His life in media

Sitting down with multi-talented octogenarian Larry Frisch, who in just one twist in his long and colorful history, was assistant director of seminal film "Exodus."

Larry Frisch in his book-lined apartment, in a retirement home adjacent to the Islamic Museum (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Larry Frisch in his book-lined apartment, in a retirement home adjacent to the Islamic Museum
Larry Frisch is already waiting in the coffee shop when I show up five minutes ahead of the appointed time. There is a thick file of material on the table in front of him.
It contains the meticulously arranged story of his professional life and just a tiny fragment of his private life when he was two years old.
Frisch is a media man in the full sense of the word. He has been a filmmaker, producer, director, scriptwriter, cameraman, narrator and actor. He has been a television, radio and print media journalist. He has worked in one or more of these capacities since he was in high school in Indianapolis, where the Jewish population in his boyhood numbered around 10,000.
Now, just past his mid-80s – but looking considerably younger, with his tall, lean, straight-backed frame – he has just completed another documentary that explains why Israel loves peace.
Frisch is, of course, the narrator, but complains that his voice is not what it used to be. Admittedly, it is not as sharp and dramatic as it was in his younger days, but no one would notice were it not for some of the archive footage from the period in which Frisch was in his prime.
This latest documentary is partially autobiographical and opens with Frisch presenting his professional credentials: “As a young man and war reporter for United States Television, I worked in several countries before being assigned to Israel to cover the volatile Middle East. I soon became aware of the complex nature of the area’s problems, which brought pain and misery to all sides of the conflict.”
He then talks about the suffering of Jews in Tsarist Russia, under the Nazi regime and in the Holy Land, where he reminds viewers that Jews lived for centuries prior to the proclamation of the State of Israel. He then goes into the wars, terror attacks and cycles of violence that have claimed so many lives.
The film, which is full of action shots in both color and black-and-white, ends with color and shows a peaceful scene of a dove sitting high in a mountain crevice and looking out at the region with wishful thinking.
Frisch observed war and terrorism and reported on them not only from Israel but also from Lebanon and Syria.
His American passport enabled him to move easily through the Middle East and other conflict-torn parts of the world. Countries from which he reported or in which he made documentaries include Egypt, Spain, Africa, Russia, Japan, Germany, China (where he went before the historic visits of president Richard Nixon and secretary of state Henry Kissinger), various parts of South America and Yemen, where in 1993 he shot a documentary called The Last Jews of Yemen.
But what meant most to him both personally and professionally was covering Israel.
Frisch was born into a staunchly Zionist family. His father, Daniel Frisch, was president of the Zionist Organization of America (which next year celebrates its 120th anniversary) and was the initiator and one of the prime movers and shakers for the establishment of ZOA House in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, he died before its completion. ZOA House is located at 1 Daniel Frisch Street and is a multi-purpose complex that includes stage and screen facilities.
Daniel Frisch was born in the Land of Israel, taken as an infant to Romania and from there to the United States. So for his son Larry, moving to Israel was in some ways a homecoming more than it is for immigrants without an immediate Israeli background.
The first time Larry Frisch came to Israel, not long after the establishment of the state, it was with his father in 1949.
After that, he came many times before 1959 when he bought a home in Savyon, where he lived on and off for several years. He later sold that home and bought a property in Yemin Moshe in 1973, six years after the Six Day War.
Yemin Moshe was not what it is today.
A lot of reconstruction was required, and many properties were completely gutted inside and rebuilt, while the facade remained intact or was repaired and renovated. The upshot was a truly beautiful home for Frisch and his wife, Marilyn, into which they moved in 1981.
Over the course of time, the house became too big for them and they sold it and found a pleasant walk-up apartment on Derech Beit Lehem. It was there that Marilyn developed Parkinson’s.
As her condition deteriorated, the couple began to look for alternative accommodation with easier access. It was obvious that independence was beginning to elude her, so they decided to take up residence in a protected living facility. After searching around, they settled for a retirement home adjacent to the Islamic Museum. A beautiful complex of small, compact apartments built for academics, the home does not have provisions for chronic nursing care. Ordinarily, Marilyn might not have been accepted, but the general manager was away on the day the Frisches applied, and a kindly doctor who was in charge didn’t ask too many questions.
However, she had very little time in which to enjoy her new surroundings.
After suffering from Parkinson’s for three years, she died four years ago, three days after they moved in. Larry was devastated. They had first met a Jewish youth camp and had been married for 62 years.
A week after her death, another resident, Rabbi Jacob Chinitz, died, and there were daily prayer meetings in the apartment that he had shared with his wife, Dolly. Ever considerate of others, Frisch went to the minyan both as a courtesy and also because he was in mourning for Marilyn and needed a minyan for himself. Soon after, he and Dolly struck up a warm friendship, which blossomed into love, something he still can’t believe has happened.
They go many places together and recently participated with a group of other people in a week-long trip to the Negev, where Frisch learned things about date palms he hadn’t known before. Anything new excites him.
BORN IN 1929, Frisch made his first film when he was in high school. It was a very special school with wonderful facilities and very bright pupils and lent itself quite naturally to a documentary, which today can be found in the Steven Spielberg Archives and watched on a home computer or cellphone.
Before making films himself, Frisch was a child actor. He also had a radio show in 1944. In addition, he was a good amateur violinist. In the 1930s, he even did a stint in a circus.
He joined the US Army in 1948 and was assigned to the Army Pictorial Center. He continued working for APC as a reserve officer and contract scriptwriter, narrator and director for the army. In that capacity he traveled to many parts of the world, including Saigon in 1966 to make a film about the rules of conduct for American soldiers serving there.
Between making films for APC, the last of which was in 1976, Frisch worked in other media in various parts of the world. Over the years he worked for CBS, UPI, AP, the BBC, Christian Broadcast News, Fox Movietone News and TeleNews Productions.
When he was still very young, a friend of his died from a drug overdose.
Not long afterwards, Frisch saw a letter in the New York Post signed by a woman with a Jewish-sounding name.
The woman had written about her son who was a drug addict, and the letter warned other parents to look out for signs that their own children might be drug users. Frisch managed to obtain the woman’s address and got in touch with her. She sent her son to him, and this resulted in Frisch’s anti-narcotics crusade and subsequent film The Story of a Teenage Drug Addict. He also wrote a book about drug addiction called The Dream Boaters, published in 1953.
Prior to the iconic film Kazablan directed by Menahem Golan and starring Yehoram Gaon, Frisch directed an earlier version in black-and-white that was shot in Greece. He also directed Amud Ha’esh (Pillar of Fire) and Ma’aseh B’Monit (Tel Aviv Taxi). The latter, released in 1956, was the first Hebrew feature film to be produced in its entirety in Israel.
Among his other feature film credits are assistant director of the 1960 film Exodus; he doubled for Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur; and he appeared as an extra in a background shot.
He made numerous documentaries, the subjects of which included the last Jews of Calcutta, Hadera paper mills, the Israeli Scouts, vistas of Israel with particular focus on Jerusalem. For Beit Hatfutsot, for instance, he made a documentary about synagogues without Jews.
Frisch credits the period that he spent with the US Army as one of the most significant in his life.
“It was a great education,” he says, recalling that it also enabled him to become the youngest member of the Screen Directors Guild.
SOME PEOPLE of advanced years begin to lose interest in life and start to vegetate.
Frisch is not in that category. On the contrary, the journalist and writer in him continue to be brimming with curiosity. He regards every situation as a potential story or script. He strikes up conversations with strangers because he constantly wants to find out more about what is going on around him.
He goes to countless lectures and other cultural and communal events both with Dolly and on his own.
Dolly is not particularly keen on going to films with him, nor was Marilyn.
The reason is that Frisch is always ahead of the plot and, due to his filmmaking background, cannot resist giving a running commentary on what’s going to happen next and how the film will end.
Though long retired, Frisch still has a finger in the film pie and acts as an adviser to Community Television, which comprises a group of retirees, mainly highly educated white-collar professionals. And, of course, there’s his own recent documentary about peace.
For the past 30 years, Frisch has played violin with an amateur orchestra, where “I used to be the youngest and now I’m the oldest,” he says. The orchestra gives him a special feeling of spirituality.
“Music really turns me on.”
In addition, he sings in the choir of the Conservative synagogue. He goes to choir practice on Sundays, orchestra rehearsals on Mondays, and on Thursdays he attends seminars at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research.
Frisch has a number of attributes in addition to those already mentioned.
At age 18, he learned to fly a Piper plane, and in Israel he became friendly with peace activist Abie Nathan when the latter was working as a pilot for El Al. These days, Frisch takes pride in the fact that he has a grandson who is an F16 navigator.
What advice does he have for any budding reporter or filmmaker? Something that actually applies to any profession: “Learn how to eat humble pie. If you can’t do that, you can’t stay in the business.”
What about future ambitions for himself? “Now all I want is to stay healthy in mind and body,” he says.