- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

On a studio soundstage filled with friends and colleagues, Fyvush Finkel, 80, bends over his birthday cake, takes a deep breath and then breaks up the room with an off-color joke.
So what did you think? That Mr. Finkel would waste a moment in the spotlight just blowing out candles? Not a chance for this actor, who has spent every one of his many decades on stage or screen.
"That's my life. Today, I'm 80 years old. I don't feel it. I feel wonderful," Mr. Finkel says as he marked his Oct. 9 birthday at Raleigh Studios, where he films the Fox series "Boston Public."
"The main thing is the mind should be clear. The mind is clear," he says. "I don't use cue cards, thank God."
Mr. Finkel, who started in Yiddish theater at age 9, is grateful for that and more. There is his alliance with writer-producer David E. Kelley, who cast the then 70-year-old actor as a lawyer in "Picket Fences" and then hired him again in 2000 for "Boston Public" (at 8 tonight).
As history teacher Harvey Lipschultz, Mr. Finkel delivers his lines with a veteran's precise timing and an undiminished zest that younger performers, if they have an ounce of sense, must envy.
"He's such a spirit," Mr. Kelley says. "From the very beginning on 'Picket Fences,' he walks on the set and exudes this 'Aren't we lucky to be doing what we do?' "
"That attitude, that love of life, is just contagious. 'Picket Fences' and 'Boston Public' both have always been happy, happy sets, and I think he has something to do with that," Mr. Kelley says.

Mr. Finkel's punim Yiddish for face alone could do the trick, with its broad, mischievous smile and those ears propped at a just-so angle for optimum comic effect.
His long career began in 1930 when a production in his Brooklyn neighborhood was looking for a boy to sing "Oh, Promise Me." Recalls Mr. Finkel: "I stopped that show cold. They gave me a dollar a night."
In the vibrant Yiddish theater of the period, a solid performer could find steady work. Mr. Finkel, his eye on the prize and backed by his parents, studied singing, dancing and acting at a $1-a-week school.
Only adolescence interrupted the plan. "My father and my mother, rest in peace, told me to earn a trade just in case my other voice doesn't come," Mr. Finkel says.
A brief stint as a furrier did not pan out in a half-hour, "I ruined about $500 worth of material" and he found himself back on stage when his new, mature voice settled in.
He took a job with Yiddish theater in Pittsburgh just shy of his 18th birthday. "I thought, 'This is where I belong.' And I've been in the theater ever since."
Not just theater. As a comedian, Mr. Finkel worked steadily at resorts in New York's Catskills region.
"They didn't call it stand-up in those days. They called it a single. I did 50 hotels in a summer and only scratched the surface. They had 400 [resorts]. But it evaporated."
Yiddish theater faded, as well, its annual seasons dwindling from 40 to 14 weeks during Mr. Finkel's tenure. Then, in 1964, he was hired for the touring company of the Broadway hit "Fiddler on the Roof."
"I went to do 'Fiddler' for less money than I was getting in Yiddish theater, but I had to make the move. And it was the best move I ever made."
He joined the ranks of Yiddish-language actors including Molly Picon, Paul Muni and Herschel Bernardi who successfully shifted into mainstream entertainment.
"Others, unfortunately, were too steeped in what they were doing, were too comfortable to get out," Mr. Finkel says.

At age 60, after 12 years with various productions of "Fiddler on the Roof," he was cast in the off-Broadway musical "Little Shop of Horrors." That opened up movies and television for him, including "Brighton Beach Memoirs" (1986) and "Q&A;" (1990).
He relishes having worked with top directors such as Oliver Stone (in 1995's "Nixon"), but it is Mr. Kelley who he praises the most. "Impossible to get a genius better than that," says Mr. Finkel, who earned an Emmy for "Picket Fences."
The actor still weighs film roles but declines to audition. "I tell them, 'Take a chance. You're not buying a house.' I'll go to an interview. If it's a smart director, they can tell."
Sharing the whirlwind is his constant companion, wife Trudy. They live a bicoastal life, in New York City with their two sons and five grandchildren and great-children, in Los Angeles for work.
"This March, we live and be well, we'll be married 56 years," Mr. Finkel says.
"Not very long," Mrs. Finkel interjects.
"In Hollywood, it's the record," he says, supplying the punch line with a grin.
Any intention of bringing his career to a close?
"If you retire, you shrivel up. No doubt about it. We enjoy what we're doing. And that's how it goes."

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