Yiddishkeit, Bronx sensibilities keep Showtime executive sane

Jerry Offsay is busy working the room.

He is shmoozing with Marg Helgenberger, late of "China Beach."

Actors Judd Hirsch and F. Murray Abraham, and author Elmore Leonard all receive dollops of the Offsay charm.

Offsay, president of programming for Showtime Networks Inc., has come to New York City to announce about six months worth of original programming to a room full of television industry media people.

Offsay is a showbiz powerhouse. He has enough dollars at his disposal to finance several original series plus more than 50 films a year. Some are Kung Fu fighter-action trash, or the late-night "R"-rated soft core porn that made cable famous.

But there are also a surprising number of quality productions: "The Twilight of the Golds," based on the Jonathan Tolins play about the way in which a Jewish family copes with the possibility of a gay child being born; "In the Presence of Mine Enemies," a re-make of the Rod Serling Playhouse 90 drama set in 1943 Warsaw immediately before the uprising; and three two-hour films produced by Barbra Streisand under the generic heading "Rescuers: Stories of Courage," about non-Jews who risked their lives rescuing victims of the Holocaust.

Offsay loves what he's doing. The truth is, what's to complain?

Though he grew up just a few miles away, in the Bronx, the world he now inhabits seems light-years away from the Parkchester development where he was raised.

However, Offsay has brought his Bronx sensibilities with him to his home in Los Angeles and to his job at Showtime. Consider that Offsay, who attended Hebrew school for five years, sends his four children to Hebrew day school.

"In Hebrew school," he explains, "I got a lot of the historical and cultural. What I didn't get was the ethical, and I wanted my children to get that. I also wanted to get them away from the materialistic bent of some of the private schools in Los Angeles."

While he laughs at the idea that Jews control Hollywood — "That's a most absurd notion," he contends — he is extremely candid about how his being Jewish affects the films he makes and the actors he casts, and his views of the way Jews are portrayed in Tinseltown. Ethics, the need to the right thing, even tikkun olam (healing the world), are expressions that pepper his conversation.

"There are no blacks and whites in real life," he says. "That's what I get from my background. To put myself in somebody else's shoes. To be able to see things from their perspective."

That is not the only way his Yiddishkeit affects his and Showtime's outlook. "I think we try and do day-in and day-out good, dramatic storytelling about real people and real-life situations. I don't think we're Pollyanna when we do our films. The good guy doesn't always win, because that wouldn't reflect the reality of the world.

"But especially when it comes to kids' films, we like to do something that has a strong moral compass to it, that shows good will triumph and evil will be punished, that there is a right and a wrong in the world and doing the right thing counts for something."

Two or three times he has passed on a script that has portrayed Jews negatively. "I can't stop it from being made, but I'm not going to be the person who brings it forth," he says.

In a similar vein, he mentions a Showtime film — he doesn't want the name printed — in which the director was planning to cast an "identifiably Jewish character" in the patently villainous role. "I didn't want a Jewish guy playing such a virulently hateful character," Offsay admits.

Generally he has no feeling one way or the other about the manner in which Jews are portrayed in the media. "That's a broad question," he says. "It's all over the lot. Look at Judd Hirsch's character in `Independence Day.' There were people who were furious about it, saying he was just a caricature of the little Jewish man. And then there were others who were thrilled that they had the guts in this mainstream commercial movie to show a little old Jewish man, what he believed in, what he thought."

Even his own "Twilight of the Golds" — which detailed a family's conflict on what to do when genetic testing reveals that the patriarch's first grandchild, still a fetus, carries genes that indicate a propensity to homosexuality — showed the Golds, warts and all.

"When their warts were showing, I said I wish these people were anything other than Jews. I have reservations, with all the anti-Semitism in the world, showing Jews with warts on them, because people of a certain mind could say, `That's the way Jews are,' and draw generalizations. The flip side is that we ought to be able to honestly portray all people, their pluses and minuses."

Offsay was the third of four children. His father operated a small display-design company and his mother was the company bookkeeper. Offsay attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, and after college, Columbia law school. A summer working at a Los Angeles firm with an entertainment law practice led him to the film industry.

Though he joined that firm and was made a partner at age 28, Offsay decided his future lay elsewhere. He worked first at RKO and then at ABC productions, where "I learned what people respond to, the difference between a good script and a bad script."

He also discovered that broadcast networks had largely abandoned the intelligent two-hour film. "If it was exploitive, if it was a true crime with a somewhat tawdry element, we thought we had a good shot at selling it to one of the [broadcast] networks. If it required a little more thinking, if it was a little less obvious entertainment, then we knew we weren't going to be able to sell it to one of the networks."

So when the opportunity to move to Showtime came up, Offsay grabbed it.

He soon began approving edgy, theatrical-quality films that are beginning to put Showtime in the kind of rarified stratosphere formerly limited to competitor Home Box Office.

In his nerve-wracking business, Offsay often relies on a childhood memory to recapture his center.

"I remember the junior congregation being the quietest hour of the week. The time you could most reflect on things."

When he attends services now, "I find it absolutely calming, an oasis in a world of complete turmoil."

Curt Schleier
Curt Schleier

Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author who covers business and the arts for a variety of publications. Follow him on Twitter at @tvsoundoff.