A Conversation With Judd Hirsch — and Freud

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Judd Hirsch, photo by Eric Schwabel

If there’s one thing that makes actor Judd Hirsch grumpy, it’s when a critic throws in information that Hirsch considers extraneous or irrelevant to the current role that he’s playing. For example, he has played literally hundreds of roles in his more than 40-year career, but he is inevitably identified as “that guy from Taxi.”

Similarly, because he has portrayed many men who are Jewish, his “Jewish persona” is occasionally mentioned even when he is playing a role that has no connection to being Jewish.  “Narrow-mindedness gets into print, and it’s distasteful,” he says.

If he were doing Shakespeare, would it be appropriate to mention that he is Jewish?  If he were doing Shylock, perhaps.  If Lear, no.

Tom Cavanagh and Judd Hirsch in "Freud's Last Session" at Broad Stage

His current role in Santa Monica, however, has him playing the quintessential Jewish atheist — Sigmund Freud.  And, it turns out, Freud’s musings on the subject of religion are very similar to Hirsch’s.

“Religion is not a point of birth,” Hirsch says.  He was born in the Bronx to Jewish parents, his mother spoke Yiddish, and he was brought up as a Jew, but he notes that his family was not observant. He is an atheist, like Freud. “Religion came about because of the fear of life,” he offers.

In Freud’s Last Session, currently at the Broad Stage, Freud is depicted near the very end of his life, living in London and dying painfully of cancer of the mouth.

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’s words at the same time he is contemplating his own suicide.

But before he leaves this life he has scheduled a meeting with a younger man of letters, C.S. Lewis (played by Tom Cavanagh) — the philosopher, professor, and writer who converted from ardent atheist to the Church of England.

Although they lived in England at the same time, there is no evidence that Freud and Lewis ever met. But playwright Mark St. Germain fashioned a conversation between the two men, based on their opinions and suggested by the 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, which satirized Freud as a man of “bombastic self-importance” and a “vain, ignorant old man.” In the play he urges Freud not to take it personally. “But,” he adds, “I can’t apologize for taking issue with your worldview when it completely contradicts my own.”

Even so, Lewis admits to being curious to meet Freud. “Your writings are always thought provoking,” he says. “When I was a student in University we devoured (your) every book to discover our latest perversions.”

“At Oxford, Freud’s peers were believers,” Hirsch interjects, “and he felt out of it.   Now it was necessary for him to find something out.  He had had 30 operations on his mouth and nothing worked.  What was he looking for?

“I think, though he never says it, that Freud was searching for the spirit,” he concludes.

Judd Hirsch and Tom Cavanagh

Playwright St. Germain set the play on this particular day in history, Hirsch believes, because it feeds into Freud’s despair.  “How could God have done this?” Freud asks.  He derides the thought that one needs to suffer to gain the promise of salvation and that great joy will come in the afterlife.

In preparing himself for the role, Hirsch says, he learned about Freud from the way he expressed himself in his letters.  “Charles Darwin was his personal saint,” Hirsch notes.  Hirsch then digresses to discuss evolution, “minute cellular changes over millions of years,” and comments that “apes evolved late.  What if man actually evolved at the same time?”

Man “stood up to get away,” he declares.  “There were fires, and eruptions, and seasonal changes, and man got up on his feet to look over the bushes to see what was going on.  If he hadn’t developed the way he did, he probably wouldn’t have survived.  He would have had the shortest run of any species on earth.

“I would have liked to have gotten into Freud’s opinions of Darwin’s theories a little more,” he adds, “but if we had, the play would be five hours long.”

Judd Hirsch, photo by Eric Schwabel

Returning to the discussion of the many roles in which he has played a Jew, Hirsch says, “Nobody’s career should “˜represent’ anything.  But one opportunity follows another, and sometimes you wind up being asked to play similar roles again and again.”

He goes on to say he especially admires “all those actors of the 1940s. They were realer than real, special kinds of persons,” he says.  “There are hundreds of them!” Â He would have loved to have had the opportunity to work with Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, and John Garfield, he says.  “You look at their work and you say “˜I want to be in that!’”

Of the current crop of actors, he cites Ethan Hawke as “wonderful,” and John Procaccino as someone who is “up-and-coming.  In fact, he has been up-and-coming for a very 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.  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.”

Judd Hirsch and Ben Vereen in the 2002 Broadway production of "I'm Not Rappaport" at the Booth Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Hirsch’s first best actor Tony was for Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport, which Hirsch has played some 900 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 of I’m Not Rappaport begins.

Hirsch has played scientists, in such movies as A Beautiful Mind, where he played the head of the Princeton mathematics department. In Ordinary People he played a psychiatrist and was nominated for an Academy Award.  Such roles come closest to his initial education at the City College of New York, where he received a degree in physics.

Hirsch’s TV successes include a Golden Globe for his role as John Lacey in Dear John and two Emmys for his role in 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. Having studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the famed HB Studios in New York, he went on to earn an Obie Award and nominations for a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for Talley’s Folly.  He 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 11th Street, Santa Monica.  Tue-Fri 7:30 pm, Sat 4 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 5 pm. Through Feb. 10. Tickets: $137- $54.  www.thebroadstage.com. 310-434-3412.

*** Freud’s Last Session production stills by Ben Gibbs

Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron