A Silver Fox Helps Unlock San Diego’s Movie-Making Potential

by Catharine L. Kaufman April 26, 2017


img_1790 Hal Linden, our national treasure in theater and both big and little screens, is limbering up on the movie set of “The Samuel Project” in an old-timey kitchen while waiting for the director’s cue of “Action!” It is easy to recognize the Barney Miller character in the still actorly octogenarian, under the tousled white hair and scruffy beard. He adjusts his dangling suspenders and sleeveless white t-shirt while he prepares to shoot scene 47 in his co-starring role as Samuel Bergman in the independent film, which is being shot in San Diego.

Undeterred by his age and still sharp as a tack, Hal Linden filmed “The Samuel Project” early this year between performances of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” at The Old Globe.

The film aims to blend old and new world sensibilities and values while also flipping the script on a biblical story. Eli, a teenage misfit serendipitously reconnects with his Holocaust-survivor grandfather, Samuel, and decides to weave the latter’s story into an animated art project with which he hopes to win a college scholarship and thus open the door to his lifelong dream.

Director and co-writer Mark Fusco and producer Steve Weinberger talk about the intentional name reversal of the biblical prophet Samuel and his teacher, the High Priest Eli (in the Old Testament Book of Shiloh).

“It is Eli’s story,” Fusco points out, explaining that the character’s names are no accident. “The boy was the one who reached out and reunited with his grandfather, seeking the elder’s help in achieving his artistic goal.”

Weinberger adds that the biblical reversal “merges the themes of mutual enlightenment occurring when the two protagonists learn from each other’s generations-bridging wisdom. While Samuel teaches Eli about traditional Jewish values and culture, Eli is sharing his contemporary world view and technological savvy about digital communication, animation and social media.”

In other words, the reunion was bashert – a Yiddish term for intended or destiny, particularly when finding one’s soulmate – in this case referring to the beloved bond developing between grandfather and grandson, instead of the traditional romantic one.

Hal Linden’s Jewish background informs much of his performance. Having anglicized his name from Harold Lipshitz, he and his wife of 52 years (who has since passed away) went on to raise a large, happy family, which has now expanded to eight grandchildren, allowing him to easily assimilate into his role of Grandpa Samuel.

“I have a terrific relationship with all my grandchildren,” says Linden. “Some are outgoing and loving, some are serious and respectful. I have eight different relationships with each different grandchild.”

Growing up in the Bronx, Linden was cheated out of a long-lasting mentorship of an ancestral generation as he only knew one grandparent, who died when Hal was only 8. Still, that relationship, though short-lived, afforded him another frame of reference for his current grandfatherly role. Linden vividly remembers the precious time he spent with his grandpa on the train as they commuted to Hal’s music lessons. When asked for more memories he’s accessing to perform this role, the actor gets reflective and Gestaltish.

“You are the product of the sum total of your experiences,” he says thoughtfully. “You draw on all those experiences for all your acting roles. Real life, imagination, but even the latter is colored by your experiences.”

The formative years of Linden’s life shaped his value systems, and cemented his devotion to Judaism. His Lithuanian father, along with seven siblings (leaving behind his mother and eldest sister) escaped a czarist regime during the first decade of the 20th century. Some of the siblings immigrated to America, including Linden’s father, others to South Africa, while the mother and sister presumably perished in the Holocaust. Linden became acutely aware of the seriousness of the Jewish persecution during the war.

“The defining moment” in the teen’s life that made him follow in his father’s Zionist footsteps was the behavior of the British following World War II. Despite Lord Balfour’s vision and hope that Palestine would become the Jewish homeland, the British strictly limited the immigration of Displaced Persons who had survived the Holocaust into the mandated territory. For more than 20 years Linden has been a spokesperson for the Jewish National Fund. The sum total of all of this makes Hal Linden a natural in the Jewish role of Samuel Bergman, “a grandfather who has learned that the only way he can communicate with his grandson is through the youth’s art.

“Sometimes art is more eloquent than words, and can bridge gaps that words can’t,” says Linden.

The seasoned actor who humbly confesses, “the older I get, the more I am aware of what I don’t know,” is hopeful that “The Samuel Project” will be a success. “If it works,” jokes Linden, “this might be the first Holocaust comedy.”

Since there are so many variables that need to meld together to create a hit, Linden acknowledges he can only do his level best to authentically portray his character. 

Holding up his own end as Linden’s co-star is Ryan Ochoa, a San Diego native playing the role of aspiring artist and alienated teenager, Eli Bergman. This marks an important transitional role for the 21-year-old who is maturing out of the juvenile parts of his past that include Chuck Chambers in Nickelodeon’s teen sitcom “iCarly,” Lanny on Disney’s “Pair of Kings,” and an array of characters in Disney’s “A Christmas Carol” with Jim Carrey.

“Hal set the bar high from day one,” says the emerging actor, who is honored to be cast opposite Linden. Despite the 65-year age gap, the actors seem to have several threads that bond them in their roles, such as their eclectic acting experiences and family backgrounds. When asked on what level they found particular commonality, Ochoa mentions Linden’s openness to contemporary music, like the “hip-hop hype” that he and his three brothers compose for their band called “The Ochoa Boyz.” 

It is a mix of dance and rap, “so different from the music Hal knows, but still lets us connect in an interesting and fun way.”

Hal and Ryan also share a Jewish bloodline, although one that has been diluted in the latter’s case. Ryan considers himself a “mutt” – a unique blend of Mexican, Italian, Irish, Pilipino, and Russian Jewish ancestries. The young actor inherited the Jewish DNA from his great-grandfather, giving him a conduit into the psyche, culture, and idiosyncratic behaviors of that branch of his family tree.

“When our relatives gather for holidays and celebrations,” Ochoa says, “we eat a lot of Mexican and Jewish food, and share both cultures, stories and memories,” which has allowed him to immerse into the role of Eli with a certain degree of credibility. “I want to be a pro,” he continues, “and create the best product for all of us. It’s a team effort that Hal and I share.”

img_1656Head coach of the team, intrepid filmmaker and executive producer of “The Samuel Project,” Jeff Deverett has a reputation for making movies with inspiring messages. This one fits his M.O. on all counts except one – it’s filmed in San Diego, marking the filmmaker’s first foray shooting south of the 405. Although only 120 miles from Hollywood, our serene town by the sea has not been a magnet for film activity, which in turn makes it difficult to gather an experienced crew.

“However, on this particular project, the crew found me,” says Deverett. “The producers, Steve Weinberger and Rebecca Reyes needed help with financing and distribution for ‘The Samuel Project,’ heard about my background, and approached me for assistance.”

Deverett liked the project, and agreed to come on board to help make and sell the movie. Weinberger and Reyes had already assembled a talented cast and crew, and Deverett was thrilled to discover that filmmakers of this caliber existed in our piece of paradise. 

He then started rattling off the many perks for choosing San Diego over Los Angeles as a production venue, including its friendly and welcoming atmosphere, reduced congestion, greater ease of accessing locations, and a less competitive environment for equipment, crew, and other services – all enticing to independent producers and smaller productions.

“Now that I have discovered the filmmaking culture of San Diego, I am excited about the prospect of shooting many more independent feature films here,” says Deverett. “We are going to make San Diego a premiere destination for filmmakers from around the world.”

For now, watch for the promos of “The Samuel Project” this fall. Spoiler Alert: Like most Jewish themes, this movie has a healthy dose of guilt, suffering, humor, and – of course – food; and while I was told that the ending is sweet, I have a feeling it won’t be too schmaltzy. 

Catharine Kaufman is a nationally syndicated food columnist who writes under the moniker of “The Kitchen Shrink,” and also a journalist, author, and recovering attorney.

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