Actor Josh Radnor is glad to be back at work. During the recent writers’ strike, production of his CBS show, “How I Met Your Mother,” was shut down for three months, along with nearly every other scripted television series. Now taping again and in its third season, the sitcom isn’t quite a runaway hit, nor is it a doozie. Averaging 8 million viewers in television land is considered metze-metze. But it earns critical accolades on a regular basis, with The New York Observer recently calling it “the best television show you’re not watching.”
On the show, Radnor, 33, plays Ted Mosby, a Wesleyan-educated architect fumbling his way through single life in New York City with a couple of similarly on-their-way-to-being-upwardly-mobile friends. The character, Radnor said, sitting cross-legged on a striped modern chair in his minimalist but cozy house tucked away in Los Angeles’s Hollywood Hills, is definitely not Jewish. Radnor, however, most definitely is. He is among the mafia of Hollywood writers and actors who, like Sacha Baron Cohen before him, spent their childhoods at Jewish camps and Jewish day schools.
A Midwest native, Radnor grew up in Bexley, Ohio, which he describes as a “30% Jewish suburb.” He attended Columbus Torah Academy through the eighth grade, and in 1997, he studied in Israel on the Livnot program. In one sense, his religious education may have informed his passion for the theater. “I’ve always loved sitting around, reading text and talking about it,” he said, noting that it’s something he first learned how to do while parsing Jewish texts. “I’ve thought, ‘You know, I would have been a good yeshiva bokher.’” And while he may have ended up in Hollywood instead of in Hancock Park, a heavily Orthodox L.A. neighborhood, Radnor still gets to grapple with weighty texts, he pointed out. “I do the same thing as an actor with plays.”
Radnor is also part of Reboot, a network of young Jews — in large part, writers and artists — co-founded by Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. Reboot puts out the quarterly magazine Guilt & Pleasure and occasionally whisks away its participants for stints at Reboot camp to talk about what it means to be Jewish. This winter, Radnor spent three days in Paradise, Texas, with some 60 others, including Amichai Lau-Lavie, founder and director of the Jewish theater company Storahtelling.
“The thing I love about Reboot,” Radnor said, “is that it’s a genuinely conflicted place. If there’s one thing I love about Judaism, it’s that ‘wrestling with angels’ aspect.”
Radnor is probably not your average TV star. A graduate of Kenyon College, he is also an avid fiction reader. A copy of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” sits on the bookshelf behind his head, although, he made sure to point out, it’s not one of his favorite Roth books. He prefers the Nathan Zuckerman stories, among others. While at Kenyon, Radnor zipped through all of them — in lieu of whatever it was he was supposed to be reading for his classes, he added.
After graduation, Radnor got a Master of Fine Arts in acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. By 2002, he was starring on Broadway in “The Graduate,” opposite Kathleen Turner.
Other distinctly Jewish roles have included his turn in Los Angeles as the young Sandy Sonnenberg in Jon Robin Baitz’s moving and, at times, unbearably sad play, “The Paris Letter,” about a Jewish finance scion who spends his life struggling to repress the fact that he is gay. In late February, Radnor reprised the role for four nights, opposite Ron Rifkin and his TV co-star Neil Patrick Harris (yes, the former star of “Doogie Howser, M.D.”) for an L.A. Theatre Works reading at the Skirball Cultural Center, to be broadcast on National Public Radio’s “The Play’s the Thing.”
“Sandy’s Jewishness hovers over everything,” he said of the character. “He’s cloaked in it.”
Radnor, however, does not limit himself to Jewish roles. “To me, a lot of these Jewish signifiers are actually human signifiers,” he said. “These are Jewish clichés, and I try to avoid them, but obsessive worry and guilt are universal feelings. Sometimes I think Jews just say it more.”
Rebecca Spence is a staff writer at the Forward.