Don Diamont is the resident hunk on "The Young and the Restless," where his buff muscles and six-pack abs make female fans drool.
While his character, Brad Carlton, has done far more than strut about in cut-offs (he's mourned the loss of an unborn son, among other weighty scenarios), devotees can't quite forget his 1994 Playgirl centerfold, his status as one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" and as one of the first actors to bare his tush on TV.
Now comes a plot twist in which Diamont, 43, will expose far more than his derriere. "I'm 'outing' myself as a Jew," he says. "It's the most meaningful story [line] of my career."
In the Friday, July 28, episode, the fictional Carlton will reveal that his real name is George Kaplan and that his mother (Millie Perkins, who starred in the 1959 film, "The Diary of Anne Frank) is an Italian Jew who was forced to catalogue looted Nazi art in a concentration camp, Diamont says. After the war, she immigrated to the United States, started a new family and became a kind of art-oriented Simon Wiesenthal, tracking down stolen works and returning them to their rightful owners.
Those displeased with her efforts eventually bludgeoned most of her American family to death, save for herself and George, who were away from home at the time. Mother and son subsequently went into hiding, although the Bad Guys may be close at present.
Diamont -- a 21-year "Restless" veteran -- has been sworn to secrecy about future episodes. He says he only learned of his character's true name upon reading a script a couple months ago. He was so startled that he telephoned head writer Lynn Latham, who confirmed that Kaplan was Jewish.
"'I said, 'This isn't what we typically do here; we do baptisms and weddings in front of the cross.' And she [replied], 'We're going to change that.'"
The change means that Diamont will play perhaps the only overtly Jewish lead on daytime TV, which is known for WASPy protagonists. He is likely the first soap actor to star in a story line about Nazi-looted art. It doesn't hurt that pilfered art is currently a hot news topic; that the tall-dark-and-handsome Diamont would remain popular if his character turned out to be a Martian, or that "Restless" has been the top-rated soap for more than 17 years.
Latham says she had other reasons for turning Carlton into Kaplan.
"I have always preferred to write for an ethnically and racially mixed cast that represents most religions," she told The Journal. "That's the world ... most of us live in."
Diamont (né Feinberg) relates to his "new" character because he, too, has felt compelled to hide his Jewishness and has lost much of his family. Between scenes on a CBS sound stage, the actor comes off not so much as a sex symbol (despite his tight black Calvin Klein T-shirt) than as a thoughtful man whose real life story sounds as dramatic as any soap's.
As a youth, he learned his mother's cousin, who was Dutch, had been injected with gasoline during medical experiments at Auschwitz. In high school, several fellow jocks tormented him with anti-Semitic slurs (and slugs) for three years; the otherwise popular teenager kept the abuse secret, even from his parents, until he decided had had enough and repeatedly punched one bully. Since he had been victimized so long, his punishment was mild, just detention, but Diamont was left with mixed feelings about his heritage.
Because he had been raised in a secular home, "I didn't know who I was, or why I should have pride in who I was," he says. "Part of me was ashamed because I had been shamed.... I wanted to hide."
Upon his agent's advice, he agreed to use his mother's maiden name as his stage name, instead of the more identifiably Jewish "Feinberg."
The change began around 1987 as his father, then dying of kidney cancer, lamented raising his children without a sense of tradition and history. When Diamont's brother, Jack, was diagnosed with a brain tumor two years later, the siblings decided to study together for a joint bar mitzvah. They had to stop when Jack deteriorated from a 210-pound athlete to an invalid. After Jack's death, Diamont went on to become a bar mitzvah, alone, at Stephen S. Wise Temple, and to raise his six children Jewish. Temple rabbis conducted the funerals when his sister, Bette, succumbed to cardiac arrest nine years later and his mother died of emphysema just three weeks ago.
The actor, who is as tough and stoic as his character, came to work within hours of his mother's death. That day he broke down only once -- when he had to say the line, "I just spoke with my mother." He recovered several minutes later and has not missed a shot since.
"It is ironic that as my mother passed, my TV mother has just been introduced on the show," he says.
But he's happy about the plot twist.
"You can't tell the story of the Holocaust enough, especially since genocide continues today," he says.
"Given the layer of insulation from the world I had wanted to not be immediately identified as a Jew, I'm 'coming out' in a most public way," he adds. Of course, "Restless" is a daytime drama, so the plotline will undoubtedly involve steamy new love triangles for his character, Diamont says.
And, if we're lucky, perhaps we'll even get some more glimpses of those fabulous abs.
"The Young & the Restless" airs weekdays at 11:30 a.m. on CBS.
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