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Arts & Culture for Producer of Hit Show ‘the O.c.,’ Jewish Background is Fertile Ground

June 17, 2005
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If Jewish elders are serious about reaching out to Jews between the ages of 13-17, they might consider hiring Josh Schwartz to write a script for them. Schwartz, 28, executive producer of “The O.C.” — that stands for Orange County, California — is the youngest producer ever to have a series on network television.

He also is one of the 50 most eligible bachelors in the United States, according to People magazine — but maybe not for long. Schwartz’s girlfriend, who is Jewish, just moved in with him.

“She’s Jewish, her mom’s Jewish and her dad converted; one for our team,” Schwartz said with a laugh.

Schwartz spent Passover at his girlfriend’s parents’ house, where he met the extended family at the seder.

“I sang ‘dayenu,’ ” he told JTA in an interview at his alma mater, Providence’s private Wheeler School, the day before giving the commencement speech for the class of 2005.

But don’t expect to hear Klezmer music anytime soon on “The O.C.”

“We already have Peter Gallagher,” the actor who portrays Sandy Cohen, “playing the singing Jew on the show,” Schwartz said.

And don’t expect many Jewish community leaders to come running to Schwartz, whose interfaith family on the show, the Cohens, invent “Chrismukkah” so they can celebrate both holidays and reap the most presents, without making anyone feel guilty.

Like Seth Cohen, a quick-witted, funny, sarcastic, self-proclaimed “wise ass” on “The O.C.,” Schwartz is filled with Jewish angst about life and failure and love that he doesn’t mind expressing in public. In New England vernacular, Schwartz is “wicked” funny, but also charming and gracious.

The character of Seth Cohen originally represented “my point of view of the world and my experiences,” Schwartz said. “Now the character has become so much of Adam Brody,” the actor who plays Seth Cohen. “I’ve passed the baton to him.”

Is Seth Cohen ever too neurotic?

“Maybe for America, but not for me,” Schwartz said.

In his Ralph Lauren shirt, blue jeans, Converse All-Stars and sunglasses hanging from his shirt, Schwartz projects a boyish earnestness. He seems like a 21st-century Woody Allen, with much hipper taste in music and hopefully with better morals.

Millions of young, mostly teenage girls crowd around the TV screens on Thursday nights, welcoming each episode of “The O.C.” as an intoxicating story of romance, heartbreak and mixed-up families. Father-son, brother-brother and mother-daughter dynamics abound, as do witty, quick, sarcastic remarks from Seth Cohen.

Alexandra, a 15-year-old fan from Cranston, R.I., has a pizza party with eight friends every time there’s a big episode. When her cell phone rings, it plays the show’s theme music.

For a computer literacy class in high school, Alexandra created a Powerpoint presentation about “The O.C.,” showing the characters’ complicated family tree.

For Alexandra, whose parents are divorced — her father is Jewish, her mother is not — part of the show’s attraction is the emotional intensity of the characters.

“It’s interesting to watch them,” she said. “The personalities — what happens between the characters, between the girls and the guys — are very realistic.”

For Schwartz, the emotional intensity of his high school experience still reverberates for him. His breakthrough script was about his senior year in high school.

In his recent commencement address at Wheeler School, he divided the world into those who compromise on their dreams and those who are true to themselves, often punctuating serious statements with one-liners.

“If you’re going to put yourself out there, put the real you out there,” Schwartz told the graduating class. “It’s your life; if you don’t want to go to med school, don’t go to med school. If you want to take a year off before you go to college, take a year off. You don’t want to have kids, then don’t have kids — just don’t be related to my parents.”

Schwartz said he draws a lot upon his Jewish background in his work.

“If you’re Jewish, that becomes a part of who you are as a human being. You’re disappointed that you didn’t have better TV shows during the holidays, and not being able to decorate your tree or have a tree,” he said.

At the University of Southern California, Schwartz said he was a member of a fraternity where he was “one of the only Jewish kids, if not the only Jewish kid, for a couple of years. You become acutely aware of your identity.”

Schwartz is realistic about the expected lifetime of “The O.C.”

“We have a couple of years in us. We’re so connected to primarily a young audience; it’s an audience that’s obviously fickle, and we’re never going to want to overstay our welcome,” he said. “But we’ve still got a couple of good years left in us.”

Schwartz ended his commencement speech by urging the graduates to believe in their dreams.

“If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone,” he said.

Perhaps the head of the school, Dan Miller, best summed up the positive force surrounding Schwartz.

During Schwartz’s visit to the school the day before, Miller said, he kept hearing students passing in the corridors, saying, “May the Schwartz be with you.”

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