"It's like the Jewish mother joke," Judd Hirsch says in answer to the question of why, after years of respect and success on the stage and in the movies, he would choose to return to the slap-it-together, often-artless world of TV sitcoms.
"She gives you two ties for your birthday. You decide to wear one of them to dinner and she says, 'What's the matter with the other one?' "
The chance to make an audience laugh, suggests the 53-year-old actor--who won an Emmy in 1983 for his performance in "Taxi," a Tony in 1986 for his performance in "I'm Not Rappaport," an Obie for his Off-Broadway performance in "Talley's Folly," and an Academy Award nomination for his performance in "Ordinary People"--is one reason why he agreed to return to weekly television in NBC's "Dear John."
"I've dreamed I was Danny Kaye," Hirsch says. "I've always thought the greatest thing for me would be to put all of Danny Kaye's movies into a television show. I've always loved comedy, and you can't be in a comedy every week except on television."
"Dear John" tells the story of John Lacey, who, after coming home one evening to find that his wife has left him for his best friend, stumbles into a support group for a wacky group of lonely hearts.
In many respects, the character is a more innocent, more vulnerable, less sure-of-himself incarnation of Alex Rieger, the moralistic cab driver Hirsch played on "Taxi" from 1978 to 1983. Like Alex, John sounds the only note of sanity in a purgatorial, claustrophobic, one-room club inhabited by an ensemble of nuts and lost souls.
The similarities can't be helped, he says.
"I'm not playing the hunchback of Notre Dame or an 80-year-old man who walks with a cane," Hirsch explains, "so what you see is Judd. Some of my persona is obviously going to be like Alex. But I certainly don't want to be a repeat of something I've already done."
Actually, the similarities are to a certain extent intentional. Ed. Weinberger, co-creator of "Taxi" and "The Cosby Show" and executive producer of "Dear John," which was adapted from a short-lived English series of the same name, said that the writer who created the series for the BBC was a big fan of "Taxi" and wanted an "English Judd Hirsch" for his show.
"He was very pleased that we got the original for this series," Weinberger said. "I don't think anybody could play this part better than Judd. He creates a reality so that no matter what goes on around him, no matter how eccentric everybody else is, he makes them believable. He makes it real and he's also very funny."
Though Hirsch is as eager to reminisce about "Taxi" as he is to speculate about the future of his new series, the inevitable comparisons to "Taxi" point out one of the pitfalls of returning to television. Hirsch says that while the tremendous satisfaction derived from developing a character from week to week and the rush from what he calls "the I-dare-you-to-go-out-before-a-live-audience-and-do-this-now" feeling lured him back to series television, the danger of being typed as Alex or John or another "TV Judd" concerns him.
Hirsch is, after all, one of the very few actors who slips effortlessly from TV series to Broadway to feature films and back again, racking up awards and favorable reviews wherever he performs. In the last year, for example, he toured "I'm Not Rappaport" around the country, starred in Sidney Lumet's feature film "Running on Empty," appeared earlier this month in the TV movie "The Great Escape II," and plunged headlong into the first season of "Dear John."
"You take a lot of chances doing something like this (a series) because you're setting up the public to know you in a certain way," Hirsch says.
"I truly resent going on a stage playing Chekhov and having someone say, 'It's like Alex from "Taxi." ' You always have to battle somebody else's idea of who you are. You play a psychiatrist (as he did in 'Ordinary People'), and you can't believe how many scripts to play a psychiatrist you get.
"And in television, you get so stuck into whatever identification they have for you simply because so many people are watching. It's a fickle place to be. Judgments are made on you like you've never been judged."
The judgment of "Dear John" co-star Jere Burns is ringingly positive. Without Hirsch, he says, the other characters in the series couldn't stand.
"Judd lends our characters credibility in that to the extent he takes us seriously, the audience can take us seriously and believe in us," says Burns, who portrays Kirk, a pathetically obnoxious and completely failed swinger who leaves his shirt unbuttoned to his waist and calls women "femmes."
"It has something to do with his being able to sublimate his ego. If it's right, he doesn't care how silly he looks. That's a rare quality."
Chances are good that Hirsch and his gang of eccentrics will be acting silly for some time. NBC blessed "Dear John" with the most coveted time slot in prime time--Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. following "Cosby," "A Different World" and "Cheers." Since debuting Oct. 6, "Dear John" has performed respectably, consistently landing among the Top 20 programs in the ratings, although it has suffered a significant audience drop-off from its three even higher-rated lead-ins.
Hirsch, who studied math and physics in college and worked as an engineer for Westinghouse before finding his niche on the stage at age 25, concedes that committing himself to a weekly series does limit his career options. But he insists that this particular series is worth it and that, as before, he will work on the stage or in films during breaks in his TV schedule.
"I turned down a tremendous amount of television in the last few years in which I said, 'If I ever did that, I'm a dead man.' This I decided I could do for a while," he says. "Sure you have doubts. It's a scary place to be when you're expected to be a hit right from the start. But for all of that anxiety, they do pay you a lot."