From the Yiddish stage to a vampire TV show

Showbiz legend Mike Burstyn, an icon of Broadway and Israeli cinema, isn’t even thinking about retirement

American-Israeli actor Mike Burstyn (photo credit: Courtesy)
American-Israeli actor Mike Burstyn
(photo credit: Courtesy)
He starred in Sallah Shabati. He’s been on the Broadway stage, sung in Yiddish, and can tell jokes in eight languages.
But Mike Burstyn, 71, is never afraid of a new challenge. And so the American-Israeli actor jumped at the chance to appear in Juda, a new Israeli TV show about vampires.
The final episode of the groundbreaking show’s first season – which was created by Tzion Baruch, who also plays the lead role – will air this Thursday on HOT.
Burstyn first heard about the role when his agent said there were “two young men” in Israel who wanted to talk to him about a new project.
“So these two young guys get on Skype with me and I’m looking at them and they are adorable,” Burstyn recounts, in his inimitable way. “They start talking to me and they say, ‘we love you, I grew up on your movies and I have a role – I wrote a series, and they said I’m crazy but my dream is that you will be in my series.”
Burstyn replied: “Hey, great, what’s it about?” “He said, ‘It’s about a Jewish vampire.’ I said ‘I’ve never played a vampire before.’” But Baruch didn’t want Burstyn to play a vampire, but rather a mystical and mysterious rabbi, Juda’s spiritual guide as he undergoes the transformation from man to monster.
“He wrote it especially with me in mind, praying that some day they would get in touch with me,” he said. “They sent it to me and I read it and it was really a challenge – and I love challenges.”
Burstyn jumped on board, and flew to Israel to for about six weeks to film the show’s eight episodes.
But he readily admits that he – and most of his friends – had never watched anything vampire-related before.
“If you had told me to go and see a vampire movie I’d say no,” he said. “You know, it’s not my taste. But this is something else – it really is. It doesn’t insult your intelligence and it’s clever and it’s tonguein- cheek.”
So despite the protestations of some of his more “mature” friends, “I said do me a favor, please, just spend a couple minutes and just watch one episode. Well – every one of them has come back to me and said we cannot stop watching.”
Burstyn said the role has opened him up to a whole new audience – sometimes even the grandchildren of those who grew up on his classic Israeli films, including 1964’s Sallah Shabati and the popular Kuni Lemel films in 1966, 1976 and 1983.
“All of a sudden I have a new generation of fans, the young guys, the young kids who have gone crazy over this,” he said.
And Burstyn credits it all to Baruch.
“I am in awe of Tzion, he is one of the most amazing, talented people I have met in every respect and we’ve gotten to be really close,” he said. “He is an artist, he’s a painter he’s a comedian he’s a singer he’s an amazing actor and an amazing writer... his imagination is unlimited.”
Burstyn has been acting and performing from a very young age, appearing from age seven alongside his sister and his parents, who were Yiddish actors.
But he said after more than 50 years in show biz, he’s ready to try something new.
“What I want to do in the next decade, God willing, is to change direction and do more writing and directing rather than acting or singing,” he said, admitting it might be time to find “something a little safer than running around on stage.”
He got his first exposure to that earlier this year when he filmed Azimuth, a movie Burstyn wrote and directed about the Six Day War. The film is centered on an Israeli and an Egyptian soldier who each reach an abandoned UN outpost in Sinai, and are both wounded, seeking shelter, and ready to fight each other for survival. The film is slated to be released this fall.
“I have several things I’ve been holding on to over the years, and I’ve been waiting for the right time to come along,” Burstyn said. “And this is the right time.”
He said working on Azimuth “has been a great experience... and I want to keep going in that direction.”
But it’s not like he’s slowing down on the other fronts – he still has recently performed at a benefit concert, starred in an Anat Gov play in Los Angeles and is working on another upcoming stage role. He said he’s also taken several meetings while in Israel to discuss other ventures.
Despite his many projects, Burstyn doesn’t want to ever fully give up on his first love: Yiddish theater.
“That’s a language that I’m hoping to make sure it doesn’t completely vanish,” he said. “It’s something I grew up in, it’s the language of the survivors who are slowly disappearing and we need to make sure the language doesn’t die out.”
While Burstyn currently calls Los Angeles home, he is constantly flying all over the world, including coming to Tel Aviv two or three times a year.
“We may be considering, now that the grandkids are grown or growing up,” he said, “to bring our base back to Tel Aviv.”