‘There isn’t one phony element to him’: In praise of Judd Hirsch, the 87-year-old ‘chameleon’ vying for Oscar history

Hirsch’s performance in ‘The Fabelmans’ as eccentric lion tamer ‘Uncle Boris’ earned him a second Oscar nomination this year  (Getty)
Hirsch’s performance in ‘The Fabelmans’ as eccentric lion tamer ‘Uncle Boris’ earned him a second Oscar nomination this year (Getty)

We are junkies and art is our drug. Family we love – but art? We are meshuggah for art. You think I wanted to leave my sisters, my mama and my papa and go stick my stupid head in the mouth of lions?”

So rants Judd Hirsch’s “Uncle Boris” in one of the pivotal scenes from Steven Spielberg’s masterful auto-biopic The Fabelmans. Boris, an eccentric crank based on the filmmaker’s real great-uncle, unleashes the abrasive life lesson on the adolescent Spielberg-alike Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) during Hirsch’s fleeting appearance in the film. (Meshuggah, by the way, means “crazy” in Yiddish, and those lions are – for Sammy at least – metaphorical.) It was a moment that Spielberg claims made him become a director. And it was a scene that secured Hirsch his second Oscar nomination, a record-breaking 42 years after his first. Now a few days shy of 88, Hirsch would be the oldest winner of an acting Oscar, and is already the second oldest nominee (after Christopher Plummer in 2018).

But then again, Hirsch has spent his life sticking his head into the mouths of lions. How else could you describe the decision to drop out of an engineering degree, three-and-a-half years into a four-year course, to take up acting lessons? “It was like a little voice saying, ‘Do you wanna be happy? Or do you wanna be the same guy you’ve been all this time?’” the actor recently recalled to CBS.

To Hirsch, the son of first and second-generation Jewish immigrants (Russian-born Sally Kitzis, and Joseph Sidney Hirsch, an electrician), showbusiness was a world away from his upbringing. “We didn’t have it easy,” he remembered. “My mother and father split when I was two. Didn’t come back until five years later. We lived in basements, furnished rooms, rooming houses.”

After graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1962, Hirsch’s first role came in the 1966 Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park. More theatrical parts followed, as did a string of TV commercials. (Among the brands to snare him: Dr Pepper, JC Penney, Listerine, and TWA airlines.) In 1977, Hirsch starred in the production of the Neil Simon play Chapter Two, as a widower who begins a tentative romance with a soap opera star, played by Anita Gillette.

“When Judd looked at you, there was not one phony element to him,” Gillette tells me. “He’s a hard crust with a soft core.” She remembers Hirsch as “demanding” in rehearsals (“he needed to be, with me, because I didn’t have enough experience in dramatic [non-musical] acting”) and prodigiously talented. “He’s comparable to a very well-trained British actor,” she says. “I would put him in the category of Olivier and Burton.”

Hirsch in ‘The Fabelmans’, playing the curmudgeonly Uncle Boris (Amblin Entertainment)
Hirsch in ‘The Fabelmans’, playing the curmudgeonly Uncle Boris (Amblin Entertainment)

At the time, Hirsch was divorced from his first wife, Elisa Sadaune, and Gillette thinks she got along with him because his son, Alex, took a shine to her. “You know, Judd was a very sexy man, but you can’t afford a relationship when you’re doing a play with somebody. I had to fight it though,” she laughs.

“He didn’t say nice things about a lot of people, but he was wonderful to me. And he just goes wherever he needs to go on stage. When he is sad, you really want to cry for him. Then he could turn on a dime and say, ‘Let’s go have a cheeseburger’ or something.”

Simon was also an admirer of Hirsch’s performance, says Gillette, with Hirsch a cut above the rest of the cast when it came to nailing the intricacies of the writer’s meticulously rhythmed dialogue.

Danny DeVito as the contemptable ‘and Hirsch as Alex Rieger in ‘Taxi' (Snap/Shutterstock)
Danny DeVito as the contemptable ‘and Hirsch as Alex Rieger in ‘Taxi' (Snap/Shutterstock)

While Hirsch’s work in Chapter Two was overlooked by the major awards bodies, it led to him being identified as the first choice for the lead in Taxi (1978-83). The project – an ensemble comedy co-starring Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, Jeff Conaway, and Andy Kaufman (and, later on, Christopher Lloyd and Carol Kane) as a group of New York cabbies – didn’t interest Hirsch. He famously told his agent to make the producers “an offer they can’t accept”, insisting on a large salary for an actor known almost exclusively for his stage work, and getting his name to appear in the credits before the title. His demands weren’t quite unreasonable enough: Hirsch landed the role, and sitcom gold was forged.

As the ethical but down-to-earth Alex Rieger, Hirsch was Taxi’s moral core, exuding confidence, world-weariness and just a hint of mischief. In his recent memoir, James Burrows, the legendary sitcom director who helmed 75 episodes of the show, describes Hirsch as a “chameleon”, a “great reactor” and “one of the great sitcom centres”.

You watch Judd work, it’s like going to school, because he’s so detailed

Tony Danza

According to Burrows, he and Hirsch “developed a unique shorthand” over the course of the series, based on the idea that there are 100 types of expressions. “Judd can explain a problem in a way you might not completely understand but you know you have to fix,” he writes. “I could say to Judd, ‘When you hear the line, give me a 42.’” While the numbers themselves were meaningless, this code established an understanding between the two of them (Burrows would later develop a similar code with Kelsey Grammer on Frasier). “It worked because Judd knew what to do,” Burrows wrote. “He just needed to be guided and to trust his colleagues.”

And trust his colleagues Hirsch did – something Danza is keen to emphasise to me. “Judd is a very special individual in my life,” he says. “You watch Judd work, it’s like going to school, because he’s so detailed.”

When Danza was cast in the sitcom – as cabbie and no-hoper pugilist Tony Banta – he was new to acting, having come from the world of boxing. “I didn’t think of it then, of course – I was naive – but now, I think back about what [the other actors] had gone through to get where they were,” he says. “Then it’s like, ‘We got this fighter who’s never acted before professionally and we’re gonna put him in the show.’ I just wonder what I would have done if I was Judd. But what they all did – what Judd did especially – was welcome me with open arms and allow me to thrive.

“I have never gotten over the way he welcomed me. I really think I might have folded the cards otherwise.”

Old friends: ‘Taxi’ co-stars Tony Danza and Hirsch reunite at the screening of ‘Anonymous’ in 2011 (Mike Coppola/Getty)
Old friends: ‘Taxi’ co-stars Tony Danza and Hirsch reunite at the screening of ‘Anonymous’ in 2011 (Mike Coppola/Getty)

Hirsch enjoyed a similarly warm relationship with most of his Taxi castmates – who still regularly catch up and share a drink over Zoom – with the notable exception of Kaufman, the late avant-garde comedian who played eastern European mechanic Latka Gravas. (It was a role that Hirsch admitted wanting to play himself.) “We hated him,” Hirsch told the Hudson Union Society. “He wasn’t one of us.” Hirsch has, however, often described Kaufman as “a really sweet guy”.

Hirsch won two Emmy awards for Taxi, the second of which came in 1983, shortly after NBC cancelled the series. (It had already been canned once, after four seasons on ABC, before NBC picked it up for a fifth.) After thanking both broadcasters, Hirsch held the award aloft, and said that he should “take this thing and shove it right up there beside the one I got in 1981”.

Taxi was never quite a juggernaut ratings hit. But it was consistently one of the most acclaimed shows on television, and turned DeVito – who played sleazy boss Louie De Palma – into a household name. In the UK it made it onto BBC One in a midweek evening slot. Hirsch, meanwhile, enjoyed what is probably his most celebrated string of projects during and immediately after Taxi’s run, throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1980, he starred in Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning drama Ordinary People, playing a psychiatrist alongside the troubled young Conrad, played by 19-year-old Timothy Hutton. While filming his biggest scene, Hirsch asked the director if he could smoke cigarettes, only for the Butch Cassidy star to tell him it would be a “crutch”. He lit up anyway. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m gonna beat Redford on this one.’ Sometimes you gotta tell the directors what’s better,” he recently recalled to Hollywood awards publication Gold Derby, adding: “With Spielberg, you can’t.”

Talking it through: Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton in ‘Ordinary People’ (Paramount Pictures)
Talking it through: Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton in ‘Ordinary People’ (Paramount Pictures)

Hirsch was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts, losing out amicably to Hutton (who should have really been up for Best Actor). Several acclaimed theatrical roles followed, including in the self-produced Talley’s Folly (1980), I’m Not Rappaport (1985), and Conversations with My Father (1992), the latter two of which earned him Tony awards. His acceptance speech for Conversations saw him hold a handwritten note up to camera for his mother, who was in hospital and unable to hear. “Mom, you are precious, I love you,” read the card.

His theatrical success was interspersed with more film roles and TV parts, including 1988’s Running on Empty and the divorcee sitcom Dear John (known in the UK as Dear John USA), which ran for four seasons. The 1990s saw him wed his second wife, fashion designer Bonni Sue Chalkin, with whom he had two more children, daughter Montana and son London. Hirsch and Chalkin would divorce in 2005. The Nineties also brought Hirsch his biggest box office hit with a memorable supporting part in Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster Independence Day (1996), and a return to sitcoms alongside TV stalwart Bob Newhart in the short-lived George and Leo (1997 to 1998).

“The combination of Bob and Judd in George and Leo was almost as easy as ‘bring ’em in, sit ’em down and let ’em talk,’” said Burrows, who directed the pilot. “The two of them killed.” Newhart tells me it was a “pleasure” working with Hirsch on the series, adding that his co-star was a “delight to work with and a total professional”.  (Addressing his Fabelmans appearance, Newhart says too that Hirsch is “totally worthy of his Oscar nomination”.)

If Hirsch demanded high standards from himself, he could be just as exacting with collaborators. For 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, Hirsch was cast as the mentor of Russell Crowe’s mentally ill maths genius John Nash. Hirsch later recalled sitting across a desk from a frantically fidgeting Crowe during one scene and thinking, “God in heaven, if this gets into the movie, we’re sunk. Bad acting.” At the end of each take, Hirsch gestured with his hands at the film’s director, Ron Howard, who would, each time, go over and whisper in Crowe’s ear. Take by take, the performance was dialled down.

A similarly amusing incident occurred when he first met Sean Penn, on camera, while making the 2011 drama This Must Be the Place. For the role of an ageing goth rock star, Penn had affected a high-pitched, reedy voice. Hirsch recalled to Gold Derby that immediately after the scene finished, he “turned to [director Paolo Sorrentino] and asked, ‘Is he going to sound that way throughout the whole movie?’”

Judd was so past all the bulls***. He just wanted to be there, and wanted to work

Rob Morrow

Over the past two decades, Hirsch’s screen roles have become more eclectic – including a number of guest roles on TV series (some of them big – The Big Bang TheoryFamily GuyThe Goldbergs) and films from Tower Heist to Sharknado 2. “I do a part in a movie, I have no idea,” he told Vanity Fair last year. “It doesn’t matter to me if it’s the greatest movie ever made or the worst movie ever made, all I want to know is if the part was okay.”

From 2005 to 2010, he starred on the CBS procedural Numb3rs, playing the father of crime-solving brothers Don and Charlie Eppes (Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz). “It was a great lesson for me, because [Hirsch] was so past all the bulls***,” Morrow tells me. “He just wanted to be there, and wanted to work.”

Morrow says he used to argue with the producers of Numb3rs on Hirsch’s behalf (“I think David Krumholtz probably did too”), without his knowledge. “I think he was underused on that show,” he says. “A lot of times they would just have him coming in with a plate of cookies or something and it was just like, ‘This is Judd Hirsch!’

Hirsch in the crime procedural series ‘Numb3rs' (CBS)
Hirsch in the crime procedural series ‘Numb3rs' (CBS)

“I think he was just happy at the time to have a home,” Morrow continues. “He loved the people and the people loved him. Actors are always complaining about this or that, and I think in his day he might have done that. But by the time I was working with him, he was a peaceful, philosophical figure.”

Peaceful maybe, but not above a good time – even as a septuagenarian. “We did this thing in the first few seasons where the actors and a couple of producers would go for a debauched trip to Vegas for a night or two,” Morrow recalled. “Judd was always so great – he can drink with the best of them. We go to the nightclub and he’s right there, dancing with us.”

“Judd comes with such enthusiasm, joy and excitement that belies his age,” says Ioan Gruffudd, who starred alongside Hirsch in the one-season ABC crime drama Forever (2014). In the series, Hirsch played the adoptive son of Gruffudd’s immortal medical examiner.

“[Hirsch] was 78 when we shot Forever,” says Gruffudd. “His energy and sparkle infuses any of his scenes with such magic. It is mesmerising being around him. It’s our friendship that I will treasure forever.”

A man out of time: Abe (Hirsh) alongside his ‘father’ Dr Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) in ‘Forever’ (Warner Bros)
A man out of time: Abe (Hirsh) alongside his ‘father’ Dr Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) in ‘Forever’ (Warner Bros)

In the past five years or so, Hirsch has worked with a number of top-tier filmmakers: Noah Baumbach (in The Meyerowitz Stories), the Safdie brothers (Uncut Gems), Kelly Reichardt (Showing Up) and, of course, Spielberg. It’s a late-career renaissance befitting an actor of Hirsch’s calibre. That his big awards recognition came for an eight-minute appearance in The Fabelmans – a part that took just two days to film – is immaterial. Hirsch steals the film in one quick swoop, with a vigour that not even David Lynch’s raucous John Ford cameo could match.

Spielberg had, Hirsch said, given him next to no direction on how to play Uncle Boris; the thick Eastern European accent was Hirsch’s own call. And it was the right one. Boris arrives in The Fabelmans like a visitor from another world – a divine messenger sent by the Gods of celluloid. “Spielberg said this would be the movie he’d make without aliens or dinosaurs,” Hirsch said to Gold Derby. “By the time it was finished, I said, ‘I’m the alien dinosaur.’”

By every bookmaker’s estimation, Hirsch is set to lose the Oscar race to Everything Everywhere All at Once’s Ke Huy Quan. But plaudits were never the goal. Speaking to Backstage OL last month, Hirsch described what first drew him to acting. “The fascination, to me, was to make somebody believe me,” he said. “I wanted to be so believed. And that’s all you can ask for. Because if they don’t believe you, you’re sunk.” It’s been six decades on the stage and screen for the Bronx-born actor, and he’s more afloat than ever.