On a warm winter day, Judd Hirsch returned to Coney Island. The first time he was here was more than 80 years ago. What’s different now? “Only three things that are the same,” he said. “There’s the Cyclone, and there’s the Wonder Wheel, and there’s the parachute jump.”
As a kid, he went on all the rides. But this is more than an amusement park to Hirsch. It’s the place that changed his life. “If you look across the ocean, you can be anybody,” he said. “You can be anybody if you walk on this boardwalk. All I know was that I didn’t want to be what I was.”
Who he was is a long way from who Judd Hirsch is now. Eighty-seven years old, he has perfected the art of turning the Everyman into someone extraordinary. His method? “The only thing I’m gonna do is be truthful. I’ll play what I think is the most truthful thing about the character. That’s all I can do.”
Whatever truth Hirsch finds in his characters is working. He’s made his living as an actor for close to 60 years. A Tony Award-winner on stage, he’s also been a TV fixture for decades, with “Dear John,” “Numbers,” and two lead actor Emmys as Alex Reiger in “Taxi.”
During that series’ run, Hirsch went Hollywood, working for director Robert Redford on “Ordinary People,” earning a best supporting actor Oscar nomination. Forty-two years later, he’s nominated again, this time for director Steven Spielberg in “The Fabelmans.”
Hirsch said, “The pride I took in being in this movie was greater than any that I’ve ever had to be in any other movie. I had to bring it, be him, all by myself.”
He’s been doing it by himself since the beginning. The son of immigrants, Hirsch was born into poverty, bouncing from apartment to apartment in the Bronx, then Brooklyn. “We didn’t have it easy,” he said. “My mother and father split when I was two, didn’t come back until five years later. So, we lived in basements and furnished rooms, rooming houses.”
At college, Hirsch was well on his way to becoming an engineer, with just one semester to go. But his circuits weren’t connecting. “Three-and-a-half years to a four-year degree, and dropped everything,” he said. “It was like … a little voice saying, ‘You want to be happy, or do you want to be the same guy you’ve been all this time?'”
That little voice pushed him to try something creative … to be an artist, a performer. “Nobody in my family came from the theater,” he said. “Nobody in my family came from this industry. I didn’t know what acting was. All I knew was, if they convince me that they can make me feel something, whether it’s funny or [whatever], I would love to know how they do that. How do they do that?”
Hirsch dedicated himself to answering that question. He took acting classes, getting his first paying gig in the Broadway production of “Barefoot in the Park.” “When I got that job, I never stopped. That was in 1966. And to this day, I have never not worked in any year.”
Hirsch landed commercials; he had this comforting familiarity to him. The ads led to some small parts in movies, like “Serpico,” and eventually, a big break: An offer to be the voice of reason in a new series about quirky New York cabbies.
He had no interest in it. “My agent had said, “Do you want to do this?’ And I read it, and I didn’t really want to go to television, [so I said], ‘Make them an offer they can’t accept.'”
What he said was, “Put my name before the show’s title” – they’d never go for it!
Problem was, they did.
Hirsch has fond memories of “Taxi” and its cast, including the legendarily (let’s say complicated) Andy Kaufman, as Latka, whom Hirsch simplifies in five words: “He was a sweet man. By the way, I wanted to play that part!”
Fast forward four decades; thanks to Steven Spielberg, Hirsch got his chance to play an eccentric immigrant with a thick accent. “So, Steven Spielberg calls me up and says, ‘I need someone, as this part of the guy who made me become a director.’ He said it’s an old uncle, great-uncle. So, I’m going, ‘Okay, no background, nothing, nothing, nothing.'”
With a blank canvas, Hirsch thought back to his days under the shadow of the Wonder Wheel. “He’s not going to describe this guy, and he expects that I’m going to be like him? … OK, let me take my experience. The only one I had was Coney Island.”
And his experiences here as a boy helped him find Uncle Boris in “The Fabelmans.”
Hirsch said, “To me, this was the circus around the corner, it really was a circus. The part I played in ‘Fabelmans,’ I think brought the whole thing out.”
Mankiewicz said, “You wanted to come back here? You wanted us to see this place?”
“I wanted to remember what made me choose, somewhere, to become an actor.”
“And you think it was here? It started here?”
“Yes, it had to,” he replied.
From a kid on the Cyclone, to a second Oscar nomination, Judd Hirsch’s road has been long, and there are still more miles to travel. “I’m just starting,” he said. “If I want to do this, what’s next? I mean really, what’s next?”
To watch a trailer for “The Fabelmans” click on the video player below:
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Joseph Frandino.