Peter Reigert gives voice to bad Jews in directorial debut

The genial actor Peter Riegert, who adds feature film director to his resume with the empathetic and rewarding comedy “King of the Corner,” was in Buffalo doing what directors do. That is, fielding comments from strangers after a screening.

“Somebody who was obviously Jewish raised a question about how people who weren’t Jewish would interpret—or misinterpret—what a bad Jew was,” Riegert recalls.

Cause for possible concern lies partly in the film’s source material, a volume of short fiction by Gerald Shapiro provocatively titled “Bad Jews and Other Stories.”

But the major instigation is Leo Spivak, the central character played by Riegert himself. A jaded marketing exec blindsided by a belated midlife crisis, Leo — unsure of who he is or what he wants — responds with some squirrelly (and very funny) behavior that is inconsistent with various tenets of Jewish law.

“A group of four people stood up,” Riegert continues, “and said, ‘Well, we’re Irish Catholic, and we don’t think you’re going to have any problem,’ because they thought of themselves as bad Catholics.”

So much for creating worrisome stereotypes or, for that matter, doubting the universality of lapsed faith.

“King of the Corner” opens Friday, June 10 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema. Riegert and Bay Area-based actress Rita Moreno, who plays the partner of Leo’s father (a curmudgeonly Eli Wallach), will appear at selected opening-weekend screenings.

Riegert will also present his film and answer questions Thursday, June 9 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

The actor, who won over audiences in “Animal House,” “Local Hero” and “Crossing Delancey”— the latter as Amy Irving’s pickle-peddling mensch of a suitor—made his debut behind the camera with the Oscar-nominated short, “By Courier.”

He accepted an invitation to show the film in Lincoln, Nebraska, and while in town he received an envelope from Shapiro. The author — a university literature professor whose depiction of lusty and deeply-flawed Jewish men evokes comparison with the late, great Stanley Elkin — sent the book as a gift.

Riegert had been on the prowl for material to direct and, hooked by the title, he zoomed through the book, phoned Shapiro immediately and they set about adapting the stories into a screenplay.

Riegert, 58, allows that he was not only attracted to the drama of ordinary life but to the notion that Jewish identity and morality are present even in thoroughly assimilated Jews.

“I think what Gerry is getting at [is] at the end of the day, good or bad, you’re a Jew,” Riegert explains, on the phone from New York. “But how religious a Jewish person is, even a devout person asks that of themselves. You’re forever arguing with yourself and your relationship with God — or not-God.”

Riegert notes that many Holocaust survivors grappled with their faith, but less momentous events can ignite an internal debate. “I don’t think you need to go through that to have that wrestling match,” he says.

For his part, Riegert was raised in a non-observant Jewish household, and is not observant today. “I was aware of being Jewish and I don’t mean that in a small way,” he declares.

But he’s become a traveling Jew of late, devoting eight months to self-distributing “King of the Corner.” Much like a band touring to promote a new album, Reigert is out on the road with his movie.

He returns to the Bay Area in December to direct a pair of vintage plays written by another Jewish bad boy of American letters — David Mamet. “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and “Duck Variations” will open at ACT next January, for those who like their moral dilemmas spiked with four-letter words.

“King of the Corner” opens June 10 in San Francisco. Tickets for the June 9 event at the Smith Rafael Film Center are $9.25, $5.50 for seniors, and are available at the box office (1118 4th St., San Rafael) or at

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.