In her Counterpunch article, “Casting With More Chutzpah Might Help” (Calendar, Sept. 6), Annie Korzen complained of writers, directors and producers who “white wash” the casting of Jewish characters by excluding members of a specific group from playing their own kind. She specifically cited the casting of Arthur Miller’s “The American Clock” on TNT in which members of the Baumler family were portrayed by Mary McDonnell, Eddie Bracken, Loren Dean and me.
While you don’t have to be Jewish to successfully play a Jewish role (as Korzen herself points out), I still think you should know I was born in the Bronx of Russian and Romanian parentage and registered at the hospital as Emmanuel Cohen (one of the three great tribes of Israel).
This is not to disparage Korzen’s article. The points she makes about the need to cast roles honestly and with believability are good ones. But since I’ve got the floor this week, let me tell you how my professional identity came about.
My dad, Louis Cohen, died in the great flu epidemic of 1919 when I was 4 years old. My mother, Dora Schorr, married soon after to a furrier, Joseph Lippman, who renamed me Mortimer. My mother told me at a much later date that stepdad Joe thought I had a better chance of being a banker with that moniker. He never realized the beatings I would take growing up--especially when the leading radio shows became Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Mortimer Snerd.
I’ll briefly note being a control tower operator in the Air Force in World War II and facing the nightmare of four years when pilots at Scott Field, Ill., responded to my landing instructions with: “Roger, Snortin’ Morton.”
When and where did John Randolph come into the picture?
Back in New York in the ‘30s, I wrote an article--"Americans All'--exposing some practices of corporate giants of steel, coal, et al. A left-wing magazine called “New Masses” printed it using a pseudonym (at my request--I was no hero at 20) of J.R. Atkins. Since Orthodox Jews generally don’t have a middle name, I had no idea what the J.R. stood for until the magazine forwarded a handful of mail which included one from John Randolph Atkins in New Meadows, Ida. He was 75 years old and hoping to locate members of the Scottish clan he came from. He said he wrote to me when I was running for mayor in San Francisco 40 years earlier and I never answered him.
Being desperate to leave the Bronx, sleeping in a bed-bug-infested pull-away cot with my brother Jerry, dreaming of inheriting a house in New Meadows, Ida., I lied. “I was too busy campaigning,” I said and urged him to write more. He never did but I still have his letter in my scrapbook. What then remained is John Randolph Atkins.
So, my brother, Jerry, who was a graduate chemical engineer and worked as a cartoonist in a small labor newspaper, suggested we start a theater column. John Randolph Atkins then became the newly acquired drama critic. The drama editor was, of course, Mortimer Lippman, and then as the office boy I picked up photos, PR, news squibs, got on the second-night list and ended up seeing 98 plays on Broadway! The paper folded but I loved the John Randolph name and that became my radio, stage, TV and film name to this day.
By the way . . . John Rubenstein who plays Arthur Miller’s father in “The American Clock” (I played the role on the stage in Spoletto, Broadway and the Mark Taper Forum during the Olympic Festival) was excellent and I was bumped up to narrate and play a mature Arthur looking at himself in this most beautiful, touching collage of the Great Depression.
And since Neil Simon also was criticized in Annie Korzen’s article, I should mention that I was in the original “Broadway Bound,” the third part of the Simon trilogy. Won a Tony as the grandfather. Linda Lavin won her Tony in the star category and we all were Jewish in that cast!
As I said, I don’t believe in casting by religion, but Annie Korzen makes some interesting and valid points that we could maybe discuss at the 2nd Avenue Deli in New York or Canter’s in Los Angeles.
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