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Interfaith Celebrities: Rudolph Takes a Trip

June 9, 2009

Away We Go, directed by interfaith director Sam Mendes, 43, is a much lighter movie than his previous pic Revolutionary Road. (Opens in wide release Friday, June 12.)

Former Saturday Night Live cast member Maya Rudolph, 36, stars as Verona, an introspective woman who is married to Burt, a somewhat goofy guy played by John Krasinski of The Office.

Maya Rudolph and Jon Krasinsky
Maya Rudolph and Jon Krasinsky in a publicity photo from the movie Away We Go.

Burt and Verona live in Colorado to be near Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara). But the parents decide, practically on a whim, to move to Europe. This prompts Burt and Verona, who is six months pregnant, to travel around and look for a new place to set down roots. They visit friends and family across America and Canada, some of whom are comically wacky and/or insufferable. The excellent supporting cast includes another actress from an interfaith background, Maggie Gyllenhaal, 31, as an old friend who has turned into a smugly superior Women's Studies professor.

While the professor turns out to be a pain, other people the couple meet provide better role models for "creating your own extended family"—when your blood relations are nowhere around.

Rudolph is the daughter of Jewish music producer Dick Rudolph and the late African-American singer Minnie Riperton ("Lovin' You"), who died of cancer in 1979. Riperton wasn't Jewish.

I wish I knew more about Rudolph's religious upbringing—if any—but she simply hasn't talked about it. She has mentioned her father is Jewish, as in this quote from a 2001 issue of Rosie magazine: "My mom was black and my dad is Jewish, and I lost my mom when I was seven ... That made me feel really different from other kids."

No doubt growing up in greater Hollywood among show-biz types gave Rudolph some exposure to secular Jewish culture, and maybe a bit more. She went to the same private grade school as interfaith actress Gwyneth Paltrow. She became friends with Paltrow, and her father and Paltrow's parents (the late Jewish director Bruce Paltrow and non-Jewish actress Blythe Danner) also became close friends. Paltrow's family celebrated Jewish holidays and Paltrow has several times remarked on her father's "Jewish warmth."

After finishing college, Rudolph became a member of the famous Los Angeles-based Groundlings comedy improvisation group. The Groundlings and Chicago's Second City improvisation group have provided almost half of the performers who have filled the ranks of the Saturday Night Live cast since the show began in 1975.

Rudolph followed that well-trod path and, in 1999, joined the cast of SNL. She stayed until 2007.

While Rudolph hasn't talked much about her Jewish background, she has related the hurdles facing her as an interracial actress. In 2001, she spoke to Vibe, a magazine that covers hip-hop/urban culture with a focus on music, about her difficulties. Here's an excerpt:

She [Rudolph] says her ambiguous racial appearance (African-American mother and Jewish father) helps her portray characters from different backgrounds, but it wasn't always an asset. "Agents in L.A. were like, 'We don't know what you are, so we won't cast you,'" says Rudolph, who was discovered by an SNL scout while a member of the Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings. "Hopefully, all those bastards who were like, 'You can't play that. You're weird looking,' can open their eyes now."

It's great that Sam Mendes gave Rudolph a starring role in his new film. If it's a hit, it should give the actress a significant career boost. As hard as it was for Rudolph to establish herself in the public eye with Saturday Night Live, it is just as hard for most SNL veterans to sustain a good post-SNL career. Some have succeeded; more have not.

Ginsberg on Film

A few years ago, novelist Truman Capote was the subject of two major biopics released almost back-to-back. Now, famous Jewish Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) will get the Capote treatment.

Allen Ginsberg in 1984
Allen Ginsberg plays the harmonium at a poetry reading in 1984. Photo: Wikimedia/MDC Archives.

Gus Van Sant (Milk) is set to direct Howl, a film whose title is taken from Ginsberg's famous 1956 poem of the same name. In 1957, San Francisco bookstore owner and now-famous Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was charged with obscenity for selling "Howl."

Ferlinghetti, who is now 90 and still very much "together," has one of the odder backgrounds I've ever come across. The poet's mother was a Sephardic Jew from France. His father was a non-Jewish Italian immigrant. His father died before he was born and his mother was committed to a mental institution when he was about 5. She remained hospitalized for the rest of her life, while Lawrence was taken in by his mother's sister. His aunt worked as a maid for a rich WASP couple. When he was 7, his aunt left him in the care of this couple, who raised him as their son.

Well, back to the "Howl" tale: Ferlinghetti's arrest for selling "filth" caused a sensation, and he and Ginsberg became minor household names.

Major literary figures lined up to testify for the defense. Famous Jewish attorney Jake Ehrlich (1900-1971), reputed to be the model for Perry Mason, represented the defense for free and he persuaded a San Francisco judge to rule that "Howl" wasn't obscene.

James Franco, 31, an actor with an interfaith background, is set to play Ginsberg, and Jon Hamm, the star of TV's Mad Men, will play Ehrlich. Hamm, by the way, is married to actress Jessica Westfeldt, who also comes from an interfaith family.

Howl will open next year.

Also set to open in 2010 is Kill Your Darlings. It is based on another dramatic event in Ginsberg's life. In 1944, Ginsberg was a Columbia University student living in New York City. His friends included then-unknown writer Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg and Kerouac were caught up in a big mess when their young friend Lucien Carr killed a much older man who had stalked Carr for years. Carr claimed the killing followed an unwanted sexual advance and physical attack.

Playing Ginsberg is Jewish actor Jesse Eisenberg, 25. He had a recent film hit with Adventureland, and Rolling Stone magazine just named Jesse its "hot nerd of the year."

You can learn more about the history behind Howl—the San Francisco Chronicle republished Ferlinghetti's essay on the birth of "Howl" and the obscenity trial in 2006.

Hawthorne

Hawthorne is a new, original TNT cable series that premieres on Tuesday, June 16, at 8 p.m. African-American actress Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Will Smith, plays Christina Hawthorne, a compassionate but tough chief nurse at a major hospital. She is close friends (and maybe more) with Dr. Tom Wakefield, an oncologist who treated her late husband.

Playing Wakefield is hunky actor Michael Vartan, 40, who is best known for his co-starring role on TV's Alias. I first became aware of Vartan when he played Drew Barrymore's love interest in the charming 1999 comedy Never Been Kissed.

Vartan, who is fluent in both English and French, grew up in France and America. He is the son of a French-Jewish mother of Polish-Jewish background and a non-Jewish father who was born in Bulgaria and is of Armenian and Hungarian ancestry.

In 2005, Vartan told a Newsweek reporter who complimented him on his French accent: "The funny thing is I'm actually a Polish Jew who happens to be born in France. My mom is Polish and my dad is Bulgarian. I don't have an ounce of French blood. But I work it."

Also in the cast of Hawthorne is Canadian-Jewish actor David Julian Hirsh, 36. He plays Ray Stein, a nurse. Stein's character is trying to fit in a profession dominated by women.

Hirsh co-starred in the short-lived Showtime series Leap Years (2001). It was a clever show, but it didn't find an audience and was cancelled after only 20 episodes were made. Those who saw it might remember that Hirsh played the son of a very rich Jewish businessman who ultimately married a non-Jewish woman.

In 2007, Hirsh starred as the central Jewish character in St. Urbain's Horsemen, a Canadian Broadcasting Company miniseries based on the novel by the late Mordechai Richler. The series will come out on DVD this September.

Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa.

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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