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ROBERT EPSTEIN

Leo Fuchs Tries on a New Mask of Laughter

August 15, 1991|ROBERT EPSTEIN

In our different ways we are all one-man, one-woman shows.

We play out our roles, take our falls, get up again and wait for the flowers. The applause, too.

Then there's Leo Fuchs, a professional one-man show himself. His long life has been a succession of singular performances--so many years ago as a 5-year-old playing a bearded midget on a Polish stage, two years ago alone at Pasadena's Ambassador Auditorium, more recently as one of the Krichinsky brothers in the movie "Avalon."

You want to know my age? Look at my face and read between the lines.

Now in his West Hollywood home, Fuchs struggles with possibly one more one-man show, a show with totally different purposes from the ones of the past.

When Fuchs' wife of 40 years, Rebecca, died of leukemia earlier this year, his grief was so deep he couldn't bear attending her funeral. For weeks he was in depression so deep that the urgings of his son and his theater friends, including Stella Adler, went unheeded.

The death more recently of his longtime friend, the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, only deepened his personal sense of loss.

Now Fuchs is beginning to put down the actor's mask of tragedy. He is trying on, once again, the mask of laughter. With stops and starts he is fashioning a one-man show as a tribute to his wife by working out his grief as well as creating a tribute to the 110 years of Yiddish theater and its contributions to the American stage.

I am a funny man who doesn't always feel funny.

We need to hold onto such national treasures as Leo Fuchs. Long before the current wave of single-actor productions--Eric Bogosian's, Spalding Gray's--Fuchs had refined the theater's version of the grand-slam-hat-trick-triple-double.

His art is multiculturalism of the old school. Remembered pieces of pre-World War II Polish and Yiddish theater. A trip back to New York's Second Avenue. Broadway musicals. London comedies. He is Herr Schultz in "Cabaret" and Fagin in "Oliver!" A cowboy from Israel and a millionaire from Delancey Street.

He is probably the last remaining star of an immigrant American theater that produced geniuses in all aspects of the performing arts.

I'm not interested in chuckles from audiences. I prefer going to the jugular. Chuckles don't sell. It has to be belly laughs.

In trying now to work himself out of his depression, Fuchs is also working through a historical period in American theater that he feels needs some remembering.

He is a product of early 20th-Century European theater. Fuchs' parents were actors in the Polish-Yiddish theater. At age 5 he was on stage with his parents. By his late teens, his name, in Hollywood terms, was above the title on Warsaw marquees: "Leo Fuchs in 'The Rag Crate,' " "Leo Fuchs gets married."

In 1935, he was lured to America and the tumult that was Yiddish theater on New York's Second Avenue and a play called "Lucky Boy."

When I came to America I went to the Eastside of New York to meet what I thought would be my audience. The pushcart salesmen. The shopkeepers. Each one turned out to be a comedian. Each one had hard lives, but each one could laugh. Together they gave me the material I would use in the future.

The play "Lucky Boy" was prophetic. Fuchs' parents, staying with their careers in Poland, were to die in the Holocaust. Fuchs' career was eventually to move from the Lower East Side to Broadway and in the postwar days into the classic theater productions of early television's "Playhouse 90."

Live theater is where Fuchs has drawn the audiences and the acclaim.

When he starred in Sholem Asch's "Salvation," requiring him to pass through various stages of life from age 18 to 85, he found Albert Einstein visiting him backstage.

When Edwin Lester, founder of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, needed a comedy relief role in his production of "The Great Waltz" he called on Fuchs to play Johann Strauss' manager, a role in which Fuchs had to play the violin in addition to acting. He had to play the violin not only traditionally under his chin but also behind his back, on his head, between his legs and with the bow between his teeth.

It is a performance he may try to repeat . . . if and when his one-man show does go on.

In the words of Jimmy Durante, I don't need the money, I need the work.

So Fuchs finds himself waking up at 3 a.m. now, not always in sorrow but in recollection, remembering past roles--he was the smallest Tevye in the history of "Fiddler on the Roof," appearing in "Cabaret" on Broadway with Lotte Lenya and Joel Grey.

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