Fyvush on the hoof at Barrington Stage Company
PITTSFIELD -- Those who know Fyvush Finkel through the roles of Douglas Wambaugh, the only lawyer in town on the television series "Picket Fences," and Harvey Lipschultz, the crotchety U. S. history teacher on TV’s "Boston Public," may regard it as odd for either of those gentlemen to be engaging in the brisk patter, song and dance of a lively cabaret act.
But only wait until the rest of the exciting life of Fyvush Finkel rolls out on the stage of Mr. Finn’s Cabaret, at 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday in Barrington Stage Company’s Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center on Linden Street.
The genial, always confident, Finkel had been watching an old rerun of Chuck Connors as the "Texas Ranger" when we rang his New York hotel room one afternoon this week. He was slightly apologetic for the temporary diversion, but suggested better choices for later on the tube.
Finkel and his family -- it’s a real family show, he noted, "the Jewish Family Trapp," he told the folks at "CBS Sunday Morning" -- had just completed two nights at Club 54 Below. "It’s one of the hottest rooms in town," he exclaimed, "terrific raves from the critics." He mentioned an early cabaret show in Manhattan when a gentleman from the Berkshires approached one of his sons afterward.
"I want your father in my cabaret," Finkel quoted the man as saying, and appearing very insistent. "He even offered a deposit."
Finkel, who is proudly 91 -- "92 in October" -- was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the third of four sons of Jewish immigrant tailor Harry Finkel from Warsaw, and Mary, a housewife from Minsk. Called Philip Finkel, with no middle name, he adopted the stage name "Fyvush," common among Yiddish given names.
First appearing on the stage at age 9, Finkel grew up to adult roles, acting in the thriving Yiddish theater of Second Avenue on the lower East Side, as well as performing standup in the Catskills’ Borscht Belt. Work at a Jewish theater in Pittsburgh extended his career, "with my father sending money," he confessed, as he continued following the work until the ethnic opportunities began dying out in the 1960s.
Then Finkel reinvented himself, making his Broadway debut as Mordcha, the innkeeper in "Fiddler on the Roof," gradually working his way up to Tevya in the national touring company. More stage activity followed, including "Little Shop of Horrors" and the role of Sam in the New York Shakespeare Festival revival of the Yiddish classic "Crown Café," which gathered an Obie and a Drama Desk nomination.
Roles in several films followed. Finkel ascribes his appearance as a lawyer in Sidney Lumet’s "Q & A" to David E. Kelly’s casting him as Douglas Wambaugh in "Picket Fences."
"My success in life was at the age of 70," said Finkel, "when I was scheduled to go on television, because then, you become a world figure. I tell other actors: Take it easy; you have plenty of time."
Finkel credits all his success in later life to television.
"I think when you do a series they see you every week in their living rooms. Movies -- they can see you once in a while," said Finkel, acknowledging he is proudest of his role in the Coen Brothers’ "The Serious Man."
"But it was David Kelley, one of the greatest writers in town, who did something for me I’ll never forget. He built up my character in [ "Picket Fences"], and that was a hit all over the world."
Finkel’s cabaret show has three parts, he explained.
"First, there’s the Sons’ Explosion. First my sons go up. They’re really terrific, not because they’re my sons."
Ian Finkel, 65, whom he hails as "the world’s greatest xylophonist" -- he appeared with many Broadway shows, at the New York Philharmonic and at the Met Opera House -- "writes all my orchestrations." His other son, Elliot, 61, is his "concert pianist extraordinaire."
The family ensemble also includes two guitarists and a drummer, after which, he said, "the old man comes out.
"I sing, talk, dance -- performers years ago, we did everything," he said. "But it was all very open. The double-entendre was okay, but never anything profane. I always tell these young comedians ‘If it’s okay for your mother, your wife or children to hear -- even if you have the rabbi in town, or priest, if they can come and enjoy it, then you have an act.
"I learned that from the old-timers -- Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, George Burns -- they were class all the way, even when they started in the business.
"Milton Berle told me ‘If you leave your pants down once, that’s funny. But when you do it a few times it’s not funny any more."
In his show’s final segment, Finkel said he sings -- "Gershwin’s ‘S wonderful,’ ‘If I Were a Rich Man,’ and certain songs written for me, like ‘As Long as I’m With You,’ by my son Elliot with lyrics by Philip Mammenworth.
"We do a little Yiddish, but I explain it to the audience. Any time at all, I am always with my audience," he said. "I keep telling people who want to be attractions ‘You must love your audience, because if you love them, they love you six times more.’ And they’re the ones who pay your salary, not your producer."
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