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The stars of Two Jews, Talking kibitz about their careers, mortality and why Jewish jokes are better in Yiddish
Hal Linden and Bernie Kopell have more than 130 years of showbiz experience combined, both on stage (Linden won a Tony Award for his performance in the musical The Rothschilds) and on screen (Kopell was the flirty doctor on The Love Boat and Linden was the title cop on Barney Miller). But mention retirement and they just say, "Feh!" At ages 91 and 89 respectively, Linden and Kopell are having the time of their lives in the new romp Two Jews, Talking at Off Broadway's Theatre at St. Clement's. Who needs Florida when you can be funny in front of the footlights?
Written by TV comedy vet Ed. Weinberger (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson), Two Jews, Talking is exactly what you'd expect: a pair of alte kakers cracking wise about women, sex, food, friendship and faith in thematically overlapping one-acts. Part one takes place in the desert after they escape persecution in Egypt, while part two is set on modern-day Long Island. The actors took a break from amusing audiences to entertain TDF Stages in a riotous Q&A.
Linda Buchwald: You've both had storied careers. How do you feel about the term legend?
Bernie Kopell: I think it's excessive to call us legends. Maybe after we pass away, you can say that.
Hal Linden: I haven't done anything really legendary.
Kopell: I'm very grateful that I've been working since 1959. I've been very fortunate.
Linden: That's what we are: fortunate actors in a career where there are a lot of unfortunate people. We were both very fortunate to have signature properties that propelled us and gave us the opportunity to keep working. That's all it is.
Kopell: Absolutely. One of the great truths is that if you don't mess up too badly, they let you continue.
Buchwald: After working for so long, why do you want to keep going?
Kopell: Because it's better than sitting on your ass and waiting for the phone to ring. That's why.
Linden: Or waiting for the…
Linden: Or the guy with the sickle.
Kopell: And it's fun. It's just great fun.
Linden: Listen, this is what we do. We have established our lives basically based on this one activity. And we're relatively good at it. And it's stirring. It keeps you going. You start with a page and end up with a human being. That's the journey that we're used to taking, and we want to keep taking it because it fuels everything else. When it's a long time between jobs, you end up sitting around watching television. That's not good.
Kopell: Not healthy. It's much healthier to be in the process. This play affords us to be in the process.
Linden: Any play does really. A good play, or even a bad play—and I've had my share!
Kopell: (feigning shock) No!
Buchwald: What drew you to this particular production, besides wanting to work?
Linden: It gives us the opportunity to be funny. The very first thing I ever did on stage as an actor was make people laugh. I was a singer, but they said, "As you're walking, just say these three lines," and I got a laugh. That was very seductive.
Kopell: You get addicted to that.
Linden: Yes. It's a blessing to be able to make someone laugh as opposed to making them cry. So, you want to keep doing that. And you want to perfect your ability to do that. That's the process part.
Kopell: It stays with you, and you learn. You don't want to make the mistake of hitting people over the head because that's low-class stuff.
Linden: You wouldn't want to be low-class.
Kopell: I would be proud to be low-class.
Buchwald: Speaking of getting laughs, do you have a favorite Jewish joke?
Kopell: I have one from my grandfather and it's subtle because it has a double meaning. [Tells the joke in Yiddish], which could mean I sleep on four or I sleep on her, depending on the mood she's in.
Buchwald: I'm guessing that joke only works in Yiddish!
Linden: I've got some favorite Jewish jokes, but they would take too long to tell you. He'd probably interrupt me.
Buchwald: Do you have a favorite Yiddish word or phrase?
Kopell: Oh yeah, from my grandfather, when I misbehaved, he'd say, [speaks in Yiddish], meaning he would hit me in the face unless I behaved.
Linden: When I was afraid to eat something, my father would say, [speaks in Yiddish], meaning what could be bad? That's the way I have approached life ever since.
Kopell: "What could be bad?" I've got to write that down because I've never heard that before. That was nice. Oh, another one is [speaks in Yiddish]: It's a world of troubles.
Linden: Boy, that's a lot of negative there.
Kopell: The Jews have experienced a lot of negative, even today.
Buchwald: That's absolutely true. Why do you think we Jews tend to find the funny in everything?
Linden: Well, first of all, you could do a sociological study of all the tsuris that we've been through. I don't know if that made us funnier, but there was a time when all the comics came out of the Jewish immigration to America. Let me tell you a story: My mother was in a retirement home and they would sit around telling each other jokes. So, every time I would visit her, she would tell me the latest joke she heard, which generally was about 70 years old and not very funny. Until one day she told me one very funny joke. The next day I happened to be with Buddy Hackett, and I told him the joke. He didn't laugh. He was tough. Do you know what he said? "It's funnier in Yiddish."
Kopell: Billy Crystal has this line that I love: "Yiddish is a combination of German and phlegm."
Linden: It's just a funnier language.
Buchwald: As you look back on your respective careers, are there any memories that stick out?
Kopell: I have one. In the beginning, it was very difficult for me to get going after I'd come out of the Navy. I got to New York, and I got an agent. He was slow. How slow was he? He would send me out for parts that had already been cast. That slow. One day he sent me to CBS and the part had already been cast. I was walking out, and the woman said, "Just a moment, Mr. Kopell. While you're here, would you like to read for Pablo?" I was thinking, not with this punim. But I went in and boom! I got the part because I was clear in my accent. So, during my first five years in the business I usually played a Latino, on My Favorite Martian, The Flying Nun, etc.
Linden: You couldn't do that today! I was a musician for 13 years before I ever set foot on stage. In the Army, I was a singer and a saxophone player. And that's what I thought my life was going to be. We had a piano player in our band who played with us on weekends. One time he borrowed me for a show and that's when I did those three lines that got a laugh. When I got out of the service, I thought, maybe I'll give this a try. And it changed my life and my career. The question that always disturbed me is he asked me. I didn't ask him. What if he had never asked? What would my life have been?
Kopell: I think you would have found your way on your own.
Linden: Maybe. But during my first season in summer stock, I met my wife. I would have had a different wife, different kids, a different life!
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Two Jews, Talking . Go here to browse all theatre, dance and music offers.
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Hal Linden and Bernie Kopell in Two Jews, Talking. Photo by Russ Rowland.