Tag Archives: TV

It’s SHOWTIME for this Cantor

At the dawn of Hollywood talkies, “The Jazz Singer” told the story of a young Jewish man’s conflict between a career in the entertainment industry and being a cantor. The sacred and the profane seemed two poles whose opposing magnetic draws tore the protagonist apart. But that was 1927.

Today, more than 90 years later, I only had to drive to Westwood to meet Gary Levine, who has his feet planted comfortably in both worlds. During the week Levine is executive vice president of original programming for Showtime Networks, in charge of such edgy series as “Dexter,” “Weeds,” “The L Word,” and “Californication.” On the weekends, he is the cantor at Ahavat Torah, a small congregation in Brentwood. This is the story of how these two worlds not only coexist but flourish in one soul.

Levine grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. His family was not particularly observant, but Levine attended a conservative synagogue in Flushing, Queens, whose rabbi, Aaron Pearl, engaged him with his provocative and often political oratory — so much so that he continued to attend services regularly beyond his bar mitzvah.

“It was like listening to ‘Meet The Press,'” Levine recalled.

But the congregation itself wanted a rabbi who was comforting, not controversial. So they fired Rabbi Pearl, and, Levine said, “my temple time came to an end.”

Levine sang in chorus in high school, but it was as a student at the State University at Binghamton (now Binghamton University) that he first took voice lessons. David Clatworthy, a New York City Opera baritone, had just joined the faculty, and over the next six years, under his tutelage, Levine, who had never really listened to opera before, became a trained opera singer.

“It just opened up this door for me.” Levine said.

However, upon completing a master’s degree from Binghamton in 1976, Levine went to work not in the world of opera, but of nonprofit theater: “That was the end of my singing.”

Over the next decade, Levine worked as a producer and as the manager of a number of theater companies, including the Roundabout Theater Company in Manhattan and The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, culminating in a five-year run as managing director of the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Nonetheless, by 1985, Levine found the not-for-profit world overly small.

“I needed to move on to the next thing,” Levine said. “I needed to make a midcourse correction.” So, in the immortal words of Horace Greeley, he decided to “Go West.”

Barbara Corday, then president of Columbia Pictures Television, offered Levine an apprenticeship. After a few months, the position of director of current programs became available, and Levine was asked to fill it. From there, he rose to become a vice president, in charge of a mix of shows both in comedy and drama.

“It was a great way to learn the business,” Levine said. “Things just progressed from there.”

Levine is being modest: Over the next decade, he ran drama development at ABC, at a time when the network still had “China Beach” and “Thirtysomething” on the air, and he developed such shows as “Twin Peaks,” “Life Goes On” and “NYPD Blue.” From there, he went on to become president of Witt-Thomas Productions, one of the most successful producers of comedies, a hands-on experience where he was “on the stage every day.” Witt-Thomas led to a position at Warner Brothers Television in charge of all development — both comedy and drama. Among the shows that were created under his tenure, Levine takes special pride in “The West Wing.” Levine’s rise in Hollywood was as well-rounded as it was meteoric.

Then Levine’s boss at Warner Brothers was fired. This was not good for Levine. And given that this coincided with the first internet boom, in the late 1990s, Levine moved to Icebox, an internet start-up, founded by TV writers Howard Gordon, Rob LaZebnik and John Collier, that promised to be the next generation of entertainment studios.

Levine found himself working in a cool warehouse space in Culver City, meeting “with unbelievable creators,” such as Larry David and “almost every executive producer of ‘The Simpsons.'” However, he admits, “There was no business plan to support it.” (Just to show how crazy Icebox was, they once bought a pitch from me and my much more talented partner on the project, Sandy Frank, which is how I first met Levine.)

Whether my pitch was the moment that Levine realized that the Internet bubble was going to burst was a question I did not raise in our recent interview, but shortly thereafter Levine leapt at an opportunity to move to Showtime.

Levine’s mandate was to put Showtime on the map with series, while at the same time also overseeing their movies and miniseries. That was seven and a half years ago, and “slowly but surely,” he said, they’ve been doing just that.

But there’s a whole other Gary Levine story, too. Take a step back, to 1994, when Levine was asked to coffee to meet a young rabbi, Mordecai Finley, who was leaving Stephen S. Wise Temple to start his own congregation, Ohr HaTorah.

“I really liked what he had to say,” Levine recalled.

Soon enough, Levine found himself attending services for the first time since high school, while his children attended religious school. “Mordecai does ignite people,” he said.

One day, Meirav Finley, the rabbi’s wife and partner in the administration of Ohr HaTorah congregation, announced that the shul’s cantorial soloist was leaving. Rather than replace her, the plan was to invite congregants to help lead services.

“I was not happy about it,” Levine said.

Eventually, Meirav approached Levine saying, “I need you to volunteer.”

Levine was reluctant. In what he described as “typical Finley fashion,” she said, “That’s why you have to do it. We don’t want someone who wants to perform.” Levine agreed on two conditions: One, that he could in fact learn how to do it; and two, that doing so should not rob him of the enjoyment of attending services.

The following week, Meirav announced to the congregation that Levine would be leading High Holy Day services — just five months away. Levine wasn’t sure he could do it, but he and Meirav worked together.

“She was an excellent teacher,” he said.

Not only was he able to chant the services, but he said that doing so became “if anything, a deeper experience.”

Using his voice to help carry a congregation along was “enormously satisfying.” In some mysterious way, Levine’s early voice training and temple attendance, all of which he had forsaken, had come together for some greater purpose.

For the next eight or nine years, Levine served as one of the congregation’s volunteer cantors. He assisted Rabbi Finley at services, at weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. Once, when Finley was asked to officiate at a Wexner Heritage Foundation event and was allowed to invite any cantor in the country to assist him, he chose Levine.

However, at a certain point, Levine and Finley reached what Levine refers to as “creative differences” — a euphemism from his showbiz world. Levine stopped officiating and returned to being a congregant. Yet that, in time, proved too frustrating an experience.

“We drifted away,” Levine said.

Levine was without a congregation. On occasion, he freelanced, as when a congregation in Montecito whose cantor was on bed rest called him to fill in for the High Holy Days. But he thought his cantorial days were behind him.

Then, in 2002, he heard from a group who wanted to start their own minyan, several of who were former members of Ohr HaTorah. Levine declined, not wanting to be part of a breakaway group.

However, as the group grew and formalized themselves into a congregation of their own — Ahavat Torah — and were joined by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Levine accepted the invitation to come in and chant. That was about five years ago, and Levine has been their cantorial soloist ever since.

Levine describes Ahavat Torah as a congregation for the 40-plus crowd (age, not suit size), whose kids are out of religious school — people not forced to find a congregation but seeking one where the prayers are vociferous, and with intense, interesting Torah discussions. They have fashioned their own siddur (prayer book) with the prayers mostly in Hebrew; it’s egalitarian; and people dress from casual to traditional. The drash (or sermon) is given by the rabbi once a month, while others come from guest rabbis or congregants. Levine describes it as “very cordial, very inviting, small and warm.”

Let me say this loud and clear: Levine invites you all to come by some time and try it.

“People who experience it, find it very seductive,” he said.

Levine told me that his two lives overlap very occasionally. One time, two writers he had worked with happened to attend services and couldn’t get over how much the cantor “looked just like Gary Levine,” never imagining the two could be one and the same person.

On another occasion, Levine was in the middle of a Showtime meeting when his assistant interrupted saying “Dustin Hoffman’s on the line.”

Hoffman was not calling to pitch Showtime; instead, he was standing on a soundstage and needed Levine to intone the Kaddish for a movie he was mixing (Levine has officiated at Hoffman family events).

Levine has also contributed cantorial content to “The L Word,” (not only the show, but also the soundtrack CD), and even appeared onscreen in “Sleeper Cell,” in a scene where a meeting took place at Sinai Temple.

Which brings me back to my original point. What I find so interesting is that Levine finds no conflict between his two professional commitments. Never has he been called to choose between cantorial and professional duty. (A friend of mine once had a job interview with Rupert Murdoch scheduled for Yom Kippur. Ask yourself: Was it a test? Did Murdoch know? What would you do?) Never has the content of his shows posed a conflict, and never has the content of his religious duties colored his development duties. Peaceful coexistence in a two-state solution, if you will.

Although the leap from singing “Sim Shalom” (“Song of Peace”) to giving notes on a script about serial killer Dexter or “Californication’s” debauched writer Hank Moody seems a great one, Levine argues that characters such as Dexter, Hank or even the pot-selling mom on “Weeds” are multidimensional characters “who are tested — very tested” (and in that respect they are not unlike the very flawed, very human characters one encounters in the Torah).

“I’ll stand by the humanity of the work,” Levine said.

What Levine accomplishes weekly, Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” could not. At a time when we all, regardless of race, creed, or political party, hope for change, let’s take this as one reminder of how far we’ve come. Or of what one very talented individual, Gary Levine, can accomplish that we can’t. Take your pick.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.

KCRW gives us ‘The Business’

In an underground office on the campus of Santa Monica College, Claude
Brodesser-Akner is working with his producer, Matt Holzman, and
associate producer, Darby Maloney, to describe the current status of
the Oscar broadcast — and work in a pun.

Finally, Brodesser-Akner says, with some satisfaction, “The Oscars are mired.”

Welcome to the world of “The Business,” a half-hour syndicated radio program
devoted to the nuts and bolts of the entertainment industry (pun
intended), hosted by Brodesser-Akner each week since June 2004.
Produced by KCRW-FM 89.9 in Santa Monica, the show is distributed
nationally to public radio stations.

On the show, Brodesser-Akner explores, surveys and comments on all
facets of the entertainment business, reaching out to executives,
producers and artists, as well as other journalists, that he might not
otherwise know, deepening his — and in the process, our —
understanding of what is occurring in Hollywood on a weekly basis.

Between drafts of the script for this week’s broadcast, which involves
a lot of cutting and arguments among Brodesser-Akner and his producers
about meaning, nuance, as well as the insertion and deletion of more
puns, Brodesser-Akner and I repair to a side office to hear his story.

Long before his 2006 marriage to Taffy Akner, the former West Coast
director of education for mediabistro.com, and taking on a hyphenated
last name, Brodesser, 35, grew up in Centerport, Long Island, a good
Catholic boy. The son of German immigrants, he attended parochial
school at St. Phillip Neri in Northport and St. Anthony’s High School
in Huntington.

At the liberal-arts-oriented Skidmore College, he led a peer-to-peer
writing program that taught expository writing, and after graduation,
took on a gig teaching English in China as part of a sister school
program founded by a former Shakespeare professor.

Returning to New York — by his own account, he “washed ashore,
indigent,” Brodesser launched into a series of internships that, in
hindsight, each “presaged the imminent demise of editors.” Kurt
Andersen departed New York Magazine shortly after Brodesser arrived;
arts editor Karen Dubin exited The Village Voice the week he started;
and at the Charlie Rose public television program, the woman he was
supposed to report to never appeared, even on his first day.

Nonetheless, in 1996, Brodesser landed his first paying job at
Mediaweek magazine, covering TV broadcast stations at what turned out
to be an interesting time.

“It was just after the telecom bill was passed,” a period that saw a great agglomeration of local stations and outlets.

Brodesser’s next stop was at Variety’s New York edition, where in
keeping with his internship experience, the Broadway editor left
shortly after his arrival. Brodesser was given the beat, which he took
on, not as a fan of Broadway musicals, but as a reporter — “Just a guy
with a pad asking questions.” Broadway was a small community, and he
sought out The New York Times’ Frank Rich, who became a mentor and
advised him to be fearless.

Variety got aggressive, breaking daily stories.

“It was great fun,” Brodesser recalled.

In 1998, as the call of the Internet made a thousand ventures bloom,
including sites that hoped to transform entertainment industry
reporting (and make its reporters a fortune), such as inside.com and
creativeplanet.com, Variety lost most of the members of its film
department.

Brodesser moved to Los Angeles to cover film and found it different
than New York, where, as he recalled, he could attend a party at Tavern
on the Green and walk up to the dean of theater agents, George Lane,
and then wander over to playwright Edward Albee — with the
understanding that with a drink in one’s hand, all comments were off
the record.

At Brodesser’s first Hollywood premiere in 1999 for the Martin
Lawrence-Luke Wilson action-comedy, “Blue Streak,” he approached Drew
Barrymore, introduced himself, explained his “drink-in-hand” rule; and
they started to chat. He asked her about rumors he had heard concerning
the production of “Charlie’s Angels.” She answered and then wished him
well. Brodesser was delighted to have had a Hollywood moment.

Within minutes, several beefy bodyguards surrounded him.

“Your night is over,” they said. “You threatened Miss Barrymore.”
Despite protestations that he was a member of the press, they picked
him up and tossed him out — literally.

Gossip columnist Mitchell Fink wrote about it, and the incident got
some play. The next day, Peter Bart, editor of Variety, called
Brodesser into his office.

Brodesser feared that Bart was going to fire him. Instead, Bart was
tickled pink (and here Brodesser slipped into a British/patrician
accent): “That’s how you do it,” Brodesser recalled Bart telling him,
referring to the ruckus he caused. “….That’s the way we should do
it.”

And that pep talk informed his next seven years at Variety.

Still nothing could have prepared Brodesser for the call he received in
2003 from Akner, who was then director of education programs for
journalism site, mediabistro.com. She called to ask him to teach a
workshop. Little did either of them know this call would lead to love,
marriage and the baby carriage — not to mention circumcision,
conversion, separate dishes for meat and dairy and a hyphenated last
name.

As he recounted to me recently, Brodesser was someone who thought he
might never get married or have children, but, as he put it, “I met my
wife and it was kapow!”

And so, as reported in a New York Times article about their wedding,
former Catholic school boy Brodesser, the son of a “father conscripted
at age 14 into the German army near the end of World War II,” and
former yeshiva student Akner, the granddaughter of “a survivor of the
concentration camp at Dachau” and whose concerned mother, Daniela
Shimona, prayed for her daughter at the grave of the late Lubbavitcher
Rebbe Schneerson, only to have a change of heart when she saw a video
about conversions at the nearby Lubbavitch center, were married in 2006.

Brodesser-Akner told me that the thought of raising a child with Akner
inspired him to convert. He studied first at the University of Judaism
(now American Jewish University), which he felt did a great job of
organizing 5,000 years of history and learning into a syllabus. But, he
says, “I wanted more.”

He wanted a conversion that would be accepted by the Orthodox, and his
journey led him to Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, who
became his sponsoring rabbi, performed the marriage and to whose Modern
Orthodox congregation the family now belongs.

He says his wife jokes that “her punishment for dating a Catholic boy
is living an Orthodox life.” They are Sabbath observant, keep kosher
and Brodesser-Akner now sports a multicolored kippah.

He says that although being observant is not always easy, “it is worth
it.” As someone who used to work all the time, Brodesser-Akner is
grateful for the respite of Sabbath. But it is the feeling of community
— of belonging and caring — that he has experienced as part of B’nai
David-Judea that seems to have most deeply impressed him.

Brodesser-Akner explained that although he has lived in a great variety
of neighborhoods in Los Angeles and was a very social person, it was
only as part of his temple that he experienced a deeper level of
community, where each member is cared for. Brodesser-Akner spoke
movingly about the visitation schedule organized for a sick elderly
congregant and about the attention and care he and his wife received
recently in the weeks after their first child was born.

In this last year, Brodesser-Akner also joined Advertising Age as Los
Angeles bureau chief, reporting on the entertainment industry (he left
Variety in 2005 and worked for FishbowLA, a mediabistro blog, and wrote
for Los Angeles magazine, before being poached for the launch of
TMZ.com in 2006, where he lasted a year).

He finds himself at Ad Age at a moment when the industry is in turmoil
and the worlds of advertising and entertainment are increasingly
converging. To what end, it is hard to say — but that gives him plenty
to report and comment upon.

For example, Brodesser-Akner views the Writers Guild strike as
“disastrous,” not because the writers’ cause is without merit, but
rather because they are so overmatched by the conglomerates that own
the studios and networks that he “doesn’t see this ending well.” He
notes the folly of an industry that claims it can’t afford to pay
writers, while remaining hostage to star salaries and profit
participations.

As for the Oscars, Brodesser-Akner reminded me that last year, fewer
than 11 percent of the audience had seen the nominated films. Evidence,
he feels, of the disconnect between mega-audience movies and films
winning honors.

On the taping of “The Business” that I watched being produced, which
aired Jan. 14, the discussion focused on a growing trend to loosen
copyright protection on music, as well as an acknowledgement that
independent films, such as “The Kite Runner,” might suffer at the box
office without award shows, such as “The Golden Globes,” for promotion
and publicity.

At the start of our conversation, Brodesser-Akner joked that he had
converted to Judaism for the heavy food and self-deprecating humor. But
let me take a more Jesuitical — I mean talmudic — approach: Perhaps
he did it for the questions. Because, the only thing we know for sure
about the entertainment business, based on the past, is that whatever
occurs, there will be plenty of questions.

So, beyond the strike and the Oscars remain the questions: Where is the
culture going? What will we watch, listen to or play? And on what will
we see and hear it? How will it be financed? What will pay for it:
hedge funds, product placement, advertising sponsors or Internet ads?

If these questions intrigue you, then the answer is simple. Tune in to Brodesser-Akner for “The Business.”

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else,
he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times
Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every
other week.