Jewish stars burn bright on TV this winter
Actor Judd Hirsch — no stranger to workplace comedies, having memorably starred as cabbie Alex Reiger in the 1970s sitcom “Taxi” — returns to form in “Superior Donuts” as Polish Jew Arthur Przybyszewski, owner of an old-fashioned doughnut shop struggling to make it in a gentrifying Chicago neighborhood.
Stubborn and resistant to change, Hirsch’s curmudgeonly character declares, “My parents didn’t send me out of Poland in the hull of a ship so we could sell Cronuts.” Based on Tracy Letts’ 2008 play, “Superior Donuts” doesn’t shy away from themes of religion, race, politics and generational divide. For Hirsch, the show provided an opportunity to return to the taped-before-an-audience format he has always favored.
“I love [multicamera] situation comedy because it always takes me back to the stage, being tested by an audience,” he said. “And you can hear their reaction. It’s always new.”
The son of Dutch, German and Russian Jewish immigrants, Hirsch has a bachelor’s degree in physics and didn’t become a professional actor until he was 36. Now 82, he considers himself fortunate. “I look at a lot of actors my age and they can’t remember a word” of a script, he said. He chalks up his vitality to a youthful outlook and staying active and busy.
“I’m in the gym almost every day,” he said, which counters the effects of having a constant supply of fresh doughnuts on the set. His favorites? “A cruller,” Hirsch said. “And I love jelly doughnuts.”
“Superior Donuts” was scheduled to premiere at 8:30 p.m. Feb. 2 on CBS.
After eight seasons and a 2014 reboot, the ticking “24” clock was silenced. But the nail-biting espionage series is back on Fox with a mostly new cast and a story about homegrown terrorism. Dan Bucatinsky — known for his work on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Marry Me,” and his Emmy-winning role on “Scandal” — plays counterterrorism-unit computer analyst Andy Shalowitz, who is Jewish.
Eager to be part of “gasp-worthy television” that’s a hallmark of “24,” Bucatinsky said he was drawn to playing “a very human, comedic character within a serious show, with a snarky sensibility that I find appealing. Andy just wants to avoid weapons and stay out of trouble. He takes anti-anxiety medication every morning. But he’s challenged in a way you don’t expect from the pilot,” he said. “There are revelations that will continue to unpeel throughout the season. Heroism exists in ordinary people too.”
The son of immigrants from Argentina who met at a Zionist youth organization and trace their roots to Poland and Russia, Bucatinsky describes his family as “culturally Jewish, not religious.” A New York native, he attended Hebrew school, went to Israel with his family in 1971 when he was 6, and became bar mitzvah seven years later. “I don’t know how much significance my bar mitzvah had for me at 13,” he confided. “I wish it would happen in your 20s when you have understanding of the subject matter.”
Married to “lapsed Catholic” writer-director Don Roos, with whom he has two adopted children, Bucatinsky keeps Jewish tradition and ritual alive via Passover seders and Rosh Hashanah services. He wrote about the latter in 2012 in his book “Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?” a best-seller about his experiences in gay parenting.
“A bit of a ham” who appeared in his first Shakespeare play in first grade and continued to act through college at Vassar, Bucatinsky recalls making his professional debut in a terrible midnight show in Greenwich Village on Yom Kippur. His parents went to services, then drove into Manhattan to support their son.
From there, Bucatinsky wrote and performed sketch shows to score acting jobs, but he has found working before and behind the camera equally satisfying. “The desire deep in my soul to be an actor is still there, and getting to do these roles now is very satisfying,” he said. “After 20 years I’m having the acting career I dreamed of having in my 20s.”
Currently preparing a new season of “Who Do You Think You Are?” with Lisa Kudrow, with whom he collaborated on “Web Therapy” and “The Comeback,” Bucatinsky said he would like to direct more, make an independent film, revisit Argentina with his family and learn to play the piano. He said he has mastered the art of making gluten-free latkes, which he serves every year for Chanukah, and wants to write a cookbook featuring gourmet latke recipes.
But what makes him happiest, he said, is watching his children enjoy the beach at the family’s weekend getaway north of Los Angeles. “Those moments are rare and as close to bliss as I can get,” he said. “That and a really good plate of pad Thai.”
“24: Legacy” premieres at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 on Fox.
Showtime’s “Billions,” about the high-stakes battle between hedge-fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who is determined to take him down, is also about the woman deeply involved with both men. As Wendy, Rhoades’ estranged wife and Axelrod’s performance coach and ally, Maggie Siff walks a precarious line.
“She’s a complex character,” Siff said. “Right from the beginning, there were all kinds of contradictions in her, and that hasn’t really let up. She has these two forces of gravity in her life that pull her in very different directions. I love how intuitive and insightful she is, and unafraid to call people out on what they’re hiding.”
At the end of the first season, Wendy “walked out on these guys, kind of blew everything up,” Siff said. “Now she’s trying to get her life back on track. She’s trying to find a place in the world on her own.”
Wendy and Chuck are now in marital therapy, and she will decide whether to sever or repair the relationship.
It’s a juicy role and the latest in a string of Siff’s memorable TV characters, including Tara Knowles on “Sons of Anarchy” and Jewish department store heiress Rachel Menken on “Mad Men,” which launched her career to a higher level. “I’d done mostly theater up to that point,” Siff said. “What everyone thought was an art project turned out to be this iconic thing.”
Growing up in New York, Siff always wanted to act. “My father was a stage actor when I was growing up, so I’d been around the theater,” she said. “I knew I would be some kind of performer, an actor or singer.”
Russian-Jewish on her father’s side, Siff was not bat mitzvah but celebrated Passover with her paternal relatives and feels “culturally Jewish because of how and where I grew up,” she said. Married with a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, she splits her time between Los Angeles and New York, where “Billions” is shot.
Siff’s professional and personal goals include “exploring great three-dimensional characters” on stage and screen, working with female directors and writers on independent projects, playing Medea, as well as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” learning a new language, teaching the craft of acting, and visiting New Zealand, Spain, Ireland and Scotland. “We love to travel,” she said. “There are a lot of places on our list.”
“Billions” premieres at 10 p.m. Feb.19 on Showtime.
‘The Good Fight’
“The Good Wife” signed off in May after seven seasons on CBS, but its story continues in the CBS All Access spinoff series “The Good Fight.” The show focuses on Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, whose finances have been wiped out by a Bernie Madoff-like scam, forcing her to take a new job with the all-Black law firm of Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo).
Starting with the third episode, Justin Bartha — of “The Hangover” and “National Treasure” movies — plays Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Morello, a JFK Jr. golden-boy type who faces off against Quinn in the courtroom and romances her outside of it. “It’s not a traditional kind of relationship,” Bartha said. “We might continue to be rivals and there will be conflict. He has secrets. They all have secrets. It’s really topical and the smartest writing I’ve found in a long time.”
Bartha, who has roots in New York and traces his Jewish ancestry to Hungary and Poland, was born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and grew up in West Bloomfield, Mich., where his family moved for his father’s job. He grew up in a Reform home, went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, and four years ago visited Israel for the first time.
“I’m not a very religious person but I do identify and feel very strongly about the Jewish faith, and I love being Jewish,” he said. “I have a connection to Jewish history and feel an affinity toward being part of a minority group, especially now with anti-Semitism on the rise.”
Bartha first got into acting in high school, after he broke his wrist playing tennis. “I was looking for something to do, and there were a lot of cute girls in the drama department,” he said. “I had no idea how much I would love it.”
After studying writing, directing and production at film school and gaining hands-on experience doing various production-assistant jobs on movie sets, Bartha was cast in the reviled movie “Gigli” and worked with director Sidney Lumet on an unreleased HBO film before scoring with “The Hangover.”
Happy to be shooting “The Good Fight” in New York, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, Bartha said he hopes to return to the production side and “have more control over my career. I’m still trying to figure out what stories I want to tell,” he said. “But right now, I’m figuring out how to be the best parent I can possibly be. Everything else takes a back seat.”
“The Good Fight” premieres Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. on CBS All Access.
Time travel is a hot trend in TV series this season, but “Making History” plays transcending the fourth dimension for laughs, sending its hero, Dan, back to Colonial America in a magical duffel bag to relive history and find romance with Paul Revere’s daughter and the historical complications that brings. (He also explores more recent eras.)
“There’s a lot of me in him,” Adam Pally, best known as Max Blum on “Happy Endings” and Peter Prentice on “The Mindy Project,” said about his latest character. “He’s a simple guy who’s living in the shadow of his genius dad and looking for a way to live and find love.”
The son of actors, Pally said he was the class-clown type growing up in New York, New Jersey and Chicago, entertaining schoolmates at Solomon Schechter Hebrew Day School and watching “Saturday Night Live” to perfect his Mike Myers impersonation.
A graduate of The New School in New York and a member of L.A.’s Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe since 2003, Pally now seeks opportunities in front of and behind the camera. “I read every script open and honestly and see if it would be something challenging and fun, whether that means acting or directing or producing,” he said.
Two films in which Pally appeared were showcased at the Sundance Film Festival, the comedy “The Little Hours” and the drama “Band Aid,” and he is developing several projects with his production company.
Although the character Dan in “Making History” is not Jewish, most of Pally’s characters have been Jews, and he considers himself “very Jewish, culturally,” he said. “I was bar mitzvah, my wife is Jewish and we raise our kids Jewish. I have my Hebrew name, Asher, tattooed on my chest. You don’t get more Jewish than that.”
“Making History” premieres at 8:30 p.m. March 5 on Fox.
Some children invent imaginary friends, and most grow out of them as adults. But for Alice (Jenna Elfman), the chatty companion she created as a kid is still in the picture, dispensing advice — for better or worse — on how Alice should live her life and navigate her relationships in the CGI/live-action comedy hybrid “Imaginary Mary.”
Neither animal nor human, but furry and cute, Mary is like a female version of the mouthy teddy bear in “Ted,” just a lot less raunchy.
“She’s a creature, something a 6-year-old might draw,” Rachel Dratch said of the hyperactive character whose voice she records once the live scenes are completed. “It’s an interesting challenge to create a real character with just your voice. But you have a lot of freedom to create something really wacky. Also, you don’t have to get hair or makeup or worry about how you look that day. There’s a freedom to it. You’re literally out of your body, so there’s something freeing about acting like that.”
Dratch, a Dartmouth College graduate from Lexington, Mass., honed her sketch comedy chops with Second City in Chicago before a seven-year stint on “Saturday Night Live,” where she created iconic characters such as Debbie Downer and The Lovers, with Will Ferrell. “It was a dream job,” she said. “I’m still really good friends with everyone.” These days, she keeps a hand in the sketch world with “Late Night Snack,” which airs on TruTV.
Growing up, Dratch was “a nerdy kid,” raised in a Reform Jewish home by parents of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry. “I was bat mitzvah, went to Hebrew school, went to Israel once. Now I’m a High Holiday Jew,” she said, noting that she usually spends holidays with her parents and takes her 6-year-old son to children’s services. She has attempted to make potato latkes and her mom’s matzo ball soup, but confessed: “I didn’t really inherit her skills.”
Dratch said her wish list includes writing, doing more theater — especially a Broadway comedy — or “whatever comes along.” She’d like to take her son to Israel and she already sees signs of him inheriting the “performer gene.”
“He does have comedic traits,” Dratch said. “He has a very expressive face. I wouldn’t want him to be a kid actor; but when he’s older, if that’s what makes him happy, I would let him follow his dream, just like my parents did for me.”
“Imaginary Mary” premieres March 29 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
Justin Kirk (“Weeds”) is a billionaire who privatizes a Chicago police precinct to restore law and order and avenge the death of a friend in “APB” (Fox, Feb.6); Israeli actress Inbar Lavi is a con artist who faces the wrath of those she married and swindled in “Imposters” (Bravo, Feb. 7); Zosia Mamet returns for the sixth and final season of “Girls” (HBO, Feb. 12); Elliott Gould plays Isaiah Roth, who heads a firm of criminal defense attorneys in “Doubt” (CBS, Feb. 15); Judd Apatow is the creator of “Crashing,” which follows comedian Pete Holmes’ adventures in standup comedy and couch surfing (HBO, Feb. 19)); and Josh Bowman plays a time-traveling Jack the Ripper in the TV adaptation of the 1979 movie “Time After Time” (ABC, March 5).