The Flickers: Diner

Diner (1982)

Starring Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Daniel Stern, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser, Kathryn Dowling, Michael Tucker and Colette Blonigan. Directed by Barry Levinson. From Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

All images © MGM

It is Christmas Night in Baltimore, 1959, and five best friends are at a dance. Modell (Reiser) is looking for Boogie (Rourke). Apparently, a drunken Fenwick (Bacon) is downstairs punching out windows. Boogie talks him down and the gang heads for their hang out, Fells* Point Diner. Shrevie (Stern) drops his wife, Beth (Barkin), off at home and joins the gang in a booth. There, Eddie (Guttenberg) and Modell debate between Sinatra and Mathis for the best make-out music and Boogie talks to the guys about his risky $2000 basketball bet and about his impending date with Carol Heathrow (Blonigan). Eddie and Modell go home and the other three head to the train station.

Billy (Daly) is home from school for Christmas. The boys pick him up at the train station and they tell Billy about Eddie’s upcoming wedding. Billy can’t believe the news that Eddie is giving his intended, Elyse, a gridiron football quiz and will only marry her if she passes. The four friends have breakfast together at Fells Point until Billy leaves and goes to Eddie’s house and wakes him up. The two go to the pool hall and discuss the unlikelihood of Boogie pulling off his latest bet with the fellas; he has bet everyone that Carol will “go for his pecker” when he takes her to the Strand to see A Summer Place. When Boogie manipulates Carol’s popcorn box, he thinks he’s won the bet but the boys aren’t having it; “It was pecker touching without intention!”

Boogie (Rourke), Modell (Reiser), Shrevie (Stern) and Eddie (Guttenberg) shoot the breeze long into the night at Fells Point.

All of this seems beneath Billy and instead he goes to talk to his girl, Barbara (Dowling), who seems to be blowing him off but then confesses she’s pregnant. Boogie loses his $2000 basketball bet and realizes he is in deep trouble. Shrevie agrees to loan Boogie some money but by the time Boogie gets to his place, he and Beth have had a fight and Shrevie has driven off. Boogie tries to console Beth on the front stoop. Fenwick’s brother won’t lend him money to help Boogie and this seems to send the always-brooding Fenwick over the edge; he gets drunk, strips down to his shorts and takes a position in the manger in the Nativity scene at the local church. Billy, Eddie and Shrevie attempt to coax him out but he goes bonkers and wrecks the stable and punches out the wise men. The cops come and the boys spend some time in the slammer. Later at the diner, Eddie confesses to Boogie that he is a virgin and his impending nuptials have him extremely concerned.

Fenwick (Bacon), Modell, Shrevie and Billy (Daly) gather in Eddie’s rec room for the football quiz.

The night of the big football quiz, Shrevie, Billy, Modell and Fenwick gather at Eddie’s to listen while Elyse takes the quiz and they make guesses on the outcome. Boogie – desperate to pay off his gambling debt – has bet everyone that he can go to bed with Carol; trouble is, Carol is down with the flu. Boogie needs a replacement and reluctantly plays on Beth’s vulnerability and shaky marriage to talk about the old days when they used to be a couple and make a date with her. Fenwick is poised in the closet to spy on the couple and “validate the Heathrow bet”. Unbeknownst to Boogie, Shrevie has also tagged along to watch the coupling. Unbeknownst to Fenwick and Shrevie, that ain’t Carol.

Later, the friends gather together with their girls. Some relationships are blossoming, some are being repaired and some are attempting emergence. These relationships may last or they may not work out. What seems clear, though, is that this gang of guys – despite the changes of life – will always be friends.


Where do I even begin? I suppose it starts with my man, Mickey Rourke. Rourke was my favourite actor in my young adulthood and I feel like I first saw him in 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) after which I proceeded to devour everything he was in. When I hit Diner, though, something else entirely happened. After reluctantly returning the VHS tape to my local Jumbo Video, I was fortunate enough to tape it off TV before eventually buying it. As it takes place during the last week of the year, it became a December-only staple for me. I became obsessed with the movie and looked up everything I could about it, not easy in the pre-internet era. I discovered what I thought was the location of the diner used in the film, called them and asked if Florence – the name of one of the waitresses in the movie – was working and once sent them a Christmas card, hoping they’d tape it up on the wall, like in the film.

Inspired by the film, my friends and I decided we’d start meeting every Sunday morning for breakfast at the Checkerboard Restaurant on Belmont St. in the town I lived in. The rule was to at least wear a tie, in honour of the sharp-dressed guys in Diner – except Big Swa, who owned nothing but jeans and hoodies. We’d read the paper, play the lottery and shoot the breeze. One morning, after a particularly adventurous Saturday night, I threw up in the bathroom there. “Rough night?”, the Greek owner asked me. That was another bonus to the Checkerboard; owned and operated by Greeks, like the diner of the film.

Fenwick arrives.

So, more recently when I decided I should identify my favourite films of all-time, I had to consider the ones that had gone beyond being simply movies. Which films had deeply impacted me? Which ones had I connected with on the most substantial levels? I realized quickly that Diner had been absorbed into many, many aspects of my life. Simply put, it did and it has and it continues to affect me like few other films. It remains in a small group of three favourites sitting atop the heap. For this my second-favourite film of all-time, I have one man to thank.

Filmmaker Barry Levinson was born in 1942 in Baltimore. Mel Brooks gave him his start and Barry wrote parts of Brooks’ Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977). While working on the latter, Levinson would sit around the set with Brooks and tell him stories of his days spent hanging out with his buds at the local diner. I have Mel Brooks to thank as well as he encouraged Barry to write these stories up as a screenplay. Barry was concerned, though, that all he had was a series of anecdotes and no real story. Barry was married to Valerie Curtin (Jane’s cousin) at the time and the two joined forces to write the screenplay for Pacino’s …And Justice for All, work for which they earned an Oscar nom. Then while Curtin went to work on another film, Levinson – left alone – thought about Mel Brooks’ suggestion. He says he got out some paper and wrote “Diner” at the top of the page. He knocked out a script in three weeks.

Levinson – wearing his lucky Baltimore Orioles hat – chats with Mickey Rourke while Daniel Stern and Kevin Bacon prep.

Levinson’s friend and producing partner, Mark Johnson, was working for Jerry Weintraub at MGM. Let me take a moment to talk about the late Weintraub. He deserves his own article. Jerry made his name early during his time as a concert promoter when he worked with Col. Tom Parker booking Elvis Presley‘s tours in the Seventies. Then Diner. Afterwards he showed up in my life again playing Sonny Capps in The Firm and then along with Steven Soderbergh, he helped bring the Ocean’s Eleven remake franchise to the screen. He can be seen on-screen in all three. Jerry passed in 2015. When Levinson had the script done he gave it to Johnson who took it to Weintraub. Points for Jerry for green-lighting it right away and endowing it with a small, $5 million budget.

Learning the truth about the diner seen in the film hit hard for me. I had for years been committed to the idea that it was a real place that one day maybe I could go to. I imagined myself sitting down and saying to the waitress “hey, yo, Florence. Could I get some french fries with gravy?” and having the waitress – no doubt not named Florence – roll her eyes but nod her head knowingly. “Another Diner fan”, she would murmur as she walked away. But it wasn’t shot at a real diner. First Levinson and Peter Sova, the film’s cinematographer, found an ideal empty lot by the water in Fells Point. Later, they found a structure in a diner graveyard in New Jersey that they brought to the location and put in place.

Levinson and Company sifted through 600 actors to portray the writer-director’s friends from his youth. While not every character was a direct depiction of someone in real life, each was certainly imbued with the traits of Levinson’s running mates. It was the very first film for both Tim Daly and Paul Reiser and while the others had been seen in movies before, Diner was for all a first featured role and one that propelled each of the starring cast to stardom.

Steve Guttenberg would soon be very visible as the star of the Police Academy franchise and the two Three Men and a Baby films. His career has been perhaps the least distinguished to emerge from Diner. Daniel Stern worked regularly after our film but had to wait eight years before marking another mark as he did in the Home Alone movies. He also was part of the gang in the City Slickers two-fer. Perhaps his most sustaining work came from television’s The Wonder Years. Never credited and never seen, Stern provided the narration as the adult Kevin Arnold. Mickey Rourke – “he was going to be De Niro” – became maybe and for a short time the biggest star of the cast. After a spate of spectacular films though, Rourke made personal decisions and took a route that lead him away from the spotlight.

Kevin Bacon is 23 here, Paul Reiser 25.

It could be said that Kevin Bacon is today the biggest star to have come from Diner. He has not only starred in significant films but he has turned up in scores of successful movies and has always enjoyed a celebrity outside of his film work. His break-out came two years later in Footloose. Tim Daly never sustained a film career but became a star on TV’s Wings starting in 1990. He has also done animated super hero voice work and scored sustaining television roles on Madam Secretary and his character on Grey’s Anatomy was featured on that show’s spin-off, Private Practice. I’ve talked about Ellen Barkin in articles on The Big Easy and Eddie and the Cruisers. Thing about Ellen is that she appears in many films I have loved over the years. She worked with Rourke again in the neo-noir Johnny Handsome and again with Weintraub in Ocean’s Thirteen. Paul Reiser accompanied his buddy to an audition for Diner but it was Paul who was offered the role of Modell, one that was expanded during production. After appearing in Aliens (1986) and two Beverly Hills Cop films, Reiser also found stardom on the small screen on Mad About You. You recall the scene at the beginning of Diner when Modell expresses his discomfort with the word “nuance”? Reiser’s production company, one that helped sustain Mad About You, is called Nuance Productions. Michael Tucker plays “dunkie” Bagel. He gained visibility for his 8 years spent on L.A. Law. He played Bagel again in another Levinson film.

“All I want is an Emerson, 21-inch, cabinet-style”. Watch for Ralph Tabakin. He was Barry Levinson’s “good luck charm”, appearing in the filmmaker’s first 15 films. Tabakin was awarded 2 Bronze Stars and 5 Purple Hearts in World War 2.

Diner was the start of Barry Levinson’s career as a writer and director of successful films, many of which I have loved. His next as director was The Natural starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. Then in ’87, he wrote and directed the second of his four “Baltimore films”, Tin Men. While not a sequel, it does feature Michael Tucker as Bagel and guys hanging out at a diner. It is more of Levinson’s reminiscences of his hometown. This was followed by Avalon in 1990 starring Aidan Quinn and Liberty Heights in 1999 with Adrien Brody.

Consider that in a four-year span Barry Levinson directed Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man and Bugsy. He would later direct – consecutively – notable films Disclosure, Sleepers and Wag the Dog. Levinson’s films – most of them made with partner Mark Johnson – have been nominated for 34 Academy Awards and Barry has won 6; as an example, he won for Best Director for Rain Man six years before Steven Spielberg won that same award for Schindler’s List.

Filming took place for six weeks in March and April of 1981 in and around Baltimore. In “garden suburb” Roland Park, Fenwick takes to hanging out at the Nativity scene set up at the Roland Park Presbyterian Church on Roland Avenue. The distinctive building across the street is the world’s first shopping mall, the Roland Park Shopping Center built in 1895.

The boys roll up on Fen in the manger at Roland Park Presbyterian. Behind them is the world’s first shopping mall.
The shopping center today. Photo from LoopNet.com that shows two units for lease; one for $55k a year and another for $42k.

Boogie works at Andrés salon on North Charles. I’ve been able to pinpoint the location and even the “office” where Tank takes Boogie to hassle him for the money he owes.

Tank (John Aquino) takes Boogie out into the cold on N. Charles. Note in the background one of the spires of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church and Asbury House, completed in 1872. To the left of it is the Washington Monument (Baltimore). Completed in 1829, it was the “first major monument begun to honor George Washington”.
N. Charles today. The black awning at right is where Boogie worked in the film. © Google Maps
Notice the four lines constructed just above Boogie’s head. Also that the two men go under the stairs that are right next to the large window that looks like the letter B.
© Google Maps

Ascertaining the exact location where “Fells Point Diner” stood for filming took some work. Judging by the street signs and by doing some comparisons between the film and Google Maps, I’ve discovered the following. In a scene in the film, you can see two street signs outside the diner. They read Boston and S. Montford. Going by this, I assumed that is where filming took place, which is partly true. But I also learned about American Can Company. You can see their building plainly in the film. The building today now bears the name “The Can Company” and it is on Hudson St. This confused me at first until I realized a geographical fact. Both S. Montford and Hudson basically meet at Boston Street. After much investigation, I feel I can somewhat accurately pinpoint where the placed the diner. Unsurprisingly, the area has evolved much in the last forty years.

The initial shot that provided a hint for the location. The lower street sign reads “S. Montford” making me think that was the street on which the “photographer” of this image was standing. But Montford is to the right of the frame and the photographer would be standing on Hudson.
Compare this shot of the boys leaving the diner parking lot in 1981…
…with this shot from Google Maps in 2019. Note two things; the part of the building that juts out over the street at right seen in both pics. And the silo structure straight ahead in the distance.
All this seems to indicate that the location of the diner is seen above. Condos now. Thanks Google Maps.

Like so many other classic, landmark films, this one was reviled by the studio and almost failed to see a release. MGM wanted Porky’s. They gave as an example the scene in which Eddie and Modell quibble over the roast beef sandwich. An exec told Mark Johnson that scene should have been cut as it interfered with “the story”. Johnson had to explain that the bickering over the sandwich WAS the story. Test showings in Baltimore didn’t go well and a scathing review in the hometown Baltimore Sun also didn’t help. Turns out Johnson’s mother’s good friend was legendary film critic Pauline Kael. Johnson arranged for Kael to view the film and she loved it. She eventually told MGM executives that she was going to write a glowing review of the film – if the studio didn’t release it, they would look foolish. So, Diner only got released to save the studio the greater of two embarrassments. Gradually, the film became legend.

Interesting that Kael helped this film attain the status it has. The film critic had almost sunk another legendary film, American Graffiti, by publishing a negative review that completely missed the point of that great movie.

Levinson wanted instant rapport between his cast members. But how to achieve that with people who had just met each other? The cast was crammed into a camper that they eventually christened the “camaraderie camper” and were forced to spend most of every day during rehearsals living in each other’s grills. It worked. The dynamic between the guys carried over onto he screen where improvisation abounded. Often when a scene was done, Levinson would leave the cameras rolling in the hopes of capturing more magic. The boys continued to yammer and these scenes often were cut into the film. Wisely, Levinson scheduled the diner scenes to be filmed last and by the time they got around to them, a definite rapport had been established.

This is at the heart of what makes Diner so appealing. Few other casts in film history give you the feeling that they have really spent a lifetime together. So much history between the boys is apparent in every scene. Lines are not lines at all; it seems that actual conversations were captured on film. Similar to the cast of a film I spotlighted previously, The Wanderers, the gang in Diner have stayed close. Bacon, Reiser, Daly and Guttenberg even met via Zoom often during the pandemic.

Interesting to note the presence in the movie of Mickey Rourke. Both Boogie Sheftell and Mickey Rourke seem to stand out from the rest of the cast. My DVD copy from 2000 contains an excellent “making-of” doc that features interviews from ALL the players, which says a lot and is nice. But Mickey Rourke is absent. Makes me sad in a way that Rourke has since trod a path that removes him from such pleasant things as a cast reunion from an early triumph. But I have been heartened to hear that the boys have good memories of working with him and I have even read that most of the cast’s fond memories of making the film include Rourke. Rourke and Guttenberg – two actors who would seem to be polar opposites – got along well during filming and would go out together. They even lamented to Barry that they were the only two who didn’t have a scene together so one was concocted – a scene Mickey stole according to Guttenberg by “drinking” sugar from a counter-top dispenser. Producer Johnson also noted that Rourke spent much time helping Steve with his lines – something Mickey didn’t want known so as to avoid seeming too much like a “good guy”.

Some movies are not just. Some movies penetrate deep in their depiction of life. They can conjure memories of your own life or they can present images of what you would’ve liked your life to have been. Or what it could’ve or should’ve been. As I’ve said, my friends and I connected with this film and tried to emulate the guys in it. Classy sweaters or jackets and ties. We hung out at Kelsey’s Roadhouse Friday nights, the Checkerboard Saturday mornings and deep into the night at Country Style Donuts, all the while feeling like we were tapping into our forbears from Baltimore. Maybe you can’t be a cop like Frank Bullitt, but you could shoot the breeze with friends you’ve grown up with and navigate the changes of life together. This makes Diner infinitely relatable and a film that viewers can easily form a bond with.


After writing all this I realized I had still failed to capture the essence of this remarkable film. It occurred to me that, if I was going to share my love of this movie – and that is my goal with every article at Vintage Leisure – then I was going to have to go deeper. Really, I thought, I’d have to go scene-by-scene. Which is exactly what I’ve done in Part Two of this review. For descriptions of what makes virtually every scene in the movie notable, you need to check it out. We’ll look at Boogie’s odd relationship with Shrevie, the way the girls are depicted, particularly Carol’s blooming interest and Barbara’s cold, sensible nature and classic scenes showing Shrevie and his records and Fenwick revealing how smart he really is. Coming Soon.


Sources

  1. Serpick, Evan. Diner: An Oral History. Baltimore Magazine. (2012)
  2. Lenker, Maureen Lee. Diner at 40: The film’s stars reflect on greasy-spoon graveyards, camaraderie campers, and roast beef sandwiches. Entertainment Weekly. (2022)
  3. Pousson, Eli. Baltimore Building of the Week: Roland Park Shopping Center. Baltimore Heritage. (2010)

*It is actually “Fell’s” Point, founded in the mid-1700’s by William Fell. I have seen it with and without the apostrophe, sometimes in the same article.

2 comments

  1. I moved to the Baltimore area in late 1965, and years later watching Diner, it all came back. That movie is amazing on so many, many levels. Thanks for today’s post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s