After more than two decades as an actor, Peter Riegert decided to take his career in a new direction.
“I had read a short story by O. Henry about six years ago and decided it would make a nice short,” he said. “I wanted to investigate the possibilities of directing a film, and the best way to do that was through a reel.”
Acting kept him too busy to do anything about his idea until November 1999, when he sat down and wrote a straight adaptation.
“It came right off the page quickly,” he said.
Pre-production on the 13-minute short, “By Courier,” took about six weeks. He had planned to film during two days, but because of rainy weather, he got only one.
Editing took another five weeks. He traded lectures at the School of Visual Arts in New York for time on the school’s AVID.
For the music, the actor turned to friend Al Kooper.
“He’s a legend in rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “He played with the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears. I called on a lot of friends.”
With the short completed, Riegert took it to various film festivals, including Telluride, Denver and the Hamptons.
On a whim, he submitted it to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. With stiff competition from 117 other entries, Riegert was surprised to find his short selected.
“My intent was to have this as my conversation piece,” he said. “I didn’t expect the door to open so much. I’m very lucky. It’s very rare to achieve so much with so little.”
Last year could be considered one of the actor’s finest hours – especially when one considers that he starred in three episodes of the immensely popular HBO series “The Sopranos,” had a part in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” and, of course, found his first film nominated for an Oscar. He lost to Florian Gallenberger’s “Quier Ser.”
However, this could be just the beginning. He’s filming six episodes of a new television series for ABC called “The Beast.” Mimi Leder (“The Peacemaker,” “Deep Impact”) directs. ABC executives will decide in September whether they want to option more programs.
“I have no priorities,” he said. “A series takes a lot of time, and I still want to do movie work or a play if I’m free. It’s nice to be able to adapt. I’m comfortable doing whatever comes along.”
In May, he will be off to Toronto to film “The Bleacher Bums” with director Saul Rubinek.
But before he starts that project, he plans a one-night only appearance at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.
He will present his directorial debut and then will participate in a question and answer session.
The actor said his trip to Lincoln comes after meeting the director of the Mary Riepma Ross at a recent Telluride Film Festival.
“He explained the program to me, then asked if I would ever consider coming to Nebraska,” Riegert said. “I said I would be flattered. Then we picked a date.
“It’s fun for me, because it’s nice to hear what average people are thinking about, otherwise you get too isolated. Too often, they aren’t taken into consideration.”
He added that their interests are more varied than people in the industry believe.
Riegert was born in 1947 in the Bronx, New York. His mother was a housewife and piano teacher; his father was in the poultry business. When he was 7 1/2, his family moved about 20 minutes from the city.
“I was always going to the theater, cinema or museums,” he said. “I loved the movies.”
In high school, he enjoyed sports and played baseball. He’s still a big fan of the sport.
After graduation, he chose a career in social work and teaching. He soon became involved with the War Babies, an improvisational group, and did some television work, including two episodes of the “M*A*S*H” TV series.
Then, at 31, everything changed for him. He was in California with a girlfriend and decided to try out for a few jobs. One of those was “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”
“It was between me and someone else,” he said. “I had to go back about three to four times.”
Riegert got the part of Donald “Boon” Schoenstein, playing opposite John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Karen Allen, Tom Hulce and Donald Sutherland. The film has become a comedy classic.
Although he had no formal training, the actor said he learned his craft along the way.
“Acting is a true apprenticeship where you can learn by working,” he said.
Since 1978, he has starred opposite Burt Lancaster in “Local Hero,” Amy Irving in “Crossing Delancey,” Michael Caine in “A Shock to the System” and Sylvester Stallone in “Oscar.”
“My family said I should find what I like to do and be lucky at that,” he said, “to find what I’m passionate about, then persevere through. I’m lucky to keep getting work, because having that exposure helps remind people that I’m available. This business is strange and unforgiving, and a person goes in and out of favor all the time.”
For Riegert, directing is the logical progression for his career.
“As you get older, the parts you get offered get less and less,” he said. “Just look at the movies to see that. But to focus on that is too limiting. It doesn’t just happen in this industry, it happens everywhere.
“I grew up in a time when the feature film was the director’s conversation with the world. I’m not interested in a cable audience. I’m spoiled. My model is people who know how to make an experience worthwhile, because without joy, life is unbearable.
“Life is an adventure on earth, and you should live it. As they say, there are lots of roads to Rome.”
Showtimes for “By Courier” at the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater will be 1, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3, 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday. Riegert will appear only for the 8 p.m. screening. Cost of admission is $6.50. Members, seniors, children and students with valid IDs get in for $4.50.
For more information, go to The Ross Film Theater or call (402) 472-5353. The theater is in the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at 12th and R streets in Lincoln.