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He’s got Capra in his sights

Times Staff Writer

Jeff Garlin is a seriously funny guy, both as Larry David’s agent and friend Jeff Greene on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and as a veteran stand-up comic in the storytelling tradition of Woody Allen and Shelley Berman.

But the 45-year-old Garlin is also pretty serious about his latest role as a filmmaker. “In terms of the movies I want to make, I’m only interested that they have pathos and humanity in them,” he says.

“There are plenty of people making cynical movies. There are tons of them. All everybody ever sees is something that is not designed to make you feel good -- or feel, for that matter,” he says. “I aspire to Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. If I had my way, I would be directing movies that are modern-day Frank Capra movies.”

His first feature, “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” which opens Friday, has more than its share of laughs, but it also doesn’t shy away from pathos.

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Garlin, who stars in the film, as well as wrote and directed it, pays homage not only to Jackie Gleason’s character, the Poor Soul, but also to Paddy Chayefsky’s romantic drama “Marty,” which was first a live TV show in 1953, starring Rod Steiger as an overweight Italian butcher still living with his mother, then an Oscar-winning 1955 film with Ernest Borgnine.

In fact, “Cheese” is really a Jewish version of “Marty.” Garlin plays James Aaron, a portly Chicago bachelor who lives at home with his equally heavy mother (Mina Kolb, who plays his mom on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). James works at the Second City improv company and also on a reality TV show that captures people in embarrassing situations.

When he learns that his favorite film, “Marty,” is to be remade, James tries desperately to get an audition. To soothe this and other disappointments, James goes on food binges, eating candy in the middle of night on the hood of his car.

Sarah Silverman plays an ice cream parlor employee who romances James; Bonnie Hunt is a schoolteacher who may or may not be the “one.”

Garlin earlier had done a one-man show called “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” but he says only the movie’s tone and title are the same. He started writing this screenplay in his early 30s and then kept revising it over the years.

“Initially, I wasn’t even going to star in it, and then my name became more well known through ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ ” he says. “It was Jack Black I gave the script to. I said, ‘I want you to do this.’ He read it and said, ‘Why aren’t you doing it? It’s your voice.’ And he was totally right. I was, like, ‘I guess I could do this,’ especially if it was going to be an independent.”

Garlin initially received financing for the film from a “bald man with dandruff on his eyebrows from Spain.” But a week before production was to begin, he received a call from his attorney saying the backer had withdrawn. Though Garlin was in shock, he vowed not to give up and somehow pulled enough funding together to get started. “I shot my first week, I cut it and put it on DVD and went looking for more money.”

The first day of shooting, Garlin was thrown into a further tailspin when he received a call that his parents had been in a horrible car accident in Florida. “Some guy tried killing himself by driving over the median in the highway going head-on into my parents,” he says. “My mom broke her ribs, her wrist and her ankles. It was very serious. My father only had bruises, but on his X-ray they found he had lung cancer. They are great now, by the way.”

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But he couldn’t stop filming. “Thank God, my brother went down there,” he says. “Certainly if they were going into critical condition . . . everything depended on the next morning. I would have had to close down the movie, and there is no special insurance for that. It would have been over.”

PARTS of “Cheese” are autobiographical. Although he’s happily married with two children -- Hunt’s character is loosely based on his wife -- Garlin admits, “I certainly have had more than my share of trouble with women. The food is 100% exactly like my life. I did park my car in the same area [in Chicago] and sit there in the middle of the night with Ho Hos and stuff.”

Garlin’s wake-up call was a stroke in 2000. He thought he would never work again. But he recovered and decided to set his life in order. So he went to Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Florida.

“I have since kept 30 to 40 pounds off,” he says. “It is learning how to eat correctly and about exercising. As far as I am concerned, they saved my life. But I struggle with it every day. I look at myself as an addict. I am doing the best I can.”

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The new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” began Sunday. Though Garlin doesn’t know if it will be the final year, he’s prepared. “To me, ultimately, if I could just direct movies and do my stand-up, I would be happy,” he says.

He’s doing a short comedy tour with “Curb” costars Richard Lewis and Susie Essman, who plays Garlin’s wife on the series. And every Sunday that he’s in Los Angeles, he hosts the comedy show “Jeff Garlin’s Combo Platter” at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Hollywood.

Garlin finds that he needs to continue stand-up.

“It keeps me creative,” he says. “It is like the equivalent of other people doing crossword puzzles. It keeps me young and vibrant. I started doing stand-up when I was 20 years old. I never thought one of the big motivations to do it would be to keep me young.”

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susan.king@latimes.com


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