Fyvush Finkel, Beloved Character Actor, Looks Back on a Career That Defied the Odds (Video)

The charming raconteur, who turns 91 this week, started in Yiddish theater, moved to Broadway, later won an Emmy for "Picket Fences" and cameoed in the film "A Serious Man."
Fox's "Boston Public"
Fyvush Finkel

NEW YORK – Last weekend, while in town for the New York Film Festival, I met up for a long lunch and interview with Fyvush Finkel, one of this city's most colorful showbiz characters and, at the age of 90, a living legend in his own right.

Finkel, a charming raconteur who will turn 91 on Wednesday -- and remains as sharp as a tack (see the video of our chat at the bottom of this page) -- has been in show business since the age of 9. The child of Polish and Russian immigrants who spoke Yiddish at home, he made his acting debut at the height of the Great Depression in a production of Yiddish theater near his family's home in Brooklyn, and then spent most of the next few decades as a marquee attraction on Second Avenue's then-booming Yiddish theater circuit.

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When Yiddish theater eventually began to fade away, he had to reinvent himself -- and it wasn't easy. He sometimes performed an act at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs just to pay the bills and support his family. Later, he moved on to performing at resorts in the Catskills, which was more creatively satisfying and paid better, but still wasn't ideal. Eventually, though, his fortunes took a turn for the better. In 1967, he landed a part in Jerome Robbins' national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof and stayed with the company for 12 years, eventually graduating from the role of the innkeeper to the role of the butcher to the role of Tevye, which he describes as "Hamlet for character actors." Shortly thereafter, in 1982, he took over from his friend Hy Anzell the role of Mushnick in the first off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors, with which he remained through 1987. "I never leave a hit," he says with a laugh.

His increased fame from these appearances led to a number of gigs appearing in commercials -- most memorably for Pepto Bismol and Subaru -- as well as smallish parts in films such as Sidney Lumet's Q&A (1990). That particular film, in turn, brought him to the attention of TV creator, writer and producer David E. Kelley, who, around that same time, was looking for someone to play attorney Douglas Wambaugh on Picket Fences. Kelley saw Finkel, immediately called his representatives and within an hour a deal was done. "It was a miracle," the actor says, describing it as his "big break at the age of 70." Finkel, for his part, made the character unforgettable during a run on the show that lasted from 1992 through 1996. In 1994, he was awarded the Emmy for best supporting actor in a drama series. Kelley subsequently recruited him for a four-year run as teacher Harvey Lipschultz on Boston Public, as well.

"When they want you, my dear friend, they'll find you in Johannesburg!" he proclaims. "If they don't want you, you can walk their dog, take them to lunch, tell them how great they are -- but you can forget it!"

Finkel has also starred in several other memorable motion pictures, including Barry Sonnenfeld's For Love or Money (1986), Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995) and Ethan and Joel Coen's A Serious Man (2008), as an alleged "dybbuk" who speaks Yiddish in the opening sequence. He likes to recount the story of how he trained numerous elderly friends for their auditions for that last part before the Coen brothers finally came calling for him to audition.

Finkel, who had been married for 61 years when his wife, Trudi, passed away in 2008, and who is the proud father of two accomplished sons who also work in the arts, says that he would like to be remembered as a wonderful performer, but hopes even more so that he will be remembered as a good husband and father. As he sees it, though, it's premature to talk about life and legacy: "[On Oct. 9] I'll be 91, and the phone is still ringing, thank God!"

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