Remembering Tanya Roberts, finding Jewish roots and more

By Nate Bloom, Special to the Jewish Light

Actress TANYA ROBERTS died on Jan. 5. On Jan. 3, erroneous reports circulated that she had just died and this error made her passing a bigger news story than it otherwise would have been. 

Roberts wasn’t a major star, but she had some good roles: she was an “angel” in the last season (1981) of “Charlie’s Angels”: she co-starred in the cult fantasy classic “The Beastmaster” (1982) opposite actor MARC SINGER, now 72; she was the “Bond Girl” in “A View from the Kill” (1985); and she was a cast member of “That ‘70s Show.” She played the mother of lead character Donna (LAURA PREPON, 40, “Orange is the New Black”) from 1998-2001. 

Years later, Roberts revealed that she left the series because her husband, writer BARRY ROBERTS, was terminally ill with encephalitis. She nursed him for five years until he died in 2006, at age 61.  The couple, both from the Bronx, wed in 1974. 

Tanya Robert’s premature death notices led to some government record-checking by a friend and me. For decades, her bios repeated the same thing—that she was born in 1955, the daughter of a Jewish mother and Irish father. Turns out that Roberts, nee Victoria Blum, was born in 1949. Her father, OSCAR BLUM, was Jewish. Her mother, Dorothy Smith, was English, and it’s unclear if she was Jewish. I don’t fault Roberts for shaving six years off her age in youth obsessed Hollywood. But maybe it explains why she had no interest in correcting on-line bio details.

In other news…

The Amazon Prime special “Yearly Departed,” which began streaming on Dec. 30, is worth your time. It features seven female comedians speaking at a mock funeral for 2020, a truly bad year. The show’s head writer, BESS KALB, 33, says it was inspired by a remark by the late CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, who said “women aren’t funny.” Of course, not every joke in the show is hilarious. But they hit more than they miss. The three “tribe” funny ladies are SARAH SILVERMAN, 50, NATASHA LEGGERO, 47, and TIFFANY HADDISH, 27. Also appearing is honorary tribe member Rachel Brosnahan (“Mrs. Maisel”).

The Jan.12th episode of “Finding Your Roots,” the PBS ancestry show, featured fashion designer ZAC POSEN, 40. Posen soared to fame in the early 2000s as the darling of major department stores and Vogue magazine. His career has suffered with the decline of these patrons, but he is still a “big name.” The Jan. 26 episode, entitled “Against All Odds,” explores the ancestry of producer/ talk show host ANDY COHEN, 52, and NPR legal correspondent NINA TOTENBERG, 76. Nina’s father, ROMAN TOTENBERG, was a famous Polish-born violinist. Cohen was born in St. Louis and graduated from Clayton High.

Tom Hanks’ first Western, “News of the World,” opened last month to good reviews and is streaming on video-on-demand services. Hanks’ character travels around carrying newspapers and, for a fee, reads them to people in isolated towns.  During his travels, he is cajoled into returning a white girl, taken by the Kiowa tribe years before, to her relatives, even though the girl wants to remain with the Kiowa. They travel hundreds of hard, eventful miles. 

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MARE WINNINGHAM, 61, has a large-ish supporting role (Jane, a shopkeeper). Raised a Catholic, Winningham took a class about Judaism in 2001. Two years later, after much study, she converted to Judaism. Her conversion wasn’t associated with having a Jewish romantic partner. She likes to refer to herself as a Jewish country singer and she issued a “Jewgrass” album in 2017. Last March, she got amazingly good reviews for her performance in “Girl From the North Country,” a hit Broadway musical that features many BOB DYLAN songs. It had to close after a few weeks because of COVID-19.

I decided to write this “late” item when I became aware of another Jewish cast member in “News of the World,” FRED HECHINGER, 20. He was given 4th billing in the credits even though this is first film release. He plays John Calley, a sweet 17-year-old who breaks with a criminal band he has fallen into.  His late grandfather, also named Fred Hechinger, fled Nazi Germany in 1936, and became a prominent New York Times editor/education writer. The actor’s other “grands” were Jewish, too. Look for him in future projects.