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Interfaith Celebrities in Iron Men

Opening May 2 in theaters in Iron Man, a big budget flick based on the Marvel Comics’ Iron Man character. Robert Downey, Jr., whom I have profiled in this column in the past, has the title role. The film is directed by Jon Favreau.

The movie opens as Tony Stark (Downey), a rich industrialist and inventor, is captured by terrorists in Afghanistan. Ordered to build a missile, Stark instead builds a power armor suit and escapes to America. He improves his suit to the point that he emerges as the tech-superhero Iron Man. Gwyneth Paltrow, whose late father was Jewish, plays Stark’s secretary and budding love interest. (See my profile of Paltrow).

Shaun Toub, a Jewish actor who was born in Iran, has a juicy supporting role as a doctor who aids Stark. (Toub is perhaps best known for playing the Iranian Muslim shopkeeper in Crash.)

The Iron Man character was created by Marvel Comics’ Jewish founder Stan Lee, his brother Larry Lieber (Stan Lee was born Stan Lieber), and the late graphic artist Jack Kirby, who was also Jewish. Stan Lee has a cameo in the movie.

Favreau says he cast Downey because of Downey’s past history of drug abuse: “The best and worst moments of Robert’s life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark. Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic-book character who is having trouble in high school, or can’t get the girl.”

Iron Man, like a handful of other comic characters, was not born with or magically endowed with superpowers. Rather, he is a self-made superhero, creating his superpowers by virtue of his own intelligence. In some sense, Jon Favreau is like Iron Man. Unlike most Hollywood actors, Favreau was not blessed with great good looks and he is an improbable, self-made Hollywood success story as an actor, writer, and director.

Favreau, 41, was born in Queens, New York, the son of an Italian Catholic father and a Jewish mother. Both his parents were schoolteachers. In 2003, Favreau directed the big hit Christmas movie, Elf, and he discussed his unusual and moving interfaith upbringing with the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in 2003:

While neither family was initially thrilled by the interfaith marriage, all of Favreau’s grandparents regarded Christmas as an important holiday. His Jewish grandfather had observed it since procuring gifts for his younger siblings so they didn’t feel left out of Yuletide fun while growing up with a single mother during the Depression.

“When I was growing up, we’d have the traditional Christmas Eve dinner with my Catholic grandmother, and then Christmas morning would be lox and bagels with my Jewish side,” Favreau said.

The holiday represented a joyous family time until Favreau’s father revealed some shocking news a few days before Christmas 1979. Madeleine Favreau had been admitted to the hospital for what 12-year-old Jon thought was an ulcer; she had kept her leukemia a secret from most people.

“My father pulled me aside and said, ‘Put on something nice, we’re going to the hospital,’ ‘I said, ‘What’s the big deal?’ And he said, ‘Your mother is going to die today or tomorrow.’ And I went in, and she had gone.”

Afterward, both sides of the family banded together to make sure Favreau, who had dropped out of Hebrew school to pursue acting, became a bar mitzvah.

But Christmas went from a very happy time of the year to a very traumatic time ,he said. “Over the years, I felt like I had not only lost my mother, I had lost Christmas.”

Time helped, as did the Jewish tradition of naming one’s child after a deceased loved one. (Favreau’s daughter, Madeline, is named after his mother).

Favreau graduated from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science and went on to study at Queens College. However, he was bit by the entertainment bug and he dropped out of college a few credits short of his degree and went off to Chicago to appear in improvisational comedy troupes.

In 1993, Favreau got his first film role–a juicy supporting role playing Sean Astin‘s tutor in Rudy, a college football film that was a surprise hit. While filming, he met actor Vince Vaughn, who has been his best friend since the time they met.

In 1996, Favreau and Vaughn had their breakthough roles in the indie hit, Swingers, which Favreau wrote. Favreau gave a poignant performance as an aspiring stand-up comic filled with self-doubt. Vaughn was a perfect foil as the comic’s oh-so-cool, glib and handsome friend.

Since Swingers, Favreau has regularly acted in TV and films and he is the host of the IFC cable channel talk show Dinner at Five. He has directed four feature films: Made, (2001) which also co-starred Vaughn, was a critically well-received flick about two working class New York guys. Written by Favreau, it only did modest business. Elf, which was written by Jewish screenwriter David Berenbaum, was one of the biggest Christmas movies ever–grossing over 200 million dollars. Favreau’s next flick, Zarutha, from a children’s story by Polar Express author Chris Van Allsburg (who is a convert to Judaism)–got pretty good reviews, but did poorly at the box office.

If Iron Man does well, it seems certain that a planned sequel will be greenlighted for production.

In 2000, Favreau married Dr. Joya Tillem, a Jewish physician who practices in Los Angeles. The couple have three children, a son and two daughters. Favreau belongs to a Los Angeles synagogue and I gather he is a regular synagogue-goer. In 2007, he hosted a banquet to raise funds for the Jewish Television Network and he remarked about seeing a prominent Jewish entertainment executive at Sabbath services every week at his synagogue. Favreau contrasted this executive’s behavior with other Hollywood Jewish execs who are in their offices every Sabbath, pouring over box office receipts.

Chelsea Clinton
Chelsea Clinton looks so grown up on the campaign trail. Reuters/Tim Shaeffer

A lot of Hollywood actors talk about taking charge of their own careers via writing or directing, but not many seriously try their hands at these pursuits and even fewer pull it off. Favreau is the rare Hollywood-style “Tony Stark”.

Follow-Up on Two Chelseas

Some updates on two Chelseas I previously profiled in this column:

Chelsea Clinton, whose “serious” Jewish boyfriend is Marc Mezvinsky (see my earlier column)–reportedly helped drum-up support for her mother among the Pennsylvania Jewish community by appearing at a Philadelphia synagogue with an unnamed “college friend” (was it Marc, who attended Stanford with Chelsea?). Chelsea was also spotted at a Passover Seder in the Keystone State just before the primary.

Comedian Chelsea Handler, whose father is Jewish as I wrote in a previous column, is out with a new book, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea. In the words of the book’s publicity release: “The comedienne star of The Chelsea Handler Show describes her experiences with misbegotten boyfriends, her eccentric mixed-religion parents, and the working world, a lifetime marked by numerous inebriated misadventures.”

Handler was recently on the Today Show to promote her book. Her interview is a lot of fun–and she touches on her “selfish” reasons for choosing to identify as Jewish rather than as a Mormon, like her mother.

Nate Bloom

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


Author: Nate Bloom