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Jewish Journal

‘Slap’ Happy

Actor-director Melanie Mayron is breaking stereotypes in front of and behind the camera.

by Naomi Pfefferman

August 22, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Melanie Mayron

Melanie Mayron

When Melanie Mayron read an early script of the iconic yuppie angst-fest "thirtysomething" in 1987, she rushed to the telephone. The series' creators had portrayed her character, Melissa, as Jewish, fat and troubled. But the famously redheaded actress didn't want any of that. She'd already been a recurring character on another show about a food-obsessed Jewish chick, the 1970s sitcom, "Rhoda." And she was tired of the cliché.

"So I talked their ears off about why they shouldn't make Melissa another self-deprecating Jewish woman who dumps on herself and eats," says Mayron, who has just directed her second feature film, "Slap Her, She's French," starring Piper Perabo. "I felt that while she had perhaps done that in her 20s, she was 30-something, she'd had therapy, and she was beyond it."

The executive producers agreed, and Melissa went on to become "thirtysomething's" scrappy, lovable underdog -- among the most memorable Jewish characters in prime time -- a freelance photographer struggling to find the right job and the right guy. Some complained that she was the stereotypical, unlucky-in-love Jewish girl, but Mayron begged to differ. "I didn't see Melissa as a loser or a neurotic," she says. "I saw her as a survivor."

The same could be said of the 49-year-old Jewish actress, who in person is funny -- and waif-like. If Melissa has been described as Chaplin's "Little Tramp reincarnated in a woman's body," so is Mayron. When acting jobs proved scarce over the years, she supported herself as -- you guessed it -- a freelance photographer.

When Mayron found that the Jewish men who ran Hollywood favored non-Jewish actresses, she co-wrote a short film, "Shiny Shoes," starring herself as "a Jewish girl who wanted a Jewish guy while the Jewish men around her just wanted shiksa goddesses."

By the time the acting jobs started to dwindle, as they do for many women over 40, Mayron had already transitioned into writing and directing. Her credits include ABC "Afterschool Specials," episodes of "New York Undercover" and "Ed" and her 1995 feature film directorial debut, "The Baby-Sitters Club," based on the novels of Ann M. Martin.

She's continuing to persevere as a director, though the odds are daunting. Despite the success of a handful of female filmmakers such as Penny Marshall and Kathryn Bigelow, only four of the 100 highest grossing films in 2001 were directed by women, according to a recent study from San Diego State University. Though hotshot young male directors are quickly signed to bigger movies, women have a different experience, Mayron, and the study, suggest.

"My debut feature, 'The Baby-Sitters Club,' got good reviews and made good money for what it cost," she says, wearing jeans and boots recently in her publicist's mid-Wilshire office. "But it took me six years to get to direct my second feature. I think a guy would have had another movie out the same year."

Ask why she signed on to "Slap Her" -- about a conniving foreigner who usurps the identity of a popular Texas teen -- and she jokes, "They were gonna make the movie and they wanted me." While the few reviews out so far have been disappointing, Mayron has been singled out for praise. Variety complimented her for drawing "lively playing from her cast without over-indulging them as a fellow actor."

Mayron says she hopes it doesn't take another six years to land her next directing gig. Then her head swivels and she's looking around, Melissa-like, for some wood to knock. "Here's a tree," she says, brightly, rapping the branches of a potted plant.

Though most people assume Mayron -- everyone's favorite TV gingit -- is the quintessential East Coast Ashkenazi Jew, her background is more varied. While her mother hails from Russian Jewish stock, her father, David, a chemist, is a Sephardic Jew whose family goes back five generations in the land of Israel. "My grandfather sold insurance to King Farouk of Egypt," she says. "And my savta's parents helped found the city of Tel Aviv in 1906. Our family name used to be Mizrahi, but they changed it to Mayron, which means 'happy water' in Hebrew."

The actress's dad was raised in then-Palestine and served as a combat medic in the War of Independence (Mayron carries a photograph of him in uniform in her wallet). Soon after the war, he arrived in Philadelphia to attend university and met Mayron's mother, Norma, at a Hillel party in 1950.

Melanie, the eldest of their three children, grew up traveling to Israel every few years. Her most vivid memories: playing in bomb shelters and speaking a patois of Hebrew, French and Ladino to her now 101-year-old savta. Back home in Ambler, Pa., she attended Jewish camps and weekly services at a "Conservadox" synagogue.

Around the time of her bat mitzvah, she viewed a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and vowed, during the car ride home, to become an actress. But the road wasn't always easy. After playing a chunky Jewish girl (among other less-than-svelte roles) who considers an affair with a rabbi in Claudia Weill's 1978 flick, "Girl Friends," Mayron decided to go on a crash diet. "I lived on coffee and Tab for two weeks, lost 16 pounds and then my hair started falling out in clumps," she says sheepishly. "Thank God I had enough nice, thick Jewish hair to cover up the bald spots."

A few years later, she shaved her head to play Vanessa Redgrave's best friend in the Auschwitz saga, "Playing for Time" -- and didn't work for two years while waiting for her hair to grow back.

Things had picked up by the time Mayron created the role of Isabelle Grossman, the hipster courted by the Pickle Man in Susan Sandler's "Crossing Delancey" at New York's Jewish Repertory Theater in 1985. "Susan told me she'd written the part for me after seeing 'Girl Friends,'" recalls Mayron, the never-married mom of two 3-year-olds. "I was supposed to star in the movie version, but Steven Spielberg bought the [property] for [his then-wife] Amy Irving. I was devastated because I loved that part; I mean, I was her."

Mayron also identified with Melissa, the searching, yearning, single artist she went on to play on "thirtysomething." The series earned her a 1989 Emmy Award for best supporting actress as well as her first shot in the director's chair (she eventually directed two episodes).

The New York Times recently called her "among the more versatile women in Hollywood," but the actor-writer-director isn't cocky about her future. She still has the same scrappy license plate she's had for more than a decade: "It says ONDWAY," she says with a laugh, again sounding like Melissa. "Because I feel like I'll always be on the way. On the way in, or on the way out."

"Slap Her, She's French" opens next week in Los Angeles.

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