If there’s one thing that makes actor Judd Hirsch grumpy, it’s when a critic throws in information that HirschÂ considers extraneous orÂ irrelevant to the current role that he’s playing. For example, he has played literallyÂ hundreds of roles in his more thanÂ 40-year career, but he is inevitably identified as “that guy fromÂ Taxi.”
Similarly, because he has portrayed many men who are Jewish,Â his “Jewish persona” is occasionally mentioned even when heÂ is playing a role that has no connection to beingÂ Jewish.Â Â “Narrow-mindedness gets into print, and it’sÂ distasteful,” he says.
If he were doing Shakespeare, would it be appropriate to mentionÂ that he is Jewish?Â Â If he were doingÂ Shylock,Â perhaps.Â Â If Lear, no.
His current role in Santa Monica, however, has himÂ playing the quintessential Jewish atheist — SigmundÂ Freud.Â Â And, it turns out, Freud’s musings on theÂ subject of religion are very similar to Hirsch’s.
“Religion is not a point of birth,” Hirsch says.Â He was born in the Bronx to Jewish parents, his mother spokeÂ Yiddish, and he wasÂ brought up as a Jew, but he notes that his family was not observant. He isÂ an atheist, like Freud. “Religion came about because of the fear of life,” he offers.
It is September 3, 1939, and as the play opens the voice of a BBC radio announcer is heard, reporting that efforts to avert World War II are at a stalemate.
Freud is agitated, contemplating the ramifications of the announcer’sÂ words at the same time he isÂ contemplating his own suicide.
But before he leaves this life he has scheduled a meetingÂ with a younger man of letters, C.S. Lewis (played by TomÂ Cavanagh) — the philosopher, professor,Â and writer who converted from ardent atheist to the Church of England.
Although they lived in England at the same time, there is noÂ evidence that Freud and Lewis ever met. But playwright Mark St. Germain fashioned a conversation between the two men, based on theirÂ opinions and suggested by theÂ book “The Question of God” by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. Much of their banter is in the form of “Gotcha!”s.
Lewis had written a book, The Pilgrim’s Regress, whichÂ satirized Freud as a man of “bombastic self-importance” and a “vain, ignorantÂ old man.” In the play he urges Freud not to take it personally. “But,” heÂ adds, “I can’tÂ apologize for taking issue with your worldview when itÂ completely contradicts my own.”
Even so, Lewis admits to being curious to meet Freud. “YourÂ writings are always thought provoking,” he says.Â “When I was a student inÂ University we devoured (your) every book to discover our latest perversions.”
“At Oxford, Freud’s peers were believers,” Hirsch interjects,Â “and he felt out of it.Â Â Now it wasÂ necessary for himÂ to find something out.Â Â He had had 30 operations on his mouth and nothing worked.Â Â What was he looking for?
“I think, though he never says it, that Freud was searchingÂ for the spirit,” he concludes.
Playwright St. Germain set the play on this particular dayÂ in history, Hirsch believes, because it feeds intoÂ Freud’s despair.Â Â “How could God have done this?” FreudÂ asks. Â He derides the thought that oneÂ needs toÂ suffer to gain the promise of salvation and that great joy will comeÂ in the afterlife.
In preparing himself for the role, Hirsch says, he learnedÂ about Freud from the way he expressed himself in hisÂ letters.Â Â “Charles Darwin was his personal saint,” Hirsch notes.Â Â Hirsch then digresses toÂ discuss evolution,Â “minute cellular changes over millions of years,” and commentsÂ that “apes evolved late.Â Â What if manÂ actuallyÂ evolved at the same time?”
Man “stood up to get away,” he declares.Â Â “There were fires, and eruptions, andÂ seasonal changes, and manÂ got up on his feet to look over the bushes to seeÂ what was going on.Â Â If he hadn’tÂ developed the way he did, heÂ probably wouldn’t have survived.Â Â He would have had the shortest run of anyÂ species on earth.
“I would have likedÂ to have gotten into Freud’s opinions of Darwin’s theories a little more,” heÂ adds, “but if weÂ had, the play would be five hours long.”
Returning to the discussion of the many roles in which heÂ has played a Jew, Hirsch says,Â “Nobody’sÂ career should “˜represent’ anything.Â Â But one opportunity follows another, and sometimes you wind up beingÂ asked to play similar roles again and again.”
He goes on to say he especially admires “all those actors ofÂ the 1940s. They were realer than real, specialÂ kinds of persons,” he says.Â Â “There are hundreds of them!” Â He would have loved to have had theÂ opportunityÂ to work with Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, and John Garfield, he says.Â Â “You look at their work and you say “˜IÂ want to be in that!’”
Of the current crop of actors, he cites Ethan Hawke asÂ “wonderful,” and John Procaccino as someone who isÂ “up-and-coming.Â Â In fact, he has been up-and-coming for a veryÂ long time.” Procaccino was a fellow cast member with Hirsch in Herb Gardner‘s Conversations With My Father — a play that brought Hirsch a best actor Tony for its original run in 1992-93 — and again in a Broadway revival of Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns in 1996.
Hirsch and Procaccino also were in the first LA cast of Conversations With My Father, in the fall of 1993 at the Doolittle Theatre (now the Ricardo Montalban) in Hollywood.Â Sylvie Drake, reviewing the production in the LA Times, wrote that Hirsch’s “Eddie is so vivid and oversized, so willing to defy the extortionist Jimmy Scalso (an excellent John Procaccino, re-creating his Broadway role), defend the wife he just as often verbally attacks, and spar honestly with sons that he mostly admonishes, that it is easy to see why he won a Tony for the role. Eddie is a complicated man with redeeming but unromanticized features, whose semi-denial of his Jewishness is only the expedient response to cultural maladjustment. It is easier to admire the man’s gumption than to like him.”
Hirsch’s first best actor Tony was for Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport, which Hirsch has played someÂ 900Â times — including two Broadway productions (1985-88 and 2002). Yes, it’s another Jewish role, but at least no one could say that Hirsch was typecast because of his age. He turned 50 in 1985 (he is now 77), but he was playing a man who is around 80 when the story ofÂ I’m Not Rappaport begins.
Hirsch has played scientists, in suchÂ movies asÂ A Beautiful Mind, where heÂ played theÂ head of the Princeton mathematics department. In Ordinary People he played a psychiatristÂ andÂ was nominated for an Academy Award.Â Â Such roles come closest to his initialÂ education at the City College ofÂ New York, where he received a degree inÂ physics.
Hirsch’s TV successes include aÂ Golden Globe for his role as John Lacey inÂ DearÂ John and two Emmys for his role inÂ Taxi over its five-year run. He also starred in the TV series Delvecchio, George & Leo, Regular Joe and Numb3rs.
As with most actors of his generation, his career was born in the theater. HavingÂ studied at the American Academy ofÂ Dramatic Arts and the famed HB Studios in New York, he went on to earnÂ an ObieÂ Award and nominations for a Tony and a Drama Desk Award forÂ Talley’s Folly.Â Â HeÂ also directed and starred in productions of Yasmina Reza’s Art.
Hirsch recently told interviewer Chris Jones, in an article that ran in the LA Times, that he has been “been aching to get back to the stage in a role of the right age.” Also in that Times article, Freud’s Last Session‘s lead producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland acknowledged considering that the Broad Stage production might move to Broadway (the play’s previous New York run was Off-Broadway, with lesser-known actors).
If that doesn’t work out, though, how about bringing Hirsch back to Broadway in I’m Not Rappaport? In three years, he’ll finally be exactly the right age.
Freud’s Last Session, Broad Stage, 1310 11thÂ Street, SantaÂ Monica.Â Tue-Fri 7:30 pm, Sat 4 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 5 pm. Through Feb. 10.Â Tickets: $137- $54.Â www.thebroadstage.com. 310-434-3412.
*** Freud’s Last Session production stills by Ben Gibbs