Typically typecast as Nazi, actor fights stereotype in new role

When Hollywood casting directors need a Nazi, they often give Norbert Weisser a call.

From the homicidal Lt. Hujar in “Schindler’s List” to astrophysicist Wernher von Braun in “From Earth to the Moon,” Weisser has the creepy Teutonic thing down cold.

Not that the non-Jewish actor harbors any Nazi sympathies. He says he “escaped” from his native Germany to come to America more than 30 years ago, and he has nothing but contempt for Hitler and his murderous minions.

But Weisser does play such roles convincingly, and he thinks he knows why.

“Bela Lugosi once said an actor needs to find one character to play well and get really good at that,” says Weisser from his L.A. home. “I try to add a human element to a person who might participate in inhuman acts.”

Weisser’s refined instincts earned him several awards earlier this year for his leading role in John O’Keefe’s “Times Like These.” The play makes its Bay Area premiere next week with a monthlong run at Traveling Jewish Theatre.

Loosely based on historical events, “Times Like These” recounts the story of Meta and Oskar Wolf, a married couple and both matinee idols in prewar Germany. She is Jewish, he is not, and though Meta (played by Laurie O’Brien) had been raised Protestant, her career is abruptly ended by the anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s.

“When she can’t work anymore, she goes through a period of deep depression, even insanity,” says Weisser. “Then she takes on her opponents, fighting the powers that be by directing her husband in ‘Hamlet’ from behind the scenes.”

Meta’s struggles to make her husband more than an artistic mediocrity, and to fight the Nazis while cloistered in a cramped Berlin apartment, form the dramatic nucleus of the play. At the same time, it draws disturbing parallels between Hamlet’s Denmark, Hitler’s Germany and contemporary America.

“It’s a love story,” says Weisser, “but a complicated one. Despite everything going against them, they fight back, which gives hope in the end, even though it’s a tragedy.”

In its L.A. outing, the play struck a nerve with audiences and critics, earning Drama Critics awards for best play, best actress and best actor, as well as a pair of Ovation awards for best actress and best actor (O’Brien and Weisser).

The same two actors star in the upcoming run. “There’s a special electricity between us,” says Weisser of his leading lady. “It started 20 years ago when we did our first play together. People think we’re married, but we’re not.”

For someone who utterly commands the stage, Weisser didn’t start life with stars in his eyes.

He was born in a town just south of Frankfurt, baptized Catholic and raised Protestant. As part of Germany’s postwar generation, Weisser faced unique challenges. “The whole school system then was authoritative and oppressive,” he remembers. “Most of my teachers were around during Nazi Germany; they just changed their suits. Humiliation was part of my schooling, but I got tired of being kicked in the behind.”

Though he majored in mechanical engineering as a college student, he dreamed of other things. “America to me was freedom,” he says. “In my hometown, there was a section where Americans lived, and they had everything: Levi’s, cars, rock and roll. I embraced it wholeheartedly, so at 20 I said, ‘I’m out of here,’ packed up, sailed to Virginia and hopped a Greyhound bus to L.A.”

Once in Hollywood, he sought work as an actor. He did anti-Vietnam War street theater, and gradually won roles in film, TV and legitimate theater productions around L.A. Along the way, he met Corey Fischer, a young actor who would later go on to found Traveling Jewish Theatre. Weisser landed his breakout role in the hit 1979 film “Midnight Express,” and never looked back. He’s worked in all entertainment media, including the Broadway production of “Taking Sides” by Ronald Harwood (who wrote the screenplay for “The Pianist”).

Though he feels at home in America, and has shed his Protestant heritage for a custom-blended Taoist-Buddhist faith, Weisser knows he cannot escape his past. “My generation got saddled with the genocide of 6 million Jews,” he says. “It’s something that resonates deeply with me.

“I wondered if there was something wrong with the German psyche, but the devil is in all of us. You have to check that part of yourself that’s capable of doing terrible things to others. If those things get institutionalized, that’s when the s–t hits the fan.”

Coming up for Weisser is a new film in which he has a small part alongside Christopher Walken and Michael Caine. Meanwhile, a much juicier role awaits him in San Francisco.

“I love Traveling Jewish Theatre,” he says, “and I love the people involved. There’s a catharsis to doing this play that’s very satisfying. These kinds of roles, where you can really show yourself, are few and far between. The play really kicks ass.”

“Times Like These” runs Thursday, Jan. 22, through Sunday, Feb. 29, at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., S.F. Tickets: (415) 285-8080 or www.atjt.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.