Skip To Content
Film & TV

Jeffrey Tambor Talks ‘Transparent’ and the Kosher Chicken Dance at New Yorker Festival

Jeffrey Tambor used to be that actor you saw everywhere but couldn’t place.

No longer.

In January, he won a Golden Globe in the Best Actor in a TV Series category, for his performance as Maura Pfefferman, a Jewish father of three who comes out as transgender, in Amazon’s “Transparent.” In September he took home the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for the same role.

At the age of 71, Tambor is finally having his leading man moment: He recently got a free subway ride, a crowning moment for any New Yorker. He gets stopped on the street. Strangers want to talk to him, and share their stories.

In an interview with New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy during the on October 3, Tambor said he doesn’t take this newfound recognition lightly.

“I say every chance I can that Jill Soloway, the creator of our show, changed my life with the great role of Maura Pfefferman, but also the great responsibility of Maura Pfefferman,” he said. “There’s not a day that [goes] by that I don’t feel the great responsibility of playing that role, not only for the eight Rotten Tomatoes or the nine thumbs up or whatever culture we’re in, but also because I want to do it right. Because, as I say, lives are at stake.“

Asked what he found most surprising about the role, Tambor answered that he found navigating the “female accoutrements” unexpectedly easy. “I haven’t been to the hair department in 35 years,” he joked. But to those who ask whether the experience got him in touch with his feminine side, Tambor offers a more nuanced approach.

“I got to, for the first time ever, use all of Jeffrey Tambor in a role,” he said. “It’s what I always thought acting would be like when I was a kid acting out talk shows in my parents’ basement.”

Those parents were Mike and Eileen Tambor, Conservative Jews with Russian-Hungarian roots who settled in San Francisco in the early 1940s. He was an ex-boxer turned flooring contractor, she was a housewife.

“They were so scared that I was going to become an actor. They were Jewish middle class. [My father] wanted me to take over his contracting company.”

Though his grandparents were Orthodox, Tambor’s Jewishness, he has said previously, came to him rather late.

And yet, he’s definitely Jewish. The entire interview was peppered with spontaneous Jewish quips.

On what it’s like being a Conservative Jew: It was too expensive to be an Orthodox Jew on the West Coast, he joked. “Let’s scale it back a little, that’s what it means to be Conservative.”

On other denominations: “Reform is basically you have to sing show tunes. Now there’s Reconstruction, deconstruction, left construction, there’s the first act of Annie. Who knows what it is.”

On the “Arrested Development” chicken dance: “I still can’t do that dance, by the way. I can do the kosher chicken dance.”

On the Pfefferman family: They are very Jewish. It’s not Zabar’s, it’s something else. [They’re] West Coast Jewy.”

On Ariel Levy’s dad telling her “No where to go but down,” after hearing she got a job at the New Yorker: “Are you Jewish? Well… it’s in the Torah [for a dad to react that way].”

(His own father gave him a similar piece of advice: “Don’t celebrate. They’ll take it away from you.”)

Recalling a moment where someone asked him if “Transparent” was about finding happiness, Tambor deadpanned: “I’m Russian Hungarian, I know nothing about happiness. That wasn’t on the menu at our house.”

Levy read out Tambor’s long list of credits, which include playing Hank on “The Larry Sanders Show,” which earned him 4 Emmy nominations; George Bluth Sr. on “Arrested Development,” which earned him 2 Emmy nominations; and just about every movie or TV show ever. (Most titles were greeted with an “Oy!” from Tambor.)

He talked about his five kids: Molly, 40, from his first marriage, and Gabriel Kasper, 10, Eve Julia, 8, and twins Hugo Bernard and Eli Nicholas, 6, from his current marriage with Kasia Ostlun.

“We bought a farm,” he said. “Somewhere, my father is in heaven going: ‘Oh, my God, what are you doing?’”

Levy then moved on to a more serious topic: his drinking. Tambor has been sober for over a dozen years; a move that, he says, “affected my entire life. It got me more in touch with me.”

It’s a way of thinking that has served him well on “Transparent,” and translates into the amount of heartfelt support he has gotten from the trans community and even total strangers, who stop him on the street to talk, he said.

“I’m telling you, my life is so amazing that way. There is something — oh, I’m getting emotional — about this role that is over and above me that is speaking to people. And it’s not my creation. It’s what I represent. Maura Pfefferman represents all the people who have been other-ized in their lives and people get into that.”

That’s a lot of responsibility for the man who voiced King Neptune on “Spongebob Squarepants.” But don’t worry; the fame isn’t going to his head. Looking around the room during the interview, he paused.

“This is so cool for a little Jewish boy,” he said. “There are things in New York. There’s the Russian Tea Room, there’s Broadway and there’s the New Yorker.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.