May 24, 2012
For “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” one of the two Play of the Week dramas I wrote about earlier this week, producer Henry T. Weinstein and his casting director, Marc Merson, assembled something of an all-star repertory cast for the umbrella show’s three segments. Gertrude Berg, creator and star of The Goldbergs, starred in the last and longest of them, “The High School,” and a number of blacklisted actors made up the company that appeared in two or three: Zero Mostel, Lee Grant, Morris Carnovsky, Jack Gilford, and Henry Lascoe. Another blacklistee, Sam Levene, was the on-screen narrator, and Charlotte Rae, a stage actress some years away from television fame in Car 54, Where Are You? and The Facts of Life, flits through the piece in small parts (literally; she’s an angel hanging from wires in the opener, “A Tale of Chelm”).
Then there’s the fellow who plays the character at the center of “The High School,” the teenaged son of Berg and Carnovsky. He was too old for the part (twenty-nine playing fifteen), but this young actor had a memorable face and held his own in scenes opposite the forceful Berg. The man’s name was Conrad Josephs, and he this was to be his only substantial television or film role. He seemed to disappear completely after “The World of Sholom Aleichem.”
Of course, that’s not the whole story.
In fact, “Conrad Josephs” was a pseudonym for Conrad Bromberg, the son of the character actor J. Edward Bromberg. The elder Bromberg was a Group Theatre alumnus who appeared in films including The Mark of Zorro and Strange Cargo, but he may be best known as one of the symbolic tragedies of the blacklist; he died of a heart attack a year after refusing to answer HUAC’s questions. Lee Grant has always said that her own stint on the blacklist began when she was observed in attendance at Bromberg’s funeral.
Conrad Bromberg gave up acting soon after “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and became a writer, perhaps best known for his play Dream of a Blacklisted Actor. Recently, I spoke with Bromberg about his memories of making “The World of Sholom Aleichem.”
So why the pseudonym? Were afraid that you might be blacklisted by association?
I changed my name because my old man got blacklisted on TV, and I didn’t want to walk around with that kind of curse. It was a reverse thing. I was an actor at the time, and if I went in as Conrad Bromberg, all the producers would say, “Oh, Conrad, it’s so good to see you, I feel so bad about your dad, and I knew him so well. We did this show, and anything I can do for you, I’d love to do….”
The minute I walked out the door, they didn’t do anything, and they didn’t want to know and they gave me the cold shoulder. Their guilt was so deep they just didn’t want to see me, basically. I reminded them of what they hadn’t done during the blacklist time.So I figured I’d change my name and go in as a totally unrelated person.
What do you remember about Don Richardson, the director of the show?
Nice guy. He was very friendly and efficient, and he was always very prepared. I had played the part on the road in Howard Da Silva’s production, in Los Angeles and in Canada and around, so I kind of knew it. And there wasn’t much staging for my part. It wasn’t made a big thing out of. Morris and I knew each other, and Gertrude Berg came and we just rehearsed a couple of times. We all called her Molly. She was known that way, because of the character she played [on The Goldbergs].
Don mainly, as I understand it, the main thing he did, because I think we shot three-camera, was his camera work. That’s what he was hired to do – he was a live television director, not so much an actor’s director, but “I need you to stand here because I’m going to cover you with Camera Two.” That kind of thing.
Da Silva had acted in the 1954 New York debut of The World of Sholom Aleichem, along with Yiddish theater star Jacob Ben Ami and blacklistees Anne Revere and Cliff Carpenter. Along with Ben Ami, the touring company originally comprised Carnovsky, Will Lee, Phoebe Brand, Gilbert Green, and Herschel Bernardi (all blacklistees). The company evolved as it went around the country (a young and very un-Jewish Dick O’Neill appeared in the Washington production), and by the time Conrad Bromberg joined he was performing alongside Gerald Hiken, Sarah Cunningham, and the blacklisted John Randolph, with Da Silva directing but not acting.
Did you change your approach from the stage version?
No. Because we shot it live because it was a stage show. We didn’t have things like close-ups or two-shots.
What do you remember about Howard Da Silva? After the blacklist, of course, he became a welcome presence in many films and television shows.
Howard and I were friends for a long time. He was a very warm, giving kind of a guy. A better actor than a lot of people thought. They kind of pigeonholed him in Hollywood as the gangster or the tough guy or the bartender. He could do an awful lot of stuff, and once he left the theater and went to Hollywood, they pigeonholed him there. And then of course the blacklist came along and stopped his career.
Bromberg later collaborated with Da Silva and Alfred Drake, who had appeared together (as Jud and Curly, respectively) in the original 1943 Broadway production of Oklahoma!, on an unsold pitch for a television series about a crime-solving psychoanalist. Drake was to have starred in the show, with Da Silva directing and Bromberg writing.
Had you had any experience in live television prior to “The World of Sholom Aleichem”?
I had done walk-ons when I was an acting student, on things like Big Story, T-Men in Action. It was a quick way to pick up fifty bucks.
And of course Arnold Perl, who wrote “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” was the story editor on both of those shows. Did you know him then?
Yes. Arnold was a very wry, kind of cool, friendly guy. I knew he had been blacklisted. He was kind of an intermediate generation between my father’s generation and mine. When I was 25, my guess is Arnold was 40. There were writers who were part of the blacklisted generation who were younger than the Group Theater people but young enough to have gotten caught up in that whole mess, and Arnold was one.
I remember thinking at the time that he died: Well, Arnold, they finally took the cigarette out of your mouth.
He was a heavy smoker?
Constant. And his wife, Nancy, was always at him about it. And this was before anybody knew that cigarettes did that. And I smoked at the time too, but nobody smoked like Arnold.