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Interfaith Celebrities: An Upcoming Actor, An Enduring Celebrity Interfaith Marriage and Sheriff Andy's Jewish Roots

July 10, 2012

Spotlight on Ezra Miller

Actor Ezra Miller, 19, had barely been on my radar when I found a great quote from the young thespian on Wikipedia. He was interviewed earlier this year by the Israeli newspaper Haarretz. The original interview is posted online only in Hebrew, but here is the translated English quote that got my attention:

"My father is Jewish, my mother is not, but I consider myself entirely Jewish even though according to Jewish law I am not. I encourage everyone to understand that the rules were written before anyone could do DNA tests... I know that I am a descendant of Abraham through my father." And a visit to Israel? "I definitely plan to do this."
Ezra Miller

That's about as smart and determined a claim to one's Jewish identity that I have ever seen come out of the mouth of any person with only a Jewish father. But it is especially impressive coming from a 19-year-old.

The quote made me something of a Miller maven, gathering up biographical details. He was born and raised in Northern New Jersey. His father, who is Jewish, was managing director of Hyperion Books and now works for Workman's Publishing company. His mother, Marta, a modern dancer, is of German, non-Jewish ancestry. Marta's mother, Astrid, teaches dance.

Miller showed a fine voice at a young age, received classical training and has sung with the Metropolitan Opera. Since 2008, he has put together an impressive list of film and TV credits, but all of his films have been indies (some with barely a release) so you may not be aware of him. That will probably change this September when the film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, opens.

Based on a best-selling 1991 novel of the same name by Stephen Chbosky, it follows the maturation of an adolescent named Charlie (who is also the novel/film's narrator). The novel has been a favorite of teens and young adults and has acquired near cult status. Jewish actor Logan Lerman, 20, has the film lead, playing Charlie. Miller co-stars as Patrick, Charlie's best friend.

The rest of the impressive cast assures that Perks is an A list production that will get a wide release. Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame plays Patrick's step-sister. Jewish actor Paul Rudd plays Charlie's teacher and Dylan McDermott plays Charlie's father. (McDermott, by the way, was adopted at age 15 by Eve Ensler, now 59, of The Vagina Monologues fame. Ensler, the daughter of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, identifies as Jewish.)

Starring in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Ezra Miller, Emma Watson and Logan Lerman.

Miller's first feature film was City Island (2009), an indie I caught on cable about two years ago. This film, about an incredibly dysfunctional family, starred Andy Garcia and Jewish actress Julianna Margulies. Miller was pretty riveting as their teen son. While somewhat over the top, the film had a zany comic air that made it worth watching.

His next film, Beware the Gonzo, about a high school geek who tries to be cool, co-starred interfaith actress Zoe Kravitz, 23. Although Gonzo didn't get out of film festival showings, casting agents were getting buzz about Miller and he landed recurring TV parts on Californication (2008) and Royal Pains (2009). In 2010, he co-starred in Every Day, playing a gay teen. His parents were played by interfaith actors Liev Schreiber and Helen Hunt.

Miller's breakthrough role, to this point, came in the 2011 British film, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Miller played a boy who massacred students at his high school. Tilda Swinton won several awards for her portrayal of his mother. Various money problems lead to a delayed and limited release of the film and it barely played American theaters, despite strong critical reviews. It is now out on DVD.

While not many have seen his body of work, Miller says he feels lucky to have gotten all these juicy and varied roles as a teen, and that he feels lucky to have already had the opportunity to work with some of the best people in the business. Late last year he told an interviewer, "It's like being a samurai amongst the best samurai in the world, and having to fight for your life."

Surprises in the Garner Files

Now and again, I browse the library shelves for new biographies of famous people and I happened upon the autobiography of actor James Garner, The Garner Files, which came out last year. Garner, 84, has always been a favorite of mine. I was taken with the way he deftly brought humor to roles that weren't written as straight comedies, like his TV series Maverick and The Rockford Files. He was and is a leading man who can act and not just play a big screen version of himself.

James Garner in Maverick.

I didn't realize how hard Garner's Oklahoma childhood was until I read his memoir. Both sides of his family settled in Oklahoma as soon as it was opened to white settlement in 1889. His mother, who was of mixed Native American (her father) and English ancestry, died when he was 4. His father, who was of remote German ancestry, struggled to make a living during the Great Depression and wasn't home very much. Meanwhile, Garner had to cope with an abusive stepmother. But fate got him to Los Angeles in 1945, where he briefly attended high school. He finished high school back in Oklahoma and worked at various menial jobs until he was drafted (1950) to fight in Korea, where he saw a lot of combat and was twice wounded. Returning to Los Angeles in 1952, he ran into an old acquaintance who had become a successful talent agent. This friend told the handsome Garner that he should be an actor and helped him find classes and small stage roles.

Fate smiled on Garner in 1955, when Warner Brothers signed him to a contract. In 1957, Warner Bros., which had gone whole-hog into turning out TV shows, cast Garner as the star of the off-beat western hit, Maverick. It turned Garner into a household name, although the pay was scant for a star role and Garner had to fight Warner Bros. for every dollar. In the 1960s, he emerged as a film star, with memorable roles in The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily and Support Your Local Sheriff. The next three decades saw Garner remain a star as he moved between film and good TV work. My favorites include Murphy's Romance (1986), Victor, Victoria (1982) and Space Cowboys (2000).

I really didn't know much about Garner's love life. Here it is in his words:

I fell in love for the first and last time on August 1, 1956 at an Adlai Stevenson for President barbeque. [Stevenson was the Democratic presidential candidate.] That's where I met Lois Clarke. It was love at first sight. The thunderbolt. She was as beautiful as she was sweet... It was a barbeque and I ended up in the pool with the children. That's how I got to talk to Lois. Within the first few minutes, she told me she had a daughter from her first marriage, Kimberly, who had polio... Lois and I saw each other every day until August 17, when we were married in Beverly Hills courthouse. My family was against the marriage. They pointed out that Lois and I had little in common. I was six feet three inches tall and Lois was petite. I was the outdoor, athletic type and she was the indoor type. I was practical and she was a dreamer. I was from a small town in Oklahoma, and Lois had lived in LA all her life. The biggest objection was the difference in religion: I am a Methodist, Lois is Jewish. But neither of us was ever what you would call religious, so it wasn't an issue, at least not for Lois and me. None of the naysayers had stopped to consider that Lois and I complemented each other. What they saw as weaknesses, we saw as strengths...

Garner goes on to write how he adopted Lois' daughter and that the year after they married they had a daughter together which completed their family.

James Garner and Lois Clarke - then and now.

After I read the passage quoted above, I found online sources which noted that Garner's wife is Jewish — but I really had to look for them.

After being surprised by Garner's hard childhood, and Jewish wife, I found a third surprise in the book: I never realized what a rock-ribbed Democratic liberal Garner has always been. Nowadays, it seems obvious that anyone with a conscience would have attended the famous 1963 rally in Washington DC., where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream Speech." But Garner was one of a relative handful of big name Hollywood actors who flew to Washington for the rally.

Garner's memoir ends with a charming section called "Outakes," in which friends and family have written a few paragraph-long notes about the actor. His wife, Lois, adds some charming details about the "miracle," as she puts it, of their meeting and of their enduring marriage. His daughters, Kimberly Garner and Gigi Garner praise their father as a loving and "hands-on" dad.

For the record, the Garners, now married 56 years, do not hold the title of the longest celebrity Hollywood interfaith marriage "still going." That title is held by Jewish actor Eli Wallach, 96, and his wife since 1948, actress Anne Jackson, 85, who is of Catholic background.

The all-time record holder, so far as I know, was the acting couple Karl Malden, who was of Serbian (Christian) Orthodox background, and his Jewish wife, actress Mona Greenberg. They were married 71 years when Malden died in 2009, age 97.

Mayberry: Interfaith Capital of America?

Andy Griffith, who died on July 3, age 86, had a long and varied acting career. But there's no doubt that he will be remembered best for playing a wise and gentle, small town, Southern sheriff and single father in the classic 1960s TV series, The Andy Griffith Show.

Everyone's favorite sheriff, Andy Griffith.

In 2000, I came across two things at just about the same time that created an interesting juxtaposition in my mind. First, I read about churches that were using video tapes of old Andy Griffith Show episodes as the centerpiece of Sunday school lessons for children and adults alike.

Around the same time, I heard an interview with Carl Reiner, now 90, the famous Jewish writer, director and comedy actor. He said he knew Andy Griffith Show producer Aaron Ruben (1914-2010) quite well. Ruben's first show-biz job was as writer/director of Caesar's Hour (1954-1957), a comedy sketch show starring Jewish comedian Sid Caesar, now 89. Reiner co-wrote Caesar's Hour and often appeared as a sketch actor.

In 1959, Reiner wrote the pilot for what ultimately went on the air as The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961. It was co-produced by Sheldon Leonard (1907-1997), a Jewish character actor who had become a top TV producer. Leonard was also the executive producer of The Danny Thomas Show, starring Danny Thomas, an actor of Lebanese Catholic background. In early 1960, Thomas and Leonard hired Jewish TV writer Arthur Stander to write a pilot for a new series, starring hot young actor Andy Griffith as a Southern sheriff. The pilot was aired as an episode of the Thomas Show and was broadcast in early 1960. The Andy Griffith Show premiered as a series in October, 1960.

Reiner recalled that around the same time he was trying to get The Dick Van Dyke Show on the air, Leonard hired Ruben, who was Jewish, to be the day-to-day main producer of The Andy Griffith Show.

Reiner noted that Ruben, along with Andy Griffith himself, shaped the show into the classic it became. Several of the first season episodes had Sheriff Andy acting in a comic buffoon manner. However, Griffith realized early on that the writers had created a town full of eccentric characters and his character worked better as a "Lincolnesque" straight man for them. Ruben fostered this transition, writing several episodes himself and supervising all the scripts during the five years he was the series' producer.

While Reiner didn't put it this way exactly, it seemed to me that Ruben had pretty consciously turned Griffith's character from a fool into a wise, small town Jewish "rabbi." This is the type of rabbi featured in many Jewish stories; a rabbi who gives sage advice to a "cast" of eccentric members of his congregation or town. (Sholom Alecheim, of Fiddler on the Roof fame, wrote several such stories.)

Andy Griffith

Reiner did say, and this always stuck with me, that Ruben knew Yiddish quite well, and that he often used Yiddish or Jewish folk sayings or Jewish proverbs — "pearls of wisdom" —as dialogue for Sheriff Andy. Sure, the phrases were transliterated into American vernacular, but the meaning remained the same.

I am not sure how formally religious Ruben was. However, I know that he was kind and humane. Griffith Show veterans often recalled how he worked to keep a family atmosphere on the set, making sure, for example, that young actor Ronnie Howard, who played Andy's son, Opie, was well treated and given time off "to be a kid." (Ronnie Howard grew up to be famous director Ron Howard.)

During the last twenty years of his long life, Ruben was a full time advocate for abused children and was honored for his work.

Most of the other writers for The Andy Griffith Show were Jewish, too. They included Everett Greenbaum (29 episodes), Jack Elison (34 episodes) and Frank Tarloff (9 episodes). Tarloff was still blacklisted in 1960 for former left-leaning political ties, so he wrote Griffith scripts under the name "David Adler." As David Adler, he wrote the 1960 Christmas episode that was one of the first season's best shows.

But I wouldn't credit Ruben, or these Jewish writers, alone for the moral tone of the series or the way it struck a chord with most Americans, including virtually all religious Christians. A lot of that credit has to go to Griffith, who, in his youth, thought about becoming a Moravian Protestant pastor and acted as an informal editor of all the scripts, sensing what would fit his character and what would not. He wasn't shy about red-penciling out anything that didn't work.

If one is cognizant of these two streams — and frankly most people are not — it becomes readily apparent that The Andy Griffith Show was a remarkable synthesis of the many aspects of Christian and Jewish morality and ethics that are complimentary.

Sure enough, right after Griffith's death, there were another spate of articles about churches using The Andy Griffith Show as a teaching tool. An article about a North Carolina Presbyterian church says that a pastor plans to rent out a movie theater "so people from all denominations and faiths can participate" in Andy Griffith lessons. It would be lovely if this pastor invited a rabbi to these teaching sessions.

It has also occurred to me that some rabbi should take a cue from these pastors and use Griffith as a teaching tool, too.

A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. 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 "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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