There’s a little-known fact about Emmy-nominated actor and San Francisco native Jeffrey Tambor.
When he was a kid, he wanted to be a cantor.
Tambor happened to walk past Congregation Beth Sholom in the city’s Richmond District (the future site of his bar mitzvah) on the day the Conservative synagogue was holding auditions for a new cantor. So he went inside and listened to the tryouts.
“I sat in the back and never heard anything like that,” Tambor, 64, says by phone from Southern California. “One after the other, the singing was so rich and so beautiful. It was very theatrical. Of course, I wanted to be a cantor instead of an actor — acting just has a little bigger audience.”
Today, Tambor is known not for his mastery of Torah trope but for his wide array of Broadway, film and television characters, most notably Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley from “The Larry Sanders Show” and George Bluth Sr. on “Arrested Development.”
On May 22, the six-time Emmy nominee will be back in San Francisco to accept the Alumnus of the Year award from San Francisco State University.
The award “is huge in my mind,” says Tambor, who lives in Topanga with his wife, Kasia, and their children, 4-year-old Gabriel and 2-year-old Eve. “First of all, I’m a teacher now, as well as an actor. I have a huge regard for S.F. State and a huge amount of thankfulness for the education I received. For $48 a credit, it was great. Plus, I lived right across the street.”
Tambor, a 1965 graduate, will be joined at a ceremonial dinner by retired teacher and former SFSU student body president Izzy Pivnick, who will receive the California State University President’s Medal, the highest award a CSU president can bestow. Pivnick, who sits on the advisory board of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California, led 2,000 students in a peaceful City Hall demonstration in 1946 that helped secure the land that is now SFSU’s permanent home.
Previous winners of the SFSU Alumnus of the Year award include NASA astronaut Yvonne Cagle, S.F. Mayor Willie Brown, E-Loan co-founder Chris Larsen and actress Annette Bening.
Tambor also is slated to speak at the school’s 108th commencement ceremonies on May 23. And he has been promised a tour of the campus, which, he’s been told, has changed quite a bit, just like the city he grew up in.
Born in the Sunset District, Tambor moved with his family to Daly City before returning to San Francisco to live in Parkmerced.
“I knew a whole different San Francisco,” recalls Tambor, who was born in 1944. “I was there during the beatnik era. I used to go to North Beach when I was a kid, and you could have a meal for a dollar. When I went to the wharf, it really was the wharf — my crab cocktail literally came off the boat.”
Tambor likes to say he was “bar mitzvahed at gunpoint.” He remembers being a rebellious 13-year-old with the “longest Haftorah of the year.” He jokes that, thanks to Rabbi Saul White, he can still recite his “entire bar mitzvah by heart.”
“It was drilled into me. It was my very first performance, the first time my name was in lights.”
Of course, no one’s first performance ever goes off without a hitch.
“I would go to say ‘amen’ after every brachah, but the cantor never told me that the whole congregation would say ‘amen’ after me,” Tambor recalls. “So it threw me so much that I stopped.”
Though his grandparents Yossel and Gertrude were Orthodox, Tambor didn’t follow in their footsteps. When he emceed the Jewish Image Awards in Beverly Hills five years ago, he joked that he’s so Reform he attends Temple Beth McPherson, where on Kol Nidre the cantor performed songs from “Pippin,” according to an account of the event in the L.A. Jewish Journal.
“I’m more of a bagel-y Jew than anything else,” he said in a j. article in 2004. “But I’m Jewish.
“In fact,” he added, “I do believe my stroke as an actor is Jewish. My humor is Jewish. My sense of paradox is Jewish. I grew up in a Hungarian Jewish family, so I have that sense of irony, that ability to turn tragedy into humor.”
Tambor’s fascination with performing started well before he stood on the bimah for his bar mitzvah. At age 8, he’d walk a few blocks to a theater on SFSU’s campus and watch the student actors rehearse.
He became friends with them, mesmerized by their ability to stop mid-scene, analyze every part and put it back together to create a production. “I sort of became a fixture there,” Tambor says. “They trusted me, we talked back and forth, and I knew it was something I always wanted to do.”
Tambor’s acting career has spanned nearly four decades. He first starred in small-screen roles on “Taxi,” “Kojak” and “Starsky and Hutch.” In the late ’70s, he made several appearances on “Three’s Company” and starred in his first film, “And Justice for All,” playing Al Pacino’s deranged law partner.
From 1992 to 1998, Tambor appeared on HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show” as Hank Kingsley, the insecure and uncouth sidekick to Sanders (Garry Shandling). Not only did Tambor garner four Emmy nominations for his Ed McMahon–like role on the show within a show, but his “Hey now” bellow became a catchphrase that still has legs today, more than a decade after the final episode.
He went on to earn two more Emmy nominations as George Bluth Sr., the patriarch of the dysfunctional Bluth family, and his off-kilter identical twin Oscar Bluth in Fox’s “Arrested Development,” which aired from 2003 to 2006.
In the first episode of that series, George is convicted of securities fraud and sent to prison, where he rediscovers Judaism after the sun casts an image of the Star of David on the cell wall.
While behind bars, he attempts to convert fellow inmates such as “Little Justice,” who becomes David Ben-Avram. He also fashions a kippah from the tongue of his shoe and records a series of self-help tapes.
“George Bluth is a great Darwinian character,” Tambor says. “He will do anything. He will hide out in an attic and bury himself as Saddam Hussein. Oscar was wacky. I got one character that’s straight and one that’s crazy, and I got to play them both in the same day.”
As for the highly anticipated “Arrested Development” film, with production rumored to begin later this year, Tambor remains tight-lipped except to say preparations are moving forward.
When he’s not acting, Tambor spends time at the Santa Monica Playhouse helping actors hone their craft, be it writing, directing or perfecting their technique. Teaching not only keeps him on his toes, he says, but also teaches him humility.
“Sometimes the students will do things and I can’t even touch that,” Tambor says. “There’s something exciting about those ‘aha’ moments. It’s a theme with me. I’ve always loved those ‘aha’ moments in my life — and in the classroom, it’s very exciting.”