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On the Scene: Ross on a Bender?

November 23, 2005 By:
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Friends? "Duane Hopwood" is his own worst enemy.

The beer-guzzling, gutless gross-out of a young geezer has never met a knife he couldn't stab in his own back. Arrested for DUI, Duane nonchalantly demurs stepping into the officer's car until he can get something from the back seat - his slumbering young daughter.

Is Duane Hopwood, a downtrodden divorced dad, the poster boy for Planned Parenthood?

Maybe, maybe not, but David Schwimmer has found the actor-friendly role of his life as the child-man who manages to screw up a marriage, a job and most of his life in the new film that recently opened in the area.

Ross as rusty self-destructive drunk? Was central casting of this Southern Jersey-set film out of its mind?

Far from it; the actor who played everyone's favorite paleontologist on TV's "Friends" for 10 years has dug deep into himself to prove he's no dinosaur - TV actor without a clue on film. Schwimmer gets along schwimmingly as the Peter Pan of panic, who discovers love is never having to say you're … whatever.

"Oh, from your mouth … ," says Schwimmer, eyes heavenward, when asked if this part may be the one that sends Ross on a break and establishes the actor's street cred - the street being Hollywood & Vine - for having some serious acting chops.

Acting chops? Well, he was the karate kid of comedy all those years. Schwimmer did win great notices and multiple Emmy Award nods for his role as Ross, the nerdy nice guy who scored in life where Brad Pitt was to fail later.

But if he seemed pigeon-holed in parts, this was a carrier-pigeon headed nowhere outside of geek fraternity roles.

But the son of attorneys Arlene Coleman-Schwimmer and Arthur Schwimmer has much more on his daily docket, proving himself time and again as a director (working on friend/"Friends" Matt LeBlanc's "Joey" after directing a number of "Friends" episodes) and as playwright ("Turnaround").

Talk about turnaround - Schwimmer, 39, has gone in recent months from "Madagascar" (the Jewish giraffe, Melman) to London, where he starred on stage in "Some Girls."

Some life this star's got. And yet, settling in for coffee and conversation in a Center City restaurant, the only thing Schwimmer wants to T-off on is … tea.

Sometimes, nice guys can finish first. The co-founder of Chicago's famed Looking Glass Theatre company has no problem with what he sees reflected in a career of reflective choices. Duane is no dweeb - and neither is the actor who plays him.

"I don't feel sorry for him," says Schwimmer of his addled alter ego. "I empathize with his struggles. His intentions are good. I know a lot of guys like that."

As for Duane's job as a casino manager in Atlantic City, where he finds his temporary slot in life, well, let the chips fall where they may. This isn't the casino royale of a roulette life James Bond would envy.

"Men, in particular, bury themselves in their jobs," says Schwimmer of Duane. "He's just incredibly human and flawed."

Know what Duane could use? "He could use a good friend," says the actor with a laugh.

Friends Schwimmer's got, and he makes a point of it: "I feel really blessed with so many friendships with other guys. I look at my Dad, and he had few friends - one or two; he started his family early and worked all the time."

What works for Schwimmer - besides TV, including "Uprising," the TV mini-series about the Warsaw-ghetto uprising, and a sensational step off the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" series; and many films ("Apt Pupil," "Kissing a Fool," the upcoming "Run, Fat Boy, Run") - is his theater projects.

"The company," he says of Looking Glass, which he co-founded with what he considers a magnificent seven of fellow Northwestern U. grads - "is still one of my passions."

After all, if the slipper fits: Schwimmer was an early choice for Prince Charming when it came to the Jewish version of "Cinderella" staged nearly 30 years ago by his Jewish community center. "I almost eradicated that from memory," he admits sheepishly.

What he remembers clearly is the role that his lawyer parents pro-civil rights and equal-rights activities had on his young life. "Early on, I was on picket lines," he says fondly.

The line starts to the left when it comes to delineating his ancestry in theater and TV/film. "If I have it [in my genes], it's from my mother's DNA," he reckons. "She always wanted to be an actress."

Both Mom and Dad got a chance later on, when Schwimmer cast them in "Since You've Been Gone," which he directed for TV seven years ago.

Not that his father's side was without its place in the spotlight, recalls Schwimmer of his paternal zayde, who headed up the band Bert and the Aristocrats, which toured the Catskills as mountain men of music.

These Aristocrats were no opening for a famous dirty joke - far from it. But there is a "dirty" secret to Schwimmer's past - he quit Hebrew school.

Can you say, "dei-dei-disillusioned?"

"I quit when I found out my rabbi was on his fourth marriage and he drove a Porsche," the actor announces.

But that didn't stop young David from learning and understanding the language. The only thing that confuses him about Hebrew is those who read the prayers and can't understand what they're actually reading. "To me, that's fundamentally wrong," he says.

What was right with Ross was, to a degree, his real sense of Jewishness. Yet Schwimmer concedes that broadcasting one's religion doesn't always plug into what networks want these days.

"I know that Marta [Kauffman] and David [Crane]," "Friends" co-creators, "are very proud" of being Jewish.

But they often faced struggles, he says, with getting Jewish japes and schtick into the sitcom. As for himself, "I tried to be a [Jewish] role model; I fought for identifying Ross as Jewish. 'Look,' I used to argue, 'let's get a menorah on the set; at least have one in the background.' "

And then, of course, there was the time he was front and center Jew of the show - playing the Chanukah Armadillo, in one of the series' most inspired and comical episodes (Dec. 14, 2000), in which Ross tried to teach his young son the benefits of eight candles over one partridge in a pear tree.

As for the shining stars who surrounded him on set in one of TV's most beloved and successful comedies of all time, Schwimmer stays in touch, "mainly with LeBlanc, and I just got a [phone] message from Matt Perry, a birthday greeting."

Can he be more in touch?! Sure, they'll be there for him, but will they all be together again? Reunion show? "No," says Schwimmer with a smile.

What he's about to reunite with is his love of theater; Schwimmer is set to star in a planned major revival of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," portraying Greenwald, the "young Jewish defense attorney."

No objection there: Jerry Zaks is scheduled to direct, too. When it comes to directing attention to his private life, Schwimmer is far from defensive. His personal history has been a social study of links to prominent actresses.

But is he married to the single life? No, as a matter of fact, adds Schwimmer, he can think of no greater role - and one he wants to play someday - than happy husband and fawning dad.

This is the one about his future: "It's not a full life," says the totally friendly and frank star, "unless you experience that."

As for the best scripted life of all: "I'll learn more about myself when I'm a husband and a father." u

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