The Jewish writer and actor who’s ‘the voice of black America’

Danny Strong is probably most recognizable as being “that Jewish guy” on TV — he played eager adman wannabe Danny Siegel on “Mad Men” and the nerdy, perennial victim Jonathan Levinson on “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.”

But, among those in the know, Strong may be best known as the “voice of black America,” as one showrunner sarcastically quipped. He’s the co-creator of the hip-hop-themed TV hit “Empire” and he also wrote the screenplay for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler.”

“Empire” is centered on the struggle for the control of Empire Entertainment, a family-owned record label and mini conglomerate — a company started with drug money. It features bravura performances from major stars, including Terrence Howard (“Crash,” “The Butler”) as Lucious, the family patriarch, and the Emmy-nominated Taraji P. Henson (“Person of Interest”) as his wife, Cookie, who was mysteriously released early from prison.

When it debuted last January, “Empire” was almost an immediate hit, first among young African-American viewers and then with white audiences. It ended the season as the highest-rated drama on broadcast TV with an especially high rating among in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic favored by advertisers.

Who wouldn’t be attracted to a program whose elevator pitch is basically “Dynasty” meets “Glee” meets “The Godfather”? Yet even Strong was surprised at how well it did. “I had no idea it would become this successful,” he says in a telephone interview with JTA.

Speaking from his office in Los Angeles, he adds: “I thought we would do pretty well because of the success of ‘The Butler’ and the crossover appeal of hip-hop. But I underestimated how well it would do.”

“I think at the end of the day, it’s a good show, and people like the characters,” he says. “The equation of what makes the show work is that it’s a soap opera with really fun and juicy plotting balanced with an examination of social issues. It’s a gritty family drama and, on top of that, there’s the musical element.”

The show’s soundtrack is provided by mega-hit producer Timbaland and tackles social issues such as homophobia, interracial marriage and a host of societal ills like drugs and murder.

Yet another factor in the success of “Empire” has been the far-reaching media coverage about the show’s diversity. Until its premiere, most primarily African-American shows on television had been comedies. Plus, “Empire,” in addition to  having a mostly black cast, has a rainbow behind the scenes, both racially and in terms of sexual orientation. In fact, Strong was the only straight white man to direct an episode.

The series — which doesn’t gloss over the thuggish elements of some parts of the African-American experience — hasn’t been without controversy. “I’ve heard there’s been some blowback about Lucious and the criminal element of the show, his drug dealing past,” Strong says. “We’re not trying to fight civil rights battles with this show or suggest that this story represents the African-American community.”

He argues it is probably similar to the complaints producers of “The Sopranos” likely received from Italian-American groups. “White, African-American, Jewish or Irish, there’s always been crime,” he says.

But blowback or not, the show has “exploded diversity among the networks,” Strong continues. “Everyone is trying to find more diverse programs, featuring Latino, Asian families. At the end of the day, Hollywood is going to create programs that are financially successful, and shows like ‘Blackish’ and ‘Empire’ have been financially successful.”

The idea for “Empire” came to him “while I was driving in my car in L.A. There was a news radio piece about Puffy and some new business enterprise, and I thought to myself, ‘hip-hop is so cool, so much fun.’ I had the idea of a music movie; the idea of doing something along the lines of ‘King Lear’ or ‘The Lion in Winter.'”

Excited, he pitched the idea to Daniels, who “called me back the next day and told me, ‘I can’t stop thinking about it. But I think it’s a TV show and not a movie’.”

The pair fleshed out a multi-episode story line for a TV show and presented it to the networks. “We made our pitch the week after ‘The Butler’ opened at number one in the box office and all four networks wanted it. A bidding war broke out.”

All this makes it so odd that Daniels last May veered so sharply off the road of political correctness in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, saying: “I hate white people writing for black people. It’s so offensive.”

“I was surprised he said it publicly,” Strong says. “I work very closely with Lee, and I’m a white writer. So is [Executive Producer] Ilene Chaiken [who is also Jewish]. So he works with white writers and to take a public stance like that, I don’t understand.”

But Strong says he wasn’t offended. “He says whatever he feels. He’s very unfiltered and quite refreshing. I didn’t take that personally.”

And if Daniels was uncomfortable, the reverse wasn’t true. “I would say that there have been countless events and parties and business situations where I am the only white person in the room, and I have never felt uncomfortable,” Strong maintains. “I have been completely embraced and felt nothing but love.”

Strong feels a special kinship with the “Empire” material in part because of his culturally Jewish upbringing. “I think Jews feel very empathetic to any culture or race that faces discrimination,” he says.

“Ever since I was young I was very passionate about people being discriminated against in terms of civil rights or gay rights,” he adds. “There was something innate in me. That’s part of why I like to tell these kinds of stories, even now.”

Writing, though, is a kind of obscure existence. Despite numerous successes and awards for screenplays such as “Recount” (about the 2000 presidential race) and “Game Change” (about Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential candidacy), “I’m not through acting,” says Strong, who played Elijah’s boyfriend on “Girls.” “I take a few gigs a year for fun.”

Strong laughs at the obvious next question: Does he plan to write himself into “Empire”?

“Vanilla Jew? I never say never,” he says.

“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox starting Sept. 23.

Troubles at meat plants prompt increased fear of kosher beef shortages

NEW YORK (JTA) — With the kosher meat producer Agriprocessors facing mounting financial problems, and a fire-related shutdown at another major kosher producer, industry insiders say major supply disruptions are inevitable, and kosher consumers should brace themselves for some rough times.

Agriprocessors in the past week or so has endured a cascade of awful news. First, Iowa’s labor commissioner hit the company with nearly $10 million in fines for alleged wage violations. Then, the son of the company’s founder was arrested on charges that he helped purchase false identification for the company’s illegal workers. And on Oct. 31, news broke that a St. Louis bank had initiated foreclosure proceedings after Agriprocessors and its owners defaulted on a $35 million loan.

Kosher industry insiders are predicting that the company will not pull through. Company officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Meanwhile, production at the nation’s third-largest slaughterhouse, North Star Beef in Minnesota, has ground to a halt after a fire, the Forward reported Monday. Also according to the newspaper, a smaller Agriprocessors plant in Gordon, Neb., stopped operating in October.

Short-term disruptions in the supply of kosher meat, particularly kosher and glatt kosher beef, are now virtually guaranteed. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of kosher supervision for the Orthodox Union, said he already has heard from communities that have no supply.

“There is going to be a sharp decline in availability immediately,” said Genack, adding that the company is trying to survive but that the situation is grim.

Some kosher markets have not felt the crunch, among them Daryl Schwarz, owner of Kosher Club on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, a full-service kosher supermarket under RCC supervision. “I’m not having any problems yet,” Schwarz said. “It’s a little early to see what happens. I have plenty of product.”

Farzad Kohanzadeh, co-owner of Livonia Glatt Mart, has so far experienced a steady flow of meat, in part because he deals with a variety of suppliers who meet the approval of their kashrut supervising body, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC). “Eventually it will affect us, but right now it has not.”

Those who have stricter kosher supervision have been more hard hit. Albert Zadeh, one of three owners at Pico Glatt Mart on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, has experienced some shortages, particularly with special cuts of beef. “We’ve been in business for 17 years, but it has never been like this. The cases were always full of meat.

“Because we are under Kehilla [kashrut] supervision, we can’t get a different brand of meat,” he said, adding that Agriprocessors has raised the prices three to four times in the last five months. Last week, to keep up, Pico Glatt raised the price of every meat and chicken item by 29 cents per pound.

Avraham Shamoil, owner of Little Jerusalem on Pico Boulevard and La Peer Drive for 30 years, has also experienced a shortage. His meat falls under Crown Heights kashrut supervision, which he says is even stricter than Kehilla. Quantities don’t reach Los Angeles as they used to.

“Basically we cannot get enough meat, chicken, turkey,” Shamoil told The Journal. “It’s been very difficult for us. We’ve been dealing with [Rubashkin] for years, and now we cannot get.”

Agriprocessors representatives have had virtually nothing to say publicly over the past week as they faced a succession of ominous developments. But Bernard Feldman, the New York tax attorney hired in September as the company’s new chief executive officer, offered one stark prediction to the Des Moines Register.

“I don’t believe we’re going to have substantial production of any kind in the near future,” Feldman said in Monday’s edition.

Agriprocessors has been reeling since May 12, when federal authorities conducted what at the time was the largest immigration raid in U.S. history in Postville, arresting nearly half the company’s workforce. The company’s troubles have only intensified in the last week.

In addition to the foreclosure by First Bank of St. Louis and the arrest of Sholom Rubashkin, the staffing company responsible for approximately half of the labor at the Postville plant suspended its contract. Beef production has been shut down for several days. And reports out of Postville suggest that the company lacks the resources to slaughter and process the chickens in its possession, though some chicken slaughtering reportedly is taking place.

A federal judge placed the company in temporary receivership after First Bank filed a lawsuit alleging that Agriprocessors and its owners defaulted on a $35 million loan. The lawsuit demands the return of the bank’s collateral — a category that includes “virtually all” of the owners’ personal property as well as the company’s accounts receivable, inventory and proceeds.

Agriprocessors also has received a power disconnect notice, the Des Moines Register reported. The company’s electric utility, Alliant Energy, reportedly is working with the company to work out a payment plan. Meanwhile, a relative of the company’s owners has issued a call for the Jewish community to donate funds to help save the company.

Kosher industry insiders, including Agriprocessors’ competitors, uniformly believe that the company’s collapse would be a disaster for the country’s kosher meat supply. Agriprocessors has been a pioneer in the industrial-scale production of kosher beef, and in many smaller Jewish communities its products are the only kosher ones available.

“For the kosher marketplace, there’s no question there’s going to be short-term shortages of kosher and glatt kosher meat and poultry,” said Elie Rosenfeld, a spokesman for Empire Kosher, a poultry producer. “The industry overnight cannot pick up the decreased level of volume that Agriprocessors has been doing over the last couple of months.”

Rosenfeld said his client continues to see growing demand for its product, but he would not comment on reports that Empire has been exploring opportunities to begin producing kosher beef.

Harris reported from New York for Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Jewish Journal contributor Orit Arfa contributed to this article.