‘West Wing’ to West End

Richard Schiff is known to mil­lions of TV view­ers as Toby, the dead­pan pres­i­den­tial aide of ‘The West Wing.’ He talks to John Nathan about his gang­ster grand­fa­ther, his new Lon­don stage show, and his re­lief at quit­ting the White House

The Jewish Chronicle - - & Arts Books -

There is an episode of “The West Wing” which be­gins in flash­back with three mys­te­ri­ous men in a car. It is a cold, wet night and a cap­tion in­forms us that we are in Brook­lyn on Christ­mas eve, 1954.

The men are speak­ing Yid­dish. The one in the back is in talk­a­tive mood fol­low­ing the birth of his first son. But the man be­hind the wheel is more con­cerned about the busi­ness at hand, which is to kill some­one. The three are Jewish gang­sters work­ing for Mur­der Inc.

For “West Wing” afi­ciona­dos — and there are mil­lions of them — this is episode 11 of se­ries 4 of the US po­lit­i­cal-drama se­ries. The talk­a­tive gang­ster is re­vealed as the fa­ther of Toby Ziegler, the Jewish, highly prin­ci­pled, dead­pan White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, played by the Emmy Award-win­ning Richard Schiff.

It is one of “West Wing” cre­ator Aaron Sorkin’s most com­pelling sto­ry­lines. The 50-year-old Toby fi­nally con­fronts the dad he dis­owned be­cause of his gang­ster past. But more com­pelling still is where Sorkin got the idea. “My grand­fa­ther was a gang­ster,” Schiff ad­mits.. “He was a mem­ber of Mur­der Inc.”

Schiff is about to make his West End stage de­but in “Un­der­neath the Lin­tel,” Glen Berger’s one-man play which draws on the myth of the wan­der­ing Jew. In the play, Schiff is a punc­til­ious Dutch li­brar­ian whose world is rocked with the re­turn of an over­due book. Over­due, that is, by 113 years.

Sit­ting in jeans and sweat­shirt, Schiff cuts a friend­lier fig­ure than the aus­tere Toby, who, of “The West Wing” char­ac­ters, stands out as be­ing the most in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­tim­i­dat­ing, the most cere­bral and the most bald.

But like Toby, Schiff has a watch­ful air about him. And he talks at a low vol­ume — not con­spir­a­to­ri­ally low, but with an in­ti­macy that draws you into the con­ver­sa­tion, which is also rather Toby-like.

What sparked the “gang­ster fa­ther” episode was that Schiff pitched an idea about his char­ac­ter to Sorkin. It in­volved Toby meet­ing his es­tranged fa­ther. “I was think­ing of a Roy Cohn kind of char­ac­ter,” says Schiff (Cohn was a prom­i­nent New York lawyer and in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in the Demo­cratic Party who was dis­barred for pro­fes­sional mis­con­duct). But Sorkin re­mem­bered an ear­lier story Schiff had told him about his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Mau­rice.

When Schiff was a kid, he would of­ten hang out with Mau­rice at New York’s Rock­away beach. “He’d do tefillin ev­ery morn­ing,” re­mem­bers Schiff. “He was se­ri­ous Ortho­dox. And I would sit in si­lence un­til he was done. And af­ter the beach, we’d take show­ers and he had this big scar on his mas­sive calf.”

Mau­rice was a big man, a one-time prize­fighter who came from what Schiff de­scribes as “mas­sive Rus­sian stock”. “I’m the runt of the fam­ily,” he says. He is nei­ther par­tic­u­larly tall nor small. “My brother’s six-foot-three and my cousin was a 240-pound line­backer for UCLA [Amer­i­can] foot­ball team,” he adds by way of putting his medium build in per­spec­tive.

“Af­ter my grand­fa­ther died, we held shivah at my apart­ment in Man­hat­tan. And I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber th­ese guys in pin­stripe suits show­ing up, telling sto­ries about ‘Moey’.” Im­i­tat­ing the men in pin­stripes, Schiff ’s cul­tured tone switches to a Brook­lyn brogue that is more “So­pra­nos” than “West Wing”.

“‘Even if Moey was down to his last dime, he’d give you half,’ one of the pin­stripes had said. And then an­other said: ‘Re­mem­ber the time when Moey got shot?’”

At that, Schiff re­mem­bers how the fam­ily gath­ered round and lis­tened to the story about how Moey was “run­ning rum” dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion and how his truck “was busted by the cops”. “He ran and the po­lice shot him in the leg,” says Schiff. “He es­caped, and I re­alised that that was the scar.”

When Schiff talks about his grand­fa­ther — “he wasn’t a hit­man, he was a run­ner” — there is an ev­i­dent fas­ci­na­tion, but no ad­mi­ra­tion. “He was the black sheep. We had peo­ple in the fam­ily who were kind of se­ri­ous Jews, re­li­gious and eth­i­cal and be­lieved in things like ed­u­ca­tion. But my grand­fa­ther was a thug.”

Still, Mau­rice at least in­spired one of the best episodes in the most award-laden television se­ries since “Hill Street Blues”. Yet de­spite the suc­cess — or per­haps be­cause of it — Schiff ad­mits to be­ing re­lieved that “The West Wing” is be­hind him.

“I don’t think they’d be of­fended if I said that. It was seven years of a char­ac­ter, and there does come a point in television where it’s ba­si­cally cut and slab and putting it on a con­veyor belt. And you try to find a way to make the slab as in­ter­est­ing and chal­leng­ing as pos­si­ble and keep the spark go­ing. But you still get itchy to move on. And no mat­ter how many com­mas and ze­roes they through at you — and it’s a lot — you want to move on.”

In some ways, though, Schiff is mov­ing back. His big break came in 1997 when Spiel­berg cast him in “Juras­sic Park”. But like many Hol­ly­wood ac­tors, he learned his trade in the theatre, of­ten di­rect­ing off-Broad­way pro­duc­tions.

Be­fore that, he opted out in a mid-’70s posthippy kind of way by work­ing as a fire­wood­cut­ter in Colorado. There is a hint of hippy ro­man­ti­cism in the way he talks about his work and per­sonal life.

To take “Un­der­neath the Lin­tel” in Lon­don, Schiff had to turn turned down a new play by Sorkin be­cause “ev­ery time I asked my [the Chi­nese con­cept of life force] or my soul what I should do, it said ‘Lon­don.’” And his 10-yearold mar­riage — he and ac­tress Sheila Kelly live in Los An­ge­les with their two small chil­dren — is “just reach­ing a new level”.

But tak­ing a one-man show to the West End is no easy op­tion. Es­pe­cially for an ac­tor with a well-doc­u­mented fear of step­ping on to the stage. To help con­front that fear, Schiff had reg­u­lar “con­ver­sa­tions” with fel­low “West Wing” star John Spencer (he played Leo, the White House chief of staff), who died a year ago. Ev­ery­one on the show thought Schiff was crazy to take on the high risk and low pay of a one­man show. But not Spencer, who en­cour­aged Schiff to try out the play in New Jer­sey.

“He died while I was re­hears­ing. He never saw me on­stage,” says Schiff. “But he was there with me in spirit, back­stage while I was trem­bling. And I would lit­er­ally talk to him, and he’d tell me to get out there and kill ’em.”

Richard Schiff in Lon­don: “There does come a point in television where it’s ba­si­cally putting it on a con­veyor belt. You get itchy and want to move on”

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