SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Somewhere, Archie Bunker is smirking.
“I get ‘Meatheaded’ pretty close to once a day,” Rob Reiner said of the scornful name given his hippie character by his bigoted father-in-law on the landmark 1970s TV series “All in the Family.”
“I don’t mind,” Reiner, the prominent film director and noted liberal political activist, said of the calls of “Meathead” at airports and on the street. He just finds it funny that most of those calling out are young people who have seen the series only in cable reruns.
They likely have seen movies Reiner has directed as well: “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally ...,” “A Few Good Men,” “Ghosts of Mississippi” and “Misery” tend to run on loops on cable movie stations.
Yet, even decades later and with his long hair long gone, it is easier to identify Reiner with his TV character than his films. Part of it is being on camera vs. behind the camera. It’s also because Reiner’s movies cross so many genres that it can be hard to find a signature.
That is, until now. “Flipped,” a coming-of-age film opening Friday in Sacramento, leaves no doubt about who directed it. From its period setting to its saturated-sunlight visuals, “Flipped” evokes “Stand By Me.”
That’s intentional, Reiner, 63, said during an interview at Sacramento’s Citizen Hotel. Of all his films, “Stand By Me,” the 1986 movie that was based on a Stephen King novella and starred a young River Phoenix and Corey Feldman, most closely reflects his personal sensibility, the director said.
Based on a kids novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, “Flipped” follows a somewhat eccentric girl (Madeline Carroll) with a mad crush on her straight-arrow neighbor (Callan McAuliffe). The film touches on the kids’ family dynamics while always keeping the slow-building, surprisingly compelling relationship between boy and girl at the forefront.
“The book was a modern-day book, but it felt very timeless when I read it — it seemed like something more innocent than what we see now,” said Reiner, who first read the book when his now-16-year-old son was assigned it in class a few years ago.
Reiner moved the story to the late 1950s and early ‘60s, roughly the same time period of “Stand By Me” and his own adolescence.
The film “explores what it really means for a boy and a girl to wrestle with those early feelings that are so powerful, of falling in love, in a real, honest way, in the way ‘Stand By Me’ explored friendships,” Reiner said.
The cast of “Flipped,” however, came into the shoot more polished than the fledgling actors in “Stand By Me,” Reiner said. Carroll, a charismatic 14-year-old who starred opposite Kevin Costner in 2008’s “Swing Vote,” “has the chops of a 40- or 50-year-old actress,” he said.
Carroll, also in Sacramento to promote “Flipped,” still showed plenty of youthful enthusiasm in discussing her big-time director.
“I remember auditioning and saying, ‘Please God, don’t let me freak out when I see him,’” she said. “I was all calm, but I was screaming inside. I couldn’t believe I got to audition for Rob Reiner.”
“Flipped” will open in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Austin, Texas, on Friday before expanding to other markets.
“We’ve got Los Angeles, which is very urban, and Sacramento, which is kind of in-between, and has a very good moviegoing audience,” Reiner said of the opening strategy. “Austin is more Middle America, (so) we will see how it plays there.”
Reiner knows Sacramento, California’s state capital, from his years heading up the First 5 Children and Families Commission. A longtime advocate for early-childhood programs, Reiner spearheaded the campaign for Proposition 10, the 1998 initiative that created First 5, which administers tobacco tax funds toward children’s programs.
He stepped down from his post in 2006 after a First 5-financed ad campaign for preschools came under fire from a mostly Republican group of state lawmakers. The ads coincided with the signature-gathering process for a Reiner-backed universal-preschool initiative that eventually was rejected by California voters.
A state audit was critical of some commission practices but found First 5 had acted within the law in financing the ad campaign. Reiner characterized the controversy as pure politics, resulting from buzz around his possible Democratic gubernatorial run.
“There were a lot of people who just came and tried to knock me down,” Reiner said. “Here I was, I had no financial interest in any of this stuff — in fact, I poured millions of my own money into trying to get services for kids — and then they accused me of doing this thing. ... And I thought, ‘Wow, people will do anything to knock you down.’ “
The experience soured him on politics, Reiner said. But he never had committed fully to running for governor, anyway.
“I took a poll among my own family, and I polled 40 percent,” Reiner, who has three children with his wife, Michele Singer, said with a laugh.
He is proud of what First 5 has accomplished, and continues to help fight attempts to tap into the program’s funding to fill state and county budget gaps.
He also belongs to the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group behind the federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 8.
Leaving First 5 freed Reiner to focus again on directing, and he scored his first big hit in a while with 2007’s “The Bucket List,” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as cancer patients determined to fulfill lifelong wishes.
Reiner said he belongs to a select group of high- profile directors who came up in the 1980s, including Ron Howard and Barry Levinson, who were allowed to make different kinds of pictures with mid-range budgets within the studio system. This group, he said, differed from the Martin Scorsese auteurs who preceded them and the blockbuster makers who followed.
“The minute someone like Chris Nolan makes a name for himself, they fly into this other place,” Reiner said of the “Dark Knight” and “Inception” director. Today’s directors “either make those kinds of (big-budget) films or very low, low budget films.”
Reiner, whose Castle Rock Entertainment enjoys a long-standing partnership with Warner Bros., plans to keep making all kinds of films, hopefully adding a musical to the mix in the near future.
“I try to make movies that are accessible but have some kind of integrity to them,” Reiner said.
ROB REINER AT A GLANCE
Actor, director, producer, writer and political activist
Born: March 6, 1947
Parents: Estelle Reiner and Carl Reiner
—Photographer Michele Singer (1989 to present)
—Actress-director Penny Marshall (1971-1979)
MOST FAMOUS TV ROLE
Michael “Meathead” Stivic in “All in the Family” (1971-78)
SOME FILMS DIRECTED BY REINER
—“This Is Spinal Tap” (1984)
—“Stand By Me” (1986)
—“The Princess Bride” (1987)
—“When Harry Met Sally ...” (1989)
—“A Few Good Men” (1992)
—“Ghosts of Mississippi” (1996)
—“Bucket List” (2007)
CALIFORNIA POLITICAL ROLES
—Chairman, California’s First 5 Children and Families Commission (1999-2006)
—Spearheaded the campaign for Prop. 10, the 1998 California initiative that created First 5
(Sources: imdb.com, “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present,” 2007.)