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Ben Feldman's Jewish Background Aids Acting Career

October 18, 2005

Reprinted with permission of Washington Jewish Week.

Ben Feldman did not set out to play Jewish characters when he arrived in Hollywood. But in the past couple of years, the Washington-area native's Jewish background seems to have "taken me places"--from a film about a dysfunctional family's Passover seder to a role as Fran Drescher's son on the television show "Living With Fran."

In fact, Feldman's character of Josh Reeves on the WB sitcom, which airs Friday nights at 9:30 on Channel 50, will become more identifiably Jewish this fall.

In an interview last week, a few days before he started work on the show's second season, the 25-year-old Feldman says that "Living with Fran" will include more Jewish references. The first episode, for example, prominently features a bar mitzvah celebration.

Feldman never had a bar mitzvah ceremony himself, but wishes he did. He started studying Hebrew too late to be ready at age 13, he explains, and, at the time, didn't want to wait to have the celebration a year after all his friends.

The son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, Feldman was raised Jewish and grew up attending a variety of local synagogues, from the Conservative B'nai Israel Congregation in Rockville to the Orthodox Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.

With the help of his Jewish girlfriend, he usually celebrates the major Jewish holidays, particularly Yom Kippur, he quipped, so he can "apologize for all the other ones [I missed]."

The 1998 Winston Churchill High School graduate, who lived in the District and Chevy Chase before moving to Potomac in sixth grade, wanted to act simply because he loved the attention. Feldman says he would "defy anyone to go on stage," feel the "adrenaline rush" and not want to do it again.

But he suffered through a number of unsuccessful auditions for high school plays at Potomac's Churchill. His big break came when he got the hosting job for the school's annual Blast From the Past song and dance show, where he and a friend would perform comedy routines and tell jokes in between the songs.

That led to a bachelor of fine arts degree in acting at Ithaca College, and getting "very, very lucky."

Feldman was in the "right place at the right time [with the] right look" in the spring of 2002, he recalls, when he and the rest of the acting majors at Ithaca performed for an audience of agents and casting directors in New York City. He caught the eye of one audience member, who referred him to an agent.

Soon after, he was auditioning to replace American Pie star Jason Biggs temporarily as Benjamin Braddock in the Broadway production of "The Graduate"-- opposite Kathleen Turner and Alicia Silverstone.

Feldman figured it would be a fun "road trip," since he didn't think he had any chance to win the role. But he ended up as one of two finalists, and the show's producers told him they would remember him.

Sure enough, they did--he was called back to be Biggs' understudy a few months later. While he never actually filled in for Biggs during the nine months, he played smaller parts in the show and calls the experience a thrill.

It was surreal to be working with well-known movie stars on his first major acting job, he says, but that excitement fades more quickly than the "excitement of walking into the backstage of a Broadway theater."

"When you look at the list of the actors who performed there ... it blows your mind," he says. "Every time I walked in, I was amazed."

The day after the show closed, Feldman flew out to L.A. to audition for the starring role in a WB sitcom about a teenage mayor.

He won the role, but the show taped only one episode before the network shut down production, providing Feldman a "crash course" in the difference between television and Broadway. In the theater, there is a closing night party; in TV, an actor simply gets a phone call telling him not to come in for work on Monday.

Powers that be at the WB remembered him, and, even before Drescher came aboard, he was cast last year in "Living with Fran." Playing a 21-year-old who has been kicked out of medical school and returns home to find his mother has a non-Jewish boyfriend not much older than he, Feldman is excited that the show will be giving his character more of a life this season, such as a girlfriend.

He also touts some of the big-name guest stars slated for this year's show--including Dan Aykroyd, Drescher's "The Nanny" co-star Charles Shaughnessy and Drescher sound-alike and American Idol contestant Mikalah Gordon in the premiere.

Feldman describes Drescher as "great to hang out with," noting that they've made plans to go to a concert together in a few weeks. And, yes, he says in answer to one of the two questions he's most frequently asked, Drescher does talk like that in real life.

As for that other question--what was it like to work with teen star Hilary Duff, whose boyfriend he portrayed in this summer's feature film The Perfect Man?--Feldman has high praise for both Duff and his other blond co-star, Heather Locklear.

He's also been in another movie that hasn't been released yet, but has played at some film festivals. In the independent film, When Do We Eat?, featuring Jack Klugman and Lesley Ann Warren, Feldman plays the "druggie son" at a family's wild Passover seder.

As to his future, Feldman says he is happy to be on a successful TV show and wants to go "wherever [my career] takes me," but does not really have any desires yet to write or direct--like so many other Hollywood actors.

Right now, he says, "I'm thrilled to be the puppet."

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.

Eric Fingerhut is a staff writer at Washington Jewish Week.

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