April 12, 2001
Ephraim Kishon, Israel's premier humorist and satirist, stood smiling on the stage of the ornate Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood last week as he accepted a "Lifetime Visionary Award," bestowed by the 17th Israeli Film Festival to mark the opening of its eight-day run in Los Angeles.
"I'm glad to be in Los Angeles and actually get an award," said the 76-year-old author, playwright and filmmaker.
The predominantly Israeli audience got the point.
Kishon had come to Los Angeles in 1964, when his initial filmmaking effort, "Sallah," became the first Israeli movie to be nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language film.
He returned in 1973, when "The Policeman" was similarly nominated. In both cases, the Academy Award eluded him.
Two nights after he appeared at the Egyptian, Kishon was greeted by another enthusiastic Israeli audience at the Zanuck Theatre on the 20th Century Fox studio lot, for a free-flowing interview on his life and times, complemented by screened clips from five of his movies.
Under less-than-astute questioning by American-Israeli actor Mike Burstyn, Kishon quickly disposed of the first 25 years of his life in Budapest, where his name was Ferenc Hoffman and he was once hailed by the Communist minister of culture as "the hope of Socialist humor."
Some Kishon observations:
"When I first showed 'Sallah' [arguably the most famous and funniest of all Israeli movies], the critics walked out and petitioned the government not to let the film out of the country lest it shame Israel's name. My own wife told me that it was terrible and to forget about making any more movies."
"We have now in Israel a pool of talented actors and directors and the best equipment, but we don't have audiences. There's too much competition from the Internet and porno videos."
"The Disney studio optioned my film 'The Big Dig' and sent me a 40-page contract. I wrote back that I would sign only a four-page contract, so next day they sent back a four-page contract. Then they paid $250,000 to someone to write a script, which missed the main point of the movie. It never got made."
"You ask what are my future plans. I've now passed the biblical age [of 70]. My goal is to be healthy and rich.