“Are You Anybody?” Yes, Jeffrey Tambor, you are.
Book review of Jeffrey Tambor’s new memoir “Are You Anybody,” originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal (July 2017)
Most actors get their big break early in life and then slow down as they age out of Hollywood roles. But Jeffrey Tambor always knew it would take a while for his acting career to get going. It was during his time at Wayne State University in Michigan that Tambor learned of this future, while having his palm read — “It’s going to happen for you, but it’s going to happen very, very late,” the palmist told him.
The now 72-year-old actor landed the role of Hank Kingsley on the “The Larry Sanders Show” in his late 40s, George and Oscar Bluth on “Arrested Development” in his late 50s and most recently, Maura Pfeffernan, born Mort, the transgender matriarch on Amazon’s ground-breaking series “Transparent” that premiered when the actor was 70. This part earned him two Emmy’s, one Golden Globe and one Screen Actors Guild award for his portrayal of the dynamic trans character navigating family and society in today’s culture.
With his new memoir, “Are You Anybody?”, Tambor offers a candid view into the moments that made him the patient performer he grew up to be. Readers meet his mother, who, just before his Bar Mitzvah, gives the 13-year-old a Miltown (the “Xanax of its day”) to combat his anxiety. In a nutshell, “I was high at my Bar Mitzvah,” Tambor explains in chapter three.
A thoughtful writer, Tambor openly discusses how he lost his older brother, Larry, to alcoholism and later how he discovered his own alocholism in a session with his psychiatrist. His mother remains at the center of many stories, including the last time he went to visit her at Century City Medical Center and glibly asked the parking attendant, “If my mother dies, do I get free parking?”
The memoir “Are You Anybody?” is filled to capacity with anecdotes. Some are tear-jerkers, others laugh-out-loud funny. And with a charming touch, each time Tambor mentions somebody’s name, he tacks on a simple “Hi” on the end.
He opens up about his everlasting sense of fear, using Old Mrs. Cohen, the woman who “lives in the back” and stares at him from her window as a metaphor for the never-ending questions that plague him — “Have I gone too far?” “Have I been too much?” “Are you alright?”
One of the highlights of “Are You Anybody?” is Tambor’s reflection on his relationship with the late Garry Shandling. As Tambor tells it, during the taping of “The Larry Sanders Show,” Shandling would prepare for the monologue by reviewing the cue cards with each of the joke writers. Tambor shares his awe at this process of preparation.
And then there’s Maura Pfefferman and the role that changed Jeffrey Tambor’s life. He offers behind-the-scenes glimpes at how he prepared for the role and what it has been like on set of the groundbreaking show.
Before the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the awards and the red carpets, Tambor was a gangly Jewish kid attending Temple Beth Shalom at 14th Avenue and Clement Street in San Francisco and an actor working in repertory theatre. In 1976 he made his Broadway debut sharing the stage with the formidable George C. Scott in the Larry Gelbart play “Sly Fox” and then his screen debut in 1979’s “… And Justice for All” opposite Al Pacino.
One piece of advice he gives readers is to encourage others and give praise — which he calls “attaboys.” He explains this doesn’t mean giving somebody an award for turning up to work, but rather offering small bits of support to help boost another’s confidence through challenging situations.
When asked in a recent interview what part his Jewish heritage plays in his career, Tambor said, “It’s all of me. I carry all of that, and I have all my life. It’s part and parcel of me. Hank was Jewish. George was Jewish. I celebrate it all.” His new book colors in those lines with humility and grace.