Two minutes into a telephone interview, actor Jeremy Piven riffed on his Jewish background: “I grew up Reconstructionist, so my father used to joke that we prayed to ‘To whom it may concern,’ ” he said, then paused as if for a rim shot. “I’m waiting for the laugh to die down,” he quipped. “That’s how hams work.”
Throughout the eight seasons of HBO’s hit series “Entourage,” Piven played one of the most outrageous hams ever to appear on TV, stealing practically every scene he was in. His character of Ari Gold, the manic, merciless pit bull of an uber-agent to a young Hollywood A-list movie star and his posse of libidinous pals from Queens, N.Y., made him an iconic image of Hollywood excess.
The mercurial Ari also hammed up his Judaism, throwing a lavish bat mitzvah for his daughter; sneaking a cell phone into synagogue on Yom Kippur (to his wife’s chagrin) in order to close a lucrative deal; and proclaiming in another scene, “It’s all gonna be fine … the Jew has arrived.”
No wonder Ari’s aura has been hard to shake for the 47-year-old Piven, who is still approached by fans who affectionately attempt to grip him in an Ari-style headlock and spout Ari-isms such as, “Hug it out, bitch!”
Even when Piven met Britain’s Prince Harry at a recent polo match, Harry, an avid “Entourage” fan, kept calling him “Ari.” “It was cute,” Piven recalled, sounding not too convinced.
The actor said he is grateful for the chance to return to TV in a very different, albeit equally larger-than-life role, this time in the “Masterpiece Classic” eight-episode period drama “Mr. Selfridge,” about the wheeling-and-dealing entrepreneur who pioneered the modern department store, premiering in the United States on PBS SoCal on March 31. Looking dapper in a top hat and tails, Piven portrays Harry Gordon Selfridge, the exuberant, Chicago-born retail magnate and womanizer who in 1909 had the chutzpah to open a palatial (some said crass) shop in the oh-so-proper milieu of Edwardian England.
“Harry’s goal was to make shopping as thrilling as sex, and he was all about glamour and razzmatazz,” said Piven, adding that the idea of going shopping as a leisure activity previously did not exist. “One of his heroes was P.T. Barnum, and he thought of himself as a bit of a performer and his theater as his shop.”
Selfridge invented the idea of ornate window dressings and browsing, which at the time was considered uncouth, as well as the saying, “The customer is always right.”
“It was his idea to move makeup, formerly considered only for showgirls and prostitutes, to the very front of the store,” Piven said. “And he even convinced Louis Bleriot, the French hero who was the first person to successfully fly over the English Channel, to display his airplane in the shop.”
On display, along with the lavish merchandise, are all of Harry’s flaws, which Piven compared to those of his “Entourage” character. “Both Ari and Harry ruled with an iron fist, but Harry’s bite ultimately was much worse than his bark, whereas Ari’s bark was much worse than his bite,” Piven said. “Ari was a monogamous guy who was seemingly a pig, while Harry was a man who could be so inspiring in business, but also had this other life where he was a risk addict and loved his gambling and his women.”
Although Selfridge was said to be very much in love with his wife, Rosalie, he famously bedded the burlesque actress Ellen Love, as well as the dancers Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova, among myriad other mistresses. But his fortunes eventually waned, and after the death of Rosalie in the 1918 influenza pandemic, he spiraled downward into financial and personal ruin, ultimately dying virtually a pauper in 1947, at the age of 83.
“Harry’s is a true story, and yet it feels Shakespearean,” Piven said.
And there’s another bonus to playing the part: “Being on ‘Masterpiece’ is like telling your Jewish mother that you’re going to become a doctor,” Piven said. “ ‘Entourage’ was a male wish fulfillment show, so, did my own mother have fun watching the boys trying to get laid because their best friend is famous? I don’t think so. Does she enjoy a turn-of-the-century period piece about an American entrepreneur with all of his beauty, warts and eccentricities? She saw the pilot and was intrigued, so I’m pretty proud of that.”
Piven’s parents, both actors who studied with Uta Hagen, introduced him to the stage, courtesy of their Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Ill., where students included John Cusack and Aidan Quinn. In between performing Chekhov and Shakespeare, the young Piven also aspired to become a star football player on his high school team — to no avail. “If you fail in your own eyes early on, it stokes the fires of ambition and led to a lot of my tenacious ways with acting,” he said.
That persistence came in handy as Piven toiled for years to make it in Hollywood, playing secondary characters in dozens of films, including “Old School” and “Black Hawk Down.” His big break came in 2004, when “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin cast him as the character based on executive producer Mark Wahlberg’s real agent, Ari Emanuel. “Ari Gold was a proud Jew, but it was difficult for him to play by the rules, which led to some of our best comedy,” said Piven, who won three Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe for his work on the series.
Even so, “Playing Ari was physically exhausting, and it took a lot out of me,” said Piven, who relied on his training in commedia dell’arte to portray the volatile character.
“Mr. Selfridge” creator Andrew Davies (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Bleak House”) said it was Piven’s performance in “Entourage” that led him to cast the actor: “All of us are terrific fans of ‘Entourage,’ and we thought Jeremy showed the kind of energy and outrageousness we needed for our character.” Davies said.
These days, Piven said he’s thrilled that an “Entourage” movie is in the works, but he also seems glad to take a break from Ari.
“The U.K. has really embraced ‘Mr. Selfridge,’ and in Britain I don’t see Ari attached to my name so much anymore. I’ve been typecast now as Harry Selfridge, which is really fun.”
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