LOS ANGELES — It was lights, camera, action for actor/director Rob Reiner, as he stepped to a bank of microphones here in the courtyard of Children's Institute International.
"Proposition 10 could be the most important law in the history of US child care," says the man who is best-known for playing Archie Bunker's son-in-law, "Meathead," in the 1970s hit, "All In The Family." Now a major director of cinematic hits from "Stand By Me" to "When Harry Met Sally," Mr. Reiner has temporarily shelved that calling to direct himself in what he calls the most passionate role of his career: to spearhead a first-of-its-kind children's initiative.
"I'm hoping this will mark the beginning of a sea change in how we deal with children in this country," he said, announcing a November California ballot initiative that would add a 50-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes and generate $700 million annually for childhood-development programs. "Passage in California will give this legs for passage in every other state."
In a fantasy-factory town often disparaged for lending shallow celebrity voices to the issue du jour, Reiner is winning accolades for putting far more than his name and fame into a long-term cause. On the heels of a string of award nominations in the early 1990s, Reiner has put his film career entirely on hold for two years to chair the California Children and Families Initiative.
The measure's tax is expected to help deter teen smoking while generating hundreds of millions of dollars for early child care, intervention programs for at-risk children, and smoking-prevention programs for pregnant women and parents.
Reiner has spent $2 million getting $1.2 million signatures to qualify for the Nov. 3 ballot. He hopes to raise $3 million to $4 million more.
Because of Reiner's involvement - which policy analysts agree has gone well beyond the typical celebrity collaboration - there is a good chance voters will approve what experts call the most comprehensive early-childhood-development services in the nation.
For Reiner, that prospect has come only after months of solid, 50-hour weeks that include policy meetings, legislative testimony, and public stumping from Rotary Clubs to Lion's Club luncheons.
Before that, it was trips to New York, Washington, Atlanta, and to every corner of the Golden State to bone up on existing state and federal children's policy and programs.
"It's actually astonishing how much Rob knows about every aspect of this issue," says Giovanna Stark, executive director of California's child-development policy advisory committee, which held recent public hearings about the measure. "Most Hollywood types know about the surface issues but don't understand the underlying policy implications. Rob has become a full-fledged expert."
Now with the vote barely a month away, the fight has moved to the public forum with all the urgency of war.
The enemy: tobacco companies Reiner says will outspend him 6 to 1 ($30 million to about $5 million) to defeat his measure.
With no other tobacco tax offered this fall in any other state, such companies have no other fights to dilute their funding.
"The only people who are not helped by this are tobacco users," says Reiner. Pointing to a list of scores of foundations, corporations, and other organizations that support his measure, he says, "virtually everyone else is helped by this and is for it."
Reiner has taken his bumps along the way.
Opponents say he is personally misguided for designing an initiative they say will create an unneeded bureaucracy. The antitax group, funded primarily by the tobacco industry, seems to be tapping into general disgust with government programs.
Reiner says his opponents don't have any other legs to stand on.
The state's largest newspaper called him politically naive after reporting public statements he made in jest as if they were serious.
"Rob Reiner is sincere in his efforts but is getting bad advice on how to implement a program that he cares about," says Ron Gray, a spokesman for the public-relations firm that is coordinating opposition.
A barrage of TV ads has begun in earnest, claiming the new system would lack coordination and control.
There are also questions about what might happen to newly hatched children's programs if funds dry up because smokers can't afford as many cigarettes.
But Reiner counters that there will be huge flexibility in the all-volunteer commissions he is proposing.
"Some are calling me a dilettante, but that's OK," Reiner says. He expects child development funds will increase by such large margins that the criticisms will fade and there will be a "ripple effect of interest across this state and then across the nation."
Reiner's interest in child-care issues is not new or even recent. In a post-press-conference interview, he explained an intense curiosity dating back 20 years to therapy after a breakup with ex-wife Penny Marshall.
"I realized in that process that we as a society need to think more deeply about how children are raised and what effect the earliest years of development have on later behavior," he said.
Roots of child advocacy
The former bohemian has exchanged jeans and flannel for business suits and wing-tips. Now remarried with young kids, Reiner four years ago began a nationwide campaign to raise consciousness on how important a child's first three years are. The campaign began in his living room with discussions among key child care specialists from around the US, as well as key legislators that included Vice President Al Gore.
"We talked to all of the top child experts in this country," recalls Reiner.
"It's very clear that ... children who are neglected or abused during this period are much more likely to become troubled adults who cost millions in law enforcement, welfare, and incarceration."
Reiner's involvement blossomed into discussions with President Clinton, commercial and public-television campaigns, national magazine spreads, and a permanent foundation. Reiner also produced a prime-time TV special on the subject.
"Public policy is a completely different mind-set than Hollywood," says Reiner. "In show biz, you are just making up stuff, trying to please, producing fantasy and laughs. With this initiative, this is serious and there is much more at stake in affecting millions of people in a very real way."
Win or lose, Reiner's interest has already earned him the respect of the state's child-care community for raising public consciousness.
"I have seen a lot of Hollywood celebrities put their name or face on an issue, but never have I seen anyone immerse themselves as deeply or passionately as Rob Reiner," says Mary Emmons, director of Children's Institute International, an organization dedicated to prevention of child abuse and neglect.
"His stature and commitment have heightened the profile of these issues."