May 24, 2015

STRANGERS: Fred Melamed & Leslee Spieler Melamed
LOCATION: The Palm, 267 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, California
THEME: Dining with a Hollywood actor and his wife

Click here for part one of this interview

“One thing that surprised me about moving to LA is how small it is,” said Fred Melamed.

He’d just finished a shrimp cocktail starter during our dinner interview at the Palm restaurant in Beverly Hills, and conversation had turned to his recent move to the City of Angels. Fred and his wife Leslee Spieler Melamed — who joined us for the meal — said they’re still adjusting to life compared to their previous home in Montauk, a small seafront town on the tip of New York’s Long Island.

The move was prompted in part by Fred’s growing career as a Hollywood actor. The Yale-trained thespian is known to many as Sy Ableman, the devious “villain” in the Coen Brothers’ movie A Serious Man, who steals the lead character’s wife and home. Praise for his performance helped boost his career, and now he’s an increasingly familiar face on television and in movies.

Recent performances were in the television shows House of Lies, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Girls, with movies including The Dictator and In A World… — many of them overbearing, authoritative characters, often father figures who aren’t great dads. It’s a change for a man who spent a major chunk of his career performing voice-over work and had only a handful of on-screen roles, not to mention a vow to avoid the theater after developing crippling stage fright early in his career.

During the first part of the interview at the Palm, Fred told me how he first got interested in acting, his time in voice-over work, and his career renaissance. But there was much ground left to cover, including meeting the mother who put him up for adoption.

So after we put in our orders for entrees, I eased into the remaining topics by asking Fred, 59, and his wife how they and their young twin boys are finding life in LA.

That’s what prompted Fred to say how small he had found the city. “You think of it as being this monolithic thing with all these different studios, but it’s a small place. Everybody knows everybody else. To be on the right side of that is good,” he explained.

For example, during the time in mid-May when I was visiting Los Angeles and met with Fred, he was at work on the show Casual, created by Jason Reitman. On that production, Fred’s co-stars are people that he’s worked with during the last year on various projects.

He also made friends with Lake Bell, the lead actress — as well as writer and director — of In A World… in which Fred plays a legendary voice-over artist called Sam Soto, who is anything but encouraging to his daughter’s interest in working in the same industry. “You get to know these people that you work with,” Fred said, and that leads to more projects on which they work together.

Fred said the move to Los Angeles came at a propitious time because of the changing nature of the movie and television industry. “The kind of mid-level budget features that have artistic integrity are now few and far between. There are movies being made for a few million, or tent-pole movies for 50, 60, 70 million dollars. But dollars in the, say, 15-30 million range that are also artistic — almost all of that has gone to television, which has been great for television but not so good for movies.”

Traditional television networks are less willing to take risks on novel ideas for shows given an ever-dwindling viewing population, Fred said. That opens up a market for studios like Netflix that develop their content for online audiences, which he credits with launching an experiential time in Hollywood. “I was lucky enough to arrive in time for that.”

Los Angeles was quite the transition for the Melameds, who both spent most of their lives in New York. Their twin sons will turn 13 in November. One has what Fred described as “fairly severe” autism, while the other had autism but has largely recovered. They found a school in New York near Montauk that offered the right kind of services for both children, and that was the primary motivator to settling in the New York coastal town.

But the children recently aged out of that school and the Melameds needed to find somewhere to enroll them. Fred was making an increasing number of trips to LA for work, and so they found a suitable school in the area. Then they found a house and neighborhood that they liked, and moved out to the West Coast recently.

“Montauk was beautiful and serene, and that’s very different from most of what I’ve seen of California,” said Leslee. “But we’re enjoying it, though we haven’t ventured out much.”

She said their sons Alec and Lee have adjusted well to life in another state. “We thought it was better for our son who doesn’t have severe autism to move before middle school. That was the right thing to do. And with Fred’s job, coming out here was calling to us.”

They’re still discovering things about their new city that amuse them. Fred explained, “In Los Angeles there are two things that are the coins of the realm: one thing is how hot are you sexually in appearance, and the other is what you are working on. Those may be subjects of interest elsewhere, but people at least pay lip service to other interests. Here, people are completely unabashed about being interested in those things and nothing else. It’s kind of shocking.”

He recalled doing some shopping at the local Trader Joe’s supermarket the first week of the move to LA. There was a woman in line ahead of Fred and she was wearing a dog collar with spikes, a leather jacket, tight black pants and tall stiletto heels. “When I got up to see her, she was about 85 years old!” exclaimed Fred, letting out a laugh. “That’s Los Angeles.”

I asked whether the movie industry forces people into plastic surgery in order to preserve their appearances. Fred pondered it for a moment. “I think there’s a lot of pressure but I don’t think they have to,” he said. Would Leslee endorse a nip and tuck for Fred?

“Not at all!” she said.

Fred — a solidly built man who stands more than 6 feet tall — grinned and added, “In my case I made the wise decision to be fat and bald at a young age, so I haven’t aged drastically.”

But he does think that some people in LA can be showy. “I think people are the same here as everywhere else, but here they put everything on display. The ethos is there’s nothing wrong with putting it on show. They display their cars, their bodies…” he said, trailing off.

After perusing the menu at the Palm, I gave up on all hope of a slender body.

The offerings screamed butter, carbohydrates, oil — and taste. Large steaks, lobsters, sides like buttered green beans and potato au gratin. The restaurant is a typical steakhouse, with perfectly trained waiters and classy furnishings such as leather booths and dark wooden walls and ceilings. The only odd note was the background music, a mix-tape of everything and anything.

Ignoring the soundtrack in the background, I instead focused on the entrees.

At Fred’s suggestion I ordered an entree of the 14 ounce Filet Mignon, with the bone in. “Personally I’ve always found bone-out to not be as tender,” Fred said. While some advocates of bone-out steak say it makes it more flavorful, he added, “That’s not a good trade-off for the tenderness.”

I’m glad I went with his suggestion as this was as fine a steak as I’ve eaten in years. As tender as anticipated from Fred’s description, it was a huge cut, and perfectly cooked.

Leslee also ordered the Filet Mignon, but only a 9 ounce.

We ordered several sides for the table.

First up was the aforementioned potatoes au gratin, topped with a blend of three melted cheeses. These things were awful for the waistline but great for the palette.

I also ordered some fresh-tasting snow peas.

Then more carbohydrates came along in the form of a baked potato that looked the size of an American football. Leslee and Fred split that side dish.

Finally, it was Fred’s turn. And out came the bib. He’d warned me that he’s sometimes a fast and messy eater, and joked that he might get some of his food in my tape recorder.

He had ordered the broiled jumbo 3-pound lobster from Nova Scotia, but the dish looked like a much heftier serving of the crustacean. As is customary when eating such a serving of lobster, the diner is is recommended to wear a bid. Fred agreed this was a good idea.

I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw Sy Ableman — a quietly monstrous character — putting a bib on, and to Fred’s credit and good humor, he let me take a picture of it.

Once he’d put up with my childish indulgence, we started on our entrees. That’s when conversation drifted to one of the biggest developments in his private life: the time that Fred, who is the adopted son of Louis Melamed and Syma Melamed, met his birth mother.

In the first part of the interview Fred discussed growing up with his adopted television producer father Louis and aspiring actress mother Syma. He said he had a great relationship with his father, but a tense one with his mother, who was self-righteous in a way that Fred said had some foreshadowing of the authoritative figures he’d end up playing in the movies.

When Fred was 27 and living in New York, he received a message on his answering machine — “this was the days when people still had those,” he laughed — from a woman called Nancy, asking him to call back. He thought it might be a work call. He dialed the number, and it turns out that Nancy was his birth mother. But how did she track him down given that adoptions are anonymous?

“The adoption was supposed to have been blind on both ends but my parents, to save a few shekels,  used a lawyer who was a member of family. He was not adept at these things so all the names were revealed,” Fred said.

Nancy and Fred talked for several hours on the phone that night, then agreed to meet up a month later when his birth mother would be visiting the Big Apple. He still vividly recalls walking into the bar of the Regency Hotel with a cigar box filled with photos of him and his sister, and sharing them with Nancy. “Meeting her and getting to know her was an experience that I couldn’t liken to anything else in life. She looked like me, she talked like me, our gestures and habits of speech were very similar but we didn’t really know each other. It was an odd feeling,” he said.

They decided to grab a bite to eat at a hamburger place. Nancy, wearing a white silk blouse, picked up her burger, took a bite, and then ketchup spilled out and all down her blouse. “If I had any doubt that we were related it was gone,” said Fred, laughing.

After that initial meeting Fred and Nancy stayed in touch, and he learned more about his mother and her career as an actress. The fact she worked in the same industry meant they had several acquaintances in common, and now they both are living in Los Angeles.

He also has a half-brother who is 10 years his junior, and they are in touch. And he also got to meet his biological father Stanley, but not until Fred turned 50. He’d had a letter from his father asking to meet several years prior, but never replied. The relationship with him was a little more fraught than the ease with which he connected with Nancy, which Fred puts that down to the strong bond with his adopted father, Louis. “It was when he passed away that I thought that people don’t live forever, so maybe I should finally meet Stanley,” said Fred. And so they did.

Being memorable is Fred’s goal with his performances.

Fred said that his experiences in childhood — a tense relationship with his adopted mother, an uneasy meeting with his biological father — perhaps help influence some of his performances as not-so-stellar father figures. But Fred comes across as such a genial, funny, warm man that I wondered when he decided to approach parenting differently.

“When you have a parent who is really domineering you can be subsumed or you can break away,” Fred said. “I broke away but I think I paid a heavy price breaking away too early and have a kind of loneliness because of that. But my father was very kind, sweet and funny. Once I asked him — I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 — ‘You’re such a good dad, how do you do it?’ And he said, ‘When I look at you and your sister, it just happens.’ And that’s how I feel about my children.”

Leslee leaned in at the table and said, “Fred also had in his adopted father an example of real true goodness and kindness, and I think that Fred took that from his father.”

She added with a smile and watering eyes, “I’ve got to say he is a wonderful father. Fred is the father that many people wish they had. He is present, he is understanding, and he’s fun. He didn’t have the same type of upbringing that our children are having from an emotional and supportive standpoint. And it’s very interesting to see how when someone experiences a profound relationship in life that doesn’t go well they can either succumb to that and not be a good parent, or they realize they’ve got to get as far from that as possible, and that’s where Fred has gone.”

“It’s cute of you to say,” Fred replied. “I have friends that have said to me in confidence, ‘I’ve done well in my career but I haven’t done so well at being a parent.’ And people are different, but I think if I felt I had really messed up being a parent I would find that really crushing,” he added.

A lot of the Melameds’ free time is taken up with activities with their twin boys. They’re training them for a bar mitzvah, although Fred confessed he’s not a very religious man. He and Leslee have been wowed by their autistic son’s desire to play a big role in the ceremony. “From day one when both boys were diagnosed with autism, they always had the drive and ambition in them to do well and achieve, and that goes a long way,” said their mother with fondness.

Fred’s free time is also constrained by his busy career.

He recently finished filming a role in the Coen Brothers’ upcoming movie Hail Caesar! The Internet Movie Database has only this limited description of the production, “A Hollywood fixer in the 1950s works to keep the studio’s stars in line” — though Fred said he was sworn to secrecy on his role.

“I got to work with some of my favorite actors: Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney,” he said, listing off A-list names. “And working with the Coens is unique. They and Woody Allen, who I’ve also worked with a bunch of times, have a unique deal that almost nobody else in the movie business has. They’re given a budget to make their films and then get no interference whatsoever.”

He’s also done some writing. One screenplay would be play a guru character, someone like Werner Erhard, the creator of the Zen-like “est” movement of mass group awareness seminars. “I didn’t take the training myself but a bunch of people I knew did,” Fred said. “I thought might like to do something playing that kind of guru, but I have such admiration for Werner that I didn’t want to lampoon him.” So he’s been tinkering with the script.

That guru role is also a role he’d like to play, though he thinks also directing the movie himself would be too much of a tall order. “While I would love to do it, so many things coming up for me as an actor are so interesting that don’t know that I’d be able to take time or fund it anyway. But I would love to make it someday.”

Besides, Fred said, acting is much more social than writing. “I really enjoy acting more. Writing is very satisfying but it’s very hard, solitary, which I don’t much like. I think that my own nature is to be rather solitary and cut off from people. The fact that I’m thrown together with people — often people that I really like — is one of the happiest parts of acting.”

He even found a renewed interest in Broadway, making his return to the stage in 2011 in a handful of productions that proved he’d finally managed to conquer his stage fright. His performances that garnered great reviews included Uncle Vanya in the Anton Chekov classic of the same name, part of the ensemble in Relatively Speaking, and an anthology of three plays: “Talking Cure” by Ethan Coen, “George is Dead” by Elaine May, and “Honeymoon Motel” by Woody Allen.

Yet Broadway is a lengthy commitment as plays generally have a year-long run. Fred said that would hinder his ability to keep doing the roles he’s enjoying in Hollywood.

Our waiter then returned to ask whether we wanted dessert, but the three of us declined. The food at the Palm is not only delicious, but the portions are massive and filling.

So we sipped at coffee to end the meal. And that’s when Fred beamed with a smile and asked whether I had managed to get through all the questions I wanted to ask. After almost four enjoyable hours with Fred and Leslee, this reporter had nothing left to quiz him about.

Instead, I turned the tables on Fred and said, “What should I have asked but didn’t ask?”

He thought for a moment.

Leslee chimed in by suggesting, “How about who’d you like to work with?”

Fred nodded as if to compliment the question. “There are some directors I adore that I’ve never worked with. First on the list is Paul Thomas Anderson, I love him. And people like Alexander Payne, Nicole Holofcener, Martin Scorcese,” he said. “And there are a lot of actors I love that I’ve worked with on the recent Coen Brothers movie, like Tilda Swinton. I wish I had gotten to work with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman,” he concluded wistfully.

Then he sat bolt upright as he came up with an idea. “The question I would have asked is, ‘What do you find hard about being an actor?’ And I would say to be good at it, you have to be willing to expose all of yourself, including the parts of yourself you don’t like. That can be hard. For example, I don’t particularly like the way I look,” said Fred.

“I do!” said Leslee, patting her husband’s left hand.

Fred smiled and continued, “There’s also a great element of risk to acting, but that’s what’s great about it. And when all the pistons are firing, it’s a wonderful experience.”

Leslee nodded, adding, “An actor is a much happier person and easier to live with when they’re working, no doubt about that. It allays a lot of anxiety and gives them something to put all their energy into. We’ve been fortunate since we’ve been out here.”

With that, dinner was over. But as we got up from the table, a young girl and her father came over to Fred and said they recognized him from In A World… and wanted a picture.

He happily obliged. And then he turned to me, saying, “That happens sometimes. Very often when I’m in public, people will shout out the name of a character that I played. Remember when I started off tonight by telling you my goal with acting is to somehow wheedle my way into peoples’ minds, so that the character or situation stays in their head and becomes a source of interest, or stimulation, or perplexity…” and his sentence drifted into silence.

The point was clear. Even with just that one example of the father and daughter asking for a picture at the Palm, this serious actor had achieved his goal.

4 thoughts on “#76 A Serious Actor — Part II

  1. Jenny Ketcham Reply

    Interesting piece on a gifted character actor…even though he downplays the merit of that particular title. He was so good in “In a World” that it was easy to believe that he would have been as self centered a man and father as Sam Soto was. Thank you for your portrait which gives us a completely opposite image of the man.

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