Judd Hirsch: An Actor's Actor
Judd Hirsch is one of the hardest-working and understated actors of our time. Working in T.V. and film since 1971, Hirsch has amassed over 90 credits and shows no signs of slowing down. He has shared both the stage and screen with acting giants Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Russell Crowe, Donald Southerland, Mary Tyler Moore, Susan Sarandon, Shelly Winters, Cleavon Little, and Danny DeVito. Judd has also worked under such esteemed directors as Sidney Lumet, Robert Redford, Herb Gardner, Ron Howard, Noah Baumbach, James Burrows, and the Safdie brothers.
Judd Seymore Hirsch was born March 15, 1935, in The Bronx, New York City. His mother was a Russian Jewish Immigrant, and his father was of German Jewish and Dutch Jewish ancestry. Initially, Hirsch did not pursue acting. In fact, it wasn’t until he was in his thirties that he discovered his love for the profession. Shortly after high school, he majored in engineering and physics at City College of New York, followed by a tour in The United States Army. After serving, Judd began working as an engineer while finding his first work in the theater. It was then that he enrolled at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where he was part of the graduating class of 1962. After graduation, he began regularly working on stage, having his Broadway debut in Neil Simon’s crowd-pleasing Barefoot in the Park as the Telephone Man. During the late 1960’s he also started a comedy trio with Peter Boyle.
In the early 1970s, Judd started securing uncredited movie roles, including one in Sidney Lumet’s famous Serpico. Throughout the 1970’s he worked consistently in small roles on both stage and screen, landing a lead role in the short-lived TV crime drama Delvecchio. In 1977 he landed the lead role of George in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, directed by choreographer and director Herbert Ross. This show was a great success, and Hirsch stayed with the cast until 1978. Coincidently, 1978 was the same year the long-running, popular sitcom Taxi aired its first episode. The show was well received amongst audiences and ran five seasons with 114 episodes. Hirsch, along with Academy alumnus Danny DeVito (not the first time they worked together, they had appeared on stage together when DeVito played Hirsch’s dog), appeared in all 114 episodes.
Nineteen Seventy-eight also brought about the feature film King of Gypsies. The King of Gypsies put Hirsch in the role of Groffo, the vindictive father of David (played, in his film debut, by Academy alumnus Eric Roberts (Class of 1977)). Danny DeVito and Eric Roberts were not the only alumni Hirsch was to work with. Nineteen-eighty brought with it the acclaimed six-time Oscar-nominated film Ordinary People. Starring alongside Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Timothy Hutton as the family, Hirsch plays Doctor Berger, who is desperately trying to pull the son out of his depression. The film was directed by Academy alumnus Robert Redford (Class of 1959). Hirsch was nominated for “Best Actor in a Supporting Role.”
Throughout the 1980s, Hirsch continued to work diligently on and off the screen, with Taxi going strong until 1983. By the time the show ended, it had received 26 Golden Globe nominations with four wins and five nominations for Hirsch, as well as 35 Primetime Emmy Awards, with 17 wins. Hirsch was nominated five times, winning twice.
After Taxi ended, he had great success on Broadway in the two-person play I’m Not Rappaport. Hirsch played a feisty octogenarian opposite another Academy alumnus, Cleavon Little (Class of 1967).
Both took a great liking to each other, and when Hirsch won his Tony Award for the show, he insisted Little come up onstage to share the experience with him, saying, “I really feel very lonely out here because you can’t do a play like this without the other guy.” This was the beginning of a friendship that would last a long time. As a side note, Hirsch also called out famed Academy alumnus Hume Cronyn (Class of 1934), also nominated for “Best Actor in a Play,” during his acceptance speech, saying, “Mr. Hume Cronyn, I am in your debt for your life, for my life. Thank you for being the man you are.” The show ran from November 19, 1985, to January 17, 1988.
Hirsch was next seen on the big screen in Running on Empty, which was released in 1988, working again with Sidney Lumet in this crime drama about a fugitive family. The film was a critical success. Running on Empty once again proved that Hirsch was more than just a funny sitcom actor but rather an artist of depth.
That same year Hirsch got a leading role in the sitcom Dear John. The show won one Primetime Emmy Award in 1989 for “Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.” The actor was Judd’s long-time friend and fellow Academy Alum, Cleavon Little.
With Dear John ending in 1992, Hirsch explored an area he had yet to participate in, the summer blockbuster. Hirsch landed the role of Julius Levinson in the Roland Emmerich, Will Smith led Independence Day. A massive hit, Independence Day saw the world facing a new threat - aliens. It opened to mixed reviews from critics but was a smash hit with audiences, having a gross worldwide box office of around $817,000,000 since its release.
Hirsch returned to the small screen for the rest of the decade, landing a leading role in a short-lived comedy series with sitcom legend Bob Newhart. In March of 1992, he returned to Broadway in the triumphant role of Eddie Ross in Conversations with my Father. This role garnered Hirsch another Tony Award, winning “Best Actor in a Play.”
Ron Howard assembled a powerhouse cast of wonderful character actors for his 2001 biopic of genius mathematician John Nash - which, of course, would not be complete without the presence of Judd Hirsch. The film’s cast included Russell Crowe, in an Oscar-nominated performance; Jennifer Connelly, in an Oscar-winning performance; Christopher Plummer; Paul Bettany, Adam Goldberg, and Josh Lucas. The picture was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four, including ‘Best Picture.’
The 2000s were not much different than any other period of Judd’s career. He continued to work on stage, mostly in LA now and made one-off TV appearances. He landed another recurring role in 2005’s Numb3rs, which ran for 114 episodes over six seasons. When Num3ers went off the air, Hirsch refused to slow down and returned to the big screen in 2011 for the Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller-led heist movie Tower Heist.
When news broke that Roland Emmerich was developing a sequel to his blockbuster hit, Independence Day, fans went crazy. Then when it was announced that many of the original cast were set to return, fans grew even more excited. Of course, Hirsch had to be part of the production if it was going to be complete, and so he reprised his role as Julius Levinson in Independence Day: Resurgence. That wasn’t the only splash Hirsch made in 2016, as he also made a guest appearance on two episodes of the widely beloved sitcom The Big Bang Theory. He loves to recount the story of how he landed on the show, where one of the show’s stars Johnny Galecki, approached Hirsch at a fundraiser and asked him if he would like to be his dad because he felt like he could be Hirsch’s son.
In 2019 he took part in the Safdie Brother’s intense crime-drama Uncut Gems starring Adam Sandler. The movie was a smash hit with audiences and critics alike.
Still working consistently on television, he made guest appearances on Netflix’s Big Mouth and Amazon Prime Video’s Modern Love. In 2020 he returned to the role that he created in 2015 of Ben ‘Pop-Pop’ Goldberg for a few episodes on the family favorite The Goldbergs. He played real-life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in Amazon Prime Video’s Hunters, opposite Al Pacino.
This holiday season, you can catch Hirsch in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which opened everywhere on Thanksgiving day. The autobiographical film follows Sammy Fabelman in post-WWII America as he discovers a family secret and explores how the power of film can help him see the truth. Among The Fabelmans stacked cast of Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, and Seth Rogan, is Class of 1962 alumnus Judd Hirsch who plays “the wacky and art-loving Uncle Boris.”
Judd Hirsch is an “actor's actor.” He has conquered every medium, from TV to film to stage, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. He currently is still making appearances on The Goldbergs and has projects currently in development. Judd Hirsch is the kind of actor that all actors and actresses look up to, someone who has excelled in his craft and has always stood by what it means to be an artist.