‘Empire’ co-creator Danny Strong, right, pictured with series star Taraji P. Henson.
(JTA) — Danny Strong is probably most recognizable as being “that Jewish guy” on TV — he played eager adman wannabe Danny Siegel on “Mad Men” and the nerdy, perennial victim Jonathan Levinson on “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.”
But, among those in the know, Strong may be best known as the “voice of black America,” as one showrunner sarcastically quipped. He’s the co-creator of the hip-hop-themed TV hit “Empire” and he also wrote the screenplay for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler.”
“Empire” is centered on the struggle for the control of Empire Entertainment, a family-owned record label and mini conglomerate — a company started with drug money. It features bravura performances from major stars, including Terrence Howard (“Crash,” “The Butler”) as Lucious, the family patriarch, and the Emmy-nominated Taraji P. Henson (“Person of Interest”) as his wife, Cookie, who was mysteriously released early from prison.
When it debuted last January, “Empire” was almost an immediate hit, first among young African-American viewers and then with white audiences. It ended the season as the highest-rated drama on broadcast TV with an especially high rating among in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic favored by advertisers.
Who wouldn’t be attracted to a program whose elevator pitch is basically “Dynasty” meets “Glee” meets “The Godfather”? Yet even Strong was surprised at how well it did. “I had no idea it would become this successful,” he says in a telephone interview with JTA.
Speaking from his office in Los Angeles, he adds: “I thought we would do pretty well because of the success of ‘The Butler’ and the crossover appeal of hip-hop. But I underestimated how well it would do.”
“I think at the end of the day, it’s a good show, and people like the characters,” he says. “The equation of what makes the show work is that it’s a soap opera with really fun and juicy plotting balanced with an examination of social issues. It’s a gritty family drama and, on top of that, there’s the musical element.”
The show’s soundtrack is provided by mega-hit producer Timbaland and tackles social issues such as homophobia, interracial marriage and a host of societal ills like drugs and murder.
Yet another factor in the success of “Empire” has been the far-reaching media coverage about the show’s diversity. Until its premiere, most primarily African-American shows on television had been comedies. Plus, “Empire,” in addition to having a mostly black cast, has a rainbow behind the scenes, both racially and in terms of sexual orientation. In fact, Strong was the only straight white man to direct an episode.
The series — which doesn’t gloss over the thuggish elements of some parts of the African-American experience — hasn’t been without controversy. “I’ve heard there’s been some blowback about Lucious and the criminal element of the show, his drug dealing past,” Strong says. “We’re not trying to fight civil rights battles with this show or suggest that this story represents the African-American community.”
He argues it is probably similar to the complaints producers of “The Sopranos” likely received from Italian-American groups. “White, African-American, Jewish or Irish, there’s always been crime,” he says.
But blowback or not, the show has “exploded diversity among the networks,” Strong continues. “Everyone is trying to find more diverse programs, featuring Latino, Asian families. At the end of the day, Hollywood is going to create programs that are financially successful, and shows like ‘Blackish’ and ‘Empire’ have been financially successful.”
The idea for “Empire” came to him “while I was driving in my car in L.A. There was a news radio piece about Puffy and some new business enterprise, and I thought to myself, ‘hip-hop is so cool, so much fun.’ I had the idea of a music movie; the idea of doing something along the lines of ‘King Lear’ or ‘The Lion in Winter.’”
Excited, he pitched the idea to Daniels, who “called me back the next day and told me, ‘I can’t stop thinking about it. But I think it’s a TV show and not a movie’.”
The pair fleshed out a multi-episode story line for a TV show and presented it to the networks. “We made our pitch the week after ‘The Butler’ opened at number one in the box office and all four networks wanted it. A bidding war broke out.”
All this makes it so odd that Daniels last May veered so sharply off the road of political correctness in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, saying: “I hate white people writing for black people. It’s so offensive.”
“I was surprised he said it publicly,” Strong says. “I work very closely with Lee, and I’m a white writer. So is [Executive Producer] Ilene Chaiken [who is also Jewish]. So he works with white writers and to take a public stance like that, I don’t understand.”
But Strong says he wasn’t offended. “He says whatever he feels. He’s very unfiltered and quite refreshing. I didn’t take that personally.”
And if Daniels was uncomfortable, the reverse wasn’t true. “I would say that there have been countless events and parties and business situations where I am the only white person in the room, and I have never felt uncomfortable,” Strong maintains. “I have been completely embraced and felt nothing but love.”
Strong feels a special kinship with the “Empire” material in part because of his culturally Jewish upbringing. “I think Jews feel very empathetic to any culture or race that faces discrimination,” he says.
“Ever since I was young I was very passionate about people being discriminated against in terms of civil rights or gay rights,” he adds. “There was something innate in me. That’s part of why I like to tell these kinds of stories, even now.”
Writing, though, is a kind of obscure existence. Despite numerous successes and awards for screenplays such as “Recount” (about the 2000 presidential race) and “Game Change” (about Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential candidacy), “I’m not through acting,” says Strong, who played Elijah’s boyfriend on “Girls.” “I take a few gigs a year for fun.”
Strong laughs at the obvious next question: Does he plan to write himself into “Empire”?
“Vanilla Jew? I never say never,” he says.
“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox starting Sept. 23.
Sunday marks the end of an era.
After seven seasons spanning a tumultuous decade, “Mad Men” is leaving us for advertising heaven (and I don’t mean McCann-Erikson). By this time next week, Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Betty, Sally, Pete, and all the other characters we’ve come to know and love (and sometimes hate — I’m looking at you, Megan) will be but a distant memory to be revisited on Netflix in moments of nostalgia. It’s time. But it’s also too soon.
“Mad Men” is nominally the tale of Don Draper, 1960s ad man. But that only scratches the surface of what has morphed into one of the most carefully crafted, framed and nuanced shows on TV. “Mad Men” is the story of America. “Mad Men” is the story of a generation. “Mad Men” is the story of women. And “Mad Men” is the story of the Jews.
The Jewish storyline on the show has always been very intentional. It’s no coincidence that the very first episode includes a rather shocking display of anti-Semitism: We’ve hardly even gotten to know Don when a slick, 1959-style Roger strides into his office to ask: “Have we ever hired any Jews?”
Don’s deadpan answer is even more revealing: “Not on my watch.”
Matthew Weiner confirmed the importance of the Jewish context in an interview with the Forward in March: “I wanted to highlight what I found to be the parallel issue of assimilation to what’s going on with Don in terms identity. I wanted to have this character Rachel Menken who said that she was Jewish. I wanted to talk about the ambiguities of what it means to be an American Jew. And really, how could you tell the story of New York at any time without including Jews?”
More than ten fictional “Mad Men” years later, we’ve come a long way from that first meeting with Menken’s Department Store. Sterling Cooper & Partners (formerly Sterling Cooper then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Cutler Gleason & Chough) hired a full-time Jewish copywriter, the ever-neurotic Michael Ginsberg; Peggy dated a Jewish man; Roger married a Jewish secretary (and then divorced her), and Don revealed his affinity for Jewish mistresses. The company courted Manischewiz as a serious client (and then gotfired). The Jews have arrived. “Mad Men” is a show about reinvention and rebirth. We are, as it were, the perfect example illustrating Don’s signature line: “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.”
And so, in honor of our favorite TV show, we bring you the definitive guide of Jewish “Mad Men” moments.
Season 1: Jews are out
“Have we ever hired any Jews?”
What creator Matthew Weiner refers to as America’s “casual anti-Semitism” is on full view in this scene, in which Sterling Cooper meet with Rachel Menken, owner of a Jewish department store on Fifth Avenue — “Ready to sweet talk some liberal Jews?”
Don Draper and Rachel Menken in “Mad Men“‘s first season // AMC
(JTA) — Spoiler alert: The post below discusses the content of “Mad Men” Season 7, Episode 8 (“Severance”) In the weeks before the beginning of the final season of “Mad Men,” the show’s creator Matthew Weiner did rounds of interviews on his Jewish roots. He even recently sat down for an interview with New York Magazine critic Matt Zoller Seitz at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage to discuss how Jewish identity is a fundamental element of the show.
Right on cue, the final episodes kicked off Sunday night on a Jewish note. A revitalized Don Draper, back to his promiscuous ways, is haunted by past flame Rachel Menken in a dream. Menken is of course the heir to the large fictional Menken’s department store and, for a short time, Don’s client and lover. In an episode filled with eerie coincidences, Don discovers that Rachel died of leukemia just a week before his dream. He shows up at the shiva to pay his respects and is met by Rachel’s sister Barbara, who explains that the last years of Rachel’s life (her married post-Don years) brought her exactly what she wanted out of life. Barbara is well-aware that Don eventually rejected Rachel’s passionate advances to keep his unhappy marriage together. When Barbara starts to self-righteously explain to Don what “sitting shiva” means, he replies that he’s lived in New York for a long time and knows exactly what shiva is (he has even brought cake!). However, Don’s non-Jewishness sticks out when he is asked by someone else to help the group form a minyan.
“He can’t; he’s not Jewish,” Barbara says with more than a hint of disdain.
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
America’s love affair with the sixties dates back to July 19, 2007.
That’s the day an unknown show made its debut on an obscure network known for John Wayne western reruns. Seven and a half years later, “Mad Men” has become a cultural touchstone while AMC has been home base for landmark shows like “Breaking Bad” and the Walking Dead.”
The man behind the madness? Matthew Weiner, a nice Jewish boy from Los Angeles, via Baltimore, who developed the pilot for the hit series while working as a writer for “Becker.” “Sopranos” director David Chase was reportedly so impressed by the script that he offered Weiner a job as writing for the HBO show.
“Mad Men” has won 15 Emmys and four Golden Globes. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America ranked it seventh in its list of 101 best TV-series of all time. Starting April 5, fans will have seven final episodes to say goodbye to Don Draper’s broody genius, Betty Draper’s fabulous outfits, Roger Sterling’s memorable quips, and Pete Campbell’s plaid pants.
The Forward’s Anne Cohen caught up with Weiner by phone to ask him what comes next, what he kept from the set, and really, what’s the deal with all the Jews on “Mad Men”?
Anne Cohen: Tell me about your Jewish upbringing.
Matthew Weiner: My parents were first generation — both New Yorkers and all their parents were immigrants. They were raised in the classic bourgeois Ashkenazi Judaism. My mother and sisters were not bat mitzvah’d but my brothers and I were.
I was not much of a student. When I went in for my bar mitzvah training I was older because I had no other previous [Jewish] education. They put me in a class with kids who were much younger than me. The teacher would teach the class to me — and I was very interested in it. I wasn’t interested in the arguments; I was interested in the stories, in the parasha.I still feel like the story of Moses is one of the best dramas ever. There aren’t a lot of cultures that have a story like Jacob and Esau, where the more athletic first-born is undercut by the one who is loved by his mother and is intelligent. That says something about [us].
My parents kept kosher for many years but believe it or not I think the butcher died and they kind of stopped. I was raised with a real Jewish intellectual identity. Freud, Marx and Einstein — those were the holy trinity of the household I grew up in. There real pride in anyone who made it who was Jewish. My father is named after Leslie Howard.
My grandfather lived with us. He had been born in Russia and was part of a social club of landsmen and worked as a fur dresser in Manhattan. He wasn’t a particularly religious person but I would go to Temple with him until he passed away. I never saw my parents deny that they were Jewish. We never had a Christmas tree. We went to see “Gone with the Wind” and went for Chinese food.
Photo: Trae Patton/NBC
The last time we saw Ben Feldman, he’d just cut off one of his nipples. Now, he’s head-over-heels in love with a girl he spied — but never met — years earlier at a rock concert.
Perhaps an explanation is in order.
For the last three seasons, Feldman has played Michael Ginsberg, the somewhat acerbic, somewhat crazy Jewish copywriter on “Mad Men.” Ginsberg chose a most unusual way to declare his love for a co-worker.
Starting October 2 (and every Thursday forever thereafter, he hopes), he’s Adam Laughlin on “A to Z,” the besotted bachelor who believes in destiny and true love and a more traditional approach to wooing. The object of his affection is Zelda Vasco (Cristin Milioti), an attorney whose hippie, multi-partner mother soured her on the idea of romance.
The show’s pilot, at least, is funny and sweet and if nothing else an antidote to television zombies. It is also more than a little reminiscent of “(500) Days of Summer,” a similarly themed romance that at least in the cinema ended badly.
According to the voiceover here though, Andrew and Zelda go out for “eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour.” After winning kudos for her role in the Broadway musical “Once,” Miloti went on to become the title character in “How I Met Your Mother,” an issue that took nine seasons to resolve. So it may take a while to find out what the end of that near nine-month period has to offer.
In the meantime, Feldman spoke to the Forward about “the one,” defending a Jewish character’s right to be a little nuts, and going all-in on a bar mitzvah or not having one at all.
Curt Schleier: Do you believe in “the one”?
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