Once during the shooting of a CBC drama, the American character actor Simon Oakland said to Al Waxman: “You’re good, Al. You’re hungry, and that’s good.” Waxman has been hungry for a long time, a little hustler, pushing, shoving cajoling his way into some sort of niche in the film business. He’s acted, written, directed and produced for the theatre, radio, television and the movies. Now at 40, after 27 years, he’s learned to be hungry without looking so desperate that he scares the guy across the desk out of the room. The hunger has made him successful and, for the first time, is about to make him well known to the Canadian public.
This month AÍ Waxman becomes King Of Kensington, a 13-week CBC television situation comedy series created by expatriate producer-director Perry Rosemond. Comedy had never been very high on the CBC’s list of priorities, but having watched while U.S. television developed situation comedy to the point of becoming a minor art form, the CBC has decided that the Canadian public must laugh (and not just once, but twice. After King Of Kensington finishes its run, it will be replaced by yet another comedy series, this one about an out-of-work immigrant in Canada played by British comedian Frankie Howerd.)
Laughter, however, is not a commodity easily come by. So drama chief John Hirsch, looking for someone with experience in producing television comedy, lured Perry Rosemond back from Hollywood where, among other things, he had been directing episodes of Good Times. Rosemond developed the idea of a Jewish variety store owner, Larry King, who dabbles enthusiastically in everyone’s business and tries to solve their problems in the midst of the cultural melting pot area in Toronto known as Kensington Market. A pilot episode was produced and aired last yeár but Rosemond was not happy with the actor playing the lead. He had known AÍ Waxman since the Fifties and Waxman, Rosemond decided, would make a perfect Larry King.
“There is nothing AÍ doesn’t do with integrity,” Rosemond says. “He doesn’t lie, he doesn’t read a script and give the writer false praise. And there’s a chutzpah about him, he polarizes people. He doesn’t change with people, doesn’t talk or behave differently depending upon who he’s with. And that’s what Larry King has to be.”
In an early episode of the series, Larry King confronts his mother’s racism:
King: “Ma, you’re prejudiced. Don’t you understand the only thing that made this country great is people? Don’t forget if Canada didn’t let people in, you’d still be in Poland.”
Ma: “You call me prejudiced ... let me tell you something my dear son . . . when your father and I came to this country some people used to call us kikes.”
King: “What people called you kikes?”
Ma: “The hunkies.”
Like King, Waxman is Jewish, liberal and overweight. In fact, he was born in the Kensington Market area and spent his first seven years there until life improved somewhat for his parents, owners of the Melinda Lunch, and the family moved “up the hill.” He remembers playing in the streets of Kensington, delivering milk to his aunt’s house. About that same time he got turned on to acting by, of all people, AÍ Jolson. Well, maybe not so much Jolson as Larry Parks. Waxman saw The Jolson Story 27 times (by his own account, which may have been inflated a bit by the passing years). In fact, he remembers immodestly, “I could imitate Jolson better than Parks.” His father died when he was 10 and his stepfather, in order to get on his new son’s good side, agreed to allow him to take acting lessons. At the age of 13 he was appearing on Saturday morning kids’ radio shows. At 18 he was playing roles in summer stock while attending university.
He didn’t really start to get hungry though until after he had studied under the guru of method acting, Lee Strasberg (“I thought it was shit. I think Strasberg was more interested in maintaining a big apartment”); until after he had lived in New York, London and Hollywood and acted in three films, what he calls “Joe Wallpaper” roles. It was the insignificance of those parts, coupled with a desire to emulate Carl Foreman, who directed him in The Victors, that led him to the realization that it was more fulfilling to make films than to act in them.
He came back to Canada, directed a commercially successful short and then in 1970 wrote, produced and directed a feature film called The Crowd Inside. It was a disaster artistically and financially. The experience left Waxman shaken and depressed, unsure of his abilities. But the hunger remained strong and he pulled himself together, directing television episodes, industrial films and commercials. Then last year he was hired to direct a quickie softcore porno movie called My Pleasure Is My Business. It starred The Happy Hooker, Xaviera Hollander. The subject of Pleasure seems to embarrass him somewhat — though he denies that it does — but he is realistic about it.
“The picture was made for only one reason, to make money. To the extent it achieved that, it was a success. I don’t do anything now that isn’t gonna be a hit. And I don’t mean reviews. I mean dollars.”
Even as he prepares to play King Of Kensington, Waxman works on two film scripts, directs a commercial, plays a small film role. The hunger has made him a hard-nosed pragmatist; he calls himself “a survivor.”
“I’m always going to be hungry but without being so desperate. I mean at one time I used to be afraid to go to the beach because there was no phone.” But now? “I couldn’t be happier. I seem to be getting it all together. The thing I’m happiest about is knowing I’m gonna be involved in both acting and directing. That totality is so important. But even more important are my wife and two kids. There was a time when I was one of those guys who said, ‘my career comes first and my family second.’ But now my family comes first and my career is better for it.”
AI Waxman sits back and smiles. He looks well fed.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.