Ari Graynor stars in Showtime's "I'm Dying Up Here." Photo by Patrick Ecclesine/Showtime

The Jewish shows, stars and themes of summer TV


Members of the tribe populate this summer’s offerings — on camera and behind the scenes — in broadcast and cable shows about the lives of millennials and comedians, an infamous scandal, Holocaust survival and the joys of getting old.

“THE WIZARD OF LIES”

In his 30-year career, Hank Azaria has racked up impressive credits in film (“The Birdcage,” “Quiz Show”), theater (“Spamalot”) and television, winning Emmys for “Tuesdays With Morrie,” “The Simpsons” (four times) and “Ray Donovan.” This season, he won raves for playing the titular baseball announcer in the IFC comedy “Brockmire,” already renewed for Season Two.

Now, in “The Wizard of Lies,” HBO’s dramatization of Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme scandal, he plays Frank DiPascali, Madoff’s (Robert De Niro) chief lieutenant.

“It’s a terrible tragedy that touched so many lives. The movie shows how hard it was on the family, living in the center of that,” said Azaria, who revealed a long-ago connection to the Madoff story — he went to summer camp with Mark Madoff (Bernie’s late son). “I hadn’t seen or spoken to him since we were 14 years old. But I knew him fairly well back then, well enough to be fairly affected by the whole thing,” he said.

In preparation for the part, the actor read accounts of the case and spoke to the FBI agents who had interviewed DiPascali, who pleaded guilty to 10 counts relating to the Madoff case and died in 2015 while awaiting sentencing. “They gave me information not only on what he said but how he said it. He happened to be very good with numbers, more capable than your average criminal, and morally ambiguous,” Azaria said. “He was uniquely suited to perpetrate a scam like this.”

He pronounced working with De Niro “every actor’s dream. It’s like playing basketball with Michael Jordan,” the sports-loving Knicks, Mets and Jets fan said.

Born in Queens, N.Y., Azaria, 53, has Sephardic-Jewish roots in Spain via Greece. He grew up eating Sephardic foods at Passover and hearing his elders speaking Ladino. But as proud as he is to be Jewish, he wasn’t raised in an observant family. He didn’t attend Hebrew school and was tutored as a bar mitzvah, like his friends.

He first felt a connection to Judaism when he took a Yiddish literature class at Tufts University. “I learned about Jewish life and identity from the shtetl to America through the lens of studying Sholem Aleichem, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud. I never thought about how assimilated I was and am until I took that course,” Azaria said.

Today, he lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “steeped in Jewish culture.” His son Hal, who will turn 8 on June 6, attended a Jewish preschool, although his mother is not Jewish. “We expose him to both traditions and we’ll let him decide later in life,” Azaria said.

Reflecting on his own childhood, Azaria said he discovered his talent for mimicry early on. “But I didn’t make the connection that mimicking could be part of a career till my late teens and 20s, once I started acting in college,” he said. He’s been putting those skills to use by voicing multiple characters on “The Simpsons,” including favorites Moe and Professor Frink, since 1989.

Azaria’s wish list for the future includes more theater, a trip to Italy, and working with directors Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh. He had a great experience making the recent film “Norman” with Richard Gere and director Joseph Cedar. But pointing out the “tremendous creative freedom” that cable television allows, he said he’s most at home working on projects like “Brockmire” (which he produces), “Ray Donovan” and “The Wizard of Lies.”

“Just in the last few years, I’m starting to feel that I know what I’m doing,” Azaria said. “Not only feel like I have some expertise, but I really enjoy it and I think it’s shown up in
my work.”

“The Wizard of Lies” is playing now on HBO.

“I’M DYING UP HERE”

Ari Graynor is known for comedies like “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “What’s Your Number?” but had never done stand-up before she landed her latest role in “I’m Dying Up Here.” In the Showtime series, Graynor plays Cassie Feder, a Jewish woman from Texas who is trying to make it in the Los Angeles comedy scene in the early 1970s.

“Even though it’s set in the ’70s, it feels like a mirror to today. A lot of the issues they were confronting are the same,” she said.

To prepare for the role, Graynor read books — including William Knoedelseder’s, which inspired the series — and watched routines by comedians such as Elayne Boosler, Richard Pryor and Robert Klein.

“The main difference between playing and being a stand-up is the material isn’t coming from myself. Even though I had to stand onstage and tell jokes, I had a bit of a cushion of having a character to play,” Graynor said. “But it’s definitely scary when you’re standing in front of 100 people, extras or not. There’s no place to hide.”

Graynor welcomed the chance to challenge herself with Cassie, whom she described as “strong and tough and vulnerable and sad. She’s going through a loss and is trying to find her voice and be better at what she does.” Her Jewishness is often referred to, “but what I like about it is it’s not the basis of her identity. It’s just one of the facets of who she is,” Graynor said. It’s the first role in which Graynor has let her naturally curly hair run free.

The Boston-born daughter of a Lithuanian-Jewish mother and a father who was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism, Graynor, 34, said she feels “very connected to the traditions of Judaism and I feel very Jewish in a lot of ways, yet I’m not religious. I did have a bat mitzvah and have gone to some very casual services. But I don’t actually know that much about the religion.”

Graynor made her acting debut in a first-grade play “and knew right then that it was what I wanted to do,” she said. She did community theater, got an agent, and the summer before her senior year in high school, she was cast as Caitlin Rucker in “The Sopranos.” 

There have been other highlights on both stage and screen since then in dramas and comedies. And while she doesn’t consider herself a comedian, she learned how to get laughs doing plays like “Brooklyn Boy” and Woody Allen’s one-act “Honeymoon Motel” portion of the three-play production “Relatively Speaking.”

Going forward, Graynor wants to push past her comfort zone and continue challenging herself. “That’s where I feel most alive and engaged,” she said. She has written two screenplays and hopes to direct one and possibly act in the other. She wants to develop and produce projects and “work with smart, engaged, creative people who really care about what they’re putting in the world and why.”

In her personal life, she’d like go to Israel with her mother, refresh her darkroom skills and, eventually, have “a really solid partnership” and kids. “Traveling, reading, writing, theater, art, expression, the relationships with the people in my life and new experiences make me feel joy,” Graynor said. “I want to learn as much as I can about the world so I can be a mirror for it as an actor, as a writer and as a human.”

“I’m Dying Up Here” premieres June 4 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

“IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE OBIT, EAT BREAKFAST”

Why do some people live active, happy, productive lives into their 90s and beyond? Is it just fortunate genetics, or is it something more? The HBO documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” explores that question by spotlighting celebrities and civilians who are thriving in their ninth and 10th decades.

Talent manager and producer George Shapiro, 86, got the idea by watching his energetic uncle (and client) Carl Reiner, 95, maintain an active writing, appearance and social schedule. Reiner readily agreed to interview his friends Mel Brooks, 90, Norman Lear, 94, and Dick Van Dyke, 91, about aging well.

The roster soon expanded to include Betty White, 95; Kirk Douglas, 100; a nonagenarian yoga teacher; and a 101-year-old marathon runner. Longevity expert Dan Buettner weighs in, as does Jerry Seinfeld. (Shapiro manages the comedian and produces his TV shows, going back to “Seinfeld.”) Tony Bennett, 90, performs “The Best is Yet to Come.”

The film is filled with words of wisdom from the likes of fashion icon Iris Apfel, 95, and funny anecdotes, including Seinfeld’s story about getting Reiner’s autograph when he was 8 years old. “It changes the perception of people in their 90s getting old and being decrepit,” Shapiro said.

All the participants in the documentary, completed last year, are alive and well, with the exception of pianist Irving Fields and actor Fyvush Finkel.

Shapiro believes “having fun, being with friends and family, having the joy of creativity contributes enormously to sticking around longer. Interests are very important; so is keeping your mind and body active,” he said, rattling off a list of projects on his and his clients’ schedules. Fittingly, Reiner’s latest book, due in June, is titled “Too Busy to Die.”

Shapiro hopes those who watch “Obit” are inspired and encouraged by it.

“If you asked me three years ago if I would like to live to 100, I’d say, ‘No, thank you,’ ” he said. “Now I have a completely different attitude.”

“If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” premieres June 5 at 8 p.m. on HBO.

“YOUNGER”

In the TV Land series “Younger,” about young career women in New York, Jewish actress Molly Bernard plays quirky fashion publicist Lauren Heller, also Jewish.

“There are some episodes where Lauren is a wildly, explicitly Jewish princess, and others where it’s not the focus, it’s just how she moves through the world,” Bernard said.

As the fourth season begins, “pansexual” Lauren is struggling “with her identity and her heart,” questioning whether to stick with the nice Jewish doctor she’s seeing, Bernard said. Meanwhile, “she continues to come up with wild, creative solutions to everybody’s problems.”

Bernard said she loves playing a character who is “totally over the top and brave, and unconditionally loves herself,” but revealed that initially she had trouble understanding Lauren “because she was so different from myself. Now the gap is getting smaller. I’m learning from her: I have more confidence than I’ve ever had,” she said, adding that it helped her dive into another Jewish role.

After one appearance in Season Three of “Transparent,” she will return in several episodes of the Amazon series as the younger version of Judith Light’s Shelly in flashbacks. “She has a really complicated arc this year,” Bernard said.

Bernard was raised “culturally Jewish” in New York by her late paternal grandparents, actor and acting teacher Joseph Bernard, who co-founded the Lee Strasberg Institute, and his wife, Bina, the first female district leader in Manhattan. “I was not bat mitzvah. The ‘Hot Mitzvah’ episode of ‘Younger’ was the one I never had,” she said. “I love celebrating Passover and Chanukah. I want to go to temple more.”

Bernard, who got her bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College and her master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama, credits her grandfather for inspiring her love of acting and academics. “He gave me this gift of fearlessness and joy and intellect. He formed who I became,” she said.

Back in New York after Yale, she thought she’d become a “downtown theater person.” Instead, she has a higher-profile career in TV and film, including good supporting roles in “The Intern” and “Sully.”

Her wish list now includes indie films, a Broadway show, and working with directors Wes Anderson and Woody Allen. On the personal front, she wants to go to Paris, spend more time with loved ones and have a family — eventually.

“I love kids,” she said. “But I think I need a few more years of therapy before I’m ready to be a mom.”

“Younger” premieres June 28 at 10 p.m. on TV Land.

“SHALOM ITALIA”

Italian brothers Bubi, Andrea and Emmanuel Anati survived the Holocaust by hiding in a cave in a forest in Italy. Seven decades later, the trio traveled from Israel back to Tuscany in search of the cave. Filmmaker Tamar Tal Anati (“Life in Stills”), Bubi’s daughter-in-law, begged to document the adventure, not knowing what, if anything, they’d find. “Shalom Italia,” the product of that 2013 trip, provides the answer.

“I realized that it really didn’t matter if they’d find the cave or not because the essence is the search and the dynamic between the brothers,” Tal Anati said via Skype from her home in Tel Aviv. “Each of them remembered the [childhood] experience differently, and I was fascinated by the way they deal with it now.”

She explained that the brothers didn’t see themselves as Holocaust survivors because “they weren’t in Auschwitz. They didn’t go through that horror.” But they nevertheless had to live like animals in the woods, with little food. “It’s still a trauma and it affected the rest of their lives.”

Emmanuel, the curmudgeonly archaeology professor, now 87, had the hardest time coping with those memories, “but he’s opening up more now, when we have post-screening discussions with the audience,” the director noted. In contrast, physicist and rock climber Andrea, 85, is the optimist and Bubi, 77, is the nurturer, “always taking care of everyone,” she said. “I wanted to show their true characters.”

Shooting in the dense forest was difficult and navigating with camera equipment treacherous. Anati worried that the elderly brothers, especially Emmanuel, might fall. But the payoff was big: On their last day, as daylight waned, they located the site of the cave. A few months later, 11 Anati family members returned to the spot, with a sign to mark it.

Tal Anati, who currently is shooting a TV series about female pilots-in-training in the Israeli air force, differentiated “Shalom Italia” from similar documentaries because of its various perspectives and its lighter, hopeful tone.

“People have said it’s so optimistic,” she said. “The message is about life, not about death.”

“Shalom Italia” premieres July 24 on “POV” on PBS stations.

Also Premiering

Sarah Silverman’s latest comedy special, “A Speck of Dust,” premieres May 30 on Netflix, which will launch the wrestling comedy series “GLOW,” starring Alison Brie, on June 23. Also on Netflix, Emory Cohen (“Brooklyn”) stars opposite Brad Pitt in “War Machine,” a satirical drama set in Afghanistan (May 26). 

Howie Mandel returns to judge the 12th season of “America’s Got Talent” (May 30, NBC), and Ian Kahn continues to portray George Washington in the fourth and final season of the Revolutionary War drama “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (June 17, AMC). Season Three of “Difficult People” with Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner premieres Aug. 8 on Hulu, and Amazon Prime’s “The Last Tycoon,” starring Matt Bomer as a Jewish producer loosely based on Irving Thalberg, will premiere sometime in July. “The Strain,” starring Corey Stoll, begins its fourth and final season on FX on July 16.