Riney: A Cool-Warm Skeptical Optimist

Jeff Goodby Reminisces About His Mentor's Friendship, Complicated Nature and 'The Moment'

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In "The Crack-Up," F. Scott Fitzgerald said that to effectively negotiate life, you had to be able to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time.

Which brings us to Hal Riney.

Riney loved characters, individuals, people who thought for themselves. I'm not so sure he loved mankind all that much in the larger sense.

He was famously grumpy and irascible. But to get inside his friendship was to be in one of the most predictable places imaginable.

Photo: Darryl Estrine

Jeff Goodby | ALSO: Wish to add your own reminiscence? Do so below in our comments section.

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He was able to capture optimism about this country that bordered on sentimental. In this place were all too many dogs and pickup trucks and distant harmonicas on the wind. It was an unrealistically nostalgic portrait, but I'm convinced that Hal believed this optimistic readiness was still inside each of us somewhere, even today. It was something that, as an American, you wanted to believe in so badly it ached.

Hal, of course, took advantage of that weakness in us, as Ronald Reagan would many years later. Riney embodied the Reagan Revolution long before Reagan was a national figure, except that Hal merely sold us beer.

Yet attendant with this optimism was always a healthy, even debilitating skepticism. In Riney's cosmology, we'd always fall somewhere short of the Promised Land because we were prone to shortcuts, tempted by quick fixes, longing for mail-order miracles. We were all too ready to fall asleep at the switch, to leap at harebrained schemes, to trade the family cow for a handful of beans.

Hal was always wary of these things in us. It is, of course, where his humor came from. It's why we see more of ourselves in his hapless characters than in the idealized guys raising the Fourth of July flag. There was forgiveness in the celebration of the hapless, because Hal himself wanted the world to forgive him in return.

Riney was a complicated guy, and everyone had a problem with him at some point. The key thing was what you did with all that, because coming out of it bitter said as much about you as it did about him.

You learned about yourself, having to deal with him.

There was a moment in almost every conversation with Hal at which the whole thing could go south fast. It was a kind of tension he always brought things around to, and the structure was binary. On one side, there the possibility of him taking a "What's that supposed to mean?" kind of posture that would put you further on the defensive, and things would get bad. On the other was the possibility that Hal's face would curl into the tiniest smile, and he'd say something hilarious but so dry you could light a match on it -- which would be the best feeling in the world. Some people didn't like that tension, that moment of indecision. It was one of my favorite things about him. I liked not knowing.

About three months ago, I asked him whether he'd record a voice-over for a retirement tribute we were doing for an old mutual friend. "What's the track like?" he asked.

"Well, you know," I said, without thinking too much, "it's a parody of that shit you used to write."

And there it was: The Moment. It could all go sideways. Instead, he shook his head a little and smiled that little smile. "Then you mean it's exactly like that shit I used to write."

He was always quite aware of the way his commercial voice teetered somewhere between real emotion and empty sentimentality. About 25 years earlier, Silverstein and I presented him with a CornNuts campaign that literally made fun of that voice. There was an announcer track that talked nostalgically about a mythical town in which people grew corncobs the size of tuna. The effect was very funny.

"Well, we know what's going on here," he said, looking right at me with a raised eyebrow. "This makes fun of ... the Riney thing." I can't believe I didn't flee the room immediately, but I didn't. Hal went on. "That would be rather awkward on the reel, don't you think?"

(I must interject here that he allowed the campaign to be produced but declined the golden opportunity to be the voice-over himself. He was brave but not crazy.)

Others encountering The Moment did not, of course, escape unscathed. A friend told me about Riney meeting a well-known industrialist at a big new-business meeting in the '80s. Making reference to Hal's work for President Reagan, the man joked, "I usually make it a policy not to work with people who espouse radical right-wing politics."

There was a pause. "Well, then, fine," Riney said, and immediately left the meeting for good -- except that he didn't say "fine," he said something else that began with "F" and was two words instead of one.

The point is, you had to learn to love that moment, that pause, and brave whatever it brought you. Hal didn't have much time for people who shied way from it or who disliked him for exploiting it. I embraced it, and I was lucky enough to enjoy a few decades of warmth and instant support from a guy not necessarily famous for those two commodities.

Someone asked me yesterday how Rich and I feel about having him gone, and I thought of John McEnroe saying that when Björn Borg retired from tennis, the game wasn't fun anymore. Not that we're John McEnroe; we're more like Ray Spencer, the third man on my high-school tennis team who could surprise you now and then. But Riney was certainly the Borg of his time, whacking those hard topspin things at you mercilessly. Just try coming to the net.

I miss it already. And it'll only get worse.
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