Judd Hirsch talks about “this thing called acting”
On a warm winter’s day, Judd Hirsch returned to Coney Island. The first time he came here was over 80 years ago. What’s different now? “Only three things that are identical,” he said. “There’s the Cyclone, and there’s the Wonder Wheel, and there’s the skydive.”
As a child, he did all the rides. But it’s more than an amusement park for Hirsch. This is the place that changed his life. “If you look across the ocean, you can be anyone,” he said. “You can be anyone if you walk this walk. All I know is I didn’t want to be who I was.”
Who he was is a far cry from who Judd Hirsch is today. At eighty-seven, he’s perfected the art of turning the Everyman into someone extraordinary. His method? “The only thing I’m going to do is be honest. I’ll play what I think is the most truthful thing about the character. That’s all I can do.”
Whatever truth Hirsch finds in his characters works. He made his living as an actor for almost 60 years. A Tony Award winner on stage, he’s also been on TV for decades, starring in “Dear John,” “Numbers” and two Emmys lead actor as Alex Reiger in “Taxi.”
During that run, Hirsch went to Hollywood, working for director Robert Redford on “Ordinary People,” earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Forty-two years later, he’s been nominated again, this time for director Steven Spielberg in “The Fabelmans.”
Hirsch said: “The pride I felt being in this movie was greater than anything I’ve ever had to be in any other movie. I had to bring it, be him, all on my own. .”
He’s been doing it all by himself from the start. The son of immigrants, Hirsch was born into poverty, bouncing from apartment to apartment in the Bronx, then in Brooklyn. “We didn’t have it easy,” he said. “My mom and dad separated when I was two, didn’t come back until five years later. So we lived in basements and furnished rooms, rooming houses.”
In college, Hirsch was well on his way to becoming an engineer, with only one semester to go. But his circuits weren’t connecting. “From three and a half years to a four-year degree, and I dropped everything,” he said. “It was like…a little voice saying, ‘Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be the same guy you’ve been all this time?'”
That little voice pushed him to try something creative… to be an artist, a performer. “No one in my family came from the theater,” he said. “Nobody in my family is from that industry. I didn’t know what acting was. All I knew was if they convinced me they could make me feel something, that is it funny or [whatever]I would love to know how they do it. How do they do this?”
Hirsch has dedicated himself to answering this question. He took acting lessons and got his first paying gig in the Broadway production of “Barefoot in the Park.” “When I got this job, I never stopped. It was in 1966. And to this day, I have never worked any year.”
Hirsch landed commercials; he had this comforting familiarity with him. The ads led to a few small roles in movies, like “Serpico,” and eventually, a big break: an offer to be the voice of reason in a new series about eccentric New York cabbies.
There was no interest. “My agent said to me, ‘Do you want to do this? And I read it, and I didn’t really want to go on TV, [so I said]’Make them an offer they can’t accept.'”
What he said was “Put my name before the title of the show” – they would never go for that!
The problem was that they did.
Hirsch has fond memories of “Taxi” and its cast, including the legendary (let’s say complicated) Andy Kaufman as Latka, whom Hirsch simplifies to five words: “He was a lovely man. By the way, I wanted to play this role.”
Fast forward four decades; thanks to Steven Spielberg, Hirsch got a chance to play an eccentric immigrant with a heavy accent. “So Steven Spielberg calls me up and says, ‘I need someone, like that part of the guy who made me a director.’ He said he’s an old uncle, great-uncle. So I’m going, ‘Okay, no background, nothing, nothing, nothing.'”
With a blank canvas, Hirsch thought back to his days in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel. “He’s not going to describe this guy, and he expects me to be like him? … OK, let me take my experience. The only one I had was Coney Island.”
And his experiences here as a boy helped him find Uncle Boris in “The Fabelmans.”
Hirsch said, “For me it was the local circus, it was really a circus. The role I played in ‘Fabelmans’, I think, brought it all into focus.”
Mankiewicz said, “You wanted to come back here? You wanted us to see this place?
“I wanted to remember what made me choose, somewhere, to become an actor.”
“And you think it was here?” It started here?
“Yes, I had to,” he replied.
From a child on the Cyclone to a second Oscar nomination, Judd Hirsch’s road has been long and there are still miles to go. “I’m just getting started,” he said. “If I want to do this, what’s the next step? I mean really, what’s the next step?”
To watch a trailer for “Les Fabelmans”, click on the video player below:
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Publisher: Joseph Frandino.