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Interview

What's Up With... Fyvush Finkel

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Who he is: An Emmy- and Obie-winning actor, Fyvush Finkel began his career at the age of 9 performing in Jewish theatres in New York City. He currently portrays outspoken teacher Harvey Lipschultz on David E. Kelley's high school drama Boston Public.

How he acts inappropriate: Kelley was having difficultly casting the tricky role of outrageous attorney Douglas Wambaugh for the pilot of his series Picket Fences. "The trouble with casting directors is that when they audition seven or eight actors for one role, it's like aftershave lotion. After the first couple, they all smell alike," said Finkel. Kelley happened to rent the Sidney Lumet film Q&A, in which Finkel played an attorney. "As soon as he saw me he said, 'That's my Wambaugh!' It was the biggest miracle that can happen for an actor." Kelley placed a call, and within one hour a deal was made. Wambaugh and Lipschultz are memorable for their willingness to say or do anything, no matter how inappropriate. But Finkel never balks at his outrageous lines. "I am a very disciplined actor, and whatever is written, that's what I do," he stated. "I have all my confidence in David Kelley. If he writes something, I know it's going to be first-class."

Still, as Wambaugh, Finkel was often hard to like. "I did a lot of horrible things. I was like Erich von Stroheim, the man you love to hate." Emmy voters certainly enjoyed his work; Finkel was twice nominated for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, winning the statuette in 1994.

How success "finally" came to him: Finkel was 71 when he nabbed his Emmy, telling the audience, "I don't care how much time they gave me, I waited 51 years to get on this stage." Having lost the year before, Finkel didn't prepare a speech the year he won. "It's the pinnacle of your career and it stays with you forever," raved Finkel. "But I really didn't expect to win." Trudi, the woman Finkel jokingly refers to as his "first wife" even though they recently celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary, agreed: "I was in total shock, and I was screaming. We were just going to sit there and enjoy the ceremony; we never expected to win." But success didn't go to his head. "My lifestyle didn't change," he said. "I smoke a better cigar now and I hire a better car."

Finkel's entire family is involved in performance. His wife is a playwright, his daughter-in-law a singer, and both sons are musicians. One son got his first musical job through an ad in Back Stage, a paper Finkel remembers buying when it was 25 cents per copy.

His first big break: Finkel worked with the Yiddish theatre for 40 years when, at age 43, he joined Jerome Robbins' national company of Fiddler on the Roof and stayed with it for 12 years. He began the show as the innkeeper, eventually working his way to Tevye. He followed that with his Obie-winning performance in Café Crown and a five-year stint in Little Shop of Horrors as Mr. Mushnik. "I never leave a hit," said Finkel. "My resumé is short because every play I've been in has lasted years."

His opinion of critics: With such a long career, Finkel has had more than his share of run-ins with critics. "I don't mind if a critic doesn't like you for the performance, that's his job. But there are some critics who attack you personally or don't realize the rudiments of a play or why an actor is chosen for a role. A lot of them are very sarcastic. Ridicule does not a critic make. I did a play in New York and I told them I didn't want critics coming. The producer responded, 'Whoever buys a ticket is a critic.' One critic from the Village Voice said I looked like a penguin and my audience was all old people. I wrote him a letter saying, in my opinion penguins are beautiful animals, and were it not for old people he wouldn't be here on this earth today. They printed it in the paper, and our producer blew it up and put it in the lobby."

Parting advice: "I always tell people to keep going," said Finkel. "There's a customer for everything; don't be discouraged. When I got Picket Fences, I was 70 years old. A professional man who has made it will never discourage anyone. A failed man will discourage people. And you have to be careful with your teachers. A lot of acting teachers are failed actors and carry that bitterness when they should be inspiring people."

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