“I’m just an actor,” exclaims Ron Rifkin, who then adds the most un-actor-y words ever spoke by an actor in the history of theater:
“I don’t like to talk about myself.”
He mentions his reluctance because our conversation had veered into unexpected territory, at least for him. I’d asked about his approach to some past roles and he said he was more concerned about the future. “I thought we were going to talk about ‘The Road of Promise.’”
“The Road of Promise” is an adaptation of a 1937 Kurt Weill-Franz Werfel opera-oratorio, “The Eternal Road.” It will be performed May 6 and 7 at Carnegie Hall by the 200-strong Collegiate Chorale, with Rifkin playing The Adversary, one of two speaking roles.
The show was originally conceived as a kind of musical warning about Hitler’s treatment of Jews. It takes place in a synagogue where a young boy learns about his heritage from biblical tales. It features music of many styles, ranging from traditional Jewish repertoire to show tunes.
The performance — a pared down version of the six-hour original — marks the piece’s American debut. Rifkin had never seen, let alone participated, in this type of show. He had not yet rehearsed it when we spoke. “My sense is that I’ll be standing at lecterns reading.”
On the surface, it may appear an unusual choice for the multiple-award winning actor (a Tony award is one of several pieces of hardware in his collection). But it turns out that the Jewish-themed show fits right in his wheelhouse, which now also includes a night of song as part of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene’s weeklong “Kulturfest” in June. And these are things he wants very much to talk about.
Born Saul M. Rifkin in Brooklyn, he was raised in an Orthodox home. “I don’t know why,” he said in response to how he came to show business. “I always had a sense of drama. I was born in ’38 and Williamsburg at the time was very much an enclave of Jews. My mother was one of 14 children, and we were a close family. Yiddish was spoken by my grandparents.”
“I very much remember the sounds of the streets, the smell of the food. We went to a shul where the women sat upstairs. It was very dramatic for me and drama was how I got attention — though my parents said they were shocked when I said I wanted to be an actor.”
Success was not immediate. In fact, there was a period of about a decade in the 1980s when he abandoned the craft entirely and joined his father’s furrier business.
“I wasn’t happy with the parts I was getting, so my father said, ‘Why don’t you try [going into business] with me?’” Ron and his wife, Iva, formed an off-shoot of his father’s firm, designing and manufacturing couture coats. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he said. But it provided a comfortable living.
Despite the coat business’s success, when Jon Robin Baitz offered him the lead role of Holocaust survivor Isaac Geldhart in “The Substance of Fire,” Rifkin jumped at it. In many ways, it changed his life.
The role earned him a slew of awards. It also was the start of a significant partnership between the writer and actor, one that included more plays (“Three Hotels,” “The Paris Letter” and “Ten Unknowns,” among others), film (the movie version of “Substance”) and television, where Baitz used Rifkin’s birth name for the character Saul Holden in “Brothers and Sisters.”
It was while he was playing ruthless Arvin Sloane in “Alias” that he got a phone call from the Folksbiene Theatre. “Someone wanted me to appear at the [theater’s annual] gala to raise money. After much hesitation, I went to New York and sang a couple of songs. Then I met [artistic director] Zalmen [Mlotek] and I started working with him.”
“I freaked out over the richness of the songs [he exposed me to] from the Vilna Ghetto, songs from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. I started collecting them. I don’t speak Yiddish fluently. That’s part of why I’m doing this on [June] 17.”
He concedes he may not be “the greatest singer in the world, but I will sing from my soul. I may turn out to be a fool, but this is music I love.”
This story "How Ron Rifkin Went From the Fur Business to Carnegie Hall" was written by Curt Schleier.