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All I really cared about while talking to Larry David was not having a Larry David moment. For those unfamiliar with the term, it originated with the American comic's hit HBO television series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and refers to some inappropriate verbal gaffe made by Larry David, the fictional version of himself whom David plays on the show.
But just how fictional? Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David is something of a misanthrope, short-tempered, socially inept and easily offended. And if the real Larry David was anything like that, I didn't want to give him a chance to snap back at me.
It turns out that Larry David the person is a little nicer than Larry David the character. But just a little. At first he could barely curb his own enthusiasm at talking to someone overseas in Israel.
"What time is it there?" he asked. When told we were 10 hours ahead of Los Angeles, where he makes his home, David gave a familiar laugh and said, "Aren't you jealous that I have the whole day ahead of me?"
After explaining to him that he should be the jealous one because I already knew the results of the day he was only beginning, we got around to talking about the business at hand, David's starring role in Woody Allen's new film, Whatever Works, which opened nationally on Thursday.
In the urban romantic comedy, the 62-year-old David takes on the "Woody Allen" role with his own skewed world view, which takes the bad traits of Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David and magnifies them. David plays the curmudgeon Boris Yellnikoff, a failed physicist who pretty much believes that he's the smartest man in the world, living amid tadpoles - his most endearing term to describe the people with whom he comes into contact in New York.
When a Southern teen runaway played expertly by Evan Rachel Wood enters his life and his cramped, low-rent apartment, it triggers a series of comic turns, and an unlikely romance develops. The introduction of Wood's Christian fundamentalist parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr., in broad roles) raises the laugh level, but it's David's Yellnikoff - a world-class grouch who has survived a failed career, marriage and suicide attempt - who controls the film and ultimately makes the viewer care about what happens to him.
"I think Woody felt that I would be able to manage to play an unlikable character and still come out likable," said David, who, before starring in Enthusiasm, was best known for creating and writing the huge comedy series Seinfeld, along with Jerry Seinfeld. While he was flattered that Allen had contacted him about playing Yellnikoff, David had second thoughts due to the demands of the role and the fact that he was gearing up for Enthusiasm's seventh season, which began airing on HBO on September 20.
"I was contacted first by Woody's agent, who told me that Woody wanted to know my availability. Yeah, I'm available for Woody Allen. But I thought it was going to be two or three days, doing a short thing for him," recalled David.
"Then I got the script in the mail and opened the first page, and there's my part. Then I turned to page 50 and I'm still there. But you don't say no to Woody. I actually tried to, though - I called him and said I'm not sure I could do this. I wanted him to know that he could be making a big mistake with me."
It turned out not to be a mistake at all, as David carries the film and quickly makes you forget that he's playing an Allen surrogate, speaking lines that were originally meant for Allen when he wrote the script in the 1970s. While there are snippets of monologues that recall Allen and some of his scenes in classic films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, David almost imperceptibly takes Yellnikoff away from Allen's voice and turns him intoâ€¦ well, Larry David.
"It was a little intimidating taking on the role of Boris at first. People were telling me, 'You better not play the role like Woody,' but I had no intentions of imitating Woody. It's a trap some actors fall into when they play the Woody Allen part in one of his films," said David.
"I think I managed to make Boris my own," he added. "Boris seems to have changed somewhat by the end of the film [referring to a plot twist that we can't give away], but I'm not quite sure it's going to take. I don't know if people can change to that degree."
Despite some obvious similarities, Yellnikoff and the fictional Larry David are miles apart in their personalities, claimed David.
"Larry David means well, he just gets into a lot of conflicts along the way. Boris, on the other hand is looking for trouble. I grew up around people like that, I have relatives like that - sour Jewish intellectuals. I know what they're like."
GROWING UP in a Jewish family in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York, helped to form David's sense of humor.
"I was raised very Reform. But when I was bar mitzva-ed, I brought the house down. Everybody thought I should have become a cantor," he laughed.
Instead, David chose to become a stand-up comedian. While struggling in New York City clubs in the 1970s, he worked as a store clerk and television repairman to pay his bills. In the 1980s, he became a writer for late-night ABC comedy show Fridays, which led to two years as a skit writer for Saturday Night Live. By the end of the decade, David had teamed up with Seinfeld to create the series that became one of the most successful shows in US TV history and made him a wealthy man - with almost totally frayed nerves. During the show's first seven years, David wrote almost 60 episodes and rewrote most of the others.
He also found time in 1993 to get married - a union that ended in 2007. Since we were speaking a couple of days after Rosh Hashana, I asked David how his holiday had been, and he replied, "Uneventful."
You don't go to services on Rosh Hashana? I asked, treading dangerously close to a Larry David moment.
"Nah. I used to go to when I was married, that was part of my marriage arrangement, but it isn't anymore," he laughed.
David also weaned himself off Seinfeld in the late 1990s, taking time for some well-needed decompression. But he returned to TV in 2000 with Enthusiasm, portraying, without any irony, a successful TV producer who has earned a fortune and now doesn't have very much to occupy his time. Due to its home on HBO, it's earthier than Seinfeld was, but it still contains the same quirky repartee and themes that earmarked the earlier series. And it introduced the world to the hapless Larry David.
"The Curb Your Enthusiasm Larry is the Larry David I aspire to be; he's much more honest than I am, and probably is happier," said David with a laugh.
"I'm happy these days. I think I am, anyway. I don't have too many days that I want to kill myself," he added, referring to the knack of Whatever Works's Yellnikoff to unsuccessfully commit suicide.
Part of that happiness may stem from the current season of Enthusiasm, which is seeing a full reunion of the Seinfeld cast - Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia Louis-Dreyfus - playing themselves. According to David, it's gone much better than anticipated.
"We were looking for an arc to do for this season. We had the idea a couple years ago, then [Hurricane] Katrina came along, and I thought it would be funny if we took in a family from New Orleans," he laughed, referring to the ludicrously funny theme of the sixth season.
"But the idea of the reunion came back for this season and I thought, well this it, it's now or never. It was very ambitions to get the cast back together. Everyone was into it. I think they were surprised by my first phone call, but even more surprised when I called six months later asking for their availability for scheduling the filming. They were a bit shocked." As we were getting close to the end of our allotted time, I asked David what I thought fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm would want to know: Does the person Larry David experience any of fictional Larry's "moments"?
"I'm sorry to say that I have Larry David moments all the time - like not knowing when you can kick somebody out of your office when he comes for a visit. How much time do you need to spend with him before you say that's enough?" he asked.
"Yes, them, too," he laughed.
Ignoring the hint, I moved on to the touchy subject of Israel - why, for instance, had David never visited the Jewish homeland? His answer was as blunt as one would expect from fictional Larry.
"I have no particular interest. Naturally, I want Israel to prosper and survive, but I'm not active in my support," he said, adding that he had been unaware of the letter signed by dozens of A-list Hollywood Jews - including Seinfeld - opposing the attempts at August's Toronto Film Festival to cancel a program of Israeli films about Tel Aviv.
When told that the opening of Whatever Works would pose a timely opportunity for David to make his first visit, he paused, then unenthusiastically responded, "Yeah, you're right, it would be a good time to come."
But I could sense that, with his enthusiasm quickly being curbed, David was beginning to experience his own Larry David moment. With some people, it's just less harrowing to keep the relationship exclusively on the TV - or movie - screen.â€¢