Mitch Greenberg is one of those rare creatures — an actor who has made a living doing theater. Allowing for occasional dry spells and some stints as a substitute teacher, roles have come his way without too much fuss or hassle.
So it was somewhat out of character for the laid-back Greenberg when, this past spring, he went flat out to get into a show, pulling in every favor and contact he could think of. The Maplewood resident wanted to be in the new production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Casting for the production, which opens at the Broadway Theater on Dec. 20 for its fifth Broadway revival since premiering in 1964, proved tough to penetrate. As Greenberg told various casting agents and production people, “I was made for it. I’ve played so many elderly men, and Jewish men,” adding his punch line: “My grandparents were those people!” He heard nothing back.
In the meantime, the Broadway show he was already in, It Shoulda Been You, though adored by those who came to see it, got panned by The New York Times critic and was given an end date of Aug. 9. Greenberg was an understudy to four different characters. He invited a casting agent to come see one of the performances when he knew he’d be on stage — but that yielded nothing.
Greenberg, tall and thin with a rim of short gray hair, had a winning card: He knew Sheldon Harnick, now 91, who wrote the lyrics for Fiddler. The two met and became friends back in 1985, he recalled.
“At Goodspeed Opera House, I was starring in Cole Porter’s You Never Know,” said Greenberg, talking with a reporter in a coffee shop in Maplewood, where he lives with his wife and teenage daughter. “Sheldon came up to see final rehearsals of his show She Loves Me, which was coming up next.”
They got talking, had a drink after the show, and Harnick offered to help him find an agent. But it had been 20 years since they were last in touch. Greenberg managed to make contact through Harnick’s sister-in-law, but the lyricist, now 91, was unable to help. As various other people had done, “He said they had finished the casting.”
And then out of the blue, Greenberg got a message to attend a Fiddler audition. Harnick was there, sitting with the director, and cheered at the sight of Greenberg — surely the best greeting an actor could wish for at such a time.
Role of a lifetime
Two days before the end of It Should Have Been You, word came.
“I was driving in the car with my wife and my daughter when the phone rang,” Greenberg said. “It was an unfamiliar number so I wasn’t going to answer, but my daughter insisted.” It was the casting agent from Fiddler, to say he’d been chosen to play the beggar, Nachum (with the great line, “So if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”) and Yussel, one of the Anatevka villagers.
“If I’d been at home, I’d have been prancing around with my arms in the air,” Greenberg said. Being behind the wheel, his reaction had to be cooler — but he was jubilant. “It was a great vindication — that I wasn’t wrong. My time has come again!”
Growing up in Brooklyn as the son of a doctor, Greenberg initially planned to be a math teacher. A mental block about calculus put an end to that. Then came the chance remark from a friend, as he was imitating someone on the way to school one day, that it would be a waste if he didn’t go into the theater. “It rang a bell,” he said. His older sister was studying theater in college and he asked her to make inquiries for him. She became a social worker; he headed for the footlights.
A graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse, he studied with Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, and William Esper. “I pretty much took anything, and I made it to Broadway fairly quickly,” he recalled. On the other hand, “more than half the shows I was in were flops.”
His Broadway credits include A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, The Threepenny Opera, Into The Light, Marilyn: An American Fable, and Yiddle with His Fiddle. Other recent leading roles include Simon Wiesenthal in Wiesenthal (as standby), Freud in Freud’s Last Session, and Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank. He has also had parts in a number of movies and a long list of television shows, including Law and Order, One Life to Live, and Married… with Children.
Among his Jewish roles was a lead in A Novel Romance at New York’s Folksbiene theater, where he performed in Yiddish, although he doesn’t speak the language.
Though he had never been in a Fiddler production, Greenberg did play opposite one of the best known Tevyes — Theodore Bikel — in a production of The Chosen at Papermill Playhouse in Millburn.
Greenberg has high hopes for the new Fiddler, which stars Danny Burstein as Tevye. With its poignant echoes of today’s refugee crises, he said, the show could run for the next two years.