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One On 1: Actor Peter Riegert

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of a New York City actor who has spent the past year seeing the rest of the country, Peter Riegert.

 View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.


He's a New York guy, Peter Riegert. Born and bred in the Bronx, lived in the Village as a young actor, now up on the Upper West Side.

One of his most popular movies, “Crossing Delancey,” takes place on the Lower East Side. More recently he crossed the river for a role on “The Sopranos.”

But these days if you see him in New York, he's probably on his way to or from the airport, promoting the new independent film he produced, directed, co-wrote and stars in, “King of the Corner.”

“One time I took the film somewhere, not on this trip but to a film festival. That's 50 pounds. That's a lot of extra luggage,” he says.

That was just one time, a time when Riegert referred to himself as “Jack Kerouac with film cans.” And he indeed has been on the road almost every week this year, introducing the movie and doing audience Q and A's around the country.

“King of the Corner” debuted in New York in August and is now out on DVD. It's the story of a middle aged man dealing with middle aged angst about his family and his work.

At 58, the veteran actor of stage, screen and television can certainly identify with the work issues.

“You get older, the parts become less, the competition becomes greater, and just feeling victimized or thinking that it's not fair is unique to me,” he says. “It just wasn't helpful.”

When he was 30, Riegert played a 21-year-old in a movie you may have heard of; “Animal House.”

In 1978 “Animal House” became not just a hit movie but a part of the culture. It was Riegert's first film.

"I didn't know how hard it was,” he says. “I thought, ÎOh, you make a movie for eight weeks and eight months later you're in a hit. Piece of cake.’ When you're young, you just can't see that far ahead. You can't believe that it’s going to end someday."

But perhaps Riegert's most intriguing role was in the 1983 film “Local Hero,” as a young oil executive who goes to a Scottish town which his company is planning to buy.

“Here I am in a movie playing an American being seduced by the natural environment and people of the highlands of Scotland, and I'm an American working and being seduced by the people and highlands of Scotland,” he says. “So I really didn't have to do much except show up and look at the other actors. People come up and talk about it in extremely passionate tones. It is in its way what ÎAnimal House’ is on a bigger level. People know lines, they've gone to the village where we shot, they've been on the beach where we shot. That's pretty impressive."

When Peter Riegert appears on Broadway, as he did in the play "The Old Neighborhood," he gets there like most other New Yorkers - public transportation.

"I've literally been on the bus with somebody coming to the show and saying, ÎI'll see you tonight. I'll see you at the show,’” he says. “I’m going, ÎWhat?’ [They say], ÎWell, I'm coming to the play.’ It's like a wacky kind of family."

Long before we knew him as an actor, Peter Riegert was a teacher. It was 1968, and the Lindsay administration was under fire over the emotional issue of community control of schools in the largely black and Hispanic Ocean Hill/Brownsville school district, a movement that resulted in strikes by the predominantly white teachers union.

“This was the height of the war. This was my way of doing something other than just protest the war,” he says. “It became clear very quickly that I wasn't a good teacher or couldn't be a good teacher because I didn't want to be a teacher. You know, I didn't have any passion for teaching. I had a passion for not supporting a war."

After his teaching stint, Riegert worked in 1970 for one of the most compelling characters in New York politics, Bella Abzug.

“So I'm typing away and I feel this presence over my shoulder,” he says. “So I turn around and looming over me is Bella. In her inimitable way, she just kind of looked as me as if I was either a pathetic soul, or, ÎIs this the best we can do?’ Somebody would challenge her in terms of her ideas and a full-fledged debate would go on right at the subway stop or wherever we were. I'd never done this before, and she would like yell at me, ÎThat's not the way to do it. Don't just stick the pamphlet out - you've got to say my name. You got to tell them who's on the pamphlet.’”

These real life experiences would help years later, when Riegert was dealing with the whimsical nature of the acting business.

“When I was feeling at my worst and feeling self-pitying and woe is me and it's not fair, especially in the beginning because it was so close to my experience as a teacher and a social worker, that'll snap you out of it pretty quickly," he says.

Riegert took up acting in the early 70's working in the theater, but soon experienced the rollercoaster ride of show business with the blockbuster success of “Animal House.”

“It's irresistible to be told by strangers in the press, or to be in a successful project, to not get excited about it because it means more than just a pat on the back. It could mean rent. A lot of rent,” he says.

But in some 35 years as an actor, he's also seen the other side of the show business equation.

”There were a couple of times where I thought this is just passing me by. This is just not happening,” he says. “And it's chillingly isolating because who do you go to? You can't call up people and go, ÎMy God, I'm desperate,’ or whatever. Because all they'll say is, ÎWell, do something else.’"

And so Riegert has spent the last year leaving his New York home for Santa Fe, Salt Lake, Sarasota and so many other places with his baby, his new film “King of the Corner,” no longer willing to wait by the phone.

“Now that I look back to see what I’ve been doing, in order to understand it I have to imagine how needy I must have been to get out of this corner that I had painted myself into, which was waiting around to get a job as an actor,” he says. “Doing something for yourself is extremely invigorating, regardless of what the results are. Even if this is a foolish last hoorah, it's been an amazing experience.”

- Budd Mishkin

ONE ON 1 EXTRA

 Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video:

  PART 1

  PART 2

  PART 3

  PART 4

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