Danny Leiner has died. The director of two of the best-known buddy stoner comedies in recent memory—as well as episodes of many of the most critically beloved TV comedies of the last 20 years—Leiner was 57. His credits include Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, Dude Where’s My Car?, Arrested Development, The Office, The Tick, Gilmore Girls, Sports Night, Freaks And Geeks, The Sopranos, and Strangers With Candy, which is to say: If you either watched TV, or got high, in the early 2000s, you’re probably at least tangentially familiar with his work.
Leiner got his start in the industry in the world of short film, directing 1992's Time Expired, about a former prison inmate whose ex-roommate (a young John Leguizamo) attempts to rekindle their relationship on the outside. (The film’s co-star, Edie Falco, would appear in a number of Leiner’s projects over the years.) After directing his first feature, Jeremy Piven’s Layin’ Low, Leiner moved into the world of TV; his credits from this period include the “inner beauty” episode of Strangers and “We’ve Got Spirit”—a.k.a. the giant, terrifying Viking mascot head episode—of Freaks And Geeks.
At the same time, Leiner was working on Dude, Where’s My Car?, which managed to make a virtue of its own affable idiocy, and the natural bonehead charisma of stars Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott. The film was a moderate success, massively outperforming its modest $13 million budget. The box office was less kind to Leiner’s similarly themed follow-up, Harold And Kumar, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a cult classic, spawning an unlikely three-movie film franchise, and massively boosting the profiles of John Cho, Kal Penn, and, oddly, Neil Patrick Harris, whose portrayal of himself as a deranged, uber-horny degenerate helped him shed that old Doogie Howser image.
Leiner’s next film, The Great New Wonderful, aimed for something more highbrow, telling the semi-comedic stories of various New Yorkers living in the city on the one-year anniversary of 9/11. Despite a great cast (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tony Shalhoub, Judy Greer, Stephen Colbert, Jim Gaffigan) the film ended up going direct-to-DVD, but, for what it’s worth, a lot of critics (including our own) were kinder to it than that low-impact release strategy might suggest.
Looking through Leiner’s filmography—which more-or-less ends here, although he continued on in TV for several years—it’s striking how many repeat players crop up. Scott, Falco, Cho (whose Selfie hired Leiner for an episode in 2014, his final credit) Colbert, and more all returned to him throughout his career, suggesting an ability to inspire loyalty and camaraderie in the actors he worked with. That’s fitting, given the films that are likely to be his legacy: A pair of surprisingly sweet movies about guys hanging out and being friends, even as ridiculous circumstances (and the occasional cheetah) conspire to get in their way.