"I've done fifty-three Broadway shows," Jerry Adler says. "Frightening, huh?" People would kill for a career with that kind of longevity, even one as varied and downright unusual as the 86-year-old's. Adler, you see, started off as a Broadway stage manager, working on the original production of My Fair Lady among other shows, before transitioning into acting at 65 years young. Since then, he's become one of the industry's ubiquitous character actors, appearing on a long list of programs including Mad About You (as the handyman Mr. Wicker), The Sopranos (as Tony's consigliere Hesh Rabkin), and The Good Wife (as attorney Howard Lyman).
For now, though, Adler is back in his old neighborhood, Broadway, in Larry David's Fish in the Dark at the Cort Theatre. "When Larry calls, you answer," Adler says when asked how he got the part of Sydney Drexel, the dying father of David's argumentative character, Norman. Having done an episode of David's series Curb Your Enthusiasm, Adler didn't think twice about his mere twenty minutes of stage time, even though David wouldn't initially tell him what the play was about ("He's very shy about this kind of stuff") and the fact that, at 86, the Broadway schedule can be daunting. "We did a table reading, and that was the first time anyone had heard it," he says. "We were falling all over each other [with laughter]. It was too funny to turn down. And, of course, I don't work too much in this. When they say I'm on Broadway…I'm in a bed on Broadway."
A Career Is Born
The first Broadway show Adler ever saw was Jack Kirkland's Tobacco Road. "There was a scene where a man urinates on a shed," he says, "and it made headlines. It's stuck in my brain." Adler's father, Philip, was the production's general manager. "I'm a creature of nepotism," Adler notes. "I got my first job when I was at Syracuse University and my father, the general manager of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, called me [because] there was an opening for an assistant stage manager. I skipped school."
A career was born. For several years, Adler assisted the legendary Broadway stage manager Samuel "Biff" Liff, now 96 (the two are still in constant communication). Perhaps the biggest show they worked on was the original 1956 production of My Fair Lady. "The great thing about that show is, the show that opened in New Haven, minus one little scene, is the show that opened on Broadway," Adler recalls. "There was a little scene where they prepare her to go the ball, which got cut."
Adler even sees similarities between David, his current leading man, and Rex Harrison, the star of My Fair Lady. "They're all loonies," Adler says with a laugh. "Rex was a very difficult person. He wanted a certain dressing room, a certain kind of water, it was a whole thing." As for the musical's 19-year-old soon-to-be star, Julie Andrews, Adler and Liff were present when director Moss Hart famously dismissed the entire company to spend a full weekend working just with her.
"He transformed her from a very frightened young girl into a star," Adler says. "It was a very psychological weekend, where he kept saying, 'You are the show. You are the star.' He made her believe that she was great. And she was. The fact that he released the entire company, including Rex Harrison, to spend time with her, made her feel important. Larry does that." How so? "He asks you for rewrites. One of the great lines in the show was written by one of the actors."
A Second Career Is Born
The acting bug bit, after he had transitioned into directing on Broadway and television. "I probably would have retired when I was sixty-five as a stage manager and director. But then at sixty-five, I started acting." He was in Los Angeles directing a soap opera when a casting director friend called one day. "She was doing a movie and said, 'The director keeps describing you when he describes this character.' I'd never acted before."
He's got stories for days about his time on Mad About You: "Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt were very good together. Their chemistry was great." The Sopranos: "When David Chase was doing the pilot, he called me because he had a cameo for this Jewish guy. They liked the character. Ten years later…" And The Good Wife: "The problem is that I'm only on it when they're in the office, and they're not in the office much lately because she's running for state attorney. I've only done five this season, and one more before they finish."
He's still not used to being recognized, though. "Having done so many shows on Broadway backstage in the dark, to be recognized now is so weird and something that you never expected. When I walk down the street now, it's like 'Hey, Hesh!'"
One of his greatest current joys, though, is sitting backstage at Fish in the Dark listening to the audience go crazy at the antics of the cast. "They're all lunatics, which is great," Adler says with a smile. "To sit by the intercom and hear that laughter is a pleasure. Nobody writes farce anymore, and this is a farce."
What's next? "Nothing, I hope. I'm trying to retire and people won't leave me alone. But it's a great life, kiddo. When they want you."