd and almost incidental. This movie is all about characters and their relationships.
A Cast of Real Characters in a Realistic Situation
Barry Levinson had started out as a comedy writer, developing sketches and scripts for TV shows including The Carol Burnett Show and The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine. He made the jump to movies as a collaborator with Mel Brooks on Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977) and earned an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay he co-wrote for the Al Pacino film ...And Justice For All (1979).
He had his directorial debut with Diner, for which he also wrote the screenplay. The movie, set in Baltimore, Maryland in 1959, arose from Mel Brooks’ suggestion that he write a screenplay based on some conversations they had that were very similar to the eventual conversations in Diner. Since the movie focused on characters rather than plot, Levinson was concerned with the characters’ chemistry as a group rather than their individual resumes. Indeed, most of them had few credits prior to the film. As the actors got to know each other, they developed a rapport that made the story of men growing up together more believable.
Mickey Rourke As Robert 'Boogie' Sheftell
By the time he was in Diner, Rourke had played minor roles in a few films, and had a particularly memorable supporting part as an arsonist in Body Heat (1981). Levinson liked Rourke’s combination of sensitivity and toughness. These qualities were perfect for his character, Boogie, perhaps the roughest one of the group. Boogie is the player of the group and is the one who finds himself in trouble when he owes money because of gambling. But he shows his sensitive side when Beth starts experiencing trouble in her marriage and struggles with an identity crisis. In real life, as on the screen, Barkin and Rourke became close friends.
After Diner, Rourke went on to star in several edgy and even notorious films of the '80s, including 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) and Angel Heart (1987). His most memorable performances in recent years came in Sin City (2005) and The Wrestler (2008), for which he won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Academy Award.
Ellen Barkin As Beth Schreiber
Prior to her role as Beth Schreiber, Barkin had uncredited roles and a small role in a made for TV film. Warner Bros. was hesitant to cast Barkin, claiming she was not pretty enough. But the studio's reservations fit Levinson's character -- who says she feels she is not pretty enough in the script. As Beth, her marriage was troubled and she and her husband were not very compatible. In reality, Barkin did not get along well with her cast-mate and on-screen husband, Daniel Stern.
To date, she has had roles in many films and television productions and received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in the movie Switch. She has also produced films.
Daniel Stern As Laurence 'Shrevie' Schreiber
Daniel Stern’s film debut came in 1979, in Breaking Away -- Stern played a leading role, and the film was popular, making him arguably the best-known actor in the Diner cast.
Levinson cast Stern as Shrevie because Shrevie was the one married character and Levinson could see him as a responsible character. Shrevie is notable for his obsession with music and the tension in his relationship comes through as he expresses his frustration over Beth’s inability to understand and share in his love for music.
After Diner, Stern became a reliable presence in comedy films, with his two biggest hits being Home Alone and City Slickers.
Paul Reiser As Modell
Paul Reiser was almost accidentally cast in the role of Modell. He had been trying to establish himself as a stand-up comedian prior to the film, and since its release in 1982, has starred in television shows including Mad About You, for which he was nominated for several awards. He has also appeared in other films and television shows and has written three books.
Reiser was waiting for a friend who was auditioning when the casting director, Ellen Chenoweth, asked him for a headshot. He didn’t have one, but returned the next day with one, and was cast in his first film role as Modell, a character who only had 18 lines of dialogue in the written script. Reiser had not had much formal training as an actor, and Levinson convinced him to not act, but to allow the character to just come naturally. Many of Reiser’s lines grew out of ad-libbing, and his quick retorts, honed in standup comedy, kept the rest of the cast on their toes. Levinson was also responsible for getting Reiser to start writing.
The film itself ends with an ad-libbed exchange between Reiser and Stern:
Modell: It used to be so cool to be older and hang out here and, now...
Shrevie: Now we're older and we're cooler and we're still hanging out here.
Kevin Bacon As Timothy Fenwick Jr.
Kevin Bacon had a few acting roles (notably Animal House) prior to Diner and was a recurring character on the soap opera Guiding Light. After Diner, he landed the role of Ren in Footloose. In fact, he went on to be in a lot of movies; being in a lot of movies was kind of his thing, as shown in the cocktail-conversation game "Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon." In addition to other roles, he played the part of Ryan Hardy in the television series, The Following.
Bacon plays the role of Fenwick, a heavy drinker who doesn’t seem to have much direction in life. Bacon woke up with the flu on the day of the audition but used his illness to his advantage to portray the character's misery.
Tim Daly As William 'Billy' Howard
Tim Daly’s showbiz experience was mainly through his family; his parents and sister Tyne Daly were all actors. Since Diner, he acted in the sitcom Wings and has had multiple other television roles, including the role of J.T. Dolan on The Sopranos, which won him an Emmy nomination.
In Diner, Daly plays Billy, has arrived home from school to be Eddie Simmons’ best man at his wedding and is struggling to find his way in the world, especially since his girlfriend is pregnant. Daly, who was quite new at acting, was perfect for the role as he was trying to figure out his way as well and his own nervousness seemed to enhance the character.
Steve Guttenberg As Edward 'Eddie' Simmons
Steve Guttenberg had his first screen credit in 1977 in Something for Joey.
Guttenberg had already worked with actors like Gregory Peck and found Ellen Barkin’s cursing shocking. He played the role of Eddie, the very earnest character who is about to get married, but who is going to test his fiancé’s football knowledge to determine whether he will marry her. After the audition, Guttenberg had a conversation with Levinson about a woman he almost married, a conversation that seemed to fit his character. Just as Levinson saw the potential in Paul Reiser, he was able to see comedic potential in Guttenberg.
Guttenberg became a star of many family-friendly '80s comedies, including Three Men And A Baby, Police Academy, Short Circuit and Cocoon.
Michael Tucker As Bagel
The one true Baltimorean in the cast, Michael Tucker, had minor roles starting in the 1970s before he was cast as Bagel in Diner. He became best known as an Emmy nominated regular on L.A. Law and he has written a novel, After Annie, as well as other books.
As Bagel, Tucker helps to ground Boogie and tries to help him find direction.
The Impacts of the Movie
Although it was criticized by some people -- including one of the actors, Kevin Bacon -- who said they couldn't figure out what was about, Diner served as a template for a type of conversational character development and observational comedy that has become commonplace in television and film. It also helped to create the identities of the then-unknown actors who are now familiar faces to us all.