Septuagenarian star has zest for life &mdash and the stage

Jack Axelrod’s recent parts include the neighbor with the electric voice box on “My Name is Earl” and a character actually referred to in the script as “Really Old Guy” whose comatose condition allows his room to become an impromptu lounge for all the doctors on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

But make no mistake, Axelrod can deliver a line — and he’s got plenty to say.

The 76-year-old star of Center Repertory Company’s production of “Tuesdays with Morrie” in Walnut Creek is not unlike the eponymous lead character he portrays: He’s a septuagenarian Jew with a zest for life and a rich background as a teacher. (Axelrod is not, thankfully, slowly dying of ALS, as was the real-life Morrie Schwartz of Mitch Albom’s book and play).

Axelrod is no stranger to death, though, and not the “dying on stage” variety any veteran actor has endured. As a young man he worked in his father’s family business, crafting Jewish monuments for Los Angeles-area graveyards (where he still lives).

“This was in the time before computers. And my father would take me to city hall and we went through the death records. And whenever we found a name in the Jewish cemetery my father would write it down and send them literature.”

Axelrod pauses and sighs deeply.

“God, I hated working for my father.”

A career catering to the monumental needs of the bereaved didn’t agree with Axelrod, so he studied architecture at U.C. Berkeley (“I hold a record in one senior design class — nobody took it as many times as me”). But one day Axelrod looked up from his drafting table and came to a realization that would alter the path of his life — there weren’t too many girls around him, but there were plenty in the theater department. So off he ran to an audition and, just like that, landed a part in “Uncle Vanya.”

Despite Axelrod’s self-deprecating sense of humor, he did go on to become a successful architect and regional theater actor. But it wasn’t until he hit New York after a year in Chile (“I was working on a novel called ‘The Architect.’ I got to a third draft but it was garbage and I ran out of money”) that he became an actor and architect instead of an architect and actor.

It all started with a beard, fluency in Spanish and meeting the right director.

“When I met Woody Allen, he kept asking me ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ He must have asked me four times. And I never spoke a word of Spanish in the film,” recalled Axelrod with a laugh.

In “Bananas,” Axelrod played one of the right-hand men to the dictator of San Marcos, at one point informing the generalissimo, “We keep playing to him the entire score of ‘Naughty Marietta’ — it will make him talk!” In a scene left on the cutting-room floor, Allen, dressed in drag as the dictator’s wife, gave Axelrod’s Lt. Arroyo a hotfoot. Axelrod has no recollection as to why Allen was in drag or what this scene was supposed to be about, but it was funny nevertheless.

Axelrod spent four weeks living in a double room at the Puerto Rico Sheraton, earned enough to afford an air conditioner back in New York City and “unpacked my cardboard boxes.”

Since that time he’s appeared steadily on stage, on television and, more rarely, in films. Longtime viewers of “General Hospital” might recall him as crime boss Victor Jerome.

The casting director said, “Jack, I got something for you. Don’t be too Jewish and maybe you’ll get four or five days out of this,” recalled Axelrod.

He got two and a half years — and a lot more than that.

“I got on the show and they gave me a mistress. I got a daughter, a son and an illegitimate son. I tried to kill Luke several times. I had this family and 13 suits. And then I died. I was expecting to meet Lucy in the Quartermaine boathouse. I had just escaped from prison. I gave her a pendant but she rejected me. I swallowed the pendant and choked to death. For four days I floated in the bay of Port Charles.”

None of the 13 suits were ruined in the bay, incidentally. Jerome had been wearing other clothes to facilitate his prison escape.

While script rewrites often came at the very last minute for “GH,” Axelrod said he enjoys the challenge of the stage more. Extended shows give him the chance to develop a role; though he’s played Morrie in several productions, he hasn’t finished developing him.

“There are elements of this character, this wish to be here and now and a wish for … ” he pauses, searching for the right word ” … authenticity. Morrie strives for it. If that runs Morrie’s life, it runs mine. I don’t know what your far goals are, but I can verbalize mine. Enlightenment and authenticity. That’s what Morrie strove for. He didn’t always succeed. But he went for it.”

“Tuesdays With Morrie” run through Nov. 18 at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets: $14-$38. Information: or call (925) 943-SHOW.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.