My father, playwright Joseph Stein, was so vital for so long that when he died in October 2010, at 98, some people were actually taken by surprise. Nearly half a century after his greatest success, Fiddler on the Roof, he had been hard at work on a new musical.
At the service, I began my eulogy with an anecdote from a few years earlier. My father and stepmother were en route from New York to Westport, Connecticut, where one of his old shows was being revived, when he began feeling ill. They called ahead, and by the time they arrived at the theater, an EMS crew was waiting.
How do you feel? asked the head EMS guy.
I dont feel so good.
What hurts you?
It hurts me that George Bush is president.
The line drew a roar from the huge crowd at Riverside Memorial Chapel, as I knew it would. These were his people, New York theater folk, as reliably left a bunch as youre likely to find anywhere outside a university campus.
It was my parting gift to a man Id loved greatly and—over the previous decade or so, since moving to the right—had argued with incessantly. Though anyone with a passing acquaintance with my father knew that he was almost preternaturally good-humored, someone able to wring a laugh from even the direst of circumstances, this was something he just couldnt wrap his head around.
It was a situation surely familiar to others in families sharply split along ideological lines, though the generational divide generally runs in the opposite direction. My father simply couldnt fathom how any thinking person, let alone someone whod imbibed politics at his knee, could have ended up a . . . well, he never actually used the word, at least not directly. The closest he ever came was reporting the reaction of a friend, one of Broadways better-known composers, who had come across something Id written: When did your son become a Fascist?
For my part, I understood his worldview far better—a Communist in young adulthood, hed been a proud progressive ever since—but I found him no less frustrating. In other respects thoughtful, even wise, how could he not see the damage that todays aggrieved and self-righteous Left was inflicting on the country we both loved?
To the contrary, having lived to see Barack Obama elected and his health-care plan bludgeoned to passage, my father was delighted with the drift of things. Indeed, a few months before he died, he confided, only partly joking, what few others on his side of the political spectrum would be honest enough to admit, assuming that they were astute enough to grasp it: I never moved, the Democratic Party came to me.
On September 22, 1964, when Fiddler opened on Broadway, I was two months shy of my 16th birthday. For a stagestruck kid, the timing was perfect—I was old enough to sneak into rehearsals on my own but innocuous enough that no one seemed to care. Id watched the shows development pretty much from the beginning; watched my father labor over the initial drafts of the script in his office in our suburban home and rush off to meet with his collaborator buddies, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick; sat in on backers auditions in our living room; slipped into those rehearsals, evading the laser gaze of the martinet/genius director, Jerome Robbins; attended, along with my thenbest friend, Frank Rich, every performance of the shows Washington tryout, as new material came and went almost nightly; and at last, sat thrilling at the New York opening—and then, the next morning, with the appearance of the first reviews, watched the line snaking down West 45th Street from the Imperial Theater.
By then, I figured that I knew everything there was to know about Fiddler, including every word of dialogue and every song cut from the production. So I was caught short by much in Wonder of Wonders, Columbia Journalism School professor Alisa Solomons exhaustively researched account of the shows history and cultural influence, one of several books timed to its 50-year anniversary. Solomon uncovered memos between my father and the composers as they struggled with the daunting task of moving Sholem Aleichems Old World characters from the page to the Broadway stage. I never knew theyd considered replacing the story line of Chava, the daughter who breaks her fathers heart by marrying out of the faith, with an even more tragic one about another daughter, Sprintze; or that my father, aware that everyone in the business, including his agent, regarded the material as too Jewish, toyed with giving the daughters less exotic names like Rachel and Sarah; or that early on, the shows ending had Tevyes family moving to America while he, too old and afraid of new things, and knowing that survival is his strongest trait, stays behind in Anatevka. Id long known that it was director-choreographer Robbins who instinctively grasped that Fiddler had to be not just about a family with marriageable daughters and unlikely suitors but also the story of an entire people; and that, in a flash of inspiration, he seized upon the unraveling of long-standing traditions as the backdrop against which such a theme could play out. But the eye-opener was how explicitly anti-tradition the show was meant to be.
Famously—or infamously—the ex-Communist Robbins had named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the contempt in which he was held by the shows star, Zero Mostel—whod been blacklisted—remains the stuff of theatrical legend. A Rabelaisian figure, as crude and unrestrained as Robbins was tightly wound, Mostel openly referred to the director as Looselips, and, more than once, I saw him mock Robbins in front of the cast. But they respected each others gifts and shared with my father and the others a common outlook on politics and culture. All were progressive Jews, nonobservant yet profoundly identified with their peoples ethical heritage, and they were all caught up with the great moral crusade of the time: the civil rights movement.
The show left no doubt as to how vital had been the rites of the shtetl, both secular and religious, in preserving the identity of a despised and beleaguered people. Yet the most fiercely adhered-to social/religious tenet of all—the injunction against marrying outside the faith—was meant to be depicted, in a changing and more sophisticated world, not merely as outmoded but as outright bigotry. In fact, wrote Robbins of Tevyes initial refusal to accept Chavas Gentile mate, the conditions he has lived under have made him become as prejudice[d] as his attackers. In early rehearsals, the director—who, during the run-up to West Side Story, had segregated the actors playing Jets from those playing Sharks—even instructed the mixed religious couple to think of themselves as Southern blacks buying a book in a bookstore where blacks are not allowed. He told Bert Convy, the actor playing Perchik, the revolutionary who embarks on a dangerous anti-czarist mission, to imagine that hes setting off to register black voters in Mississippi. As those familiar with the show know, Tevye mostly comes around in the end, giving his grudging blessing to the union as he and the rest of the family embark for America. Its a deeply affecting moment, one that, as Solomon observes, in its depiction of tolerance and equality as supreme values, nightly moved the overwhelmingly secular Jewish audience whose experience it affirmed.
True to form, my father, always averse to the merest hint of the maudlin, followed up that moment with a laugh—one equally telling, in its way. As the two youngest daughters begin dancing about, chattering about the trip theyre about to take, their sharp-tongued mother cuts them off: Stop that! Behave yourself! Were not in America yet!
The shows ending worked, of course, Robbinss staging of the departure scene making it one of the most effective in musical history. That Tevyes love for his child finally outweighed all else gave the show a remarkable universality. My father often described the reaction of an audience member in Japan, where the conflict between old ways and modernity had particular resonance: Do they really understand this play in America? Its so Japanese.
What Id almost forgotten, not that it had ever made much of an impression on my adolescent self, was how infuriated many traditionalist Jews were with Fiddlers take on the Jewish experience. As Terry Teachout recently summed it up in Commentary: to such critics, Fiddler was a betrayal of much that gave that experience weight and meaning, the show being an uplifting parable of assimilation in which the tragic core of the [original Sholem Aleichem] Tevye stories is replaced with an all-American optimism: Yes, Jews can move to America, intermarry, cease to be observant in any meaningful manner . . . and still be Jewish!
My father never took such criticism to heart. He and his collaborators had set out to do meaningful work, true to their own convictions and values and, by general consensus, had succeeded beyond all expectations. Of the more than a dozen Broadway shows—musicals and comedies—that my father wrote over his long career, none ever sounded more like him or more fully reflected his social and political views. Every time I see the show, Im struck by how much hes there in Tevye—his playfulness, his sardonic optimism, his habit (so irksome to Golde, as it could be to my mother) of kidding around even when the occasion calls for the utmost seriousness. But Ive no doubt he identified equally with Perchik, the young revolutionary and good-natured smasher of tradition—in many ways, the noblest character in the piece.
PERCHIK: In this world, its the rich who are the criminals. Someday, their wealth will be ours.
TEVYE: That would be nice. If they would agree, I would agree.
One of the odder ideological back-and-forths I had with my father involved his abiding contempt for business and businessmen. You make them sound, I laughed, like the little guy with the monocle and top hat in Monopoly. For once, he didnt smile back. Exactly! Thats just who they are! Knowing how much hed have enjoyed it, I regret that he didnt live to see Occupy Wall Street.
My parents never cared that I dated out of the faith or that the woman I married is about as Jewish as her Mayflower forebears. The only remark on the subject I ever heard from my father (for whom the closer to the truth, the funnier) was: Why dont you ever bring home a black girl, so we can show how liberal we are?
All these decades later, I love Fiddler as much as ever and am intensely proud of my fathers role in bringing it to the world. But it is only now, as a conservative much concerned with the assault on so much of value in the American past, including the widespread contempt among liberal elites for traditional wisdom and mores, that I begin to grasp what those critics must have felt, how affronted they were at having their most deeply held beliefs derided; and, yes, how frustrated by the power of popular entertainment to move hearts and minds, as they saw it, in the wrong direction.
What might seem odd about this is that my fathers own life was the very essence of the American dream—a Horatio Alger tale if ever there was one, the poor, scrappy kid making it big in America by virtue of talent, hard work, and moxie. A child of immigrants who never mastered the language or any but the rudiments of American life—and never had to, so self-sufficient was their Yiddish-speaking neighborhood—he was passionately engaged by this wondrous country from the start. I have a diary he began at 15, in 1927. On page after page, he goes on excitedly about the events of the day, the plays and novels hes been reading, the latest bon mots of columnists in the New York World, and the fortunes of his beloved New York Giants.
Then, again, the explanation is pretty straightforward. To be New York Jewish in the first third of the twentieth century, living entirely among refugees from the poisonous anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe and their offspring, was by definition to wind up on the left—accepting as a given that the world was basically divided into exploiters and exploited, the selfish and those working for the betterment of all; the only question was how far one wished to go. My grandfather, a sweet-natured maker of pocketbooks with five kids and a wife as tart-tongued as Tevyes Golde, was live-and-let-live, but his younger brother, my fathers uncle Abe, was a union organizer. When my grandfather finally got his head above water and set up a tiny factory with two employees (including my teenage father, off from school for summer vacation), Abe organized them and struck his brother. It took my grandmother—over dinner—to end the strike. Uncle Abe, by the way, was considered a right-winger—he was a socialist—and my fathers first political memory was hearing him proclaim: The Left is never right, which he considered the height of wit.
It wasnt until my father graduated from James Monroe High School (class of 29) and started commuting to City College that, having rejected his parents religious orthodoxy, he adopted leftist politics as his defining creed. In those Depression years, CCNY was the campus for radical activism, with Communists in the lead. My father (and mother, and everyone else in their circle) seems to have uncritically accepted that, if perhaps not the paradise on earth proclaimed by some, Stalins Russia was certainly the best hope for humankind.
Four decades later, when, though still on the left myself, Id ask them how they could have been so credulous as to accept the approved line on the Soviet show trials of the 1930s or gone along with the Partys about-face on the Nazi threat after Stalins notorious pact with Hitler, my father would revert to jokester mode. How could anyone not trust Stalin, he would ask, with that cute mustache? But my mother would get wistful, talking about the idealism of those years and how far ahead the Communist Party was on civil rights—with its defense of the Scottsboro Boys and other victims of virulent racism—and on womens rights. In fact, it was the Communists whod coined the term sexism, she said. More than a few in their crowd underwent abortions—including her. Once, when I asked her what she thought of Gone with the Wind, she said shed never seen it. I was out front picketing.
Little wonder that, within a few years, like so many other red diaper babies, I emerged as a leading troublemaker on my college campus; or that, a few years after that, just out of journalism school and intent on writing a book, I chose as my subject an oral history of the American Communist Party. Tentative title: Saving the World Together. Thankfully, it never came to pass. But I do have to live with the embarrassment of my first published magazine piece, an interview with Earl Browder, the Partys elderly former head. It appeared in the December 1971 issue of my favorite magazine, American Heritage. Having dragged my reel-to-reel tape recorder out to Princeton, where Browder lived with his son, the head of Princetons mathematics department, I sat nodding as he lied to me about everything from the Partys independence from Moscow (total!) to the innocence of the Rosenbergs.
Since, by the 1950s, my parents were basically Stevenson Democrats, it had taken me a while to learn about this aspect of their past. It began to come out when I was in sixth grade. I had a wonderful teacher, Mr. Hubley, who would often fulminate about the evils of Communism, with particular emphasis on Nikita Khrushchev—regularly identified as a cold-blooded murderer—and the Red Chinese. I was going on about the Chinese one evening at dinner when I noticed my parents exchanging concerned looks—red-baiting at their own dinner table!—after which they cautiously explained how, not long ago, the people of China had been starving. So I should bear in mind, they counseled, that Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai had also done some very fine things.
My political education continued in 1960, when I was called upon to debate on John Kennedys behalf in history class against some kid representing Nixon. The night before, my father offered a primer on what a vile monster the Republican candidate was, closing with a key piece of advice: If you get in trouble and dont know what to say, just ask, What about Alger Hiss? I wasnt sure what that meant, but the next day, I used the line—and was gratified to see our teacher nodding in agreement, before declaring me the winner a few minutes later. This was my first clue about how much it can pay off to be on the left.
Within a few years, I was savvy enough to challenge my father, or at least give him a hard time. There was, for instance, the evening I first ran across that old diary of his in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet. I read it in wonder, startled that at my age, he could know so much and write so well. Wandering to my parents bedroom, I found my father watching TV and asked, Dad, do you remember the Sacco and Vanzetti case?
Of course I do.
What did you think at the time?
What do you think? I was a good left-wing kid—I completely supported them.
At which point, I started reading him entries from the diary, starting with:
Aug. 10, 1927. A subway station has been bombed in London. This is the sixth of a series of bombings this week, a protest against the sentence against Sacco and Vanzetti. . . . The efforts to save them have resulted in damage more costly than the lives of these two men, it seems. Editorial writers are storming about Justice for all and reasonable doubts, radicals are threatening destruction to the nation, lawyers are arguing about constitutional rights. . . . I cannot see the reason for terming the guilt reasonable. I would call this Much ado about nothing!
By now, my father was fuming, demanding that I hand over the diary, but I skipped away, keeping it at arms length. Aug. 23, I continued. Sacco and Vanzetti are executed at last. It is about time. All these reprieves only excited radical sentiment all the more. Now there will be a hubbub which will gradually simmer and die down. Then, the case will be generally forgotten. This should have been done a long time ago.
That my father wasnt blacklisted was largely a matter of happenstance. He originally wanted to be a journalist, but as the Depression deepened, he instead became a social worker, remaining one for nearly a decade. He didnt so much fall into comedy writing as grab at the flimsiest reed of possibility. At a Bronx dinner party of fellow thinkers, another guest, a small-time comic named Zero Mostel, mentioned that hed just landed a local radio show and could use some funny sketches. I write those, my mother was astonished to hear my father pipe up. Back home late that night, he wrote his first. Within a few years, hed quit social work and was writing for radio full-time, and several years after that, with TV taking off, he joined Sid Caesars legendary writing staff.
By then, the blacklist was established fact, but in Caesars shop, at least as my father told it, it was less a source of terror than a game of keep-away, with the willing participation of the network brass. Every so often, some NBC functionary would call asking why no one had signed the loyalty oaths, and wed say we lost them, so theyd send over another batch, and wed immediately lose those. Presumably, my father never found himself under more direct threat because, as a social worker during most of his time in the Party, and a member of the Bronx rather than the Manhattan branch, he was not well-known to many in the business (including those naming names).
Not everyone we knew was so lucky. One of my earliest memories is of a writer-director named Aaron Reuben, a close friend of my parents and one of the sweetest guys in the world, hiding out in our suburban home to avoid a subpoena. Aaron would go on to produce such subversive programming as The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, and Sanford and Son.
This is the conception of the blacklist with which I grew up, and the one that has generally taken on an aspect of religious truth in the decades since: that it was an unconscionable targeting by the reactionary Right of entertainment-industry progressives, singled out for their enlightened views. And, to be sure, a great many of those whose careers and lives were wrecked by the blacklist fit the bill—guilty, whether Communists or not, of nothing at all, save possibly naïveté; and, yes, often their persecutors were not just indifferent to the constitutional niceties but, as products of the opposite end of the yawning American cultural divide, clumsily unknowing about who or what they were dealing with.
Only years later did I come to grasp, as the formulation has it, that some of the witches were real; or at least, that they were less principled idealists than pitiless ideologues and apparatchiks-in-waiting for their dream of a Sovietized America. There was, for instance, V. J. Jerome, who, as the Partys longtime cultural commissar, served as its ideological enforcer and hatchet man in Hollywood. As Howard Husock has chronicled in these pages, the Communist effort to harness culture as a revolutionary tool, using left-leaning artists and intellectuals to insinuate the Marxist worldview into the broader culture, found its bluntest expression in Jeromes pamphlet Let Us Grasp the Weapon of Culture. (See Americas Most Successful Communist, Summer 2005.) Husock focused on Pete Seeger and the singers attempts to bring that aim to fruition in the musical realm, and its shocking to learn of the extent to which he succeeded; just as it is startling (and amusing) to know that screenwriter Lester Cole, blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten, once put Spanish Communist icon La Pasionaras famous cry that it was better to die on your feet than live on your knees into the mouth of a high school football coach.
My father, for all his political conviction, regarded such propagandizing as offensive and bizarre. His allegiance always was to the work, his comic sensibility, as Solomon observes, grounded in the absurdity of situations and in the sure-fire Jewish outsider stance. While the stories he told reflected his values, his characters were his most honest expression of what those people would say and do. This was as much the case when, in late middle age, he was writing the musical Zorba—its title character intent on resisting the ravages of time—as it had been with Tevye or Perchik.
His closest friends in the business were the same way: very funny and very liberal. Leaving New York for Hollywood, they became the generation that revolutionized television comedy. In doing so, almost inadvertently, by being true to themselves, they played a key role in transforming—and liberalizing—American culture.
My fathers principal foray into television, post-Caesar, was a sitcom called Harrys Girls, about an American cabaret act in Europe. Pleasant and undemanding, it had a brief run on NBC in 1963 and is remembered, if at all, only because it was replaced by the satiric That Was the Week That Was, on which jokes were regularly made at its expense. But pleasant and undemanding were the order of the day, and, like most kids growing up in the late fifties and early sixties, I couldnt get enough of the eras popular half-hour comedies, including those reviled today as models of patriarchy and other sundry oppressions. My favorite was Leave It to Beaver, whose kids, forever getting into scrapes by trying to navigate the adult world through kid eyes, even now seem to me in the noble tradition of Twain, Penrod, and the Little Rascals. But in a pinch, Id watch even Ozzie and Harriet—never mind that its world of calm, sweater-wearing dads who never seemed to work was so alien from my own, and that, beyond discussing whether to go to the malt shop, nothing ever seemed to happen. (I recall a young Rob Reiner speculating that the Nelsons had a second house next door, identical in every respect to their own, except that it lacked bathrooms and had cameras; for half an hour each week, theyd simply live in the other house, and that was the show.)
The show that irrevocably altered the family sitcom was the one created by Robs father, Carl, the much beloved Dick Van Dyke Show. As old friends and New Rochelle neighbors of the Reiners from the Caesar years, we were fans from the first episode, and we always got a special thrill when Mary Tyler Moores Laura mentioned that someone wasnt around because they were over at Sadie and Joe Steins. Set equally in our hometown and my father and Carls old workplace, the show not only sounded like us—no talk of malt shops here—but it was also unmistakably, if subtly, liberal in the best, generous-spirited (which is to say, now nearly antique) sense of the term. One of its most memorable episodes, the premiere of season three, had a younger Rob Petrie, in flashback, nearly hysterical because hes convinced that theyve brought home the wrong newborn from the hospital, their infant having been confused with one named Peters. At the end, he opens the door to greet the Peterses—and theyre black. This was still daring stuff for a sitcom broadcast nationwide, just a month after the March on Washington. As the New York Times observed on the episodes 50th anniversary, it perhaps nudged the needle of social change toward integration and inclusiveness.
If no one in the know would confuse midwesterner Van Dyke with an actual New York comedy writer—in the pilot, Carl himself had played the role, which the network deemed a bridge too far—the shows success opened the way to other variations on the sitcom form. Shortly after its historic run, costar Moore launched a groundbreaking show of her own, featuring a single working woman soon widely embraced as a feminist icon. In short order came a pair of shows similarly reflective of the political and social ferment of the early 1970s, each with a point of view that wouldve been inconceivable on any network program a decade earlier. In its depiction of—and contempt for—working-class, Nixon-loving Archie Bunker as a bigoted, syntax-challenged ignoramus, All in the Family, from Norman Lear (another old neighbor, this time from summers on Fire Island), arguably remains the most unambiguously left-leaning sitcom in the mediums history; and arguably only because the following year, 1972, saw the launch of M.A.S.H., created by another old member of the Caesar gang, Larry Gelbart. Cynical, sharply observed, and often hilarious, M.A.S.H. was an extended cri de coeur against war and those who make it, and in its 11 seasons, it not only reflected public sentiment but also helped shape it. Who, watching Hawkeye, Trapper John, Radar, and the rest crack wise as they performed nobly in the midst of the frigid Korean winter, could fail to agree that war is not just cruel and brutal but pointless, futile, and insane? On the other hand, tell it (not that any sitcom ever would) to the 50 million South Koreans whod otherwise be living today under Kim Jong-un.
Even as these smart, deftly realized shows did their considerable bit in changing the American conversation about the kind of people we were and ought to be, they exercised enormous influence over later creators of mass entertainment. Its hardly happenstance that in a country evenly split between left and right, in entertainment programming the left/liberal worldview today reigns virtually unchallenged. As Andrew Klavan observes, it is now almost an unwritten law of Hollywood that any glancing reference to real-life politics in a film or television show must be slanted left. Just as viewers can safely assume that the straightlaced businessman on contemporary crime shows will turn out to be a bad guy, its an excellent bet that, far from knowing best, todays sitcom dad will be a hapless lunkhead, while his fictional kids will be gung-ho environmentalists. If Ned Flanders of The Simpsons stands as TVs idea of a do-gooding religious traditionalist, no one is fairer game on award-winning shows like 30 Rock or Parks and Recreation than real-life conservative pols, with Sarah Palin an especially attractive piñata. (Of course, President Obama is off-limits.)
For some of us on the right, this is a profound source of frustration, a key reason that we are not only losing the culture war but not even in the game. The problem is not so much a lack of comic targets on the left—why not a sitcom set on one of todays insanely politically correct campuses or in a lapdog mainstream newsroom? Why no gags at the expense of a Joe Biden or Harry Reid?—as it is a shortage of network executives and creative types to make it happen.
I never discussed any of this with my father. While he agreed that there was too much pointless sexual innuendo on lots of todays shows—he hated cheap laughs like poison—he otherwise wouldnt have grasped what I was complaining about. Like most everyone else on the left, he saw the attitudes and values so pervasive on TV today as unobjectionable, since they mostly reflected his own. And, as far as comedy was concerned, all that mattered to him was whether something was funny—and with that, politics notwithstanding, I wouldnt have vigorously argued.
Its not as if we didnt have enough to fight about, anyway. We could go back and forth about almost anything—Giuliani or the Clintons, the Koch brothers or Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh or the New York Times; global warming or the Middle East or race. For a while, the most innocuous comment was apt to trigger an outburst. One of our ugliest fights, over dinner in an Italian restaurant, involved the Duke lacrosse scandal, set off by the sight of a kid at another table wearing a Carleton College lacrosse T-shirt.
When I was a liberal, hed taken pride in the pieces I published in places like the New York Times and in the invariably favorable reviews of my books in that revered publication. Now, I often maintained a discreet silence about what I was writing; he learned of the existence of one book, a largely comic take on conservatives marooned among the smugly intolerant in Americas deepest blue precincts, only a month after it appeared—with predictably unhappy results. And this time, Relax, Dad, at least its funny didnt help.
More than once, we got into it about Israel, too. My father, who never would have brooked a word against the Jewish State when I was young, was now just as adamant that in its treatment of the Palestinians, Israel had turned away from a reverence for justice that, for him, was the essence of Jewish identity. He blamed the despicable pols of the Israeli right, the religious crazies, and, especially, the racist settlers.
Still, even knowing his feelings on the subject, I was caught by surprise at the premiere of Fiddlers 2004 revival by a change hed made to the dialogue. It occurs late, when the Jews, expelled from Anatevka, are bidding one another farewell, and Yente is asked where shes going. Shed long replied: Im a matchmaker, no? Ill arrange marriages, yes? Children come from marriages, no? So Im going to the Holy Land to help our people increase and multiply. Its my mission. But, as Solomon observes, since those lines might have been taken as an endorsement of the idea of a demographic war, Yente is now going to the Holy Land because I just want to go where our foremothers lived and where theyre all buried. Thats where I want to be buried—if theres room.
I will say this about my father: he had an astonishing capacity, far greater than mine, to forgive and forget. When, late in the run of that Fiddler revival, he urged me to come backstage and meet its replacement Tevye, Harvey Fierstein, he couldnt understand why I declined. (He had forgotten, though Fierstein surely had not, that when Id interviewed him for Playboy at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, Fierstein had been incensed at my prodding him for evidence that AIDS was, in fact, everyones disease and was about to break out into the mainstream.) Indeed, each time I saw my father, we began afresh. And particularly toward the end, we battled less, as for different reasons—he for the fun of it, I because so much of it was new—we were both eager to talk instead about the old days: his start in radio, the remarkable range of showbiz luminaries hed known, the early years of TV comedy, the ups and downs of his many shows.
So its unfortunate, if oddly appropriate, that our last exchange was an unpleasant one about politics. It was October 2010, a few weeks before the midterm elections, and sitting up in his hospital bed, he asked, If you lived in Delaware, you wouldnt vote for that idiot Christine ODonnell, would you?
Well, Dad, I replied, Im afraid Id have to.
Just as, disbelieving, he started furiously to object, we were interrupted by a nurse, shooing me from the room to perform some tests. The next time I saw him, he was in a coma.
Thats why I prefer to remember another episode, in a different hospital room not long before. Trying to do too much, both hands full, hed fallen backward down a long flight of stairs, landing on his shoulder. He was to have surgery the next day, when the phone on his bedside table rang, and I picked up. It was Carl Reiner. I heard what happened to your dad, he exclaimed, more excited than alarmed. Its incredible, it should be in the Guinness book of records! I told Mel [Brooks], and he said, Its impossible, no 98-year-old could possibly fall down 14 steps backward and survive!
I tried handing the phone to my father, but he demurred, whispering that he was too tired. But I knew his old friend would cheer him up, so I held the receiver to his ear. He listened for a moment as Carl repeated what hed told me. Tell Mel, he replied wearily, that not only is it possible; there are several people to whom Id highly recommend it.