‘Stand by Me’ Oral History: Rob Reiner and Cast on River Phoenix and How Coming-of-Age Classic Almost Didn’t Happen
Brent Lang wrote:It’s been three decades since “Stand By Me” became the little drama that could, catapulting River Phoenix to stardom, establishing Rob Reiner as a director on the rise, and racking up big ticket sales on a paltry budget.
The story of four friends from small town in Oregon, hiking into the countryside in search of the body of a boy who has been hit and killed by a train, is an unlikely coming-of-age tale. Yet in Reiner’s sensitive hands, it becomes a meditation on mortality — one that transcends its 1950s setting to have a universal appeal.
“Stand By Me” is unique in other ways. For one thing, it rivals “The 400 Blows” in its ability to evoke complex characterizations from young actors. Not only Phoenix as spiritual leader Chris Chambers, but co-stars Wil Wheaton as sensitive Gordie Lachance, Jerry O’Connell as wisecracking Vern Tessio, and Corey Feldman as hot-tempered Teddy Duchamp, provide finely wrought portraits of boys on the cusp of adulthood.
For Reiner, best known at the time for playing Michael “Meathead” Stivic in “All in the Family,” it was a chance to step out of the shadow of his father, legendary comedian Carl Reiner, and to position himself as a director of depth and nuance. It launched a career that would see him directing the likes of “Misery,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” and “The Princess Bride.”
But though it is now considered a classic, “Stand By Me” struggled to make it to screens. Financed outside the studio system after the cult success of “This is Spinal Tap,” after nearly every Hollywood player passed on the script, the film was nearly derailed after its funding collapsed right before filming. It then had to hustle to find distribution. To mark its 30th anniversary, Variety spoke to the cast and creative team behind the film.
After convincing a reluctant Stephen King to allow them to adapt his novella, “The Body,” for the screen, writers Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon brought the project to AVCO Embassy Pictures, a production and distribution company owned by Norman Lear. For King, who based the story on his own childhood, it was a leap of faith. The horror writer had bad experiences with Hollywood and was unhappy with adaptations of his books “The Shining” and “Christine.”