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Friday, September 2, 2005 | return to: arts


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A ‘West Wing’ Jew close to the president

by curt schleier, correspondent

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It's the middle of August, and Joshua Malina does not know who the next president of the United States will be. He doesn't even know what he'll be doing during the campaign. "I wish I had the answer," he said.

This, of course, is no national crisis — unless you consider the upcoming campaign between Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits a matter of vital concern. The two will be duke it out this coming season on "West Wing," one of the most intelligent dramas on television. It returns Sept. 25 in a new time slot — 8 p.m. Sundays.

On the hit series, the 39-year-old plays Will Bailey, a former chief of staff for a dimwit vice president. Bailey will likely be central to the outcome of the election. but his specific role in the campaign has apparently not been decided — or at least not yet released for public consumption. "I've only filmed my bit of the opening episode," he said. "No one's more interested than I."

Bailey is just the latest high-profile role in a series of programs and films that invariably capture the hearts of critics and often the fans, too. It is a career that is testimony to the wisdom of his Jewish mother and, by extension, all Jewish moms.

When he graduated from college (Yale, B.A. in theater in 1988), "I was short on acting advice," he said on the telephone from Los Angeles.

Fortunately, advice was one of the many things at which his mother, Fran, excelled. Malina said, "My Jewish mother told me, 'You should call Aaron Sorkin.'" It was career-defining wisdom.

Malina grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., a suburb of New York City, and had known Sorkin peripherally. Sorkin and Malina's cousin had gone to high school together a few towns over.

Of course, back then, Sorkin was not yet the Aaron Sorkin. But Malina's timing was perfect. Sorkin was casting a new play that would catapult him to the top of the entertainment world.

That play was "A Few Good Men." Malina auditioned, but didn't get the part he wanted. But he landed an understudy role and began a professional association and personal friendship. (Malina says Sorkin has a Yiddishe kup that endures to this day.)

"A Few Good Men" was followed by a role in "The American President," "Sports Night," Sorkin's take on ESPN, and, now, of course, "West Wing."

"I've been very lucky as far as the actors I've worked with and the projects I've been in," he admits. "I actually did a play reading at Aaron Sorkin's house and Warren Beatty, Annette Benning and Garry Shandling were all there."

He said as a result of that reading he got offered "Bulworth" (a brilliant satire of the political process that starred Beatty and Halle Berry) and "Larry Sanders" (another brilliant satire, this one about late night talk shows that aired on HBO).

Malina has also been busy behind the camera. He's executive producer of "Celebrity Poker Showdown" on Bravo, a show in which a group of celebrities plays cards to raise money for its favorite charities. It was another case where timing was everything.

He's on a hot streak and, frankly, admits he's waiting for the other shoe to drop. "That's my nature," he says. "I've always been that way. But the truth is I'm much more blessed in my personal life."

He has a wife and two young children. "If another shoe has to drop, I'd rather it dropped in my professional life."

Malina has a strong sense of family. In fact, he was just back from Israel, where he visited the graves of his ancestors, who are buried just outside Jerusalem. "My great-great-grandfather moved here [to the United States] from Poland, but decided he couldn't be Jewish in this country, so he moved to Palestine."

Malina attended Westchester Day School, an Orthodox institution, even though his parents are Conservative. "They wanted me to have a solid Jewish education."

He's been very active in Jewish affairs, with the New Israel Fund, a progressive organization dedicated to promoting women's and Arab rights, and the Jewish federation. Besides donating, he often speaks for the federation.

He's also just appeared in a video aimed at high school age Jewish students to prepare them for the anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic climate they may encounter on campus. "It's to encourage them to arm themselves with facts."

Malina admits to sometimes being frustrated by the lack of participation in the Jewish community by Hollywood Jews. "I can't dictate someone's level of observance," he says, "but I'd like to see more Jews portray Israel in a more positive way ... I don't think they have to endorse any particular policy, but they should say the state of Israel has a right to exist."


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