Carol Kane, a Legendary Comic Scene Stealer, on Her Roots in Drama
David: The movie Hester Street came out in 1975, but it was filmed in black and white, set in the 19th century with dialogue in Yiddish to accurately reflected setting in the lower east side of Manhattan. A restored version of the film is in select theaters now, and it's going to be available for streaming soon. Hester Street was directed by Joan Micklin Silver and Carol Kane played the role of Gitl, the naive young immigrant from Russia.
Speaker 2: To have a son, a man must dim the light.
Gitl: If you can get.
Speaker 2: The one that I would ask? What if she would say no?
Gitl: What if she would say yes?
Speaker 2: What are you doing?
Gitl: I'm saying yes.
Speaker 2: Thank you.
Gitl: You're welcome.
David: Carol Kane was nominated for an Oscar for that role, but she's far more familiar to us as a character actor, as a comic. This is a woman who could steal a scene with her eyes closed. She's been doing that in shows from Taxi, Cheers, and Seinfeld to a starring role in the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Carol Kane sat down with the New Yorker's Michael Shullman who covers entertainment for the magazine.
Michael: I first want to tell you that my sister and I grew up obsessed with Scrooged and we would quote your lines to each other as the Ghost of Christmas Present. We were just completely enamored
Carol: Thank you, it was the great part I had.
Carol: Well, I'll tell you it was awfully fun, although I don't know if it was so fun for Bill.
Frank Cross: Why did you do that?
Ghost of Christmas Past: Sometimes you have to slap them in the face just to get their attention.
Frank Cross: Fine, slap me in the face, but you kicked me in the ball.
Ghost of Christmas Past: Hush Frank, it's time to begin our journey.
Michael: I always think about you, Carol, as the quintessential comedic character actress. I was wondering, when you were starting out as an actress, is that how you thought of yourself or did you have some other plan in mind for your career?
Carol: Well, that's not how it was when I started out. I started out as a dramatic actress. My first movie was with Mike Nichols directing and Jack Nicholson.
Michael: Carnal Knowledge?
Carol: That's right, and then The Last Detail, which was also a drama with the great Hal Ashby and, again, Jack. Then I stared in a Canadian movie named Wedding in White which was very dramatic and tragic, based on a true story. Then Hester Street, which was a drama. My first comedic role was with Gene Wilder in The World's Greatest Lover. I had never done anything comedic. That was a complete surprise.
Michael: Hester Street seems to be such an unlikely movie to exist at all. It's a black and white movie made in the 1970s. It's also directed by a woman, Joan Micklin Silver, which was extremely rare, even in the fabled new Hollywood of the 1970s. Your part is mostly in Yiddish. Can you tell me a little bit about how you learned to do that? Did you know Yiddish before that at all? Did you grow up with relatives speaking Yiddish?
Carol: I did not because my grandparents came from Russia and Austria. My grandmother believed that she was American and she clung to that and basically refused to speak Yiddish to me at all. I really learned it by repetition, repetition, repetition with this teacher, an actor from the Yiddish theater. I just worked really hard.
Michael: Well, it sounds like your grandmother was very different from the character you played, Gitl, because she embraced assimilation into America.
Carol: Very much so.
Michael: While Gitl really resisted throughout the whole movie. She doesn't want to change. She doesn't want to stop wearing her traditional wig.
Carol: The sheitel.
Michael: So much of the movie is really a window into the question of Jewish assimilation. That's been a conflict that really has played out through a lot of American Jewish life. I was wondering if that resonated with you and your experience growing up?
Carol: We were not religious, my immediate family, my father, and mother. We barely ever went to temple or anything. I have some real regrets about that. I wish I was more learned about the path of the Jews and the religion, the Torah. I wish there had been more tradition, although I don't place blame on my parents for not having more tradition. I think some people rebelled against tradition in order to be more in the modern world, I guess, and be less separate maybe. Now I'm, as you may or may not know, I'm part of a show called Hunters on Amazon Prime.
That show is all about hunting Nazis that live in America in the 1970s, which is all based on the truth. When I watch what I watch to learn about that period, it's so unimaginable what happened. I can certainly understand that many Jews would want to back off from the intensity of their religion and what happened and be in a more neutral position in society. To some degree, you could say it was self-protective and wise because they didn't want to be targeted again.
Michael: I think when you kept saying tradition, tradition, over and over again, it occurred to me that Hester Street could be seen as a sequel to Fiddler on the Roof. This is what happened to all those people when they come to America and have to figure out, can they still hold on to their traditions?
Carol: That's so interesting. No one's ever mentioned that before, but I think that you're right. Could be.
Michael: This was just an incredible year at the Oscars. It was the year of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Nashville and Jaws and Dog Day Afternoon, which you're also in, as one of the hostages,
Carol: Louise Fletcher is the one who won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Michael: It was just an incredible year of great movies. What do you remember about going to the Oscars that year?
Carol: Just it was so crazy. It's just so crazy to find myself at the Academy Awards. Then Aldredge, the great costume designer who's no longer with us, she designed me a dress for free.
Michael: I was actually going to ask you about your Oscar look because it is incredible. Anyone listening to this needs to Google Carol Kane Oscars and see your full look. You had this incredible nimbus of hair with flowers in it and gothy makeup.
Carol: I always had that makeup because it was the silent movie stars wore that makeup and that's a period that I was in love with. It just seemed normal to me.
Michael: You were modeling yourself on Mary Pickford or something with that big hair?
Michael: I can see that.
Carol: My biggest regret was that I didn't win for Max Bergen. I have to be honest, I would have liked to win for me too, but for Max. When you get nominated and then I was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, but I was collecting unemployment while staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel doing the publicity. I get hundreds of interviews and people send me flowers and the phone rings off the hook, nonstop. It's like a real flurry. Then the next morning, having not won, I think I literally picked up the phone to see if it was working or not because the silence was so conspicuous. Nobody called, no more flowers, no more nothing. Then the phone rings and it's Jack Nicholson.
Michael: He had just won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Speaker 2: He called me the next morning, and he calls me Whitey, and said, "Whitey, I'm going to pick you up and take you to lunch." Then he and Angelica, who they were a couple at the time, they came and picked me up and they took me to El Cholos, a Mexican restaurant, and we had lunch. That was such a saving grace for me. He knew what that morning was like because he'd had that morning. He knew what it was like to feel abandoned rather abruptly. [chuckles]
Michael: You mentioned before how your comedic career really came after this movie. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how that happened because you're nominated for this really dramatic role, in Yiddish, and then your career really took a different turn of being this mad cap comic character actress.
Carol: It's a turn that has offered me a lot of happiness and a lot of sadness. After being nominated, I did not work for a solid year. The phone, it stayed dead.
Carol: Nothing came my way.
Carol: I think maybe because the role had been so specific, and there were no other roles like that. There is that thing about typecasting, which you're talking about when you say, people think of me as comedic character woman. I didn't work, and I didn't work, and then about a year later I got a phone call out of the clear blue sky from Gene Wilder, who offered me this role in The World's Greatest Lover, of the leading lady. Just offered it to me, and it was a comedy. He saw something in the performance of Gitl that he felt would be right for Annie, the character I played in The World's Greatest Lover.
Annie: What time is your screen test tomorrow?
Speaker 2: 4:30.
Speaker 2: 4:30. Oh, no.
Annie: Oh darling, it's nothing.
Speaker 2: I'm tutoring. One, two, three.
Annie: It's nothing. It'll go away. You're just a little bit-- You're nervous.
Speaker 2: I'm not nervous. You got--. You're the one who got me upset.
Annie: We better just drop this subject.
Speaker 2: Don't counter what I say, and say can't tell me.
Annie: Maybe we just should say that word anymore.
Speaker 2: What word?
Annie: Screen test.
Speaker 2: Why not?
Carol: Then, I got offered the role in Taxi, which was just a guest star episode type of thing. In those days, people that did movies didn't do TV, or if they did it meant they had taken a step down. I knew that Jack Gilford had appeared in Taxi, and I loved and adored Jack Gilford as a person. I thought, "If Jack can do it, I can do it." I took that role--
Speaker 3: Sit down. What do you do?
Simka: I work at the racetrack. They have a rake which goes around and cleans up after the horses, and they need people to sit on it to make it heavy. I am the one in the middle.
Speaker 3: I told you that America is the land of opportunity.
Carol: I loved the comedy I've been able to do, but typecasting is limiting because that means you only play one type. It's limiting to only do comedy, or only do drama. It's really nice to have the holistic provision of work happening. It's strange, but not to quote the most quoted, but I must quote it because it's the most quotable. As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
Michael: [laughs] Carol, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really great to chat with you, and I hope the people get to see Hester Street.
Carol: Me too. Thank you, Michael.
David: The New Yorker's Michael Schulman speaking with Carol Kane. The restoration of Hester Street is in select theatres now and look for it in streaming services too.
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