Don’t mess with the Sch­nei­der

Far from be­ing the dun­der­head one might ex­pect from his movies, Rob Sch­nei­der in per­son turns out to be as­sertive, like­able and even charm­ing. Then the con­ver­sa­tion turns to art, Joyce, PostIm­pres­sion­ism ... Don­ald Clarke al­most drops his note­book

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

OH, DEAR. This isn’t go­ing well at all. It is not un­usual in this busi­ness to be dis­ap­pointed by your he­roes. That bril­liantly tal­ented di­rec­tor, whose sear­ing epics helped de­fine your ado­les­cence, turns out to be an inar­tic­u­late boob with a pas­sion for Scien­tol­ogy. This charis­matic char­ac­ter ac­tor, a new Brando in the mak­ing, be­gins by mak­ing oblique ho­mo­pho­bic slurs and goes on to re­veal him­self as a Cre­ation­ist half-wit. Such is the in­ter­view­ing lark.

Then there is the com­ple­men­tary prob­lem. It is, in fact, more com­mon to dis­cover that some­body you had al­ways marked down as a gib­ber­ing dun­der­head has hith­erto un­sus­pected charms and gifts.

Let’s talk about Rob Sch­nei­der. Like a num­ber of other film writ­ers, I have, from time to time, made un­kind re­marks about the star of Deuce Bi­ga­low: Euro­pean Gigolo and The Hot Chick. A fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor with Adam San­dler, this jaw-drop­pingly broad comic ac­tor has, in­deed, come to be re­garded as a kind of all-pur­pose em­blem of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try at its most lobotomised. “It’s like be­ing trapped in a lift with Rob Sch­nei­der,” one might quip while re­view­ing the latest aw­ful TV show/play/record/movie.

As it hap­pens, I’m trapped in a Dublin ho­tel room with Sch­nei­der and, sad to re­late, he be­gins by re­veal­ing good man­ners and ap­par­ent intelligence. Af­ter help­ing me with my cof­fee and note­book and tape recorder, he muses a while on his first visit to Ire­land.

“Yeah, I first came here when I was 19 or 20,” he says. “I re­ally had a great time. I read that Leon Uris book about Ire­land, A Ter­ri­ble Beauty, and I re­ally wanted to come and see the beauty of the west of the coun­try be­fore it dis­ap­peared. So I sold my car to pay for a trip here. The west re­ally was the most beau­ti­ful place on Earth. I hope it stays that way.”

Fair enough. Rob goes on to ex­plain that he read Joyce when trav­el­ling and de­spaired of con­tem­po­raries who failed to ac­quire a pass­port and see the world. If you were feel­ing kind, you could ar­gue that You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Sch­nei­der’s latest film, bol­sters his cam­paign to get the United States to gaze be­yond its borders.

Adam San­dler stars as an Is­raeli intelligence agent with a se­cret am­bi­tion to be­come a hair­dresser. Fol­low­ing a few scrapes with an arch en­emy, he makes his way to New York and sets up a salon on a street in­hab­ited by both Jews and Arabs. Then, one ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble day, Sch­nei­der’s Pales­tinian cab driver recog­nises him and sets about plan­ning his an­ni­hi­la­tion.

Here we en­counter one of the most com­mon com­plaints about Sch­nei­der.

The diminu­tive co­me­dian – now 44 – can boast an agree­ably eclec­tic racial her­itage. His dad is Jewish and his mom is the daugh­ter of an Amer­i­can sol­dier and a wo­man from the Philip­pines. But that can’t quite ex­cuse his cava­lier approach to car­i­ca­tur­ing other races. In I Now Pro­nounce You Chuck and Larry, Sch­nei­der es­sayed a com­edy Ja­panese per­son. In Mr Deeds, he played “Nazo, the Ital­ian De­liv­ery Man”. Now he at­tempts a “funny” fake Arab. Didn’t black­ing-up go out of fash­ion in the 1970s?

“I do some­times get crit­i­cised for play­ing other na­tion­al­i­ties,” he ad­mits. “But, you know, with my back­ground, I don’t re­ally know what race I am my­self. As an artist, you should be able to go where you wish. Guys like Peter Sell­ers and Alec Guin­ness weren’t con­fined by race.” Well, maybe. But, by 1984, when Guin­ness played an In­dian in David Lean’s A Pas­sage to In­dia, the prac­tice was al­ready frowned upon.

“You can’t be a slave to pub­lic opin­ion,” Sch­nei­der ar­gues. “As an artist, you can’t al­low your­self to be con­strained by the con­ser­vatism of so­ci­ety. You just have to go for it. Think about it his­tor­i­cally. When the Post-Im­pres­sion­ists came out, peo­ple thought they were ob­scene, but now we re­alise that that was just an­other in­ter­pre­ta­tion of classical paint­ing.”

Ding, dong! Do you hear warn­ing bells? Rob Sch­nei­der has just com­pared his per­for­mance in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan to the work of the Post-Im­pres­sion­ist painters. He has also used the phrase “as an artist” twice and will go on to use it an­other 12 times in the next 20 min­utes. This in­ter­view is work­ing out quite well af­ter all.

Raised in the Bay Area of San Fran­cisco, Sch­nei­der plunged into the world of stand-up com­edy shortly af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school. In his early 20s, he caught the eye of Den­nis Miller of Satur­day Night Live, and was in­vited to join the in­flu­en­tial sketch show.

“My mother was only able to go to col­lege in the Philip­pines be­cause her sis­ter found a bag of money in a cave,” he says with ap­par­ent sin­cer­ity. “So she val­ued ed­u­ca­tion, and was ap­palled when she re­alised I wasn’t go­ing to col­lege. Even af­ter I was on TV, she still felt this must be a pass­ing phase.

“Ev­ery now and then, some­body I knew would quit, and I would be amazed. How can you quit this job? I al­ways told my mom: it’s not hav­ing the safety net that makes a tightrope artist get to the other side. When I see peo­ple who teeter at the abyss, like Brit­ney


Spears, I see that as a lovely flaw.” Here come those three words again. “As an artist, you have that sense. I think about James Joyce when he wrote Por­trait of an Artist. I can re­mem­ber read­ing that book when I was in Ire­land, and what was beau­ti­ful about it was you got this sense of a kid re­al­is­ing he is an artist. And that’s when I re­alised I was an artist too.”

Good grief. So far Rob Sch­nei­der – yes, Rob Sch­nei­der – has po­si­tioned him­self along­side Alec Guin­ness, Peter Sell­ers, the Post-Im­pres­sion­ists and James Joyce. It can only be a mat­ter of time be­fore he starts com­par­ing him­self to Or­son Welles.

“I still feel like I haven’t made it yet,” he says. “It’s like Or­son Welles. As an in­tel­li­gent artist, you have to be aware of the na­ture of the beast. They call cre­ativ­ity the mer­ci­less mistress of in­no­va­tion.

“Think of Or­son Welles. He was bril­liant. Bet­ter than me.” No! Surely not. “But he still had to beg for money to get films. If they can do that to him, if they can force him to drink him­self to death, then they can do it to me.”

In 2005, a jour­nal­ist named Pa­trick Gold­stein, when pre­view­ing the Os­cars in the Los An­ge­les Times, made a sar­cas­tic re­mark about Deuce Bi­ga­low: Euro­pean Gigolo’s fail­ure to se­cure a nom­i­na­tion. Sch­nei­der then took out ads in both Variety and The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter mak­ing fun of the fact that Gold­stein had him­self never won, say, a Pulitzer.

Some weeks later, Roger Ebert, the vet­eran Chicago critic, pro­vided a per­fect full­stop to the story. “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize,” Roger wrote. “And so I am qual­i­fied. Speak­ing in my of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity as a Pulitzer Prize-win­ner, Mr Sch­nei­der, your movie sucks.”

One won­ders why Sch­nei­der drew at­ten­tion to the orig­i­nal story. Given his rep­u­ta­tion, the con­ver­sa­tion could only end in em­bar­rass­ment.

“Well, that was just anger,” he says. “A lot of peo­ple are tempted to re­spond to those sort of at­tacks, but are afraid of look­ing like an ass. I am­not afraid of look­ing like an ass.”

There was a post­script to the story. Last year Eber­twent into hospi­tal to have a sali­vary gland re­moved. Sch­nei­der sent him a big bunch of flow­ers with a note from “your least favourite ac­tor”. The critic went on to write an ar­ti­cle pub­licly thank­ing Rob and ex­press­ing the hope that he would make a good film some­time soon.

“Hey, I love Roger Ebert,” he says. “It was be­cause of him I be­gan go­ing to see for­eign movies. And he wrote a lovely re­sponse. I still think he’s a good guy.”

Ebert’s ex­act words were “Rob Sch­nei­der might (in my opin­ion) have made a bad movie, [but] he is not a bad man.” That seems a fair as­sess­ment. He is po­lite, ar­tic­u­late and friendly, but, my word, he has a high opin­ion of him­self and he en­joys talk­ing rub­bish.

When the PR per­son comes in to pull me out, he waves her away be­cause he wants to talk in greater de­tail about his latest di­vorce. Feel­ing in­creas­ingly like a hostage, I settle down for an­other 10 min­utes of whit­ter­ing.

“It’s a self­ish pur­suit be­ing an artist,” he says. “Be­ing an artist – whether sculp­tor or writer or what­ever – comes at a price. We artists un­der­stand one an­other, but it comes at a price. Ev­ery re­la­tion­ship I’ve had has suf­fered for that. But I am a Bud­dhist now and so that of­fered me the per­fect les­son.”

Even­tu­ally, I leap to my feet, tum­ble out the door and sprint for free­dom.

Good grief, that was like be­ing trapped in a ho­tel room with Rob


Rob Sch­nei­der as Pales­tinian cab­bie Salim in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and, be­low, with co-star Adam San­dler

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