February 4, 2023

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How Judd Hirsch stole the scene in ‘The Fablemans’

3 min read

Almost 50 years ago, an unknown actor walked into Universal Studios’ New York casting office for a television movie. Later, legendary agent and casting director Eleanor Kilgallen told the young man, “Let me introduce you to some people,” and so Judd Hirsch got a brief tour of the place.

“There was a little guy behind a desk in a cubicle working on a movie and there was a shark on his desk,” Hirsch recalled. Kilgallen offers a brief introduction: “And this is Steven Spielberg. He’s going to be a lot bigger.”

That little bit of networking didn’t pay dividends — it didn’t register with Spielberg and Hirsch was forgotten until the memory came loose when the director called and invited him to play Uncle Boris in Spielberg’s “The Fablemans.”

Hirsch says he doesn’t know what prompted Spielberg to cast him in this pivotal role – “the messenger of the film’s theme” – but certainly, a career with two Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards and an Oscar nomination helped.

“I had a feeling Steven was confident that I had something in my background because I had never played anything like this,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch did not have an exact parallel in his background but did have Jewish immigrant relatives, including an uncle who helped them find them while he and his single mother were living in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. “He was brave—a guy with hair all over his body who swam in the ocean in the winter,” Hirsch recalls. “He was the guy who put me on a bike and pushed me and said, ‘Go.’ He also almost hit me once when I licked a bottle of ketchup. ‘You don’t do that here,’ he said.

Hirsch can also relate to Spielberg and Sammy as he excelled in math and science, studied physics and was poised for a career in engineering until something inexplicable pulled him in the opposite direction towards this career of acting.

His outsized performance as Uncle Boris – especially the keynote speech he gives Sammy about art – has generated more Oscar buzz for the 87-year-old. “It’s the heart of the movie and he was so influential,” says Gabrielle LaBelle, who plays Sammy.

The director chose Hirsch to see if Boris had a foreign accent, and his only direction was, “‘He’s the guy who made me a director,'” Hirsch recalls, “which is to say, ‘Play God.’ Now let’s see what you can do.” .’

Spielberg felt like he was reliving an important part of his childhood — “It felt like he wanted to see it happen himself” — says Hirsch, applauding the director’s take, though he was also defensive of LaBelle. “He was concerned about what was happening to the kid while I was doing the scene.”

Hirsch added that he had already apologized to LaBelle for what was about to happen. LaBelle admits it was a bit overwhelming. “He was just exploding at me,” she says. “He brought it all and I just tried to keep going.”

While Hirsch has had discussions with Spielberg’s co-writer Tony Kushner about Boris and his background, he’s still not sure he’s nailed the part. Midway through the interview, he launches into bits of Boris’s soliloquy, “You can’t help it, you have the same thing I have. … You’re going to do it even if you don’t want to do it, you’re going to do it, no matter what happens to you. And you will suffer.”

He went on a bit further before saying, “As you can hear I haven’t finished acting that part yet.” But when he finished his time on set, Spielberg clearly felt he had brought something special to Uncle Boris, writing a note to Hirsch that read, “I hope it’s not another 50 years until we meet again.

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