“I hate lying,” Jon Lovitz, the comedian, actor and comedy club owner said without a touch of humor in his voice. “I just can’t stand it. I don’t see the advantage of it. It makes me physically ill.”
It’s the reason, he said, that he has become something of a specialist in portraying characters who are truth-challenged, or, in his words, “sleazy.” He was Tommy Flanagan, president of Pathological Liars Anonymous, on “Saturday Night Live”; the guy on “Seinfeld” who fibs about having cancer, then dies in a car crash; a loudmouth baseball scout who steals scenes from Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own”; and the father, in the film “Rat Race,” who tells his family they are on a minivan “vacation” when he is actually trying to win $2 million in a cross-country dash.
In “Casino Jack,” (opening Dec. 17) which tells the story of the disgraced former superlobbyist and Orthodox Jew Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), Lovitz plays Adam Kidan, a shady business associate whose bumbling deals help bring the lobbyist down.
Sitting in his publicist’s office in Larchmont Village, Lovitz, 53, is occasionally funny – such as when he calls his “Casino Jack” co-star, Barry Pepper, “Dr. Pepper,” or laments that people don’t know that Jesus was Jewish, because “”can you think of a less Jewish name than Jesus Christ?” But in person, Lovitz most often exudes vulnerability and a kind of naiveté that easily explodes into moral critique.
“When I was on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ a lawyer friend told me my Liar character was really popular in Hollywood,” he said. “I soon found out that’s because everyone in Hollywood lies, constantly. And everyone knows everyone else is lying. I’ve seen best friends screw each other over. And [agents] tell you that you have to lie to get what you want. I literally lost track of what’s right and wrong, it was so bad. So I got a book about Jewish morals.”
The book was Joseph Telushkin’s “The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living,” which provided practical advice. Hiding Jews from the Nazis? Trying not to unnecessarily hurting someone’s feelings? Lying can be OK.
“It’s ironic,” Lovitz admitted of portraying so many liars. “But as a comic actor, I’m good at making fun of them.”
His characters also blend a desperate quality with a bombastic flamboyance – a quality he said he inherited from his Jewish grandfather (actually his stepmother’s father), Lou Melman. Melman grew up on a farm in Nebraska and made loans to Al Capone’s gang in the 1930s; he would take the young Lovitz to Canter’s and to the Santa Anita racetrack.
“My grandfather was larger than life,” Lovitz said. “And he was incredibly accepting of me—he was just crazy about me, and I was crazy about him. I based my character in ‘A League of Their Own’ on him. He wasn’t mean, but he was funny. In the first scene in the movie, I’m attending a baseball game, someone stands up in front of me and I say, ‘What – are you crazy?”
The young Lovitz attended Valley Beth Shalom when his family lived in Encino and Temple Judea after they moved to Tarzana; his best friend was David Kudrow, Lisa Kudrow’s older brother, whom he met in the fifth grade. When the boys were at Portola Junior High, they saw Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run,” which solidified Lovitz’s ambitious to become a comedian. They especially liked the scene in which Allen’s character, paranoid about anti-Semitism, assumes someone has said “Jewy” instead of the words, “Did you.”
“We were just dying,” Lovitz said. “We thought, ‘This is like our own humor….It was very Jewish, especially the sarcasm. It was like this friend of my father’s who would always look at me and go ‘Oh, the actor..”
Lovitz was teased for being Jewish when he attended the Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake), starting in the ninth grade in 1971, when, he said, the school had few Jewish students. “One guy would say, ‘Look at your nose,’” Lovitz recalled. “The abuse was verbal and physical. The school in those days was all boys, and they were just merciless. It got so bad the headmaster called our class together, and he was just livid. He said ‘I won’t stand for this bullying.’”
Lovitz’s career has also had an up-and-down trajectory. He studied drama at U.C. Irvine, and then worked odd jobs, including a stint as a hospital orderly, for seven years until his work at the improvisational comedy group “The Groundlings” led to his casting on “Saturday Night Live,” in 1985. His response to that job offer – which brought almost overnight success—was “Are you kidding? They might have equally said I was going to live on Pluto.”
Lovitz has starred in Woody Allen’s “Small Time Crooks” and in a number of recognizably Jewish roles – including Randy Pear of “Rat Race,” who, in one hilarious scene, thinks he is taking his daughter to a Barbie doll museum – and ends up in the middle of a neo-Nazi rally at the Klaus Barbi museum. His response is to steal Hitler’s car, one of the museum’s displays.
Several years ago, Lovitz said, he began doing standup comedy again because his film roles were becoming scarcer; he opened his “The Jon Lovitz Comedy Club” on Universal City Walk last year, where he often performs, riffing on subjects such as sex, racism and religion.
He said he relished playing Adam Kidan in “Casino Jack,” a kind of lapsed, depraved Jew who, between outrageously underhanded business deals, becomes almost a truth-sayer in the film. In several scenes, Kidan points out how hypocritical the fictional Abramoff is for claiming piety while engaging in unethical deals.
For the scene in which the two men have an enormous argument as the FBI closes in, Lovitz said, “I improvised the line where I call [Abramoff] a ‘fake Jew.’” Abramoff in the movie is hiding behind his religion, and saying that he was trying to be such a good Jew, but he wasn’t. That’s not what the religion is.”