By Bill Simons
A few years ago, I decided to take an economy-class tour of Hollywood. The spiel of a seasoned gentleman, commanding a vintage van with its top removed, intrigued me. A threadbare sportscoat covered his lean frame. Light makeup appeared to burnish his once handsome face.
“I don’t know your name, but I recognize you from TV and movies. You were a character actor,” said I.
Looking intently at me, he responded, “I was something more than a character actor.” He beckoned for me to ride shotgun with him in the front seat.
The guide’s stories, some true, others that should have been, were wonderful. He was my introduction to the world of onetime aspirants who came to Hollywood to pursue a fame and fortune that proved elusive, but remained on site, now venerable bit players, tour guides, maître d’s, hotel front-desk clerks and acting coaches. That is the world of “The Kominsky Method.”
Created, produced and often written by iconic showrunner Chuck Lorre, “The Kominsky Method” is a three-season (2018-2021), 22-episode, critically and popularly acclaimed Netflix dramedy, starring Academy Award winner Michael Douglas as an acting teacher in contemporary Los Angeles. In his mid-70s, thrice married and divorced, and Jewish, Douglas’ Sandy Kominsky never got the breaks to rise above the ranks of journeyman actor, but he is a respected teacher of the craft. Set within a milieu that is Jewish more in ambience than content, “The Kominsky Method” riffs on the compulsion to perform, the indignities of age and the atoning gifts of friendship, love and humor.
The series opens with a dramatic monologue by teacher Sandy Kominsky to his class of neophyte performers on the attributes and responsibilities of the performer. The actor, enjoins Kominsky, is like God. Both bring forth a creation that they invest with life, attend to nuanced flaws and virtues, love and nurture their progeny, and then let it go. With an unacknowledged appropriation from the Konstantin “Stanislavski System,” that is “The Kominsky Method.”
Remarkably, a high school actor, Izzy Demsky, expressed much the same thing in his 1934 Amsterdam, NY, yearbook: “The show is over and the players have done their parts well. The actors leave the auditorium to blaze their paths toward a more worldly stage. The last door bangs shut and the sound echoes through the thick darkness of the schoolhouse.” Years later, Izzy took on the role of Kirk Douglas, father to Sandy’s creator, Michael Douglas.
At the core of “The Kominsky Method” is the warm relationship between Sandy and his agent and best friend of nearly 50 years, Norman Newland, played by the great Alan Arkin. Sandy and Norman kibbitz, bicker, laugh, complain and support one another. The comedic shtick scores, but the show unflinchingly addresses life’s late innings. Three deaths, those of Norman’s wife, Sandy’s former wife and Norman, frame “The Kominsky Method.” In addition, Sandy twice confronts cancer, experiences incontinence and impotence, and faces serious threats from the IRS over unpaid taxes.
Despite travail, Sandy finds compensations as age challenges body and mind. Honesty and wisdom bloom late. To grieve loss may burnish the best memories – and grow appreciation and acceptance of the past and the circumscribed future. Sandy’s gratitude for his students deepens.
And there are unexpected victories. Sandy builds a loving relationship with Mindy, the daughter he had long neglected, and reconciles with his first wife, Dr. Roz Volander, shortly before her death. Volander is memorably played by Kathleen Turner. Given their real-life past as co-stars in 1980s blockbuster romantic-comedies, their personal feelings off-screen that long ago had them on the cusp of an affair, and Turner’s battles with rheumatoid arthritis and addiction, the Sandy/Michael-Roz/Kathleen scenes had special tenderness and poignance. The series ends with director Barry Levison, playing himself, casting Sandy in the lead of a remake of the classic film “The Old Man and the Sea,” winning the septuagenarian Kominsky an Academy Award.
What makes “The Kominsky Method” relevant to Jewish life and culture? The main characters – Sandy Kominsky, his best friend (Norman Newlander), his new son-in-law (Martin Schneider) and Norman’s daughter (Phoebe) – are Jewish as are the actors who portray them: Douglas, Arkin, Paul Reiser and Lisa Edelstein, respectively. The Jews in Kominsky’s world are secular, assimilated and minimally observant. Only a funeral and shiva directly depict Jewish tradition. However, the sensibility, conversation and especially the humor conveys a strong Jewish resonance. Despite their diversity, most Jewish comics have trafficked in adversity, mockery, irony and laughter as a mechanism of emotional self-defense. The humor in the “The Kominsky Method” is a shield against disappointment and death.
As with his creation Sandy Kominsky, actor Michael Douglas’ Jewishness is not traditional. When his Jewish father Kirk Douglas, then a Naval officer and aspiring actor, and his Anglican mother Dianna Dill, an actress and model, married, the rabbi who performed the ceremony induced the young couple to sign a pledge to raise their children Jewish. That did not happen. Michael was 6 at the time of his parents’ 1951 divorce, and Dianna, the custodial parent, did not provide religious training. Michael’s adult reconciliation with his father provided a trajectory that led him, by middle age, to identify as a Reform Jew, strong Zionist and outspoken critic of antisemitism. As for not meeting the religious criteria for Judaism, Michael retorts, “While some Jews believe that not having a Jewish mother makes me not Jewish, I have learned the hard way that those who hate do not make such fine distinctions.” Michael’s younger son, Dylan, studied Hebrew, wears a Star of David, and was bar mitzvahed in Jerusalem. With the participation of then Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Douglas received the Genesis Prize, a two-million-dollar award, that he donated to organizations devoted to strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
Douglas’ Sandy Kominsky ultimately learns and shares a lesson. Grief will come. Surely, grief will come, but never lose an opportunity to celebrate. Laugh and live as long as you can as well as you can. L’chaim.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.