On a recent morning on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Mark Feuerstein received an unexpected phone call from the production office of his new USA Network series, “Royal Pains,” in which he plays an emergency room doctor turned private physician to the jet set in the Hamptons.
The day’s shoot was slated to start earlier than scheduled, a production official said, so Feuerstein had to quickly shave and prepare for his ride out to Long Island in a minivan filled with other cast and crew members. “I’m schlepped around like a child of 7 in Borough Park, Brooklyn,” he quipped. “It’s glamorous, this Hollywood life.”
Actually the 37-year-old actor is grateful for the chance to portray the romantic lead on a prime-time series; he is no stranger to the vagaries of show business.
As a cum laude graduate of Princeton and a Fulbright scholar, Feuerstein once envisioned a career on the stage when a chance audition landed him a regular role on TV’s “Fired Up,” in 1996. Feuerstein seemed poised to become a star when he was cast as affable but neurotic Jewish leads in two more sitcoms, “Conrad Bloom” and “Good Morning, Miami,” playing “fumfering mensches” as he calls them, that also channeled aspects of his own Jewish persona. But his shows were poorly reviewed or short-lived, with one critic even going so far as to refer to Feuerstein as “sitcom kryptonite.”
In a recent phone interview, Feuerstein was still indignant. “Television is a collaborative effort, and no one actor has so much power that he can ‘put a show to bed,’” he said. But, he added, “It is true that I have been through the demise of the American sitcom. I thought it was on its last legs when I was first on ‘Caroline in the City’ and ‘Fired Up’ and ‘Conrad Bloom,’ and I guess I hadn’t put it to bed enough that I had to do ‘Good Morning, Miami’ to truly put to rest my sitcom career,” he said, playing up the irony. “I’ve been through the mill. ‘Royal Pains’ is not my first rodeo.”
Feuerstein campaigned hard for the USA role, which showcases both his dramatic and comic abilities, and could deliver the broad success every actor craves. He certainly relates to his character, Dr. Hank Lawson, who experiences his own share of career ups and downs.
In the pilot on June 4, Lawson first appears as a successful emergency room physician with a gorgeous fiancée and living in a great loft in Manhattan. But when one of the hospital’s major philanthropists dies under his care as a result of an unforeseen complication, Lawson is fired and virtually banned from practicing in New York City. His fiancée leaves him; he goes broke and spirals into a deep depression. But his luck changes — sort of — when his brother (Paulo Costanzo) drags him to a party at a palatial home in the Hamptons, where he chances to save a young woman suffering from a possible drug overdose. After a series of misadventures, Lawson is reluctantly enlisted to become the area’s “concierge doctor,” a private physician to the rich and famous. Always on call, his tasks range from deflating the breasts of a socialite who has undergone a botched plastic surgery to extracting a blood clot from a teenager injured after crashing one of his father’s Ferraris.
“Hank both resents the rich and is forced to live in their world, at their behest,” Feuerstein said of his character. “I love that the show deals with the desire for status and privilege, because ... I’d be lying if I said I didn’t subscribe to some of those values myself. I try to think that money and status don’t matter, but when I’m on set and I see my boss from the network, for example, it’s hard to forget that talking to her might be somewhat more significant than speaking with someone else.”
The financial issues tie in to his own family’s experience of traversing the Jewish Diaspora to the American dream. Feuerstein’s Eastern European grandparents brought up six children in an Orthodox home above their shoe store on the Lower East Side; his father and three uncles attended Harvard Law School.
Feuerstein grew up on the Upper East Side, where his observant parents considered sending him to the Ramaz yeshiva, but instead enrolled him at the prestigious Dalton School. “It was part of the cultural matriculation of American Jews,” the actor said of that decision. “The goal for Jews of their generation was to move from the Bronx or Lower East Side to Manhattan, where you engaged in social competition so your children could get on ‘the track’— attending the right schools in order to get into a good college, a great law school and eventually a job at a great firm.”
“My trajectory with regard to awareness of status went from zero to 60 when I left P.S. 158 to attend Dalton, where my classmates were the children of some of the most famous and wealthy people in the country,” he continued. “So for a birthday party, I was going to Diana Ross’ estate in Bedford, Conn., and for a bar mitzvah, to the Waldorf Hotel, where the Harlem Globetrotters would be playing in the ballroom. And of course I would be going off to someone’s estate in the Hamptons and really seeing how the other half lived. My family didn’t have that kind of money, but the Hamptons offered a glimpse.”
The vast beach homes, where personal chefs grilled lunch and windows looked out on the pristine dunes and isolated beaches, made Feuerstein feel as if he were in some kind of Architectural Digest paradise. The experience “was like Martha Stewart meets Woody Allen,” he said, referencing the romantic beach montages of Allen and Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.”
While Feuerstein’s old pre-law classmates may have their own homes in the Hamptons, the Princeton graduate chose a less stable path when he veered off “the track” to pursue acting as an undergraduate. As to why he attended his first auditions, he said, “I knew I was somewhat extroverted, and I liked attention.” But acting soon became a passion, and Feuerstein went on to study theater on his Fulbright in London and to embark upon a stage career before moving to Hollywood, where he found that “getting a Fulbright doesn’t mean diddly when you’re sitting in front of a director at an audition.”
Nevertheless, he worked steadily, landing roles in films such as “What Women Want,” “In Her Shoes,” and in Ed Zwick’s “Defiance” last year; recurring roles in television shows such as “The West Wing” and, in between, earning stellar reviews for his portrayals of complex characters in plays such as “Turnaround” and Neil LaBute’s “Some Girl(s)” at the Geffen Playhouse last year. His own starring vehicles, including the neurosurgery show “3 Lbs.” for CBS in 2007, proved less successful. “Here I am in ‘the biz’ and I get these shows and they tank, or they don’t all end up being what they might’ve been, but I just keep on going,” he said.
Getting cast in “Royal Pains” proved arduous. Feuerstein had been a friend of the show’s creator, Andrew Lenchewski, since Lenchewski’s Jewish father, an oral surgeon, pulled Feuerstein’s wisdom teeth in 1997 and suggested Mark meet his son, the screenwriter. Feuerstein promptly invited the younger Lenchewski to his annual break-the-fast at his Santa Monica apartment, and the two artists stayed in touch. When Feuerstein heard that his old friend’s show, “Royal Pains,” had been picked up by USA, he called Lenchewski, and, “with a typical moxie belying my deep desire,” congratulated him on the show and declared that he himself would be starring in it.
“I vividly remember listening to that message and laughing,” Lenchewski said in an e-mail. “But the truth is, I was way ahead of [Mark]. I knew the key to casting the part was finding someone who could play both the drama of the medicine and the comedy of the relationships. And I knew we’d get both in spades from ‘Firestone’ (he and I take liberties in Americanizing each other’s super-Jewish surnames). I lobbied for him a lot…. The guy is brilliant.”
Indeed, USA agreed to test Feuerstein for the role — which he describes as “beshert,” but they initially turned him down, stating they preferred a “Matthew Perry” type.
When asked, Feuerstein concedes that his persona could have been perceived as too specifically Jewish for the part, though his character, to date, has not been defined in terms of ethnicity. Feuerstein is curious to see whether the writers will address Lawson’s heritage in an upcoming episode, when a socialite character, Mrs. Newberg, holds a “Bark Mitzvah” for her pedigreed pooch.
As he prepared to dress for the recent shoot — and to be schlepped off in a minivan — the actor reflected again on how “Royal Pains” explores his own conflicting feelings about money. On the one hand, he said, the idea of a “concierge doctor” is elitist. On the other, he can see himself hiring one if he were outlandishly wealthy. “Why wouldn’t I want a guy I can call every time one of my kids has an infection, a fever, a bump,” he said. “It would be, ‘Hey doc, hang up your cell phone, you’re talking to me now, and I’m going to take an hour to describe every symptom and then you’re going to come to my house.’ That would be a dream for any neurotic Jewish parent.”
For more information and a full schedule for “Royal Pains,” visit usanetwork.com.