Interview: Four Jews in a Room Kibbitzing About Two Jews, Talking
Veteran actors Hal Linden and Bernie Kopell, and playwright Ed. Weinberger, chat with TheaterMania about this new off-Broadway production.
You don't get many opportunities like these anymore, opportunities where three people who have deservedly earned the term "legend" applied to their name come together to work on a theater production.
At the Theatre at Saint Clement's on 46th Street and 10th Avenue, Hal Linden and Bernie Kopell are starring in Ed. Weinberger's new comedy Two Jews, Talking. Together, they are a walking history of classic television: 77-year-old Weinberger, nine-time Emmy-winning producer behind hits like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi; 89-year-old Kopell, of The Love Boat, Get Smart, and That Girl fame; and 91-year-old Linden, Emmy-nominated star of Barney Miller and Tony winner for The Rothschilds.
During rehearsal recently, the two actors and their scribe came together to discuss the new comedy and share a few laughs.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How does it feel to be doing this play, Two Jews, Talking, in an Episcopal church?
Hal Linden: You mean, in a historic off-Broadway theater, which happens to be in the church. Our church is theater, so that's what bring a couple of Jews into a church.
Bernie Kopell: About a month before I got the call about this, I played a Catholic priest on Grey's Anatomy. Rabbi, forgive me.
Tell me about the play.
Ed. Weinberger: Well, it's called Two Jews, Talking, so obviously, I'm not going for a Pulitzer. I think I called it that simply because it describes the play. It's about the things that are important to me: religion, God, life, death, love, women, all the things you're not supposed to talk about. It began with wanting to write a play for Ed Asner, who was immobile, and it had to be two Jews on a bench because he couldn't walk. And then Ed Asner passed away a few months ago.
Hal: The first time we heard the title, I thought it was going to be limiting. Only Jews are gonna come. But that's what the play is.
Bernie: We did it first in North Carolina. I think there are three Jews there.
Ed.: I watched the audience coming in and talked to people after to get their reactions. There were no Jews. But it played very well, except for certain jokes that only New Yorkers will get, Jewish or not.
Hal: The point is that they got the relationships.
Bernie: They liked it. And they liked us.
Ed.: And we sold out, which was a blessing and gave us the enthusiasm to keep going. So the title is limiting, but I have found that the first thing any producer says is, "Can you change that title?" And I always say, "If you've got a better one, I'm open to it." In this case, I didn't think they did. It describes the play accurately, but it also limits one's expectations. This is not Medea. There are also surprises in it.
Bernie: One of the surprises is…I heard people talking and they said, "I didn't know that son of a bitch was still alive." Referring to me.
What made you want to do this play?
Bernie: The offer. I'd been pretty active up until a month or so before the offer came and I thought, "I've got work again! This is great!" I felt that way ever since I was a kid. Working is better than sitting on your ass hoping for something. So this is a treat. Working with Hal is a treat.
Hal: A treat? Half an hour ago, it was an honor.
Bernie: Well, it's half an hour later.
Had you worked together before?
Hal: No. We knew each other from the celebrity circuit, from sitting together on daises at fundraisers and things like that. But we never worked together.
Bernie: We both had experiences with [producer] Danny Arnold, though. He with Barney Miller and me with That Girl, which I was on for five years.
Knowing each other socially, what is it like to work together now?
Hal: It's the same experience. You have to start from scratch. You still have to do the work. One of the fascinating things I've found, when somebody comes up and compliments me on Barney Miller or The Rothschilds, I say, "Thank you very much." But when somebody comes up to me and compliments me on the job I did in a play in Philadelphia that closed in Philadelphia…I put in the same work in that show that I did in The Rothschilds. You always start from zero, and you want to start from zero, because you don't want to have any limitations. Every time you start a show, you're an absolute beginner, because you start with nothing except a couple of words that some ridiculous writer wrote.
Bernie: You're not offended by that?
What are you most excited for, besides the pay check?
Hal: Oh, we're on the wrong side of Eighth Avenue for a pay check.
Ed.: Each of us has his own reasons for doing the play, but money is not it.
Hal: By the way, do you have five bucks?
I gave it to the valet.
Ed.: The money will never equal out to my hotel and cab fare and the tips.
Bernie: And the flight.
Ed.: The love of theater, the love of work, is a cliché, but it's true. Let me put a quick kibosh on money. For me, it's the excitement of having an audience laugh at your jokes, which is a very special thrill that I take a great deal of pleasure from. And Hal and Bernie make it real, and as we rehearse with [director] Dan Wackerman, we're finding things we didn't know existed in the play, and that's what makes it exciting. It's always been my ambition to write a play, and it took a long time to fulfill that.
Hal: This is a little full circle experience for me. I made my Broadway debut as the understudy to Sydney Chaplin in Bells Are Ringing with Judy Holliday. In the first week, I immediately went on and became the standby instead of the understudy. That started my whole career, and it was a decade of doing standing by and understudying. Here we are full circle: We're both understudies for Ed Asner!