November 12, 2019

Lovitz, lies and Torah

“I hate lying,” Jon Lovitz, the comedian, actor and comedy club owner, said without a touch of humor in his voice. “I just can’t stand it. I don’t see the advantage of it. It makes me physically ill.”

It’s the reason, he said, that he has become something of a specialist in portraying characters who are truth-challenged, or, in his words, “sleazy.” He was Tommy Flanagan, president of Pathological Liars Anonymous, on “Saturday Night Live”; the guy on “Seinfeld” who fibs about having cancer, then dies in a car crash; a loudmouth baseball scout who steals scenes from Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own”; the voice of an obnoxious movie reviewer in the animated series “The Critic”; and the father, in the film “Rat Race,” who tells his family they are on a minivan “vacation” when he is actually trying to win $2 million in a cross-country dash.

In the recently released “Casino Jack,” which tells the story of the disgraced former superlobbyist and Orthodox Jew Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), Lovitz plays Adam Kidan, a shady business associate whose bumbling deals help bring the lobbyist down.

Sitting in his publicist’s office in Larchmont Village, Lovitz, 53, is occasionally funny — such as when he calls his “Casino Jack” co-star Barry Pepper “Dr. Pepper” or laments that people don’t know Jesus was Jewish, because “can you think of a less Jewish name than Jesus Christ?” But, in person, Lovitz most often exudes vulnerability, a kind of naiveté and a quiet anger about the state of ethics in show business.

“When I was on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ a lawyer friend told me my liar character was really popular in Hollywood,” he said. “I soon found out that’s because everyone in Hollywood lies, constantly. And everyone knows everyone else is lying. I’ve seen best friends screw each other over. And [agents] tell you that you have to lie to get what you want. I literally lost track of what’s right and wrong, it was so bad. So I got a book about Jewish morals and laws written by a rabbi.”

The book was Joseph Telushkin’s “The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living,” which provided practical advice. Hiding Jews from the Nazis? Trying not to unnecessarily hurting someone’s feelings? Two examples of when lying can be OK, Lovitz said.

“It’s ironic,” he admitted of portraying so many liars, “but as a comic actor, I’m good at making fun of them.”

So good, in fact, that he makes an impression even when his character has only one or two scenes in a production. “Jon Lovitz steals practically every scene that he’s in in the movie,” Spacey said of “Casino Jack.”

“He is a genius at those moments in between, the looks and the sighs and the body language,” Pepper said. “That’s where his classical training [at University of California, Irvine] comes in, and I think that’s what few people appreciate about him.”

Lovitz’s characters also blend a desperate quality with a bombastic flamboyance — a quality he said he inherited from his Jewish grandfather (actually his stepmother’s father), Lou Melman, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska and made loans to Al Capone’s gang in the 1930s. Melman would take the young Lovitz to Canter’s and to the Santa Anita race track.

“My grandfather was larger than life,” Lovitz said. “And he was incredibly accepting of me — he was just crazy about me, and I was crazy about him. I based my character in ‘A League of Their Own’ on him.  He wasn’t mean, but he was funny. In the first scene in the movie, I’m attending a baseball game, someone stands up in front of me and I say, ‘What — are you crazy?” 

The young Lovitz attended Valley Beth Shalom when his family lived in Encino and Temple Judea after they moved to Tarzana; his best friend was David Kudrow, Lisa Kudrow’s older brother, whom he met in fifth grade. When the boys were at Portola Junior High, they saw Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run,” which solidified Lovitz’s ambition to become a comedian. They especially liked the scene in which Allen’s character, paranoid about anti-Semitism, assumes someone has said “Jew” instead of the words “did you.”

“We were just dying,” Lovitz said. “We thought, ‘This is like our own humor. … It was very Jewish, especially the sarcasm. It was like this friend of my father’s who would always look at me and go, ‘Oh, the actor.”

When Lovitz attended the Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake) in Studio City, starting in ninth grade, he was teased for being Jewish at a time when, he said, the school had few Jewish students. “One guy would say, ‘Look at your nose,’ ” Lovitz recalled. “The abuse was verbal and physical. The school in those days was all boys, and they were just merciless. It got so bad the headmaster called our class together, and he was just livid. He said, ‘I won’t stand for this bullying.’ ”

Like his school years, Lovitz’s career has also had an up-and-down trajectory. He studied drama at UC Irvine and then worked odd jobs, including a stint as a hospital orderly, for years until his work with the improvisational comedy group The Groundlings led to his casting on “Saturday Night Live” in 1985. His response to that job offer — which brought almost overnight success — was, “Are you kidding? They might have equally said I was going to live on Pluto.”

Subsequently, Lovitz starred in Woody Allen’s “Small Time Crooks,” as Billy Crystal’s younger brother in “City Slickers II” and in a number of recognizably Jewish roles — including Randy Pear of “Rat Race,” who, in one hilarious scene, thinks he is taking his daughter to a Barbie doll museum — and ends up in the middle of a neo-Nazi rally at the Klaus Barbie Museum.  His response is to steal Hitler’s car, one of the museum’s displays.

Several years ago, Lovitz said, he began doing stand-up comedy again because his film roles were becoming scarcer; he opened his Jon Lovitz Comedy Club on Universal CityWalk last year, where he often performs, riffing on subjects such as racism, religion and sex. Single and never married, he said his dream role would be to play the title character in a remake of the 1955 Ernest Borgnine film “Marty,” about two lonely-hearts who have resigned themselves to never finding love until they meet each other.

Lovitz relished playing Adam Kidan in “Casino Jack,” a kind of lapsed, depraved Jew who, between outrageously underhanded business deals, becomes almost a truth-sayer in the film. In several scenes, Kidan points out how hypocritical the fictional Abramoff is for claiming piety while engaging in unethical deals.

For the scene in which the two men have an enormous argument as the FBI closes in, Lovitz said, “I improvised the line where I call [Abramoff] a ‘fake Jew.’ ”

“Abramoff in the movie is hiding behind his religion and saying that he was trying to be such a good Jew, but he wasn’t. That’s not what the religion is.” l