‘Madoff’: Dreyfuss takes on the man behind the Ponzi scheme

Of all the shocking scandals that emanated from the 2008 financial market crash, the most notorious is that of Bernie Madoff, the investment adviser who infamously defrauded clients out of billions of dollars in the largest Ponzi scheme in American history.

The story of Madoff’s rise and fall, how he managed to steal from friends and charities — including Hadassah and the Elie Wiesel Foundation — as well as how he fooled his family and lined his pockets with victims’ retirement portfolios, nest eggs and college funds is the subject of “Madoff,” a miniseries airing Feb. 3-4 on ABC, starring Richard Dreyfuss as Madoff and Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth. 

“Everyone knows the name and what he did, but there’s so much more to it,” executive producer Linda Berman said. “As we developed the script and even during production, we were all fascinated to find out things about the story and the family that were never told to the public. He never invested a single dollar. He just put all the money into his bank account.” 

Madoff also betrayed his own family, lying to his brother, sons and Ruth, and cheating on Ruth with another woman. But Dreyfuss believes that because he was so affable, he was able to get away with the unforgivable.

“In order for him to be as successful as he was at this scam, he had to be an enormously likable and charming guy — you couldn’t help but like him,” Dreyfuss said in a recent interview. “Then you realize that he was, metaphorically, raping children and stealing their futures, and that’s impossible to forgive.”

Dreyfuss didn’t hesitate to accept the role, to Berman’s delight. “Richard is an extremely likable guy, and we needed someone that you didn’t automatically hate,” she said.

The Academy Award-winning actor likens Madoff to a villain in a Shakespearean tragedy. “This is an epic story of crime, an epic rise and an epic fall. That’s Shakespearean,” Dreyfuss said. 

Other Bard-worthy themes, including betrayal and the sins of the father, are evident in the story, as well. And while Berman thinks Madoff’s actions may have contributed to the stress that led to some family members’ tragic fates, including his son Mark’s suicide, Dreyfuss doesn’t think divine retribution had anything to do with it. “I don’t think you have to believe in a vengeful God to understand his story,” he said.

Although he said he finds playing admirable characters in films such as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “The Goodbye Girl” “more satisfying than playing Bernie or Dick Cheney,” Dreyfuss doesn’t think villains are more difficult to portray. “If you’re honest with yourself, you can find Bernie Madoff in your own life and behavior. Impulses to lie, cut corners and serve yourself happen to people all the time, and an actor’s job is to build on those instincts and make them fit the larger story,” he said.

“Madoff” was based in part on “The Madoff Chronicles” by Brian Ross. “But that was just a jumping off point for us,” Berman said. “We did a lot of research, used other books and articles and interviews with people. We spoke to Eleanor Squillari, who was Madoff’s longtime assistant, and interviewed some people who had invested with him.”

Danner spoke with Ruth Madoff and Dreyfuss talked to some fraud victims, but the actor said he had no interest in speaking to Madoff himself. “The chances were that he wasn’t going to tell me the truth, and I wasn’t interested in listening to him rationalize or justify,” Dreyfuss said. “I would have been interested, I suppose, in listening to his Queens accent, but I heard it from a lot of other sources.”

“Madoff” was shot on a modest budget in eight weeks entirely in New York and on Long Island in many of the story’s actual locations. That lent authenticity, but some artistic invention was necessary. “We had to take some dramatic license in re-creating conversations between people because we didn’t know exactly what was said,” Berman said. 

“Life does not fit into a three-act break,” Dreyfuss added. “You have to do some condensing and combining and stuff like that. You always have to do some condensing and combining. If it wasn’t accurate, it was certainly not with intention.” 

“Madoff” includes many Jewish-themed references, scenes and some cast members (Lewis Black and Charles Grodin, among them), but was there concern about the ramifications of a Jewish villain? “We were very careful not to portray this as an anti-Semitic story. It’s a global story … a much bigger story,” Berman said.

Dreyfuss pointed out that Madoff scammed Jews because that’s who he knew, and when he discovered there were Christians in the world, he scammed them, too. The actor recalled how he responded when his starring role in “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” raised issues of anti-Semitism in 1974. “When they said, ‘You’re washing our dirty linen in public,’ I went out and washed some more dirty linen, as loudly as possible.”

“Madoff” also raises important issues about the workings of the financial industry and how Bernie Madoff was able to get away with his scheme. 

“It’s been said that the only way a Ponzi scheme like this could fail is if the world fell apart, and that’s exactly what happened. If it weren’t for the fact that there was a volcanic explosion in the financial world, he could have gone on doing this forever,” Dreyfuss said. 

He believes the current system doesn’t sufficiently protect investors from the failings of the financial industry, and hopes “Madoff” inspires viewers to demand more accountability. If Berman has her way, the film will remind people to ask questions and be absolutely sure with whom they’re dealing before entrusting their money to anyone.

“This movie hopefully will be a cautionary tale,” she said. “Bernie took a lot of people down the rabbit hole with him, and we’re trying to do justice to the story so that people learn from what others went through and don’t fall into that same trap.”

“Madoff” airs Feb. 3-4 on ABC.

Abigail Breslin to star in ‘Dirty Dancing’ TV musical

The 1987 hit film “Dirty Dancing” will be adapted into a TV musical.

The taped musical will star Abigail Breslin. It will be written by Jessica Sharzer and air on ABC, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Allison Shearmur Productions and Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the original film’s screenplay, will produce the three-hour show.

Sharzer and Bergstein are Jewish, and Breslin is half-Jewish.

The 1987 movie, starring Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze and Jerry Orbach, was about a Jewish college student on vacation at a heavily Jewish Catskills resort and her romance with one of the resort’s non-Jewish employees. Like the film’s protagonist, Bergstein was the daughter of a doctor and frequently vacationed with her family in the Catskills.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, it has grossed more than $213 million globally since its release.

It also inspired a 2004 remake called “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” and a Lionsgate remake project that was abandoned in 2012.

ABC orders up more of ‘The Goldbergs’

Fans of “The Goldbergs,” kvell away. ABC has announced it is picking up the fledgling comedy for a full season.

While the series received lukewarm reviews from heavyweight critics such as yours truly, it is averaging 7.5 million total viewers and a 2.7 rating in adults 18-49. Apparently folks like being inundated with 1980s memorabilia  (think Rubik’s Cube and Ghostbusters Halloween costumes) and hearing Jeff Garlin lovingly refer to his TV brood as idiots ad nauseam.

Yes, we think it’s cool that a Jewish family is standing in for the average American family. That said, is it so wrong to hope for a little more overt Jewiness now that the season has been extended? We’re envisioning a Chanukah episode, a seder, or even better, some blue eye shadowed, shoulder padded bar mitzvah action.

Howard Cosell: The man fans loved to hate

When Howard Cosell achieved fame as a sports journalist, the last thing he wanted was to be thought of as a Jewish sports journalist. But because of his insecurities, his condescension toward others, and his big mouth, that is exactly how Cosell (1918-1995) came to be perceived. He made so many enemies—some of them anti-Semitic, some of them not—that his unstable but obvious relationship to his religious heritage caused it to be thrown back at him.

“Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports” by Mark Ribowsky (W.W. Norton: $29.95) is a powerful biography that is frequently painful to read because of how it captures Cosell’s brilliant unpleasantness — or was it unpleasant brilliance? The author offers passage after passage about the struggles of Jews against anti-Semitism, as well as the self destructiveness practiced by some of those struggling Jews, even after they had achieved fame and fortune, with Cosell (born Howard William Cohen) at the forefront.

This biography is so well researched and well written that most readers probably will rate it highly. But, more than most biographies, it will probably evoke extremely different reactions, depending on at least four measures: Jewish readers versus non-Jewish readers; readers old enough to have directly experienced Cosell’s broadcasts and writings versus younger ones; avid fans of professional football, baseball, basketball and boxing versus readers more or less indifferent to such sports; and female versus male readers.

So, in the interest of disclosure, I am a male of Jewish heritage but have never belonged to a synagogue; I am old enough to remember experiencing Cosell’s words but have paid little attention to any sport but baseball. As a result of that set of traits, I knew little about Cosell and found the entire biography revelatory. According to a television publicist quoted by Ribowsky, “the two biggest liars in the world are the people who tell you they don’t watch the CBS prime-time soap ‘Dallas’ or listen to Howard Cosell.” Well, I never watched “Dallas,” and I never listened to Cosell intentionally. And that’s the truth.

One other warning before moving along: In the context of how biographers interpret lives, Ribowsky falls at the extreme top end of interpreting actions and talk and personal relationships and gaps. He analyzes — perhaps psychoanalyzes would be a more accurate word — Cosell on almost every page. That is a lot of analyzing in a lengthy biography. Some readers might fight that tiresome, because the analysis becomes repetitious.

Some readers might also find Ribowsky’s interpretations presumptuous at minimum, maybe even reductionist and therefore in some sense wrong. But this warning paragraph, while an obligation of a book reviewer, is not meant to dampen the enthusiasm of any potential reader. Few biographies measure up to “Howard Cosell” in depth, breadth and readability. I’m a biographer proud of my books, and I’ve certainly never published any better than this one.

Ribowsky is in love, professionally speaking, with his subject. Yet, as has been said probably millions of times before, there is a fine line between love and hate. Ribowsky rarely passes up a chance to show Cosell at his worst, from the opening quotations page, which contains these two:

“In one year I traveled 450,000 miles by air. That’s 18 times around the world, or once around Howard Cosell’s head,” attributed to Grand Prix race car driver Jackie Stewart, and “Brain in neutral, mouth in gear,” attributed to Anonymous.

The second quotation is somewhat misleading, because, as Ribowsky demonstrates, Cosell’s brain was rarely in neutral. He was a brilliant student growing up in Brooklyn, a brilliant college student when pursuing courses in law, a solider employed by the U.S. military on the home front during World War II because of his logistical brilliance, a first-rate lawyer in private practice, a pioneer in the realm of sports journalism who broke all sorts of barriers to establish a new paradigm and an effective crusader on behalf of various individual rights—especially for professional athletes.

If any brief quotation can capture Cosell, it is one late in the book that Ribowsky attributes to sportswriter Red Smith: “Howard Cosell doesn’t broadcast sports, he broadcasts Howard Cosell.”

So, Ribowsky rightly wonders, how did Cosell succeed so grandly?  For starters, in the strikes-against department, Cosell was homely looking with an unpleasant speaking voice working in a medium emphasizing handsome, pleasant-sounding broadcasters. In Ribowsky’s words, the success could be classified as a “lingering mystery…He was, after all, a performer with no acting skills, a sports denizen who boasted that he never played the game, and an ex-attorney who used magniloquence in describing how grown men beat on or tackled each other or hit horsehide balls with sticks.”

A big part of the answer, Ribowsky posits, was how “a balancing act between audacity and parody made him compelling.” Listeners and viewers and readers “felt guilty about enjoying him so much. We were supposed to hate Cosell, so we did, while always making sure we tuned in to hear what he said.”

How much of that hatred derived from Cosell’s Jewishness? Ribowsky offers plenty of thinking about that question throughout the book.

Fortunately for readers interested in a liberal education, the book teaches about far more than Cosell. One of the biography’s secondary strengths is Ribowsky’s delineation of other characters, especially Cosell’s wife, Mary Edith (Emmy) Abrams, a non-Jew, his only friend, mother of their two daughters, one who became Jewish, one who became Protestant; and boxing champion Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, whose life inside and outside the ring became inextricably intertwined with the sportscaster’s.

Cosell’s defense of Ali as a boxer, as an African-American in a racist nation, as a Muslim convert, and as a protestor against military induction constitutes the second most touching part of the title character’s ugly life—second only to his epic, unwavering love for Emmy.

Steve Weinberg is a regular contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.

Un-bee-lievable Spellings

Of the viewers who watched ABC’s broadcast of the 79th National Spelling Bee on June 1, how many would have spelled the word meaning “kosher approval” the way the judges did? The Round 8 word trumped the young lady who had to spell it, too.

When Saryn Hooks spelled it H-E-C-H-S-H-E-R, the judges dinged her out. According to them, the word should be spelled H-E-C-H-S-C-H-E-R. But that is not the spelling used in many Jewish newspapers and magazines, which is heksher. Luckily, the judges caught their mistake, and Hooks retuned to the competition to become the third-place finisher. She was luckier than Kavya Shivashankar who lost, misspelling the Hebrew word G-E-M-A-T-R-I-A-L (she spelled it with an O).

Second-place finisher Finola Mei Hwa Hackett, asked to spell K-N-A-I-D-E-L, however, got it right (it was an ironic follow-up to her Round 6 word: K-A-D-D-I-S-H). During Round 10, Ragiv Tarigopula received the “we didn’t think it was that hard to spell” word of the night: Y-I-Z-K-O-R (he spelled it correctly).

Earlier in the E.W. Scripps Co-sponsored bee, during the off-air Round 5, one child was asked to spell M-O-L-O-C-H (you might know it as melech).

The larger question is: Why should anyone be asked for a single correct spelling of a transliterated word? Is that fair when even the larger Jewish society can’t agree on a spelling for Chanukah (or is it Hanukkah)? Well, at least uber smart participants didn’t have to worry about spelling the Yiddish term for untalented loser: S-H-M-E-G-G-E-G-G-E.


Wonderful World of Weird

It was at the end of Yom Kippur services in North Hollywood that comic actor Larry Miller explained to a Journal reporter his new role on ABC’s eye-winking drama, “Desperate Housewives.”

Said Miller, smiling broadly: “I play the neighborhood pornographer!”

Not quite. Miller and Meagan Fay play the Harpers, a frisky Wisteria Lane couple whose homemade video of themselves procreating is viewed accidentally by the show’s teenage characters.

“It’s fun in the way ‘Desperate Housewives’ is fun,” Miller said.

The episode airs Nov. 13.

Miller reported that life is wonderfully weird: “Desperate Housewives” exteriors for Wisteria Lane are shot on Universal Studios’ Colonial Drive, home to the same house used for exteriors on ABC’s 1958-63 sitcom, “Leave It to Beaver.” One day, Miller and other cast members got free on-set ice cream from Long Island Lolita’s Joey Buttafuoco, who now runs a local fleet of ice cream trucks.

“I close my eyes and hold up my arms and I spin,” Miller said. “I absolutely adore every second of life.”

Change of Command on ‘Commander in Chief’

Was it sex, TV politics or controversial opinions about the Middle East? Or something else entirely?

News reports and sources cite conflicting reasons why Israeli-born Rod Lurie was booted or departed as show-runner of the successful new ABC drama, “Commander in Chief,” about the first female president of the United States. Lurie, the show’s creator, was replaced by TV veteran Steven Bochco (“NYPD Blue,” “L.A. Law”) last week — a highly unusual move on a show that is doing so well in the ratings.

Neither Lurie nor Bochco was available for comment on the backstage drama of who deposed the show’s real-life commander in chief and why.

However, rumors began circulating when well-connected entertainment columnist Nikki Finke reportedly told “The Drudge Report” that Lurie was sacked for wanting a “rough” limo sex scene between the president’s daughter and a Secret Service agent.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that Lurie and his bosses had “creative differences” about future episodes. A source told The Journal that the pro-Israel producer had hoped to create episodes in which the fictional president grapples with the Middle East conflict — episodes that may have been too controversial for the network.

Lurie is the son of Ranan Lurie, the famed Israeli political cartoonist, who often entertained Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in the family’s Herzelyia home. Young Rod moved with his parents to Greenwich, Conn., as a boy. He studied Middle East politics at West Point and worked for the U.S. military, before becoming a film critic and, ultimately, a director in 1999.

His first film, “Deterrence,” revolved around a Jewish president of the United States (Kevin Pollock) who must decide whether to drop the atomic bomb on Iraq.

The Post also surmised that Lurie was “stretched too thin trying to handle writing, producing and directing on the series, while juggling those helpful ‘notes’ from 25-year-old studio and network suits.”

Production reportedly fell so far behind that executives worried that they wouldn’t have enough episodes to push the show through sweeps month in November. Another potential looming problem is the show’s mixed critical reception: Some reviewers speculated that the appealing premise and stars – — Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland – — would not be enough to retain viewers, unless the quality or depth of the product improves.

Lurie will retain his executive producer title on the series, but will focus on developing new projects under his recent deal with Touchstone, a Touchstone press release said. Touchstone produces the ABC series.

“I’ve been a huge fan of Steven Bochco’s for over two decades. I’m blown-away, excited to see how much more he will electrify ‘Commander In Chief,'” Lurie said in the release.

“I have always been a big Rod Lurie fan, and I’m excited about … helping to realize Touchstone’s and Rod Lurie’s vision,” Bochco said in the release.

This season, the Jewish Bochco unveiled Hollywood’s first TV drama on the Iraq War, “Over There,” which aims at a realistic depiction of war that Bochco insists is apolitical. One can only surmise whether Bochco’s approach will translate, for example, to dealing with an issue such as the Middle East in “Commander in Chief.” And whether the show will rise or fall as a result.


In the ‘Company’ of Kline

"Come and knock on my door,"began the jingle on the popular ’70s ABC sitcom "Three’s Company." These days, opportunity knocks on the door of actor Richard Kline.

Kline, who played smarmy bachelor Larry Dallas on the quintessential sitcom, returns this week as director of KNBC weatherman Fritz Coleman’s new one-man show, "The Reception." Coleman’s humorous meditation on marriage follows his and Kline’s collaboration on Coleman’s first production, the autobiographical "It’s Me! Dad!"

Kline’s reception in Hollywood following the 1977-1984 run of "Three’s Company" was the typical typecasting tale. He was in demand for a roster of annoying-neighbor roles, including Jefferson on Fox’s long-running "Married With Children." He declined the role, sans regret.

"It was too sleazy," Kline says. "I know that sounds funny coming from the guy playing Larry. But it’s a question of degree."

Instead, Kline veered into a succession of dramatic guest shots: "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere," "L.A. Law." He recently returned to situation comedy on NBC’s canceled "Inside Schwartz," and appears on an upcoming episode of WB’s "The Gilmore Girls."

Kline caught the acting bug as a youth in summer camp. Descended from Hungarian-Russian stock, he grew up in New York, where his father sold Israel Bonds, and his mother worked for Jewish Welfare Board. While serving as a first lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles division during the VietnamWar, Kline recalls, "My mother would send over these Passover and Chanukah packages — matzah ball soup, gefilte fish."

Kline still maintains a Jewish connection. He belongs to Stephen S. Wise Temple. His daughter Colby, 18, is finishing up Milken High School. In fact, Kline will be the master of ceremonies at a Milken fundraiser next week.

And while he still enjoys acting, it isn’t everything to him. After "Three’s Company," he got into theater under the tutelage of an icon, Burt Reynolds, who later employed Kline’s directorial services on his own sitcom, "Evening Shade." Reynolds broke Kline into directing at his Jupiter, Fla., playhouse with projects such as "Social Security," a play by Andrew Bergman ("Honeymoon in Vegas").

Directing for the stage has become Kline’s prime passion. He has helmed numerous local productions, including Neil Simon’s "Rumors," and Noel Coward’s "Present Laughter," for which he won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award.

So did his "Three’s Company" lech-about-town persona hurt him while dating?

"I didn’t really do any dating," Kline says, amused. "I was married throughout the run of the show. It’s a great question, but it didn’t even apply."

"The Reception" runs at the Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank, from Jan. 19 to Feb. 24. Call (818) 841-5421 for tickets.

Redefining Beauty

Four years ago, Camryn Manheim walked into David Kelley’s office, feeling glum. She knew the executive producer didn’t want her for his new ABC drama, “The Practice.” After all, Hollywood typically ridiculed women who were 5-foot-10 and a size 22. Kelley practically yawned throughout her interview. “It was disastrous,” she told The Journal.

But slinking out of his office that day in 1996, the Jewish actress spotted a cribbage board — and felt a spark of chutzpah. “Why don’t we f— this audition and I’ll play you right now for the part?” she said. “If I lose, you’ll never see me again. But if I win, I walk out of here with the script.”

Kelley suddenly lost his bored look. “You don’t understand,” he warned. “I play the computer.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she retorted. “I play for money.”

Kelley didn’t play Manheim that day, but he was impressed enough to create a “Practice” role just for her: the gutsy, no-nonsense lawyer Ellenor Frutt. “When I got the phone call from my agent, saying that I had gotten the part, I sat down in the middle of my kitchen floor … and wept,” Manheim wrote in her 1999 memoir, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” (Broadway.) Her sense of victory was sweet. It came after a bitter, 20-year battle for acceptance in a business that worships svelte actresses — a battle that nearly cost Manheim her life.

When her NYU drama professors strongly suggested she lose weight or leave the program in the late 1980s, she began taking speed and accidentally overdosed. “For the longest time, I hated myself because I was fat,” she says. “I let just one thing define me. Then I decided I wasn’t going to conform to a standard that wasn’t developed with me in mind.”

Manheim’s campaign against the beauty myth culminated with her accepting an Emmy for best supporting actor in 1998. Wearing a low-cut black Emanuel gown, Payless shoes and Target earrings (12 in one ear), the “Practice” star thrust the award high over her head and declared, “This is for all the fat girls!”

The self-professed “poster child for fat acceptance,” says she used the f-word deliberately in her Emmy acceptance speech. “If you say a word enough, it robs it of its power,” she explains. And the show offered the perfect opportunity to advance her cause. “It’s abhorrent to me that women hate themselves so much for being overweight. I want to do everything in my power to fight that.”

Fighting injustice appears to be genetic for her. Born Deborah Frances Manheim, she grew up in a culturally Jewish home in Long Beach. Her Polish-immigrant grandfather was an early organizer of the millinery workers union. Her mother, Sylvia, attended the Yiddishist-socialist IWO schools and worked as a switchboard operator for the Communist Party. Manheim’s Uncle Bill organized the New York taxicab drivers and eventually became secretary-treasurer of local 840 of the Teamsters Union. Her father, Jerry, a math professor, picketed segregated restaurants in the 1950s, and was denounced as a communist by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “He was blacklisted,” Sylvia told The Journal. “He lost his job, and I went to work selling freezers door-to-door. It was a difficult time for our family.”

Nevertheless, the Manheims continued to equate their Judaism with social action, toting young Camryn to rallies to protest racism and the Vietnam War. When Camryn was arrested at a pro-choice rally in the early ’80s, she called her parents from jail. “Mazal tov!” Sylvia shouted into the phone.

Manheim quips: “For my family, protesting injustice is like ‘mitzvah therapy.'”

During her childhood, Manheim, now 40, felt that her parents supported every kind of underdog save one: the fat person. When Manheim began gaining weight at age 11, her parents shlepped her to a series of psychiatrists and hypnotists. They even tried bribery. When Camryn was a preteen, she signed her first contract: “If you lose 15 pounds by March, we’ll buy you a brand new bike.”

“We thought Camryn would have more boyfriends if she were thinner,” Sylvia says sheepishly.

Manheim’s self-esteem plummeted. She tried to hide her body with baggy Levis, which she even wore into the shower. At the age of 13, she says she missed all her friends’ “baruch atah adonais” because mom wouldn’t let her wear pants to bar mitzvahs.

A few years later, she found respite working summers at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where big, busty wenches were de rigueur. More acceptance followed at UC Santa Cruz, where the actress wore Birkenstocks and protested against the Miss California pageant. During a post-graduation trip to Israel, an empowered Manheim decided to change her ho-hum name to something more stylish. “Some people get to the Wailing Wall and have a vision; I heard a voice,” she writes in her book. “Camryn … Camryn … Camryn.”

But when Manheim enrolled in NYU’s esteemed graduate drama program in the 1980s, she ran smack into size discrimination. Professors hounded her to reduce. “They said ‘You are never going to work if you are a big girl,'” the actress says. “The subtext was, ‘We don’t want that black mark against our school.'”

At NYU, Manheim was always cast as a middle-aged frump. “I was also Rebecca Nurse in ‘The Crucible’ — she’s at least 80,” the actress recalls. “And Queen Margaret in ‘Richard III’ — she’s not just old, she’s dead.”

A desperate Manheim began taking speed daily to lose weight. When she dropped 80 pounds, her professors were jubilant. “But I was a wreck,” she says.

After her near-fatal overdose on speed, she quit drugs and nicotine — and promptly gained back all her weight. When she flew home to visit her parents, who now kvell over her, they couldn’t hide their disappointment. After some unpleasant words with her father, Manheim packed her bags and didn’t speak to him for almost a year, she writes in her book.

Back in New York, she immersed herself in liberal causes, took a job as a sign-language interpreter and worked on regaining her self-esteem. When leading roles didn’t come her way, she wrote a hilarious, poignant one-woman show, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” about being fat in a society obsessed with being thin. The monologue, filled with “fat survival” tips such as “stay horizontal on the beach,” played to packed houses off-Broadway in 1995. When a casting director sent Kelley some videotaped scenes of the show, Manheim earned an audience with the TV drama king.

In 1996 she snagged the role of Frutt, who, like Manheim, is culturally Jewish and determined to fight for the underdog.

But her very first day on “The Practice,” the actress discovered she was going to have to play an additional role: that of “Fat Police.” When the director described her character’s first shot of Frutt eating a doughnut, Manheim convinced him to lose the food, not wanting to reinforce stereotypes.

When the prop guy put a huge bowl of candy on Frutt’s desk, Manheim again confronted the director. “Let me tell you a little secret. Fat girls don’t keep candy on the desk. They keep it in the drawer,” she said.

The bowl was moved.

When Manheim later learned that a love interest was in the works for Frutt, she lobbied Kelley to cast a hunk in the role. Not only did she get her wish (actor J.C. McKenzie), she also convinced Kelley to write her some juicy love scenes.

Off the set, Manheim continues to lobby against the beauty myth and to show that “big women can be sexy.” The cover of “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” depicts the actress wearing a swimsuit and a beauty pageant-style banner reading, “Miss Understood.” “I wanted it to be in-your-face,” she says. “I also felt I needed to do something that was scary for me — which was to be half-naked in public — to show I was facing my fears.”

In April, Manheim starred in and executive-produced the ABC movie, “Kiss My Act,” one of the rare television programs in which the fat girl gets the cute guy. She says she’s motivated by the self-hating letters she receives from overweight women. “They’re heartbreaking,” she says.

Since winning her Emmy, Manheim has been featured on the cover of magazines such as People, TV Guide, Mode (the publication for full-figured women) and this month’s More.

When asked if her success has changed things for big women in Hollywood, Manheim sighs loudly. She points out that Julia Roberts is rumored to have been signed to play the overweight heroine in a movie version of the book, “She’s Come Undone,” Wally Lamb’s novel about a girl’s journey from fat teenager to trim adult. “I am going to lead the crusade against that,” Manheim says, grimly. “I am desperate to see a big girl in that role, myself or someone else.”

Meanwhile, the actress is continuing to enjoy her latest role: that of single mother. In March, the unmarried actress gave birth to a boy, Milo (named for the hero in her favorite children’s book, “The Phantom Tollbooth”). And while she won’t reveal the identity of his father, she will say she plans to raise Milo culturally Jewish, emphasizing social action.

Though Manheim doesn’t belong to a synagogue, she supports Hadasssah and the annual Justice Ball, which benefits Bet Tzedek Legal Services. She believes Frutt would approve of the nonsectarian legal program. “Jewish charities offer opportunities for everyone, which is what I love about the Jews,” the actress says. “You do not have to be a certified Jew to reap the benefits.”

“The Practice” airs Sundays, 10 p.m. on ABC.

Favorite exclamation: Man-oh-Manischewitz!

On her old amphetamine habit:

“The scary thing about speed is that it works.”

“Sure, it may kill you, but you’ll look great in that coffin.”

Worst confrontation with an NYU drama professor:

“You, Camryn Manheim, have a very bad attitude.”

Camryn: “I have a fat attitude?”

How to stand up on the beach without looking fat:

“You have to maintain the camouflage of the towel while trying to slide the shorts on up over the buttocks region, and then you have to say something in a dramatic fashion to cause a diversion, like ‘Hey, look, it’s Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out in the surf!'”

Why she wrote her show, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!”:

“I wanted to create the only role for which I would not be rejected.”

On parents:

“[They] know how to push your buttons, because, hey, they sewed them on.”

First question on Camryn’s “boyfriend application”:

Do you have an on-again, off-again girlfriend?

(If so, do not complete this form).

Excerpted from Manheim’s 1999 memoir, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!”

Groopman’s World

Jerome Groopman is a nice Jewish doctor – a 6-foot-5-inch-tall professor of experimental medicine at Harvard Medical School. So how did he turn into Andre Braugher? The answer is Paul Attanasio.

For those who don’t remember, Attanasio is the brilliant creator and writer of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” the former NBC series that was always more beloved by critics and its small but fanatically devoted group of viewers than by the public at large. Among the talents spawned by that show, none made more of an impression than Andre Braugher, a Shakespearean-trained actor of enormous power who, during the show’s run, got himself a cover of TV Guide which asked the question in banner headlines: “Is this the best actor on television?”

Paul Attanasio certainly thinks so. So when he picked up a copy of The New Yorker two years ago and read an excerpt from Groopman’s book “The Measure of Our Days,” about the life-and-death struggles that come his way as a leading researcher in cancer and AIDS, he immediately wanted to turn it into a TV series. There was only one actor, he felt, who had the combination of skills the part required.

Thus, Braugher became Dr. Ben Gideon in “Gideon’s Crossing,” which debuts on ABC Tues., Oct. 10, at 10 p.m.

“The character had to be somebody who had a real toughness and command but who also had a warmth and a depth and a humanity, and those two things are very hard to find in the same human being,” says Attanasio. “And to get Andre, who captures both of those dimensions and is just a joy to write for, was really where that piece of casting came from. We’re really lucky to have him.”

Even though the casting raises the oft-asked question of why Jewish heroes have to be transmogrified into someone else before they become acceptable to the mass television audience, Groopman says he is more than happy to be represented by Braugher.

“The truth is when I saw the pilot, after the first 10 minutes his skin color was immaterial. He captured what I hoped would be captured in a serious TV representation of the kind of experiences I was writing about. It may take a different external form, but the core is still there.”

The core is the essence of Groopman’s book, which is as different from the TV medical fare we’re used to – the soap opera sagas of “ER” and “Chicago Hope” – as “Homicide: Life on the Street” was from a run-of-the-mill cop show.

First, Gideon is a physician with a strong spiritual bent who really gets involved in his patients’ lives, which gives us, the audience, the chance to do so too.

The pilot, which is so good that ABC asked Attanasio to add another half hour to it so as not to lose scenes that would have had to go to bring it in at 60 minutes, is called “Kirk.” It was the subject of the excerpt Attanasio read in the New Yorker that started the wheels turning for the series.

Played brilliantly by Bruce McGill, Kirk – an international tycoon, mega-millionaire and force of nature who is used to riding roughshod over the world and buying and bullying his way to power – is dying of kidney cancer. He is simply too much of a powerhouse to die, but if Gideon doesn’t take him on, he’s finished.

He’s a miserable human being who humiliates his wife, has alienated his children and would not be missed. Also, his case is medically hopeless. Nevertheless, Gideon decides to do battle on his behalf. The duel between the two men is positively biblical.

Attanasio says it was the kind of gargantuan tale that you don’t find any more on television, or anywhere else for that matter.

“It’s the story of a guy who has so much fight to live and of a doctor who responds to that fight by going out on the high wire and taking a chance with a novel treatment. And the guy beats an unbeatable foe, realizes how precious life is and how little in his life he has honored that idea. And now the life that he has fought so hard for is in fact meaningless.”

Groopman agrees. “The truth is, not everyone who comes into your office is necessarily likeable or soft and cuddly or someone who is sympathetic, and yet the mission is to transcend those kinds of personal reactions and really search his or her heart to know whether what you are doing is for the good,” he said. “I perceived in ‘Kirk’ a spark of life, and it wasn’t extinguished. I felt I was obliged to protect that and to try and see if it could be amplified. In some way, I agonized over it. I felt the odds were incredibly long. But I felt I couldn’t play God. I couldn’t dismiss him.” The Kirk story sets the tone for the series, as it did for Groopman’s book.

“The theme of the book is part of what sets the show apart, ” Attanasio explains, “which is that illness changes people’s lives. Sometimes it enhances or deepens their lives. And doctors are privileged to participate in that event. And so it’s very different as a story-telling approach than the other medical shows. You get into really the deeper story of people’s lives.”

There are other differences as well. Groopman and Gideon preside over a teaching hospital in which the doctor as teacher is God to his residents and interns but much less omnipotent when it comes to the deathly ill patients he is trying to save.

“Even with all of the state-of-the-art technology,” Attanasio says, “medicine is still taught the way it was in ancient times – master to apprentice like the medieval guilds.”

The other aspect of the story which is news is that Groopman practices cutting-edge medicine at a time when the technology is taking off. To him come the lost causes, the patients others have written off as terminal, but he practices it in the full knowledge and with a spiritual understanding that healing the body is only part of the deal.

The dilemmas are as much moral as they are medical. The dialogue is Talmudic. Gideon may be African American but his world view, which is Groopman’s, is Jewish to the core.

“My book was very much a spiritual exploration of illness,” Groopman says. “I think it’s important that people not be afraid of that spiritual dimension. It’s such an essential element of the experience. But typically a Harvard professor and high-tech doctor doing experimental medicine – what’s he doing talking about spirituality? He’s supposed to be talking about DNA and proteins and computers and all that. But I see a thirst for it among my colleagues even though physicians are being beaten to a pulp like everyone else in the medical system by HMOs and all that.”

Groopman, unlike his widower-single father TV alter ego, has a wife, who is also a physician, and three children. He is also an observant Jew whose faith infuses his work at Harvard and the books and medical articles he writes.

His book begins with a prayer from Maimonides: “Let me look at a patient neither as a rich man or a poor man, as a friend or a foe, but let me see only the person within.”

If all the stories are as well done as the pilot episode, this show will be the highlight of the new season and many to come.