It's an indelible image: Ron Leibman as Roy Cohn, sitting at a desk and hollering, in a sing-song, Jewish-cadenced voice, into a telephone. The tableau, from Angels in America, is so vivid, a number of critics referred to it when commenting on Leibman's latest role, as movie producer Sam Baum in Adam Baum and the Jew Movie at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre. Daniel Goldfarb's comedy-drama opens with Sam (Leibman) on the phone, negotiating deals for a film about anti-Semitism, organizing his son's Bar Mitzvah, checking on the whereabouts of relatives in Eastern Europe and ordering around an unseen secretary. At this point in Leibman's career, it's hard to expect a performance that isn't volatile. The Emmy and Tony winner has made his mark as a union organizer in filmdom's "Norma Rae," a heart-on-the-sleeve lawyer on TV's "Kaz," and, in recent times, a host of angry, besieged -- and mostly Jewish -- men, including recent turns as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and the Rabbi in A Dybbuk, both at the Public Theatre.
Playbill On-Line: Veteran actor Ron Leibman; angst-ridden movie maven Sam Baum. Does the twain meet?
Ron Leibman: Well, I'm still discovering things about the character, and I think the performance is still growing. You get such a limited rehearsal time in this off-Broadway situation. [Adam Baum] would now be in New Haven or Boston or Philadelphia, but because of economic reasons it opens and you start doing it here. As for the character, I don't really feel that much in common with him. Nor did I with Roy Cohn. You can play Hitler without having those political views. But I like the journey the play takes. What I find fascinating in Baum is his great amount of self-hatred, disregard and denial of his past, which catches up with him. It happens to a lot of people in this world. Some people never get out of it.
PBOL: So the story of Adam Baum isn't so much about Sam unearthing the young, gentile writer's subtle anti-Semitism, but about Sam discovering his own self-hatred?
RL: It's what he learns about himself. A lot of the Eastern-European Jews got into the film business, because there were no real rules in California. It was a wild west, not controlled by a gentile aristocracy like the east was. How these Jews rulers of an empire that produced a mythology that never told their own story, and hasn't to this day, is amazing. A lot of them married, a second time, to Gentile women. They raised their children outside the religion. They became conservative politically, stamping out their own history and refusing to tell their story.
PBOL: Are you, in a sense, doing the opposite? Purposely taking strong Jewish roles to make some kind of statement or find some kind of personal thru-line?
RL: I don't cast myself in these things; you'd have to ask the people who cast me. If I hadn't played English kings and French dukes and assorted sociopaths ["Slaughterhouse Five"], I might pay more attention to it. Recently, a lot of the characters I've played are Jewish, but they're so extremely different. I mean Shylock as compared to Roy Cohn or Sam Baum. Still, if I'm being subject to “ethnicity casting,” they ought to be ashamed of themselves.
PBOL: Have you experienced anti-Semitism that you know of as a performer?
RL: It's rarely spoken about, but it's the truth. One time I threatened to confront a producer directly because he had no qualms about using the word "ethnic" in relation to me, and not giving me a particular role. And he was Jewish. I told my gentile agent it was objectionable. Bigotry is bigotry. It was absolute, downright, prejudice. But I'm not the first actor of a Jewish background to go through it. And for some reason, it's easier for black actors and Latino actors to talk about it. But Jewish actors don't speak up, because a lot of [the perpetrators] are Jewish. At the same time, I don't think it's as much of a problem as it used to be. When I was in high school and I already knew I wanted to be an actor, I made up the name “Ronald Mann.” I looked at it and thought, "how fraudulent." Nowadays, I've noticed a lot of actors with so-called ethnic names have kept their names. Look at Liev Schreiber. God bless him for that. PBOL: Since you brought up your childhood acting dreams, do you remember your first trips to the theatre? Did they make such a big impression?
RL: I was taken to the theatre a lot growing up in New York. From age four, we'd go to matinees. I think I first saw, As the Girls Go, starring Bobby Clark, who used to paint glasses on his face. The second one was Top Banana with Phil Silvers. I fell in love early.
PBOL: But if you weren't an actor, or hadn't been successful, you might have been a...?
RL: No idea. I was a journalism major in college, kind of as a fall back. In the long run, probably something in psychoanalysis. I’m fascinated by psychiatrists' helpful service to humanity. But I believe acting is also a service for the community. It's too damn hard a job to be doing it for any other reason. If this was for the bucks, I'd be in another business, believe me. It's about storytelling.
PBOL: What were the best and worst pieces of acting advice you've ever received?
RL: Well, I studied with George Morrison, a wonderful teacher. Gene Hackman, Barbara Harris and I were in the same class. I also studied with Lee Strasberg, a member of the Actors' Studio. The best advice seems to be to remember, “it's not that important.” That really takes the pressure off. The worst advice -- well, the worst advice is to give somebody advice -- but the worst is when people say, "Take anything that comes along." I don't agree with that. I've always been miserable when I've done that. The money was wonderful, but there was pain in the compromise.
PBOL: And what about things you've discovered yourself just during the course of performance. Any major revelations?
RL: I was still in college and doing summer stock at the Huron Playhouse in Ohio. I was 19 playing 60-something Papa Barrett in The Barrett's of Wimpole Street -- where else can you do that but in summer stock? Anyway, I was to walk in on the frolicking young people who were terrified of me. My job was to walk across the stage in front of my children, stand by the fireplace. and, in an English accent, say, "I am most displeased." As I got to the mantlepiece, I noticed for the first time that there was a statuette of a little child on the mantle. I turned the face of statuette toward the wall. At that moment, I said to myself, “I think you got a shot at being an actor.” I realized it's not just interpretation, it's creative. It's “look at what an actor can do.”
-- By David Lefkowitz