The Primetime Emmy Awards, for excellence in TV, air Sunday, Sept. 20, 8PM, on CBS. Let’s face it, the Emmys are a bit of a bore with too many categories and mostly the same actors nominated each year. To spice things up a bit, I’ve thrown in a few fun little factual nuggets or noshes about the actors’ Jewish and interfaith backgrounds you can share with friends this winter as you gather for warmth around the TV set.
Four of the six Emmy nominees for best voice-over acting performance are Jewish. Ron Rifkin is nominated for his narration of a PBS documentary on the life of Jerome Robbins, the famous Jewish dancer/choreographer. Seth Green was tapped for various roles on Robot Chicken, an animated series and Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer for various roles on the animated series, The Simpsons.
Rifkin’s first TV guest shot (1966) was on Gidget, a teen series starring Sally Field in the title role. They reunited 40 years later on the current TV series Brothers and Sisters, playing siblings who are adult children of an interfaith family. In the same Gidget episode, actress Barbara Hershey appears as one of Gidget’s best friends. This was Hershey’s first TV guest shot, too. Hershey, who was raised secular, is the daughter of a Jewish father.
Green and Shearer both began as child actors. Green’s first major movie role was in Woody Allen‘s 1986 film, Radio Days. He played a 10-year-old Jewish boy during WWII. (Really, a ten-year-old version of Woody Allen.)
Shearer was in the pilot (1957) for Leave It to Beaver, playing a nasty kid. But when the comedy show was picked up for weekly broadcast, Harry’s parents thought he was too young to work that much and declined an offer for Harry to be a series regular.
Green is also nominated as the producer of Robot Chicken, which is up for an Emmy for best animated series. He competes with James L. Brooks, a co-producer of The Simpsons, and Matt Stone, the co-producer and co-creator of South Park.
Stone is the son of an Irish father and a Jewish mother. While raised secular, he has described himself as culturally Jewish. The Jewish South Park character, Kyle, is modeled after Stone, as he explained in a profile for the Jewish Student News Service.
Sarah Silverman (The Sarah Silverman Program) is nominated for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series. Earlier this year, Silverman broke up with comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who isn’t Jewish, after a five year plus, on and off but mostly on, romantic relationship.
Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) picked up another Emmy nomination for lead actress in a dramatic series. Sedgwick has been nominated every year in this category since the show began in 2006 and maybe this is her year. Sedgwick is the daughter of a WASP father and a Jewish mother and identifies as Jewish.
William Shatner is nominated for best supporting actor in a comedy series (Boston Public) for playing lawyer Denny Crane. This is Shatner’s fifth nomination in a row for this part. He won the award in 2004. Another Jewish veteran actor, Ed Asner, is up for best guest actor in a drama series, playing Jewish character Abraham Klein in a CSI:NY episode entitled “Yarzheit.”
In 1998, Asner married Cindy Gilmore, who is Catholic. Gilmore is the sister of the mother of San Francisco’s current mayor, Gavin Newsom. Sadly, Gilmore and Asner filed for divorce this year.
Matthew Weiner, the creator of AMC cable’s Mad Men, is nominated four times in the outstanding writing for a drama series category (four different Mad Men episodes he wrote). The only other nominee in the category is a Lost episode script co-written by Damon Lindelof, who is also Jewish.
Jon Stewart and David Javerbaum are up for a writing Emmy (best variety, musical, or comedy series) for The Daily Show. Also, David Simon, creator of the acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, is up for best script of a mini-series or movie, Generation Kill.
Javerbaum is also nominated for an Emmy for a song he co-wrote with Adam Schlesinger for Stephen Colbert‘s Comedy Central Christmas Special. (Schlesinger is the bassist of the group Fountains of Wayne, which had a big hit with “Stacey’s Mom.”) He was Oscar-nominated for writing the title track of the movie, That Thing You Do and he was nominated, in 2008, for the Tony for best musical score for the Broadway show, “Cry Baby.”
Javerbaum and Schlesinger, who are Jewish, vie for the best song Emmy with Andy Samberg, also Jewish, who co-wrote an Emmy nominated song for Saturday Night Live.
Also worthy of note are: Alan Alda ( best guest actor, comedy, 30 Rock ), Gabriel Byrne (best lead actor, drama, In Treatment ), Ken Howard (best supporting actor, mini-series or movie, Grey Gardens), Kevin Bacon (best lead actor, mini-series or movie, Taking Charge ), Sally Field, (best lead actress, drama, Brothers and Sisters ) and Michael J. Fox, as producer of the special, Michael J. Fox: An Incurable Optimist.
None of these actors are Jewish, but all are married or were once married to Jewish spouses. Byrne was formerly married to Jewish actress Ellen Barkin and their children are being raised in their mother’s faith with Byrne’s hearty approval. (In Treatment, by the way, is based on an original Israeli TV series).
Fox is married to Jewish actress Tracy Pollan and their four children are being raised Jewish. Alda’s wife of the last 52 years is Jewish and their three daughters, now adults, were raised Jewish.
Bacon has been married to Kyra Sedgwick since 1988. (Their children have been raised secular). Howard was married, from 1977 to 1991, to Margo Lederer Howard, the Jewish daughter of the famous advice columnist Ann Landers (born Esther Friedman). They had no children.
Field’s second husband, with whom she had a son, was Jewish producer Alan Greisman. They were married from 1984-1993.
Finally, there’s Jon Hamm, who is double Emmy nominated this year in the leading actor in a drama series for his work on Mad Men and for best guest appearance in a comedy series for 30 Rock.
Hamm has been romantically involved with actress/screenwriter Jennifer Westfeldt (Kissing Jessica Stein) since 1997. Westfeldt, the daughter of a Jewish mother, identifies as Jewish. Hamm told the NY Post earlier this year:
We may not have a piece of paper that says we’re husband and wife, but after 10 years, Jennifer is more than just a girlfriend. What we have is much deeper and we both know that. To me, people [should] get married when they’re ready to have kids, which I’m not ruling out.
Sandra Bullock’s new comedy/drama film, All About Steve, was panned by critics and will soon be out of the theaters. Before it opened, I tried to find out whether there was some interfaith angle in the film. Bullock’s character’s name is Mary Horowitz. Horowitz is almost always a Jewish surname and Mary, for obvious reasons, is considered to be a Christian first name.
Well, according to the reviews, Mary Horowitz is supposed to be of interfaith background. The subject only comes up once in the film, via a line of dialogue that is practically nonsensical. The character says she is stubborn because she is “half Catholic, half Jewish.” What? Reviewer Michael Sragow takes apart the film and that line for the Baltimore Sun.
Lifetime Cable TV, which mostly runs mediocre original TV movies, takes a leap into “HBO-like” quality with the original TV film, Georgia O’Keefe. It is about the turbulent romantic and professional relationship between famous painter Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) and famous photographer Alfred Steiglitz (1864-1946). (Premieres Saturday, Sept. 19, 8 PM. Check listings for encore showings.)
Steiglitz was born in New Jersey, the son of wealthy and assimilated German Jewish parents. He was one of the first great photographers and he is credited with helping to turn photography into a major modern art form. He was also O’Keefe’s greatest benefactor and mentor. O’Keefe, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, was of Irish and Hungarian Catholic background. Most famous for her paintings of flowers, O’Keefe is now ranked among the most important American painters.
Oscar nominee Joan Allen plays O’Keefe and Oscar winner Jeremy Irons plays Steiglitz.
The film is directed by Bob Balaban, who is Jewish. Balaban got a best director Emmy nomination last year for his excellent HBO original film, Bernard and Doris, a bio-pic about the real lives of tobacco heiress Doris Duke and her butler, Bernard Lafferty.
Religion, I gather, didn’t play much of a role in the lives of either Steiglitz or O’Keefe. In briefly looking over the biographical literature about them, it seems to come up only in a tangential way. Both Steiglitz and O’Keefe were important members of the American avant-garde art scene of the early and mid 20th century.
While neither of them were personally all that political, the avant garde scene was perceived by contemporary reactionary elements as being radical, “too Jewish,” “too feminist,” and a challenge to the established order. Here and there some reactionary critics attacked Steiglitz for being Jewish. Many of these same critics dismissed O’Keefe’s talent out-of-hand because she was a woman.
The film, I gather, does show Steiglitz’s womanizing ways. He left his first (Jewish) wife for O’Keefe, whom he married. Later, while still married to O’Keefe, he took up with a woman much younger than O’Keefe.
But Steiglitz’s romantic escapades shouldn’t obscure the fact that Steiglitz was a champion of women in the arts. Remarkably for his time, he constantly displayed the photographs of woman photographers in his famous New York galleries. He never seemed to care about the gender of a talented photographer or painter.
Promoting the works of women artists was a radical act in its time, and when a radical act is carried out by a Jew, there is always an anti-Semitic backlash. Coming Up In Our Next Column: Our Annual Pro Football Run-Down and Jewish/Interfaith actors in New TV series.