Seven years ago, when Tre Peart was in the third grade, he was assigned to read a classic young-adult novel, “The War With Grandpa,” by Robert Kimmel Smith. Although it was first published in 1984, Peart quickly identified with the story about a kid named Peter whose grandfather comes to live with his family and ends up taking his grandson’s room. Peter wages a war of pranks to get his room back.
The book made Peart laugh. It reminded him of when his abuela (Spanish for grandmother) would visit his family, which has roots in the Caribbean and Central America. He asked his parents, Marvin and Rosa Peart, if he could see the movie version. Then he learned there wasn’t one.
“I realized my parents made movies,” Tre Peart, now 15 and in his first year of high school, told The Times of Israel on a family conference call. “They were in the movie business. I asked, ‘Mom, can you make this into a movie?’” Peart had already given some thought to casting, and had a recommendation for who should play Grandpa: Robert De Niro.
The resulting feature film — executive produced by Marvin, Rosa and Tre Peart — indeed stars De Niro, with a supporting cast including Uma Thurman, Christopher Walken, Jane Seymour and Cheech Marin. It was number one at the box office on its opening weekend.
Prank war 2.0
In the book, Peter draws upon American history to stand up for his rights, declaring war upon his grandfather through a misspelled manifesto. It’s replicated in the movie as a bemused De Niro reads the declaration. A war of wits unfolds, although it’s updated for a 21st-century audience.
“There were pranks [in the book] about Monopoly pieces,” Marvin Peart recalled. “Board games don’t happen anymore. We added a lot of technology to the movie … Grandpa has trouble keeping up with technology he doesn’t understand, like an iPhone or iPad, and drones.”
As Grandpa Ed, Oscar winner De Niro was “funny without overdoing it,” Rosa Peart said. “He’s just so good that way.”
The role of Peter is played by 15-year-old Oakes Fegley, whose past projects include the 2016 live-action remake of “Pete’s Dragon.”
“We auditioned around 20 to 25 kids for the role,” Marvin Peart said. “We tried to find sort of the perfect kid, who could go between comedy and drama.”
In another change, Grandpa gets a supporting cast of senior-citizen friends to help with the war effort. They include fellow Oscar-winner Walken; Marin; and a love interest, Seymour. In an epic dodgeball battle, they team up against Peter and his friends in what Tre Peart calls one of his favorite scenes.
It’s not all levity, though. The role of Grandpa is complex. As in the book, he comes to live with Peter’s family after the death of his wife.
“Grandpa was mourning his [wife], mourning his change of life, he did not want to let go of the fact he’s aging,” Rosa Peart said. “It’s the transition of life, and [De Niro] really captured that.”
There’s also a depth to the relationship between Grandpa and Peter, including a sweet moment when they go fishing.
“We kept the fishing scene,” Rosa Peart said. “It’s a way to show how Peter and Grandpa bonded, how they love each other. We wanted to show that part of it. You don’t always see that in the movie — where the deeper commitment between the two of them is.”
The book’s author, Smith, was born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn with Eastern European roots. He died in April at age 89 after living with Alzheimer’s in his later years. Now, the next generation of young readers are being introduced to his life and work through the film.
“The War With Grandpa” is one of six young adult novels Smith wrote. In 1972, “Chocolate Fever” chronicled an understandable craze for the sweet stuff and was reportedly inspired by a story he told his then-seven-year-old daughter Heidi Smith (now Heidi Aronson). It has sold three-plus million copies. Other titles include “Jelly Belly,” about the struggles of an obese youngster.
The book version of “The War With Grandpa” mentions Christmas, and the holiday is featured prominently in the movie. But Dina Weinstein, author of a 2013 Jewish Book Council article titled “The Legacy of Robert Kimmel Smith,” wonders whether Smith’s young adult books have an indirect reflection of the Jewish immigrant narrative.
“If you read between the lines of ‘The War With Grandpa’ and ‘Jelly Belly,’” said Weinstein, who interviewed Smith for her article about him, “you’re going to see a Jewish story, I think, about a multigenerational family, a conflict between the American kid against the Jewish grandma — or I guess the grandpa — like the American nuclear family versus an extended family.”
In “Jelly Belly,” noted Weinstein, “there’s the grandma making challah — or if you come from Boston, babka. [Smith] calls it egg bread, Americanizes it.”
The Smith family has its own Americanization story. Speaking via phone with The Times of Israel, the author’s son, Roger Kimmel Smith, said the family name was changed upon arrival at Ellis Island.
“I’ve seen the ship manifest,” he said. “It was the ship on which his father’s father, and his family, arrived. He would have been Tevye Gomolsky. I’m not certain how to spell it. The story was passed down to us. They had to have a system of Americanizing immigrant names at Ellis Island. It’s what happened in our case. You took the name of the ship captain… I suppose it was a ship by a captain named Smith.”
Roger remembers his father “telling me my grandfather, his father, would go once or twice a year [to synagogue] because it was important to be seen on the holidays. My understanding is that this was an earlier generation struggling to be Jewish, but more culturally… than religiously.”
From Brooks to books
After serving in the US Army, Robert Kimmel Smith married Claire Medney, who was also from Brooklyn and Jewish. He worked in an advertising agency on Madison Avenue, at one point collaborating with Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett on a campaign for the Circus Nuts company in which Brooks impersonated historical characters, similar to his routine with Carl Reiner. Medney became a literary agent whose clients included Judy Blume.
At age 40, Smith took a leave of absence to begin a writing career. He was also a stay-at-home dad who got the inspiration for “The War With Grandpa” from his son.
“Apparently it was a remark I made at age seven or eight or something,” Roger said. “We had just moved to a new home in Brooklyn… I said, ‘I love my room. I love this house. I never want to live anyplace else.’ [My father] heard that. He had an idea. ‘Aha. A boy loves his room. All I have to do is deprive the boy of the thing he loved. It’s the way I can start a story. He has to fight to get it back.’”
The popularity of the resulting book helped Smith continue his career as a writer.
“He got a lot of fan mail and continued to get fan mail up until he died,” said Roger. “After he stopped writing, he continued to make frequent school visits. That was something he really enjoyed in his later years.”
There was sadness as well: Robert Kimmel Smith lost his first wife in 1998. He remarried in 2000, to Margery Nathanson.
Try, try again
When the Pearts worked on adapting “The War With Grandpa” into a film, Rosa Peart said that they kept in touch with Smith. Roger said that his father received a script but was not directly involved; and that both he and his father saw the film before its release.
“We were all rooting for a wide release to take place while he was still alive,” the younger Smith said. “It didn’t happen.”
There was a delay in making the movie because of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Marvin Peart said, as it was originally to have been made by Weinstein.
“When the Harvey Weinstein scandal hit, and when the #MeToo movement was born,” Peart said, “they had a million lawsuits. We had to deal with getting the movie out of the company and the inevitable bankruptcy it dealt with.”
“We had to restart,” he said. “I went and formed 101 Studios with two former Weinstein Company executives. We brought the movie forward with 101.”
Although coronavirus restrictions have limited the release in some parts of the country — such as New York, Seattle and Portland — Marvin Peart is hopeful that it can open up in more venues.
“[We] still have a presence in every open market in the country,” he said. “It’ll continue to grow each week going into Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Roger said that he thought his father “shared my sense [that the film] had been very faithful to the core of the story of ‘The War With Grandpa.’ It was excellent in that respect. Also, I think, to the spirit of the relationships in the story.”
A sequel to the book is in the works — “The War With Grandma.” A representative for the Pearts declined to comment on whether a film sequel is also planned.
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