March 28, 2013

It was the first day of spring, and Jeffrey Tambor was sitting in his car in the snow near his New York home, conducting an interview while his 6-year-old daughter — one of his four children, ages 3 to 8, including twin toddlers — was taking her piano lesson. “Daddy is tired, but I’m a lucky guy,” he said in his signature baritone. Life is good for the 68-year-old actor, not only in terms of his family but also in the realm of his career: In May, Tambor will reprise his role as George Bluth Sr., the Machiavellian patriarch of a dysfunctional Jewish clan when “Arrested Development” makes its much-anticipated return with 14 new episodes on Netflix. 

And, on HBO through April 27, he’s appearing in the TV biopic “Phil Spector,” playing the flamboyant lead defense attorney in the legendary music producer’s murder trial, a project written and directed by Tambor’s hero, David Mamet, and starring Al Pacino and Helen Mirren. 

The film opens in 2003, when a past-her-prime B-movie actress named Lana Clarkson is discovered dead in Spector’s gothic Alhambra mansion. Spector (Pacino) insists she put one of his many guns in her mouth and pulled the trigger, but the police suspect murder. Enter attorney Bruce Cutler (Tambor) — who is as known for his dapper two-tone shirts as he is for having defended Mafioso John Gotti. Cutler insists that Clarkson, a depressed celebrity wannabe, committed suicide, but he’s stumped as to how to shape Spector’s defense, fearing the jury may convict the eccentric, wig-coiffed producer because he had previously threatened women with guns — and simply for being, in their eyes, “a freak.” 

And so Cutler brings in another star attorney to help — Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren), who initially thinks Spector committed the murder but after a time comes to believe that he is innocent. Even so, their best efforts result in a mistrial, and after a second trial, in 2009, Spector was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years to life in prison, where he now resides.

Mamet has described his movie as a “mythological” version of the events, and the film opens with a disclaimer stating that the film is “a work of fiction … not based on a true story” — which is startling given that the script uses real names as well as some dialogue from real court transcripts.

A media backlash has ensued, critiquing what one reporter called a “mealy mouthed” approach to the truth and the wisdom of fictionalizing a notorious court case — especially since the film insinuates that Spector was convicted despite Mamet’s suggestion there was a generous amount of reasonable doubt. 

Tambor strongly disagrees with the media criticism: “There’s the disclaimer,” he said, “and I think David has been acutely truthful about what he is trying to do. We’re not trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. But then again, I’m an actor, not a politician, and I’m so proud of the movie and the questions it raises. I’m not saying whether Spector is guilty or not guilty, but I’m wildly against prejudice of any kind, and I believe that Spector experienced prejudice [in his trials] for being, essentially, a weirdo.”

Tambor didn’t always feel that way. Back at the time of the trial, he said, “I assumed Spector was guilty because I saw all his freakishness.” But participating in the movie, he added, has opened his eyes to the possibility that jurors were so turned off by Spector that they may have ignored any reasonable doubt raised in the courtroom. “I know the prejudice that was in me at the time of the trial, and if was in me, it was in other people,” he said.

Tambor traces his feelings about prejudice to an incident when he was a boy in San Francisco; he was driving in a car with his mother when another driver shouted out that she was a “kike.” “I didn’t know what that meant, and she told me and I was horrified,” he recalled. 

Then there was his trip to Auschwitz some years ago, when Tambor was so overwhelmed, he said, “every nerve was just deadened and I felt numb. Much later when I was actually therapizing over this, I really hit a grief point. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it,” he added.

Tambor grew up with Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking grandparents from Kiev and a Hungarian-Jewish father who, according to family legend, was a boxer who once sparred with Joe Louis, “which is why he could only breathe out of one nostril,” the actor said. 

As a boy, however, Tambor was ambivalent about his Judaism: “I was bar mitzvahed at gun point,” he joked. “My cantor was great except he chewed cottage cheese sandwiches for his snack while he was teaching me my Torah portion, and every time he made a ‘chuch’ or a ‘chech’ sound, curds would go flying and I would walk out looking like one of those speckled ceilings in a new house.”

Even so, he said, “I’ve always been Jewish, and I always feel my roots.”

He’s played a number of Jewish characters in a career that has spanned half a century — ever since Tambor was first drawn to the stage while watching theater rehearsals in the drama department of San Francisco State University when he was a boy.

One of his iconic characters is Hank Kingsley, Garry Shandling’s buffoonish sidekick on HBO’s acclaimed “The Larry Sanders Show,” from the 1990s. But Tambor is even better known for another character, who becomes observant for dubious reasons: George Bluth Sr. on “Arrested Development,” who finds religion for a time after he is sent to prison for security fraud during the show’s previous three seasons on the Fox network from 2003 to 2006 — he even crafted a yarmulke from his shoe. “Every day George has a different scheme,” Tambor explained. “I wouldn’t call him spiritual unless he has to be; I would call him a Darwinist.”

Bruce Cutler, the real defense attorney Tambor plays in “Phil Spector,” also happens to be Jewish. (“If I played the pope, he would be Jewish, Tambor quips — and in fact an Internet piece comparing him as a doppelganger for the new Pope Francis recently went viral.) 

But per Mamet’s instructions, Tambor did not research Cutler, sticking to whatever nuances he found in the script to create his character. “David told me, in a text message, that if he had wanted the real Bruce Cutler, he would have hired Bruce Cutler,” Tambor said.

For encore episodes of “Phil Spector,” which premiered on March 24, check HBO listings.

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