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Did you edit the play in order to make it more resonant for a contemporary audience?
I didn’t cut anything, but we restored a couple of things that Odets had removed from the play. Instead of Mr. Bonaparte speaking in an Italian accent, we had him speaking in Italian at certain points. In that household he would have spoken English mixed with Italian.
Though Tony Shalhoub does an impressive job in mitigating Mr. Bonaparte’s clichés, the character is nonetheless an ethnic stereotype. How do you address that as a director?
The base of all stereotypes is truth. You just have to keep on digging to get at the truth in a new way. Odets was very much a Jewish writer; it’s hard to separate him from the Jewish patois and sensibility. If there is a problem with “Golden Boy,” it’s his trying to write for an Italian. I’m never quite sure why Odets made it a Lower East Side [of Manhattan] Italian family as opposed to a Jewish family.
He may have thought he could sell it to the public more easily if the protagonists were Italian.
He wrote it for Morris Carnovsky and Luther Adler, not Ben Gazzara. I think it had to do with Bonaparte’s love of opera, and somehow for Odets that meant the family was Italian. Italy is the land of great art and culture. It was an idealization.
You have an interesting background.
I was one of six kids raised as a Catholic in San Francisco. But my father was a Lithuanian Jew born in the shtetl. He moved with my grandparents to San Pedro, Calif., where my grandfather worked on the docks and then as a barber. When my father grew up, he went to Stanford and felt that the best way for him to succeed in business was to deny his Jewish heritage. He was an insurance salesman. My mother did not know he was Jewish when she met him, and I did not find out until I was 14 and my parents were divorced. That’s when my mother told me. I was thrilled. I thought it was cool. I was fascinated by my father’s background.