‘Nice Jewish Boy’ on his new film ‘Play the Game’


Perhaps you have seen the cute fliers for the sneak preview of the new romantic comedy Play the Game, in which a mother pleads, in comic fashion, for you to see the movie by her son, “a nice Jewish boy.” That “nice Jewish boy” is writer/director Marc Fienberg, whose first feature-length film stars Andy Griffith and Doris Roberts in a playful comedy about a grandson, David (Paul Campbell), who is a ladies’ man sharing his dating tricks with his lonely grandfather.

The story about love at any age was inspired by Fienberg’s own grandfather. Along with writing and directing, Fienberg produced the film and is handling distribution. He says he clearly struck gold with his cast.

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“I was really lucky. It was all the script,” he said during a recent interview. “It was a unique story and unique characters. Actors like Andy (Griffith) and Doris (Roberts) don’t take parts just for the money, they are looking for roles they have not played before. Andy told me he took this for two reasons: He got to have a bedroom scene and the character didn’t die at the end of the film. He wanted to play a senior character who was all about the positive aspects of living into old age, dating and still looking for companionship.”

Fienberg describes actress Doris Roberts as an activist for seniors, who refuses to star in films that stereotype older people.

“The role of Rose (Doris Roberts’ part) was originally much smaller. When I learned she was interested, I added scenes for her. She was impressed and took the part,” said Fienberg.

Rose is not the only lady to catch Grandpa Joe’s eye. First there is Edna, played with comic style by Liz Sheridan, who previously played Jerry Seinfeld’s mother on the Seinfeld TV series.

“Liz is probably the most similar to her character than anybody (in the cast). She is in her late seventies and she is still just as wild and crazy as I think she was in her twenties when she dated James Dean,” Fienberg said. “The moment she heard she was going to have a bedroom scene with Andy Griffith, she was sold.”

The tongue-in-cheek mother’s plea promoting the movie is very funny but a bit fictionalized: Marc Fienberg does not really live with his parents but with his wife and three children. In fact, his wife was pregnant with the couple’s third child during the filming and it was a race to see which would arrive first, the baby or the end of the film shoot.

In Play The Game,David’s dad (Clint Howard) is clearly delighted to have his oft-estranged son follow in his footsteps, saying he was “born to do this.” The son is less sure about the family profession and, in the film, father and son have a rocky relationship. That is far different from Fienberg’s real-life relationship with his own father but that assumption about following in a family profession is something that comes out the director’s own experience.

“I come from a long line of accountants,” he said. Fienberg studied the family profession in college, got the degree, then just as he was poised to take his first professional job, suddenly took off to travel the world. He returned to work as a writer, settled on the East Coast but when he decided that a career in film was what he really wanted, he and his wife just pick up their lives and new baby and relocated to Los Angeles, without jobs or family awaiting them. The risk appears to be paying off.

People who have seen Boynton Beach Club, by Susan Seidelman, a hit of the Jewish Film Festival from a few years back, may notice the common theme of dating and re-discovering love among the retired. If fact, the film makers of Boynton Beach Club are helping spread the word about this film.

Given the way the film is being promoted with that very funny “Jewish mother” flier, it was a bit surprising that the film does not have explicitly Jewish content.

“In the early version of the script, the grandfather, who was based on my own grandfather, spoke a little bit of Yiddish here and there and, you know, there was a lot more Jewish stuff in there,” Fienberg said. “Then, as time went on and I got more feedback, I realized that it was sort of taking away from the story for non-Jewish audiences. It is kind of a universal story. It is more about seniors playing around than about Jewish seniors getting back in the game. So I made the difficult decision, and it was a difficult decision, because it was based on my own Jewish grandfather, and that was a big part of who he was. I am learning that show business is indeed a business and sometimes you have to make those decisions.”

But Fienberg added that he thought that there were plenty of indirect hints that would lead the audience to guess the characters were Jewish.

Still, quirky little tidbits in the film were directly inspired by Fienberg’s grandfather, who unfortunately passed away before the film was finished.

Like the Popeil “Pocket Fisherman,” a scene in the film in which Griffith and Campbell, playing grandfather and grandson go fishing. When Fienberg was a kid, he and his grandfather would often go fishing. But they would always use those odd-ball miniature fishing rod and reels combos sold on late-night TV in the 1980s, Fienberg explained. When Griffith and Campbell pull out those “Pocket Fishermans” in the scene and plop down on the bank for a little angling, you cannot help but laugh.

Fienberg also noted that his grandfather always called movies “talkies,” although no one else did, and refused to change. So Griffith’s character calls movies “talkies,” too.

It’s little touches like that which help make Play The Game a warm-hearted charmer. Fienberg finished up his chat by urging everyone to check out the film’s website at www.playthegamemovie.com. Since he seemed like such a nice Jewish boy, I felt it all right to include that.