February 24, 2020

Lifelong Friends Revisit Their Old Neighborhood in ‘The Bronx, USA’

Carl Golub, left, George Shapiro; Photo courtesy of HBO

For the past 25 years, Hollywood producer George Shapiro and his childhood buddies have been getting together every five years to celebrate their lifelong friendship, two of which have been documented and televised. 

Their first reunion was the subject of “The Bronx Boys,” which aired on HBO in 2003, followed by “The Bronx Boys Still Playing at 80,” shown on PBS in 2013. Now nearly nonagenarians, Shapiro and his surviving pals Carl Golub and Jay Schwartz convene in the New York borough of their birth in the HBO documentary “The Bronx, USA.” The film combines nostalgia and reminiscence with a contemporary twist as the Jews from the class of 1949 meet black and Latinx members of the 2017 senior class at their alma mater, DeWitt Clinton High School.

Shapiro, an Emmy-winning producer of “Seinfeld,” also and manages the careers of his uncle Carl Reiner and Jerry Seinfeld. He narrates the film and and produced it with director Danny Gold, with whom he previously collaborated on “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” (2017). Revisiting his old neighborhood and boyhood apartment brought back fond memories. 

“The Bronx is part of my heart and soul — neighborhoods where everyone knew each other, having friends in the apartment building and playing after school,” Shapiro told the Journal. A family from El Salvador now lives in his old building, and they welcomed him in. And his all-boys high school is coed and populated by first- and second-generation immigrants from Third World countries. “I wondered if it would be the same now,” he said. “And it is different in some ways. But a lot is the same. I saw the joy of friendship that we had and still have in these kids from DeWitt Clinton.”

The documentary also features interviews with Reiner, Alan Alda, Hal Linden, Chazz Palminteri, Robert Klein, Melissa Manchester and retired Gen. Colin Powell, talking about their Bronx childhoods. Klein performs an original musical number and Powell reveals that he worked as a “schlepper” for a Jewish toy store owner, who encouraged him to get a good education. 

“The Bronx is part of my heart and soul — neighborhoods where everyone knew each other, having friends in the apartment building and playing after school.” — George Shapiro

For director Gold, “As much as the movie is about the Bronx, it’s about anywhere,” he said. “It’s a human story. My perspective was to do a homage to the Bronx and talk about it socially, culturally and historically — to focus on the positive aspects of humanity and the importance of friendship in one’s life. We were able to show that with these kids and their interaction with George and his friends.”

Gold, who grew up in a Reform Jewish home in West Los Angeles, wanted to be a filmmaker ever since his mother gave him a Super 8 movie camera when he was 9. “That became a love affair that continues to this day. It’s always been about being creative,” he said. “My passions in filmmaking are music and comedy and I look for projects that fit into that category, whether it’s documentary or docuseries.”

Jewish tradition and culture are important to him. “I did a movie years ago called ‘100 Voices: A Journey Home,’ ” about cantors going back to Poland to reconnect with the Jewish culture that was lost in World War II. Making that movie and filming in Auschwitz really had an impact on me,” Gold said. He’s currently working with “The Bronx Boys’ ” composer Charles Fox on a documentary about salsa music culture, filmed partly in Cuba. 

Shapiro, the son of Russian and Polish Jews, wasn’t raised in a religious family, either. “We went to Chinese restaurants on Sunday nights. I had a bar mitzvah but I took a crash course [to prepare],” he said. “My mother’s religion was the golden rule: Treat people the way you want to be treated and go through life loving people. There’s so much hate in the world right now. What brings us together is love and caring.”

While working as a lifeguard at a resort in the Pocono Mountains in 1953, Shapiro joined the theater troupe, where Neil and Danny Simon were the head writers and talent agents would visit to see their clients. He made some connections that resulted in a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency in New York after he finished his military service. An agent-turned-manager and producer now based in Beverly Hills, he counts “Seinfeld,” the recent Seinfeld projects “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” “If You’re Not in the Obit,” and “Man in the Moon,” about his late client Andy Kaufman, as proud accomplishments. 

Now 88, Shapiro isn’t slowing down. He’s producing a new Seinfeld special to air in the spring on Netflix; he’s in talks to revive the famous Carl Reiner-Mel Brooks “2,000-Year-Old Man” sketch as an animated series, and he’s developing a project called “Funny Tails,” about celebrities and their dogs. He believes that having lifelong friendships is one of the keys to his longevity, along with work and family connections. “We have this joy of being together. The friendship is stronger than ever and we just feel like kids when we’re together,” he said. “Being engaged with friends is so very special. When you’re with each other, you have that joy and lift in your step and the years just disappear.”

 “The Bronx, USA” premieres Oct. 30 on HBO.