One New Year’s Day, Peter Riegert had an epiphany.
“I just woke up (on) Jan. 1, 1971, and … said, ‘I’m going to be an actor,’ ” he recalled. “Once I made the decision to do this, it was all consuming. That’s probably the most exciting way to go about life.”
Best known for his roles in “Local Hero” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” Riegert will appear at the fourth annual San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival, which runs Saturday and Sunday in San Luis Obispo.
On Saturday, Riegert, 66, will receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Palm Theatre, following a food and filmmakers reception at Luna Red restaurant. After the presentation is a screening of 2004’s “King of the Corner,” which Riegert directed and co-wrote.
Born in the Bronx, Riegert studied English literature at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York system. After graduating in 1968, he worked as a social worker and a teacher before settling on acting.
Although some friends and family members considered the move risky, his parents — a piano teacher and food wholesaler — supported his choice. “Their philosophy was if you find something to do that you love, then you’ll be a happy person for the rest of your life,” he said.
One year after Riegert’s first television role — he played Corporal Igor Straminsky on “M*A*S*H” — he made his big-screen debut as fraternity member Boon in “Animal House” in 1978.
“That turned a dream into a reality,” he said.
Over the course of his film career, Riegert has played a lovelorn pickle merchant in “Crossing Delancey,” a fast-talking gangster in “Oscar” and a hard-nosed cop in “The Mask.” In “Local Hero,” he stars as a hotshot Texas oil executive who’s sent to the west coast of Scotland to make way for a refinery.
“(‘Local Hero’) definitely was something that would be a template for the best kind of (filmmaking) experience — a great story, a great director, an excellent cast,” Riegert said. “If you’re lucky, you come across those kinds of jobs.”
Riegert’s television credits include “Damages,” “One Tree Hill,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “The Sopranos.” He currently appears as Judge Harvey Winter on ABC’s “The Good Wife” and bumbling dad David Sachs on Fox’s controversial sitcom “Dads.”
“The biggest criticism of (‘Dads’) is that it’s a completely insensitive show, that it’s racist and misogynistic,” the performer said, although those charges don’t seem to faze him. “If you flash through all the television (shows), you’ll see the same subjects being dealt with, either better or worse.”
“Almost everything I’ve done has offended someone,” he added.
According to Riegert, the same principles have guided his career since the start: Work hard, take chances and be open to new opportunities.
“I try never to say, ‘I’ll do this because it’s going to be a success,’ ” he said. “My sense is it is better to fail on my own terms that succeed on somebody else’s terms.”
That willingness to take risks has inspired him to tackle directing and writing in recent years.
“In a way, as an actor … you are directing yourself to a certain degree,” he said, and his onscreen experiences served him in good stead when he stepped behind the camera.
Riegert made his directorial and screenwriting debut with the 2000 short film “By Courier,” based on the O. Henry short story of the same name.
While showing the movie at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, an acquaintance handed him a manila envelope containing a book and letter from Gerald Shapiro, then an English professor at the school. The book was “Bad Jews and Other Stories.”
“I thought, ‘If the title is any indication of the writing, it should be very good,’ ” recalled Riegert, who read the short fiction collection in a single day.
He and Shapiro teamed up to write 2004’s “King of the Corner,” which stars Riegert as a marketing executive experiencing a midlife crisis. Leo Spivak must deal with an aging father, a failing marriage, a rebellious teenage daughter and an overly ambitious protégé, while fielding advice from a “freelance rabbi.”
Although Leo, like Riegert himself, is a nonobservant Jew, the filmmaker said “King of the Corner” isn’t necessarily aimed at a Jewish audience.
“Anything that has value has to resonate with every audience,” he said. “That’s what I always believe about any material, is that it’s not limited to one generic group. A good story is a good story.”
IF YOU GO
San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival
Various times, Saturday and Sunday
Various locations, San Luis Obispo
$10 to $72, $118 to $150 festival passes
426-5465 or www.jccslo.com/slojff.html
Check out these films at the San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival. All screenings will be held at the Palm Theatre, 817 Palm St., in San Luis Obispo.
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“50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus”
10:30 a.m. Sunday
In the spring of 1939, Philadelphia couple Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus embark on a dangerous mission to rescue 50 Jewish children from Nazi-controlled Vienna. The documentary is paired with the short film “Beautifully Esther,” about a woman forced to reevaluate her life when her husband collapses.
1:30 p.m. Sunday
The life of an Israeli Palestinian surgeon is turned upside down when his slain wife is accused of being a suicide bomber. Convinced of her innocence, he goes in search of the truth.
“Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy”
7 p.m. Sunday
This documentary examines the role of Jewish composers and lyricists, including Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim and George and Ira Gershwin, in creating the modern musical. “Broadway Musicals” is paired with the Academy Award-winning short film “West Bank Story,” a romantic musical comedy about competing falafel stands, and a sing-along by members of Congregation Ohr Tzafon in Atascadero.
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.