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Jewish Journal

Anything is fair game for ‘Ray Donovan’ showrunner

by Naomi Pfefferman

August 1, 2013 | 9:54 am

Above, from left: Jon Voight, Liev Schreiber, Paula Malcomson, Dash Mihok, Eddie Marsan and Pooch Hall in “Ray Donovan.” Inset: Showrunner Ann Biderman. Photo: Jeff Riedel/Showtime

Hollywood has always had its “fixers,” troubleshooters who clandestinely cover up celebrity scandals and screw-ups.

Back in the 1930s, MGM’s Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling helped manipulate events to make it look like Loretta Young’s love child with the married Clark Gable was actually her adopted baby; in the 1950s, detective Fred Otash notoriously spied on and tape-recorded celebrities like Rock Hudson and Marilyn Monroe; and in the 2000s, private-eye-to-the-stars Anthony Pellicano began serving a 15-year sentence on charges including wiretapping.

“These are the guys you call when you can’t call the cops,” said Ann Biderman, whose fascination with these shadowy players inspired her new Showtime hit, “Ray Donovan,” which spotlights a fixer played by Liev Schreiber with Robert Mitchum-style machismo.

Donovan is called upon to make pesky celebrity inconveniences disappear: think blackmail and masturbating stalkers. His clients include a married producer who wants Donovan to spy on his mistress, an action star caught trysting with a transsexual hooker and an athlete who is aghast to discover that the girl with whom he has overindulged in sex and cocaine has expired in his hotel room. Donovan remains cool, even detached, when cleaning up these celebrity messes: “You don’t think you’re the first person I’ve dealt with who woke up in bed with a dead body,” he tells the athlete.

The character is less nonchalant when dealing with the excesses of his rowdy Boston Irish-Catholic family, which has relocated with him to Tinseltown: his oily father, Mickey (played with jocular malevolence by Jon Voight); his brother, Terry, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease courtesy of too many fights in the boxing ring; another brother, Bunchy, who is so traumatized by his years of childhood sexual abuse by a priest that he has spiraled into alcoholism; and his dissatisfied wife, who wants to use Ray’s contacts to get their daughter into the prestigious Harvard-Westlake private school.

As befits a Hollywood saga, there’s also a fair share of Jewish characters, including Donovan’s trusty Israeli enforcer Avi (Steven Bauer) and his Yiddish-speaking mentor Ezra (Elliott Gould), who while sitting shiva hfor his late wife in the pilot is overcome by guilt after so many years of underhanded finagling.

Biderman, 61, who was both direct and breezy during a phone interview from her New York home, said she’d long been pondering how to write another crime series (her first was the acclaimed TV cop drama “Southland”) but didn’t want to do another police show. And so she landed on the idea of a fixer, and the series gelled when she married that concept with themes of a dysfunctional family, brothers and the reverberations of clergy abuse. 

Biderman, who is Jewish, isn’t worried about possible flak from the church: “Anything is fair game for a writer,” she said. “I don’t feel that being a Jew I can only write about Jewish themes or Chasidim. I never put those kinds of restrictions on myself.”

Nor does she restrict herself to traditional women’s fare; rather, as the creator of “Southland” and the screenwriter of hard-boiled films including “Primal Fear” and “Public Enemies,” Biderman has built a reputation for exploring the angst beneath the façade of machismo. In fact, when Schreiber, during a meeting at the Chateau Marmont, asked her what qualities she saw in him that could pertain to his character, “I jumped up and very loudly said, ‘I need a man!’ ” she recalled. And not the kind of metrosexual specimen that populates so much of film and TV. “I just don’t find them very interesting,” she said. As to why: “You’d have to ask my shrink.”

But then again, as a kid, Biderman said, she devoured the novels of Raymond Chandler and enthusiastically watched the film “The Detective” while other girls preferred “Gigi.” “I was also obsessed with Meyer Lansky,” she said of the Jewish gangster who walked his dog on Collins Street or lunched at Wolfie’s deli when she was a child in Miami. The Rat Pack was another preoccupation, so much so that Biderman made her father take her to the Cardozo Hotel, where Frank Sinatra filmed his comedy “A Hole in the Head.”

“It was about this divorced father and his kid, and this bohemian woman who was his lover, which really resonated with me,” she said.

Biderman’s own parents divorced when she was 8, and Ann went to live with her mother, Peggy Biderman, who was “wildly bohemian and a free spirit,” the writer said. “She was deeply involved in civil rights, and I marched almost before I could walk on the federal building in downtown Miami. Our home was a kind of open house for freedom riders or people who had been on hunger strikes in prison. They’d come over for dinner, and I’d just watch them eat these astounding amounts of food, because they’d be breaking their [fasts]. The FBI would also pop over from time to time to see what kind of revolution my mother was fomenting in our little apartment.”

Summers were spent at New York’s infamously bohemian Chelsea Hotel (the family moved in full time when Ann was 15); there the Bidermans hung out with icons including Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, members of the Jefferson Airplane and provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. 

“I was dosed with acid a couple of times, no big deal,” she said. 

Once, when Biderman brought a friend home to meet her mother, she said, she was “embarrassed” to find a man who had been shot being carried out of the lobby on a stretcher.

 “That was the Chelsea, and it was my ‘normal,’ ” she said.

No wonder Biderman wasn’t taken aback when, while riding around with L.A. cops for six months to research “Southland,” a gang unit left her alone with the dead body of a boy who had the words “Maria’s Child” tattooed on his chest. The child became the inspiration for a character on an episode of the series.

To prepare for “Ray Donovan,” Biderman spoke with real fixers (she won’t name names), celebrities, agents and tabloid journalists as well as leaders of SNAP (the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests). “It was really important for me to get that part of the story right,” she said of the clergy abuse. 

“I didn’t want to mock these people, and in fact I’m not mocking anyone on the show,” she added of her Hollywood characters. “I’m not biting the hand that feeds me. I’ve been around these kinds of people for years, and I’m very fond of all of them.”

Even the fictional adulterous producer who hires Donovan to check up on his mistress: “He’s just got his own issues,” Biderman said. “His wife won’t f--- him, and he’s [agonizing over] whether he should take human growth hormone. These are the problems of people who have a lot of money and feel entitled, but it’s real for them. It’s their world.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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