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Do you know any Hebrew or Yiddish?
I don’t read any Hebrew. I know a bissel of Yiddish, because my grandmother, who lived in our house from the day I was born until she died when I was 16, when she and my mother wanted to talk privately in front of the kids, they spoke Yiddish and I picked up a little. Do you write for the Jewish Daily Forward? Wasn’t it [where] Isaac Bashevis Singer who was responsible for trying to keep Yiddish alive [was published]? I do love him as a writer.
When I interviewed Paul Giamatti, who costarred with you in “Barney’s Version,” he told me an interesting story about a cemetery scene and a kippah. Do you remember it?
It was a debate. In that particular instance, if my memory is correct — it isn’t always — the producer wanted us to wear yarmulkes and we didn’t want to because of what we felt was our characters’, to use your word, secular background. I called my dear friend, who is a rabbi and actually married my wife and I and two of my daughters. His name is Leonard Beerman. I got him on the phone. We held up shooting because it was such a contentious issue. Rabbi Beerman said, based on what you said about the way you as a character and your son [played by Giamatti] believe, I think it’s optional whether you wear a yarmulke in a cemetery. So we did not.
Are there other instances where you brought your Jewishness to work?
No, because I don’t have a Jewish background in the sense that we’ve been talking about. I’ve always felt I was a Jew. It’s an internal feeling. I also feel I’m a Russian Romanian Jew because my father’s people were from Kiev and my mother’s people were from Iaşi, meaning I love mămăligă and I love borscht and vodka. Also, I think there’s a specific humor I’ve always been attached to, and there’s no other way to put it. I have a Jewish sense of humor.
You have a reputation for being a perfectionist, something you spoofed in “Tootsie.” Is that accurate?
I can recognize bad work, particularly my own. I’ve never swayed and convinced myself that work that wasn’t first rate was first rate. Unfortunately, you work with people, particularly if you’re an actor, where the director or producer delude themselves that what they’ve just done is great or first rate and they can move on. I can tell in the first three days of shooting if it’s going to be problematic because you see the director being satisfied before he or she should be. And that’s never failed. Having said that, my friend Murray Schisgal (who co-wrote the screenplay) was on the set of “Tootsie.” I would ask, ‘what do you think, Murray?’ He’d never say, ‘good.’ He’d say, ‘we’re not in trouble,’ which is kind of a Jewish thing to say. And that’s what I felt when we were making this movie: We’re not in trouble.