Judaism plus FBI add up for Rob Morrow in ‘Numb3rs’

On location in Los Angeles with CBS’s “Numb3rs,” actor Rob Morrow sat for an interview in his trailer, puffing on a Cuban cigar, a gardenia-scented candle wafting from a table as he discussed his interest in the “Bhagavad Gita” and the works of progressive Jewish author Douglas Rushkoff.

Still boyish at 46, these days Morrow doesn’t look all that different from his 1990s character of Dr. Joel Fleischman — the adorably whiny (and lox deprived) New Yorker stuck in the Alaskan sticks on “Northern Exposure.”

In “Numb3rs,” Morrow plays an even more unusual Jewish fish-out-of-water: FBI agent Don Eppes, who solves crimes along with his math genius brother (David Krumholtz) and retired father (Judd Hirsch). All season, Eppes has been exploring Judaism in an attempt to grapple with the moral dilemmas raised by his job. He has argued with his secular brother about his spiritual journey, attended services and lectures at Wilshire Boulevard Temple — whose façade provides exterior shots for the show — cited concepts such as “natach lach” (focusing on issues within one’s control) and, in the Jan. 9 episode, he will face off with an old nemesis inside his synagogue.

“I kind of forced the issue,” Morrow said of his character’s Judaism. Morrow said it had bothered him that in much of the show’s five seasons the Eppeses weren’t clearly identified as Jewish, given that all three lead actors had previously portrayed iconic Jews on screen. At a function attended by “a number of CBS types,” Morrow made his point by playfully asking how many present saw the characters as Jewish.

“Everyone applauded,” he recalled with a laugh. “But initially there was a lot of ambivalence about expressing that side of the Eppeses — perhaps because of a fear of anti-Semitism, but mostly because these shows are built for the largest possible audience. My bent was, ‘Why deny what is obviously there in the name of versatility?’ It’s more interesting to say, ‘We can’t get away from this — because if you don’t think these characters are Jewish, there’s something wrong with you — so let’s embrace it and use it to distinguish ourselves among all the other procedural crime dramas on TV.'”

At the beginning of last season, Morrow pitched the idea of Don Eppes “going, quote, ‘Jewish,'” to help explore the character’s psyche. “Don had killed someone in the line of duty, he’s had a moral crisis, he’s yearning to find a way to exist in this world that is ethically relevant,” Morrow explained. “I thought his journey would be an organic way to take the show in a new direction and allow the expression of some other colors beyond shows like ‘CSI’ or ‘NCIS.’ Of course, I figured I’d be shot down,” he added.

To his surprise, executive producer Ken Sanzel liked the idea. “I thought it could be a story not so much about a person finding Judaism as about a person who feels lost trying to find a new set of guidelines,” Sanzel — who is Jewish and an ex-cop — said on the set of the Jan. 9 episode, which he wrote and directed. Morrow is successful at depicting Eppes’ journey, he added, “because he doesn’t try to overprotect the character. He’s willing to express Eppes as flawed and not always likeable.”

Morrow’s best-known characters share a distinctive sense of longing. The actor said he identifies with this desire to fill a spiritual and psychological void.

“My parents divorced when I was 9, which was my fall from grace — it was like getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden,” he said. “That defined me in so many ways I had to overcome — suffice it to say I spent many years in therapy talking about it.”

When his father moved out, the rest of the family relocated from their middle-class New York home to a series of shabby apartments on the fringes of luxurious neighborhoods in and around Scarsdale, N.Y., where his mother insisted they live to “keep up appearances.” The young Morrow acted out by committing petty thefts, stealing cars and joyriding. But feeling poor among wealthy classmates also gave him what he calls “a taste for ambition.”

After his Reform bar mitzvah — an unsatisfying affair he prepared for by memorizing Hebrew prayers phonetically — Morrow saw John Travolta in “Grease” and was mesmerized by the rebel from the wrong side of the tracks. “From then on I wanted nothing except to become an actor,” he said. “That became my raison d’être.”

He cut high school for six weeks to perform as an extra on “Caddyshack,” and later a contact from that movie advised him to turn up for an audition at “Saturday Night Live” with a joint in tow. “John Belushi had already died, but his spirit hovered over the place,” Morrow said of SNL. At the age of 18, Morrow moved to New York to work as an extra on SNL and also immersed himself in the world of the theater — including turns in “The Chosen” at the Second Avenue Theatre and Stuart Miller’s “Escape From Riverdale” at the Jewish Repertory Theatre.

His big break came in 1990 with “Northern Exposure,” a show that appealed to him not so much for its Jewish content but for its quirky hyper-realism — it reminded him of the films of François Truffaut — and the chance to portray a character who, for all his kvetching, represented an alternative kind of hero. In the era of “Seinfeld” and self-denying Jewish characters, Morrow became television’s most obvious — albeit complex — member of the tribe.

His portrayal was even more nuanced in the 1994 Robert Redford film, “Quiz Show,” an exposé of the 1950s “Twenty One” scandal in which he played the Harvard-educated prosecutor, Richard Goodwin. “I spent a lot of time with Richard and his wife in New England, and I have great respect for him,” Morrow said. “But he is a complicated individual as a Jew. I did note perhaps a streak of self-hatred, as well as the desire for the trappings of [WASP] success, materialism, cars and houses.”

This desire to escape one’s humble origins was something the actor related to. The fame and money show business brought him had proved “intoxicating,” he said: “I’ve never done heroin but I can only equate my feelings to what I’ve heard about the drug — it’s so good, you just want more and more. It’s a great diversion, because you can get anything you want, and women and fame go hand [in hand] — when I was younger it was really a blast; I definitely took advantage of it.

“I still wrestle with [fame] issues,” he said, “like if I don’t get the table I want in a restaurant, I’m disappointed. But like any drug, it become less potent over time, and you need something less ephemeral in life.”

Morrow eventually found meaning through pursuits such as Transcendental Meditation, reading about Judaism and by placing a mezuzah on the front door of the Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, Debbon Ayer, and their 6-year-old daughter. He’s also been influenced by Rushkoff’s “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism,” which “discusses how the modern Jew is someone who can take from all traditions.”

Rushkoff himself sees Morrow as an actor who personifies one kind of contemporary Jew on screen: “His roles expose the balancing act all Jews face when attempting to practice ethical behavior in secular culture,” the author wrote in an e-mail. “He is living in two worlds at once — a ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ as it were — remaining true to his ethical template while addressing the problems and people of a culture that isn’t as bound by his covenant.”

As the interview with Morrow winds down, the actor takes a final puff on his cigar, then crosses the street to the set at the Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian Church, which decades ago housed Sinai Temple and now nicely doubles as the interior of Eppes’ shul because it retains its ornate stained-glass windows decorated with Hebrew lettering and Stars of David. Actors wearing SWAT gear lounge in the aisles and on pews as Morrow takes his place on the “bimah” for a final scene of the Jan. 9 episode.

“For my satisfaction we don’t go into Don’s ‘Jewish’ scenes enough,” he said, “but the problem becomes, you’ve got 42 minutes, and the genre requisites are paramount. Of course, at this point Don is still exploring and seeing if Judaism is right for him. I don’t think he’s said, ‘I’m super -Jew, and everyone’s going to daven now at the FBI.’ I think he’s trying to get a grasp on it, and the dividends are more philosophical and spiritual.”

Clues to family drama’s Jewish roots finally add up on ‘Numb3rs’

Add family drama plus FBI action, and the sum equals CBS’s hit drama, “Numb3rs.”The show, which just started its third season, is as much about fathers and sons as it is about using mathematics to solve crimes. Alan Eppes (Judd Hirsch) is the widowed patriarch to two disparate sons: son Don (Rob Morrow), an FBI agent, and Charlie (David Krumholtz), a math genius who works as a consultant for Don. The subtext is that Charlie the prodigy, is the favored son, while Don feels abandoned and bitter and yearns to connect with his father. The Oct. 6 episode deepens this dynamic while “outing” the family as Jewish.
This time, the brothers investigate a piece of Nazi-looted art that may belong to a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in the camps. Don is deeply moved by her story and by his father’s revelation that a cousin of theirs also lost all her relatives in the Shoah. The agent tells his father he would like to investigate what happened to them — an unusually emotional statement for a character who tends to repress his feelings.
“This episode gives us a glimpse into Don’s soul,” Morrow told The Journal. “Don feels a yearning to connect to his heritage, which reflects his longing for his father and for connections in life.”
At a time when crime dramas abound on prime time (think “C.S.I.,” “Law & Order” and their various spinoffs), “Numb3rs” stands out for its focus on family and “unexpected shades of character,” according to Newsweek.
Yet one aspect of the characters has been neglected, at least until tonight’s show — their obvious Jewishness. After all, these actors are well known for playing members of the tribe: Hirsch, 71, was cabbie Alex Rieger on “Taxi”; Morrow, 44, played Dr. Joel Fleischman on “Northern Exposure,” and Krumholtz, 28, portrayed numerous “neurotic shlubs,” in his own words, before landing the “Numb3rs” gig.
“When they cast the show, an executive said the poster was going to show the three of us emerging from shul triumphant,” Morrow says with a laugh.
Even the series’ creators, Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci, say they had envisioned the Eppes as Jewish since casting the show in 2004. (The first hire was Krumholtz, partly for his uncanny ability to make math sound cool, even though the actor had flunked algebra twice.) The producers say they were waiting for the right story to “out” the characters, and they found it in the headlines about Nazi-looted art. They feel the onscreen family chemistry works, in part, because the actors share culturally Jewish New York roots. A subtler dynamic helps the performers create the favorite son/black sheep son nuances on the show.
Neither Hirsch nor Krumholtz have previously worked with Morrow (although they enjoy doing so now), but they share a rich performance history together. Krumholtz got his big break playing Hirsch’s son in “Conversations With My Father” on Broadway 15 years ago.
Krumholtz was 13 at the time and had no previous acting experience, nor had he ever been to the theater. He auditioned on a lark — “something to do on a Saturday afternoon” — and landed the role, in some measure, because of his resemblance to Hirsch.
“I was frightened for David,” the older actor recalls. “His first production was going to be this extremely violent, emotional play, and he was going to be an ‘object’ in it.”
Hirsch’s character, a volatile Jewish immigrant, chokes, grabs and smacks his son, and also chases him around the stage with a strap. Hirsch worried the production might overwhelm the ebullient, novice performer.
Hirsch’s solution, Krumholtz recalls, was a form of theatrical “tough love.”
“Teasingly, he pointed out every little thing I did wrong,” the younger actor says. “I was extremely unprofessional; I had an opinion about everything, and every time I was loud or said something when I was supposed to be quiet, or missed a line, he was right there with a big ‘shut up’ or ‘That’s you, kid,’ or ‘get with the program.’ It was rough, but I knew he was doing it because he believed in me. By the end of the show I had learned about professionalism, and I loved Judd with all my heart. I now call him my ‘acting father,’ because I feel I owe him my career.”
When Krumholtz eventually left “Conversations” to pursue movies, he cried so effusively that Hirsch sat him on his lap to comfort him.
The father-son dynamic is still apparent as the two sit side by side over lunch in a studio cafeteria. The boyish Krumholtz avidly listens as Hirsch tells long stories, with relish, about thwarting anti-Semitism in the Army and how his own father chased him around the house with a strap. Both recount growing up in working-class homes (Krumholtz’s “Conversations” salary paid for his bar mitzvah reception) and describe Morrow as “more of a Westchester County [a.k.a. wealthy] Jew.”
In a phone interview, Morrow laughs ironically when told of the “Westchester” remark.
“I was as working class as they were,” he says, sounding a bit like his misunderstood “Numb3rs” character. Actually, he grew up comfortably middle class in White Plains, N.Y., until his parents divorced when he was 9, and his father, an industrial lighting manufacturer, moved to Manhattan and later to Florida. Morrow stayed behind with his sister and his mother, who went to work as a dental hygienist to support the family.
“Suddenly money was a real issue, but my mother was determined to keep up appearances, so we moved to Scarsdale and we were living on the fringes of this wealthy enclave,” he recalls.
Like the fictional Don, he says he felt somewhat abandoned by his father (“suffice it to say I spent a lot of years in therapy”), and he has channeled those feelings into his “Numb3rs” character.