January 19, 2020

Where Jewish stars are shining this season

With Andy Samberg emceeing the Emmy Awards on Fox (Sept. 20) a week before his return in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” style maven Rachel Zoe hosting the weekly Lifetime talk show  “Fashionably Late” (Sept. 24), plus former kid stars Josh Peck and Fred Savage in the back-to-back Fox comedies “Grandfathered” and “The Grinder” (Sept. 29), and David Krumholtz in drag as a Boca Raton Jewish grandma in IFC’s “Gigi Does It” (Oct. 1), it’s clear the fall TV season will have a full dose of members of the tribe.

Funny ladies? Check! Zoe Lister-Jones plays a new mom in CBS’ “Life in Pieces”F (Sept. 21); Michaela Watkins is a dating divorcée in Hulu’s “Casual” (Oct. 7); and Rachel Bloom becomes an obsessed “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on the CW (Oct. 12). On a more serious note, Amazon’s drama “Man in the High Castle” posits the chilling hypothetical of what the world would be like had the Germans and Japanese won World War II (Nov. 20). 

As the profiles below reveal, there will be something for every viewing taste.

Jennifer Grey, “Red Oaks”

As one of the 1980s’ biggest movie stars, with “Red Dawn,” “The Cotton Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Dirty Dancing” to her credit, it’s no wonder Jennifer Grey has a fondness for that decade. Her latest project, the Amazon series “Red Oaks,” takes her back to that heady time, and for some viewers, a nostalgic milieu: a Jewish country club in New Jersey in 1985. 

“It’s as if ‘Caddyshack’ and ‘Dirty Dancing’ had a baby, but it was brought up by John Cassavetes,” Grey said of the series, which was shot in New Jersey and New York, where she grew up. “It feels truly innocent and truly funny.” 

Joining a cast that includes Paul Reiser and Richard Kind, both of whom are Jewish, Grey plays a woman who has been defined by her role as wife and mother, and experiences an awakening that finds her asserting her independence and seeking her own happiness. “She gave up her dreams as a young woman. Her son was her whole life, and all her self-esteem came from how good a job she was doing with him. But with her son out of the house, she’s going to advocate on her own behalf.”

Grey can relate to the overprotective parent aspect. Once reluctant to leave her only child, Stella, she turned down work, especially out-of-town projects. But now that her daughter is 13, Grey decided this was a perfect time to get back to work. 

The daughter of actor Joel Grey and granddaughter of comic Mickey Katz, Jennifer Grey has recently reconnected with Judaism. “I love being a Jew,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot more Jewish in the last five years because of my daughter’s bat mitzvah, and I realized I really care about being a Jew.”

“Red Oaks” begins streaming Oct. 9 via Amazon Prime.

Kevin Pollak, “Angel From Hell”

Kevin Pollak. Photo courtesy of Cliff Lipson/CBS

From an early age, Kevin Pollak, 57, liked having an audience. “At my bar mitzvah, it was very important to me that I got seven applause breaks from laughter,” he said, remembering performing for his relatives at Passover and the boisterous storytelling and arguing around the seder table that influenced him, as had the likes of comedians Don Rickles, Alan King and Lenny Bruce.

Pollak would go on to appear in many films, including “The Usual Suspects,” “A Few Good Men,” “Casino,” “Grumpy Old Men” and “Avalon,” often playing Jewish characters. Also a familiar face on TV, he has appeared in “The Drew Carey Show,” “Shark” and recently “Mom” — that is, until his character suffered a fatal heart attack. 

But Pollak wasn’t out of work for long. In the CBS comedy “Angel From Hell,” he plays the father of a woman (Maggie Lawson) whose life is turned upside down by a well-meaning but meddling guardian angel (Jane Lynch). 

Working with Anna Faris and Allison Janney in “Mom” was “an extraordinary opportunity,” Pollak said, revealing that, to his delight, his initial couple of appearances expanded to more than a dozen. He’s equally jazzed to be in the company of women again in  “Angel From Hell,”  which follows “Mom” on CBS’ schedule.

Also busy behind the camera, Pollak has a documentary called “Misery Loves Comedy,” in which he interviews more than 100 funny celebrities — Larry David, Bob Saget, Robert Smigel among them — that was released this year, and he completed the feature “Late Bloomer.” “It’s based on a true story about a guy who goes through puberty for the first time at 30,” he said.

On screen, he enjoys toggling between comedy and drama and the diversity being a character actor offers. “I wrote a book called ‘How I Slept My Way to the Middle,’ and I’m here to tell you it’s fantastic in the middle. I get to have a life and also get the perks of show business, like getting a table at a restaurant,” Pollak said. “I’ve worked with a lot of giant movie stars, and that’s not an enviable life in any way, shape or form. You give up too much. I’ve got the best of both worlds.”

“Angel From Hell” premieres at 9:30 p.m. Nov. 5 on CBS.

Oprah Winfrey’s “Belief”

“Belief”: Mendel Hurwitz’s bar mitzvah. Photo courtesy of Harpo, Inc.

Religion can be a controversial and divisive topic, but as you might expect from Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, the seven-night documentary series “Belief” takes a positive approach. According to executive producer David Shadrack Smith, it was vital to Winfrey, who narrates the series, that the series focus on the part of belief “that gives us meaning and creates community, purpose and compassion, and [to] tell authentic stories through which people could encounter faiths and beliefs different from their own,” Smith said.

While the series was “never intended to be a comprehensive survey of faith and religion,” Smith said, it delves into the commonality among different faiths and “the same fundamental questions: Who am I? Why are we here? Is there a purpose to our lives? We did not set out to answer them, but to illuminate how those questions sit at the heart of some of the most incredible traditions and practices around the world.”

Judaism is well represented in the series by people “living out their beliefs in such personal and moving ways that were authentic to their own understanding and spiritual practice,” Smith said. They include Jeff Hoffman, a space shuttle astronaut who brought a Torah into space; Mendel Hurwitz, an Orthodox bar mitzvah boy in Budapest, Hungary; Rena Greenberg and Yermi Udkoff, a Chasidic couple marrying in Brooklyn; and a Jewish teenage cellist in Jerusalem who bonds with a Muslim flutist over their love of classical music. 

“Finding individuals whose stories were unique, powerful, and who could articulate the elusive intangibles of belief was a constant challenge. We relied on local producers, lots of research, personal connections and sometimes just plain luck to find people,” Smith said. Thirteen-year-old Mendel Hurwitz, a rabbi’s son in a community that had been nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, particularly resonated with Smith, who is Jewish. “The story of their small synagogue trying to restore itself in Budapest had deeper stakes than most. And when I compared Mendel’s scholarly approach to his bar mitzvah to my own years ago, I saw the religious rite of passage in a new light.

“Throughout filming, I was compelled to question my own beliefs, and I discovered a new appreciation of how to practice them,” Smith said, and he’d like to inspire a similar response in viewers. “Our hope is that there’s not only more understanding of diverse beliefs, but also those who watch the series might find themselves feeling a deeper, richer connection to their own faith tradition, whatever that might be.“

“Belief” premieres at 8 p.m. Oct. 18 on OWN.

Ron Perlman, “Hand of God”

Ron Perlman in “Hand of God.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

In a career that began in the 1980s with films such as “Quest for Fire,” “The Name of the Rose” and his breakout TV series role in “Beauty and the Beast,” Ron Perlman has amassed a wide variety of credits, including “Hellboy,” “Pacific Rim,” “Sons of Anarchy” and numerous voiceover roles. But in the Amazon series “Hand of God,” he plays his most challenging character to date, a man he describes as “a very strong, dynamic, powerful presence now liquefied by a series of events.”

As law-bending Judge Pernell Harris, he descends into madness after his daughter-in-law is raped and his son, a witness to the crime, is left comatose by a botched suicide attempt. Misguided by a shady preacher, Harris becomes convinced that the voice of God is directing him to seek revenge.

“This was a completely realized individual with all the power of a King Lear or a Macbeth and all of the sorrow and vulnerability of a Hamlet,” Perlman said. “This guy is royalty, and we’re watching him grasping with falling apart, and losing is not in his vocabulary. This is a real comeuppance for him, with all the ramifications of loss, of lack of control. He’s compromised for the first time in his life, and he doesn’t like it. He’s going to do everything in his power to meet that feeling head on and win even if it means destroying himself and his family.” The Lear comparison is particularly apt, he said, “because of how he’s falling apart emotionally; he’s losing control of his kingdom and grappling with how much of it he even wants to hold onto.”

But how does a New York City-born Jew relate to the born-again Christianity in the series? “I’m kind of agnostic when I’m an actor — a tube of paint to be used at the whim of the creator,” said Perlman, adding that Harris’ embrace of spirituality “is an act of seminal desperation and calls into question what we use religion for, what we need religion for. It wasn’t so much the details of what he was worshiping. It could have been Judaism, Islam. It wouldn’t have changed my approach to his zealotry.”

Perlman currently has four films in production and another three in development for his Wing and a Prayer Pictures, and as much as he hates the laborious makeup process involved, he’s not ruling out making “Hellboy 3.”

“With ‘Hand of God,’ which I’m as proud of as anything I’ve ever done, things are good in my world right now,” Perlman said. “It’s going to be an amazing year.”

“Hand of God” is now streaming via Amazon Prime.

Brad Garrett, “Fargo,” “Manhattan”

Brad Garrett Photo by Frank Micelotta/FX

Stand-up comedian and actor Brad Garrett, 55, is still much loved for his nine-year run on the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but his latest role is deadly serious: mob enforcer Joe Bulo in FX’s “Fargo.” As a foot soldier for a Kansas City, Mo., crime syndicate, he’s sent to South Dakota to exert influence on the drug trafficking Gerhardt clan led by Jean Smart.

“We butt heads, of course,” said Garrett, a “huge fan” of the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” movie, which inspired the series. He actively pursued the role, which had been perceived by some as outside his wheelhouse, although he has acted in dramas before. “It’s a very different role for me,” Garrett acknowledged. “I had to go after it. I auditioned for it. You know, most comedians are pretty dark. So all I had to do was wake up, shower and show up.”

In addition, in October, Garrett will take a second dramatic turn in the WGN America series “Manhattan,” playing the ex-con father of one of the lead characters, an atomic-bomb scientist. The character is Jewish, noted the Woodland Hills native, who was born Brad Gerstenfeld and got his big break 32 years ago on “Star Search.” 

Jokes about his 6-foot-8 height, his family and his Jewish upbringing infuse the deep-voiced comic’s stand-up act, which he continues to perform around the country and at his comedy club at the MGM in Las Vegas. He remains connected to his Jewish heritage: “I consider it important,” he said, adding, “I still pay to go [to services] on Rosh Hashanah, though I’ve never understood why we have to!”

Considering the plot of the first “Fargo” season left few people alive, the odds are against Joe Bulo in the inevitable bloodbath. Might Garrett’s character survive? “I don’t know, and if I did, I couldn’t tell you,” he said, offering a final quip. “Who would kill me? I’m a pussycat!”

“Fargo” returns to FX at 10 p.m. Oct. 12.

Zoe Lister-Jones, “Life in Pieces”

Zoe Lister-Jones and Colin Hanks in “Life in Pieces” Photo courtesy of Cliff Lipson/CBS

In the CBS ensemble family comedy “Life in Pieces,” Zoe Lister-Jones stars opposite Colin Hanks, James Brolin and Dianne Wiest as a wife and mother dealing with a newborn. “It’s scary, but good practice. I will be a mom at some point, so it’s good for me to be certain that I can hold a baby,” she said, adding that she relates to the character’s “sharp wit and caustic humor, but there’s a softness to her.”

With credits including the series “New Girl” and “Friends With Better Lives” and movies “Salt,” “The Other Guys,” “State of Play” and “Arranged,” in which she played an Orthodox Jewish teacher, Lister-Jones grew up in a Conservative family in Brooklyn, attending Shabbat services at the Park Slope Jewish Center. 

“My mom was president of the synagogue, so I was very involved. I went to Hebrew school on Wednesdays and Sundays. I was bat mitzvah.  I was raised in a Jewish community that inspired me to uphold those traditions myself,”h she said, noting that since moving to Los Angeles 3 1/2 years ago, she has joined the IKAR congregation. She believes that comedy and Judaism go hand in hand. “It’s so ingrained in who we are as people. I can’t even articulate how it works.” 

On the dramatic side, Lister-Jones will play lawyer Harriet Grant in HBO’s upcoming “Confirmation,” about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, starring Kerry Washington as Anita Hill. She also produced, co-wrote and stars in “Consumed,” a thriller about genetically modified organisms. “I like to push myself to try new characters and never get too boxed into one shtick,” she said. “I’ve been really lucky to do that, to play in drama and comedy alike. I’m drawn to stories that interest me, that feel important and fresh.”

Josh Peck, “Grandfathered”

Josh Peck. Photo by Tommy Garcia/Fox

Many parents and 20-somethings remember Josh Peck as the chubbier half of the comedy duo “Drake & Josh” on the Nickelodeon series of that name that ran from 2004 to 2007, and the network’s “The Amanda Show” that preceded it, but a lot has changed in the decade since. Now 28, Peck is slimmer and playing a father for the first time in the Fox comedy “Grandfathered,” about an estranged son who re-enters his dad’s (John Stamos) life, toddler in tow.

Although he’s been cast in “Red Dawn,” “Danny Collins” and the “Ice Age” movies, his transition to adult roles hasn’t been easy, “because of people’s misconceptions,” Peck said. “Also, when you’re young and cute, you get by on a certain skill set, and when you get older it doesn’t necessarily translate. I’m lucky that when I was 14, I had a manager who said, ‘You’re a sweet kid and you’re funny, but you need to go to acting school and learn how to act.’ I’m forever in her debt. It takes an incredible amount of hard work, and I’m grateful I get to do what I’m passionate about. Every role I’ve had has prepared me for the next.”

Growing up in New York City with a single mother and grandmother, who “kept me centered” and taught him Yiddish words, Peck said he loves the fact that Judaism, “especially in entertainment, infuses everything from the moment we’re born.

“I’m in the right business to have Jewish heroes,” the former child stand-up comic said, naming Woody Allen as a favorite. He’s more spiritually Jewish than observant. “I’m very proud of the culture of it. And I love a good Shabbat dinner.”

Peck, who’ll be seen playing a pot dealer in the upcoming movie “Chronically Metropolitan,” is gratified that he’s getting offered roles that enable him to push beyond what he’s done before. “It’s such a challenging business, and so much of it you have no control over. Every actor walks around with fear and neuroses,” he said. “But I think the universe puts you where you’re supposed to be. I very much feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

“Grandfathered” premieres at 8 p.m. Sept. 29 on Fox.