From 1961 through the ’70s, Levy’s Real Jewish Rye Bread ran a celebrated advertising campaign in New York. It’s worth a thought when we talk about casting actors in films and on TV. 

The Levy’s campaign (agency: Doyle Dane Bernbach) featured obviously non-Jewish models across the ethnic spectrum. Smiling, each held up a piece of rye bread with a big bite taken out. Tagline: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.” 

In much of today’s America, many ethnic foods have become somewhat generic. You don’t have to be [ETHNICITY HERE] to enjoy [DISH HERE]. 

But some people think actors require ethnic bona fides to play ethnic roles. Witness the small storm surrounding non-Jewish Bradley Cooper playing Jewish Leonard Bernstein in the upcoming film Maestro(2023).

A white actor playing a Black character is pushing it. Blackface, common way back in vaudeville, is not cool. In 1966, Sir Laurence Olivier’s black-face Othello opened in American movie theaters. Critics balked. But in past decades, race-free casting has become commonplace in theater. Films less so—yet Denzel Washington was nominated for a 2022 Academy Award for playing Macbeth. I don’t remember reading about a to-do in Scotland.

Re Cooper, the comedian Sarah Silverman has been quite serious about Jews not being cast as obviously Jewish characters. Witness Rachel Brosnahan—not Jewish and not a stand-up—as comic Midge Maisel in Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Tony Shalhoub, of Lebanese descent, plays her neurotic father. They’re wonderful, as is Marin Hinkle, not Jewish, as Midge’s mother Rose. I’m not disturbed.

Cooper again. A Jewish actor who might not require a nose prosthetic—or need a smaller prosthetic—could play Leonard Bernstein. But Cooper, who co-wrote and directed, is a big star. He generates major financial backing and distribution (Netflix will handle). 

Nobody takes more interest in Jewish celebrities—actors, musicians, artists, writers, athletes and politicians—than me. A poorly cast non-Jewish actor playing a Jew is a turn-off. But Cooper is a great actor. 

As to prosthetics, noses, fat suits, wigs and the like long have been standard tools in Hollywood. In STARZ’s Gaslit, Sean Penn (Jewish father), another great actor, is completely disguised as Richard Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell (not Jewish). 

Re Cooper’s critics, I ask: If a non-Jewish actor cannot play a recognizably Jewish character, can a Jewish actor play a recognizably non-Jewish character? Long ago, the great Paul Muni (born Meshilem Weisenfreund, present-day Lviv, Ukraine) notably played an Italian-American gangster in Scarface (1932) and won the 1936 Oscar for playing Louis Pasteur. James Caan (father a kosher butcher in Queens) appeared as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1974). Would they be denied those roles today? 

Likewise, should actors with predominantly Irish heritage play Germans? Those with Spanish or Arab genes play Latinos? Japanese actors play Chinese characters? I’m talking about actors who resemble or can be made to look like their characters’ ethnicities and deliver the goods.

Whites playing Blacks today? Unlikely. Blacks playing what might be considered white roles, as in Shakespeare (see: Washington, Denzel) or 19th-century British period pieces? Old hat.

Keep a Bradley Cooper from playing a Leonard Bernstein, and we open a Pandora’s Box. Jewish actors will suffer—if they dare come out of the closet.

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  1. David Newman on June 10, 2022 at 11:48 am

    The question really has two facets: authenticity and opportunity. If a non-Jewish actor playing a Jewish character or a non-Hispanic playing a Latino character can convey the part authentically, I don’t see it as a problem. Actors act, and a good actor doesn’t need to have the life experience of his/her character to portray the character authentically. That’s a good thing, because no modern actor can claim to have the life experience of MacBeth or Hamlet or Julius Caesar, to stay nothing of Harry Potter or Tyrion Lannister.

    Of course, there are parts where the ethnicity of the character is so critical that it would be impossible for an actor of different ethnicity to play the role. Having white actors in an August Wilson play would simply not make sense, no matter how talented they might be.

    But that leaves out the question of opportunity. There were white actors (Michael Ansara as Cochise; J. Carroll Naish in numerous roles) who made a living playing non-white characters. Their occupying those roles meant that Indigenous or Asian actors who could have played those roles never got the chance. The emergence of a generation of talented actors of a variety of ethnicities — who can bring their life experience and greater authenticity to their roles — enriches the entire spectrum of acting — theater, film, TV.

    Like most interesting questions, the “answer” is complicated, nuanced, and unlikely to be entirely satisfying. Denzel as Macbeth? Bring it on. Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein? Show us your chops. Rita Moreno as your random non-Hispanic ethnic? She was great, but maybe not a good idea in retrospect. A non-Black actor as Jackie Robinson? The cognitive dissonance is too great, unless it’s some weird alternative-history experiment (white ball players trying to integrate the Negro leagues?).

    Being aware of the issues allows us to approach — but never reach — the right answer. Why should this question be different from all other questions?

    • David Perlstein on June 10, 2022 at 12:00 pm

      As always, David, you make good points. White actors did play roles that denied actors of their character’s ethnicity an opportunity. Hollywood could have done better but reflected (sadly) its era. Witness the long run of Roland Winters in the old “Charlie Chan” movies—although Key Luke often played Charlie’s #1 son. Likewise, as I wrote, white actors aren’t likely to play Black roles. They shouldn’t. But Bradley Cooper has the chops to play Leonard Bernstein. And if ethnic identity becomes paramount (pardon the Hollywood pun), Jewish actors may find opportunities limited. The answers will be found in the gray zone. If we can more effectively use our gray matter, we might see sensible decisions being made.

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