Monday April 10, 2023
Michael Lerner (1941-2023)
In “An Empire of Their Own,” Neal Gabler wrote about the six Jews—most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe—who founded Hollywood. Fun fact: Michael Lerner played half of them. In 1980, he was cast as Jack Warner in “This Year's Blonde,” a TV movie about Marilyn Monroe, and in 1983 he played Harry Cohn in another TV movie, “Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess,” but all of that was mere prep for his great, Oscar-nominated turn as Jack Lipnick, a fictionalized version of Louis B. Mayer, in the Coen Bros.' “Barton Fink” in 1991. Someone—his agent?—should've realized this and helped him get roles as William Fox, Adolph Zucker and Carl Laemle to complete the cycle. Or maybe that's just the completist in me talking. But has any actor done all six? Lerner totally could've done it. To be honest, the biggest reach was the moustachioed Warner, and Lerner nailed that one first.
Oh, and if anyone thinks Lipnick shouldn't count as Louis B. Mayer, Lerner also played Mayer in a 2022 Russian film “Pervyy Oskar,” about the first film to win the Academy Award for best documentary. Per the Times, he was working on a biopic of the man as well.
Lerner was in my life for a while. I was looking over his 183 credits and seeing familiar shows I probably watched in the 1970s: “The Odd Couple,” “Lucas Tanner,” “Rhoda,” “Wonder Woman.” Then I caught a few that I knew I'd watched. Lerner played Pierre Salinger in that mindfuck of a TV movie (when you're 10) about the near-death of the world, “The Missiles of October”; and maybe more importantly, he played the Japan-loving Capt. Futterman in that classic season 2 episode of “M*A*S*H,” “For Want of a Boot.” Futterman is one of the many links in a chain that Hawkeye builds so carefully, with each quid pro quo, so he can get a pair of non-leaking boots, only to see it all fall apart in the end.
Related to the original Hollywood moguls mentioned above, Lerner also played his share of Jewish gangsters: notably Arnold Rothstein in John Sayles' “Eight Men Out,” the man who played with the faith of 50 million.
Rest in peace.