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Top 10 Rob Reiner Movie Characters

by Eric Melin on May 1, 2012

in Top 10s

Today’s Top 10 list comes from sitegoer Brian Tousey, who teaches a film course in Los Angeles, and writes a film-based blog called Maximum Tenderness. To contribute a Top 10 of your own, email Here’s Brian:

best-rob-reiner-moviesFrom his directing debut in 1984’s This is Spinal Tap to 1995’s The American President, Rob Reiner had an (almost) unbroken run of movies that could rival any director in movie history (For the purposes of this argument, we’re going to forget about 1994’s North for the moment). What was most amazing about this string of movies was how varied they were; he moved from broad comedy (The Sure Thing) to horror (Misery) to drama (A Few Good Men).

As an actor himself, Reiner got the most of the actors in his movies, and the result is some of the flat-out best and most iconic film characters in recent years. True, much (if not all) of the credit is due to the writers of these movies and the source material from which they sprung (so thank you, William Goldman, Aaron Sorkin, Nora Ephron, Stephen King and others…). However, since Reiner was the man who was at the helm of these movies, he is the one name-checked in the list title.

10.  Derek Smalls – Harry Shearer in This is Spinal Tap (1984)

For a guy who gets caught by airport security with a foil-wrapped cucumber in his trousers, Derek Smalls brings a subtle and, surprisingly, a gentle quality to the hard rock that is Spinal Tap. Here is a guy who describes himself as the “lukewarm water” in the band as compared to the “fire” and “ice” that are his bandmates, and while that may seem as if it would make for a blandly vanilla character, Smalls was anything but. This was the guy who got trapped in an on-stage chrysalis from which he was supposed to dramatically spring, who loyally stuck with David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) after Nigel (Christopher Guest) quit the band (famously brainstorming their idea for a musical about Jack the Ripper entitled “Saucy Jack”), and who offers groupies “moustache rides.” Derek is the member of Spinal Tap who will never quit the band; he will tour on the county fair circuit long after his band-mates have either quit or have overdosed.

Defining Moment:  Airport security, starts at 4:00 below:

9. Col. Nathan R. Jessup – Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (1992)

I would describe him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, except Col. Jessup never really wore sheep’s clothing, did he? Sure, he initially played nice with Tom Cruise’s Daniel Kaffee upon arriving at Guantanamo, but it only took a few uncomfortable questions on Kaffee’s part before Jessup turns mean. “You see Danny, I can deal with the bullets, and the bombs, and the blood. I don’t want money, and I don’t want medals. What I do want is for you to stand there in that faggoty white uniform and with your Harvard mouth extend me some fucking courtesy.”  Yes, it turns out Jessup did order the Code Red on Private Santiago, thus ensuring his demise. But this wasn’t really an act of evil, was it? Jessup really believes, right up until the moment he is hauled away to jail, that he did the right thing for his country. After all, we want him on that wall, we need him on that wall.

Defining moment:  It has to be the “You can’t handle the truth!” speech.

8. Walter “Gib” Gibson – John Cusack in The Sure Thing (1985)

I remember when The Sure Thing came out, it was described as a sort of antidote to all the teen sex comedies of the early to mid-80s. Yes, the title of the movie references guaranteed sex and the first shots of the movie are the titular “sure thing” lubing up for a sexy day at the beach set to the strains of Rod Stewart’s “Infatuation”, but the reviews reassured that this movie was different. It was smart, sweet, and fairly innocent for movies of this ilk. The personification of those three preceding adjectives is Gib, who wants to be a character in Porky’s but can’t quite make himself be that simple. Instead of choosing the southern California university his buddy Lance (Anthony Edwards) chooses, Gib goes for the better education at the cold, buttoned up Ivy League school. Yeah, he travels cross-country to get laid, but only after he botches a date with Alison (Daphne Zuniga), the smart, buttoned-up overachiever. I think the key to the movie, which cannot be described as all that surprising in terms of plot, is that Gib is a character you like spending time with.

Defining Moment: Saving Alison from the creepy pick-up truck driver.

7. President Andrew Shepherd – Michael Douglas in The American President (1995)

Andrew Shepherd is the Rocky Balboa of film presidents. We watch him get beat up, politically speaking, by Richard Dreyfuss’ Senator Bob Rumson for the entire duration of the movie. By the end, you just want that sweet release of Shepherd giving it back, laying the proverbial smack down on Rumson. And when that moment comes, it is one of the better movie speeches of recent years (Reiner has had a lot of luck with writer Aaron Sorkin in this way, getting this and the before-mentioned Nicholson courtroom speech from A Few Good Men). There is such satisfaction watching this punching bag of a POTUS stand up for himself, finally, that you don’t even need to see Rumson’s reaction. You know his campaign is pretty much over.

Defining Moment: The Speech

6. Harry Burns – Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Harry is a bit of a douchebag through most of the movie, so it is a testament to Billy Crystal’s performance that the viewer does end up liking and rooting for him. He is one of those people that I’m not sure you’d tolerate in real life, though… I think that if I was trying to have a normal conversation with him and he went into that weird “pecan pie” character, I’d probably consider cutting ties with the guy. Actually, we would probably be through the minute he spit grape seeds onto my window. But Billy Crystal makes Harry a bit more endearing than he may have been on the page, and I think that is because Crystal isn’t afraid to show what an ass the character can be, especially to Sally (Meg Ryan). As idiosyncratic as Sally is, she comes off better than Harry in this decade long courtship the movie portrays. Still, that final New Years run through New York to profess his love feels earned when it comes, and you feel darn good that those kids finally got their shit together and got married.

Defining Moment: Surrey with a Fringe on Top at Sharper Image

5. Chris Chambers – River Phoenix in Stand By Me (1986)

There were four kids who were the focus of Stand By Me, but Chris Chambers was the coolest; he was the character you’d most want to be in real life (even though he came from an abusive family and it is revealed that he is fatally stabbed in the neck later in life). What is great about Chris is that he is so clearly cooler than the other kids yet never acts like he is. Even though he is known as a juvenile delinquent around town, you get the sense that he could have thrown together a cooler friend-base than Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell). Yet Chris is all about watching out for these outcasts, even when it becomes clear that he needs someone to take care of him just as much. He is the character that resonates after the movie is over; so much so that when you do discover his eventual fate, and the character dissolves right in front of Gordie, the moment packs an insane emotional wallop.

Defining Moment: Chris Breaks Down to Gordie

4. Sally Albright – Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

If you need a reason why Meg Ryan was handed the title of America’s Sweetheart for a brief period in the late 80s-early 90s, look no further than her role as Sally in When Harry Met Sally…. She is so good in this movie that it probably ultimately hurt her, as she ended up chasing that cute dragon to diminishing returns (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) to finally trying to drastically change up her image (In the Cut). But Sally Albright continues to be extremely appealing, mainly because she embraces her bundle of neuroses. I know that her money scene (mainly because Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner keep reminding me) is the “Fake Orgasm at the Deli” moment, but Sally’s best stuff, what makes her loveable, is the smaller tics: the organizing of her movies in a card catalog, her unique way of ordering food, the letter by letter method of depositing mail in the box… In other words, basically all the things that Harry says to her in the climactic profession of love at the end of the movie.

Defining Moment: (Besides the Fake Orgasm Scene): Sally Discovers Joe Remarried.

3. Annie Wilkes – Kathy Bates in Misery (1990)

I’ve always kind of hated the casting of James Caan as Paul Sheldon in this movie (as good an actor as Caan is, he couldn’t pull off the “passive weakling finding his inner warrior to defeat the dragon”), but Kathy Bates is another story altogether. She is perfection as Annie Wilkes, and that’s a good thing since the whole movie is dependent on the audience believing in this nutbag. You know, maybe “nutbag” doesn’t do her justice as Bates created one of the most complex and layered villains in movie history. Here is a woman who is deranged, yes, but you can also see why she has managed to walk among us for so long. At first (and probably second and third) glance, she is able to maintain the appearance of a harmless, if eccentric, busybody. But man… cross her by killing of her favorite character in literature and she will make her presence known. You know the scene I’m talking about.

Defining Moment: The Hobbling.

2. Nigel Tufnel – Christopher Guest in This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Let me make a case for Nigel Tufnel as perhaps the sweetest character in the entire Rob Reiner canon. Gib from The Sure Thing would also belong in this category, but while Gib actively put on a front of cynicism throughout most of The Sure Thing, Nigel is utterly without cynicism and guile from beginning to end. Tell him his album cover is sexist, and he’ll ask you why “being sexy” could be a problem. Ask him to recount the band’s drummer “problem,” and he’ll earnestly relay to you the real dangers of spontaneous combustion. Even his temper tantrums are not of the typical rock star type; no, Nigel grows frustrated over small bread and normal size meat at a craft service table or someone touching (or even looking) at a particularly valuable guitar from his collection. Spinal Tap (fictional or otherwise) will go on forever most likely, mainly because Nigel and his bandmates don’t recognize the very clear signs that it may be time to hang things up.

Defining Moment: An Amp That Goes to 11. (Better quality version was non-embeddable)

1.Inigo Montoya – Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride (1987)

Inigo Montoya gets the number one spot on this list because he combines the best qualities of all great Rob Reiner characters. Like Gib’s clearly defined goal in The Sure Thing is to get laid, Inigo’s sole mission in life is to avenge his father’s unjust death at the (six-fingered) hands of Count Rugen (Christopher Guest). Like Chris Chambers, Inigo also looks out for those weaker (at least figuratively) than him (Andre the Giant’s Fezzik). He has the morals and ethics of President Andrew Shepard and the inherent sweetness of Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls. Add to that the fact that he is a skilled swordsman who can show humility and admiration when he is bested by the Man in Black (Cary Elwes), you have perhaps the most well rounded and loveable of any character in a Rob Reiner movie. Ask anyone for a quote from The Princess Bride and odds are that they will parrot back to you Montoya’s famous manifesto: “Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Good stuff.

Defining Moment: Duh.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes for The Pitch. He’s former President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls, Ultimate Fakebook, and Truck Stop Love . He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Alan Rapp May 2, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Two characters from Spinal Tap and only one from Princess Bride? Inconceivable!

Actually, this is a really cool idea for a list. Well done.


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