Why Liev Schreiber is the secret weapon behind HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’

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Adam Schefter/Twitter

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Can I let you in on a little secret? I don’t watch much NFL action these days.

Call it the Rams leaving town or a lack of time, but it’s true. The most football-watching in this house happens every late summer when HBO releases the new season of “Hard Knocks,” its long-running sports television series. Made by the legendary NFL Films crew, the five-part series examines a particular team as its member roll through training camp, one of the most grueling six weeks in any sport.

This year, the Dallas Cowboys, aka America’s team (or Jerry Jones’ livelihood), were featured. Superstars like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott got their fair share of moments to shine, while the younger players on the roster bubble (every NFL team keeps 53 players on their active roster during the regular season) once again owned the larger portion of the spotlight.

But for me, the secret weapon of watching this series isn’t what you see — it’s what you get to hear each episode. That’s the narration of Liev Schreiber, the Jewish actor well-known for his role on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.” Truth be told, I didn’t always know it was his voice telling me all about the players, the preseasons stakes, and everything in between. One year, when the show started and my curiosity started to take over all the intricate details of a show or movie, I noticed a name in the opening credits.

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“Narrated by Liev Schreiber.” I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly, every single sports documentary or television series on HBO became must-watch material. Imagine watching some so intently, just to hear the voice speaking over the action. That’s a rare feat, like watching an animated film for just one voice. Schreiber made routine work seem incredible… for one hour each week.

There’s another good reason I flock to “Hard Knocks,” a show that is all about football yet so dramatic and relatable in its makeup: it’s like a five-part movie. The characters are the players and coaches, and the endgame is making the roster.

Entertainment is all about how you compartmentalize certain things that move you. Slow-motion catches over two leaping and reaching players is made more attractive with a commanding voice that keeps you invested. Schreiber’s vocals can do wonders, even if he is merely describing a certain young man’s struggle with responsibility, or an older player’s battle of wills with destiny and legacy.

Schreiber makes it all come together, like the secret ingredient that makes the whole dish choir sing properly and efficiently. Without him, I would still watch but it wouldn’t be as necessary. It’s like an otherwise careless movie suddenly introducing one of your favorite actors. Schreiber is definitely in my top five, and it’s not just the baseball bat-wielding Boston-born fixer named Ray or his way with words. He’s really just a great actor in whatever project he shows up in.

Those kinds of things are evident when you’re watching a series about a team you couldn’t care less about, nor one that you will follow for the next four months. Schreiber transcends all of that. His voice work is stern yet relaxed, serious yet patient, and even carrying a sly sense of humor. He doesn’t have to invent new words to sound interesting, but he makes the simplest saying seem more poetic than it should be.

Schreiber has been doing the job since 2001, narrating every season except one in 2007 when Paul Rudd subbed in (his favorite team, the Chiefs, were featured that season). With no offense to the charismatic Rudd, it just wasn’t the same. Not every actor can make a docuseries about a football team seem so riveting.

If you ask me, the secret ingredient of “Hard Knocks” isn’t the rousing music or the unbeatable visuals; it’s the narration.

Liev Schreiber makes the old and recycled seem fresh and unique each season.

All five episodes of “Hard Knocks” with the Dallas Cowboys are now available on HBO Max.