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March 1999, Week 1


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 2 Mar 1999 12:42:16 -0600
TEXT/PLAIN (83 lines)
Roy Harvey Greenberg requests:

> for an upcoming article, I need both specific references and general thoughts
> about Jewish doctors, identified specifically as such   or identifiable by
> other means  in film and television (not literature)
> My own initial overview: most are psychiatrists or psychoanalysts, few appear
> before the Fifties; most are depicted as intellectual  compassionate
> politically left  alienated  outsiders  embittered  all or some of the above

In TV, one of the most obvious examples was Sam Jaffe's wise mentor,
Dr. Zorba (not Greek in this case), in BEN CASEY, M.D. He's the one who
began each show writing the symbols for "Man.  Woman.  Birth.  Death.
Eternity." (or something like that).

Although he was a crusading detective/medical examiner in QUINCY and
not a practicing family doctor or surgeon, Jack Klugman's ethnicity was
in some doubt (as was his first name, which I don't think was ever
revealed, although the IMDB lists the character as "R. Quincy").

In spite of the fact that ethnic issues often come into play in ER, I
don't recall a show that deals with Jewishness as such (but I watch
that only sporadically, so might have missed some).  On the other hand,
Aaron Arkin's character in CHICAGO HOPE has encountered his identity
several times in the series (but Mandy Patinkin seemed less identified
there--ironically, in that Patinkin is well-known for his recordings of
Yiddish songs, among other things).

Also see the episodes with Alan Arkush as the military shrink in MASH.

(And it might be interesting to contrast the Jewish settler family that
appears in some episodes of DR. QUINN, MEDICINE WOMAN!)

As to films, I do think that Hollywood tended to de-emphasize doctors'
ethnicity in pre-World War II films.  With obvious exceptions like
Huston's FREUD (played by Montgomery Clift, of all people!), the
stereotypical psychiatrists tend to be suave waspy types or
non-specific Middle-European (as with Michael Chekov's shrink in
Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND).  The earlier hero M.D.s tended also to be
WASPs, like Lew Ayres' Dr. Kildare or Jean Hersholt's Dr. Christian (no
comment!). Even with a Jewish actor like Edgar G. Robinson as the
conquerer of syphillis in DR. EHRLICH'S MAGIC BULLET or Paul Muni as
Louis Pasteur, Jewish identity either recedes or is irrelevant to the

On the other hand, Muni was a Jewish doctor in THE LAST ANGRY MAN in
1959 (one of his few specifically Jewish characters in film).

There are some exceptions, when the doctor is held up as an example of
assimilation into American culture, as in SYMPHONY OF SIX MILLION.  (I
suspect that J. Hoberman's book on Yiddish cinema, BRIDGE OF LIGHT,
could also provide contexts and insights.)

A surprising number of *women* psychiatrists can be found in film
descriptions, apparently quite a few more than are clearly defined as

As more specifically "Jewish" humor worked its way into pop culture in
the 1960s, there are more easily identifiable characters, jokes and
comments about Jewish doctors, Jewish psychiatriats, and so on.  Woody
Allen's films alone (including his insect shrink in ANTZ) provide a
trove of such types.

The warm, compassionate shrink is perhaps best exemplified by Judd
Hirsch in ORDINARY PEOPLE, but Robin Williams is supposedly of Irish
extraction in GOOD WILL HUNTING.

Of course, there are also doctors or psychiatriasts in a number of
films that deal with the Holocaust, as in the TV series HOLOCAUST,

Don Larsson

Donald Larsson
Minnesota State U, Mankato
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