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Why Writer-Director Gary David Goldberg Made Must Love Dogs

Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Visit www.jewishjournal.com.

Veteran writer-director Gary David Goldberg props his feet on a coffee table in a luxurious suite at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, punctuating his Brooklynese with staccato belly laughs. On this sunny Saturday in Beverly Hills, he's speaking about his new film, Must Love Dogs, about a 37-year-old divorcee (Diane Lane) prodded into Internet dating by her loving yet intrusive family.

But the conversation inevitably veers back to 1950s Bensonhurst, aka "Paradise," the nurturing blue-collar-Jewish area where Goldberg grew up with Orthodox grandparents and well-meaning, if nosy, neighbors. He immortalized the 'hood in "Brooklyn Bridge," one of the most critically acclaimed TV series of the 1990s.

Now he muses with relish about how residents there would have responded to his romantic comedy about personal ads and fortyish divorces.

"Actually there was no one 37 and single in Bensonhurst, because you stayed together, unhappily, for the children," he says. "Except my cousin Pearl, who was spoken of in hushed tones and ultimately moved to California.

"Matchmaking was a lot of fixing up; the whole neighborhood was like J-Date but without a computer, with aunts and uncles and telephones," he adds. "And God forbid a woman of a certain age should be single. People would start talking, 'What's the matter with so-and-so?'"

The 61-year-old Goldberg ("Family Ties," "Spin City") admits to being a "smug married person" who condescended on the personals when he picked up Claire Cook's novel, Must Love Dogs, in a bookstore around 2003. At the time, he had let his agent go and considered himself retired, eschewing his Brentwood home to live in his Revolutionary War era farmhouse in Vermont.

"I didn't own a computer, so I didn't realize Must Love Dogs was a dating tagline," he recalls of the novel. "I thought it was about people who love dogs, and I love dogs." So he bought the book and was surprised canines played only minor roles. Yet he laughed out loud at the Irish-American protagonists who, like his relatives, engaged in "a lot of meddling, a lot of talking about people as if they're not actually there, but with overwhelming love.

"I thought the project would give me something to do besides walking the dogs," he says.

Because the long-married Goldberg was clueless about single life, he consulted relationship experts such as Susan Page to research his film. "I learned that if you're 25 and single you're simply single. If you're 35, you're single with an explanation," he says. "And there are no longer groups of elders supervising the dating process," he adds, referencing Brooklyn. "It seems that dating, like the airlines, has been deregulated, with similar results."

It's surprising that Goldberg has tackled the unfamiliar world of Internet dating, since he's known for mining his own past to create hit TV shows and movies. His definitive 1980s sitcom "Family Ties" pitted an arch-conservative son (Michael J. Fox) against liberal ex-hippie parents like Goldberg and his wife, Diana. His 1989 film, Dad, drew on the year he fought to keep his father alive through a labyrinth of doctors.

"Brooklyn Bridge," of course, revolved around his "Wonder Years" in a two-story house shared by his immigrant grandparents and nuclear family. "Downstairs it was Poland, and upstairs, it was America," he says of the living arrangements. The cocky Goldberg worshipped sports, but was bar mitzvahed Orthodox to respect his relatives.

Dating non-Jews was forbidden, but he broke that taboo (and many others) upon going off to Brandeis University on a sports scholarship. After he was expelled for ditching classes around 1970, he hooked up with Irish-Catholic Diana around 1970 and set off on a world tour with a Labrador named Ubu. Two years later, they conceived their first child in Israel, but ran out of money and had to beg the airfare home.

Goldberg's family promptly embraced non-Jewish Diana "because by that point, they were relived I didn't turn up with a black man," he says.

It wasn't until Goldberg was 30 that he chanced to take a scriptwriting class, which prompted him to buy his first TV set, used, from a motel for $25. He proved a quick study.

"He was one of the few in television who could always be counted on to deliver comedy that was smart and funny," said Howard Rosenberg, former TV critic of the Los Angeles Times. Goldberg's UBU Productions turned out sitcoms that reflected the zeitgeist as well as his real life.

Perhaps Dogs lured him out of retirement, in part, for the chance to explore material that was not autobiographical. The filmmaker does not believe he could find romance after marriage: "When my grandfather died, my grandmother never looked at another man, and I am like my grandmother," he says. So if Goldberg should ever find himself single, what would his Internet dating profile read? "It would be, 'Lonely old man seeks to stay lonely and old," he says.

Naomi Pfefferman is Arts and Entertainment editor for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

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