Israeli actor plays Muslim terrorist in Showtimes Sleeper Cell

los angeles | In the upcoming Showtime television series “Sleeper Cell,” Tel Aviv-born actor Oded Fehr plays Farik, the leader of a Muslim terrorist cell who poses as a synagogue-going Jewish man.

Fehr savors the irony of the casting and plotline, but he was less enthusiastic when a producer initially approached him about the role.

“I told my agent I didn’t want to do it,” said Fehr, who at 34 has the tall, dark and handsome looks of an old-time Hollywood idol as he sits outside a Starbucks in Los Angeles.

After he read the script, Fehr changed his mind. “The writing was fantastic,” he said. “There was also the challenge — I have never played a role that was so far from me.”

As Farik, Fehr is chillingly convincing as the alternately menacing and personable leader of the multinational terrorist cell, plotting to spread havoc at some of the best-known L.A.-area landmarks.

Among the likely targets considered in the opening segment are the Los Angeles International Airport, the Rose Bowl, the UCLA campus and local nuclear facilities.

The latest recruit to the six-man cell is Darwyn (Michael Ealy), a young black man and devout Muslim, who is actually an FBI undercover agent.

He has infiltrated the cell by first posing as the inmate of a federal prison, and is steered to Farik by a fellow Black Muslim prisoner.

Darwyn first makes contact with Farik at a most unlikely place: Sinai Temple in Westwood, where the cell leader, wearing a yarmulke and tallit, poses as a regular worshipper.

He is so dedicated a congregant that he coaches the Sinai Maccabi girls’ softball team, wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with a large Star of David.

The other members of the cell are an odd lot, all Muslims but mainly non-Arab. Christian is a radical French skinhead, Ilija is a Bosnian whose family was killed by Serbians, Tommy is

an all-American boy rebelling against his Berkeley parents and Bobby is an Egyptian American.

As Darwyn’s love interest, Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller) adds a touch of romance to the macho drama.

The producers of “Sleeper Cell” are obviously striving for veracity, both by setting the cell’s meetings in such familiar locales as bowling alleys and children’s parks, and by hiring a Pakistani-born Muslim as one of the writers.

Whether juxtaposing “good” Muslims with “bad” Muslims and making most of the terrorists European and American will make the series attractive to U.S. television viewers remains to be seen.

Fehr is optimistic that the quality, tension and timeliness of the show will find an audience and carry “Sleeper Cell” over into a second season.

If so, it might prove a major break for the actor, whose Jewish mother and German father met in Israel.

At age 18, Fehr joined the Israeli navy and after discharge worked for two years as an El Al security guard.

After his parents separated, his father returned to Germany, and Oded joined him to work in his business in 1992.

On a whim, Fehr signed up for a drama class at an English theater in Frankfurt and went on to star in his first play, David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”

This initial success determined his career path and he moved to England and enrolled at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol for three years.

From there it was a short leap to the movies, playing the mysterious warrior Ardeth Bay in “The Mummy” and in the sequel, “The Mummy Returns.”

Six years ago, Fehr moved to Hollywood. Since then, he has acted in the sci-fi thriller “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo,” “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” and, most recently, “Dreamer.”

“Sleeper Cell” will air on the Showtime cable channel 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., Dec. 4 through Dec. 18.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent