Morrie's Jewish background is told in fuzzy flashbacks (immigrant father, stepmother singing "Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen" to her son.) It's there. It's not rammed down anyone's throat, and it works.
Ironically Hank Azaria, who is Jewish, plays Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom, and Jack Lemmon, who isn't -- with lots of makeup -- plays Albom's former Brandeis University professor.
The Judaic background of Morrie is there -- although it is delicately handled for the prime-time audience.
"We didn't shy away from Morrie's Jewishness," notes Azaria, "quite the opposite. It's ever present in him."
The film gives mainstream USA the chance to get an up close look at Azaria, who is not a household name. Fans of Fox's "The Simpsons" would know Azaria by his voices. There's Moe the Bartender; Police Chief Wiggum; Apu, the boss of Qwik-E-Mart; Professor Frink and an assortment of others including Lou; Dr. Nick Riviera; Carl Smith and Jail Bird. "I watched a lot of TV as a kid and found I could imitate everyone from Bugs Bunny to Robert De Niro," said Azaria.
The 35-year-old actor is also known as dogwalker Nat in the recently-ended television series "Mad About You," which starred Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser. Hunt loaned her voice to Moe's girlfriend in a l998 episode of "The Simpsons," and then married Azaria in a Westside synagogue last July.
Azaria is also no stranger to the movies. He appeared as the Guatemalan house boy in Mike Nichols' "The Birdcage" (1996) opposite Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. He won critical acclaim as a television producer in Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" (l994) and was Gwyneth Paltrow's straight-laced fiancé in the modern day adaptation of "Great Expectations" (l997).
Now come two very different roles which may considerably up the profile of this most underrated performer. "Tuesdays With Morrie" is a role the actor describes as, "the best work I've done", which is saying a lot. The story is well-known, based on Albom's book of the same name, a fixture on the New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years. The telefilm is part of the "Oprah Winfrey Presents" series.
After catching a glimpse of his old mentor Morrie discussing his imminent death from ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease ) on "Nightline," the cell-phone addicted, over-programmed newspaper man flies to Boston for his first meeting with his old friend and teacher in 16 years. It is a visit which will change his life, as his professor sets up a regular Tuesday meeting -- an extension of their University tutorials -- only this time the subject is life and how to live it.
Albom is a stressed mess, too caught up in his career to be in touch with his own emotions, too busy to make time for a relationship, too scared to commit to the woman he loves: That is until he starts listening to Morrie.
"Work, money, ambition -- we bury ourselves in these things," his terminally ill teacher tells him. He instructs him to listen to the bird on his shoulder and ask himself daily, "Is today the day that I die? Am I ready? Am I living the life I want to live? Am I being the person I want to be?"
The moving story directed by Mick Jackson ("The Bodyguard" l992) has Emmy nominations written all over it for Lemmon and Azaria. And for the first time, the limitless potential of Azaria, an actor whose time has come, is quietly on display. He appears to climb into the skin of Mitch Albom effortlessly, even though he admits the two men are not at all alike.
"I'm interested in philosophical and spiritual things while Mitch is not a particularly spiritual guy and did not willingly go to this kind of place. But Morrie's gift was making this stuff very practical. It wasn't like, 'Maybe this would be good' or 'Try that.' It was 'I'm dying. Here's what's important in life.' Let me tell you, it's very stark and very real and I think that's why it moved so many people."
Azaria's is not a solo performance. It's a duet, and the veteran actor Lemmon, whom Azaria hugs and kisses and physically carries around for much of the film, dragged more out of him says the actor, than he's ever given. In fact, it sounds very much as if Lemmon was to Azaria as Morrie was to Albom.
"I've never been more intimate with another actor," says Azaria. "I spent the whole time six inches from his face. He's incredible. I learned a lot about acting just watching him. And what he shared with me is all about giving up more and being more open to what's going to happen to the other actor that day -- taking a risk. The whole thing was amazing. It was an incredible life experience for me."
Azaria shows up again in Tim Robbins' new film "Cradle Will Rock (opening Dec. 15) in which he plays composer Marc Blitzstein, who despite censorship by the US government defies a court order to perform his controversial musical "Cradle Will Rock."
But it's his role in "Morrie" that is likely to bring the actor the acclaim that is long overdue. It was, he admits, a respite from, "roles which were not in a dress or with a weird voice or with a giant lizard or whatever the hell." But it was more than that as he is the first to admit. "It's hard for me to articulate what's so special about this book. But I can say that everyone showed up on the set really wanting to do it justice."