Jeremy Paul Kagan & The Chosen

The Chosen DVDJeremy Paul Kagan knew that working on The Chosen, his 1981 film of Chaim Potok’s best-selling novel, would be something special.

Set in 1940s Brooklyn, Potok’s book told of the friendship between a Hasidic Orthodox Jewish teen (played by Robby Benson) and his pal (Barry Miller), a conservative Jew with more secular views about religion. The book also showcased the differences between their two fathers: a tough, old school rabbi (Rod Steiger) and a college professor (Maximilian Schell) active in Zionist causes, which the rabbi disapproves of.

Kagan related closely to the story because his father was a rabbi—albeit of a reform congregation—in Mount Vernon, New York, where the filmmaker grew up.

Although released nearly 30 years ago in theaters and now being reissued on DVD, Kagan thinks he is not the only one who holds The Chosen near and dear to him.

“This film has had a life expectancy beyond what anyone thought,” says Kagan from his Los Angeles home. “This is a compliment to everyone involved in making the movie, and to Chaim Potok’s book.”

“I think about what movies have had their time, and which have lived generations after their initial production. There’s something Chaim touched on that resonates with people all the time.”

According to Kagan, the issue that has struck a note with people who’ve embraced The Chosen is simple and complicated at the same time. “It’s the issue of friendship and what you believe in terms of tolerance of other people’s beliefs. These are themes we deal with everyday. How do you keep your friends? What happens when you disagree? And what happens when people close to you don’t communicate with you? That happens all the time. And what do you believe in besides yourself? That is a theme that hits us all, too. Do you have a sense of a higher power, and do you go through rituals that remind you of that connection? And how does that struggle work with you, and the issue of how to tolerate differences—this is going on today in American politics. And there’s the issue of not being able to tolerate how this government is run.

“That is why the picture has a resonance in the present,” says Kagan, 65, now a tenured professor at the University of Southern California’s famed film school.

Getting The Chosen produced was “very difficult,” he says, even though Potok’s novel, written in 1967, became a huge crossover hit around the world. Originally, Kagan—who was gaining steam in his career for such efforts as the TV movies Katherine, a fictionalized version of the Patty Hearst story, and  Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, set in seventh century China, and features like The Big Fix with Richard Dreyfuss and the Vietnam-themed Heroes—passed on the project when it came to him in script form. Then it was resubmitted to him when new producers Edie and Ely Landau, who worked on The Pawnbroker, got a hold of the property. Kagan read the book in one night and thought he may want to get involved, especially since he discovered the producers had already approached Steiger and Schell for the roles of the boys’ fathers.

Kagan admits he was intimidated by Steiger at first. “We set up a meeting at a restaurant,” Kagan recalls. “He had an opinion about how it should be played, based on his experiences in Israel. He said some of these people are so fanatic. He made a gesture like a Mussolini fascist salute, and he thought the rabbi character should be very authoritarian. But that’s not who this character is. He’s a man who had his family killed and was able to survive. Then Steiger realized he was looked at as a spiritual leader, and helped other people, and they were devoted to him as a person who could help them on all levels of their lives. And he also realized the dangers of fascism, and that it was important for him to establish a small community in America.”

Even with two of the leads in place, the production had trouble finding funding. Eventually, The Chosen was bankrolled by Israeli tycoon Meshulam Riklis, best known at the time as the husband of actress/singer Pia Zadora. Everyone involved took smaller payments to get the film done on a $3 million budget, a meager amount even 30 years ago, especially for a period movie.

“I thought we were going to make the film in Canada,” says Kagan. “I went to Montreal and Toronto and looked around. It just didn’t look like Brooklyn. We had to shoot in New York.”

Kagan eventually got his wish when the Teamsters gave the production a break on their fees. “This gave the whole piece a special verisimilitude,” relates Kagan, who says the film was shot on a quick 30-day schedule.

Production finally started eight months after Kagan’s first meeting with Steiger. The actor, who was quite heavy at the time of the meeting, had lost 30 pounds and grew a beard for his role.

“I wanted Rod to be exposed to some of the great Hasidic groups of New York,” says Kagan. “Naturally, he wore a black fedora. He had a beard and I took him on a Friday night to meet the rebbe in New York. People are looking at him and staring at him. They thought he was the rebbe!”

Casting Robbie Benson, then known for his sensitive roles in films like Ice Castles and One on One, was another story all together. “It was a tough part to cast,” says Kagan. “The character has internal rage, and yet has to be rigid in the way he behaves—a rigid exterior and raging interior.

Robby Benson called me and I thought he was too sweet, a gentle soul. I needed somebody who is dangerous. His agent called me back and said he’d like to meet you. He (Benson) comes over and rings the doorbell. I open the door and he grabs a hold of me by my lapels and holds me, then yells, ‘You don’t think I have this inside me!’ And I said, ‘You’re the guy!’”

The film came out to mostly positive reviews and solid business, playing for months in some theaters. A small distributor handled its release after Columbia toyed with assuming distribution, but backed off at the last minute. (Fox later picked up the distribution rights).

“The company that picked it up was Analysis Films,” recalls Kagan. “It was called that because its two partners were in analysis for 20 years. Another film they distributed was Caligula.”

And what did author Chaim Potok think of the cinematic translation of his popular book?

“When the film was done and he saw it, his comment was ‘It’s been translated into 20 languages and this is the best translation,’ says Kagan.

The film also had a strong affect on Kagan. “Since the film was about a boy’s relationship with his rabbi father, I saw it in many ways as a reflection of my relationship with my rabbi father,” he says.

Kagan’s father was the first clergyman in the state of New York to also be certified as a psychotherapist. The filmmaker believes the movie helped get him closer to his Jewish roots. “The Reb Saunders character (played by Steiger) became another side of me because of issues I was dealing with in time,” he relates.

Kagan, who wrote his thesis on Sergei Eisenstein at Harvard University, has a Masters from New York University and was an early attendee of the American Film Institute, has made it a point to tackle projects that have impacted people in different ways. He’s never steered cleared of controversy or digging into social issues or politics, in either his film or TV projects.

For example, Kagan’s 1977 Heroes was one of the first films to deal with the Vietnam War. It starred Henry Winkler as a vet with post-traumatic stress syndrome who escapes an institution and heads out on the road, where he meets a woman about to be married (Sally Field) and another vet (Harrison Ford).

“The reason I had made the film was I thought it was important dealing with returned veterans and the Vietnam War and a specific political position,” says Kagan. “I didn’t even know the film was a giant financial hit until later—it turned to be one Universal’s top hits of the year.

“Henry was a lot of fun to work with, and we made Katherine together,” says Kagan about Winkler, whose Happy Days fame was at its peak at the time. “Wherever he went, he was surrounded by thousands and thousands of people. That was overwhelming.”

As for casting Ford in Heroes, Kagan claims that “they (Universal) didn’t care who the third lead was. I met him and I wasn’t sure, I had some doubts because he was very quiet. I decided he was right. He went off to Arkansas to prepare for the film.

“My lawyer represented George Lucas, and I remember going to the lawyer’s office before we were shooting. I remember seeing some black and white stills from Star Wars long before it was released, and I said ‘This had to be amazing.’”

Kagan recalls a huge storm that drenched many extras while the Heroes shooting in Pentaluma, California had to shut down. “I asked Henry and Sally to address the kids who were in the film,” he relates. “The crowd went wild when they came to talk to them—non-stop cheering and applause. Harrison was sitting in the back, soaked. I told Harrison, ‘This is going to be you soon.’ He shook his head ‘no.’ He thought Star Wars was just a bad sci-fi film at the time.”

The success of Heroes, the theatrical release granted to the TV movie starring Billy Dee Williams as ragtime composer Scott Joplin, and critical kudos for The Chosen led Kagan to tackle a highly commercial project at the behest of his agent.

The project turned out to be The Sting II, the 1983 sequel to the Oscar-winning Newman-Redford smash The Sting. Although written by David Ward, who won an Academy Award for his original screenplay for the original, the movie fizzled with critics and at the box office.

Still, it afforded the director a unique opportunity to work with the Great One—Jackie Gleason—which proved fascinating in unexpected ways.

“It was the waning of Gleason’s career, although he did do one terrific film after The Sting II (Nothing in Common),” says Kagan. “He was amazing in many, many ways. He had a photographic memory. And I didn’t really explore it, but he was totally into the paranormal.

“I visited him in Florida, and he had an entire library only about the paranormal. He got every magazine about it. He told me that since he was a teenager, whenever he met anybody, he knew what would happen to them in all aspects of their lives. This gift was so difficult for him that he had to train himself not to do this.”

Kagan says Gleason’s expertise in the paranormal didn’t end there. When Kagan was offered an opportunity to direct the 1994 HBO film Roswell with Kyle MacLachlan, Gleason’s name came up again. Both Barry Miller (co-star of The Chosen) and an HBO executive spoke to Kagan about Gleason’s obsession with UFOs and aliens to him before he shot the movie.

Kagan learned that Gleason and Richard Nixon were golfing buddies, and when Nixon realized his presidency could be ending because of the Watergate issues, he and Gleason took a special nighttime trip to Homestead Air Force Base in Homestead, Florida.

“The story I was told was that they found evidence of a UFO crash and the bodies of aliens,” says Kagan. “Nixon consulted Gleason about aliens and UFOs right before he left office. He (Nixon) had planned to release some of top secret information the government held about the subject.”

Since The Sting II, Kagan has alternated movie and TV projects. For the big screen, he helmed such films as The Journey of Natty Gann for Disney, the comedy Big Man on Campus, and, most recently, Golda’s Balcony, an adaptation of William Gibson’s one-woman play about Golda Meir, starring Valerie Harper. For TV, he’s called the shots for such socially conscious TV movies as The Trial of the Chicago 8, Courage with Sophia Loren, and Crown Heights, about the 1991 riots in Brooklyn. He’s also directed hours of TV series such as Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, The West Wing and Picket Fences.

But with his varied career—and his current work at USC where he heads the Change Making Media Lab, working on advocacy projects and documentaries—Kagan always goes back to The Chosen as a film that has held a special place for him.

“It’s had a life of its own,” says Kagan of The Chosen. “A woman who saw it says she hadn’t talked to her mother for seven or eight years, but it helped them reconnect.”

“A Lubavitch leader asked (at the time) if this movie was good for the Jews and he realized it was being genuine. Orthodox Jews are often caricatures. I wanted to respect, reflect and humanize a specific group, and I believe we accomplished that.”