Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
The Schmooze

Q&A: Actor Alan Mandell on Samuel Beckett

Actor Alan Mandell has portrayed Shakespeare’s Shylock, Prospero and Lear, and performed everywhere from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre to Broadway to the silver screen. One of his most notable recent roles was Rabbi Marshak in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man.” Mandell is currently playing Estragon in “Waiting for Godot” at LA’s Mark Taper Forum. He talked to The Arty Semite about Judaism, existentialism, and working with Samuel Beckett.

Image by Craig Schwartz

Ed Rampell: How long have you been performing Beckett’s plays?

Alan Mandell: I first became aware of his work in 1957, when we were doing “Waiting for Godot” at the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop. We received a call from San Quentin telling us they’d be interested in having a play done at the prison. There were 1,500 inmates; it was a huge success. The San Quentin News review reached Beckett, who was very impressed by the level of intelligence and comprehension of the reviewer. The inmates, of course, understood what waiting was about. For them, Pozzo was the warden; they were Gogo [Estragon] and Didi [Vladimir]; Lucky was the man on death row.

After [actor] Rick Cluchey was paroled he formed the Barbed Wire Theatre. Beckett asked him to be his assistant for a Berlin production of “Endgame” [in 1967] and they asked me to play Nagg. I also played Lucky, with Beckett directing, in London, and I worked on the last major piece he wrote, “Stirrings Still.” I was very fortunate to be able to work with him.

What was Beckett like?

He was, oh God, the most generous, compassionate, caring, extraordinarily intelligent human being I’ve known. He just had an exquisite mind. I always felt he conducted, rather than directed. Everything was music — pauses were musical beats, silences were musical rests, a long silence would be two or three musical rests. He cared about each and every word. He’d want you to say “it is” if he wrote “it is,” not “it’s.” Beckett had this great love of music, art and humanity.

Beckett was supposedly very handsome.

My wife certainly thought so! He had lots of women in his life.

To those who believed Godot was supposed to be God, Beckett said, “If I’d meant God, I would have written God.”

Yes, exactly. The play’s first director in Paris asked him about Godot, and he implied it came from the French word for “boot,” “godillot,” because there are references to boots throughout the play. When I asked him about Godot he said he was in the south of France at the time, in the Resistance, when he wrote that, and Godot was not an uncommon name. No, if you thought it was God, that’s not what he implied.

Godot’s absurdist philosophy reminds me of “A Serious Man.”

Yes, in many ways it’s similar, although one of the themes they had was “no good deed shall go unpunished.”

Your character, Rabbi Marshak, seems to be very existential.

Yes. Of course he’s been listening to that recorder with the Jefferson Airplane song: “Somebody to Love.”

How would your Polish grandfather have reacted to your portrayal of Rabbi Marshak?

[Laughs.] Well, first of all, they would have been amused to find out I was playing a rabbi. I was in shul and had a tutor to prepare for my bar mitzvah, but I’m not a religious man. My philosophy would be more like Beckett’s. I’ll quote one of his lines from “Endgame”: “Something is taking its course.” That’s about as much as I believe.

Do you think “A Serious Man’s” depiction of Judaism implies that it doesn’t have the answers either?

I suppose a lot of it depends on what you yourself believe. There are people who believe very strongly that it does. So this is another view. As they say, “If you have two Jews arguing together you have three different opinions.” Some felt that, in that sense, [the movie] was anti-Jewish. I laugh at that. It isn’t anti-Jewish at all. The Coen Brothers grew up in that world.

What are your plans after Godot?

To visit my family in Las Vegas.

“Krapp’s Last Tape” would be the perfect Beckett play for Vegas.

[Laughs.] Yeah — gosh, I wish there was a theatre, I’d do it there.

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.