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Henry Goodman interview

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2007-05-04

Henry Goodman

Henry Goodman

Having triumphed as Tevye in Fiddler On the Roof at the Sheffield Crucible late last year, actor Henry Goodman is playing the world's most famous Jewish milkman once again – this time on the West End stage.

Over the years, the 57-year-old, known for both his song and dance prowess as well as his acting ability, has notched up a string of memorable performances in London and across the world – from Shylock in the National Theatre's 1999 production of The Merchant Of Venice through to suave lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago, gangster Nathan Detroit in Guys And Dolls and closeted homosexual Roy Cohn in Angels In America. Many people will also remember his unfortunate association with the Broadway production of The Producers, when he took over the role of Max Bialystock from Nathan Lane in 2002, only to be fired just days before opening night.

With Fiddler On The Roof due to open at London's Savoy Theatre on May 19, Goodman takes a break from rehearsals to chat to SJ's Caroline Westbrook about taking on Tevye, getting the boot from Broadway and why he doesn't want to be typecast in Jewish roles.

What's it like coming back to the West End stage?

Well, I was in The Hypochondriac with the same director at the Almeida, and I've just done Gondoliers at the Coliseum which is a two and a half thousand seat auditorium, so it's great coming back to the London stage. But what's interesting is because we've just done this at Sheffield in the round, what's happened is we're reshaping it, so that it works in what's still a 1000 seat theatre but is a proscenium arch environment, but keeping that sort of feeling that comes off the stage and goes into the auditorium. But in terms of being back in London, it's a very exciting but slightly dangerous environment here, you can get very hyped up by the wrong things if you're not careful.

Why do you think Fiddler On The Roof has become such an enduring classic?

There are the obvious things – it's got great songs and a wonderful story which just compels you and sucks you in. And I'm only saying that after doing it for 1000 people a night in Sheffield, 85 per cent of whom were not Jewish – there's only 200 Jewish families in Sheffield and yet it sold out and broke all box office records. I was keen to not start it in the West End to see if we could find something special to say and a way of saying it, and that made it work. But the reason it's endured is many things – apart from its qualities as a musical, there's an appetite for seeing a community with such innocence – although the progroms have been going on all around Russia, they haven't actually happened in this village, so they keep on thinking, "Maybe it'll happen to someone else," and bit by bit their innocence is destroyed. But while the outside social and political events are happening the internal family events that Tevye has to live with are imploding all around him, and I think people are moved by it. You can feel superior to these people, but deep down everybody's got the same problems – your daughter marries out, your other daughter falls in love with the wrong sort of Jew – you can't win with five daughters. It's interesting that the writers of the music went out of their way to be absolutely true to the Jewishness and warmth of the Sholom Aleichem stories and their very specific ethnic colour but at the same time there are no Yiddish or Jewish expressions in the book, and quite interestingly they did that on purpose so as not to alienate the audience, so the universality of the story comes from that. And that was one of the most thrilling things about it, that it was so inclusive.

Are you familiar with Sholom Aleichem's other work?

Oh yes, I've been reading them, there's some lovely love stories, for example the story of the orphan who becomes Mottel in the musical, and his relationship to the village, and the village idiot, and the butcher – they're all there. And of course in the original story Tevye has seven daughters, rather than five, and they wisely contracted it to five otherwise it would go on for four hours trying to marry off the other two. Sholom Aleichem in his stories is wonderfully tough – he's tough on the indulgences of the Jewish people but it's with affection. He has the right to be tough and satirical about his community because he does it with complete love of that community. But he does parody and take the mickey out of some of their indulgences, and their gossip and their habits, but he does it with affection.

Did you see the Broadway revival with Harvey Fierstein as Tevye?

No, I didn't. It started out with Alfred Molina, and in a sense they tried to de-Jewishify it, which is an interesting idea but is like doing King Lear with a 12-year-old in the lead – it really goes against the grain a bit – so I think they had a tough time. And a lot of people liked it but I didn't actually get to see it so I can't comment on how it turned out. But I know from talking to people in it that that was the idea, which is very difficult, because so much of it is rooted in Yiddish life.

What attracted you to the role of Tevye?

Well apart from anything else I get to sing! It's a bit like King Lear on ice, you get to do all the emotional stuff but you also have to have warmth and wit, and it's also connecting to part of my own background.

How do you think your performance compares to those of Zero Mostel and Topol as Tevye and what do you bring to it?

I think they both grow out of different traditions, I mean Topol was a young man in his thirties when he was brought to it, I'm nearly twice that age, so there's that – but also Zero was a clown who's made an amazing stamp on people's hearts, but as many of the people who loved him said, he was a very naughty actor, he liked to play with the play not play the play. He wanted to be the clown prince, and that's a tradition that's gone on on Broadway which I'm really not interested in. I think one wants to be warm and engaging and funny and get the laughs and all the rest of it but not stop the show and say 'forget the plot, let's all have a laugh'. That seems a shame. I'm not pompous about it – in its place, that's lovely – but this is such a powerful, lovely story that you don't need me to drop my trousers and ingratiate the audience, which great clowns love to do, and in the right environment I don't mind doing it but I don't think it's appropriate here. We get laughs, we go for the humour, but from within the characters.

Speaking of Broadway, what happened with The Producers, exactly? We were supposed to interview you five years ago on the eve of opening night and then 24 hours before the interview you left the production....

What happened is I did it for a month to 60,000 people, had a wonderful time, and then they sort of panicked because I wasn't a big name, and the root of it was more to do with Broadway and all of its fears and so on. A few days before opening night they decided they would put on the understudy – Nathan Lane had been off more than 100 times in the past year, because it's a hugely taxing role, even more demanding than Tevye in a way. But it's history, if you look in the West End, look on Broadway, where's The Producers – it's gone. And that's the point – it's gone, I'm still here! And since then I've done half a dozen amazingly successful shows, and it's all history.

And then you went back to Broadway a few months later to do Moliere....

Yes, I did Tartuffe. That's the ironic thing about Broadway – it's a sort of love-in, and also a sort of scary hell. People are so pressured by losing lots of money that it brings out the best and the worst in people, a sort of venal greedy arrogance alongside lots of terrific support and encouragement. So within minutes of being fired I was offered several other jobs, I mean several, within the same day. It was 'you're brilliant, we love you, you're phenomenal, fantastic, there is nobody better, you can do everything, you're fired.' In one sentence. Oh, and 'here's another job'. So you have to learn to develop a really thick skin. And that's what makes it exciting but you have to be very wary to keep your feet on the ground and not think you're God's gift to anyone.

So if Mel Brooks asked you to be in Young Frankenstein the musical what would you say?

It's a good part, I'd have a lot of fun, so yes, sure!

Having played Shylock, Max Bialystock and now Tevye do you think you've cornered the market in playing Jewish characters?

I hope not, there's many others who've played those roles. And also I don't want to corner the market. I'm very proud of being a British actor, Rada trained, and I enjoy those roles but I think it's also very important that Jews are seen to be actors, not Jewish actors, sometimes. I would feel very wasted and diminished playing roles just because I'm good at them and I've been fortunate to do a lot of other great American plays. But there is a bit of a challenge there – where do you see the sophisticated, elegant, rather than just the horrible Jews. Where do you see the human rights lawyers, where do you see the economists, where do you see the millions of fantastically philanthropic business people, where are they reflected in British TV drama, usually you see people talking in the stereotypical voice at a Golders Green wedding! What we have to admit is that exists, these people talk like that I've met them often. But what I'm saying is there are thousands of other people who are not like that who are not so often shown, and that has to be challenged, and that's writers, we need writers to reflect Jewish life, so that we don't have to have an opening scene at a Barmitzvah and people talking like that. It's so ridiculous. If I'm being honest there is a dichotomy on how we deal with people like me, a modern Jew talking like I do, rather than the shtick that we do. I want to celebrate the fact that Fiddler On The Roof is a wonderful story rather than corner the market in cliches. And that's why I know that although other roles like this tend to be offered to me, I will go out of my way not to do them straight after this one.

Were you approached for any of the British Jewish films that have been made recently, for example Sixty Six or Suzie Gold?

Well one of them, yes. I did an interview with the director of Sixty Six and interestingly, he said I was far too authentic. He told me it was set in Whitechapel, the Jewish East End, and I told him I grew up there, and he said 'you would make the guy playing the lead look wrong, because you're much too authentic in my accent and my qualities – so even though you're perfect for the father we can't cast you.' You can't win either way. Sixty Six had a good script, whereas Suzie Gold was just ridiculous.

How did working in South Africa compare to working somewhere like London?

Well you have to remember when I left Rada in the 70s with lots of awards but no agent, I got deeply involved in committees. It wasn't deeply radical but it was a fantastic environment of commitment to making an impact with the arts, to make the arts relevant to the community and so on. And it was that that took me to South Africa, not in any deep sense of what was going on there although I was aware of it, but I was in my early 20s and I found myself teaching people in a drama school, many talented people, and then I got deeply involved. So although I did work with theatres out there most of my time was spent with alternative theatre, street theatre and fundraising to do programmes in the townships. My wife ran a very successful company which has since bred generations of dancers and choreographers, called The Jazz Art Dance Company. She is a choreographer and ran a dance company which was doing shows about bulldozers knocking down townships, interesting work. We weren't in any way radical but it was a way of using dance and theatre. While I was there I also did Candide The Musical, and Oklahoma, and Tartuffe, and Shylock, all in South Africa before I came back here in my thirties. So it was a fertile environment: I did long-running radio series, I did street theatre, I taught in university drama departments, and I was able to burn on different cylinders and put a lot into the place. It wasn't that sort of careerism you're forced into in Britain.

How did you enjoy working on Notting Hill?

It was great fun, it's a very popular film. That's the kind of thing I'd really like to do more of, where I'm not exhausted and tired from working all day and singing and being a cross, irate father. It was the same doing The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers with Geoffrey Rush. I've been so busy with theatre I've never had time to develop my film career, but I'd like to – the bits I've done I've enjoyed enormously. I've also just done a TV pilot with Sanjeev Bhaskar about a Jewish businessman who works with a young Indian guy to run a business in India. So they've just finished shooting the rest of it in India and I did my bit in London. So if that gets picked up that would be a nice development for me.

What else have you been up to recently?

I've done pilots in Los Angeles for the past two years, one really sophisticated piece that's written like The West Wing, but it didn't get picked up. And then last year I did a comedy series over there, and I teach quite a bit now – I always have done – I do masterclasses when I can fit it in. And I do a great deal of radio.

What does being Jewish mean to you?

Well there's a certain element where in some way I feel as though I've become an unconscious amabassador, people think, 'yeah, he's one of our boys', and almost grab my cheek every time I pass by. And they get nachas from it, and that makes me very proud. But at the same time I can't be what all these people think I am. I can't be the Orthodox person, I can be honest and true to the things I respect and like about my background, but they all see something different and want something different from me. I have to be very careful not to be dishonest but at the same time respect people's aspirations. But on the whole, like everybody as you get older, I have a warm affection for many of the things that when you're younger you might bridle against, you realise they actually gave you form and shape and order – going and making a minyan and being paid two bob at the end of the week to sit and daven with these guys, when you're nine or ten years old, would drive you crazy – but now also I have a huge wealth of insight into who these people were that had come from Lithuania and Poland, and all these forces I was part of. With time and age and maturity you realise that these were people who like in Fiddler were trying to find out how to integrate into British life.

What's your own background?

Grew up in the East End, was one of six children, family came from Lithuania and Poland.

Was the family name always Goodman?

No, my mother's name was Tobias, it was one of those classic things where there was some other name and it was shortened to Tobias, but they didn't quite know what it was. Of course that was my mother's maiden name. Of course what was remarkable was that the Jewish youth clubs in the East End were big organisations, with two gyms and 12 boxing rings and athletics things and football on the roof – and you could get home from school, have something to eat and then rush off to club, four nights a week, five nights a week if possible. That was an amazing social facility, and it was there that the talent scouts from the film Conspiracy Of Hearts came when I was 10 years old, picked up me and my twin brother and put us in a film studio in Pinewood.

Does your brother still act?

He's a wonderful performer but he teaches French out in Essex and is part of that East London diaspora rather than the North London one. But he's married with three kids, I've got two – but things have evolved in an interesting way.

Are you religious now?

No. If I did I'd never be an actor for a start, you can forget about that. 'Oh hello, can I please be in Fiddler On The Roof but I can't perform Fridays and Saturdays'. The Jews wouldn't be happy about that!

Tell us a Jewish joke

Well there's one I'll share with you but you've put me on the spot to remember it now. A guy buys a Lamborghini, a very wealthy businessman, and he decides 'I want to bless this Lamborghini'. So he goes to see the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue, and the rabbi says, 'Lamborghini, what is a Lamborghini?' So he says, 'It's a car, and the rabbi says, 'Get out, go, it's from Italy, a Catholic country, get out, go to the Conservatives!' So he goes to the Conservatives and says, 'Can you give me a Mezuzah to put on my Lamborghini? I asked the Orthodox...' and the guy says, 'A Mezuzah for a Lamborghini, are you crazy? It's the wrong colour, it's a foreign car....get out, go to the Liberals!' So he goes to the Liberal synagogue, and he sees a woman sitting in a beautiful office in a beautiful modern building, a Jewish woman rabbi, and he says, 'Rabbi, I'd like a Mezuzah for my Lamborghini,' and she says, 'You've got a Lamborghini? Which model is it?' And so he told her all about it and she says, 'Yes, of course. By the way, what's a Mezuzah......?'