He portrayed a crooked politician beaten to a pulp by Tony Soprano. But in real life, Peter Riegert is alive and well -- well enough to now be directing for the big screen. The New York City native, who is a veteran of six 2001 episodes on the HBO mob series, has made a picture that premieres at the Lake Placid Film Festival this weekend: King of the Corner is a character study about a middle-aged man at an emotional crossroads.
During a telephone interview, the 57-year-old Riegert tries to remember the exact wording of a PR blurb that refers to his movie as "a sly, deadpan social comedy about living life without a compass." He laughs at the description and adds: "There's a lot of whimsy in the material, which is very literate -- both verbally and cinematically. But it's not in a hurry."
Neither is Riegert, apparently. He spent more than three decades successfully emoting for stage, film and television before getting behind a camera in a professional capacity. His first directorial effort, By Courier, was based on an O. Henry tale and earned a 2000 Academy Award nomination.
His feature debut, adapted from Gerald Shapiro's "Bad Jews and Other Stories," stars Isabella Rossellini, Rita Moreno, Eli Wallach and Dominic Chianese of "The Sopranos." Riegert's role is a protagonist plagued by personal and professional tsores who seeks spiritual solace from a rabbi played by Eric Bogosian.
"I always wanted to direct," Riegert explains. "The good news is that I had an acting career. And the bad news is that I had an acting career. About four years ago, though, I reached a point of total frustration with the kinds of parts that were coming my way."
Before that, many of his parts were plum. Riegert's 1978 turn as a frat boy helped Animal House become a cult favorite. He was a soul-searching corporate flunky in Local Hero, a quirky 1983 art-house hit set in Scotland. And, in 1988, Crossing Delancey put him in the spotlight as a pickle vendor and thinking-woman's romantic leading man.
Riegert's former romance with Bette Midler was paralleled in art when he became her co-star in a 1993 television version of Gypsy. His other non-Mafioso TV roles have ranged from several guest spots on the "Law & Order" franchise to the made-for-cable Barbarians at the Gate.
A Bronx boy, Riegert graduated from the University of Buffalo in the 1960s, then did social work, taught eighth grade and waited on tables. The show-biz bug really bit him in the early 1970s. He joined an improv troupe called War Babies. That led to some Broadway and off-Broadway opportunities, including a part in David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago in 1976.
In '81 and '82, he participated in a dynamic theater program at Johnson State College that also lured John Heard, whose own recurring "Sopranos" character was eventually whacked. When Crossing Delancey opened in the Burlington area, Riegert came north again for a screening at the now-defunct theater on Dorset Street.
Today, he's not eschewing his impressive thespian credentials in order to explore the supervisory skills of a filmmaker. Riegert appears opposite Blythe Danner, Faye Dunaway, Peter Fonda and Jack Palance in a CBS movie, Back When We Were Grownups, that will be broadcast later in 2004.
And Riegert is certainly amenable to another round with the made men in next year's final season of "The Sopranos." "People have told me they think I'm the one who should 'do' Tony," he says of an imaginary denouement for the crime-family boss.
For the moment, however, promoting King of the Corner reigns supreme. Riegert gathered an array of talent, including a seasoned cast, to help him finesse the $600,000 production: The cinematographer and editor -- Mauricio Rubinstein and Mario Ontal, respectively -- have worked with John Sayles. Rock legend Al Kooper composed the soundtrack.
The four-week shoot with locations in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester, Philadelphia and Arizona proved to be a great learning experience. Riegert says his perfectionist tendencies were assuaged by the cinematographer: "He told me, 'You can't direct your 10th film on your first,' so I calmed down."
Will audiences emerge taking about Peter Riegert's unique auteur sensibility when the results are on view June 3 and 4 in Lake Placid? "If you know me as an actor," he suggests, "this movie is not going to seem so weird." m
For more information, visit www.lakeplacidfilmfestival.com or call 518-523-3456.