It’s September at last, when summer reruns and C-level realty shows cede their timeslots to returning favorites and new contenders. This fall’s offerings include Jewish connections galore, on and off camera; prolific producers J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer and Jonathan Littman are just a few of the series’ creators. Littman is behind “Hostages,” the CBS drama based on a concept producer Alon Aranya brought over from Israel about a female surgeon ordered to kill the president or her family will die. Fittingly, returning favorite “Homeland,” also based on an Israeli series, plans to shoot the last few episodes of its season in Israel. As for Jewish stars, these are some of the familiar faces you’ll see.
Those who know James Caan from gritty dramatic fare like “The Godfather,” “Misery” and more recent turns on TV’s “Las Vegas” and “Magic City” might be surprised that he’s starring in a sitcom. “Unless there are 12 people dead on page 20, I don’t usually get the job,” he quipped. But having occasionally waded into comic territory with lighter fare like “Elf,” Caan said he is “really excited about laughing a little bit” as a curmudgeonly ex-baseball player and coach whose daughter and grandson move in with him in ABC’s “Back in the Game.”
The sports milieu is a comfortable fit for Caan, who played football in college at Michigan State University and coached his son’s Little League team. He also was known as “The Jewish Cowboy” when he worked the rodeo circuit. “In many ways, my whole life has revolved around sports,” he said, and he’s got the scars to prove it. “I’ve had 15 operations, screws in my foot, just had my elbow sewn back together from non-Jewish activities, choices that were not very Yiddish.”
But if being an athlete was outside the Jewish norm, becoming an actor was even more unusual for a kid from a tough Bronx neighborhood. “I don’t think any actors came out of there,” he said. “That was an even bigger convention to break.”
“Back in the Game” premieres Sept. 25 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
It should come as no surprise that Andy Samberg was voted class clown in school. “I got kicked out of class a lot for not being able to keep my mouth shut,” said the former “Saturday Night Live” mischief-maker, who stars as smart-ass, hotshot detective Jake Peralta in the Fox comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
“Jake goes into the crime scene acting like a maniac, but he’s great at catching bad guys. He’s serious when it comes to solving crimes, so when he’s being a jackass, you can forgive him,” observed Samberg, who is comfortable with the “irreverent and silly vibe” of the show. “To show up and be handed 25 great jokes is the best feeling you can have as a comedian,” he said.
The Berkeley native is from a long line of funny Jews. “I grew up in a funny family with a funny father, and his family was funny. We were always joking around and cracking each other up,” Samberg remembered. He wasn’t raised in an observant home. “I’m much more into the heritage and the history of it and remembering everybody that came before me more than the religious part” of Judaism, he said.
Samberg admits to missing his friends at “Saturday Night Live,” particularly the “camaraderie and the intensity of coming up with something on a Thursday or Friday and have it be on television on Saturday.” He’d be glad to make a guest appearance. “I’ll go back to host anytime they want me to.”
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” premieres Sept. 17 at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.
Best known as the titular waitress on the long-running sitcom “Alice,” and later as Nana Sophie on “The O.C.,” and more recently, for movie roles in “The Back-up Plan” and “Wanderlust,” Linda Lavin returns to the small screen this fall as Sean Hayes’ pushy, meddling mom, Lorna, in NBC’s “Sean Saves the World.”
“It’s great to be back. I love being in this town with a job,” said Lavin, who was lured by the “smart, sophisticated” pilot script for the show about a divorced gay father and his relationships with his mother, teenage daughter and co-workers. “The generational differences are a source of comedy,” she added
Although the family’s religion has not yet been established on the series, Lavin finds that being Jewish, as well as female, “gives me a unique perspective on life. I bring what the script and tonality demands, whether it’s Jewish, European or New York humor. As an actor, I’m not the same in everything I do, but I bring myself to everything I do.”
“Sean Saves the World” premieres Oct. 3 at 9 p.m. on NBC.
The premise of the Fox sitcom “Dads” is simple: A pair of best friends and business partners, played by Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi, have their lives disrupted when their fathers (Peter Reigert, Martin Mull) move in with them. Green, as single stoner Eli Sachs, and Riegert, as his grumpy dad David, in a case of art imitating life, are Jewish. “Jewish negativity, guilt, pessimism — there will be a lot of that stuff,” said executive producer/writer Alec Sulkin, adding, “The other pair is as WASPy as they come.”
Green, (“Family Guy,” “Robot Chicken”), whose diverse comic influences include Mel Brooks and Don Rickles, finds depth in the played-for-laughs father-son arguments. “The relationship is so caustic. We say whatever we’re feeling. We may not be solving anything, but there are moments of tenderness and connection where we’re trying to find a way to each other despite so much acquired damage,” he said.
Thankfully, Green’s relationship with his own father, Herb, a retired teacher, is drama-free. “My dad and I get along really well,” he said, adding, “I’ve definitely acquired more sympathy for my parents as I’ve gotten older and see things from a different perspective. I don’t know that I’m in a hurry to have kids, but I would do my best not to completely foul them up.”
“Dads” premieres Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. on Fox.
Since starting out in the television cult favorite “Freaks and Geeks,” Lizzy Caplan has worked steadily in TV and film in everything from “True Blood,” “Mean Girls,” “Cloverfield,” “Party Down” and “127 Hours” to a role on “New Girl” last year. Her latest role is a distinct departure from what she’s done before, and certainly her most provocative: sex researcher Virginia Johnson in the Showtime drama “Masters of Sex.”
Based on the book of the same name by Thomas Maier, the series co-stars Michael Sheen as William Masters, Johnson’s boss and subsequent research partner and lover. Calling Johnson “by far the most layered and the toughest” character she’s played to date, Caplan says she was drawn to the contradictions in a 1950s woman and single mother with a progressive attitude toward sexuality. “She wasn’t tied down by society’s moral rules,” she said.
Lamenting the sexual double standard that still exists six decades later, Caplan feels “fortunate that I wasn’t raised in an ultra-religious household where I was told to abstain from sex and think of my body as evil.” A Los Angeles native, she did attend Hebrew school, Jewish camp, had a disco-themed bat mitzvah and went on an ulpan group trip to Israel at 16. She started acting professionally shortly thereafter.
While she’d been “quite comfortable” in the comedic, contemporary niche she’d carved out for herself, Caplan is relishing the opportunity to step out of that comfort zone. “I needed something like this,” she said, “I’m hoping that the audience will be accepting of me trying something new.”
“Masters of Sex” premieres Sept. 29 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
After memorable turns in the dramas “Political Animals” and “Mad Men,” James Wolk is putting his comedy and improv theater background to use in the CBS workplace sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” opposite Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar as father-and-daughter owners of an advertising firm.
Although he says it’s “nearly impossible” to keep a straight face in scenes with Williams, Wolk is relishing his role as young creative genius Zach Cropper. “He’s flying by the seat of his pants. He’s like Peter Pan — he never wants to grow up.”
Wolk, who grew up in the Detroit area in a Reform Jewish home, was bar mitzvahed and has fond memories of celebrating the Jewish holidays and of one Jewish food in particular. “Detroit has amazing challah,” he said.
While Zach Cropper isn’t Jewish, Wolk plays a doctor named Noah Bernstein in the romantic comedy “There’s Always Woodstock,” due out later this year.
Travel plans are also on his future agenda. “I’d like to make a trip to Israel at some point,” he said. “I never took my Birthright trip.”
“The Crazy Ones” premieres September 26 at 9 p.m. on CBS.
Other offerings of note: The PBS documentary series “Genealogy Roadshow” includes the story of a Latina from Texas hoping to verify her Sephardic Jewish ancestry (Oct. 14). Oliver Jackson-Cohen plays reporter Jonathan Harker in NBC’s “Dracula” (Oct. 25), and Ben Rappaport joins the cast of CBS’ “The Good Wife” as a fourth-year associate who’ll join the new law firm Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Cary (Matt Czuchry) are secretly forming (Sept. 29).