‘Princess Bride,’ ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Veep’ and more: How cast reunions became a Democratic fundraising weapon

Billy Crystal had donned his mothballed Miracle Max hat. Patinkin was armed with his original prop sword and a rousing dramatic commitme...


Billy Crystal had donned his mothballed Miracle Max hat. Patinkin was armed with his original prop sword and a rousing dramatic commitment. And fans by the tens of thousands showed up bringing more than $4 million in collective donations and a powerful sense of movie nostalgia.

“It was a labor of love,” says Patinkin, telling The Washington Post he could only fully reinhabit his swashbuckling character after he dusted off his marked-up copy of the original script. “Once I did that, I was home free. I was back into that world with all my friends.”

The star-studded event last month was a live-streamed script reading of “The Princess Bride” featuring most of the original cast from the beloved 1987 film. It was also a grass-roots fundraiser for Wisconsin Democrats that propelled an unprecedented run of virtual cast reunions this political season, as Hollywood figures lean into a successful pandemic-era tool to back left-leaning candidates in several swing states.

The flurry of Democratic fundraising cast reunions and readings in recent months has included “Veep,” “Seinfeld,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Happy Days” and “Superbad,” and this weekend brings live-stream events involving “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (Saturday) and several members of the “Veep” team (Sunday).

At the center of much of this creative coordination is Wisconsin’s Ben Wikler, chair of the state party Democrats, who was focused on comedy two decades ago, writing for the Onion and working for Al Franken on his books and radio show, before rising in the political world. Now, his state party is the leading beneficiary of these fundraisers, raising more than $7 million since August, part of the $58.7 million it’s reportedly brought in over the past two years.

David Mandel, former “Veep” showrunner and “Seinfeld” writer, says of the virtual format: “I give credit to Ben Wikler for really weaponizing it.”

Americans don’t particularly want to be politically lectured to by Hollywood, Mandel says. “But they do like it when Hollywood people do what they’re really good at, and that’s to entertain,” he says. “We entertained the fans and that’s what we weaponized.”

Producer Judd Apatow, who participated in this week’s “Superbad” cast reunion and watch party, says Hollywood figures shouldn’t be shy about espousing their views. “People in the arts always debate whether they should discuss their political opinions,” he says. “I always laugh at that because Donald Trump is an entertainer.”

This election season’s virtual reunion trend was fanned by Wikler’s energy but sparked by “West Wing” star Bradley Whitford. The actor, who grew up in Madison, wanted to do something for Democratic candidates, but couldn’t make campaign appearances or knock on doors. So he recruited former castmates Joshua Malina and Janel Moloney for a virtual fundraiser during the Democratic National Convention, raising $160,000. “That blew the lid off of our previous records,” Wikler says.

The lightbulb went on. In any other year, getting movie and television stars together in one place would have been impossible, but now many were hunkering down at home.

“I wanted to do this for Wisconsin,” Whitford says, “and then it turned into this kind of behemoth.”

Amid the pandemic, “The shift to Zooming led to something we never would have figured out” otherwise, says Mandel, whose virtual events involving “Veep” and “Seinfeld” have raised funds for state Democrats in Wisconsin, Texas and North Carolina; on Sunday, he and “Veep” actors Timothy Simons and Tony Hale will hold a moderated virtual event for Maine Democrats. (Mandel also recently wrote a political ad featuring Wayne Knight in character as his “Seinfeld” postal worker, Newman.)

Simons, a Maine native, says he’s “awed” by how much Mandel and “Veep” co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus have done to raise funds for state races. His favorite moment from the Wisconsin “Veep” reunion in early October was when his castmates Dan Bakkedahl and Nelson Franklin, speaking in character as a tart-tongued Ohio congressman and his aide, humorously “berated Wisconsin voters into volunteering. It shows how much it’s needed: We are trying to win — it’s all hands on deck.”

That went so well that Louis-Dreyfus, Larry David and Jason Alexander contacted the Texas Democratic Party about holding a “Seinfeld” virtual fundraiser for Democrats in the battleground state. “Of course! Sign us up!” says Abhi Rahman, director of strategic communications for the Texas Democratic Party. The panel discussion, moderated by “Late Night” host Seth Meyers, included Texas politicians Beto O’Rourke and Joaquin and Julián Castro. More than 20,000 people signed up — many from Texas but thousands from out of state — and the event raised $650,000.

The reunion formula has proved so successful that it has been repeated in many forms. Members of the original “Hamilton” cast — including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. — reunited Oct. 16 for a Q&A with director Thomas Kail. Donors were asked to give $25 to the Biden Victory Fund, but any contribution received a link to see the show. The “Avengers” cast gathered a few days later to boost Biden using the same format.

Whitford says the format is a “non-preachy” way for Hollywood to support causes, especially since, he says, “We have the best stories.”

His “West Wing” cast reunited for a stage reading of a Season 3 episode, acted out on a minimalist set at L.A.’s Orpheum Theater. The production, which debuted on HBO Max this month, was billed as a “benefit” for When We All Vote, a bipartisan organization to encourage all Americans to go to the polls. Viewers aren’t required to donate; instead, When We All Vote received free publicity and a contribution from the streaming service’s parent company, Warner Media, which declined to disclose the amount.

The “Princess Bride” event originated with star Cary Elwes, who says his first call was to friend and Wisconsin native Sarah Uphoff, better known as L.A. club promoter “Pantera Sarah.” “She initially suggested doing a reunion,” he says, “but I felt that we might get a bigger draw by doing a table read.”

They reached out to Wikler, who is such a “Princess Bride” obsessive that he memorized the script as a child. “I convinced my homeroom teacher in sixth grade to do a screening for our class and mouthed the words throughout the entire thing. I quoted the marriage blessing as my toast at my sister’s wedding,” he says. “So for me, the idea of having a ‘Princess Bride’ reunion to support the Democratic Party was a dream within a dream, to quote the movie.”

“Princess Bride” castmates — as well as director Rob Reiner and producer Norman Lear — signed on. “I got an email from Cary,” Patinkin says, “and said yes within seconds.”

“So this iconic, amazing movie suddenly was being re-created on a video conference for more than 100,000 people,” says Wikler of the three-hour script read and Q&A, which will be available for viewing through Election Day.

“I think just the fact that we were able to get everyone together again after 33 years was an accomplishment in and of itself,” says Elwes, who also recruited such castmates as Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Carol Kane and Chris Sarandon (who also signed on for a “Fright Night” reunion for Michigan Democrats).

Elwes says he felt grateful to get such guest stars as Josh Gad (as Fezzik, the role originated by the late Andre the Giant), Whoopi Goldberg (the woman who boos the princess), Eric Idle (the clergyman who officiates the wedding) and Finn Wolfhard (the grandson). Plus, “Mandy really went for it in a way that kind of surprised us all, but that’s Mandy. He’s a very passionate guy.”

Patinkin says his favorite line penned by screenwriter William Goldman comes toward the end of the film, when his sword-wielding Inigo Montoya says: “You know, I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.”

After the past five years “of hatred, of vitriol, I know what to do with the rest of our lives,” Patinkin says. “It’s to elect moral, ethical, decent human beings to be the parental body at the dinner table of the nation of the world.

“You have the most powerful sword in your hand — much more powerful than Inigo Montoya’s sword,” he says with dramatic brio. “That sword is your pen, and that power is your vote.”

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Newsrust: ‘Princess Bride,’ ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Veep’ and more: How cast reunions became a Democratic fundraising weapon
‘Princess Bride,’ ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Veep’ and more: How cast reunions became a Democratic fundraising weapon
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