“I first met Adam way back; he wasn't Adam Sandler then, he was just a guy. And I wanted to cast him in my movie. I called him back four times but the producers weren't having him. A couple of years later, the man is big. I wanted to be hired to direct Happy Gilmore with him. I walk in the room, and he says: 'You're the guy who wanted to give me that part. I don't need to know anything else, I want to work with you.' That is Adam all over.”
Dennis Dugan, the director of Grown Ups 2, Sandler's latest comedy, tells this story with satisfaction, as if he was the first to discover what a Good Guy Adam Sandler is. But then, anyone who shares set time with him speaks with the holy glow of conversion. Twilight hunk Taylor Lautner, who has a cameo in Grown Ups 2, enthuses, “Adam leads by example – he treats everyone, from the highest to the lowest, absolutely the same.”
The critics, though, have other words for Adam Sandler when one of his movies is released. “Pap”, “trash”, “gross”, “dumb”, “slack”, and “lazy” are just some of those applied to his latest effort. Those were also terms used to describe more recent work, including Jack and Jill, in which he played both irritating siblings and which consequently saw him win a historic first Worst Actor and Actress award at the Razzies. Where, critics grizzle, is the promise of the man in The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer, Punch-Drunk Love and 50 First Dates? “Sandler”, scolded The New York Times, “has squandered his comic capital.”
“I know what they're writing about me,” says Sandler, looking far more boyish than his 46 years in a baseball cap – which hasn't, thankfully, been turned backwards. “I could almost write the piece for them by now. But then remember that I didn't get into movies to please the critics. I got into it to make people laugh and have fun with my friends.”
There was a time when Sandler's career could have gone in a different direction. In 2002, he got a Golden Globe nomination for Paul Thomas Anderson's drama Punch-Drunk Love. The following year, he turned down a part in Michael Mann's Collateral, in favour of Spanglish, giving Jamie Foxx the role, and an Oscar nomination, instead. It marked the end of critical affection for him.
Now he is rich in love from his buddies instead – he famously throws a Christmas party for hundreds of his closest friends every year. Also, he's just plain rich – he was Hollywood's third-highest-earning actor of 2011, according to Forbes magazine, commanding around $37m (£24m) a movie. Only Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio did better.
Because here's the thing – Adam Sandler makes America split its sides. Grown Ups 2, a sequel about the inability of the fortysomething male to grow up, went straight to the top of the North American charts, holding off Guillermo del Toro's epic Pacific Rim. So far it has made $100m domestically, adding to the $3bn Sandler has already generated for a grateful Hollywood in box-office profits. With a ten per cent “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, the first Grown Ups took close to $300m globally . So the comedian can afford to stick a middle finger up at the critics, and probably add in a fart joke for good measure.
Nor does Sandler have any problem in sending up his reputation. “Here's how I think of my scripts,” he jokes. “ I sit in my room, and think up an idea. Then I call up all my friends and they say: 'That's awesome! You are the best.' No, what really happens is that a group of us come up with an idea and work on it . We just riff around, make jokes, try and make each other laugh. Apart from with Grown Ups 2 of course,” he adds. “We just turned up without a script on the first day.”
The critics may have suspected as much, but Sandler is just, in his words, “goofing around”. He does that a lot. It's difficult to get anything out of him that doesn't end with a gag. Partly it's down to him being a natural comedian who first discovered stand-up at high school in New Hampshire. Partly, it could be nerves. Without his Grown Ups 2 buddies – Kevin James, Dennis Dugan, Salma Hayek – in tow, the actor is far shyer, but, as Lautner testified, unstintingly kind to those around him.
There is no doubt that friendship is important to Sandler. He works with the same people over and over again – Dugan nine times, Kevin James five. He has even persuaded the luscious Hayek to play his wife twice. Other stars of the film, like Chris Rock and David Spade, go all the way back with him to their time on TV show Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s.
“It's the idea of real-life comedy that I love,” he explains. “You know, we stretch what goes on in real life, what's actually happening with your friends. The first Grown Ups was about family and friendship. That is what I like talking about a lot. The first shoot we did three years ago? That was one of the best summers of my life. It was one of the best summers of all our lives, just hanging out with our families. I guess we all wanted to relive that again.”
Swimming in the same waters has rarely led him adrift. 2006's Click took $250m at the box office. 2007s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, $200m. 2008's You Don't Mess with the Zohan (co-written with Judd Apatow), $200m. 2009's Bedtime Stories, $250m. However base the material, it usually translates to gold.
There have been a couple of slip ups, though – most notably That's My Boy last year. Sandler played another juvenile man but for once it didn't appeal – only making $58m in cinemas, when the production budget was nearly $70m. It led Forbes to single him out again – this time putting him at number eight in “Hollywood's Most Overpaid Actors”.
Still, Sandler's selling point is his ordinariness. He's just a regular dude with $300m in the bank. His dad Stanley was an electrical engineer, and both sides of the family were descended from Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. His stand-up routine in the clubs, continued from school, eventually got him attached to Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s, first as a writer, then as an performer. Tamra Davis's 1995 hit Billy Madison, a comedy about a slacker who goes back to school to win his father's inheritance, was his first hit, a film he says is still one of his favourites. Aside from his rapid ascent up Hollywood's slippery ladder of success, everything about him has remained normal. He has been married to former model Jackie Titone for 10 years, and they have two girls, Sadie and Sunny.
Real life, he says, suddenly serious, is fatherhood. “When I first started out in this game, I just didn't understand why any director or actor I worked with would suddenly take off and say, 'I gotta go, I gotta go and see my kid in Little League in half an hour'. I would be like: 'Dude, are you crazy? This is a movie we're making.' Now of course, all I can think about is: 'Yes later, everyone. My child is about to take her first poop.'”
Does he fret about his daughters growing up with a far more gilded existence than he ever did or that they might become Hollywood brats? “Oh I go to bed thinking about it,” he responds drily. “Although with the amount of money I have, it's difficult to raise kids the way I was raised.”
Every topic is a source for a joke – even a brush with death earlier this month when he narrowly escaped being savaged by a cheetah while on safari in Africa with his family. “I was just going to let him eat me,” he told David Letterman. “I just thought, 'this is how I'm dying'.”
Is the constant stream of comedy and his tendency to play men who don't want to grow up a way of staying young, of warding off the mid-life crisis that tends to visit males of, say, 46? “Well, does a guy ever want to get old? ” he retorts. “ It's not really a Peter Pan thing, I don't think I have that complex. It's about day to day, you don't want to give into the inevitable, you want to do as much as you possibly can. If you've been having fun and enjoying your life when you're young, it's not easy to just go suddenly: 'Oh OK, that's over now, I want to sit back and watch someone else have all the fun and I'll just sit in my chair and do nothing.'
“Any age can have fun. My mom down in Florida doesn't stop goofing off with all her friends and they're in their seventies.” Part of him is still a child, trying to make adults laugh, which is probably why so many of his films focus on how tough it is to grow up. Whatever drives this big kid, he intends to keep doing it: “This comedy thing, these movies,” he says earnestly, “ I just love making them so much, I guess I just want to continue, I want to do my best, as long as the public like it.”
“I'm not sure if I feel like a grown-up yet,” he adds. “Probably only when I'm being a parent – and I find myself behaving like my own parents. One thing about it is, I now know why my dad was in such a bad mood a lot of the time.” In the past, Sandler has frequently referred to his father, who died soon after his son got married in 2003. They were close, but trying to make Stanley laugh, he once said, was the reason he took up comedy. “Sometimes it worked,” he says, “and sometimes I got a slap.”
'Grown Ups 2' is released in the UK on 9 August
Adam's big goofs: The hits – and misses
The Wedding Singer (1998)
Sandler's big break as unlucky-in-love rocker Robbie Hart. The LA Times described it as “a sparkling romcom”; the Boston Globe and Mail said, “at last, a Sandler movie you can sit through without putting a mallet through the screen”. Notable for being his first with Drew Barrymore, and featuring the greatest wedding song ever, “Love Stinks”.
Box office: $123m
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Sandler teamed up with “Magnolia” director Paul Thomas Anderson to play the frustrated and angry Barry Egan. It gained him his only Golden Globe nomination. The late critic Roger Ebert said: “Liberated from the constraints of formula, he reveals unexpected depths as an actor.” It packed no punches with his usual audience, though, and only just broke even.
Box office: $24m
50 First Dates (2004)
“Adam Sandler rips off 'Groundhog Day' without a blush,” was how critic Peter Bradshaw summed up Sandler's reunion with Barrymore, in a movie about a man who has to win his girl's heart over and over because of her memory loss. The Toronto Star said: “If there's one thing to commend about this movie, it's Drew Barrymore.” The public loved it and it remains one of Sandler's greatest hits.
Box office: $204m
Grown Ups (2010)
Variety claimed there were “precious few laughs” in the first “Grown Ups”, which reunited Sandler with “Saturday Night Live” stalwarts Chris Rock and David Spade. “Obnoxious”, “ghastly”, “crude” and “lazy” were other adjectives applied. Still, it marked Sandler's biggest box-office in a starring role.
Box office: $272m
Jack and Jill (2011)
Another of Sandler's pairings with Dennis Dugan, “Jack and Jill” recorded a new low for the actor on the Rotten Tomatoes website where it scored just 3 per cent. Sandler plays both Jack and Jill; Al Pacino plays himself, with the hots for Jill. There were no UK press screenings; critics called it “excruciating”, pointing out it would have been better “had they gone to fetch a pail of water”. Nobody listened.
Box office: $150m
That's My Boy (2012)
“Vulgar, tasteless, mean-spirited and most offensive of all, not funny,” was the verdict of one US critic on the story of how a bad father (Sandler) is reunited with his son on the eve of his wedding. Nominated for eight Razzies, critics accused him of making a joke out of incest and he suffered a rare commercial flop.
Box office: $57m