Judge Reinhold’s Totally Awesome ’80s Flashback (2024)


Returning for the fourth Beverly Hills Cop, the actor shares stories about Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Vice Versa, and Stripes—as well as the time he was paid with a stolen car and the movie he thinks was deliberately killed at the box office.

By Anthony Breznican

Judge Reinhold’s Totally Awesome ’80s Flashback (1)

Judge Reinhold at The Aster in Hollywood.Storm Santos for Exclusive Artists

When Judge Reinhold was a teenager he had to take a psychological test to get into a private school, and the administrators wrote an assessment of him that now seems prophetic: “The line that came out of it was: ‘Judge’s prevailing mood is one of unwarranted enthusiasm,’” Reinhold says. Years later, his wife, Amy, had the phrase printed on a T-shirt for him. “Unwarranted Enthusiasm” sums up the boundless, boyish energy he still brings to his roles, even at the age of 67.

A generation ago, Reinhold won hearts in Fast Times at Ridgemont High as a hopeless dork whose single moment of heroism is commemorated by Sean Penn’s stoner Spicoli as “totally awesome!” Reinhold played an insufferable social-climbing yuppie in Gremlins, and a doe-eyed novice in Stripes. Then came Beverly Hills Cop, in which he played the pure-of-heart police detective Billy Rosewood opposite Eddie Murphy’s heedless Detroit investigator Axel Foley. Reinhold reprises the role in Netflix’s fourth installment in the series, Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F (out July 3), in which Axel returns to the posh streets of Southern California to track down his missing friend.

After the first Beverly Hills Cop, Reinhold vaulted from character actor to lead. But despite strong reviews, 1988’s Vice Versa—the first film with his name above the title—became a casualty in the body-swap movie wars of the late ’80s. Though it upended Reinhold’s status in Hollywood, what stung even more was his belief that the movie was killed deliberately in order to undermine a studio executive who was pushing for change in the industry.

Now Reinhold is telling all: how he was paid with a stolen car for his first movie, what he remembers about John Candy on Stripes, what Beverly Hills Cop would’ve been like had Sylvester Stallone stayed in the main role, and how Nicolas Cage nearly got his part in Fast Times. Reinhold’s classic ’80s movies came to define the era, but he had no idea that was happening at the time.

“The ’80s hadn’t happened yet,” he says. “We didn’t know we were going to be remembered.”

Vanity Fair: I wanted to start at the very beginning, and looking at your filmography it looks like the earliest role for you was a 1979 episode of Wonder Woman. Is that right?

Judge Reinhold: My first professional line on camera was, “Wonder Woman, I’m so glad you’re here!” The episode is called “Amazon Hot Wax”— I don’t know why. [“Jessie’s Girl” singer] Rick Springfield was in it. So was Sarah Purcell, who went on to be a talk show host. She and I were supposed to be like Karen and Richard Carpenter. It all takes place in a recording studio, and the bad guys are there…. I don’t remember too much of it, but Debra Winger played Lynda Carter’s little sister too. It taught me how to work with the camera before my butt was really on the line.

What was the next big break?

I did the Magnum, P.I. pilot [in 1980]. Tom Selleck was a really lovely guy. It was his pilot, but he was very relaxed. I’m guarding where he wants to go, so Magnum gives the sailor a bucket of chicken to eat so he can get past him. My character was called ‘Chicken-Eating Seaman.” [Laughs.]

People might think of you as a teen actor, but you didn’t grow up in Hollywood.

I grew up in two places, really: Wilmington, Delaware, where my father worked, and then in rural Virginia. He worked in labor relations, and did arbitration for the DuPont company. He started out having a law practice in Washington, DC.

Your dad was an attorney and he named you Judge?

Yeah, he did. My legal name is Edward, but the only people that have ever called me that are the police. I’ve been Judge since I was two weeks old, and I looked like Winston Churchill. I reminded my dad of a crabby old judge that had presided over a case. He just thought that was funny.

Your first feature film was as a young man being targeted by the US military in a low-budget 1980 thriller that’s now titled Running Scared, and has sometimes been released under the name Desperate Men. Was that your big break?

Yeah, it’s a totally different movie. It was really thrilling for me—I beat out Dennis Quaid for the only time! It takes place in the Everglades, and it’s about two GIs who unwittingly come across the plans for the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961. It’s hard to get a good part in your first movie. You really, really bust your ass in auditions and even if you know that you’re really bringing it, they’re just going to go with the guy with more credits. So it really was a break.

How did the film turn out?

I thought it was going to be North by Northwest. I know something was going on, but I don’t know what. The director, who was terrific—his name was Paul Glickler—he came and said, “Look, we don’t have enough money to really finish, we just have a threadbare budget. Can we pay you when we get back to LA?” And I said, “Hey, I’m green, but I’m not dumb.” There was a ’59 Cadillac that I drove in the movie. I said, “You give me that car, I’m yours.”


They worked it out a little too easily. I got that car. My mother was a realtor in Boca Raton, and I had to leave the car with her and fly back to Los Angeles to audition for Ordinary People for Robert Redford. While I was doing that, my mother had an accident in the car, and it turns out the car was stolen. Somebody had scraped off the registration number. I remember I was on a pay phone in LA. and had to explain it to them, and I told ’em where the production office was, but it was long gone. Everybody was gone. Except Paul, the director.

Do you think he knew what was going on?

He just wanted to get his film made, and I don’t know how much he was aware. So yeah, it was a stolen car.

Your next big role was Stripes, right? Playing Elmo, one of the new Army recruits with Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and John Candy.

It was a great cast. It was this whole new genre of wild and crazy guy comedies. The interesting story about Stripes is that Cheech and Chong were originally slated to play the leads. Ivan Reitman made it with the Animal House crew, which he produced. I wasn’t cast until Bill and Harold came on. Harold and Bill—that was where I learned about audacity in comedy. Comedy is about unpredictable things. It’s about surprise. And Bill just personified that. Eddie Murphy is like that too. Harold and Bill would disappear in Harold’s trailer and rewrite the dialogue and come out, and Bill would say the most outrageous stuff. It was really brilliantly funny. The scary thing is if you only had a few lines—like me—you didn’t want to blow the take.

By laughing?

What I’ve employed several times in my career—also working with Eddie—is I would put my hands in my pockets and squeeze my thigh really hard to the point where it would be bruised at the end of the day, just to keep from laughing. I couldn’t blow a take with Bill. There’s times where you can see even Candy almost lose it.

What do you remember about John Candy?

You would love him. He had a huge personality. He just loved people. You would walk into his trailer and it’d be just like the United Nations. It’d be crazy. It’d be like a gardener, who’s in charge of the set’s landscape; a studio executive; [Sergeant Hulka actor] Warren Oates; a farmer from down the road that would bring in freshly butchered chickens every day…

That’s quite a mix.

That’s who John was. I remember when he found out that we were filming in a dry county in Kentucky. He didn’t even know what that was. I had to explain that to him, and he didn’t really believe it when I told him. We were outside of Louisville, in this God-forsaken Holiday Inn in the middle of nowhere, and John’s bathtub was always full of beer for us. For everybody. We always ended up in John’s room. We’d practiced these rifle spins for the movie together, and there were all these holes in the roof.

They were loaded!?

No, no, no, no. What I mean is a lot of that stuff was twirling and we kept hitting the ceiling. No, they were just wooden.

Judge Reinhold, reprising his Stripes wardrobe in the present day.

Amy Reinhold

Fast Times was right after that. You played Jennifer Jason Leigh’s big brother, Brad, who has a pretty awful and awkward school year. How did you get the part of the down-on-his-luck teen?

I lived above the director, Amy Heckerling, in a duplex, and [her assistant] Carrie Frazier was my girlfriend. They wanted Nicolas Cage to play Brad really badly—and rightfully so.

He ended up with a bit part in the film. So he was up for your role?

Because he was still 17, they would’ve had to submit the production to kid work hours. They wouldn’t have been able to have a full schedule. The budget wouldn't accommodate Nic being 17. So very reluctantly, they let him go. And then they didn’t have a Brad. Then it hit Amy: “Wait a minute, Judge could pull this off.” So she said, “You’ve got to come in and meet Art Linson, the producer, but you can’t tell him that we know each other because then he won’t take you seriously.”

So that was a performance too?

Amy was in the room, and Carrie was in the room—my girlfriend—and I had to pretend like I was meeting them for the first time. I read for it several times, and then—as if I wasn’t in the room, Art looked at me and says, “Look at him, he’s as old as Ed Asner!” I was 23. I could tell that my fate was being decided right then.

How did you react?

We all laughed, and I think it was Amy who said, “Eh, just cast the other seniors as older, they’ll never know.” So Amy helped get me that role. One thing that stuck with me was Art said, “You’re the only one who read the part who didn’t feel sorry for himself.” That hadn’t occurred to me. Brad just soldiers on through all of these indignities. It was basically the worst year of his life, but it didn’t occur to me to be self-pitying about it. I think that’s what won him over.

You’re part of one of the movie’s most infamous scenes, when he pleasures himself while imagining his crush, Phoebe Cates’s character, emerging from the pool and taking off her bikini top. Then in real life, she opens the door to the bathroom and catches him…which is mortifying.

If you take that scene out of context, it’s kind of creepy. But to me, it was very funny when I read the script, because it was just a matter of how much more can he endure? That was one of maybe the dumbest and one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. Obviously it was simulated, but it was an extremely personal thing, and it was just humiliating. At one point, we’d done a few takes where she catches me, and I said, “I’ve got to go. I just had to get out.” Amy followed me, and I remember she said, “Look, it’s a love scene—only it’s with yourself.”

That reassured you?

It cracked us up. I just remember that so vividly on the sidewalk. We were laughing. She was my bud.

Were you just sort of stressed out from the awkwardness?

Yeah, it wasn’t easy. When I read the script, I thought it was just so funny. But when it came time that day…. I don’t know how it was for Phoebe. I think we were both awkward. We both had to work through it. The audience doesn’t realize it, nor should they have to think about it, but it’s not easy, that stuff. I just went with it. One thing that made [performing] it easy was that I was incredibly uncomfortable.

In 1984 you had both Beverly Hills Cop and Gremlins, which reunited you with Phoebe. I love your cringey attempted pickup line to her, when he’s boasting about his new apartment.

“I’m talking cable.” Yeah, I know. That was a big deal! Years later, I saw Kevin Kline and her on the street on the West Side in New York, and he said, “Oh, look, darling, it’s that guy who chases you through all the movies.”

Gremlins is a strange one, for sure.

I didn’t know what to make of the movie. I thought, Is this a Christmas movie? Is it a horror movie? Is it a comedy? It was not easy getting the tone of that right. Beverly Hills Cop was scary tonally too, and we ended up creating a new genre.

Then and Now: Judge Reinhold as Billy Rosewood in Beverly Hills Cop in 1984, and reprising the role for Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F, the fourth film in the series, out July 3.

(Left) Paramount Pictures, (Right) Storm Santos for Exclusive Artists

How did you land the role of Billy Rosewood in that film?

The director, Martin Brest, is in Fast Times. It’s kind of an Easter egg. He plays the guy in the morgue during the school trip. He’s standing there chewing gum, like apparently you do in morgues to keep out the smell of the formaldehyde. Marty and Amy had gone to NYU together and had done pretty legendary student films. It was really clear that they were both really talented. Then he saw the film and he said, “I’m going to work with you one day. I’m going to use you one day.” And I’m like, “Yeah. Okay.” People say that kind of thing all the time, but he meant it.

What do you think was innovative about his approach to Beverly Hills Cop?

What Marty did was make sure that we weren’t being funny when things were really dangerous. Some action comedies become glib while the violence is going on, and that’s just unrealistic. So [producers] Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and Marty, that was their directive: We’re going to play this real.

What do you remember about the early days of making that film?

Sylvester Stallone was going to star in Beverly Hills Cop. He was Paramount’s biggest star by far. He had done a couple Rocky movies, and he was maybe the top box office draw. Marty said that Stallone needed to approve me, and I remember I went to this beautiful bungalow in the Paramount lot and talked to Sly.

© Paramount/Everett Collection.

Sounds like it was a very different kind of film at that point.

It wasn’t a comedy. It was pretty straight action. Stallone plays Axel Foley, a cop from the wrong side of the tracks who comes to LA to avenge the death of his friend. He meets a young rookie who kind of guides him through Beverly Hills. I was thrilled with that role.

Was John Ashton playing your partner at that point?

John came later. I think Eddie was cast then.

When Stallone fell out, did that put the movie in jeopardy?

We didn’t know what was going to happen, whether they were going to shelve it or not. I kind of lost the narrative there. I don’t know whose idea it was to get Eddie, who had pulled Saturday Night Live out of the ratings toilet single-handedly. He’d already done 48 Hours, and there’s that one scene in it where he walks into the bar and says, “There’s a new sheriff in town.” That’s Axel! It was a brilliant idea. I wish I could tell you who had it. I feel like it was Marty. Once they came up with the idea, Jerry and Don had to go to New Jersey to pitch it to Eddie, and Eddie can be very inscrutable. He listened, but didn’t show any emotion or anything. They told him the whole movie, and he goes, “Okay, let’s do it.” Just like that.

Did he have to approve you all over again?

No, he didn’t. I was already cast as Billy, and that was cool with Eddie.

I think your character in Beverly Hills Cop stands out because he’s so boyish in the middle of all this crime and comedy and chaos. There’s an innocence about him.

This is what I was operating under. Billy has an overactive imagination. He loves movies. So my key to Billy was, maybe that’s one of the reasons he became a cop. He needs to be by the book, but on the other hand, Axel is right out of a movie for him. That was the key to their friendship: “This guy is in the movie I want to be in.”

Did the script change much after Eddie joined the movie?

Marty hired Sam Simon, who went on to cocreate The Simpsons, as our punch-up guy. We got new pages every morning. Sam and Marty would be up all night and working, and if something wasn’t exactly right, we would refine it and do a little improv and all. All the scenes with John Ashton and I in the unmarked police car are improvised.

Is that where the Stripes comedy training came in handy?

Yeah, I learned on Stripes what it really took. If you’re not willing to jump off the bridge, then find something else to do with your life. Eddie is really off-the-cuff. I had to put my hands in my pockets again.

What was a scene where that happened, where you had to really stifle yourself from laughing?

That scene where he says, “These guys guys are heroes, sir, These guys are superheroes without capes,” that was the first time we’d heard that. When you see the movie, John goes like this [pinches his eyes with his thumb and forefinger] to hide. My hands go in my pockets and I’m just squeezing the daylights out of my leg. Eddie was on fire. I remember being just amazed and envious of Eddie’s ability to do that so effortlessly.

Did things change very much on the second movie, after the first one became such a mega-hit?

It was kind of grandiose. I thought the script was kind of rushed, but the audience loved it. Marty has this tremendous love of people. He thinks their people are hilarious, so there’s a lot of humanity, which made the first one what it is. And then [new director] Tony Scott was into fast cars and action. He was visually brilliant, but not necessarily as interested or invested in the narrative story. That’s why he was so great for Top Gun. So Beverly Hills Cop II was a different movie.

That was 1987, and then seven years later Animal House and Coming to America director John Landis made Beverly Hills Cop III, which didn’t work so well. It kind of killed the franchise for a few decades.

John brings irreverence and satire. It was just the wrong fit of sensibilities. I do have to say that comic audiences owe John a lot. The chop-shop scene in the beginning of the third one is right on. But when I read the script, I knew from the get-go that it was too much of a departure.

I remember hearing talk of a fourth Beverly Hills Cop movie for years and years. Did you hear the same?

Eddie was really adamant. He had so many scripts thrown at him and he said “I’m only going to do this if it really has what the first one had,” which helped create the genre. We wanted to get back to that. Some of the scripts had Billy shot in the back of the head to bring Axel back to Beverly Hills, and luckily they didn’t do that. I’d heard a couple directors pitched that and luckily Eddie said no, so I survived those development years. Ultimately Jerry came on and he found this writer, Will Beall, who is an ex-LA cop, and he brought a real grittiness. It’s about Eddie coming up against power again.

After Beverly Hills Cop II, you got the lead role opposite Fred Savage in Vice Versa, a father-son body-swap comedy from 1988. I loved this movie when I was kid. I was sorry to realize it did so poorly at the box office, and that you felt like it was a setback for you.

Not the film itself, but what happened to it. It was basically an executive murder plot. David Puttnam, who produced Chariots of Fire, became the head of Columbia Pictures, and we all loved him because he was a creative and he had done indies. The downside with David was he wanted to bring the price of lead actors down, but make the backend profits real. I believed him. I really did. And he wasn’t, unfortunately, around long enough to prove that formula.

I think there is a perception that Vice Versa underwhelmed because it was lost in a slate of similar body-swap/age-change movies, like Big, 18 Again, and Like Father Like Son—not to mention Freaky Friday from several years before.

What happened was Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron’s Like Father Like Son. Tri-Star Pictures threw that movie into production while we were already shooting. And Coca-Cola owned both companies. When I started the film, I knew that that was a risk to be so closely identified with the other ones. I know that it was a premise that had been done before. I didn’t know about the Dudley Moore movie.

What do you mean when you say Vice Versa was part of an “executive murder plot”?

David went public with his disdain for how high the salaries were and what he wanted to do, and he pissed a lot of people off. By the time we were ready to be released, he was in front of Coca-Cola saying, look, [Vice Versa] is so much better. Just hold on the release of the Dudley Moore movie. He didn’t know, but the guillotine had been set. People didn’t like him, so they wanted him out.

I wish they’d followed David’s advice. He’s a really, really cool guy. He was maybe too cool to be running a studio. Yeah, he wanted to try to make it work for everybody. I swear to God, I trusted him. He told me, “I want to use you as a template. Take a cut, and we’re going to make this work, and if the film is profitable, you’re going to benefit.” And that’s the way it should be. And so we’ll bring the price down up front.

He left Sony in 1987, and a few months later Vice Versa came out and underwhelmed?

That's why I talk about the film in a disappointing way. I'm proud of the film. It was my first time with my name above the title, and the studio just pulled it [from theaters] right before Easter break, when it would've had a chance to perform. It was rough. They kind of buried it, and we watched it all go down. We'd worked really hard. And then I saw … the other movie.

There are some parallels with Big, but it’s such a different story. Did Vice Versa have an afterlife at all?

Yeah, people have discovered it. And they don’t compare it to the other movies that have the same premise. I like that, because that’s what we attempted to do, to bring a whole new freshness to that premise. It is painful, but creatively it’s not at all. I mean, the result of what happened was out of my control. Siskel and Ebert put some salve on the wound of getting buried. “Two thumbs way up.”

What’s on the horizon for you now?

There’s somebody I really want to play. I optioned the life rights to a guy named Ray Wallace, who pretended to be Bigfoot in the Northwest woods for 30 years. It’s not about Bigfoot, it’s about a hoaxster. He was very successful to the point where it became an international story and really benefited his small community financially.

So it makes Bigfoot seem like a good guy.

Yeah. Bigfoot’s a benevolent creature, who’s shy and doesn’t want anything to do with humans. We’re putting the elements of it together in the event that it would be a limited series or a film. I really want to play the role. It’s harder to get a movie going these days. That’s for sure. I just want to be ready if it happens.

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Judge Reinhold’s Totally Awesome ’80s Flashback (2)

Senior Hollywood Correspondent

Anthony Breznican is a senior Hollywood correspondent at Vanity Fair. He has covered film, television, books, and awards for more than 20 years, developing special expertise on blockbuster franchises such as Marvel, Star Wars, and DC, the films of Steven Spielberg, and the writings of Stephen King. Anthony previously worked... Read more

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