I finally met Ivan Reitman three months ago - my Hollywood hero was a truly lovely man

Meeting one’s heroes is, contrary to advice, always advisable – depending on how canny you are at picking heroes. So if as a teenager you lionised, say, the notoriously grumpy Van Morrison, then you’ll probably be disappointed. If, however, you’re the kind of person who never grew out of your love for Ivan Reitman comedies, from Animal House to Ghostbusters to Dave, you may have been mocked (by idiots) over the years for your taste, but, man, you are quids in when you meet your man.

As the Guardian’s official 80s movies correspondent, I talked to Reitman multiple times over the years, beginning with a phone interview for the last film he directed, 2014’s Draft Day. When I contacted him again a few weeks later to ask if I could interview him for a book I was working on about 80s movies, he immediately agreed, and talked to me for over an hour, reminiscing about films people had been asking him to reminisce about for over 30 years. He never showed boredom or irritation. If I ever needed a quote, or just had a question, I could email him and he’d reply immediately. Does it really need saying that this kind of behaviour from a genuine Hollywood powerhouse is not exactly typical?

I didn’t get to meet Reitman in person until October 2021 when he, amazingly, came to London mid-pandemic to help promote his son Jason’s contribution to the Ghostbusters canon – a testament, it quickly became clear, to his love for his son. We initially met in front of a hotel in Soho, where he and Jason gamely hammed it up in the Ghostbusters car, Ecto-1. It is rule number one of interviewing that you don’t ask for photos with the celebrity, and it is rule number two that, if you absolutely must, you certainly don’t do it before the interview. I smashed those rules to smithereens and asked the surprisingly shy and humble Reitman for a photo with him in front of Ecto-1, and after asking if I was sure I didn’t want one with Jason (nope, sorry), he agreed.

How do you convey to someone how much their work meant to you as a child and therefore all your life? Poor Reitman had had nerds burbling to him about this for almost all of his adult life, and I’m afraid I added to the pile of nerds. As I babbled on about how I can recite whole scenes of Meatballs, of Twins, and most of all, Ghostbusters, Jason beamed proudly next to his father, but Reitman himself just seemed overcome. “Gosh, thank you,” he said to me as we walked to the hotel. “That’s so nice – thank you.”

Genuine humility is in pretty short supply in most celebrity interviews – so is genuine emotion. But twice Reitman had to break off to cry (once going to the bathroom to pull himself together) as he talked about, first, how proud he was of Jason, and then as he talked about his mother’s time in Auschwitz. Reitman was born in Czechoslovakia in 1946, after his mother and father (who was in the resistance) finally reunited at the end of the war. They fled communist oppression and made it to Canada when Reitman was four, losing pretty much all of their money on the journey. He was happy to talk about Kindergarten Cop for weeks on end, but when it came to discussing his family – his parents, his children – his grief and pride and love were just too close to the surface. There’s nothing more Jewish than weeping with pride over one’s children, or being haunted by the Holocaust, and watching Reitman sit there reach for another tissue, this gentle, tender man felt, not like a director I had revered all my life (one who made Bill Murray a star and Arnold Schwarzenegger into a bona fide comedian), but like someone in my family. I wanted to hug him, but fortunately for him, social distancing rules kept me at a safe distance.

What an impressive and brilliant man Reitman was. It’s yet another terrible loss from that generation of self-made Jewish immigrants who shaped American comedy, and a very sad loss of a genuinely lovely man.

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