Fyvush Finkel, veteran actor with roots in Yiddish theater, dies at 93


Fyvush Finkel, an Emmy Award-winning actor who began his career performing in the Yiddish theater, has died at 93.

Finkel, who played in the 1990s CBS drama series “Picket Fences” and Fox’s “Boston Public,” died Sunday in his Manhattan home of heart failure, The New York Times reported.

Finkel, who spent most of his early career on the Lower East Side of New York City performing in the Yiddish theater, was popular in his niche stage community when he broke into the mainstream in 1964 with the national production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” playing Mordcha the innkeeper.

In 1981 he took on the lead “Fiddler” role of Tevye the Milkman in a national touring production. Soon thereafter he landed a part in “Little Shop of Horrors” off-Broadway and won an Obie Award for his work in the New York Shakespeare Festival revival of “Cafe Crown.”

On the big screen, Finkel had a breakout performance in the 1990 Sidney Lumet pic “Q&A” as a corrupt attorney. He also appeared in “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “For Love or Money” and “Nixon.”

In 2009 Finkel appeared in the opening scene of Academy Award best picture nominee “A Serious Man” playing a Treitle Groshkover, known as a “dybbuk” in Jewish lore — the wandering soul of a dead person that enters the body of a living person and controls his or her behavior.

Two years later he starred in Philip R. Garrett’s film “The Other Men in Black,” playing a grandfather who recounts stories of Hasidic life.

On television, Finkel played public defender Douglas Wambaugh in “Picket Fences,” for which he was twice Emmy nominated, winning in 1994. He soon became a favorite of “Fences” creator David Kelley, who also cast him in “Boston Public” as an eccentric high school teacher.

Two years after “Picket Fences” ended its run, Finkel was cast in a remake of the ABC skein “Fantasy Island,” but the show was canceled after 13 episodes, according to Variety.

Actor James Caan castigates know-it-all actors; Says Obama not supportive of Israel


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Since acting in the classic film Irma LaDouce in 1963, James Caan has appeared in eighty other movies, including his iconic role as don-in-waiting Michael Corleone’s older brother Sonny in The Godfather. But until now Caan, a self-described life-long Zionist, had not visited the state of Israel, an apparent shortcoming remedied last week by the Einstein Fund, the Hebrew University and the Ministry of Tourism, all of which combined to host Caan’s maiden voyage to the Holy Land.

Clearly a man who speaks his mind, Caan left us in a quandary, having admonished us not to pay attention to Hollywood types, dismissing politically-active colleagues who act as though they hold impressive foreign policy credentials. But Caan himself had much to say. We recommend reading it for yourself… 

TML: The entertainment world seems to be divided between those who travel to Israel and those who won’t. Did anyone ask you not to visit Israel?

James Caan: They would have gotten punched in the face. No, I don’t hang around with anti-Semites if that’s what you mean and I don’t know any. And if I did, I’d punch them in the face.

TML: Is this your first visit to Israel? How does it feel?

James Caan: Yes. It’s great so far. They are wearing me out with these tours and I just had my back operated on, so walking up and down those hills is not so much fun. But it’s not supposed to be. Yesterday was great. I was at the Western Wall and got a great history lesson going through the tunnels. It’s just mindboggling.

TML: What does that make you feel after seeing it for the first time?

James Caan: It’s my people. It’s where I come from and it’s just the wonder of how that was made. They talk about the pyramids. Well, that’s a piece of cake. This tunnel is mindboggling. I saw a rock that was 40-something feet long, 11 feet high and weighed 560 tons. Who moved that? Three strong guys?

Then I went to visit Professor Hanoch Gutfreund [at Hebrew University]. That was incredible. We sat for an hour and talked about Einstein. He has Einstein’s collection. They have everything there. I talked about things I never heard. 

TML: What was the reason for your visit?

James Caan: I’ve always wanted to go to Israel and was never given the opportunity. I was too busy having children all the time. Getting married and having children. Now, I took my 20-year-old son and I thought it would be good for him to see as well as myself. I met the prime minister at a party a few months ago and he said we’ll have dinner together. I’m going to see him tomorrow which is exciting. To bring my son over here — he plays football and this and that so he’s used to smoking and drinking and I don’t know what they do but I can’t find him, can’t catch him. I think this will stick with him, though. 

TML: During your long career — 53 years since your first film — you’ve been described as outspoken. In fact, you’ve been described as an “outspoken liberal,” and one newspaper said you described yourself as an “ultra-conservative.” What are your views on the Middle East?

James Caan: I don’t know who writes that. I’m not outspoken when it comes to politics. Wherever this information comes from, that person should have their head examined. 

Look, they didn’t interpret what I said properly. I said, in a joking way, that I was a radical ‘middle of the roader.’ I was not into politics. I don’t like actors who get on television and try to sway people. They don’t have political science as a major. They’re morons like me.

What’s been going in the world today is this lack of current government and these entitlement programs, the weakness of the country that I live in which was once the sheriff. I think through power there is strength. Not that they go out and beat up people, but you say, “You touch her again and I’ll break your neck.” So that’s all. That doesn’t mean it keeps peace. When I refer to myself as being…I said, if this continues, this ridiculous, horrible, stupid policy, these policies that deal with Iran; and [the president] is partially responsible for the black-white divide. He’s done less for “his people” or Americans. I mean, that’s the goal. He got involved in the Ferguson shooting. He was wrong. He got involved in the other one with the DA. But you don’t hear him say anything about Chicago where 30 kids a day are getting shot. Why don’t you talk about that? Or the white guy who got shot by two black guys. A crime is a crime. Cops are being cops. It’s got to be the worst job in the world today. I get flustered like I would in the streets.

It’s driving me to be an “ultra-conservative.” It’s like horses for courses. Right now we need a hawk. That’s a very ultra-statement. But it doesn’t mean that it’s my lifestyle. I was fortunate enough to be friendly with Bill Clinton who I thought was a great president. He was socially liberal and he was fiscally conservative. So it was not a problem. I have a problem with her and obviously with Trump. But at least with Trump, you don’t know exactly what he’ll do but I do think you know exactly what she’ll do.

TML: Israel’s critics have moved to boycotts to make their point and the effort finds a great deal of support in the entertainment and educational communities in the United States and elsewhere. What do you say to your Hollywood colleagues who urge their fans to divest from Israel?

James Caan: I don’t like it because none of them have studied political science. And they stand up there and they have billions of dollars. So they can afford to be liberal. Or I can get on my triple-7 or private business jet to fly to the problem and talk about the problem.

Give money to where it belongs if that’s how you feel, don’t just shoot your mouth off. I don’t take part in that. I hate when they talk about the Hollywood liberals. My best friend, Robert Duvall, and Gary Sinise, Friends of Abe who are conservative. As a matter of fact, the funniest thing was, when I went to a big dinner with 500 people and I thought I’d go with my buddy. We’re listening and we sat down for dinner. And then John McCain got up and said “I’d like to start off by thanking James Caan for risking his career by coming here tonight.” That’s how silly it is.

TML: What are you taking away with you?

James Caan: I haven’t finished. A lot of education so far, a stronger feeling for Israel, which in turn gives me a stronger feeling against our current government who I feel like is not the greatest ally in the world to Israel and hopefully that will change.

Actor Abe Vigoda, known for ‘Godfather’ role, dies at age 94


Abe Vigoda, an American actor best known for roles in “The Godfather” and the 1970s sitcom “Barney Miller,” died on Tuesday at the age of 94, after spending three decades jokingly refuting rumors of his demise.

Vigoda's daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, said her father died at her home in New Jersey. “He died in his sleep, of natural causes. He was not sick,” she told Reuters.

Vigoda, who was adept at drama and comedy with a hang-dog face, slouched posture and slow delivery, played mobster traitor Salvatore Tessio in “The Godfather” in 1972, his first credited movie role. His character was doomed for betraying the Corleone family in the film but had a cameo role in the flashback scenes of “The Godfather Part II” two years later.

His most famous role was as the grumpy and deadpan Detective Sergeant Phil Fish in the “Barney Miller” police comedy series. He picked up three supporting-actor Emmy nominations for the part.

Vigoda spent years amiably proving he was still alive after People magazine mistakenly declared him “the late Abe Vigoda” in 1982, when he was 62. The question of his mortality became a running gag that he learned to live with.

To disprove the People report, he posed for a photo sitting in a coffin. His alive-or-dead status became an often-revisited joke in his appearances on Conan O'Brien's late-night show and in a skit on David Letterman's show, he curtly advised the host, “I'm not dead yet, you pinhead!”

Vigoda also had roles in films where his longevity was the joke and appeared with the equally well-seasoned actress Betty White in a commercial during the Super Bowl in February 2010.

The website www.abevigoda.com was set up simply to give his status – “Abe Vigoda is alive” – above a photo of the actor and a date/time stamp. On Tuesday, that was changed to “Abe Vigoda is dead.”

Born in New York City on Feb. 24, 1921, Abraham Charles Vigodah was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father was a tailor.

He had his first role on stage at age 17 and, dropping the “H” from his last name along the way, had modest success in theater and on television through the 1960s.

Vigoda was already past 50 when he got his break in “The Godfather.” In an interview with CNN, Vigoda recalled being summoned to the office of director Francis Ford Coppola in an open casting call.

“It seems he'd seen me in a play or plays,” Vigoda said, adding that one of the reasons Coppola “was interested in me was that nobody knew my face.”

Vigoda said the role opposite stars like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Caan in one of Hollywood's greatest movies changed his life.

From there, Vigoda moved to the “Barney Miller” series.

“I got the role because the producer thought I looked tired,” Vigoda said. “But I looked tired because I had been jogging earlier that day.”

In a typical line from “Barney Miller,” Fish bemoaned the effects of age: “Do you know what it feels like to be running down 43rd Street and your partner is cornering a guy on 52nd? Do you know how I found out what happened? I asked a reporter. Four radio stations beat me to the scene of the crime.”

Unlike the creaky, lethargic Fish, Vigoda was a vigorous man who played handball regularly and was still jogging into his 80s.

Vigoda worked in TV and movies well into his 80s. His other work included the films “Good Burger,” “Joe Versus the Volcano,” “Look Who's Talking” and “Cannonball Run.” He also appeared on television series such as “Soap,” “The Rockford Files,” “Wings” and the vampire soap opera “Dark Shadows.”

Beginners (Or “Famous In Lebanon”)


The last time I saw my first agent, he called me into his office to film a reality television pilot for the E! Network.  To protect the individuals involved, we’ll refer to this agent by the completely fictitious name, Hal Gazzar.

Hal called me on a sunny morning, telling me to come to his office the following day to film a pilot episode for E! about actors and agents in the entertainment industry – a new reality series that would give the audience another glimpse into The Business.

Being a young, naïve actor just starting out, I was thrilled to be called to perform in a new reality show that would air on a cable network I’d actually heard of.  I showed up at Hal’s office the next day, ready to be my regular charming self in front of the camera.  Who knew where this opportunity could take me?

A quick word about Hal’s office: He rented a small suite in Studio City, a small two-room operation.  He had an assistant when I first met him, but she left his agency soon after, so there was never anyone at the front desk to let me in.  The front room also had a connecting door to a neighboring suite.  That door was always locked because there was a separate business operating out of that suite and they had nothing to do with Mr. Gazzar.  But – and perhaps this spoke volumes about my first agent – Hal had put a plaque next to this eternally locked door that read, ‘Employees Only,’ as if his office had additional rooms, to appear larger.  But not even Hal could pass through his ‘employee’ door to the realms beyond.

Anyway.

I arrived for the E! TV pilot and Hal quickly showed me the ropes.  “I want you to stand here next to this poster and talk about how I’ve helped your career,” he said, using the term ‘career’ generously for me.  I began:

“When I first joined [the name of Hal’s one-man talent agency], I was sent out for an audition– ”

“Hold on,” he stopped me.  “Let’s try that again, except this time just mention me by name.  You can’t say the name of the agency.”

I was slightly skeptical that this job was going to be a surreptitious promo for Hal’s agency, but I desperately wanted it to be a legitimate TV gig.  When he said I couldn’t even mention his agency by name, I became despondently certain that this was not a real TV project. 

Next, we sat in his office and had a genial conversation in front of the camera.  Hal asked me, “How’s your tutoring going?”  I was surprised that he remembered my day job and said as much.  “Of course I remember,” he replied.  “You’re my favorite client.”

“Really?” I asked, equally surprised.  I assumed that if I were his favorite client, he would send me out on auditions.  Hal seemed faintly hurt by my disbelief.  I quickly apologized, he smiled wolfishly, and we moved on.

“Oh, by the way,” he said casually, “Did Sylvia call you about your Showtime audition?”

“What!?”  I said, more shocked than before.  I couldn’t believe he had actually arranged an audition for me with such a premier network.

“No, I had no idea,” I continued.  “I have an audition for Showtime?  I can’t believe it.”

“Yeah,” he grinned.  “You better believe it.  I always deliver for my clients.  Big things are happening for you, my friend.”

I was thrilled.  The only problem was: I’d never heard of Sylvia before.  Did Hal get a new assistant that I didn’t know about?  The reception area was still empty.

After the cameras stopped rolling, I turned to him and said, “Did I really get a Showtime audition?  Nobody told me.”

“No,” he laughed.  “I just made that up.”

And I never saw him again.

 *** 

When I first moved to Los Angeles, someone suggested that I buy this monthly publication that listed talent agencies currently looking for new clients, along with their contact information.  Since this was the first piece of concrete advice anyone had given me, I went and purchased the agency listing.

I sent out a number of blind submissions, saying, “Hi!  My name’s Yaki.  I’m an actor.  You should represent me, etc.”  The submissions were worded a little better than that, but I didn’t have any prominent credits to my name, so I just sent out the cover letter, some mediocre headshots, and an anemic resume.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t hear back from anyone.  Except for Hal Gazzar.  All of the other agencies couldn’t care less about someone sending them unsolicited submissions.  But Hal called me in for a meeting, determined to discover the next big star among the anonymous masses.  I dressed in my Sunday best (or Saturday best – I was coming from my teaching job at a synagogue, right after services) and went to his office.  They taped me doing a Welch’s grape juice commercial and talked to me for a little while.

Within a few days, I received an email telling me that Hal wanted to represent me!  I danced over to his office and signed some papers.  He said, “I’ll start you off with a standard one-year contract.  And if the year goes well, I can have you re-sign with like… a ten-year contract.”

Even in my ignorance, I knew that a ten-year contract was too long.  This was the first of a number of red flags Hal would wave, revealing shady dealings and unfortunate ineptitudes.  He was also a soap-opera actor with an agent of his own, which, according to the California guidelines for talent agencies, was illegal.  Hal’s agency would be shut down within the year.  But I didn’t know any of this at the time.

“You’ve just got that ‘it’ quality,” he said.  “Everything you say resounds with it.”

I was momentarily on cloud nine.  Within a month of moving to LA, I had already signed with an agent!  And one that would represent me for both commercials and theatrical jobs, like film and television, which, according to those I talked to, was apparently a hard rep to acquire.  But somehow I had done it!  I immediately began to practice fitting the words, “my agent,” into every-day sentences.

 ***

A week or so later, I received notice of my first audition, for a Lipton Tea commercial.  I couldn’t believe how quickly the gears were turning.  My audition was in Santa Monica, so I left early and gave myself plenty of time to drive through rush-hour traffic.  For those of you unfamiliar with LA traffic, rush hour is from 6:00 to 10:00am, with lunch rush hour from 11:00am to 2:00pm and after work rush hour from 3:00 to 8:00pm, except on Fridays, when it starts at two.

So it’s pretty much always rush hour.

I arrived in Santa Monica and parked in one of the giant parking structures near the Third Street Promenade, walking seven blocks to the casting office because I get anxious about finding street parking.

I was also suffering a bladder infection at the time (is this too much information?), so first I had to sit in my parked car and shake my body until it didn’t feel like I was going to piss myself anymore.  Then I got out, speed-walked to the casting facility, and discovered they didn’t have a restroom.

Agitated, I sat in the waiting room, looking over the casting notes.  There was no dialogue (most of my commercial auditions involved little to no dialogue – just a lot of looking past the camera, then turning my head, then doing it again, but, according to the casting director, “more subtly” this time), so I was expected to just pantomime stuff.

I also noticed a sign on the casting board that read, “This job will be filmed in Morocco or Lebanon, so please let us know if you don’t have an up-to-date passport.”  My first thought was, “An international shoot.  That’s pretty cool.”  My second thought was, “I don’t want to do that.”  I’m an apprehensive traveler in foreign countries.

Oh well.  This was my first audition ever.  “Don’t worry,” I told myself.  “Odds are so small that you will successfully book a job on your first audition.  You won’t get the job, so you won’t have to go to Lebanon or North Africa.”  With this confident certainty of failure, I stepped into the audition.

I walked in with another young guy and was directed to look at different spots around the room, pretending to see things that would be added later with special effects in the finished commercial.  For sixty seconds or so, while trying not to hold my crotch or pee in my pants, I looked from corner to corner of the room, imagining I was seeing fountains exploding and people flying through the air.  I felt sick and jittery.  I could only assume my reactions to these imagined events appeared feeble and half-hearted.

I left, found a bathroom in the Santa Monica Mall and had a celebratory pee.

*** 

A week later, I went home to Seattle for Thanksgiving.  This was my first trip back since moving to LA, just seven weeks earlier, and the day after I flew into Seattle there was a massive snowstorm that shut down the airport.  I was thankful I had arrived home just in the nick of time.

The next day, while walking around a grocery store with my mom and brother, I received a call from Hal.  He told me that the producers and director of the Lipton Tea project were very interested in me, requesting that I attend a callback audition.

I told him that I was incredibly sorry to have ruined this opportunity, but that I was in Seattle and there was a big snow storm shutting down all out-going flights, so there was no way I’d be able to come back to Los Angeles for the callback.  I reminded Hal that I had already ‘booked out’ (given him the dates when I would be out of town) before he even sent me out on the first audition, so if he knew that I was going to be indisposed during any point in the auditioning process for this commercial, then he shouldn’t have sent me out at all.  But I was a new actor and didn’t know how standard auditioning procedure worked, and Hal was a new agent, so I guess he didn’t know either.

“Well, maybe I can get the casting director to agree to a Skype callback with you,” he said to me.  “You can have a live video audition through the computer.”

“Yeah!” I exclaimed.  “If they’d agree to that, that would be wonderful.”

Hal said he would find out and call me right back.

Five days past, in which I didn’t hear from him, or anyone.  I assumed that I had botched the whole thing.  Still, I enjoyed Thanksgiving with my family and some of our friends, and I told them all about how I had an agent and went to my first audition, for a Lipton Tea commercial shooting over seas.

“It’s probably best that I didn’t get the job,” I told my parents’ friends.  “Maybe if it was shooting in Europe or Asia or somewhere that didn’t dislike Jews, it would have been cool.  But if I had to go to Lebanon or wherever, I would just have a panic attack.  And I prefer traveling with people I know.”

“It would have been something if you had gotten the job, though,” one lady said.  “I wouldn’t have written off an opportunity like that.”

My last day in Seattle, the Thanksgiving leftovers long since devoured, I received a phone call in the morning.  It was from the Lipton Tea casting director.

“So…” she said very informally.  “You got the job.”

 *** 

I flew back to Los Angeles, arriving at night, and left the next morning for Beirut, Lebanon.  I didn’t have enough time to get a new passport, and was slightly concerned due to the number of Israeli stamps in my passport.  At least at the time, Lebanon didn’t allow its citizens to travel to Israel, even though the two countries shared a border.  I still don’t know if this was a joke, but the film crew said that they had to first alert the Lebanese government that a Jew was entering the country, in order to get clearance.

I called Hal right before I left, asking him what contingency plan there might be if I got into any trouble.  He said not to worry – the Screen Actors Guild would protect me.  Not only does SAG not have any branches, or influence, in Lebanon, but the Lipton shoot was not even a SAG project.  They literally had nothing to do with this.

I showed up at LAX early the next morning and met my co-star, a nice guy, one year older than me, whom we’ll call Dave.  He wasn’t Jewish, had never been to Israel, was just excited to be filming a commercial.  We chatted for a while and I tried not to worry.

As the Lebanese crewmembers told me later, their government, while primarily Christian, was apparently a puppet administration mostly controlled by the Muslim terrorist group, Hezbollah (an organization I was made aware of from news reports and from once having been in Nazareth Illit during one of their missile strikes on Israel).

According to the crewmembers (note: I haven’t closely researched their claims), the government only collected taxes from the 40% of the Lebanese population that was Christian.  Supposedly the other 60% – the Islamic segment – didn’t pay taxes, apparently even threatening to kill tax collectors, because they only answered to Hezbollah.  If the crew’s descriptions were accurate, this was why the country suffered rolling black-outs every day – the country was low on funds and cut costs by shutting down power in different sectors on a rotating schedule. 

After thirty-six hours in the air, I arrived bleary-eyed and exhausted in Beirut.  I can’t nap sitting up, so I usually get no sleep on international flights.  I was so worn out and afraid that the Lebanese officials would see my passport and immediately ship me thirty-six hours straight back to the States.  Or detain me.  Or worse.  Already a habitual worrier, my delirious, sleep-deprived imagination was really running wild now.

At customs, an official looked over my passport, saw the Israeli stamps and detained me.  My fellow actor, Dave, was waved right through.  He kindly waited for me on the other side as I was taken into a small office.

Despite it’s cramped proportions, about eleven officials packed into the small room with me, speaking in harried tones to each other in Arabic.  One bureaucrat took my passport and made photocopies of it, filing the duplicates away in separate folders.  I nervously stood in the center of the room, waiting for them to address me.

“Why are you coming to Lebanon?” one asked me in English.

I explained that I was working as an actor on a commercial being filmed in Beirut.

“Why were you in Israel so many times?”

“I like the Middle East in general,” I said.  “I’ve been to Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and now Lebanon.”  Hopefully.  “I don’t discriminate.  All the countries here are interesting.”

He looked me over again suspiciously and then asked me the best question anyone has ever asked me:  “Are you a Zionist spy?”

I smiled.  Despite everything, I wanted to respond with, “Yep, if you ask that question, then, as a spy, I have to answer it.  You got me!  Good job!”  Then I would hold up my wrists, compliant to receive handcuffs, and they would take me away, making Lebanon that much safer.

Instead I just sort of chuckled and said, “No.”

The official turned to confer with his cohorts in Arabic.  After a moment of deliberation, he turned back to me.  It seemed his questioning was over.  My simple ‘no’ had evidently convinced them that I was not in fact a Zionist spy.

Except for one more quick-witted test: He said he would know for sure and let me go through customs if I just said the words, “Fuck Israel.”

After a pause (since this entire interview was surprising and confusing to me), I sheepishly said, “Fuck Israel?”

“Yeah!” Everyone else in the room shouted gleefully.  “Fuck Israel!” They cried.

And I passed through customs.

*** 

A driver took Dave and me to the hotel where we would be staying in downtown Beirut.  We rode swiftly down fractured streets devoid of any lane markings or traffic lights.  The cars would swerve around each other at full speed, navigating the order of passing cars through the intersections without the use of stoplights.

We came to the downtown area, driving along a charming, narrow street, strung up with festive chains of lights and hanging flower arrangements.  Expensive stores and boutiques lined the block.  Interspersed among the appealing, modern buildings, in contrast, were completely bombed out structures, shells of concrete, recklessly standing like rotted teeth amid the healthy buildings, their insides gutted out.

We arrived at the hotel around three in the morning, which was some other time back on the West Coast.  I tried to check my email, couldn’t get onto the hotel’s Internet, and passed out on the fancy bed.  When I woke up, I ate a nice Lebanese breakfast in the ornate restaurant downstairs, and waited for the driver to arrive and pick us up.  When he showed up, we went up to Dave’s room and pounded on the door until he woke up.  Then we headed over to the production offices of the company shooting the Lipton commercial.

The first couple of days were devoted to wardrobe.  Considering we just wore pants and T-shirts, I wasn’t sure two full days was necessary, but what did I know?  I ended up really enjoying my time in wardrobe.  I suddenly felt like a famous actor or model, showcasing numerous outfits while provided with free lunch.  And fifteen pairs of pants and twenty-three shirts later, they selected my outfit.

Following that, we had two days of shooting on the Beirut Notre Dame University campus.  Why fly two American actors overseas, pay for their room and board, and then film them in a pretty American-looking setting?  I don’t know.  I’m not entirely sure why they didn’t just cast Lebanese actors; we didn’t actually say any lines.  Or Lipton could have kept us and done the commercial on any university campus in America.  Either way would have been considerably cheaper.  Oh well.

The first day of filming, I woke up at 5:30am, took a hot shower, ran down to the lobby to meet our driver at six, and then we hustled up to Dave’s room to wake him.  Our driver was probably twenty-one years old, constantly smoked in the car, and kept asking us to go with him to discos each night.  I wasn’t much of a party-animal to begin with, and being asked at six in the morning didn’t do much to improve my perspective.

When we arrived on set, just after sunrise, they served us one piece of fried dough stuffed with melted cheese for breakfast.  There was no snack table or other food on set, until three o’clock, when they brought us a sandwich for lunch.  As someone who is almost always hungry, I was starving by three in the afternoon.  I don’t remember what we did for dinner.

After we finished our cheesy fried bread, they took me to a partially enclosed basketball court for hair and makeup.  A short, stocky lady who spoke zero English put in product that made my hair very puffy and stick straight up, which embarrassed me at first, but actually made me look kind of cool, I realized later.  The casting director in L.A. relayed the message that I wasn’t to shave before the shoot, but the hair lady was apparently unhappy with the length of my facial hair.  She took a straight razor and, without the aid of creams or water, just started flicking the dry blade through my scruff, eyeballing it.  With my red cheeks burning from the quick shave, I hurried off to get dressed.  And then to my favorite part: the actual filming.

 *** 

The director had previously done some cool commercials and Super bowl TV spots, including one with Jerry Seinfeld and ‘Superman.’  He was a very nice Canadian fellow (to my experience, most of them are).  He coached me through a few takes, helped me loosen up a little bit and feel comfortable.  In the Lipton commercial, Dave and I held magical Lipton Tea cups that could control people’s movements.  It was awesome, and slightly maniacal.

I would roll my cup from side to side and fifty extras sitting on an expanse of lawn in front of me would roll back and forth on the grass in time with my cup.  I swung my cup through the air, levitating a soccer goal to the side to make the ball miss.  Dave spun his cup and a girl flew down some stairs, spinning like a ballerina (in a harness).  I squeezed my cup until the top popped off and a fountain exploded in front of me with geysers of water shooting high into the sky.

It was a wonderful experience.  They strapped an older man into another harness and we threw our cups around, making the man and his piano fly away from each other.  And ending the commercial on another devious note, Dave and I smacked our cups into each other and two professors on the quad crashed together, their notes and papers raining down on our devilishly grinning faces.  Drink tea.  It will let you control the world.

 *** 

There was a two-second scene where I had to stir a chai latte.  They started with some other guy stirring the cup (they were only filming his hands, so they didn’t need me).  But they weren’t happy with his stirring, for whatever reason, so they had his hand hold the cup while my hand stirred.  Eventually, because this looked slightly awkward and unnatural, they just had me hold the cup with one hand and stir with the other.  Clearly, I am very talented; I can multi-task.

After the scene, the director told me that the other guy holding the cup was an ancillary member of Hezbollah.  “It’s funny,” he said.  “A Jew and a member of Hezbollah working together to stir a cup of chai tea.”  I never knew when he was joking.

There were maybe sixty or more extras, Lebanese actors and students, working on the commercial.  They would be delighted if Dave or I talked to them.  They practiced their English and giggled at everything we said.  They thought I was a famous actor back in America, despite my assurance that I wasn’t, and they all asked to take pictures with me.  They later found me on Facebook and I noticed that they had all used these photos as their profile pictures.  This was also my first experience with cute girls who would immediately take a liking to you just because you’re a (relative) ‘big-shot’ on set.  That was exciting, too, even if it wasn’t wholly bona fide.

We filmed both days until about midnight.  I would be driven back to the hotel by one in the morning and, after turning down my driver’s invitations to “go disco,” I would toss and turn in bed, place a panicked call home to my parents on the West Coast, and sleep for an hour or two when my jetlag allowed it.  Then I would wake up at 5:30am and do it all over again, until the trip was over.

On my way out of the country, I was stopped by Lebanese customs agents again and taken aside.  In another office, they tried to make a photocopy of my passport for their files.  The photocopier broke down, so they walked across the room to a second machine and tried again.  This photocopier wouldn’t print anything and, smiling self-consciously, they told me it would be just a minute.  They called some more customs officials into the office and no one could figure out how to make the machine print.  Finally, without any success, they just handed me back my passport, embarrassed, and told me I could go.

I arrived back in LA at night and, after roughly five days of traveling, filming, and not sleeping almost at all, I came back to my apartment and passed out.  I have never really been able to sleep in, and if I can manage to sleep late, it’s a restless affair where I’m awake more often than I’m asleep.  But the next morning, I woke up for the first time that day and saw that the clock read noon.  And it was good.

*** 

After that trip, as is standard procedure, the casting agency sent my agent a check for the total amount due for the commercial.  The agent should then write a new check for the client (me), with the entire sum minus ten percent (for the agent).  But things don’t always go as planned.

I showed up at Hal’s office at the agreed-upon time, but he wasn’t there.  And since no one worked for him, the agency was locked up, so I stood outside, waiting.  The one-man-operation showed up in his convertible forty-five minutes later, walking up the steps with a bounce in his step and a blithe grin on his face.  “My bad!”

He welcomed me into the office, sat me down, and happily told me that he didn’t have any checks, so he couldn’t write me one.

“But no worries!  We’ll jump in my car and drive right over to the nearby bank.  I’ll just make a withdrawal and give you that.”

It sounded a bit suspect, but I was eager to get paid for my first real acting job, so I was game.  We went back down to his convertible and drove a few blocks to a Bank of America.  Once there, Hal found out that for whatever reason, he couldn’t make a withdrawal from his business account.  The banker mentioned that Hal would need to do something to properly set up the account before he could withdraw any money from it.  He didn’t know how to pay me; he’d never used a business account before, which seemed to imply that he’d never paid a client before now.  Was I the first person at his agency to ever book a job?

We sat in comfy chairs in the Bank of America, waiting for someone to help us.  Hal offered me a lollipop from their complimentary bowl of candy and asked me about myself.  I told him I was from Seattle and described my job in L.A. as a tutor.  He smiled the whole time.

Eventually, a representative of the bank came over and told Hal that he would not be able to use his business account at this time.  Hal stood up and told me, “Why don’t we go back to the office and try to sort this out?”

Back at the agency, I had my bankcard on me so he called the bank’s customer service number and tried to see if he could just make a transfer to my account.  We were told it couldn’t be done over the phone.  I didn’t know my bank account and routing numbers off hand, and they couldn’t look it up and make the transfer over the phone.  Hal hung up and sheepishly grinned.  “Oh well.”

I was less amused at this point.  I was owed money – the most money I’d ever made in a single project – and I wanted my agent to pay me, just like every other agent in Los Angeles is readily able to do. 

“You know what?” Hal finally asked.  “My local bank isn’t too far from here.  They know me there.  Why don’t we drive over there and sort this out?”

I agreed, not so enthusiastically this time, and we climbed back into his convertible.  After a bit, I asked where exactly we were going.

“My bank’s in Encino.  That’s where I live.”

I realized this wasn’t going to be the shortest drive.  Then Hal launched into a discussion about religion and the afterlife, apropos of nothing.

“Do you believe in Heaven?”

“I don’t know,” I responded, surprised to be having a theological discourse with my agent.  “I guess I don’t really, no, but I’d certainly like there to be a heaven.”

“Oh, I think Heaven is real, for sure.”

“Yeah?  How come?”

“I mean, scientists have already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the soul exists.  So if the soul exists, I think that’s pretty clear evidence that Heaven does, too.”

Now of course I was under the impression that science had never proven the existence of the soul.  But that could just be me.  Hal was convinced otherwise.  He described an experiment I remembered from the Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol.

“Scientists put dying people into a clean chamber that measured their weight and, as the person died, they lost like an ounce, which was the mass of the soul, as it left their body.  The soul exists. That’s just a scientific fact.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s a scene from a Dan Brown book,” I said.

“No.  It’s a real thing.”

To Hal’s credit, a man in the early twentieth century really did try this experiment, but very few scientists have ever considered it to be an accurate test.  At least Dan Brown updated the technology used in his retelling.  I guess that was proof enough for Hal.

“Heaven is real.  Just like the soul.”

We arrived at the Bank of America in Encino, which I assumed would have the exact same policies as the first Bank of America we went to, but Hal was feeling optimistic.  When his efforts failed again, he decided to disregard his mismanaged business account and just transfer the money from his personal bank account directly into mine.

After more than three hours together, I had finally been paid.

At the time, I had hoped this would at least be a great opportunity to get closer with my agent.  Hal would always remember our day together and feel inspired to send me out on auditions frequently.  I would begin to meet the casting world and just take off from there, working consistently on projects in my ascent to the silver screen!

Or something like that.  In reality, I was only sent on one other audition before my first agent was shut down, receding into obscurity.  But fret not; in this immaculate city of angels, there’s an endless supply of Hal Gazzars always scrambling for the top, each one borne skyward by the irrefutable knowledge that he has a soul.

Remembering Marty Milner


Much has been written about the life — and the Sept. 6 death — of actor Martin “Marty” Milner, who starred in the 1960s television hit series “Route 66” and “Adam-12,” but the obit writers overlooked two important facts.

One is that the red-haired, freckle-faced actor was the son of a Polish-Jewish immigrant, who worked himself up from construction hand to film distributor.

The other omission is that in 1959, Milner and this reporter were fellow actors in the Playhouse 90 TV production of “Judgment at  Nuremberg,” which preceded the movie of the same name.

Critics at the time lauded the television drama but overlooked Milner’s and my contributions, focusing instead on the performances of Claude Rains, Maximilian Schell, Melvyn Douglas and Werner Klemperer.

Milner had a walk-on role as an American Army captain, and I … well, let me tell you the story.

One day in 1959, I was sitting in my office at UCLA when I got a call from someone at CBS. The man said he needed someone to act as an English-German translator for an upcoming 90-minute drama and would I be interested.

At that time, my family didn’t even have a TV set and, noticing that the date was April 1, I figured the call was someone’s idea of a joke, but the voice went on to say that I would be paid $500 for a week’s work.

At the time, I was making $450 a month as a full-time science writer at UCLA and figured that none of my acquaintances would make light of something as serious as a $500 check.

So I reported to the CBS studio for my weeklong stint. Truth be told, it wasn’t terribly exciting work. For some 85 percent of the time, we highly paid actors just sat around while the cinematographers figured out the camera angles for the courtroom drama.

One day during a long break, a young man came over to me, introduced himself as Marty Milner, and asked about the professional designation on my contract for this gig.

“Actor with more than five lines,” I answered proudly. “And how much are they paying you?” Milner persisted. “$500 a week,” I said, searching Milner’s face for signs of awe and respect.

“$500?” repeated Milner with a barely suppressed sneer. “You must have a really lousy agent.”

Milner was probably right, because since my path-breaking performance 56 years ago, I haven’t had a single job offer from Broadway or Hollywood. 

From Broadway to cantor, Mike Stein competes on NBC’s ‘The Voice’


Chazzan Mike Stein never really considered himself a singer, but rather, he said, an instrumentalist who sings. But when an agent called and invited him to audition for the upcoming seventh season of NBC’s TV hit singing competition “The Voice,” something within him that had lain dormant since his teen years on the Broadway stage was ignited once again. 

“I don’t think that I would have done it if somebody hadn’t approached me. Up until the day of the audition, I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ My wife and sons are the ones who said, ‘Dad, you should do this for yourself.’ ”

And they were right, Stein, 62, admits now: “There is a deep sense of satisfaction in this business that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a totally different kind of satisfaction than what I get being a cantor — it’s total ego, and I really enjoyed every minute.”  

Bound by contractual silence, in a recent interview Stein, a Grammy winner and, since 2000, chazzan at the Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, had to tip-toe around sharing any stories of his TV experience. He is the first cantor to appear on the show — there have been a few music ministers, and a nun once won the “Voice” competition in Italy. Stein entered into the process openly displaying his affiliation, he said. “I was representing the Jewish people. I insisted that I could wear a yarmulke, and I talked about being Jewish a lot, in almost every interview.” At his first audition, Stein sang Romemu from the Friday night service, and he added a yodel to it. “I just want to be the Matisyahu [Jewish rapper] of country music,” Stein said with a laugh.

Stein has been singing since he was a young boy growing up in New York. One of his favorite things was going to the synagogue and listening to his cantor sing in the classical chazzanut style. In third grade, Stein started to play the violin and later picked up the guitar when the Beatles came to America. Even though his mother was a pianist and his great-uncle was the famous Broadway-musicals composer Jule Styne (“Funny Girl,” “Gypsy”), his parents weren’t supportive of his passion. “My parents didn’t want me to be a singer or actor, anything in the entertainment business — for them, that was a failure. The older actors on Broadway that I met became my surrogate parents; they adopted me. … Later, I learned from this, and that’s why my children have 300 percent of my support in the arts,” said Stein. 

At 16, he entered Queens College, majoring in drama. He soon left to pursue a career in acting. It was really tough; he recalled living in a condemned building on the Lower East Side, selling everything in order to eat and sweeping floors in hopes of landing some kind of opportunity. Stein’s first break on Broadway came as part of the chorus in the rock opera “Soon.” Then, at 19, he landed a spot in the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and toured in the original road show of the rock opera “Tommy.” Then his journey took a detour. 

“I felt that all the things I was doing on Broadway were amazing, but they didn’t have the substance for me. I left my career and went to live on a farm in Pennsylvania with my girlfriend, and we lived like hippies and grew our own food,” he said.

Eventually, Stein moved back to civilization and landed in Washington, D.C., doing street theater, entertaining people as they waited in lines for museums. It was there that he met his wife, Shelley (a trained opera singer); they married and started a family. (They now have three very musically talented, now-adult sons — Jacob, Justin and Jared — and a family band called the “Rolling Steins.”)

While in D.C., Stein also auditioned for the United States Navy Band, which needed a fiddle player at the time. Stein played with that band for 17 years, including numerous concerts at the White House, performing for four presidents, as well as around the world. 

In the mid 1980s, Stein attended a Jewish music festival, where he met Cantor Arnold Saltzman, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life. He went on to study with Saltzman, and soon after answered an ad for a synagogue looking for a cantor on Friday nights — Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. That’s where his career as a cantor got its start, and he moved from there to Temple Aliyah in 2000. 

“Being a cantor is an amazing privilege,” Stein said. “I try to help people find another entrance into the synagogue through music. It helps them look at Judaism as something that they can participate in. … I enjoy being invited into people’s lives, in all stages of life, and being entrusted with their emotions.” 

With the High Holy Days just around the corner, Stein noted, “It’s a great time. When I start on the first night, that first phrase that I sing in front of the ark emotionally opens me up in a place of awe and thankfulness. I work hard [at] not letting it feel like pressure, like work; and it is work. We do avodah — avodah is worship, and it’s the same word for work. Yom Kippur feels like a marathon, because I am very weak by the end; it’s hard.”

A few days before the holidays begin, Stein will be getting another call from “The Voice,” this one to let him know when his performances will be airing during the premiere week of Sept. 22. 

Being on “The Voice,” he said, “gave me a lot of confidence and made me realize that I am worth a lot more than I think I am. It made me feel that I have so much to give, and people are ready to listen and accept what I have to give. … It gave me a big lift.” 

Good luck, Chazzan Stein. We’ll be watching. 

RIP Dennis Farina, aka Cousin Avi


To most people, Dennis Farina, who died Monday at age 69, may be best remembered as a tough-talking Chicago cop (which he actually was, for 18 years, before becoming an actor) or as a tough-talking New York City police detective, which he ably played for two seasons as Joe Fontana on “Law & Order.”

But I think of Cousin Avi, the foul-mouthed, kipah-wearing Jew that Farina played in “Snatch,” the delightful British comedy crime movie (2000) directed by Guy Ritchie. The film, which opens with Brad Pitt playing a jewelery thief disguised as a hasidic Jew, showcased quintessential Farina. Here’s a taste:

August Kowalczyk, Polish actor and Holocaust survivor who escaped Auschwitz, dies


August Kowalczyk, a Polish actor who was the last survivor of a group of Polish prisoners who escaped from Auschwitz, has died.

Polish media said Kowalczyk died Sunday in a hospice he had recently founded in Oswieciem, the small town in southern Poland where Auschwitz is located. He was 90.

As a Polish soldier, Kowalczyk was captured by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz in December 1940, when the camp was used mainly for Polish military and political prisoners. He was among a group of 50 prisoners who attempted an escape from Auschwitz in June 1942. All but nine were killed, and Kowalczyk was believed to be the last survivor of the group.

Kowalczyk became a stage and screen actor in Poland after World War II. He served for many years as vice president of the board of the Society for the Protection of Auschwitz, an association that aims to transmit the memory of Auschwitz to future generations.

He spoke frequently to young people about his experiences at Auschwitz. “It was my life to bear witness,” he said in 2005.

Kowalczyk told an interviewer that he had recounted his personal story “more than 6200 times in over 5,000 schools across Poland. “

Seth Rogen won’t do your bar mitzvah


Jewish Canadian actor Seth Rogen sat down recently with the South African Times and shared some personal facts about himself and what he has learned over the years.

Rogen reveals that he is a pretty dramatic person who doesn’t handle stress well. He also is pretty lazy and not a big fan of social networking. Sounds like a great person to be around.

He also talks about losing weight for his Green Hornet role (he had to lose 30 pounds) and how he would never lie to a girl for sex (he better not, he’s married).

And most important, if you were hoping he could be persuaded to perform for your son or daughter’s coming-of-age festivities, forget about it.

“I now only do things that are creatively interesting and worthwhile and feel natural. I’d rather be poor and happy,” he said. “I won’t do jokes for bar mitzvahs anymore!”

Jason Alexander meets with Knesset caucus


Former “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander met with a Knesset caucus to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Alexander is in Israel as part of a high-profile delegation of international business leaders and philanthropists under the auspices of OneVoice, an international grass-roots movement working to promote the two-state solution.

The American television star and the rest of the delegation met Monday with the Knesset’s Two-State Solution Caucus. The delegation also is scheduled to meet during its weeklong visit with the OneVoice movement’s Israeli and Palestinian youth activists and to attend a town hall meeting in the West Bank Palestinian city of Kalkilya, according to the organization.

Alexander asked caucus members why pro-settlement Israelis want to be in the West Bank. Labor Party lawmaker Daniel Ben-Simon responded that it is because the land is “biblical.”

Alexander told The Jerusalem Post that humor has no place in the peace process “because someone is always going to be offended.”

Israeli actor refuses to perform in West Bank theater


Israeli actor Rami Baruch said he will not perform at a new cultural center in Kiryat Arba, a Jewish suburb of Hebron.

Baruch, who was scheduled to perform his play “Pollard” at the cultural center’s opening Sept. 19, announced his decision Sunday, saying that according to his contract with the Cameri Theater he does not have to perform in the West Bank.

“I made a decision, understanding that it could lead to financial ramifications and counter-boycotts,” Baruch said. “Kiryat Arba is where Baruch Goldstein and Kahane came from, and I asked myself what is my place in this whole story.”

Baruch in the play portrays jailed American spy for Israel Jonathan Pollard. Noam Semel, director of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, said the theater would deal with the matter internally.

The center was built with public funds from three Israeli government ministries, as well as from private donations.

Theater professionals signed a petition a year ago stating that they would not perform in a new cultural center in the West Bank city of Ariel that was built with more than $10 million in public funds. The boycott spurred a controversial Israeli boycott law that would allow for civil lawsuits against individuals and groups calling for anti-Israel boycotts.

Meanwhile, opposition members in the Kiryat Arba City Council have called for a committee to approve the productions staged at the theater, including vetting the actors to make sure they have served in the Israeli military and requiring them to sign a loyalty oath to Israel.

Oscars 2011 Slideshow


Find more photos like this on EveryJew.com

Dating dramas


I’ve decided to embark on an acting career, so I signed up for acting classes. Given that acting is such a competitive business, I comfort myself in the idea that I can also treat acting class as a form of therapy and thus gain added, nonprofessional value. So far, playing characters in difficult situations has allowed me to reflect on my own feelings and behaviors.

For my first assignment, I was asked to recreate, on stage, a personal environment (whether my bedroom, office or living room) — and engage in an activity I like (whether painting, cooking or playing music). The point was to get us actors to feel comfortable on stage so that we could react naturally when the phone rings with an imaginary crisis. The audience doesn’t have to know the identity of the crisis — it’s the reaction, not the story, that’s important.

Eager to do a good job and impress the teacher, I recreated my living room in Israel and thought of a crisis all too sadly familiar to me: A terrorist attack in my neighborhood. When the phone rang, I jumped from my easel, where I was drawing a horse, and went into crisis mode. I immediately began to call friends to find out who was hurt, to check the news on TV and online for casualty updates. I was frantic.

Then the teacher stopped me and said: “Orit! Just sit on the sofa.”

I followed his instructions. On the sofa, I contemplated, without words, the horror of the moment. And the teacher said that’s where I was effective and convincing. In that moment I wasn’t acting. I wasn’t trying to say the right things. I was being.

At my next rehearsal, at a cafe for a scene in which I play a woman trying to seduce an old flame, I repeated the same pattern. As my scene partner hinted to me, my reading was stiff, unnatural and predictable. I only worried that I uttered the lines in the right way. I didn’t capture the emotion of the moment by allowing the part of me who relates to the character influence my delivery of the lines. Then, when we put the script down and just talked, I reconnected with my natural way of speaking and gesturing and sought to bring that into the role.

That’s when it hit me. What applies to acting also applies to dating.

For instance, if I meet a really good-looking and charming guy at a party whom I want to impress, I go into acting mode. I ask myself: How should I behave? Should I walk up to him and say “Hi”? Should I stand there nonchalantly and wait for him to make the first move?

When I e-mail him, I overthink the timing and wording of the letter. I become a playwright. Should I think of a creative subject line or keep it casual? Should I open it with “Hey” or “Hi”? And how should I sign it? With “Best regards”? With just my first initial?

I know I’m really infatuated in a bad way when I actually think of implementing the advice of that lame book “The Rules,” such as: “Don’t stare at men or talk too much” or “Don’t call him or rarely return his calls” or “Don’t accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday.”

Then, if we go out on a date, I try to be, or at least act, put together, cool, perfect. I don’t allow myself to become vulnerable. I don’t honestly share my likes and dislikes, my strengths and insecurities. I worry too much about what the guy wants to hear rather than what I truly want to say. In short, I’m not myself. I’m acting.

Contrast this behavior with a guy I’d consider only as a friend. I can chat it up with him for hours and talk about whatever concerns me, without worrying about what he thinks of me. I write whatever I feel like in an e-mail without proofreading it 10 times. I complain about my day, my problems, my hopes, my dreams. Strangely, my guy “friends” are those who end up falling in love with me.

I think it’s because when I’m myself with the opposite sex, I create real moments — the Oscar-worthy moments that light up a screen or a stage because the audience sees the real character — her pain, joy, uncertainty, triumph. I let go of the script and show what’s between the lines — and what’s inside my heart.

So I’m learning to change my approach — not only in acting class, but in the real-life drama of my dating life. I think part of the challenge is finding the right “scene” partner — the supporting male who can bring out my true character, who doesn’t make me feel the need to read from a script or follow rules.

Maybe by learning to be more natural and hence creating authentic moments not only stage, but also over coffee or dinner with the men I date, I’ll earn my real Oscar — a shining golden man to take home.

Orit Arfa is a Jewish Journal contributing writer based in Israel who is spending the summer in Los Angeles. She can be reached via her Web site: www.oritarfa.net.

VIDEO: Jon Voight — ‘Israel is a blessing for the whole world’


Oscar winner Jon Voight on Israeli TV last month.

Obituaries


Charlton Heston, Oscar Winner and Advocate, Dies at 84

The life of Charlton Heston, who died last Saturday at the age of 84, was marked by certain ironies.

He was an ardent civil rights activist, a Hollywood star who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. on Washington in 1963, but who became the embodiment of right-wing bluster as president of the National Rifle Association.

He was born and raised as an uber-WASP in the Midwest and gained his greatest fame portraying towering Jewish characters, Moses and Judah Ben Hur.

Even while reviled by most American Jews as an arch conservative, he was a close and loyal friend of many liberal Jews.

In a town famed for its licentiousness he was, by all accounts, a faithful husband to the same woman for 64 years.

It is interesting to speculate whether his portrayal of fearless, handsome Moses and Ben Hur had any impact in changing the stereotype of the Jew, still prevalent in America of the 1950s, as a money-grubbing, hook-nosed coward.

While perhaps a few moviegoers in the Bible Belt drew a connection between the heroic screen figure and the Jewish grocery store owner down the street, for most gentiles the historical gap was likely too much of a leap.

In the popular mind, the ancient Hebrews of the bible were one breed of men, contemporary Jews a completely different people. Moses escaped from Egypt, the grandfather of the New York lawyer arrived from Russia.

Indeed, it is fair to say that if Heston’s birth name had been Horowitz, with the identical looks and talent, he would not have been cast to play Moses.

The self-conscious immigrant Jews who founded and ran the Hollywood studios had two unspoken rules:

Not to cast Jewish actors in Jewish roles, or, as Harry Cohn of Columbia Studios famously put it, “In my films, the Jews play Indians.”

A second rule was to stick to biblical epics but avoid themes smacking of contemporary Jewish life. It wasn’t until the creation of Israel that a Jewish (well, half-Jewish) Paul Newman, as Ari Ben-Canaan in “Exodus,” could act a part, which the audience clearly identified as a contemporary Jew.

So farewell, Moses…err…Charlton. You gave us many enjoyable hours on earth, and are ready, we are certain, for your second encounter with your Maker.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


Herbert Acker died March 7 at 83. He is survived by his wife, Irma; sons, Brian (Michelle) and Robert (Ronda); and four grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Nancy Alspektor died March 2 at 86. She is survived by her sons Allan, Stan and Arthur; daughter, Roseann Alspektor-Shcalker; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Sholom Chapels

Arthur Ames died March 2 at 88. He is survived by his wife, Ruth; sons, Jeff and Steven Morton and Steven (Karen); daughter, Janet; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Mount Sinai

Lillian Aronson died March 1 at 100. She is survived by her daughter, Susan Fonstein. Hillside

Albert Abrams died March 1 at 82. He is survived by his daughters, Elise Abrams Nilsen and Wendy; son, Bruce; grandson, Rafael (Maya) Means; brother, Maury (Francine); niece; and nephews. Mount Sinai

Eva Auerbach died Feb. 28 at 84. She is survived by her daughters, Marilyn Miller and Theresa Appel. Sholom Chapels

Bessly Bagel died March 11 at 69. She is survived by her daughters, Paula Smith and Bonnie Price; and companion, Phil Benjamin. Mount Sinai

Ilene Baker died March 3 at 59. She is survived by her husband, Larry; daughter, Kimberly; and brother, Brent (Carrie) Baltin. Mount Sinai

Jack Baker died March 7 at 87. He is survived by his son, Nathaniel; and brother, Alan. Mount Sinai

Dr. Martin Baren died March 10 at 75. He is survived by his wife, Sondra; daughters, Ellie, and Amy (David) Koch; sons, Dan (Stephanie) and Steve (Liz); seven grandchildren; and brother Murray (Billie). Malinow and Silverman

Anita Bayer died March 3 at 86. She is survived by her friends. Hillside

Bernice Bayer died March 8 at 85. She is survived by her sons, Gary and Jordan. Malinow and Silverman

Helen Berger died March 2 at 82. She is survived by her daughters, Susan Pyne and Laura Intfen; son, Henry; and six grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Dr. Gottfried Bloch died March 11 at 93. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Rosalyn; daughter, Ilana; and niece, Julie Kohne Greenberg. Mount Sinai

Rebecca Bondar died March 2 at 88. She is survived by her niece, Virginia O’Neill. Sholom Chapels

Henriette Botton died March 9 at 101. She is survived by her nieces, Lina Carmely, Lea Henigson, Lina Cohen and Dr. Nico Moshe. Malinow and Silverman

Rosa Broides died March 11 at 94. She is survived by her daughter-in-law, Matilda Katz; and grandchildren, Don and Gil Broydes. Chevra Kadisha

Emily Jo Brown died March 9 at 71. She is survived by her husband, Sheldon; daughter, Jennifer (Joe) Edmonds; son, Warren; sister, Linda Kilgore; and brother, Sandy (Joanne) Schreiber. Malinow and Silverman

Esther Buntzman died Feb. 28 at 93. She is survived by her daughter, Deborah Lehrman; sons, Mark, Arol and Gabriel; nine grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. Hillside

Shirely Louise Carlin died Feb. 28 at 78. She is survived by her son, Brian; and daughter Adrienne Roberts. Hillside

Lela Cohn died March 7 at 83. She is survived by her husband, Herbert; daughters, Susan, and Julie (Robert) Tornberg; son, Charles (Leslie); brother, Louis (Rita) Schlanger; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Malinow and Silverman

Harriet Cole died Feb. 25 at 83. She is survived by her husband, Ben; daughters, Ellie (David) Wilensky and Linda (Clark Swienhart) Katsumoto; grandchildren, Kailie and Kori; one great-grandson; and sister, Betty (Ross) Williams.

Juda Davis died Feb 24 at 89. He is survived by his wife, Magda; son, Ernest (Stephanie); and grandchildren, Ethan and Steven. Chevra Kadisha

Milton Ebbins died March 4 at 96. He is survived by his wife, Lynne; and son, Gary. Malinow and Silverman

Theater: Tolins draws on his own mentorship ‘Secrets’


“Everything I write is a question of identity,” Jonathan Tolins says over tea after a yoga class in Sherman Oaks. “What choices do you have? What roles do you take on?”

Those concerns are readily apparent in a body of stage- and screenwriting that has touched on the Jewish family and sexual politics (“Twilight of the Golds”), the geography of gay life (“Last Sunday in June”) and the distinctive tangle of love and human frailty that gets exposed through the process of adoption (“Martian Child”).

While the work he has done for film and television (including several episodes of “Queer as Folk”) has afforded him a comfortable life, “My heart is in playwriting,” Tolins says. “What I love most — ambiguity and complexity — I can do best in the theater.”

Tolins is indeed at his best in “Secrets of the Trade” (currently running at the Black Dahlia Theater through April 20), a work that the playwright calls his “baby” and his “favorite” out of all the things he has written.

While the underlying thread of “Secrets of the Trade” is somewhat autobiographical — like Andy Lipman, the play’s Broadway-smitten central character, Tolins as a teenager wrote a fan letter that led to a tempestuous, revelatory mentor relationship with an older gay man — the playwright’s interest in “Secrets of the Trade” extends well beyond the points at which the storyline intersects with his own narrative.

“It’s a play about family,” Tolins says, “particularly the expectations one has with one’s child.”

That angle of artistic inquiry leads Tolins into some rich but very rough terrain — just the place an artist wants to be. It comes as no surprise then that Tolins gets the transformative and sometimes combustive alchemy of mentorship exactly right as he explores how Andy’s relationship with his mentor affects the other members of his family.

That rightness shines nowhere more brightly than in an exchange between Martin Kerner, the gray-tinged lion of the New York theater whom Tony-winner John Glover brings to life with plenty of snarling and purring, and Joanne Lipman (Amy Aquino), mother of recently-out-of-the-closet Andy, the brilliant Harvard undergraduate and cast-album aficionado whose spark Kerner has decided to nurture.

“What is this world of talented gay men passing on their secrets?” Joanne asks Marty as the two of them face off in Marty’s office.

Marty assures Joanne that while erotic attraction figures into his relationship with Andy, there are no secrets — sexual or otherwise — passing between him and her son.

“I’m simply giving him permission to become himself as fully as possible,” he says.

When Joanne wonders what Marty gets out of the bargain, he replies, “I get to look into a beautiful, intelligent face that sees none of my personal failures.”

This scene in the play’s second act is as much about Joanne’s loss — of her son’s unquestioning admiration, of her status as a “cool” teacher at the Long Island high school where she works, of her own youthful aspirations as a dancer — as it as about Andy’s sexual and artistic awakening.

Earlier, in the first act, as Joanne and her husband Peter (Mark L. Taylor) discuss Andy’s blossoming relationship with his idol, Joanne confides that it has been a long time since she has seen the look in the eyes of a student that says, “You are opening up new worlds to me.”

“I never thought I’d see that look on a kid’s face again,” Joanne laments. “Now I have, and it’s not for me.”

Tolins says he counts Joanne’s revelations among “the moments I feel I got just right. That’s why I got such great actors” — including relative newcomer Edward Tournier, who as the play’s starry-eyed, apple-cheeked purveyor of “that look” turns in work that displays a maturity beyond his meager years.

Still, getting those moments of parental anguish “just right” entails some apprehension as well as satisfaction for Tolins. He and his partner, writer-director Robert Cary (“Ira and Abby,” “Anything But Love”) recently adopted a 4-year-old girl named Selina.

The sweet love of childhood, the pain that often accompanies the separation and disillusionment of young adulthood and the deeper love that comes with an adult child’s mature appreciation of his or her parents are all in the mix for Tolins.

“These are themes that any Jewish parent will recognize,” he says.

Trust the man. He knows.

“Secrets of the Trade,” Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m. Through April 20. $25. Black Dahlia Theater, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 525-0070 or visit

Final Frontier calls to Nimoy


The new “Star Trek” film’s trailer shows a vast shipyard where the U.S.S. Enterprise is under construction, as a voice intones that famous phrase, “Space, the final frontier . . .”

Ah, that deep, rich voice. It’s unmistakable. Spock is back.

In 2002, Leonard Nimoy, now 76, said he was retiring from acting to focus on photography. But in May 2009, he’ll return to the silver screen as the pointy-eared pop culture icon who has been his alter ego since “Star Trek” debuted on television in 1966.

“My photography is still a major love and a major part of my creative life, but this is a ‘Star Trek’ project, so it’s something special,” Nimoy said.

His last “Trek” movie was 1991’s “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”; four more have been made since. Nimoy said he was drawn to this next one by the energy and reputation of director/producer J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Alias,” “Mission Impossible III”), “a really special guy with a wonderful script and a great production…. He’s the real deal.”

“And I feel I owe it to ‘Star Trek’; it’s been a big, positive factor in my life,” he added. “I do think this is a very serious chance for the entire franchise to become reinvigorated.”

While Spock has been on ice, Nimoy’s photography has created heat in Jewish circles. His 2002 collection, “Shekhina,” depicted models wearing tefillin or a tallit and little else, as the essence of God’s feminine manifestation — transcendent to some, transgressive to others.

His current “Full Body Project” depicts nude, proud, fat women, “a book of pictures of beautiful women who just don’t happen to be living in the same kinds of bodies as fashion models,” he said.

That collection’s Northampton, Mass., gallery exhibit has been extended to five months from four, through March 15. Nimoy also remains a fixture as a speaker at “Star Trek” conventions and in Jewish venues, finding plenty of crossover between the two. In Los Angeles, his work is represented by the Louis Stern Fine Arts gallery in West Hollywood.

“There’s always been a curiosity about Judaism in ‘Star Trek,'” he said, not only about adopting the Kohanim’s split-fingered blessing gesture as the Vulcan salute but also about “the trail of Jewish experiences that I’ve had in my acting life,” dating back to his childhood as the son of Yiddish-speaking Russian Jewish immigrants in Boston and to his first big performance role, in Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing,” at age 17.

“I’ve had a wonderful time connecting my Judaism and my acting and directing work,” he said.

Sondheim and Yiddish songs are ‘like prayer’ for Patinkin



Mandy Patinkin performs “Finishing the Hat” in Sunday in the Park with George
“I have acquired a taste for Patinkin verging on addiction,” Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Post in 2001.

Maybe you know him as Inigo Montoya, the Spanish fencer in “The Princess Bride,” who shouts, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”

Or perhaps you were introduced to him in “Yentl,” as the serious yeshiva boy whose confused feelings for Babs’ cross-dressing Torah student entwined him in romance.

Or maybe you simply know him as Mandy Patinkin, master showman.

The actor/singer/entertainer will perform for one night only on Feb. 2 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood in a career retrospective showcasing his original interpretations of Broadway songs with longtime collaborator pianist Paul Ford.

In his eclectic career of nearly three decades, Patinkin, 55, has moved comfortably from musical theater to television and film work, as well as solo performances showcasing his versatile singing voice. But the theme that unifies most of his work is his near-religious devotion to the stage.

“It’s what I love to do more than anything in the world,” Patinkin said. “It’s like food for me — to perform these songs at a time when the world is so stressed — physically, economically and environmentally bleeding.”

If that sounds bleak, he offers “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” lyrics as a kind of meditation: “When all the world is a hopeless jumble, and the raindrops tumble all around, Heaven opens a magic lane…”

Patinkin describes himself as a “mailman,” transmitting the messages of songwriters like Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin, but says he avoids encumbering the material with his own feelings.

Listening to Patinkin wax poetic, it seems implausible that he could keep a cool distance from any performance.

“I am someone who feels a lot,” he said by telephone from his home in New York. “I can’t choke off who I am.”

His intensity may stem from growing up a Conservative Jew on the South Side of Chicago, where he first experienced the power of music when performing in the synagogue choir.

Raised in a traditional family, Patinkin attended Hebrew school, performed cantorial solos during High Holy Days and studied drama at the local JCC, where he discovered his calling.

“If you love someone, tell them,” Patinkin remembers his drama teacher saying about the musical “Carousel.”

“If that’s what this genre of material is about, I like it. And I want to visit it more often,” Patinkin remembers thinking. This message sent him straight to Julliard to study acting.

One of his first and arguably best-known roles was as a yeshiva student opposite Streisand in the movie, “Yentl.” Other actors might have feared being typecast by a Jewish-themed film with predominantly Jewish characters, but not Patinkin.

“All my roles are Jewish,” he said. “Whether I’m Inigo Montoya or a Spanish cabdriver or Georges Seurat — there’s a Jewish core to all of them, because it’s me, and I can’t avoid who I am.”

Indeed, many of Patinkin’s career decisions have been motivated by emotion.

He caused a stir last summer when he asked to be released from his role on the CBS television show “Criminal Minds,” reportedly over creative differences. Although Patinkin wouldn’t say, rumors have circulated that he disapproved of the show’s treatment of violence. Another time, he left the series “Chicago Hope” because it kept him away from his family.

Is he afraid his choices might hamper his success?

“No. I believe attending to my family has only helped me professionally, never hurt me,” Patinkin said. “You prioritize by listening to your heart.”

His heart has found its voice in modern show tunes. Sondheim is “the William Shakespeare of our time,” he said. Show tunes are songs that “hit a nerve which humanity wants to revisit constantly.” Musical scores have “a heartbeat.”

For him, music is like prayer.

“Lyric is what always drives me, and the words and what the stories are, but great music is extremely spiritual,” he says, delivering his words with the emphasis of a Shakespearean soliloquy. “Great music without any lyrics at all is some people’s complete connection to spirituality and religion. Great religions almost all have music in them. When you combine the two, it allows you to feel the thought.”

If he is effusive about the stage, he is absolutely unconstrained with his feelings about Judaism. But during one performance, his Jewish exuberance translated into a political statement, and it was not well received.

On Sept. 10, 2001 Patinkin sang a Hebrew prayer during a performance in New York and then placed an Israeli flag and a Palestinian flag together on top of a stool. The sound of an explosion blared. He then sang the Sondheim lyric from “Into the Woods”: “Careful the things you do, children will listen.”

The next day, after the World Trade Center attacks, an Israeli performer angrily pointed out riotous celebration in Gaza, and said they were waving the same flag to celebrate the destruction of Sept. 11 that Patinkin had used the night before during a prayer for peace.

Patinkin hasn’t performed “Children Will Listen” the same way since.

“I’m not interested in making people upset or angry,” he said, defending his act. “If I don’t have your attention and your calm, than you won’t hear the positive thoughts these people wrote, the wishes for humanity, for people to be together and not hate each other. I can sacrifice certain things to gain greater attention to the cause.”

These days, instead of making political statements, he is pursuing peaceful Jewish causes such as the Arava Institute, an environmental studies center in Israel, and touring his formidable Yiddish repertoire.

“It’s a gift to have a heritage, a culture that you come from — it’s your gift! It’s your map of the world you came from. You can’t avoid it, and to deny it is stupid, it’s really stupid,” he declared.

For Patinkin, ignoring one’s heritage is ignoble and has consequences: “You’re depriving yourself of one of the greatest conscious and unconscious food sources that your history has to offer you.”

And then, without any drama at all, he said: “Being Jewish has been one of the great gifts of my life.”

Chabadmania, Ed Asner, Jewish Big Brothers and Sisters


The Chabad Telethon. You’ve heard of it, you’ve seen the banners all over town, you recognize the dancing rabbi image, maybe you caught snatches of the televised event, and maybe you even picked up the phone and made a pledge. But if you’ve never been to the studio during the taping of the six-hour fundraising extravaganza, you haven’t really experienced it.

I spent two hours at KCET studios on Sunday, Sept. 9, and if I hadn’t had to be somewhere else that evening, I would have gladly stayed longer. The atmosphere burst with infectious energy. The lounge teemed with smiling rabbis, happy sponsors and jovial performers.

Televisions displayed the celebration of life going on in the building next door and the crowd alternated between watching, commenting, socializing and eating (there was a fully catered kosher(!) meal of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes).

The stage buzzed with fervent activity, and not just between acts. I expected the place to grow quiet during the taping, with the small audience sitting in a respectful hush, the crew moving about soundlessly. But not at the Chabad Telethon.

People moved in and out of their seats in the separated women’s and men’s sections. A hodgepodge of presenters, performers and spectators crowded around the sets, chattering. Everyone conversed, and not in whispers.

But the constant buzz did not detract from the main event unfolding on the colorful set before us. Long-time Chabad friend and avid supporter Jon Voight stumbled to find his words and to find the right camera to face, but then he delivered a heart-felt plea for donations to support the many incredible services Chabad provides to the Los Angeles community.

Host Elon Gold made a few funnies. Dennis Prager lent his words of wisdom. Six-year-old prodigy Ethan Bortnick sang a charming tune he wrote about birds of the world, and little vest-clad Yakov Gerstner performed with astonishing passion a duet with Mordechai Ben David.

Viewers pledged close to $7.2 million to Chabad, compared to last year’s $6 million. I bet the rabbis were dancing up a storm when they tallied that figure!

— Dikla Kadosh, Contributing Writer


Scene and Heard …Ed Eisner
Outspoken activist and prolific actor Ed Asner received an Emmy nomination for his role in “The Christmas Card.” The romantic tale focuses on a U.S. soldier stationed in Afghanistan whose life changes when he receives a holiday greeting from a mysterious woman in California.

Although he did not win the Emmy on Sept. 16, during the broadcast he did join his “Roots!” castmates for a tribute to the 30th anniversary of the groundbreaking miniseries (Asner played the slave ship’s captain, Thomas Davies).

To date, Asner has won a whopping seven Emmys and five Golden Globes and is almost as well known for his political views as he is for creating the legendary role of Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Mazel tov!


It’s a musical world — from the bimah to the stage — and learning to chant trope may be the new Hollywood ticket. During the High Holy Days of her youth, Lizzie Weiss was a cantorial soloist divinely inspired by Jewish music. Encouraged by her mentor, Cantor Yonah Kliger, Weiss led the New Emanuel Minyan, an intimate and musical alternative service at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. This week, the Los Angeles native stars as the brainy Martha Cox in a Toronto stage production of the mega-success “High School Musical.” As reported in Canada’s Jewish Tribune, Weiss credits her Jewish roots and cantorial training for launching her professional singing career. But her newfound success comes at a price. With eight performances a week under her belt, Weiss says she’s missing leading High Holy Days services at home, but she hoped to make it to synagogue despite her rigid schedule: “This will be the first time in eight years that I won’t be on the bimah singing.”


Chabad of the Conejo celebrated a historic groundbreaking Sept. 9 — the beginning of construction for the long-anticipated New Chabad of the Conejo Community Campus on Canwood Street in Agoura Hills. They plan to build a bustling Center for Jewish Life and then demolish their current home, laying the foundation for a new synagogue that will take its place. Rabbi Moshe Bryski, the Chabad’s executive director, hopes fundraising efforts will continue while the project is under way.

“The critical thing now is for us to get the word out with greater urgency and have this campaign generate the excitement it needs and deserves,” he said in a statement. “We’ve come a long way over the past 28 years, but the greatest days for Chabad of the Conejo are yet to come.” From his mouth to God’s ears …


Margy Feldman is a gal who’s still breakin’ the glass ceiling. Honored for her achievements in business, the CEO and president of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles was chosen as the nonprofit executive director of the year for Women in Business (WIB). The WIB Awards recognize individuals who contribute to the economic vitality of Southern California.

Kirk Douglas packs 90 years of living into latest book


For decades as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, Kirk Douglas paid little attention to his religion — with one exception.

“I always fasted on Yom Kippur,” he recalls. “I still worked on the movie sets, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy making love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”

Besides bearing up under this ordeal, the nonagenarian has survived 87 movies, countless one-night stands with filmdom’s most beautiful women, a helicopter crash, a stroke and two bar mitzvahs.

He’s not done yet, not by a long shot. Just out is his ninth book, “Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving and Learning.” It is a mix of reminiscences, anecdotes, tributes to Hollywood luminaries now faded or gone, a critique of America’s present leadership and somber thoughts on the drug-induced suicide of Eric, the youngest of his four sons.

As in his previous works — three memoirs, three novels and two children’s books on biblical and Holocaust themes — Douglas writes with the artlessness of a man talking about the incidents and reflections of an interesting life, whose casual conversation has been surreptitiously taped and transcribed.

When I mention this appraisal to Douglas, he seems pleased. “I am glad to hear you say that, because I don’t want to be like a writer. I want to write impulsively,” he comments.

It is almost impossible to recall the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s without remembering a Douglas movie. In the ’50s alone, he starred in 23 films, receiving Oscar nominations for “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Lust for Life” (as Vincent van Gogh). These were bracketed by his 1949 breakthrough role as a cynical boxer in “Champion” (his first Oscar nomination) and perhaps his best-known movie, “Spartacus,” in 1960.

Douglas produced and played the title role as the leader of a slave revolt against ancient Rome in “Spartacus.” He himself received no Academy Award honors but earned even higher distinction for moral courage by breaking the McCarthy-era blacklist of artists suspected of communist leanings — in this case, openly employing screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Now Douglas, pronouncing each word slowly, carefully and with a slight slur after his stroke forced him to re-learn the language (“For a guy who can’t talk, I sure talk a lot,” he jokes), has reached a new stage in his life.

Once known as one of Hollywood’s most self-centered denizens, in a town notorious for supersized egos, Douglas is now looking beyond himself. He is exhorting the Internet generation to practice tikkun olam (repairing the world) through social action and respect for human rights.

Douglas knows where to reach his target audience — not in the movie theaters but on MySpace and YouTube. There he urges the young viewers “to rebel, to speak up, vote and care about people…. You are the group facing many problems: abject poverty, global warming, AIDS and suicide bombers … we have done very little to solve these problems. Now we leave it to you. You have to fix it, because the situation is intolerable.”

Douglas’ own childhood might well seem intolerable to most young people in Britain or America today. The Nordic-looking hero, who vanquished hordes of Vikings and Romans on the screen, began life as Issur Danielovitch in the small town of Amsterdam in upstate New York.

His parents were poor, illiterate immigrants from Russia, and his father made a precarious living as a peddler. In his first memoir, “The Ragman’s Son,” Kirk recalls, with undiminished pain, growing up with a loveless father who was unresponsive to his son and six daughters.

To compensate, he makes it a point to show emotion and affection toward his own children and grandchildren. “When we meet,” he says, “we embrace and kiss each other on the mouth, Russian style.”

Douglas has always been aware of his Jewishness. When he was 12, the Sons of Israel congregation in his hometown offered to send him to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. Young Kirk declined, informing his would-be benefactors that he would become an actor.

But for most of his life, he has been an indifferent Jew, at best. At one point in college, though a popular student body president and champion wrestler, he tried to pass himself off as a half-Jew.

He dates his return to Jewish observance and full identification to a collision between his helicopter and a light stunt plane, in which two young men died while he survived. The crash in 1991 compressed his spine by three inches, and while lying in a hospital bed with excruciating back pains, he started pondering the meaning of his survival and his life.

“I came to believe that I was spared because I had not yet come to terms with my Judaism, that I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish,” Douglas reflects.

In his mid-70s, Douglas embarked on an intensive regime of Torah studies with two young Orthodox rabbis and found an immediate relevance to his profession.

“The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written,” he observes. “It has passion, incest, murder, adultery, really everything.”

These days, Douglas has a weekly study session with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, but he is hardly an unquestioning pupil. Sitting in his office in Beverly Hills, relatively modest as is his art-filled house where we had met on previous occasions, Douglas poses a few questions.

“Why was God so talkative in biblical times but doesn’t talk to us now? We Jews are supposed to be smart, so why was Samson so dumb as to let Delilah cut off his hair?”

Wolpe officiated at Douglas’ second bar mitzvah, at which time the 83-year-old celebrant informed the assembled Hollywood glitterati, “Today, I am a man.”

On the present state of his Jewishness, Douglas ruminates, “I think of myself as a secular Jew, but I have great admiration for Chasidic Jews who preserve the old laws. I attend High Holy Days services — every man should have a day of atonement — and I light candles in my home every Shabbat. I don’t keep kosher, but it would be very difficult for me to go into a restaurant and order pork.”

Alan Arkin — not just another kid From Brooklyn


“I can say what I want. I still got Nazi bullets in my ass!”

Such acerbic rants by Grandpa Hoover pretty much sum up the foul-mouthed, drug-sniffing, sex-crazed curmudgeon Alan Arkin plays in the Oscar-nominated film, “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Yiddish curtain rises at the University of Judaism


In a showbiz career that has spanned nearly six decades, Israeli American actor Mike Burstyn has played everyone from Al Jolson and Tevye to Nathan Detroit and P.T. Barnum.

But for the one-time child actor who grew up in the Yiddish theater with actor parents Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, nothing compares to performing “On Second Avenue.”

The title conjures up the heyday of the theater during the first half of the 20th century, when a dozen Yiddish stages dotted the storied avenue on the Lower East Side of New York. After earning two Drama Desk nominations in 2005, the off-Broadway revival of “On Second Avenue” starring Burstyn will begin a one-week run at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, starting Feb. 20.

A production of Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, one of the oldest troupes in the country, “On Second Avenue” goes back farther than the past century to the origins of Yiddish theater in “a cellar in Romania” in the 1870s. The revue combines music, comedy and reminiscence to recreate the entire history of the Yiddish theater.

However, Burstyn does not think of it as a show.

“It’s a homecoming. It’s a love letter,” he said, adding that it’s a chance to honor not only the theater that nourished him but also his parents.

Near the end of the performance, Burstyn plays a video of his father singing a rendition of one of his famous songs, after which Burstyn sings the same tune. The homage is all the more poignant since Burstyn’s mother died last year.

Burstyn cites Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music for keeping the mama loshen, or mother tongue, alive in Southern California. It’s part of a renaissance around the world that includes Yiddish clubs in Florida condominiums and Sephardic students in Israeli public schools signing up for Yiddish classes.

Still, Burstyn does not pretend that a show performed entirely in Yiddish would work in this country. “On Second Avenue” features narration in English, songs in Yiddish and supertitles in English above the proscenium. That such packaging has worked all these centuries for opera suggests that Yiddish could have a future with American audiences.

“On Second Avenue” runs Feb. 20-25 at the Gindi Auditorium at the University of Judaism. For information and tickets, call (877) 733-7529.

Ricky Ashley comes of age — on stage and off


Here is a question for the rabbis: Can a teenager acting out a bar mitzvah on stage actually get credit for becoming a man? What if he has rehearsed for months? And what if he reads a real Haftorah?

Ricky Ashley, the 17-year-old who stars in the new musical “13,” never had a bar mitzvah. He was too busy acting and never found time to prepare.

But now, Ashley is playing Evan Goldman, a 13-year-old who has his coming of age ceremony after moving to a new school in a new town, where the kids confuse “bar mitzvah” with “Bon Jovi.”

On a recent evening, after three hours of school and five hours of rehearsal, Ashley trekked from the Mark Taper Forum at the Los Angeles Music Center to a smaller building across the street. In a brightly lit room at the Center Theatre Group’s office, Ashley unloaded his heavy backpack filled with his script, score and advanced-placement textbooks.

With the energy and enthusiasm one would expect from a bright boy who had just applied to Harvard, Ashley talked about the musical, his accidental acting career and how he got picked on as a kid.

“In a lot of ways, I am Evan,” said the boyish-looking Ashley.

Both the actor and the character are Jewish. Both grew up in New York. And both moved to an unfamiliar place. While Evan Goldman went to live in Indiana after his parents divorced, Ashley has been living in Los Angeles to rehearse and perform the show.

“Evan’s got a taste for sarcasm, which I do, as well,” Ashley added. And “he’s struggling with his faith, which is something I’ve dealt with.”

Ashley speaks freely, without hesitation. He looks straight into the listener’s eye. But it was not always so. Ricky Ashley, born Ricky Schweitzer, was the shy child of his family. His older sister was the attention-grabber with her sights set on the spotlight. One day, when his sister went to meet an agent, Ashley, then about 8 years old, tagged along. The agent took one look at the boy and signed him immediately.

Two months later, Ashley landed a minor role in his first movie, “Loving Jezebel.” The next month, he won a small part in another movie. Soon after, he arrived on Broadway, playing Chip, the teacup in “Beauty and the Beast.”

Now, Ashley counts five Broadway shows, dozens of readings and several theater workshops among his professional achievements. He has also appeared in about 20 nonprofessional plays and musicals.

Ashley grew up in Westbury, “one of the poorer towns on Long Island,” as he described it. Money was tight. His father, the son of Holocaust survivors, was (and still is) a bandleader who played bar mitzvahs and weddings for a living.

His mother was a lawyer. When arthritis debilitated her, Ashley said, he started taking on more responsibility at home, doing the laundry and cooking for the family.

It was not easy. The thing that carried him through, he said, was music. Ashley learned to play piano at age 5. Now, he considers himself a composer.
Piano “has always been my saving grace,” Ashley said. “When there’s nobody there for me in the entire world, I will always have the piano.”

Ashley is currently writing and composing a musical with a friend about a town in which the villagers are so desperate for food, they contemplate eating their own children.

He attends two schools in New York — a public school for half the day and a theater school for the other half. He said he felt out of place at the public school, which is in a relatively wealthy district of Long Island.
“It drives me crazy,” he said of the materialism and shallowness of the high school scene.

The place where Ashley feels at home, where most of his friends are, is camp. Ashley points to his T-shirt, which reads “French Woods,” the name of the performing arts camp in upstate New York where he has gone for nine summers.

There, he met his girlfriend. There, he studied theater. And there, he learned to swing and somersault from a trapeze, climb cargo nets and twirl fire.
At camp, Ashley first auditioned for “13.”

It was a couple of years ago, when Tony Award-winner Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the music and lyrics for “13,” was looking for actors for an initial reading. The musical was not yet complete; the reading was meant to test whether the project had the legs to move forward.

Brown, who had attended French Woods himself, gave Ashley the part.
“Ricky is the kind of actor I love best,” Brown said. “He’s smart, he’s intuitive, and he’s deeply musical.”

After the reading, Ashley kept in touch with Brown. Ashley heard that the show was moving forward, but he considered himself out-of-the-running for the role. First, at 17, Ashley figured he was probably too old to play a 13-year-old. Second, Ashley presumed that Brown would find a cast in Los Angeles.

When he learned that Brown and his partners were broadening their search to New York, he could hardly believe it. Ashley signed up to audition.

“We were all surprised to see his name on the list, because he’s too old for the part,” said Dan Elish, who wrote the show’s script.

Little did Elish and his partners suspect that the rosy-cheeked 15-year-old who had read the part a couple of years ago had maintained his youthful looks.
“After I said hello to him in the waiting room,” Elish said, “I went bounding into the audition space and told Jason, ‘Ricky’s here, and he doesn’t look too old!'”

Ashley got the part, his biggest role yet.

“He is a perfect fit for Evan,” said Todd Graff, the show’s director. Both actor and character exhibit an “old-soul quality,” Graff said.

Ashley agreed with Graff’s characterization.

What do Dennis Prager, Jimmy Carter, Mel Gibson and General Motors have in common?


Understanding Prager

Your Dec. 8 edition of The Journal had two prominent headlines regarding recent comments made by Dennis Prager. These headlines stated: “Prager Won’t Apologize After Slamming Quran in Congress” and “Prager Opposition to Quran in Congress Rite Draws Fire.”

Since I previously read Prager’s commentary regarding the new Muslim congressman wanting to use the Quran, instead of the Bible, during his upcoming swearing-in ceremony, it was difficult to reconcile both your headlines and the related article. Nowhere did we see Prager “slam” or “oppose” in a practical sense. Rather, his commentary sought to perpetuate American values for this traditional congressional swearing in ceremony. Our courts also use a similar process to swear in witnesses and assure truthful testimony. Will our court system be next in line?

Your paper was quite transparent in editorializing against, not reporting, Prager’s position. Moreover, some of the same Jewish leaders named as Prager’s critics have also been at the forefront of keeping religious and Jewish symbols out of our secular society.

In this latter instance, the constitutional separation of church and state argument is invoked. Interesting how they now cloak their argument against Prager with another constitutional position, i.e., the First Amendment.

You also cite an Islamic advocacy group, which vehemently attacks Prager both personally and via his position on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Instead of overreacting to political correctness, we would be better served by pursuing the real facts and premise here.

Steven Fishbein
Sacramento

Talented Mel

I pay tribute to Mel Gibson … and believe that the word police are alive and well out there. (“Skip Into Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto,’ Now,” Dec. 8).

How many of us are innocent of never making a racial or ethnic slur? Because he is who he is, the media goes after him, waiting for him to mess up and nail him. So what — they are only words. I believe he is a most talented actor and director no matter what anyone says … and will probably go back and see [“Apocalypto”] again.

J. Sklair
Via e-mail

General Motors

The series, “Hitler’s Carmaker,” by Edwin Black examines once again the role of Adam Opel AG, GM’s German subsidiary, in the period before and during World War II (“Hitler’s Carmaker: How General Motors helped jump-start the Third Reich’s military machine,” Dec. 1).

It has been well documented that, like all German companies, Opel participated in the rebuilding of German industry during the 1930s. As Germany rearmed, Opel sold trucks and other vehicles to the German military, as did all other German vehicle manufacturers.

In independent research supported by GM, historian Henry Ashby Turner Jr. concluded that GM executives in charge of Opel strove to evade Nazi demands to convert the firm’s main factory for production of dedicated war material. His book, “General Motors and the Nazis” (Yale University Press, 2005), documents that by mid-1940, soon after the invasion of Poland, the Nazis had taken complete control of operations at Opel.

It was during this later period, from 1940 though 1945, that the Nazis turned to forced labor to bolster Germany’s manufacturing industry, and that sanctions against Jews and others grew into the horrors of the Holocaust.

During this period, GM had no role in supporting the Nazi regime. In fact, GM became a key part of the American war effort, without which the Nazis might have remained in power for many years longerGeneral Motors finds the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime abhorrent and among the darkest days of our collective history. General Motors deeply regrets any role the company or its vehicles played in the Nazi era.

While “Hitler’s Carmaker” makes for compelling reading, it is not news. It covers a period of history that has been extensively researched. For example, following in-depth investigations in 1999, Opel made a $15 million contribution to the German multicompany Trust Fund Initiative to compensate forced labor workers and their survivors.

Nor does it reflect the General Motors of today, which is firmly committed to basic human rights. These principles, spelled out in GM’s Human Rights and Labor Standards, the Global Sullivan Principles and related documents, are proudly supported by the men and women of GM around the globe.

Steven J. Harris
Vice President, Communications
General Motors Corp.

Playing With the Facts

Perhaps President Carter’s latest book is not “Mein Kampf” or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but give his supporters more time to play with the facts (“With Friends Like These…” Dec. 15). For example: The response to [Theodor] Herzl’s gentle diplomacy was “Protocols of Zion”; the Palestinian response to Jewish immigration of legally purchased land where the Jews did their own labor, at slave level, were pogroms (called riots); Palestinian Nazification erupted with Hitler’s ally in genocide, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, and blossomed with Arab Ph.Ds in Holocaust denial; currently there is mass Nazi education for Palestinian youth.

Don’t worry, give Carter’s book time.

Meanwhile, I hereby nominate his book for the “Janjaweed Martyrs of the Year” award.

Charles S. Berdiansky
West Hollywood

Vegan Versions

My mouth was watering as I read about Follow Your Heart’s annual all-vegetarian Chanukah feast (“Follow Your Heart to a Vegetarian Chanukah Feast,” Dec. 15). But are latkes and vegetarian liver really that foreign to us? Indeed, there are tons of vegan dishes that are common Jewish foods, from falafel and hummus to blintzes and vegetarian cholent.

My favorite part about Chanukah and other Jewish holidays is getting together with loved ones and chowing down on the easily vegan versions of virtually all Jewish staples. Not only is it easy to be vegetarian, it’s easy to be vegetarian and eat Jewish foods.

Michael Croland
Norfolk, Va.

Correction:The Dec. 15 Journal cover illustration should have been credited to Steve Greenberg. The Journal regrets the error.

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Michael Richards: Still not a Jew


There’s a civil war brewing in Lebanon, missiles sizzle on their launch pads in Gaza; death and doom stalk Iraq; the earth’s climate speeds toward collapse; andIran is five days closer to going nuclear than it was before my Thanksgiving holiday began.

And when I return to work, what does the whole world seem to be wondering?Hey, is Michael Richards Jewish?

Richards is the former “Seinfeld” star who was videotaped at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood lashing out at hecklers using the N-word.

He’s been making the usual Stations of the Media Cross, apologizing ever since.And from the beginning, somehow Richards’ Jewishness, or lack of it, became an issue.

Comedian Paul Rodriguez held a press conference at the Laugh Factory, saying that Richards should know better, because the Hollywood community defended Jews against actor Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirades.

The implication was that Richards, a Jew, should not be launching racist attacks.

Black leaders, self-proclaimed and otherwise, told journalists that they’d be watching to see whether Hollywood reacted as strongly to Richards’ racist outburst as they did to Gibson.

How proud Mel must be that the intensity of Hollywood hate speech is now measured in Gibsons.

But if Gibson himself set the standard at 10 Gibsons, Richards is probably closer to a 5. He never made a full-length feature film shot through with vicious stereotypes. He never stood by a kooky Holocaust denier. And when he vented, he vented onstage in the course of an act.

I happened to catch Richards’ act at the Improv back in September. Richards showed up unbilled and stole the evening. He didn’t have punch lines — he had riffs, rants and characters — and he wasn’t close to offensive. At one point, he channeled the conversation of two dogs barking to each other across a suburban neighborhood. You needed to be there, and maybe you needed a drink in you, but it was hysterical. But channeling a racist without sounding like one is a much taller order, and best left to someone not as untethered as Richards.

That said, there’s also just a touch of hypocrisy in roasting a guy for using a word that a great many black comedians from Chris Rock on down use like … a noun. He may have gone too far, in character or not, but he certainly went where other comedians, not to mention hip hop artists, have gone before. How ethnic groups speak among themselves is one thing. But to maintain that the N-word is okay only when black comedians say it in public is a perverse kind of racism of lower expectations, as if they can’t help it but we should know better.

A lot of people in this affair should know better. How goofy is it that Richards must genuflect in apology to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, for all his good works, is hardly pure in these matters? Evidently, people who live in glass houses can throw stones, so long as the houses are outside “Hymietown.”

And how obscene that attorney Gloria Allred immediately tried to shake Richards down for money on behalf of her clients, the hecklers. How inspiring to see the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement looting the headlines for ratings and cash.

But what interests me about Richardsgate is not black hypocrisy, but Jewish pathology. What tribal chain of ours is yanked the moment someone of indeterminate ethnicity hits the headlines?

The second the brouhaha erupted, there was an atavistic rush to get to the bottom of Richards’ identity. On Nov. 20, The Journal posted a story at reporting that Richards, contrary to the intimations of Rodriguez and others, is not Jewish.

By Tuesday night we had tens of thousands of hits from around the world.

By the following Monday, after a period of Thanksgiving reflection led people to realize what really matters most in life, our Web site had hundreds of thousands of hits, and the piece had been picked up and echoed and blogged on ad infinitum.

Monday morning I had several phones messages and two dozen e-mails demanding confirmation that Richard is not, in fact, Jewish.

What happened is that over the holiday, two more aggrieved audience members came forward and accused Richards of launching into an anti-Semitic rant on the Laugh Factory stage April 22.

Richards’ New York publicist Howard Rubenstein tried setting the record straight. It was preposterous to accuse Richards of anti-Semitism because, Rubenstein told Yahoo News last week, “He’s Jewish. He’s not anti-Semitic at all. He was role-playing, he was playing a part. He did use inappropriate language, but he doesn’t have any anti-Semitic feelings whatsoever.”

That quote was good for another tens of thousands of Web hits. Thanks to Rubenstein’s one man beit din, our original story was under attack.

But our sources were entertainment industry people who’d known the actor his entire professional life.

“Not a Jew. Never was. Take him off the list for a minyan,” e-mailed one comedy writer by way of reassurance. “Rubenstein should be wasting his time on real Jews, like David Beckham.”

(For many in Hollywood, what matters is that Richards’ outburst doesn’t cripple the “Seinfeld” franchise. There are tens of millions of dollars to be lost if fans can’t separate Michael Richards from Cosmo Kramer.)

Hollywood Jews may not know much Mishna or give to Hadassah, but at the tribal level they are sharper than Abe Foxman at knowing who’s in and who’s out.

Rubenstein knows, too, of course. The man Inc. magazine called “PR’s top dog” started his career servicing the Menorah Home and Hospital for the Aged and Infirm in Brooklyn and got his first Manhattan real estate tycoon publicity by arranging for him to sing to little Jewish orphans on Jewish holidays. So I called him and asked how, suddenly, Michael Richards is a Jew.

“Well, he wasn’t born with Jewish blood,” Rubenstein tells me in a voice that is silky, deep and confidential — with just a shmear of Flatbush. “It wasn’t an inherited religion. But after studying some of the other religions, he believes in Judaism, and that’s what he’s adopted for himself.”

The Best Offense Is a Funny Movie


If you feel that life is losing its edge because no one has offended you recently, Sacha Baron Cohen’s next movie is for you.

Baron Cohen stars as his third incarnation (after Ali G and Bruno) in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”In it, Borat, the intrepid Kazakhstani TV reporter, is sent off to make a documentary of America, where he becomes obsessed with finding and marrying Pamela Anderson.

The film opens Nov. 3, but according to advance hints, it is guaranteed to enrage Jews, gays, blacks, women, cowboys, Christians and college boys — not to mention Kazakhstanis.

In the meanwhile, you can catch Baron Cohen now in “Talladega Nights,” where, as France’s Formula One champ Jean Gerard, he challenges NASCAR idol Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) for the trophy.

Baron Cohen sports the thickest French accent this side of Paris, and in his first meeting with good ‘ol Southern boy Ricky Bobby, offers to drop out of the race on one condition.

“Eeef you keess me,” Gerard says.

The movie is a lip-to-lip competition between two very different comic improvisational styles, and on the track as on the laugh meter, it’s a bumper-to-bumper race.

In real life, the 34-year-old Baron Cohen was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in London, the son of a menswear shop owner and an Israeli mother. He remains a religious, kosher-observant Jew.

He studied history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, showing real potential for an academic career, and wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement.

Coming up for the actor after “Borat” is “Dinner for Schmucks,” in which “an extraordinarily stupid man possesses the ability to ruin the life of anyone who spends more than a few minutes in his company.”

After that, it’s “Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill,” in which our hero plays a young Chasidic Jew who forms a band with an aging rock ‘n’ roller.

Play Reading’s the Thing for Director


Sitting in her living room and poring through an enormous photo album, Alexandra More acts like the proud parent of successful offspring.

“Will you just look at them?” she gushes, pointing at one photograph after another of famous actors participating in her play readings. “Such energy! Such enthusiasm!”

For the past five years, More’s “baby” has been the “Celebrity Staged Play Readings,” which she conducts every fall and spring at the Westside and Valley Cities JCCs. The series consistently attracts audiences ranging from 100 to 300 people, while its participating performers — Edward Asner, Doris Roberts, Theodore Bikel, Estelle Harris, to name a few — read like a who’s who list of Jewish American character actors. The plays have run the gamut from classic comedies, like “Crossing Delancy” and anything Neil Simon, to more serious fare, like David Gow’s “The Friedman Family Fortune,” which will receive its L.A. premiere this weekend as the last play of the series’ spring season.

“The quality of these productions is outstanding,” says Brian Greene, Westside JCC executive director. “It attracts great talent and large audiences, and all of us at the Westside Jewish Community Center are proud to be the home of this community treasure.”

More will read any play sent to her for consideration, but she never wavers from her initial instincts. “I can read six pages of a play and know if it’s good,” she says. “Also, the plays that I stage must entertain, yet avoid taking potshots and making caricatures of Jews. The plays can be very funny, but always there’s something in them that dignifies and honors the Jewish experience.”

Having staged more than 100 Jewish-themed plays by both established and emerging playwrights, More has “been an outstanding contributor to Jewish theater in Los Angeles,” says Herb Isaacs, artistic director of the West Coast Jewish Theatre. “Not only does she do very good work, she also is a great supporter of everyone working in Jewish theater.”

As a director, More loves nothing more than “showing the playwright what he’s really written. With play readings, the actor doesn’t really have time to act,” she says. “It’s more about the playwright hearing the words.”

And as to the question of how she attracts celebrities to appear in her readings year after year, More enigmatically pleads the Fifth.

“Let’s just say I know how to network,” she says.

“Alexandra helps keep my acting soul alive,” says Asner, best known as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and a regular at More’s readings. “It’s always a good play, a good cast, a good audience and good food.”

“People have this great loyalty to Alexandra; she has this passion that makes others want to be around her,” says Robyn Cohen, an up-and-coming film actress, who recently starred in the “Celestine Prophecy” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

Cohen, who will star this fall in More’s staging of Daniel Goldfarb’s “Modern Orthodox,” observes that the reading series “is a magnet for exceptional actors. They see who Alexandra is working with, and they want to be part of that.”

More’s foray into directing began over a decade ago, when the West Coast Jewish Theatre started a Sunday morning “Bagel Theatre Series.” At first, More directed readings only of new plays and used relatively unknown actors. But then she met Asner at a party and asked if he would do a reading of a play called “The Gathering.”

Then, “I started to do plays all over, and we started to get larger audiences,” she recalls. “The word of mouth just spread.”

Only once did More, who’s also an actress and declines to reveal her age for professional reasons, cast herself. The play was called “Ella’s Secret,” and “it was about a Jewish woman who didn’t look Jewish,” she says. “I really related to that, because as an actress, I was never cast as a Jewish woman.”

Reared in New York City, More always loved theater and film and moved to Los Angeles “early on in life” to pursue an acting career. Before she started directing, she describes a “varied background,” which included acting in independent films, modeling and owning several restaurants.

A lifelong spiritual seeker, “I found that Judaism centered me,” she says of joining the Leo Baeck Temple in the early 1980s and rediscovering her Jewish roots. “But as a Jew, I feel on the fence, because while I love the beauty of religion, I also love being secular.”

In Jewish theater, More finds a synthesis of all her skills and beliefs.

“I love thinking about how many playwrights I’ve helped, how many people I’ve brought together and just the process of delving into the work itself,” she says. “I feel it can’t get much better than that.”

“The Friedman Family Fortune” starring Edward Asner will be performed May 20, 8 p.m. at the Valley Cities JCC and May 21, 2 p.m. at the Westside JCC. For directions and ticket prices, call (818) 786-6310 or (323) 938-2531, Ext. 2225.

 

Director Pays Price in Making ‘Capote’


Truman Capote, the legendary writer and subject of the eponymous Sony Pictures Classics release that has been nominated for five Academy Awards, spent six years writing “In Cold Blood,” the book that would cement his literary legacy while also leading to his spiritual downfall.

If the writing of “In Cold Blood” proved a Faustian bargain for Capote, the making of “Capote” has not left its principals unscathed. Bennett Miller, 39, who has received an Oscar nomination for best director, speaks over the phone with the world weariness of a much older man, one who has weathered many crises.

“I can’t imagine anything that’s going to prove as difficult,” he said about directing “Capote.” “It took everything out of me, and it took everything out of Phil [actor Philip Seymour Hoffman], as well.”

Caroline Baron, the film’s producer who worked with Hoffman on “Flawless” and has known screenwriter Dan Futterman and Miller for a number of years, said that all films present challenges, but that from the outset, she had “100 percent confidence in Bennett as a director and Phil as an actor.”

Hoffman’s presence in the project helped her convince investors to pony up $7.5 million for a movie to be directed by a first-time feature filmmaker.

Where Capote never forgave himself for betraying, or at least manipulating, Perry Smith, the murderer with whom he had bonded in writing “In Cold Blood,” Miller said that collaborating on “Capote” brought him, Futterman and Hoffman, who have known each other since they were teenagers, “even closer. Something like this challenges you.

“In the natural course of a friendship,” he continued, “it doesn’t always happen that one’s wants are up against another’s. Not just any wants. Deeply felt wants.”

Miller, who like Futterman is Jewish, met the latter in junior high in Westchester County, N.Y. He spent much time at Futterman’s house, even occasionally celebrating Passover together. If Miller is not very religious, he has been obsessed with filmmaking since he got his first camera, a Super-8, when he was 11.

He got some strong reviews but little recognition for “The Cruise,” a 1998 documentary that follows the quirky life of a homeless Manhattan tour guide who rattles off statistics about the Big Apple while riding a double-decker bus. “Capote” marks his entree into the A-list, just as “In Cold Blood” made Capote an international literary phenomenon.

Capote was already a darling of cafe society, renowned since the late 1940s for his short stories and later novels like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” when he saw the potential for creating a nonfiction narrative using techniques traditionally associated with fiction writing — interior monologue, differing points of view and voice. He wanted to get the reader so deeply into the heads of two murderers that the reader would not only be chilled but also feel a modicum of empathy for Dick Hickock and particularly Smith.

Miller, Futterman and Hoffman have honored the man some view as the greatest postwar writer by making a film that, like the best of Capote’s prose, has both a spareness and beauty. One of the frequent images in the film is a shot of barren trees in the early Kansas morning; they stand alone like sentinels that have failed to protect the Clutter family from violence.

Without a word of dialogue, these shots tell us what we have to know about Kansas, that it is a lonely part of the country with a lot of open space, and that there is something austere, even a little sinister, that could be lurking in this land.

If Capote disarmed people with his self-deprecating wit, his effeminate mannerisms and above all his bizarre voice, he also disarmed them with his surprising toughness, the kind that allowed him to brave a foray into Middle America, where few had encountered an eccentric like him before.

Still, it took its toll on him, just as it has on Miller, who relates a story from kindergarten. All the kids were asked to take those colorful, big blocks, known to all kindergarteners, and to construct “a kind of needle, a pyramid.” Miller hid underneath a desk and watched as the other kids assembled their structures.

“Finally, I ventured out to do it. I did it deliberately upside down.” With characteristic fatigue in his voice, he said, “That is how this movie feels to me.”

 

Elliott Gould Thrives as Work in Progress


Elliott Gould appeared for our interview at the Chabad House near UCLA, his venue of choice, wearing a baseball cap over his unruly salt-and-pepper locks, an open-necked shirt and glasses.

That’s quite a change from the three-piece, pin-striped suit and neatly combed hair he sports as Rufus Van Aldin, the fabulously wealthy American oil magnate in Agatha Christie’s thriller, “The Mystery of the Blue Train.”

The episode, one in the British television series on the adventures of that canny Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), will air Sunday, Feb. 12, on the Biography Channel at 9 p.m. and again at 1 a.m.

The 67-year-old actor obviously enjoyed the role and the locations in Nice and London.

“The British have always been very supportive of me,” he said, a feeling that goes back to 1963, when he starred in the London production of the musical, “On the Town.”

For the West End stage run, Gould brought along his new bride, the rising young singer Barbra Streisand, and he later spoke frankly of their relationship, which has since filled reams of tabloid columns.

Elliott Goldstein grew up in a two-and-a-half room apartment in a section of Brooklyn populated by Jews, Syrians and Italians, the only child of a garment industry production manager and his wife. Both parents were born in the United States, but his grandparents emigrated from Russia, the Ukraine and Poland.

Gould has total recall of his childhood, a mixed blessing, at best.

“My parents didn’t know how to love each other, and that devastated me,” he reminisced. “I’ve been in shock and denial of this most of my life, and as a boy, I was repressed, inhibited and very withdrawn.”

On Passovers, the Goldstein family visited Uncle Louie, and young Elliott got to ask the Four Questions. The future actor found it “stressful to get it right. I was very sensitive and insecure.”

In 1944, when Elliott was 6, his father was drafted into the Army, became a sharpshooter but broke his ankle just before he was to be shipped overseas. It was a lucky break, since most of his unit was wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge later that year.

Encouraged by his doting mother, Elliott auditioned for a “country-style” TV show, got a part and was told by the producer, “‘From now on your name is Gould,’ and I just accepted it.”

His stage career accelerated at age 12, when he made his debut as a tap dancer at the Palace, and at the same time, he started studying for his bar mitzvah at a Hebrew school. “On my first test, I cheated and got a 100,” he recalled.

At 18, he made it onto the Broadway stage in the chorus line of “Irma La Douce” and supplemented his meager earnings by selling vacuum cleaners, running a hotel elevator and working as a plumber’s helper.

His first breakthrough came as the lead in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” the same musical that first brought Streisand to public attention. The two young Jewish actors struck up a romance and married within the year.

The marriage proved difficult almost from the beginning. As his wife rocketed to superstardom, Gould, despite his promising performance in “Wholesale,” had trouble advancing his career.

Snide columnists took delight in referring to Gould as “Mr. Streisand” and in chronicling his real and alleged frustrations, depressions, therapy sessions and nervous breakdowns. Even the birth of their son, Jason Gould, in 1966, couldn’t reverse the downward trajectory of the couple’s marriage, and they were divorced in 1971. Gould also has two children with Jennifer Bogart, whom he married twice, divorced once and from whom he is now separated.

It became obvious during our long interview that Gould’s feelings about his marriage to Streisand are still acute and mixed. Again and again, he interrupted our conversation on other topics to break in with comments, such as:

“It is not true that I was traumatized because Barbra’s career went up and mine didn’t.”

“Barbra and I will always be connected through our son, Jason, but we only communicate when necessary.”

“Life is a challenging and painful journey. Barbra was part of it, and our love has not been destroyed.”

“Barbra will always love me.”

As his marriage gradually unraveled, Gould’s professional fortunes took a sudden turn upward. The breakthrough came in his role as Ted in the 1969 movie, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” about two sexually liberated but confused couples, which the ’60s generation adopted as the iconic reflection of itself.

Gould, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, was at the time described by The New York Times as “Tall, curly-haired, more homely than handsome, laid back, unconventional, sensitive and unabashedly Jewish.”

Over the following four years, Gould seemed to be everywhere on movie and television screens, and his photo graced the cover of Time magazine as “the star for an uptight age.” He was especially popular among young adults, who identified closely with the often-neurotic anti-hero he depicted.

He scored again as Trapper John in Robert Altman’s black comedy, “M*A*S*H,” and as private eye Philip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye.”

Then, in the mid-70s, what had been the hottest property in Hollywood went cold. Gould continued to act in movies and television but mostly in forgettable productions and roles.

In the 1990s, he began to regain his reputation as a character actor through frequent appearances on the phenomenally successful TV series, “Friends,” and in the past few years he has been lauded for his movie roles in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.”

He remains as unabashedly Jewish as ever, though in his own way.

“I feel connected by the branches of the Jewish family tree,” he observed. “I belong every place where there is one of us…. Not only do I not deny my Judaism, but I am aware how unorthodox and unconventional I have been.”

Although “conditioned to question everything, the concept of faith seems right to me, and I have found my faith,” he added.

At 67, Gould considers himself “still a work in progress,” but he seems to have found a measure of equilibrium in a life during which “I never had problems with drugs, but I’ve had problems with reality.”

He lives in an apartment with a picture of Sigmund Freud on the wall and is re-reading the works of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.

“I have nothing more to prove,” he said in concluding our interview. “I now look on myself as a happy and healthy grandfather.”

 

He’s Got the Look


When Sam Feuer was a boy, he fell in love with “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” — and with performing — since he lived as an outsider in two cultures. Born in America to Israeli parents, the family moved to Israel when Sam was 9.

“Since I was a kid, one of my dreams was to be in a Steven Spielberg film,” the now-31-year-old actor told The Journal at a Starbucks in Beverly Hills.

Hollywood is a place where dreams sometimes come true. Or at least it’s the type of place where unlikely events are more likely to occur. For example, Sidney Pollack walks by the cafe — not unusual because his office is nearby, but then again, he just passed on a film that Feuer’s production company, Sixth Sense Productions, had sent Pollack. Another unlikely event: Feuer, after only three years in Los Angeles, got a part in a Spielberg film.

Not just a Spielberg film. “Munich,” to be specific. Perhaps Spielberg’s most controversial film, “Munich,” which opens Dec. 23, tells the story of the revenge killings of those responsible for the Munich Olympic massacres in which 11 Israelis were murdered. Feuer plays a small but pivotal role as Yosef Romano, a 32-year-old weightlifter who was shot dead by the Palestinians in the village.

Although there are a number of Israelis in the film, Feuer is one of the few Angeleno Israelis in it — and he’s probably the only one without an agent.

“Maybe because I’m like an agent myself,” said the crew-cutted, dark-eyed actor with all the confidence of the Israeli air force pilot he once was. Like many Israelis in America, Feuer has the gift of “scrambling”: in other words, he’s enterprising. Agentless, he got himself roles in TV series like “JAG,” playing … what else? An Israeli soldier.

“You come to Hollywood and you have to find your niche; you have to find something that will separate you from everybody else,” Feuer said. In the beginning he auditioned for parts playing Italians, Greeks and Spaniards, but he wasn’t getting called in. It was only when he started going for the few Israeli parts that he started getting booked. “I bumped into Israelis and they’re like, ‘So you’re the one who got that part.”

Now that he’s in “Munich,” Feuer hopes he’ll finally sign an agent, and that the roles will keep on coming. Unlike many up-and-coming actors here, one doesn’t get the feeling the self-confidence is just a veneer.

“I think a lot of people get the bug [for acting], but I don’t think they sacrifice for what they want to accomplish,” Feuer said. “If I went to the military and still come out wanting to be an actor, you know I really want to be an actor.”