Jews in the News: Yakov Smirnoff, Jeff Ross and Steven Hill

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Remember YAKOV SMIRNOFF? Back in the 1980s, he was a stand-up sensation, comparing the good things in America with the bad or difficult things in his native Soviet Union. His signature line (about America) was: “What a Country!”  Well, the end of the Cold War in 1989 ended his big popularity, although he kept on performing. From 1992-2015, he owned a theater in Branson, Missouri, where he and other acts performed. Branson, in the heart of the Ozarks, is a long way from Odessa, where Smirnoff, born Yakov Pokhris, was born. He and his parents were allowed to come to America in 1979. He worked as a busboy in the Borscht Belt before making it in comedy.

Branson has declined a lot in the last ten years, because the senior citizens who loved its “All-American” (Andy Williams, etc.) entertainment theaters are mostly gone, now. But Smirnoff has already re-invented himself. In the last few years, he earned a masters’ degree in psychology from an affiliate of the Univ. of Pennsylvania. That degree fits in nicely with his first PBS special, “Yakov Smirnoff’s Happily Ever Laughter, the Neuroscience of Romantic Relationships” (premieres Thursday, Sept. 1, at 8PM on most PBS stations). He offers four keys to success in a relationship, drawing on reputable studies. He also recounts heart-warming stories about his parents’ inspiring relationship, which included a lot of love and laughter.

On Labor Day, Sept. 5, at 10PM. Comedy Central will premiere a roast of actor Rob Lowe. The roastmaster is David Spade, and the roasters include JEFF ROSS, 50. No doubt, Lowe’s wild “sexcapades” in the ‘80s will be brought-up. However, its old news: he has been happily married to his Jewish wife for 25 years and their two sons were raised Jewish.

JAMES WOLK, 31, a quite handsome fellow, will guest star on “Billions,” a Showtime series that begins its second season next February. He’ll play an innovative tech billionaire. Currently, he’s co-starring on “Zoo” on CBS, which has got great ratings. Its second season two-hour finale airs Tuesday, Sept. 6, at 9PM.

Catch This One, Whenever You Can

The death of actor STEVEN HILL, age 94, on Aug. 23, has been widely noted in the general and Jewish press. Of course, he was best known for playing the (head) Manhattan District Attorney on “Law and Order”. Rightly, most of the Jewish press has emphasized how he gradually became more religiously observant during his long career and how his Shabbos observance cost him a great TV role in 1967: he was the original team leader on “Mission: Impossible.” But here’s a role that was barely mentioned in the obits, but showed Hill at his best. The 1988 film, “Running on Empty,” starred JUDD HIRSCH and Christine Lahti as a couple of ‘60s radicals on the run for 20 years. They planted a bomb in a napalm lab, and accidentally killed a janitor. Their son, played by the late RIVER PHOENIX (River’s real-life mother is Jewish), is a very talented high school musician—but he has to forego a Julliard scholarship lest he give his parents’ location away. This film, directed by the late SIDNEY LUMET, and written by JAKE GYLLENHAAL’s mother, NAOMI FONER, was labeled one of the year’s best by Roger Ebert. He said the film’s high point comes when Lahti meets with her rich father, played by Hill, and asks him to take her son so he can attend Juillard. In his ten minutes or so on screen, Hill conveys all the pain of this father, who hasn’t seen his daughter in 20 years. Somehow he gives us, in minutes, and with few words, a precise portrait of this father’s anger at his daughter, and the situation—while still showing us his enduring love.

Minow Minute

Last week, I noted that NEWTON MINOW, 90, gave Michelle and Barack Obama their first law jobs, working at his firm. Well, I didn’t realize until this week that a feature film about their meeting and first date, called “Southside Calling,” opened on Aug. 26. Sadly, Minow isn’t a character in the film, which got good reviews. That’s too bad---because Minow relates in the documentary about his life that he ran into the couple on their first date, and they were embarrassed because Michelle was nominally Barack’s supervisor. He said he told them to relax and have a good time. The President, he adds, always says to him that he (Minow) brought them together.


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