“It’s horrible,” mutters Rob Reiner.The director behind the iconic films When Harry Met Sally…, The Princess Bride, and This Is Spinal Tap is still reeling from an election that saw a former reality-show host (and self-admitted sexual predator) running on a campaign of hate triumph over the most accomplished female politician in American history.
While taking in a screening of his Lyndon B. Johnson biopic LBJ on Monday night, a movie starring Woody Harrelson as the former president, Reiner, a life-long liberal, says he saw the film in a different light due to recent events. “It feels like we’re fighting the last battle of the Civil War,” he shares in an interview with The Daily Beast. “All this time, with all this progress we made on race relations, which seemed to culminate with the election of a black president, you have this whole undercurrent of racism that still exists in the country, and I don’t think anyone was really aware of how virulent it was.”
To make matters worse, President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Steve Bannon as his chief strategist and top adviser.
Bannon took over as Trump’s campaign chief during the final stretch—after two others were shown the door due to scandal—and previously served as the chief executive of Breitbart, an alt-right website beloved by white nationalists. In May, for example, the site branded right-wing pundit Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew” for opposing Trump’s candidacy.
And many on both sides of the aisle have called out the appointment of Breitbart’s shadowy ex-overlord as the Karl Rove of the Trump administration. The Anti-Defamation League released a statement reading, “It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’—a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists—is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house.’” Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) called Bannon “a champion of white supremacy,” while right-wing commentator Glenn Beck said he was “a terrifying man.”
Strangely enough, this so-called “champion of white supremacy” has for years been profiting off perhaps the most Jewish sitcom ever created: Seinfeld. And it’s—in part—thanks to Reiner and his production company, Castle Rock Entertainment.
“That’s a weird one,” says Reiner. “I never met Bannon so I had no idea what his involvement was, and I had to call Greg Paul, who was our head of business affairs, and he said he doesn’t remember meeting him either. Martin Shafer said he remembers meeting him once.”
Reiner founded Castle Rock along with Shafer, Andrew Scheinman, Glenn Padnick, and Alan Horn. The company, named after the fictitious town where many of Stephen King’s novels are set, has produced a number of films, including Reiner’s hits When Harry Met Sally…, Misery, and A Few Good Men, as well as others like The Shawshank Redemption and Michael Clayton. It also developed a number of television shows, the most successful of which being Seinfeld. “Castle Rock started in 1987 and then two years later, we made a deal with Westinghouse Electric to put some equity into the company—I think it was around $48 million. In exchange, they had around a 15 percent piece of our company. At a certain point, in the ’90s, we went to sell our company to Ted Turner. Even though we were doing well and outperforming the market averages for films, we didn’t have a library like the big studios, so we couldn’t compete,” Reiner recalls.
During the sale of Castle Rock to Ted Turner, Westinghouse hired the boutique investment bank Bannon & Co. to consult on the deal. Bannon & Co. was comprised of Steve Bannon and several of his old colleagues from his days at Goldman Sachs.“What happened at that time is that Westinghouse, who owned a piece of our company, consulted with Bannon’s company to see what kind of deal they should make for that piece of our company. So Bannon was hired as a consultant for that,” says Reiner.
“Part of the deal was that Westinghouse could either sell or hold on to whatever TV series we had. At the time we had eight pilots, and one of them was Seinfeld. We didn’t know if it was going to be successful or not. But as payment, Bannon advised them to stay in and hold on to their profit participation in the series, and Westinghouse said, ‘Well, if you think it’s so good, why don’t you take a piece of this instead of us giving you a fee?’ And apparently that’s what Bannon did, and he wound up with a small piece of Seinfeld that he’s had forever.”
Seinfeld was in its third season when the deal was struck, and hadn’t yet become the top-rated show on TV. It didn’t even crack the Nielson Top 30 until Season 4. But years later, when the hit show sold into syndication, Bannon became a very rich man. “We calculated what it would get us if it made it to syndication,” Bannon later told Bloomberg News. “We were wrong by a factor of five.”
In the years since, Bannon’s used his Seinfeld royalties to fund a number of his pet projects, including a slew of truly awful right-wing documentaries and the publication of the controversial Clinton-bashing tome Clinton Cash.
“It’s crazy,” Reiner says of Bannon getting rich off Seinfeld. “When I first heard about it, it made me sick. It makes me sick. Because I had no idea. I didn’t know who he was, or that he was representing Westinghouse. So there you have it. I think The Huffington Post had the headline right: ‘Trump Hires a White Supremacist.’”