Jewish Journal

TV: From Bensonhurst to Vermont, via Hollywood

by Pat Sierchio

Posted on Feb. 21, 2008 at 5:00 pm

Gary David Goldberg

Gary David Goldberg

Gary David Goldberg did not set out to be a screenwriter. He was already 30 when a teacher at San Diego State University guided him toward the profession. That fateful nudge set Goldberg on his path to becoming a successful writer/producer and director of a string of films and television shows that include "Spin City," "Brooklyn Bridge" and the phenomenally popular sitcom, "Family Ties." Now, more than 35 years after selling his first script, Goldberg has written a memoir, "Sit, Ubu, Sit: How I Went from Brooklyn to Hollywood with the Same Woman, the Same Dog, and a Lot Less Hair." The book covers Goldberg's life from a sports-obsessed Jewish kid in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, through his heady days in Hollywood, to his current life as a small-town citizen in rural Vermont.

But Goldberg did not set out to be a book writer, either. "I really didn't choose to write it consciously," the author admitted during a telephone interview. "I try to write a little bit every day, and I just started jotting down things that really came in images and pictures and different moments, really just a lot of random notes from a disorganized mind." After some encouraging words from his friends and agent, Goldberg decided to expand his writing and look back on his life to see if he could answer the question, "How did all of this happen?"

book cover Sit Ubu Sit by Gary David Goldberg
"Everything started in Brooklyn," Goldberg says. "And everything started with the Jewish sensibility. My grandparents lived downstairs, and they were Orthodox. We had a big overflowing family of aunts and uncles and cousins with everybody living within a few blocks of each other. Growing up, I thought everyone in the world was Jewish." It was in this bubble-like existence that Goldberg's views on life and the outside world were formed.

"The two things that always struck me were that we grew up with a very Eastern European Jewish lens," Goldberg remembers. "And it was through that lens that we looked at America and looked at the world. And it was really a honey-colored lens, in the sense that you had the feeling that in America anything could happen." Goldberg also remembers Bensonhurst as an extended-family community, where he was instilled with a deep sense of pride in his heritage.

"I learned that being Jewish was a wonderful thing, and there was a responsibility involved in that to look out for other people," he says. "The Jewish commitment to social justice is one that I really admire. And family was the key. Family was the most important element, the most important bond, and it had to be honored and enjoyed. If you say family, the first word that comes to me is 'love.'"

Goldberg's father was a postal worker who often had to hold down two jobs to make ends meet. The author attributes his sense of humor to his mother, who he describes in his book as a "super-energetic, super-intelligent" and "caustically funny" woman. "My mother should have been in the United States Senate," Goldberg says. "She was a brilliant woman. In fact she did do some work with the local Democratic organization and they wanted her to run for county assemblywoman but she just couldn't do it, it just wasn't in her makeup emotionally to put herself out that way. Those women in the '50s, they paid a price, because they were outside their time."

Goldberg also discovered that there were drawbacks to living in a coddled community. "In that neighborhood, you were everybody's children, and they were all your parents. Everyone looked out for everyone else. But in the '60s as you got older, that became suffocating more than a feeling of safety."

As Goldberg came of age, he decided to expand his horizons and explore the world outside of his close-knit, working-class neighborhood. He spent much of his 20s working as a waiter in a Greenwich Village jazz club and backpacking through Europe with his pregnant girlfriend, Diana, and a black Labrador named Ubu. The Labrador is long gone, but Goldberg lionized his faithful companion by naming his production company after him and using a photo of the dog, Frisbee in mouth in front of the Louvre, as the company logo.

Diana, however, is still by his side. Goldberg's memoir is as much a love letter to his wife and mother of their two daughters as it is a show-biz bio. Their long, adventurous life together began with a chance meeting at a mutual friend's Brooklyn apartment in 1969. It was there that Goldberg, the young Jewish man, was first struck by the pretty Irish Catholic girl as she sat cross-legged on the floor strumming away on an acoustic Martin, unaware that she was about to be introduced to her life partner with the line, "Nice guitar." Still the romantic, whenever Goldberg speaks about his life, he usually does so in terms of "we" rather than "I" -- a testament to the couple's devoted solidarity.

One of the quotes in Goldberg's book that has already drawn attention is his feeling of guilt about making "fistfuls of money." Goldberg clarifies his statement: "When you jump a life, the way we did -- because it wasn't like it was an incremental thing -- suddenly money was no longer an issue. It wasn't like I didn't want the money or I shouldn't have it, it just had to be dealt with. I had to find a way to put it in a little box that would work in my life, because I didn't want it to send a memory change to who I was. I didn't mean to make it sound like a huge problem -- and it's a good one to have. But I think we had to redirect what it meant to us to be wealthy people, because we had no construct for it, it was just a group we didn't expect to be in."

It is clear as Goldberg discusses his life that the couple's journey has not ended, but in fact has come full circle, going back to the basic, simpler life they lived before fame and fortune changed everything. And they are all the happier for it. "I always liked the country," admits Goldberg. "In the '60s one of the things that Diana and I did was a lot of camping. I really like small-town life. It's like Bensonhurst -- just a different version of it. You know everybody and everybody knows you. I like everything in my life there. There isn't anything that isn't almost exactly the way I would want it to be. There isn't anything that anyone can give me that I don't already have."

Goldberg will be signing books at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m.

Pat Sierchio is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West.

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