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‘Heshing’ It Out With ‘Sopranos’ Star Jerry Adler

The 95-year-old actor’s memoir, “Too Funny for Words,” tells the good, the bad and the ugly of Hollywood.
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May 21, 2024
Jerry Adler attends the “The Good Fight” World Premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center on February 8, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

When David Chase called Jerry Adler to be on the pilot for “The Sopranos,” the Jewish actor was thrilled, but there was a problem.

Adler was in the hospital recovering from stomach surgery. He decided to tell the doctors to let him go to the shoot and he promised to return afterward. Would he have lost the part if he told Chase where he really was?

“I’m sure of it,” Adler told the Journal. “They wouldn’t have taken a chance.”

In the first scene, as luck would have it, he was to wear loose-fitted clothes and there is an implied threat that a guy who owes money to Tony (James Gandolfini) will get thrown over a bridge if he doesn’t agree to an HMO scheme.

Adler was able to wear lose clothes hid his bandages. When the scene was finished, he returned to the hospital.

Hesh is a trusted advisor for Tony because he worked with his father, and Hesh, unlike others, rarely looses his cool. But in the final season, Hesh lends Tony $200,000 to pay off Tony’s to gambling debts, and Hesh tells his yarmulke-wearing relative Eli he fears that that at some point Tony might decide it’s cheaper to settle it another way — meaning to kill him.

“When I was reading the script, I did think it was a possibility,” Adler said of his character getting killed by Tony.

But that wasn’t the case. When Hesh finds his girlfriend Renata dead in bed with her eyes open, Tony eventually comes with Hesh’s money, kisses him on the back of the neck, tells him he’s sorry for his loss and leaves. There is a horse statue on the table — a possible nod to the famous scene in “The Godfather” whereJack Woltz wakes up in bed to find a bloody horsehead with an eye open.. Could this mean Tony had Renata killed somehow? Theory aside, Adler said he wondered if that was the implication.

“I asked the writers, but they didn’t answer me,” Adler said.

He added that it was a wonderful experience and in earlier scenes, he was happy that while his character got punched once, he wasn’t murdered.

“I certainly didn’t want to get killed,” Adler said. “I wanted the show to go on forever. It was so much fun.” One of Adler’s best-loved episodes of the Sopranos is “A Hit Is A Hit” when he tells Christopher (Michael Imperioli), that his girlfriend Adriana’s song is not a hit. Hesh as the founder of “F-Note Records” could tell what music was good.

“Too Funny for Words” his recently published memoir is a delightful book. Adler tells hilarious stories about the good, the bad and the ugly in Hollywood. It’s surprisingly modest — Adler titled each chapter after the person he’s writing about.  He recounts how, when he was bringing President John F. Kennedy into a theater, he met a group of people and was starstruck and accidentally said that he was the president of the United States. Seeing the embarrassment on Adler’s face, JFK said “Well, that makes two us.”

“It was a great thing,” Adler said. “We all laughed our ass off.”

Adler comes from one of the most illustrious acting families. He is related to iconic acting teacher and school founder Stella Adler and his father, Phil Adler, taught him the ropes of theater.

Adler comes from one of the most illustrious acting families.  He is related to iconic acting teacher and school founder Stella Adler and his father, Phil Adler, taught him the ropes of theater.

He writes that Barbra Streisand auditioned for a show and her voice was so beautiful, the cleaning lady stopped cleaning to listen. Yet she didn’t get the role because a producer worried about the size of her nose.

“It was great for her,” Adler said. “She went on to much bigger and better things.”

The book shows Adler’s tenacity:  From flying on a whim to convince Orson Welles have one of a play he wrote performed by Welles’ theater, to working with Robin Williams and Meryl Street to playing a rabbi on “Northern Exposure” where he shot a scene soaking wet.

He said was most nervous when he auditioned for Woody Allen, who was casting “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” He called it a kind of scary moment.  “The woman who I was reading with was nervous. It made me nervous. It was dark. You’re looking at him out of the corner of your eye when you do one scene after the other.” He got the part of Paul House, a man whose wife dies and the Liptons (Allen and Diane Keaton) think he may have murdered his wife. Younger audiences may recognize Alder from an episode of  “Broad City” where he played Saul, a character that  Ilana Glazer  helps breaks out of an assisted living facility for a day.

Who’s the funniest person Adler’s ever worked with?

“I’d say Larry David.”

The two worked together on Broadway for David’s play “Fish In The Dark” and on an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Mister Softee.”  His character and David are part of a minyan where David brings a man Adler recognized as Bill Buckner, the Boston Red Sox first baseman best known for the infamous error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series allowing the Mets to win the game and, eventually, the championship. Due to angry Red Sox fans, Buckner is asked to leave.

In real life, Adler, who is from Brooklyn, and has lived in Los Angeles, was thrilled to meet Buckner because he is a big fan of the Mets. He said it was a pleasure to work with David.

“We improvised the scene and Larry is great,” Adler said. “His dressing room was one floor below mine. We used to kind of holler down at each other. He came up with great lines. It may come as a surprise to people, but he’s really a generous guy.”

At 95 and still mentally sharp and witty, Adler said he wanted the stories to be told.

In real life, as he writes in his book, that with plays or shows it was not always possible to tell what a hit would be. But he said “The Sopranos” was an exception.

“With such great writing and a talented cast, I knew it would be,” Adler said.

If you are interested in Hollywood, acting or the triumph of a good man who made the most of his opportunities and great talent, “Too Funny For Words” is a book you will treasure.

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