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Meet 'Zohan,' the role model

Israeli Yuki Sharoni traded a gun for a hair dryer -- and then he met Adam Sandler.

June 08, 2008|Nathaniel Popper | Special to The Times

Hollywood hair stylists generally have a limited role in the movie-making process, but that was bound to be different in the shooting of "You Don't Mess With the Zohan."

The Adam Sandler film, which opened over the weekend, is about an Israeli commando who moves to America and takes up hairdressing. It so happens that Sandler's own stylist, Yuki Sharoni, served as an Israeli soldier before moving to Los Angeles to open a salon. Sandler asked Sharoni if he could use the name Yuki for his character.

Sharoni advised against it -- Yuki is not an Israeli-sounding name -- and Sandler eventually decided upon Zohan. But that was hardly the end of Sharoni's role in the film. Sharoni, a sort of real-life Zohan, used his history and wizardry with shears to help Sandler as he created the character.

"My friends are all asking me if it is a portrait of me, of my history," said Sharoni, a slight man with a head of black hair that is curly when not blow-dried. "They all think it's my biography. I said, 'Go and see it and you'll figure it out.' "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Yuki Sharoni: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about hairstylist Yuki Sharoni, who helped inspire Adam Sandler's film "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," misspelled the last name of salon stylist Courtney Nanson as Manson.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 15, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Yuki Sharoni: An article last Sunday about hairstylist Yuki Sharoni, who helped inspire Adam Sandler's film "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," mentioned fellow salon stylist Courtney Manson. The correct last name is Nanson.

Sandler has a policy of not speaking to newspapers, and his on-set hairdresser, Ann Pala, declined to say much about Sharoni beyond that he and Sandler have been longtime friends. But Courtney Manson, a stylist in Sharoni's Beverly Hills salon, was on hand when Sandler came in for some on-site training. Manson noticed the subtle ways in which the comedian was drawing upon Sharoni for his film

"Adam was looking at the way Yuki converses with his clients and how much the little Israeli accent is there," Manson said. "In the end, he told me that he was noting down things to use in the movie."

Sharoni himself is quick to point out all the differences between Zohan, the fictional Israeli hairdresser, and Yuki, the real one. In the movie, Sandler plays a lethal commando, whereas Sharoni never got out of the Jewish state's tank corps. And when Sandler's character decides to give up the military life, he does not follow the 50,000 or so Israelis, including Sharoni, who have chosen L.A. Instead, Zohan lands in New York.

All the same, there is that moment in between Israel and America, where Sandler's character tells his parents of his plans. They respond by flapping their hands in disbelief.

"That definitely rang a bell," Sharoni says, "though my argument with my family was longer than just one conversation. It lasted a year and a half."

Hair styling was not the typical career choice for young men in Netzion, the small town where Sharoni grew up. After Sharoni revealed his ambition, his parents pushed him into a school for auto mechanics and then a kibbutz, in an effort to kill the dream -- but Sharoni persevered. During his mandatory three years in the army, Sharoni found an officer who liked his blowouts, thus affording him free afternoons and weekends to spend at a local salon.

Shearing Sandler

When Sharoni finished his army time he headed for Tel Aviv and then Los Angeles. Soon after, Sharoni opened his salon, and Sandler, fresh off his success on "Saturday Night Live," came in for a cut. Sharoni says it was his idea to shear Sandler's long hair to put more emphasis on Sandler's distinctive face, and they would joke about the difficulties of curly Jewish hair. But as Sandler kept coming in, they also had more serious conversations about Israel.

"He has a big love for Israel," Sharoni said. "I remember that during the time of the suicide bombers he would ask me, 'What's going on? When is this going to end?' "

When Sandler began preparing for "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," the actor mailed a copy of the script to Sharoni and the stylist shared tips on Israel. The real involvement, though, came when Sandler showed up at Sharoni's salon for training. The day began with breakfast at a nearby diner on Santa Monica Boulevard. Sharoni introduced Sandler to the Israeli owner, Roni Levy, and Sandler ended up giving Levy a role in the film.

"Adam would always talk about what a great guy Yuki is," Levy said. "I know that Yuki gave him a lot of advice."

Then Sandler practiced the finer points of blow-drying and cutting. Manson, the stylist who was guiding Sandler, said the actor's big hands made things awkward during the shampooing.

"He really wanted to be good, but of course he was joking as he was doing it," Manson said.

In addition to his hairstyling skills, Sandler also practiced his Israeli accent, which Sharoni called a "cross between Yiddish and some sort of French."

Sharoni doesn't expect there to be too many surprises in the final movie -- he's seen so many stages of it.

"I have a list of friends who are asking to go see it with me," Sharoni said. "They want to be able to compare it to me."

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