Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Anna Berger, actor


I got in touch with Anna Berger after I saw "Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," an Aviva Kempner documentary film which is about the legendary Gertrude Berg. Anna appears in the film discussing Philip Loeb, who played Jake Goldberg in "The Goldbergs." I was very emotionally moved and touched by Anna's recollections of Philip Loeb... and the way in which she expressed how he was fired and blacklisted. He eventually was so despondent over so many things in his life, he committed suicide in 1955 at the Hotel Taft in NYC.

Today, I had lunch with Anna Berger at Artie's, a wonderful delicatessen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was thrilled to have Anna discuss with me her impressive and long career on stage, television, and in film.

Anna was born on the Lower East Side, right across the street from Katz's delicatessen. Every tenement neighborhood had a settlement house. This is where everyone gathered for socialization, and there were art classes, dancing classes, and singing classes. The classes were without charge and this is where Anna found the stage. Anna, since the age of six, was in all the settlement plays for the audience of all those living in the neighborhood. Years later, the settlement house offered Anna a scholarship to any drama school of her choice. She chose Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop of the New School. Anna declares: "These were the three most happy years of my life."

Anna appeared in the Dramatic Workshop's stage productions with the other students: Bea Arthur, Elaine Stritch, Harry Belafonte, Louis Guss, Walter Matthau, Gene Saks, Ben Gazzara, Michael Gazzo, Judith Malina (who founded the Living Theater), Marlon Brando, and Joseph Sargent. Joseph Sargent is currently one of the leading directors in Hollywood. He directed the original "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" in which Anna played the mother of two children who, along with other passengers on that train car were all held hostage.

After she graduated from the Dramatic Workshop, Anna and some of the other actors formed their own theater group called "The Interplayers." This group included Michael Gazzo, Anne Meara, Jack Palance, Gene Saks, Joe Sargent, and Bea Arthur. One day Cheryl Crawford, Elia Kazan, and Bobby Lewis came to recruit working actors for the beginning of an idea of a place where actors could work on the challenges and problems of their craft. They called it The Actor's Studio.

Anna's first TV show was called "The Goldbergs," and Anna appears in a scene from an episode of that show in the documentary "Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg." In the documentary, Anna speaks strongly about the injustice of blacklisting and of the now infamous question during McCarthyism: "Are you now or have you ever been?" Many actors, writers, and directors who were blacklisted could no longer get jobs. Many fled to Europe and to Mexico and Anna's "dear, dear friend Philip Loeb" committed suicide.

In 1954, Anna appeared on Philco Television Playhouse in a play called "And Crown Thy Good." Many great actresses read for the part of "the Mother"... including Molly Picon and Jennie Goldstein. Gertrude Berg was considered. The great actor Nehemiah Persoff co-starred in the production. The play was directed by Delbert Mann. It was about a group of Jewish settlers who traveled out west to start a Jewish community. That same year, Anna appeared again on Philco Television Playhouse in a Paddy Chayefsky play called "The Mother." She played "the bookkeeper." Maureen Stapleton played "the daughter."

Anna played the sister to John Garfield's "Joe," in the Clifford Odets play "Golden Boy." One of the highlights of Anna's career was going on tour with Mae West in a show called "Diamond Lil."

In 1954, Anna appeared on Broadway in "The Fowering Peach," another play by Clifford Odets. Menasha Skulnik played "Noah." In 1956, Anna appeared in "A Very Special Baby," at the Playhouse Theater on Broadway. This was a Robert Alan Aurthur play which was directed by Martin Ritt. The cast included Luther Adler, Sylvia Sydney, and Jack Klugman.

 In 1954, Philco Television Playhouse had presented the Paddy Chayefsky play "Middle of the Night." It starred E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint and Anna had a role in that TV play. In 1959, the play was made into a movie and the part of "Betty" was played by Kim Novak. The film starred Fredric March, Albert Dekker, and Lee Grant. Anna played "Caroline" in the film. I asked Anna about her recollections of Kim Novak.

She told me that Kim Novak was very frightened of working with "New York actors." She was impressed with their work and perceived New York actors on a higher level than "Hollywood stars." Kim Novak felt very insecure and asked Anna to share dressing rooms and they became friends. The friendship lasted many years. Every year, Anna and her husband, Bob, received very personal and beautifully hand-painted Christmas cards from the great artist Kim Novak.

Anna again appeared in a Paddy Chayefsky play. The play was called "Gideon," and it opened on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater in November 1961. The play featured the actors Fredric March and Douglas Campbell. Paddy Chayefsky called Anna his "good luck charm." Anna Berger and Paddy Chayefsky remained friends for all the years that followed.

Bob joined us at Artie's and he told me how Anna developed quite a following when she appeared on the soap operas "Ryan's Hope, " "General Hospital," "One Life to Live" and others. Anna says the most loyal fans are the soap opera fans.

In 1998, Anna appeared in the episode "Moving Out" of "Everybody Loves Raymond." "Robert," played by Brad Garett, moves out of his parents' home and into the garage apartment of "Rita." Anna played "Rita." Robert moved to escape his mother's overprotective behavior, but finds carbon copies of his parents in his new home. This episode was loved by the fans of the show.

On television, one of the most memorable roles for Anna was the role of "Cookie" in "The Sopranos." When Paulie Walnuts brought his mother to the retirement community of Green Grove, Cookie remembered that she never liked his mother in the old neighborhood. Cookie therefore did not want Paulie's mother to be part of her social group in the dining room. "There's no room at the table; we're a set group," Cookie informed Paulie. Anna felt that Cookie could have been "whacked" for being so mean to his mother, but Paulie had Cookie's son's arm broken... as a warning. In another episode, it was Cookie who innocently told Paulie that Minnie hid her money under the mattress... and this resulted in Paulie killing Minnie and robbing her. What a character!

Well, the lunch ended and so did the interview. I have to admit that as I am writing this entry I realize that Anna Berger shared with me today only a small part of her long and impressive career. She could fill hours and days talking about her memories. Anna now has a one woman show in which she talks about her life, which was so filled with rich experiences. "Absolutely Anna" raised thousand of dollars for an art colony made up of young actors and artists.

Anna, Bob, and I exited Artie's and slowly walked north on Broadway in a light rain. We passed the location of the now closed William's Bar-B-Que, which used to be on Broadway at 86th Street. I was filled with intense nostalgia... and I was simply overwhelmed by Anna's remarkable life.

Since I was a child, I wanted to be able to time travel. The concept always seemed filled with so many endlessly wonderful possibilities. After meeting Anna, I wished I could go back to September 24, 1951... to the Fulton Theater, which was on West 46th Street right off Broadway. Anna Berger appeared there on that opening night as "Mrs. Kramer" in the play "Twilight Walk," and Nancy Kelly and Walter Matthau were also in the outstanding cast. That evening must have been magical!

Anna Berger's online biography at filmreference.com

Anna Berger in films and television:
Anna Berger, on IMDb

Anna Berger on Broadway:
The Rose Tattoo
Unlikely Heroes
Gideon
Twilight Walk

Anna Berger was interviewed by Peter Rinaldi, and the interviews can be seen on YouTube in seven parts:
YouTube, Pt. 1
YouTube, Pt. 2
YouTube, Pt. 3
YouTube, Pt. 4
YouTube, Pt. 5
YouTube, Pt. 6
TouTube, finale