Meet the Oscar-Winning (Twice!) Rabbi Whose Blessing Hollywood Seeks Each Awards Season

Rabbis - H 2016
Christopher Patey

A version of this story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

It looks more like Ari Gold's office than an Orthodox rabbi's. There are framed photographs on the wall of the Jewish leader with scores of movie stars (two with Elizabeth Taylor!) as well as pictures with prime ministers, popes and several presidents (Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes, Obama). But the real surprise is on display behind a glass case: twin Oscar statuettes.

Obviously, Marvin Hier is no ordinary Talmudist.

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The short, stocky 76-year-old, the only rabbi ever to have won an Academy Award (let alone two of them, both for documentaries about the Holocaust), is a man who wears many yarmulkes. He's the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, America's first Holocaust museum, and overseer of its offshoot organization, the Museum of Tolerance, which highlights injustices against people of all backgrounds. ("There are only 14 million Jews in the world," he says. "Jews need friends." The Museum attracts 350,000 visitors a year, 95% of whom are non-Jews.) But he's also Hollywood's go-to guy when A-listers are in need of advice, spiritual or otherwise — especially around Oscar season, when studios clamor to get their pictures screened at his museum's 300-seat cinema, a surefire way of boosting a movie's perceived social importance.

Eight films that went on to win the best picture Oscar screened at the Museum first: Schindler's List, The English Patient, A Beautiful Mind, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Crash, The King's Speech, The Artist and 12 Years a Slave. "Harvey [Weinstein] calls and says, 'This is for the museum,'" Hier shares with a laugh. "He says, 'You gotta!'" (Weinstein has screened everything from Life Is Beautiful and The Reader to Silver Linings Playbook at the museum; this season, five films played there that are in the running for Oscars on Feb. 28: Weinstein's Carol, Netflix's Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, Focus Features' The Danish Girl, Sony Classics' Son of Saul and Bleecker Street's Trumbo.)

Harvey isn't the only one who calls. Will Smith once phoned on Christmas Eve for guidance. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes have celebrated Shabbat at his home (Katie left with a doggie bag of kugel). NBCUniversal's Ron Meyer, DreamWorks Animation's Jeffrey Katzenberg, Netflix's Ted Sarandos, director Brett Ratner — they all consider him a friend. "I'd do anything for him," says 20th Century Fox chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos.

Of course, this being Hollywood, not everyone is a fan. His critics call him a publicity seeker and claim his lifestyle is more like a mogul's than a rebbe's. Hier reportedly earns $750,000 a year and he and Marlene, his wife of 53 years (they have two children, eight grandchildren and five great-grand kids), get around town in a chauffeured SUV. For "security purposes," he insists.

Nelson Peltz, Nicole Kidman, Rupert Murdoch and Hier at a Wiesenthal Center event in 2006.

But there's nobody who doubts his motives — "To build a great constituency for tolerance that will be able to stand up to the bigots, the haters and the terrorists," is how he describes his life's mission — or his ability to marshal Hollywood talent to aid his causes. He may well be the most powerful religious figure in L.A. He's certainly the best connected.

"I'm just an ordinary guy that was born on the Lower East Side," he insists, leaning back in his chair in his corner office at the Wiesenthal Center's headquarters in West L.A. "I pinch my cheeks every day."

From left: J.J. Abrams, Tom Cruise and Hier at a Wiesenthal Center dinner in 2011.

In many ways, Hier was born to fill the unique role he plays in Hollywood. As he recounts in his just-published memoir, Meant to Be, he developed a fascination with Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, while growing up on New York's Lower East Side in the post-World War II years. (While preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, a rabbi told him, "You're not just chanting that Haftorah for yourself, you're chanting it for the millions killed by the Nazis that never had a chance to have a Bar Mitzvah." And while studying at a yeshiva, another rabbi, whose family had been killed in a concentration camp, notified his class of the creation of a Jewish state, adding tearfully, "Nine years too late for me.")

But he also developed an equally powerful obsession with film. From sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays, he devoted himself to the Sabbath, but Sundays belonged to the movies. "I knew that for every outlaw and bandit there was a Wyatt Earp, a Gene Autry, a Roy Rogers, a Tom Mix, a Hopalong Cassidy," he says. "And I said to myself, 'Where were all the good guys [during the Holocaust]? How could such a thing happen to the Jews and nobody was able to round up a posse to go after those outlaws?'" He adds, "That motivated me to recognize that things don't happen by themselves. If you want something to happen, you have to do it."

After training to become a rabbi, Hier was recruited to an open pulpit at a temple in Vancouver, where he energized an apathetic congregation with unconventional methods. "Saturday night was movie night," he remembers. He also took younger congregants on trips to Europe and Israel. On one of those trips, he finagled an audience with David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and on another made a point of seeking out and befriending famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, demonstrating a lifelong personality trait that would later help him rise to the top of the Hollywood food chain — chutzpah.

From left: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer, Will Smith and Hier at a Wiesenthal Center event in 2009.

In 1977 Hier decided to move to L.A. and, with money from a Vancouver donor, bought a building on Pico Boulevard, where he set up one of the city's first yeshivas. Before long, he built within it a Holocaust center, which he named after the Nazi hunter he'd met in Europe (Frank Sinatra, a Wiesenthal admirer, was its first industry backer, and among Hier's first Hollywood con­nections). A few years later, then-Academy president Fay Kanin convinced Hier that films would be better teaching tools for his center than slideshows. So, with director Arnold Schwartzman, he produced Genocide, a 1982 documentary about the Holocaust narrated by Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor. That brought him his first Oscar and led to an invitation to join the Academy (which, incidentally, also includes an actress-turned-nun).

Hier subsequently consulted with Steven Spielberg on 1993's Schindler's List and, with various collaborators, kept making docs — under the banner of Moriah Films after 1995 when, at Katzenberg and Meyer's urging, he set up a $3 million production company within the center, named after the mount where Jerusalem was founded. In 1998, he won his second Oscar, with Moriah's Richard Trank, for The Long Way Home, a film about Holocaust survivors' post­war struggles.

Moriah's 14 films, several of which can be viewed on Netflix, have been narrated by the likes of Michael Douglas, Sandra Bullock, Christoph Waltz and Nicole Kidman — free of charge. The company, which has seven full-time employees, is now at work on its 15th release, a doc about Ben-Gurion. (At a recent Moriah meeting, Hier and Trank discussed the legality of using a drone to capture footage of the Temple Mount for the film, and noted that Leslie Moonves, the president and CEO of CBS, is a great-nephew of Ben-Gurion.)

From left: Producers Elizabeth Karlsen, Christine Vachon and Stephen Woolley at a Museum of Tolerance screening of

As it happens, the film and rabbi businesses aren't all that different — they both require a certain amount of horse-trading, as well as an unflinching faith in a higher power. Indeed, Hier's next project could be his biggest blockbuster yet: a $200 million, 180,000 square-foot Museum of Tolerance in the center of Jerusalem, which is scheduled to open its doors in late 2017.

"I'll tell you," he says with a philosophical shrug, "without Hollywood support I don't know how we would've made it." On the other hand, he says, he often thinks back to something his grandmother told him when he was a young boy: "Everything is bashert," he recalls. "Yiddish for 'meant to be.'"