January 7, 2009
Judaism plus FBI add up for Rob Morrow in ‘Numb3rs’
Still boyish at 46, these days Morrow doesn't look all that different from his 1990s character of Dr. Joel Fleischman -- the adorably whiny (and lox deprived) New Yorker stuck in the Alaskan sticks on "Northern Exposure."
In "Numb3rs," Morrow plays an even more unusual Jewish fish-out-of-water: FBI agent Don Eppes, who solves crimes along with his math genius brother (David Krumholtz) and retired father (Judd Hirsch). All season, Eppes has been exploring Judaism in an attempt to grapple with the moral dilemmas raised by his job. He has argued with his secular brother about his spiritual journey, attended services and lectures at Wilshire Boulevard Temple -- whose façade provides exterior shots for the show -- cited concepts such as "natach lach" (focusing on issues within one's control) and, in the Jan. 9 episode, he will face off with an old nemesis inside his synagogue.
"I kind of forced the issue," Morrow said of his character's Judaism. Morrow said it had bothered him that in much of the show's five seasons the Eppeses weren't clearly identified as Jewish, given that all three lead actors had previously portrayed iconic Jews on screen. At a function attended by "a number of CBS types," Morrow made his point by playfully asking how many present saw the characters as Jewish.
"Everyone applauded," he recalled with a laugh. "But initially there was a lot of ambivalence about expressing that side of the Eppeses -- perhaps because of a fear of anti-Semitism, but mostly because these shows are built for the largest possible audience. My bent was, 'Why deny what is obviously there in the name of versatility?' It's more interesting to say, 'We can't get away from this -- because if you don't think these characters are Jewish, there's something wrong with you -- so let's embrace it and use it to distinguish ourselves among all the other procedural crime dramas on TV.'"
At the beginning of last season, Morrow pitched the idea of Don Eppes "going, quote, 'Jewish,'" to help explore the character's psyche. "Don had killed someone in the line of duty, he's had a moral crisis, he's yearning to find a way to exist in this world that is ethically relevant," Morrow explained. "I thought his journey would be an organic way to take the show in a new direction and allow the expression of some other colors beyond shows like 'CSI' or 'NCIS.' Of course, I figured I'd be shot down," he added.
To his surprise, executive producer Ken Sanzel liked the idea. "I thought it could be a story not so much about a person finding Judaism as about a person who feels lost trying to find a new set of guidelines," Sanzel -- who is Jewish and an ex-cop -- said on the set of the Jan. 9 episode, which he wrote and directed. Morrow is successful at depicting Eppes' journey, he added, "because he doesn't try to overprotect the character. He's willing to express Eppes as flawed and not always likeable."
Morrow's best-known characters share a distinctive sense of longing. The actor said he identifies with this desire to fill a spiritual and psychological void.
"My parents divorced when I was 9, which was my fall from grace -- it was like getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden," he said. "That defined me in so many ways I had to overcome -- suffice it to say I spent many years in therapy talking about it."
When his father moved out, the rest of the family relocated from their middle-class New York home to a series of shabby apartments on the fringes of luxurious neighborhoods in and around Scarsdale, N.Y., where his mother insisted they live to "keep up appearances." The young Morrow acted out by committing petty thefts, stealing cars and joyriding. But feeling poor among wealthy classmates also gave him what he calls "a taste for ambition."
After his Reform bar mitzvah -- an unsatisfying affair he prepared for by memorizing Hebrew prayers phonetically -- Morrow saw John Travolta in "Grease" and was mesmerized by the rebel from the wrong side of the tracks. "From then on I wanted nothing except to become an actor," he said. "That became my raison d'être."
He cut high school for six weeks to perform as an extra on "Caddyshack," and later a contact from that movie advised him to turn up for an audition at "Saturday Night Live" with a joint in tow. "John Belushi had already died, but his spirit hovered over the place," Morrow said of SNL. At the age of 18, Morrow moved to New York to work as an extra on SNL and also immersed himself in the world of the theater -- including turns in "The Chosen" at the Second Avenue Theatre and Stuart Miller's "Escape From Riverdale" at the Jewish Repertory Theatre.
His big break came in 1990 with "Northern Exposure," a show that appealed to him not so much for its Jewish content but for its quirky hyper-realism -- it reminded him of the films of François Truffaut -- and the chance to portray a character who, for all his kvetching, represented an alternative kind of hero. In the era of "Seinfeld" and self-denying Jewish characters, Morrow became television's most obvious -- albeit complex -- member of the tribe.
His portrayal was even more nuanced in the 1994 Robert Redford film, "Quiz Show," an exposé of the 1950s "Twenty One" scandal in which he played the Harvard-educated prosecutor, Richard Goodwin. "I spent a lot of time with Richard and his wife in New England, and I have great respect for him," Morrow said. "But he is a complicated individual as a Jew. I did note perhaps a streak of self-hatred, as well as the desire for the trappings of [WASP] success, materialism, cars and houses."
This desire to escape one's humble origins was something the actor related to. The fame and money show business brought him had proved "intoxicating," he said: "I've never done heroin but I can only equate my feelings to what I've heard about the drug -- it's so good, you just want more and more. It's a great diversion, because you can get anything you want, and women and fame go hand [in hand] -- when I was younger it was really a blast; I definitely took advantage of it.
"I still wrestle with [fame] issues," he said, "like if I don't get the table I want in a restaurant, I'm disappointed. But like any drug, it become less potent over time, and you need something less ephemeral in life."
Morrow eventually found meaning through pursuits such as Transcendental Meditation, reading about Judaism and by placing a mezuzah on the front door of the Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, Debbon Ayer, and their 6-year-old daughter. He's also been influenced by Rushkoff's "Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism," which "discusses how the modern Jew is someone who can take from all traditions."
Rushkoff himself sees Morrow as an actor who personifies one kind of contemporary Jew on screen: "His roles expose the balancing act all Jews face when attempting to practice ethical behavior in secular culture," the author wrote in an e-mail. "He is living in two worlds at once -- a 'Fiddler on the Roof,' as it were -- remaining true to his ethical template while addressing the problems and people of a culture that isn't as bound by his covenant."
As the interview with Morrow winds down, the actor takes a final puff on his cigar, then crosses the street to the set at the Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian Church, which decades ago housed Sinai Temple and now nicely doubles as the interior of Eppes' shul because it retains its ornate stained-glass windows decorated with Hebrew lettering and Stars of David. Actors wearing SWAT gear lounge in the aisles and on pews as Morrow takes his place on the "bimah" for a final scene of the Jan. 9 episode.
"For my satisfaction we don't go into Don's 'Jewish' scenes enough," he said, "but the problem becomes, you've got 42 minutes, and the genre requisites are paramount. Of course, at this point Don is still exploring and seeing if Judaism is right for him. I don't think he's said, 'I'm super -Jew, and everyone's going to daven now at the FBI.' I think he's trying to get a grasp on it, and the dividends are more philosophical and spiritual."