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October 5, 2006

Clues to family drama’s Jewish roots finally add up on ‘Numb3rs’

http://www.jewishjournal.com/arts/article/clues_to_family_dramas_jewish_roots_finally_add_up_on_numb3rs_20061006

Add family drama plus FBI action, and the sum equals CBS's hit drama, "Numb3rs." The show, which just started its third season, is as much about fathers and sons as it is about using mathematics to solve crimes. Alan Eppes (Judd Hirsch) is the widowed patriarch to two disparate sons: son Don (Rob Morrow), an FBI agent, and Charlie (David Krumholtz), a math genius who works as a consultant for Don. The subtext is that Charlie the prodigy, is the favored son, while Don feels abandoned and bitter and yearns to connect with his father. The Oct. 6 episode deepens this dynamic while "outing" the family as Jewish.
 
This time, the brothers investigate a piece of Nazi-looted art that may belong to a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in the camps. Don is deeply moved by her story and by his father's revelation that a cousin of theirs also lost all her relatives in the Shoah. The agent tells his father he would like to investigate what happened to them -- an unusually emotional statement for a character who tends to repress his feelings.
 
"This episode gives us a glimpse into Don's soul," Morrow told The Journal. "Don feels a yearning to connect to his heritage, which reflects his longing for his father and for connections in life."
 
At a time when crime dramas abound on prime time (think "C.S.I.," "Law & Order" and their various spinoffs), "Numb3rs" stands out for its focus on family and "unexpected shades of character," according to Newsweek.
 
Yet one aspect of the characters has been neglected, at least until tonight's show -- their obvious Jewishness. After all, these actors are well known for playing members of the tribe: Hirsch, 71, was cabbie Alex Rieger on "Taxi"; Morrow, 44, played Dr. Joel Fleischman on "Northern Exposure," and Krumholtz, 28, portrayed numerous "neurotic shlubs," in his own words, before landing the "Numb3rs" gig.
 
"When they cast the show, an executive said the poster was going to show the three of us emerging from shul triumphant," Morrow says with a laugh.
 
Even the series' creators, Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci, say they had envisioned the Eppes as Jewish since casting the show in 2004. (The first hire was Krumholtz, partly for his uncanny ability to make math sound cool, even though the actor had flunked algebra twice.) The producers say they were waiting for the right story to "out" the characters, and they found it in the headlines about Nazi-looted art. They feel the onscreen family chemistry works, in part, because the actors share culturally Jewish New York roots. A subtler dynamic helps the performers create the favorite son/black sheep son nuances on the show.
 
Neither Hirsch nor Krumholtz have previously worked with Morrow (although they enjoy doing so now), but they share a rich performance history together. Krumholtz got his big break playing Hirsch's son in "Conversations With My Father" on Broadway 15 years ago.
 
Krumholtz was 13 at the time and had no previous acting experience, nor had he ever been to the theater. He auditioned on a lark -- "something to do on a Saturday afternoon" -- and landed the role, in some measure, because of his resemblance to Hirsch.
 
"I was frightened for David," the older actor recalls. "His first production was going to be this extremely violent, emotional play, and he was going to be an 'object' in it."
 
Hirsch's character, a volatile Jewish immigrant, chokes, grabs and smacks his son, and also chases him around the stage with a strap. Hirsch worried the production might overwhelm the ebullient, novice performer.
 
Hirsch's solution, Krumholtz recalls, was a form of theatrical "tough love."
 
"Teasingly, he pointed out every little thing I did wrong," the younger actor says. "I was extremely unprofessional; I had an opinion about everything, and every time I was loud or said something when I was supposed to be quiet, or missed a line, he was right there with a big 'shut up' or 'That's you, kid,' or 'get with the program.' It was rough, but I knew he was doing it because he believed in me. By the end of the show I had learned about professionalism, and I loved Judd with all my heart. I now call him my 'acting father,' because I feel I owe him my career."
 
When Krumholtz eventually left "Conversations" to pursue movies, he cried so effusively that Hirsch sat him on his lap to comfort him.
 
The father-son dynamic is still apparent as the two sit side by side over lunch in a studio cafeteria. The boyish Krumholtz avidly listens as Hirsch tells long stories, with relish, about thwarting anti-Semitism in the Army and how his own father chased him around the house with a strap. Both recount growing up in working-class homes (Krumholtz's "Conversations" salary paid for his bar mitzvah reception) and describe Morrow as "more of a Westchester County [a.k.a. wealthy] Jew."
 
In a phone interview, Morrow laughs ironically when told of the "Westchester" remark.
 
"I was as working class as they were," he says, sounding a bit like his misunderstood "Numb3rs" character. Actually, he grew up comfortably middle class in White Plains, N.Y., until his parents divorced when he was 9, and his father, an industrial lighting manufacturer, moved to Manhattan and later to Florida. Morrow stayed behind with his sister and his mother, who went to work as a dental hygienist to support the family.
 
"Suddenly money was a real issue, but my mother was determined to keep up appearances, so we moved to Scarsdale and we were living on the fringes of this wealthy enclave," he recalls.
 
Like the fictional Don, he says he felt somewhat abandoned by his father ("suffice it to say I spent a lot of years in therapy"), and he has channeled those feelings into his "Numb3rs" character.  
Morrow says he is pleased that the Eppes family is now openly Jewish and would like to see his character embrace his religion, perhaps even study with a rabbi, which could rouse provocative moral questions about his day job. This opinion also sets Morrow apart from his co-stars, who would have preferred that the family's religion remain unknown.
 
Krumholtz says he wants all outsiders, regardless of religion, to identify with the socially awkward Charlie; he also worries about typecasting ("I don't want to be the Jew of all time," he quips, only half-joking).
 
Morrow recently offered the younger actor some brotherly advice. He spoke of how his own career suffered after "Northern Exposure," because he refused to accept any roles that in any way reminded him of Dr. Joel Fleischman (i.e., characters who were nebbishy, neurotic or intellectual).
 
"You can't have the three of us in a frame together, looking the way we do, and not think we're Jewish," he says. "It would be just like having the proverbial white elephant in the room."
 
"Numb3rs" airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on CBS.

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