December 12, 2018

Prime-Time Rabbi

As part of the edgy juggling-magic-performance act The Mums, back in the 1980s, Albie Selznick ate razor blades, threw knives and produced doves from thin air while juggling torches. He took the head off of a pigeon (only an illusion), then put the head back on. He performed for Barbra Streisand, Marvin Davis and Andy Warhol.

On TV these days, Selznick isn’t materializing on stilts in Warhol’s apartment. Instead, he’s portraying a TV character that, some would say, seems just as unlikely to make prime time.

Selznick, 40, is playing a hip, menchy rabbi on NBC’s “Suddenly Susan” (Mondays at 8 p.m.) — perhaps the only rabbi to ever appear as a recurring character on a network sitcom. He’s good news for those who have decried “Bridget Loves Bernie,” “thirtysomething’s” Hope and Faith Steadman and all the other TV intermarriages.

Selznick plays hubby to Vicki (Kathy Griffin), Brooke Shields’ strident, carrot-topped, assimilated-Jewish magazine co-worker. He may be the best catch since the Pickle Man in “Crossing Delancey.” Rabbi Ben is patient when Vicki accidentally drives a tractor into Lebanon during the couple’s stint on a kibbutz. He’s understanding when she flushes a brisket down the synagogue toilet, which overflows and forces the shul to hold its B’nai B’rith bingo night during a 1960s rave at the magazine.

Selznick, a cousin of the late movie mogul David O. Selznick, grew up assimilated and was never bar mitzvahed. “Suddenly Susan” co-star Judd Nelson has helped him pronounce Hebrew and Yiddish words on camera, he says.

The “Suddenly Susan” role, Selznick insists, is helping to connect him to his Jewish roots; he has even been auditioning for roles in Jewish-themed plays.

Magic, not Judaism, became Selznick’s religion, after his psychoanalyst father died days before the boy’s ninth birthday. “When a parent is not there to give you attention, you have to get it from everyone else,” says the actor, who, by age 16, was performing his magic act at concerts for The Tubes.

Selznick, who obliges when a reporter asks him to make a biscotti disappear, says “Suddenly Susan” is his big TV break. Shields suggested him for the role last year, probably out of guilt, he quips. Several years ago, while the two attended dance class together in Los Angeles, she once politely declined to go out with him.

Since his first “Suddenly Susan” episode last year, Selznick has received lots of fan mail, from rabbis to non-Jews.

Griffin’s brash Vicki is perhaps more controversial, but Selznick doesn’t think of her character as a Jewish stereotype. “Kathy isn’t Jewish, and she is that way in real life,” he says of the stand-up comedienne. “She’s like a female Don Rickles.” — Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor