NEW YORK — Danny Leiner, a director who turned the wanderings of the wasted into two successful movies, “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” died Oct. 18 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 57.
The cause was lung cancer, said his sister, Karen Leiner, said.
Mr. Leiner had a knack for spotting talent. His first directing credit was on “Time Expired” (1992), a short film he also wrote whose stars included Edie Falco and John Leguizamo, then still early in their careers. “Layin’ Low,” a 1996 comedy he wrote and directed, featured, in addition to Falco, Jeremy Piven. And his breakthrough film, “Dude, Where’s My Car?” (2000), was among the earliest films of Ashton Kutcher, Seann William Scott, and Jennifer Garner.
“Thank you for putting up with that young actor who thought he knew way too much way too soon in his career,” Kutcher said on Twitter in a tribute to Mr. Leiner.
Mr. Leiner’s former wife, Margaret Mendelson, a talent agent, said simply, “Actors trusted him.”
Daniel Leiner was born May 13, 1961, in Manhattan. His father, Marvin, was an education professor at Queens College, and his mother, Anne (Segall) Leiner, was a psychotherapist.
He grew up in Brooklyn and in Long Beach, on Long Island, and attended the State University of New York at Purchase, where he met Falco, also a student there. He graduated in 1987.
Mendelson, who was married to Mr. Leiner from 1994 to 1999 and remained a friend, said “Layin’ Low” and “Time Expired” garnered him enough attention to get him an agent, which led to a job directing “Austin Stories,” an MTV series that ran in 1997 and 1998.
That brought him “Dude, Where’s My Car?,” a comedy about two spaced-out young men (Kutcher and Scott, who was fresh off “American Pie”) who wake up after an apparently raucous night and can’t remember why their refrigerator is full of pudding or why their car is missing. The movie was unloved by most critics; reviews carried headlines like “Dude, Don’t Waste Your Time” and “Dude, Where’re the Laughs?”
It was Mr. Leiner, though, who had the last laugh: The film, with an estimated budget of $13 million, made more than $73 million worldwide at the box office and went on to a lucrative afterlife of rentals and sales.
Four years later he was the director of choice for “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” about two stoned friends (John Cho and Kal Penn) who get a craving for White Castle burgers. The film’s trailer made comic use of the stars’ ethnic backgrounds and recent roles, juxtaposed against Mr. Leiner’s Caucasian-ness.
“New Line Cinema presents that Asian guy from ‘American Pie’ and that Indian guy from ‘Van Wilder,’ ” it said, “from that white guy who directed ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’ ”
The marketing strategy raised a few eyebrows, but Mr. Leiner’s were not among them.
“I thought it was a good, fun way to bring out the movie,” he said at the time.
Mr. Leiner was not limited to lowbrow comedy. He also directed “The Great New Wonderful” (2005), which was among the first films to address the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
It did so indirectly, through five parallel stories of New Yorkers trying to navigate life a year later.
That movie, featuring a big-name cast that included Maggie Gyllenhaal, Olympia Dukakis, Jim Gaffigan, Falco, and Stephen Colbert, showed no burning buildings and did not refer to the attacks directly. In an interview with The Chicago Sun-Times in 2006, Mr. Leiner discussed the question of whether it was too soon to make a movie about the tragedy.
“I’m not sure there’s a line in the sand that can be drawn,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It’s an equilibrium. It’s the specific material, how it’s treating 9/11, what it’s doing creatively and why it’s being made.”
Mr. Leiner also worked in television, directing episodes of “The Sopranos,” “Gilmore Girls,” “The Office,” and more. His cancer was diagnosed in 2015, said Mendelson, who with another friend, Susan Paley Abramson, helped and cared for him in his final years. In addition to his sister, he leaves his mother and a brother, Ken.