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Jewish Journal

From the Tube to the Big Screen

The Arts

by Tom Tugend

August 28, 1997 | 8:00 pm

Veteran television writer/producer Saul Turteltaub had to wait 44 years for his first film credit, "For Roseanna," starring Mercedes Reuhl and Jean Reno.
Saul Turteltaub, a name-brand television comedy writer and producer for 44 years, remembers submitting his first movie screenplay.

"I showed it to [producer] Irwin Winkler, who loved it. He showed it to United Artists, and they didn't love it. So, instead, Winkler went ahead with another low-budget film, called 'Rocky.'"

That was more than two decades ago. The 65-year-old Turteltaub is only now celebrating his first movie credit, as the writer of "For Roseanna," a.k.a. "Roseanna's Grave."

The film deals with a trattoria owner (French actor Jean Reno) who desperately tries to keep alive all the residents of his Italian village in an effort to save one of the few remaining plots in the local cemetery for his ill wife (Mercedes Ruehl).

Despite the somewhat somber subject, and mixed reviews, Turteltaub's comic flair predominates, and the film winningly alternates between tender middle-age romance and robust humor.

In any case, Turteltaub himself is now being acclaimed as the poster boy of the geriatric set -- in a town and industry rife with age discrimination, where 30-year-old writers and producers are often considered past their prime.

Producer Norman Lear says of his old colleague: "I know a lot of guys who are 35 and who are far older than Saul. He's a life force. If this doesn't send a loud message to an industry that needs a loud message, I don't know what would."

Turteltaub is also notable for a less-recognized achievement. While it is not uncommon for Hollywood personalities to write generous checks for Jewish causes or to accept plaques at star-studded testimonial dinners, Turteltaub is one of the few members of the entertainment industry to enlist in the less glamorous, foot-slogging work of daily Jewish community life.

He has done so while writing and/or producing some 1,500 episodes for more than 30 TV comedies, including "Kate and Allie," "What's Happening," "Sanford and Son," "Love American Style," "That Girl," "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Jackie Gleason Show.">

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, Turteltaub and his wife, Shirley, joined Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

"I am not as strongly Orthodox as most of the congregants [among them a high percentage of writers]," he says. "I'm more of an 'Orthodox-style' Jew." Although Turteltaub maintains that he "doesn't feel worthy" of playing a prominent role in the congregation, Beth Jacob honored him and his wife for their contributions to the synagogue some years ago.

His most consistent involvement has been with the Entertainment Division of the United Jewish Fund, the money-raising arm of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. He served as the division's chairman in the late 1980s and continues as a member of its cabinet. He has been equally active in promoting Israel Bonds, and he currently serves as vice president of the regional chapter.

Turteltaub appreciates his status-raising role as a screenwriter, though he is not too enchanted with the finished product.

"'For Roseanna' is the longest thing I've ever written," he says during a phone interview from New York, where he is in the midst of a two- year stint as executive consultant to the "Cosby" show. "It's nice to have friends call you with congratulations and to see your name in the papers. But it's also frustrating because, in the end, the film isn't really yours. I had to make a lot of changes to please the director (Britain's Paul Weiland). In films, the writer is very unimportant, while the director is god."

Turteltaub can cast an equally sober eye on some of the less elevating moments of his illustrious TV career, particularly the short-lived "Chicken Soup."

That 1989 sitcom, with Turteltaub as writer and producer, played off the ethnic and religious differences between Jewish comedian Jackie Mason and the non-Jewish Lynn Redgrave.

In the original version, Mason was to have been married to Redgrave, but Turteltaub refused to go along with the concept. He said that he could accept a Jew and non-Jew falling in love -- "that's an emotional reaction" -- but he couldn't endorse intermarriage.

The show lasted a mere eight weeks, partially because Mason was wrong for the part, Turteltaub says. "Jackie is a reactor, not a pro-actor; he's best when he's kibitzing."

"Chicken Soup" also drew the ire of the militant Jewish Defense League, whose national chairman, Irv Rubin, attended one of the tapings, eyed by nervous security men.

"Irv was sitting in the front row, and, after a while, he fell asleep," says Turteltaub. "So I woke him up and told him, 'You can hate the show, but you can't sleep through it.'"

As for now, Turteltaub's belated screenwriting career is taking off. He has finished a script for Mel Gibson, who will direct the romantic adventure story, also set in Italy, while another feature deal has been sealed with Miramax.

Coming up is a joint venture with his son, 33-year-old Jon Turteltaub, currently one of the hottest young directors in Hollywood.

Saul as writer and Jon as director will collaborate on an American version of the recent Japanese release "Shall We Dance?"

Father and son, who run a mutual-admiration society, expect nothing but harmony on the set.

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