Ads for the March 1982 test screenings of diner in Phoenix and St. Louis pitched it as a rock & roll nostalgia feast a la Grease. What audiences got was filmic food for thought: a subtle 1959 period piece about guys hanging out in Baltimore. After low test scores from disappointed teens, the studio shelved the film. But it would soon reappear in a success story that virtually defined the term sleeper.
A low-budget effort from a first-time director (Barry Levinson), Diner featured a cast of unknowns (Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Tim Daly, Daniel Stern, Ellen Barkin). ”It was an independent movie released by a major studio,” says Levinson. ”When it didn’t score, they dropped it.” But Diner had admirers, including a studio publicist who persuaded MGM/UA to screen it for critics, several of whom said they’d run reviews even if the film was playing nowhere. MGM/UA opened Diner on April 2 at New York’s Festival theater, where Levinson says it broke house records in its second week.
Buoyed by good reviews and word of mouth, Diner slowly made its way into theaters around the country, earning some $20 million in its first year, according to the director. For Levinson (Rain Man, Wag the Dog) and that cast of unknowns, Diner served them well.