Behind the Headlines: Hit Film ‘saving Private Ryan’ Features a Jewish Infantryman
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Behind the Headlines: Hit Film ‘saving Private Ryan’ Features a Jewish Infantryman

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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Hit film `Saving Private Ryan’ features a Jewish infantryman

When Steven Spielberg first saw Adam Goldberg in the ABC television series “Relativity,” the director scribbled a three-word memo to himself: “intense, funny, Jewish.”

Out of this thumbnail description grew Goldberg’s role as Pvt. Stanley Mellish, the Jewish infantryman in “Saving Private Ryan.” The unflinchingly realistic Word War II movie, starring Tom Hanks, has opened to widespread critical superlatives.

It’s also been the top-grossing movie in America since it opened late last month.

Goldberg’s role has been warmly embraced by Hollywood Jews, who thank him “for representing us so well.” Jewish newspapers call for interviews, most of which he declines.

The adulation makes Goldberg uneasy. He abhors the idea of being stereotyped as a “Jewish” actor. “I want total latitude in my work,” he says during a 90- minute interview at his girlfriend’s home in the Hollywood Hills.

To keep the record straight, he also points out that according to halachah, or Jewish law, he is not Jewish. His father is Jewish, but his mother is a non- practicing Catholic.

Ironically enough, it was his mother, who enrolled him in Jewish day school at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Calif., which he attended from first to sixth grade.

The experience “pretty well burned me out on the religious aspect of Jewishness,” he says. Indeed, he refused to have a Bar Mitzvah.

“I felt that unless I really believed in what I would be saying, then everything was a sham and in a sense disrespectful to the religion,” he says.

Yet, at a crucial point in his career, Adam rejected the option of jettisoning his Jewish-sounding name. Shortly before starting work on the 1993 high-school film “Dazed and Confused,” he decided to anglicize his family name. But at the last second, he decided against the change.

Why? “The idea just made me uncomfortable,” he says.

When Goldberg auditioned for “Saving Private Ryan,” he had not seen a script, and the character of Pvt. Mellish did not yet exist. Goldberg was trying out for was the role of Pvt. Reiben, the rebellious non-Jewish soldier from Brooklyn, N.Y., which ultimately went to Edward Burns.

Goldberg first saw the Mellish role just three weeks before the start of shooting when “someone surreptitiously slipped me the script,” he says.

Even after he won the role, the film itself almost fell apart.

When Goldberg and the seven other men in his infantry squad arrived in England in June 1997, they were met by ex-Marine Capt. Dale Dye, a man “with the coldest and steeliest-looking eyes I had ever seen,” recalls Goldberg.

Dye proceeded to put the “recruits” through a hellish boot-camp training. After four days of intensive drills in a constant rain, practically no sleep in soaked pup tents and ailments ranging from fever and blisters to vomiting, the actors rebelled.

Seven of the “soldiers” decided to quit the film. Only Tom Hanks dissented, telling the men they would regret their decision 25 years later. Hanks asked for a second vote.

This time, the majority decided to stick it out. Goldberg cast one of the two dissenting votes. “I knew how the vote would go, but I wanted to make may point,” he says. “I felt I owed that much to my integrity.”

Even during the film’s shooting, the character of Pvt. Mellish changed. “It started out as a wise-ass, tough Jewish kid,” says Goldberg. “Then it became this real obtuse guy, the butt of jokes. Finally, we went back to the wise-ass kid.”

In contrast to earlier wartime books and films, such as the 1958 film “The Young Lions,” which stressed anti-Semitism in the U.S. Army, “Private Ryan” takes Mellish’s Jewishness for granted.

There are only three brief incidents, all initiated by Mellish, to show that he is a Jew, and one has to pay fairly close attention to catch them.

The first comes right after the opening D-Day invasion sequence, when one of Mellish’s friends finds a decorated Hitler Youth knife and hands it to him. Mellish looks at it, jokes “Now it’s a Shabbas challah cutter” and then breaks down and cries.

In the second incident, during a close combat scene, a German soldier hurls odd insults — “Babe Ruth is a Jew” — and Mellish yells back, “Your priest was circumcised by my rabbi.”

Finally, in the most affecting of the three incidents, Mellish confronts a line of German prisoners of war, pulls out a Star of David rubber-banded to his dog tags, shoves it into a German’s face and repeats, “Ein Jude, ein Jude, ein Jude.”

Goldberg, who at 27 looks younger and skinnier than on screen, has a busy upcoming schedule. He will next be seen in the Ron Howard film, “ed TV,” and he has an exclusive deal with ABC to develop and star in his own television series.

Goldberg plans to continue acting, but wants to focus on writing and directing his own films. His neo-noir “Scotch and Milk,” a jazz-laden movie, shot in black-and-white, that was recently screened at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.

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