Jews in the News: Alison Brie, Seth Rogen, Billy Crystal

Horror, a Funny Story, Crystal, and John Lewis

The horror-thriller “Rental” began streaming (video-on-demand) on July 24. It co-stars ALISON BRIE, 37 (“Glow” on Netflix) and it was directed by DAVE FRANCO, 35, Brie’s real life husband (both are the children of Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers and both identify as Jewish). Basic plot: two couples rent a beautiful beach house only to quickly find out it is rife with cameras. Much more creepier (and bloody) things occur as the weekend goes on. Reviews in the usually reliable “Hollywood Reporter” and “Variety” were very good. Both noted that Franco, a first-time director and the film’s co-writer, deftly ratcheted up the tension and the script offered some interesting twists.

Two weeks ago, I said that there were two living Jewish comedians who I think are following in the footsteps of CARL REINER and JACK BENNY (decent men with long, varied careers). I couldn’t find space for these two last week. I’ll cover them this week and next, and, as a bonus, here’s a funny Jack Benny that Reiner told. Reiner prefaced the story by noting that Benny was “a very sweet man” and that to understand the story you have to know that Benny’s comic persona included the fiction that Benny was notoriously cheap (he really wasn’t).

Reiner met Benny for the first time in the early ‘60s at the CBS cafeteria. The first meeting began with Benny spotting Reiner, waving him over, and saying, “I have to tell you what happened to me yesterday.” Benny said that he was flying into Burbank in a small plane and about 2 minutes before landing he really had to go the bathroom. The pilot told him the plane toilet was cramped and he’d be much better off using the airport toilet. They landed, and Benny raced to the toilet. The restroom only had pay stalls. You had to put a dime in the door lock to get in. Benny didn’t have a dime. Desperate, he crawled under the door and did his business. He then discovered it would be easier to go over the top of the stall rather than trying to go under again. He said he had one leg over the stall top when a guy entered the bathroom, looked at Benny, and said: “Mr. Benny, it’s only a dime.”

The two living comedians are BILLY CRYSTAL, 72, and SETH ROGEN, 38. Rogen’s “very Jewish” movie “American Pickle” opens on Aug. 6 and I’ll discuss him much more next week.

Crystal, like Benny and Reiner, has a reputation for being nice and being open about his Jewish background. Like them, he has only been married once (to a Jewish woman). Crystal’s wife of 50 years is his former high school sweetheart, JANICE GOLDFINGER, and they have two “fine” adult daughters. He’s done well as a TV performer (“Soap” and “SNL”), in movies (“When Harry Met Sally”, others), and as the best Oscar host ever. Two films he wrote and directed (“Mr. Saturday Night” and “Forget Paris”) weren’t hits, but they were “honorable” tries. Much better received was his autobiographical play, “700 Sundays,” about his father (who died when Billy was 15).

The Jewish media has had numerous stories about Congressman John Lewis since his recent death. Most have mentioned his support of Israel and his refusal to appear at the “Million Man March” (1995) because it was organized by notorious anti-Semite Louis Farakhan.  Here’s a story about Lewis I haven’t seen anywhere since his death.  In 2008, Lewis wrote (and sponsored) a House resolution (which passed) commemorating the 44th anniversary of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers by the Mississippi Klan. The three (MICKEY SCHWERNER, 24, ANDREW GOODMAN, 21, and James Chaney, 21) were killed because they were trying to register black voters.

I was impressed that the Lewis resolution clearly stated that Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish (Chaney, like Lewis, was African-American and not Jewish). I was also struck by this line in the resolution: “[After the three went missing] I joined the search for them that night with a very heavy heart.”  It reminded me that Lewis was right there when this milestone in Civil Rights history played out—as he was “there” during so many other critical moments.

By the way, Schwerner’s widow, RITA LEVANT SCHWERNER BENDER, now 78, became a civil rights lawyer after her husband’s death. In 2014, she appeared with Lewis at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the murders. There’s a poignant (event) photo of her and Lewis emotionally embracing—two old warriors in the good fight.

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