February 22, 2020

The Jewish stars, creators and themes of winter TV

Whether on camera or behind the scenes, Jewish talent and topics are evident all over television these days in series and specials on broadcast networks, cable and streaming services. 

Two decades after the O.J. Simpson murder case captivated — and divided — the country, FX dramatizes the story in a riveting 10-part miniseries, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” It stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, John Travolta as defense attorney Robert Shapiro, Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark, Courtney B. Vance as defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, and David Schwimmer as defense attorney Robert Kardashian.

Told from the perspectives of all the key participants, it’s based on “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson” by journalist Jeffrey Toobin, who served as a consultant to the project and was on set for some of the shoot.

“It’s about everything that obsesses the American people: race, sex, violence, sports, Hollywood — and the only eyewitness is a dog. It’s the most famous event in American history that had never been dramatized,” Toobin said. “People think they know the story, but they don’t. There’s a lot they don’t know.” 

Schwimmer, who like Toobin, is Jewish, considered the offer carefully before signing on to play the late Kardashian, Simpson’s best friend and business lawyer. He came to understand that Kardashian “was the heart and conscience of the piece, the only one who had nothing to gain. Everyone else has such hubris and is self-serving in some capacity. He doesn’t.”

Schwimmer said he was aware of the responsibility that comes with “playing someone who’s not here to defend himself or speak for himself. I wanted to honor him and find out who he was,” he said. Toward that end, he spoke with Kardashian’s ex-wife, Kris Jenner, and learned how religious he was.

“He had a very personal, strong relationship to God. That really helped inform the character and helped me understand the decisions he was making at the time,” Schwimmer said.

Participating didn’t change Schwimmer’s opinion about the verdict or Simpson’s guilt or innocence, however. (But he is keeping that to himself “because I don’t want it to inform how people watch the performance,” he said.) 

“The People v. O.J. Simpson” is the first installment of an “American Crime Story” anthology, with the next project focusing on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Toobin will revive another infamous story in his next book, about the 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst, which he calls “a rich, complicated and bizarre story.” He has already sold the movie rights.

“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” premiered Feb. 2 on FX and runs through April 5.

Demystifying the inner workings of the mind since 2011, National Geographic’s “Brain Games” returns this month with six expanded episodes that, according to host Jason Silva, will take viewers “on a more immersive journey.” Literally.

Each installment was shot on a different location, including Jerusalem, the setting for the second episode, “The God Brain.” 

“It’s about the neuroscience of religious experience,” Silva said. “What is going on in your brain when you feel connected to the divine? What is the physiological response? How do you tell somebody who says they saw God they’re wrong? It’s going to be a great episode.”

Silva, who grew up in Venezuela, is an Ashkenazi Jew on his mother’s side; his father converted to Judaism when he married his mother. His maternal great-grandmother was Regina Grossinger, of the famous Catskill Mountains hotel Grossinger’s.

“I had a bar mitzvah but we were very secular,” he said. “Our household was more akin to a Woody Allen film than anything else — a lot of humor, a love of art — my mother is an artist — and theater. I relate to Jewish humor and the neuroticism, and I love that Jews are less than 1 percent of the world’s population yet are responsible for so much contribution to humanity.”

Silva keeps busy with speaking engagements, creating online video content, and is “being chased” to write a book, he said, but “Brain Games” remains a priority. He’s eager to see how the new episodes are received, “The God Brain” in particular. 

“I’m envious of the faithful because they don’t have any fear of death,” he said. “They’re truly convinced in the divine. It’s raises a question: Is to see to believe or to believe to see?”

“Brain Games” premieres at 9 p.m. Feb. 14 at on National Geographic Channel.

Like 9/11, it’s an infamous date we’ll never forget: Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. But what if it never happened? That’s the premise of “11.22.63,” starring James Franco as a Maine teacher and writer who travels back in time in an effort to stop Oswald. The eight-part miniseries on Hulu is based on Stephen King’s 2011 best-seller of the same name. 

James Franco as Jake Epping in “11.22.63.” Photo bcourtesy of Hulu

The historical fantasy, executive produced by King and J.J. Abrams, sends Jake Epping (Franco) through a time portal to October 1960 to try to alter subsequent events. 

“I thought this story and this approach was so great because it’s a fresh way in, a perspective we haven’t seen before,” Franco said. “Jake is an everyman, and a fish out of water because he doesn’t belong there. Going on this extraordinary adventure with him is what made it interesting for me.”

Franco, now appearing in the independent film “Yosemite,” based on two of his short stories about growing up in Palo Alto, recently celebrated his bar mitzvah at age 37. 

“My mother’s Jewish but I wasn’t really raised Jewish, and as I got older I thought I missed out on some things. It was something I’d always talked about,” Franco said about the ceremony. Does he feel more connected to Judaism now? “In a way, yeah,” he said. “It was great.”

11.22.63” begins streaming Feb. 15 on Hulu.

Famous for decades of work in movies, including “The Graduate,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Rain Man” and “Tootsie,” Academy Award-winning actor Dustin Hoffman has a stellar history in Hollywood. But his personal past has always been a mystery, even to him. 

That changed when he participated in the genealogy series “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” and learned about his family’s Jewish roots in Russia and the tragedies that remained secret for years. 

Hoffman’s father, Harry, an atheist who died in 1990, never spoke about his parents or his Jewish heritage. So it was a shock for the film star to learn that Russian state police executed his grandfather and great-grandfather and that his grandmother, imprisoned for five years, survived and eventually made her way to America. The emotional revelation brought Hoffman to tears. 

“These were heroic people with resolve in the face of anti-Semitism, and they were silenced,” he told Gates. “I am a Jew … sometimes it takes an announcement. I feel closer to the microphone.”

Hoffman, now reprising his vocal role as Shifu in “Kung Fu Panda 3,” has a connection with fellow member of the Tribe Norman Lear, who appeared on “Finding Your Roots” earlier this season. As Lear recounted: “I was walking down the street a few days after I’d done this, and I heard a voice that I recognized. ‘Cousin!’ And it was Dustin Hoffman. Two hundred years ago our families were connected.” 

Dustin Hoffman appears in the season finale of “Finding Your Roots,” airing March 8 on PBS.

A 10-part series set in 1857 Georgia, “Underground” is the gripping story of the slaves who risked their lives for a chance to be free by escaping on the Underground Railroad, as well as the plantation owners who enslaved them, the abolitionists who aided them and the bounty hunters who tried to stop them. 

Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski and starring Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, the WGN series is about “real heroes [who had] the ability to transcend fear and time and space to do what seems to be impossible,” executive producer Akiva Goldsman said. 

Goldsman, whose writing credits include “I Am Legend,” “The Da Vinci Code,” and “A Beautiful Mind,” for which he won an Oscar, felt a very personal connection to the story. He grew up Jewish but not observant in New York, the son of therapists who transformed their Brooklyn Heights brownstone into a group home for children.

“They didn’t really have much time for me. My mother found an African-American woman named Elizabeth Lee to take care of me. She was the great-granddaughter of slaves. She raised me. I went to church with her every Sunday and went home to Virginia with her over the summers. I lived between these two worlds until I went to college,” Goldsman said. “I don’t know what it’s like to be Black, but the person who loved me the most in the world and who I loved the most was Black.”

Goldsman, who remembers learning about the Underground Railroad in school, is dismayed that this piece of history is not regularly taught today.

“It’s a vanishing part of our past and therefore, the notion that we’re doomed to repeat it becomes ever more likely,” he said. “We’re not teaching history here, but it is the truth, and this is an opportunity to be entertaining and hopefully edifying at the same time.” 

“Underground” premieres March 9 on WGN.

Morgan Freeman’s impressive résumé includes “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Million Dollar Baby,” for which he won an Academy Award. The velvet-voiced actor is also known for playing God in “Bruce Almighty” and “Evan Almighty,” so to find him hosting and producing a National Geographic series called “The Story of God” seems logical. But it is, in fact, “just a coincidence,” Freeman said, dismissing any connection between the role and his interest in the topic.

Morgan Freeman hosts “The Story of God.” Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Sparked by a visit several years ago to the Hagia Sophia, the church-turned-mosque in Istanbul, Freeman thought about the connections and differences between the world’s major religions, which will play out in the six-part series covering such topics as creation, miracles, the devil and the root of evil, the apocalypse, the afterlife and the nature and existence of God, as perceived by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus.

Freeman traveled to Israel for the first time, filming at sites including the Jewish Quarter and Western Wall in Jerusalem and the cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. “We had rabbis and scholars and archaeologists talking about the history of the place, and how these things got there, who put them there and why,” he said.

Although wars in the name of God have been fought “for thousands of years and I don’t see that changing in our lifetime,” Freeman said, “We did come away from this project with the feeling that we’re much more the same than we are different.” 

His own faith was unaltered as a result of making the series. He believes in God “absolutely. But I’m not religious,” he said.

Freeman, who’ll star this year in the sequels “Now You See Me 2” and “London Has Fallen,” isn’t opposed to reprising the role of God if the “Almighty” film series continues. “I would have to,” he said, “especially if Jim Carrey did it.”

“The Story of God” will premiere at 9 p.m. April 3 on National Geographic Channel.

There’s also “Carol King: Natural Woman,” a portrait of the singer-songwriter’s life (PBS “American Masters,” Feb. 19); and “Everything Is Copy,” a profile of writer-director Nora Ephron (HBO, March 21). Jeremy Piven returns as London department store magnate “Mr. Selfridge” (PBS “Masterpiece,” March 27); Judd Apatow produces the Netflix comedy “Love” (Feb. 19) and King Saul is the focus of the biblical drama “Of Kings and Prophets” (ABC, March 8).