A bagelly Jew

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“I was beyond green. I was very new at the game. I had never had the lead in the series. I was never number one on the call sheet. And I really enjoyed doing it. The learning curve was high and fast.”

That’s actor Jeffrey Tambor talking about his critically acclaimed TV series, the one that no one watched. No, not “Arrested Development,” Sunday nights on Fox. That, too, is a critically acclaimed series whose ratings resemble the water table in the Sahara. In the summer. On a dry day.

But at the moment, the subject is “Mr. Sunshine,” his mid-’80s miniseries (it lasted just 11 episodes) about a blind man. “I don’t remember much about that, except that it was a miracle: a bald, blind man with a beard on Friday nights against ‘Dallas.’ “

Tambor, who was born and raised in the Bay Area, is philosophical about the experience. “I come from the theater, so I’m used to Broadway closing notices. I was dismayed, but I knew it wasn’t going to last against ‘Dallas.'”

He’s more optimistic, however, about “Arrested Development.” “I remain positive. I think it’s that good.”

Tambor plays George Bluth Sr., the patriarch of a dysfunctional and once wealthy family. In the first episode, he is convicted of securities fraud and sent to prison. Subsequently, Ivan Boesky-like, he rediscovers Judaism in the slammer, and he even produces self-help tapes there to help others find the way.

“I love this role. I’m very proud of it. It’s such a brilliant construct and design by [show creator] Mitch Hurwitz,” he says. “I think it’s smart. I think it’s funny. It’s bold.”

Those are exactly the things critics across the country have said. But why aren’t ordinary people watching?

“That would be a question,” Tambor concedes. “But I get the sense that people are watching.”

Tambor, 59, started studying acting when he was 12, and majored in theater at San Francisco State University, where he earned his degree.

His grandparents were Orthodox, his parents Conservative. “I have so many memories,” he says. “I remember one day being in the synagogue after our cantor had either passed away or moved and they were holding auditions and crying as each one would step up and sing.” Yet puberty seemed to drain those emotions.

“I was bar mitzvahed at gunpoint,” he says. What happened? “I had sort of like questions and … ” His voice trails off as he tries to find the right words. “I’m not making sense. I just didn’t quite get it. Like every young man, I rebelled. My Jewishness has sort of come late. I’m more of a bagelly Jew than anything else, but I am Jewish.”

In fact, “I do believe my stroke as an actor is Jewish. My humor is Jewish. My sense of paradox is Jewish. I grew up in a Hungarian Jewish family, so I have that sense of irony, that ability to turn tragedy into humor.”

He illustrates his point with a story. While filming in Prague, Tambor and his wife traveled to Budapest, Hungary, during a break. They were served by a waiter and, as Tambor recalls:

“First day he came up to us, he was the funniest guy. He was doing accents and I thought him beautifully funny, charming, exotic and wonderful. The second day we’re there the guy doesn’t talk to me, nor does he talk to my wife. The third day he comes up to me in the bathroom and starts weeping on my shoulder about his family and his money situation. On the fourth day, he’s upbeat again.

“That’s me. I’m a Hungarian waiter. I still have the genetic structure of a Hungarian Jew.”

His career has played out “exactly” as he wanted. He went bald prematurely, so even in summer stock early on “I played all the old roles. I became a character actor early in my career and I’ve been very fortunate. I love to work, I love acting, I love being a character actor. Of course, maybe now you’ve given me a kin ahora” (evil eye).

“Most people approach me with respect, trepidation and nausea, all at the same time.”

Like the waiter on a good day, Tambor can’t resist shtick.

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.