Are You Anybody?: A Memoir
By Jeffrey Tambor
280 pages, $27
You get the sense character actors everywhere find space in their tiny sublets for shrines to Jeffrey Tambor. After all, most pray for one iconic defining role. Tambor has had three, on beloved, ground-breaking television shows.
First, he was Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley, the quirky sidekick to Garry Shandling on “The Larry Sanders Show.” Tambor wanted the role so badly that he called Shandling at the gym, apologizing profusely that this is something he would not normally do. “Yeah, but Hank would,” responded Shandling.
In 2003, he was slated to appear only in the pilot of Fox’s “Arrested Development” as patriarch George Bluth Sr. He ended up staying for the duration, even playing his character’s twin after trying on a hippie wig for a flashback episode.
Most recently, “Transparent” creator Jill Sulloway saw in Tambor a depth and breadth that may not have been obvious to the rest of his fans, casting him as the trans-parent in the Amazon series. The role has brought him critical acclaim, Emmy awards, and a deepened relationship with the LGBT community, which he has found artistically enlightening and personally rewarding.
The behind-the-scenes stories of any of these three roles would be enough to recommend this book. All of these series were “game changers” and among the first episodic shows on their respective networks or streaming services.
But Tambor gives us much more — his horrific childhood with a mentally ill mother who tells him daily that he is nothing and will always be, and his Jewish father who warns him against celebrating anything, as “they will take it away from you.”
Young Jeffrey finds respite at a nearby college auditorium near his home by watching something magical he finds out later were “play rehearsals.” When the actors invite him to strike the set with them, he tells them he will not be able to lift the large boulder onstage. They encourage him and he discovers it is a lightweight prop, which he raises over his head in victory.
I burst into tears, and then I laughed. Yes.
The actors stood there, as witness.
It was everything. It was right. It was good. Yes.
This --- yes --- this.
Please, please make it go on forever.
I was ten years old, and I was home.
Calling “Are You Anybody?” a memoir is too limited as there are actually several books here. He writes extensively about his four small children and his grown daughter, detailing the lessons they have taught him.
In a chapter entitled “Scrambled Eggs” he offers some of the best words of wisdom he has received from actors and directors throughout his career. He is a firm believer in lifelong learning and actually taught acting classes for almost 20 years, until he broke off his relationship with his beloved mentor, a practicing Scientologist. (Tambor was also in the church for a time, until their recruitment became overly aggressive and they told him that his wife was a bad influence.)
He also includes recollections of his movie roles, most famously, “And Justice for All.” When he is offered a variety of cigarettes at his audition, he responds, “Give me the kind that killed Nat King Cole.’ They looked at each other and I kind of knew I had the role.”
There are heartfelt stories about Judith Light and the late Jill Clayburgh and his words about Shandling are especially touching, giving us one of the final looks at the comic genius. When Tambor receives the 2015 Golden Globe for “Transparent,” Shandling texts him: “I am standing in my kitchen crying.” He also acknowledges the help of Buffalo sons Alan Zweibel and Brad Grey in finally snagging the role of Hank.
Above all, Tambor comes across as a lovely, authentic, funny guy who appreciates the fact that he has won the television lottery three times over and how unlikely that is for someone who looks like him. He vividly recalls the moment when he saw Ernest Borgnine in “Marty” and realized there was hope.
The title of “Are You Anybody?” refers to the question the Broadway photographers would ask on opening nights trying to ascertain who should be photographed. It opens with a series of correspondence in which publishers invite him to write the book, and Tambor explains that owning a bookstore (Skylight Books in Los Angeles) does not make him an author. And indeed, there are minor quibbles—his habit of saying “Hi” to his friends after telling a story about them grows old quickly.
But chronic worrier Tambor needn’t have lost sleep over the final product. “Are You Anybody?” is one of the most entertaining autobiographies in recent years and will appeal to fans of “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Arrested Development,” “Transparent” or just good storytelling.
Kathleen Rizzo Young is a veteran contributing critic to the Buffalo News