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Finding a Berth Right in 'Terminal City'

March 20, 2008 By:
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Saul Sampson's (Paul Soles) in "Terminal City"
When 72-year-old Saul Sampson goes to bat for his heritage, it is more as Holocaust survivor than Louisville Slugger.

His power is juiced by Judaism, steroids replaced by stings of memory that have him continuously circling the bases in his mind in a mad dash to outrun the goose-stepping Nazis who managed his diurnal lineup and litany of loss and anger.

Those fields of nightmares keep pumping powerfully through Saul's saturated sense of hits and misses, as ingrained as the indelible inked-in scratch marks that sear his memory and scar his arm in a scorn-card foisted on him by his concentration-camp commandants.

His life's Topp's card has been replaced by end-of-life recriminations. Indeed, this is no merry-old-Saul.

But it is a monstrously talented Paul Soles who plays him in "Terminal City," an ongoing mini-series of maximum impact in which Saul is not the sole member of an extended Canadian Jewish family facing fear and death at life's endgame.

The series, continuing Thursday nights to May 9 on the Sundance Channel, dances its way around life's precarious precipice, peeking over, giving in, tiptoeing the tragic finish line that awaits us all.

Soles' menu is filled with soul food for thought: What awaits the actor is more honors to go with the trophy he took home as best featured actor in a dramatic series when "Terminal City" first aired on Canadian TV. The drama of the past drains his character, cranky and curmudgeonly, trying to rally all to the mantra of "Never Forget!" rather than "Forgot It Already!"

In addition to that of Katie Sampson as Saul's daughter-in-law -- afflicted with breast cancer that may take its terminal toll oh-too- early, with her unprepared to pay the way on this unfortunate unplanned life detour, giving the series its main focus -- Soles' performance is unforgettable. But then his bio brims with bravura roles, whether weighing in while taking his pound of flash as Shylock in a Stratford Festival of Canada staging of "The Merchant of Venice," or in a series of TV/film roles in which he commanded the set.

Then there are the other unforgettable parts that speak as much to his speaking roles as icons. This is, after all, the man whose boyhood charm more than 40 years ago provided the voice and the ether for the ethereal Hermie, the elfin misfit who only wanted to be a dentist, packing gums rather than Santa's bags in the classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

No need to be red-faced at the annual rebroadcasts of Rudolph; the cartoon is an accomplishment still marveled at today whether one commemorates the holiday season by Chanukah candle or Christmas tree.

And there's the Peter Parker role, spread with the butter of bona fide legendary as Soles spun his vocal magic as Spider-man in the animated TV series.

At 77, Soles' feat is the dance of delight others do in watching him work his wizardry. Thursday nights are no different these days.

The can-do Canadian wouldn't have it any other way, distilling decades of a survivor's hurt and hell in an aging hurricane of a warrior with one last mighty gust of wind left to bellow.

"I am not sure I was ever able to find the origin of his hate, distastes," muses Soles, "although they echo my own feelings of being outraged by the world at large."

That is a world spun off its axis by extreme indifference to excellence. "The standards of the world seem to be going down," avers the actor. "There is a din rising at the loss of standards today."

And as a "North American Jewish liberal whose family arrived in Pittsburgh and spread out to Ontario," it is a sound that echoes an unwelcome cacophony from the past.

"I was born at a time in Toronto when I remember seeing the signs at hotels, 'No Jews and dogs allowed.' I remember watching my Uncle Charles as a catcher playing in baseball games on the Lits -- for Litvaks -- playing against gentile teams," never forgetting that prejudice was never more than a seventh-inning stretch away.

"I grew up with my eyes wide open to the palpable intolerance of the times."

It is a time frame fast-forwarded that fills the hours of Saul's windup clock of comeuppance, with the survivor always on the watch for hurts real and imagined.

It is all a through-line to the history of hate, as anti-Semitism crosses eons, reverting to Roman numerals that add up to everlasting enmity. "I have felt discriminated against," recalls Soles, and remembers the aural angst he felt on hearing the accusation from neighborhood kids, when taunted that "I killed Christ."

Saul's killing fields are as fertile, and it is much to the mild-mannered Soles' credit and his many talents that the fierceness blazes through the screen, threatening to turn cable TVs into infernos.

But the vented angst of victimization is a poison not a panacea.

"That hate can become a poison," acknowledges the actor. "These kind of over-the-top frustrations can [destroy] you, the frustrations born of never seeing progress" in society.

That social insecurity extends to Israel for Saul, never a pal of the Palestinians; he is an impassioned survivor who would have run interference for Israel during the intifada had he been able to.

Fiercely pro-Israel, with the emphasis on fierce, he flags his fury for no one when Israel is mistreated or manhandled by the media. But this one-man Jewish Defense League is so clearly out of his league when it comes to the demands of day-to-day living.

The actor is on familiar and friendly terrain when the land of milk and honey is brought up. Longtime host of CBC's "Take Thirty," a public-affairs broadcast, he took three -- himself, a cameraman and a producer -- to Israel after the Yom Kippur War to shoot special programs of how Israelis were feeling and dealing with the moment.

"Originally, I thought I would go and help by picking oranges since so many Israelis had been on the front line and were unable to do so," recalls Soles.

"But when I suggested what I would like to do to our Israeli consul, he said, 'Forget the oranges. Make films. Tell them we're open for business.' "

It has been his business to do so since. Just as important to Soles is his benchmark role of sitting social justice in the court of human decency, "trying to figure out why the world is as it is."

"The last play I did, 'Trying,' by Joanna McClelland Glass, about Judge Francis Biddle of the Biddles of Philadelphia -- who was one of the justices at the Nuremberg Trials ... well, one of the last lines in the play is, 'What's the matter with today's children?' "

And Soles laughs of the age-old question of why youth yields to inertia. "Nothing changes. It's always the same."

So rue Saul's grandchildren in "Terminal City," who get antsy with their antiquated zayda always zinging the Arabs and the anti-Semites, and never being able to leave behind a DVD copy of "Exodus" unwatched.

It is Saul's punchline with panache that pummels them most: "Don't let them get the first punch in," he wails of the enemies everywhere.

But it is the enemies from within that come across fighting so frighteningly in Soles' fierce portrayal.

"Most importantly," says Soles of Saul's emotional time machine and machinations, "it's all about continuity in our culture. What we've got as a people is a continuum; that is our bedrock. That is what it's like to be Jewish."

Like him or not, Soles' Saul is a great portrayal, a paradox of the powerful and the plebian -- Sampson as weakened warrior -- his grating pleas to remember often lost on the deaf ears of his heirs and deflected by the death wishes of self-hating Jews.

Soles' Saul has found a berth right in "Terminal City." He is, as was his hermetic Hermie, and the shellacked Shylock -- as well as the dryly spun Spider-man and the park-bench denizen Soles played on stage in "I'm Not Rappaport" -- a misfit in a misguided world.

"They are all good characters," says Soles of his salesmen on a deathwatch for the world's soul.

They are all characters, the actor says, to whom "attention must be paid." 

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