Almost famous: Woody Allens sidekick tells his story

There’s a memorable scene in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, rants about finding anti-Semites everywhere he goes.

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC and I said, ‘Did you eat yet?’ and [they] said, ‘No, Jew?’ Not, ‘Did you,’ but ‘Jew eat? Jew?’ Not ‘Did you,’ but ‘Jew eat?’ ”

To which his pal Rob — played by the prolific stage and screen actor Tony Roberts — replies, “Max, you see conspiracies in everything.”

Woody Allen, Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton in a 1977 shot from “Annie Hall”

It’s an exchange that sums up a quintessential relationship in Allen’s oeuvre: the nervous, insecure shlemiel (played by Allen himself) and his level-headed, self-assured friend.

In several of Allen’s films in the 1970s and ’80s — including “Play It Again, Sam,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Stardust Memories” — that role belonged to Roberts. His confident onscreen presence — not to mention his tall frame, broad shoulders and brown curly mane — was the perfect foil for Allen’s various neurotic characters, making them more funny and enjoyable to watch.

Roberts says today that his comedic interplay with Allen was nothing less than serendipitous. “I don’t even know what chemistry we lucked upon. Allen said to me, ‘You know, people like our shmoozing.’ Well, clearly people liked it because he made use of it in six films.”

Those films have been on Roberts’ mind quite a lot in the past year. The actor, 76, has published a new memoir that dishes entertainingly on his decades in film, theater and TV, and explores how he built a successful career while teetering somewhere between fame and anonymity.

In “Do You Know Me?” Roberts writes that he could star in Broadway shows and hit films and receive critical praise — yet people would approach him on the street wondering where they had seen him before.

Aside from providing a peek inside his celebrity-filled life — the memoir is filled with anecdotes about working with legends like Sidney Lumet, who directed him in “Serpico” opposite Al Pacino, and Julie Andrews, with whom he co-starred in the Broadway production of “Victor/Victoria” — Roberts hopes the book will be a guide for young actors. He offers advice on preparing for auditions, inhabiting characters and observing human behavior as a conduit to understanding narrative.

And of course, there’s a lot about Woody Allen. Roberts calls him “Max” throughout the book, a nod to the personal nickname that started when the perennially introverted Allen told Roberts not to call out his name in public. In fact, the nickname “Max,” used in “Annie Hall,” is a direct reference to their off-screen joke.

In films, Roberts typically plays the sidekick rather than the lead. But his nearly 60-year career reveals the strengths of a supporting actor who continually brought the main character’s desires and conflicts into greater relief.

Today, Roberts looks back with a sense of pride. Sitting in Lexington Candy Shop, the classic Upper East Side diner he’s frequented since he was 7 years old, Roberts credits his Manhattan upbringing for providing a fascinating spectrum of characters to observe.

“It was like the whole world was here,” he says of city life. “There were ethnic collisions between newly arrived immigrants; there were Irish kids who went to school in ties but, after school, would see a weakling Jew and take it out on him. But on the other hand, I had Irish friends,” he adds. “I learned tolerance.”

His parents were secular Jews who raised their son to love culture and uphold a moral code of behavior. In his memoir, Roberts writes that though he was raised without religious observance, he grew curious about his heritage and took a trip to Latvia where his grandfather had lived before immigrating to the United States.

Roberts got an early start as a professional actor, landing a part on the soap opera “The Edge of the Night” just after college in 1966. Soon after, he was cast in his first Broadway play, and the roles multiplied from there.

He first met Allen backstage when he was starring in “Barefoot in the Park.” It was around the time that Roberts unsuccessfully auditioned — four times — for Allen’s first Broadway play, “Don’t Drink the Water.” Seeing Roberts perform in “Barefoot in the Park” convinced Allen that Roberts was talented and worth casting. According to his memoir, Allen told him, “You were great. How come you’re such a lousy auditioner?”

Roberts and Allen are still good friends.