I recently played Shimon Peres, the last surviving founder of the State of Israel, in the play Oslo. It was the west coast premiere of the play and got a lot of attention. Houses were full every night and most every audience gave us – a cast of fourteen – a standing ovation. This was only the second full production outside Traveling Jewish Theatre I’ve acted in since founding TJT in 1978, forty years ago.
In Oslo’s penultimate scene, the entire cast fills the stage and brings the audience up to date on the events that took place after the Oslo Accords were signed: The murder of Palestinian worshippers at the tomb in Hebron, the assassination of Rabin, the second intifada, the deaths and retirements from public life of various key players. I spoke two lines near the end of the scene, telling of the deaths of Arafat and Peres.
One night near the end of the run, as I stood among the ensemble – though many of us had not met before the first day of rehearsals a few weeks earlier, we had become an ensemble by then – I found myself flooded by memories of other moments I’d stood on a stage. As Lucky in Waiting for Godot, as Gonzalo in TheTempest, as Willy Loman, Walter Benjamin, several rabbis, as the feminine aspect of God, as John Brown, all versions of myself. I felt the presence of every acting teacher and director I’d known: Burdette Fitzgerald who first taught me that acting was a form of story telling, Jeff Corey who shared the open secret that acting, to have meaning, needed to be revelation and surprise, Delia Salvi fiercely insisting on a rigor I felt hopeless to achieve. Joe Chaikin who saw everything as a form of inquiry. Naomi who saw me whole. Aaron who pushed and pulled me over limits I did not know existed. David whose monumental and tragic imagination shone before me like a beacon. All these and more. As if they were not memories inside my skull but presences as tangible as the other actors on the stage.
I grieved and celebrated all the vanished moments, the love that remains, that continues to shape this moment and the next.
At the end of that scene in Oslo, All fourteen of us turned upstage in unison. I opened the large double doors in the center of the set’s back wall and walked straight into a pool of white light, followed by the others. I turned right and crossed behind the set to wait, with the others, for our curtain call.
This is what I’ve been doing for most of my life. Walking through light and dark; through present, past and future, surrounded by imaginary presences as real as the scarred stage floor with its thousand coats of paint and uncountable invisible footprints.
An Actor Prepares
“What do want to be when you grow up?” my parents’ friends would ask. I was four and I gave them the answers they wanted: presidentor scientist. I had very little idea of what these words really meant but I knew from my mother’s stories that she adored the recently deceased FDR and the still-living Albert Einstein.
It would take another six or seven years before I’d be able to declare that what I really wanted to be was an actor. It would take several more decades before I understood that my parents’ stories had pulled me in that direction like deep ocean current.
Sam and Ethel Fischer had both dreamed of lives in the theatre but by the time I was born, those dreams survived only in the stories they’d tell me about their youth.
A few months after announcing my desire to follow the path they had abandoned, I performed on stage for the first time. The sixth grade at Carpenter Avenue School in Studio City was going to have talent show. My mother wrote a skit for me and my friend, Jimmy, who was a talented pianist. In the skit, I played a pompous piano teacher, with German accent and penciled-on mustache, berating Jimmy in the role of a slow and clumsy pupil. The gag ending was that after all my imperious criticism, Jimmy would launch into some virtuosic boogie-woogie while I did a big double-take. I could barely contain my excitement to finally be fulfilling my newly discovered calling.
I had no idea that Jimmy had also agreed to play a set for the talent show with two other sixth grade musicians. They went on beforewe did our skit, so my mother’s gag was ruined. Everyone had already heard what a great musician Jimmy was. I somehow stumbled through to the end, with full understanding that it was pretty pointless by then. Disappointment – which I would come to know quite well – didn’t stop me.
Around the same time, my parents enlisted my father’s best friend, a character actor and comedian named Benny Rubin to talk me out of the actor’s life.
I adored Benny and the stories he told of his past as a headliner with his own radio show in the 1930s. Seeing him in supporting roles in film and television was always thrilling. But when my parents told him about my decision, he took me aside and said, “I have just lost all my respect for you.” I was chilled and confused. He went on to rehearse the pitfalls of an actor’s life. Financial insecurity chief among them. His attitude made no sense to me. I could see how much he loved acting, and how good at it he was. Did he want to keep all that satisfaction for himself by scaring off any young usurpers? And what about my parents? After all, my ambitions had been inspired by theirstories.
The very first story I remember: my mother tells me about a play she wrote for an amateur drama group at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center when she was barely out of her teens. She took one of several legends about the building of the Taj Mahal and set it in czarist Russia. A Czar commissions the greatest architect in the land to design a theatre and build it out of bronze. After it’s built, the Czar orders one of his henchman to put out the architect’s eyes so he will never be able to build anything that might surpass the bronze theatre. She had a cast photo from the production. Her two younger brothers – Sylvan and Milton – were in it, younger than I’d ever known them, wearing Russian peasant blouses.
Then my father started telling me stories about being part of a comedy act in vaudeville, stage-managing Gershwin musicals on Broadway with Fred and Adele Astaire, visiting Los Angeles when films were still silent, dancing in a gigantic chorus line in the movie Top Hat.
The worlds their stories built in my imagination were much more attractive and alive than the world of asphalt, bullies and smog that I lived through every day in the San Fernando Valley of the 1950s; my parents’ unlived lives meant so much more to me than their actual ones.
Back when I was seven, I used to act out stories alone in the backyard. Most of them featured The Lone Ranger – played by me in a mask my mother sewed for me – doing standard Lone Ranger stuff: fist-fights, shoot-outs, rescues, escapes. I played all the characters myself.
Occasionally, I’d switch from the Lone Ranger to Captain Video, hero of a TV show that I’d glimpsed a few times during the year we lived in New York.
I was five when my parents moved us east in 1950. My father was working one of his last show biz jobs – stage managing a live NBC-TV variety show hosted by a comedian named Jack Carter. My father’s most generous description of Carter was “untalented.” Sam resented the new, fast-paced medium. He never hid his longing for the Vaudeville and Broadway worlds of his youth.
Nevertheless, on Saturday nights, my mother and I would go to a local tavern, drink ginger-ale and watch the Jack Carter Show. On the last show of the season, the cameras turned to show the dozens of crew members wrangling cables and lights. There was my father with an old-fashioned single-ear headset on his head, looking harried. I was thrilled.
After the Jack Carter show was cancelled, my parents were drawn back to Los Angeles by my mother’s family who, by then, were settled in a brand-new neighborhood of tract houses in the San Fernando Valley’s former orange groves. In the fifties, good weather and the post-war economic boom promised a better life.
After my father worked a couple more jobs in show business – a radio show called Life with Luigiis the only one I remember by name – my parents seized an opportunity to take over a dry-cleaning store franchise in Studio City. They’d be their own bosses and my father wouldn’t be subject to the tasteless, clumsy, greedy overlords of the embryonic electronic media.
Now my father’s show-biz stories became even more precious to me. I wanted to know the handsome, lithe young man in the snapshots from the 1930s, not the embittered fifty year old he been turned into by some malign force.
Ironically, most people found him charming as hell. He loved kibitzing with strangers. He knew enough odd facts could say “hello, how are you” in enough languages to disarm all passersby. What’s more, his prodigious memory for names delighted my parents’ cleaning-store customers. Their little business was a big success.
Absent passers-by and customers, alone with my mother and me though, his bons motsbecame complaints. His quips became rants. The world had obviously gone mad. Traffic – even in pre-freeway Los Angeles – was torture. Smog was killing us. And don’t get him started on the Strontium-90 in the milk from all the atomic bomb testing!
The stories I loved to hear became scarce. My mother did her best to fill the gap, telling me tales of working for a radical theatre group in Chicago, during the depression, when she still aspired to become a serious writer. She tried to explain my father’s dark moods. “You can’t imagine the poverty he grew up in,” He’d been one of four brothers raised by a single, immigrant mother who ran a small delicatessen in Brooklyn in the teens. “He slept on a pile of potato sacks and had to quit school when he was twelve to work in the store,” she told me more than once.
My father was the only one of his mother’s four sons who did not spend his entire life in the food business. Artie, the youngest, worked as a waiter and, eventually, a maître d’ at a big resort in the Catskills. Ben, the oldest, ran a soda fountain in New York. Al wound up with his own delicatessen in Southern California. But my father jumped that track when his aunt Frieda took him to his first vaudeville show. When sixteen year old Sam Fischer took in the song and dance acts, the comedians and jugglers, he knew, for the first time, where he belonged.
He taught himself a “novelty” song called I Love Methat he’d sing at the “amateur nights” that all the vaudeville houses featured once a week. He even won second or third prize on occasion. When I found the lyrics to the song, I was struck by its combination of wit and perversity.
Oh, I love me, I love me, I’m wild about sweet me
I love me, only me, so I’m content you see,
I like myself with such delight
I take me right straight home each night
And sleep with me till broad day light
I’m wild about myself.
It isn’t hard for me to imagine him singing it. I’ve never heard him say “I love you” to anyone. Not to my mother, not to me. I wonder if anyone – beside us – had ever said it to him. Growing up tough, a first-generation fatherless American, he needed to armor himself against street-bullies, anti-Semites, poverty and family expectations. How perfect to sing a sarcastic anthem to unbridled narcissism.
Caught between his barely-admitted calling to perform and the need to make a living, he took a series of jobs on the margins of show business. Messenger for a script-copying service, chorus boy, assistant stage-manager. Eventually he became a stage manager himself, working on Broadway and, later, in movies.
In his stories, Fred Astaire always loomed large. In 1927, my father had stage-managed Funny Face, by George and Ira Gershwin, starring Fred Astaire and his first dancing partner, his sister, Adele. Astaire became my father’s idol, a hero who embodied all his abandoned aspirations. They maintained a casual correspondence until Astaire’s death. Sam sent Fred a birthday card every year and congratulated him on each new television special he made. Astaire answered every time.
I was in Berlin in 1987, performing with my own theatre company, Traveling Jewish Theatre, when I saw a headline, “Astaire ist Gestorben!” (“Astaire Dies!”) I couldn’t breathe for a moment. Though my father would live another eleven years, I knew that the part of himself he loved, the self he wanted to be while mocking his own desire, was gone.
The next day, some German friends took us on a day trip to East Berlin. Like many gentile Europeans we met in Central and Eastern Europe, they made much of taking us to Jewish cemeteries. Walking among the ponderous headstones of pre-World War Two assimilated German Jews, I came upon one with my father’s name, Samuel Fischer,on it. It’s a common name. But still…
By the time I was a teen-ager, my parents began to accept and even support my longing. “As long as you have something to fall back on,” my mother said. “You’ll have to get a teaching credential when you go to college.” She got a summer job at an arts camp to cover my tuition in the drama program. By the time I graduated high school, I had played leading roles in Doctor Faustus, The Importance of Being Ernest, Rebecca,The Trojan Womenamong other plays. I headed for UCLA to major in theatre.
The summer before my junior year, my mother convinced me to take advantage of UC’s Education Abroad program and study in France for a year. French had always been one of my best subjects in high school and in my first two years of college and I was ready for an adventure.
There were no theatre departments in the French University system. I studied French Literature, made a lot of French friends and played blues guitar on Saturday nights in a restaurant by the train station.
I’d brought along a copy of An Actor Prepares,Stanislavski’s guide to what’s commonly known as “method acting.” It had been my mother’s copy. One night, alone in my room in Bordeaux, I did one of the exercises in the book. It had to do with “sense-memory,” the process of bringing a memory to life in full sensual detail. I had an apple on my desk. I looked at it, weighed it in my hand, smelled it. Then, putting it aside, I tried to recreate it in my imagination. In that moment, I re-experienced the inner sense of knowingthat had come to me when I was eleven. What I knew was that committing myself as deeply as I could to the creative work demanded by Stanislavski’s exercise was how I would discover meaning in my life – the same knowing that had been evoked by my parent’s stories.
In that moment, I concluded that the sensible, practical reasons my parents had given up their deepest callings had also robbed their lives of depth and joy. I vowed that I would live differently. Don’t forget I was only nineteen when I had this epiphany.
I’m seventy three now and have made a precarious living acting, writing and directing all my life. I never did get a teaching credential. I’ve never owned a house and have no retirement plan. But I’ve never let go of Sam’s and Ethel’s stories and have, in some measure, been able to live the live they longed for.
One of my father’s stories still eclipses all the others. As a child it thrilled me every time he told it. As a grown-up theatre-maker I made a solo performance out of it. Now over sixty years since I first heard it, it still demands I tell it.
In 1926, when he was twenty-three years old, Sam Fischer “crashed” a transatlantic crossing from New York to London on a liner called the Leviathan. He’d been the assistant stage manager and a “gentleman of the ensemble” in Tip Toes,a Gershwin musical on Broadway that had just closed. He heard that a London production of the same show was in the works. He figured that if he could get himself there, his knowledge of the choreography and all the cues would surely lead to a job.
Back then, my father was slim and handsome, sporting a thin mustache and a thick head of wavy hair. He walked nonchalantly on board the Leviathanfor the going-away party that preceded the midnight sailing. He stayed on board until the ship landed at Southampton, England.
He wore a blue serge suit, had a razor, a spare collar for his shirt and a change of underwear stashed in a lifeboat. His method for free passage was to keep moving. If the weather permitted, he’d sleep on deck in a padded deck chair. “Lots of people did that,” he explained. “They were fresh air fiends.” If it looked like rain, he’d find an unoccupied stateroom.
“Meals? No problem. Second-class dining room. No reservations, no names. Nobody asked any questions.”
According to him, the passage went off without a hitch. When the ship arrived in Southampton, he “borrowed” a steward’s jacket and a bag of dirty linen and simply walked down the gangplank, grinning at the stevedores on the wharf.
Still in his steward’s disguise, he approached a woman who was conspicuously holding a train ticket to London in her hand. “Excuse me, Madam,” he said to her, “If you kindly let me have your ticket, I will expedite your boarding.” She fell for it. He usually added, at this point, “It was OK. I’m sure she got another ticket. I mean, what was I gonna do?”
Carrying a “borrowed” suitcase he’d found on the train, he checked into a London hotel, washed out his shirt and underwear and had his suit pressed. The next day, he found the offices of the show’s London producers and rattled off his qualifications. “I’m so sorry,” the receptionist told him, “but you, sir, are an American. I’m afraid the company’s policy is to hire Englishmen exclusively for backstage positions.”
He overcame his disappointment with a large roast beef dinner at Simpson’s on the Strand, which he somehow managed to charge to his hotel. The next day, he left the valise in the hotel room with note to “Please return to lost luggage, Waterloo Station, so sorry for the confusion.”
He went back to New York, using the same method, on another liner, the Majestic.
En route to New York, he sensed that one of the stewards was on to him. One night, he ducked into a stateroom he thought was vacant and found himself face-to-face with George Gershwin. “Well,” he told me, “It made sense. See, Gershwin had been in London for the opening of his show.” Gershwin remembered my father from New York and insisted on giving him five dollars in case he needed to bribe the suspicious steward. Sam always ended the story the same way: “I gave Gershwin back the five bucks when I saw him on the dock. He had all these friends waiting and he yells out to them, ‘Wait’ll you hear what Fischer just did! All the way to London and back!’”
The last time I saw my father was about an hour after he died. After my mother’s death six years earlier, his increasingly demented mind had galloped like a runaway horse, all the way to a nursing home in my neighborhood. At some point he stopped recognizing me as his son but knew we were connected. Sometimes he’d cast me in the role of one of his dead brothers, sometimes as a long-departed friend.
He’d long since stopped telling stories. In his last months, he stopped speaking altogether. My wife and I sat with him at the end. He was 95, had stopped eating and no longer had the energy or desire to get out of bed. There was a glass of water on the bed-table, but he couldn’t swallow any more. I used a small blue sponge attached to a stick like a lollipop to moisten his lips. It was well past midnight and I’d fallen into a semi-doze as I mechanically dripped water onto his dry lips. Suddenly he opened his mouth and started sucking furiously on the sponge. His eyes remained closed. We waited. His labored breathing didn’t stop. Finally, a nurse suggested we go home for some rest. She assured us that he would hang on for a while. As soon as we got home, the phone rang. Sam was dead.
I went back to the nursing home to sit with him.
A few hours later I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Traveling Jewish Theatre’s rehearsal space where we were creating a new play. I was stunned by sleeplessness and riven by grief, but there was no other place I wanted to be.
It was a cold, sunlit November day. Walking from the parking lot through Union Square, I stopped for a moment to watch a street performer. He was one of those guys in metallic body paint and robotic costume who stand perfectly still until a passerby puts some money in their hat. Which I did. He twitched his mouth into a broad grin and ratcheted his head toward me. Suddenly, his eyes pierced me with a gaze so direct my heart stuttered. I felt my parents looking out through my eyes, delighting in this performer’s undeniable skill and presence. As if on cue, the sky brightened even more.