The veteran actor has been singled out for his rousing performance in Steven Spielberg’s drama. It’s the latest chapter in a long career full of anecdotes.
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By Dave Itzkoff
“Have we met before?” Judd Hirsch asked enthusiastically as he strode into a French bistro last month. “I’ve met everybody before. Maybe we met when you were a baby and I said, ‘I’ll see you when you’re older.’”
When you invite Hirsch, the veteran actor and raconteur, on a lunch date, you’re going to hear stories on top of stories — stories you knew you wanted and stories you didn’t know you were going to get.
The instant he took his seat, Hirsch spun a tale about the afternoon’s dining spot, Boucherie West Village, whose building once housed the Off Broadway theater where he co-starred in the original 1979 production of “Talley’s Folly” by Lanford Wilson.
As the actor told it, an agent affiliated with the play wanted to replace Hirsch because his role in the hit sitcom “Taxi” was going to conflict with a planned Broadway transfer for “Talley’s Folly.”
Instead, Hirsch helped bring the play to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where he performed it that summer and fall during his downtime from “Taxi.” The following winter, Hirsch said proudly, “I came back and did it on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.”
Riding on similar waves of showbiz know-how and sheer bravado, Hirsch can currently be seen barnstorming his way through a crucial portion of “The Fabelmans,” the director Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama.
Hirsch has only a few minutes of screen time, playing Boris, the cantankerous great-uncle of its adolescent protagonist, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle). But the 87-year-old actor makes every frame count as he delivers a galvanic speech to the young Spielberg stand-in, exhorting him to commit to his artistic aspirations while warning that they will be in perpetual conflict with the needs of his family.
Hirsch’s unexpectedly intense performance in “The Fabelmans” — the latest in a decades-long career spanning stage, screen and a 1972 commercial for JCPenney polyester slacks — would seem to be a testament to his endurance in a singularly fickle industry.
But while he is happy for the plum opportunity in a prestigious year-end film, Hirsch could not quite point to any particular reason he should be enjoying another moment in the spotlight right now.
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“I have no idea why I get any part that somebody else can play,” he said. “Or why I don’t get one when I do want to play it. But I’m old enough to know that’s OK.”
Approval is always nice, but Hirsch suggested that an actor’s temperament was forged in far more frequent instances of rejection. When you don’t land a role, he explained, “you can say, ‘What the hell did they see in me that made them turn me down?’ Or you can say, ‘They don’t know what the hell they’re missing.’”
Though he’s long split his time between Los Angeles and New York, Hirsch was born and raised in New York, and didn’t expect much for himself after studying acting at HB Studio in the early 1960s. “I never thought I’d play anything more than a construction worker, criminal or some schlubby guy,” he said.
Instead he went on to play a variety of prominent roles on television (“Taxi,” “Dear John,” “Numbers”), in film (“Ordinary People,” “Independence Day,” “Uncut Gems”) and onstage (“I’m Not Rappaport”).
Presently, when Hirsch wasn’t kibitzing playfully with a waiter (“You don’t mind if I don’t speak French?” the actor said, looking over his menu. “I could say some of those words with a French accent”), he was just as fond of sharing anecdotes from an era when he wasn’t well established.
There was, for instance, the fateful introduction he received while visiting Universal to audition for a TV movie in the early 1970s.
A woman working there began to show him around to other people in the office: “This is so-and-so,” Hirsch recounted. “And this is so-and-so. This is Mr. Spielberg, and he’s sitting behind a desk, and on his desk is ‘Jaws,’ which I had no idea was anything. And she said” — his voice dropped to a stage whisper — “‘He’s going to be very big.’”
“He would not have known of me,” Hirsch said of the fleeting encounter. “Look at all the Spielberg movies since — and I’m not in any of them.”
But their trajectories intersected again a half-century later on “The Fabelmans.” The dramatist Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”), who wrote the screenplay with Spielberg, said that the Boris character was based on an actual member of the director’s extended family.
The real-life Uncle Boris “had worked in some animal handling in the early days of Hollywood and he had been in the circus,” said Kushner, who has collaborated with Spielberg on “Munich,” “Lincoln” and “West Side Story.” Kushner added that the actual Boris “had lived a wild, itinerant life, and that had made him a fearsome figure to his sister, and to his nieces and nephews.”
The scene written for the fictional Boris was intended to impart a lesson about the cost of pursuing an artistic life, Kushner said: “Art has a power that one only imagines one controls. When you access it, if you’re really practicing it, it’s going to take you to the truth. And the truth is sometimes going to be very dangerous.”
Hirsch, who was cast after a video conversation with Spielberg, said his preparation was far less weighty.
“He said you can play it with an accent or not,” Hirsch recalled. “After I read it, I said, what schmuck would not? He’s going to have to like it this way because I’m not going to do it any other way.”
Hirsch said he could channel the frantic passion of the film’s Boris, who feels frustrated that his message is not reaching young Sammy. But the actor said there was only one moment he was “truly scared to do,” when the scene required him to get physical with LaBelle.
“I line the kid up against the wall and I say, ‘Look at me — look at me,’” Hirsch said. “After all that, I want him to see what I had to go through.”
LaBelle said he encouraged Hirsch to “beat the [expletive] out of me.”
“The moment where he pinches my face, I was like, ‘No, no, hurt me. Come on, let’s do it,’” LaBelle recalled.
He added, “It’s not like I’m hanging on the side of a plane. I’m just getting my face pinched.”
Whether his “Fabelmans” performance garners any attention for a year-end film award, Hirsch noted that he had been down this road before.
He pointed out that for work he did in 1980 alone, he was nominated for an Oscar (for “Ordinary People”), an Emmy (“Taxi”) and a Tony (“Talley’s Folly”) — and won none of them. Though Hirsch didn’t mention this, he did go on to win Emmys for “Taxi” in 1981 and 1983.
Hirsch said he was actually relieved he didn’t win for “Ordinary People,” in which he played a psychiatrist treating a traumatized teenager (Timothy Hutton). Both men were nominated as supporting actors, and Hirsch suggested that Hutton — who ultimately won — was more deserving of the honor.
“I said, what’s the worst thing that could happen to me?” Hirsch explained. “I win this damn thing and then have to look at him and make excuse, excuse, excuse — ‘They made a terrible mistake, it should have been you.’”
After a server asked him if he would like some black coffee (“That’s the usual color, isn’t it?” Hirsch replied without missing a beat), the actor resumed delving into his trove of stories from projects that did not earn him any trophies or recognition.
He spoke of his performance in the 1978 drama “King of the Gypsies,” in which his character is shot by Eric Roberts and falls out an apartment window to his death.
“So I said who’s going to do that?” Hirsch recalled. “They said, ‘You.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I arrive at the set and there’s one of those enormous air mattresses in the street.”
Hirsch said he filmed three takes of his fatal fall, but while the finished sequence in the movie shows him taking gunfire and toppling out the window, the part where his character lands on a car was performed by a stuntman.
“Luckily I didn’t have to hit a car,” he said. “Otherwise, you and I would not be talking here.”
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