25 October 2009

Lou Jacobi

Look up the beach. Look down the beach.
Do you see one Chinese?

I never met the Canadian actor Lou Jacobi, though I once spotted him at a bus stop in Manhattan. At six-two or so, he was much taller than I’d expected, and perhaps shy: for when he saw me looking at him, he tried to recede into the shelter, to make himself invisible. But there was little chance I’d fail to notice the man who made me want to be Jewish, and whose performances set in motion the long and ongoing process of my judeophilic cultivation.

Jacobi’s resonant voice made some consonants linger whole minutes after he’d finished pronouncing them. This made his delivery memorable, and it elevated even flat or silly dialogue to the status of genius. He wore fatigue and disappointment like body parts that could not be shrugged off. Though he could moderate his accent, it remained unmistakably Northeastern and Jewish, and it elicited nostalgic affection from more assimilated audiences. They might not get along with their real-life uncle Lou, but this stage-and-screen one they could embrace.

He’s probably best known for his delicate, honest, and howlingly funny performance as the transvestite in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex — the rare role that doesn’t rely on his speaking voice to make its impact. On Broadway, Jacobi also appeared in The Diary of Anne Frank opposite my beloved Jack Gilford, and he replaced Jack in the series of comedy albums that introduced me to his work. When You’re in Love, the Whole World Is Jewish taught me the meaning of the word shtick. Among other things.

As a baby, my first word was “Oy” (though among my Texan relatives, only my father recognized it as a word). Over time, many other artists and many more friends would build on that foundation, sharing with me their culture, and at last adopting me. But Jacobi was the first.


amanda stevenson said...

Lou jacobi taught me the funniest joke I ever heard waaaaay back in the late 60's. In 2008 I told the joke on a bus, and when I got off the bus there was Lou Jacobi. He said, "I don't remember the joke! Tell it to me." He laughed so hard that his attendent said, "I have never seen him laugh so hard!" William Wolf told me, "Lou Jacobi taught me a joke too." And William Wolf's joke was just as funny as mine. Lou didn't just tell a joke, he wanted to teach you how to tell it right! I loved him.

William V. Madison said...

What wonderful memories of Lou Jacobi — and don't I regret not speaking to him at the bus stop!

But what were the jokes?