December 11, 2018

Rediscovering His Jewish Roots

On a cold winter day in 1974, 13-year-old Tony Goldwyn stared, shocked, as his father said Kaddish over his grandfather’s grave.

Grandfather, of course, was the famed movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, a Polish immigrant who produced such classics as “Wuthering Heights,” “Stella Dallas” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Like the other moguls, Shmuel Gelbfisz, the son of a Talmud scholar and a moneylender, had been obsessed with erasing anything Jewish from his films and his life.

He changed his name, divorced his Jewish first wife and married a 21-year-old Catholic actress, Tony’s grandmother. He didn’t raise his kids Jewish. And on Christmas day, he had the entire family over for a Lucullan dinner at the “big house,” which was lavishly decorated for the holiday, recalls Tony, an actor best known for playing the evil yuppie in “Ghost.”

Every Saturday afternoon during the rest of 1974, a chauffeur named Hans picked Tony up in grandpa’s Cadillac and drove him to the Beverly Hills mansion, which was adorned with formal furnishings, a curved staircase and a manicured croquet court at the foot of sloping lawns.

“The identity my grandfather tried to cultivate was that of an English gentleman, though he had a Yiddish accent, a very strong one,” says Goldwyn, 38, whose directorial debut, “A Walk on the Moon,” starring Diane Lane and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin, opens today in Los Angeles.

The accent was about the only connection young Tony had to Judaism. So he was startled, on that cold February day in 1974, when his grandfather was buried as a Jew. “It was the first Jewish ceremony I had ever attended. It was the first time I had ever seen a rabbi,” says Tony, who is as blond and blue-eyed, his features as chiseled and handsome as a matinee idol in one of Sam’s movies.