Klannish Behavior


"Klan-destined" is how Steve Aronson describes his acting career. Since the limelight lured him away from legal work in 1980, he’s played both sides of the law, beginning with a Ku Klux Klan leader in Spike Lee’s "Malcolm X."

He’s been cast as a "mean prison guard" in John Waters’ "Cry Baby," a Southern sheriff on TV’s "Matlock" and a slew of cops and crooks, including numerous appearances on "America’s Most Wanted." New York travelers may recognize his mug from airport posters warning against unlicensed limousine drivers.

"Somebody’s got to play the bad guy," a smiling Aronson, 56, told The Jewish Week with a mild drawl.

Now, after a four-year acting hiatus, the transplanted New Yorker has returned to his roots: in a way. He’s playing a Klan leader in "Conversations with a Kleagle," which premieres at the Workshop Theater Company, 312 W. 36th St., through Aug. 16. (Call [212] 695-4173 for tickets, $15.)

In person, Aronson seems more salesman than Klansman, but clearly he’s able to convey some of the Southern aura he absorbed growing up in Lynchburg, Va.

"I know these characters," the blue-eyed, heavy-set actor said. "I’ve seen them in movies. I know them from my hometown. It’s a re-creation inside me. I become that person."

In "Conversations with a Kleagle," Aronson will have to become a kleagle, or recruiter for the KKK. The play’s title refers to an interview conducted with the racist leader by Walter White, an African-American journalist from Chicago who in the 1920s passed himself off as a white man in order to infiltrate the Klan in Louisiana. White went on to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The kleagle winds up "the most hated man in the parish," Aronson said.

Growing up, Aronson was an active athlete, which he said helped shield him from the anti-Semitism endured by some Jewish classmates. The son of a New York-trained actress, he grew up helping his mother read lines for community theater productions and did some acting in high school. Aronson He pursued law as a captain in the army JAG corps and as an attorney for the federal government before his switch to the professional stage. In 1999 he returned to legal work at New York City’s welfare agency.

Aronson’s talent for embodying misanthropy has sometimes made for uneasy encounters. Auditioning for Spike Lee, for example, required him to stare into the director’s eyes while spewing racial epithets. "He was trying to see if I’m the guy he wants to hate," Aronson recalled.

Discomfort returned when Aronson was cast opposite James Woods in the HBO film "Citizen Cohn." In his first Jewish role on film, Aronson played Judge Irving Kaufman, who ultimately sentenced Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to death for spying.

"I felt really bad about that," Aronson said.