Hal Linden, the beloved, mustachioed star of 1970s cop sitcom Barney Miller, doesn’t do schmaltz.
So when he was first asked to star in the play Tuesdays with Morrie, based on the heartwrenching, blockbuster book by American journalist Mitch Albom, he was leery.
“I don’t deal well with sentiment or sentimentality, let’s put it that way,” Linden said this week ahead of the play’s opening at the Winter Garden Theatre, where it runs until May 31.
Like the bestselling biographical novel and 1999 TV movie it spawned, the play follows Mitch as he learns life lessons from his former professor, Morrie Schwartz, who is dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Linden plays Morrie in the Toronto production, being mounted by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Co. Rick Roberts plays Mitch and Edmonton-raised theatre star Ted Dykstra directs.
Linden said he was first asked to star in the play for a touring American production around the time it was adapted for the stage in 2002, but he wasn’t able to do it because of an illness in his family. Besides, he admits he was initially “very negative about it, quite honestly.”
“I’m not a fan of inspirational books,” said Linden, 78, looking pretty much the same as he did when he played Capt. Barney Miller. “There’s a whole series of inspirational writers who elude me totally. I don’t even like inspirational emails so I kind of shied away, because it is a basically inspirational book.”
When Dykstra asked him last year whether he would consider the part again, he agreed because he’d read the script and realized the play “has much more in terms of humour. “Plus, he and Dykstra combed through the play line by line and looked for ways to “eschew all the sentimentality and the kind of self-aware wisdom and make it a play about two journeys.”
“It’s a question of dealing with a bad problem either with a maudlin attitude or ironically, and irony to me at least has that measure of humour that makes it dealable,” said Linden, who was born Harold Lipshitz in New York City and now splits his time between Los Angeles and La Quinta, Calif.
“So when I read the play finally I was impressed by its ironic content, the ability to laugh at the situation and ... get as light as possible rather than sentimental.”