Q&A: Hal Linden on ‘The Samuel Project’

 

Hal Linden, a stage and screen actor best known for playing the lead character in “Barney Miller” in the 1970s and ‘80s, chatted with the Chronicle about his new film, “The Samuel Project.”

“The Samuel Project” was part of the Milwaukee Jewish Film festival in October and it was set to show daily at North Shore Cinema in Mequon starting Thursday, Oct. 26. “The Samuel Project” is about a boy who wants to go to art school and seeks to tell the tale of his grandfather’s unknown past through art. It’s an unusually sweet and innocent Holocaust-related story.

Linden, 87, was born Hal Lipshitz, but changed his name decades ago. He saw “Linden” on a water tower in Linden, New Jersey and the rest is history.

Q: Could you tell me about your work with the Jewish National Fund?

I was enlisted about 20 years ago, my God, about 20 years now. They wanted me to become a national spokesman and I thought that was a good way to do something of value and I’ve been doing it ever since. I do a mission that I lead to Israel, oh around almost once a year … When you call to buy a tree, that’s my voice. I answer the phone.

Q: Is that ever strange for you? Do you ever call the Jewish National Fund offices and you’re telling yourself what number to press?

Sometimes that happens, yes indeed.

Q: What did you like about working on ‘The Samuel Project’?

I spent a lot of time working with the director on the script, much more so than any project I’ve ever been with. Normally in a film, they give you your pages, it’s done already. You don’t have any input in it. Because I was there and I expressed some reservations about certain things, it became a regular thing. The director came down to me and spent the whole day, working on a scene – what’s important in it? How can we lighten it up? The whole point, we finally realized, the enemy was lack of communication …. Nobody was angry at anybody. They just didn’t talk. We have no villains in this piece. Everybody’s just trying to make their way … We didn’t want to make it a Holocaust picture. First of all, you’ve had enough of those, I think. Second of all we did not have the budget to really do a Holocaust picture. It’s the boy’s story …. We kept it specifically light. Yes, it is a Holocaust story. Yes there are some people killed. But we didn’t want to make it a tragedy.

Q: I assume you’re a Zionist. Would you tell me about your Zionism? Why is Israel important to the Jewish people?

Yes … My father was an ardent Zionist … and was very involved in Zionist affairs. Which led to very interesting conversations between an ardent Zionist and an 8-year-old assimilationist. I grew up in the Bronx, New York and played stickball with my Irish and Italian friends and I had no need for another country. I didn’t see any need for it. And then World War II happened and all the events of World War II that we started to hear about at the end of the war. Actually, what really turned the corner on me was the British closure of (Palestine), not letting the (displaced persons) into Israel. They shipped them to Cyprus. If they’re going to keep telling us go back to where you belong, we better have a place to go back to.