No longer an angry young comedian, David Steinberg is making his debut as a film director
The directorship of Duddy
No longer an angry young comedian, David Steinberg is making his debut as a film director
David Steinberg has desired only one object in his life, and, in a way, that object stood for all the things he ever wanted. “I was an English student at the University of Chicago,” he recalls. “It was winter and cold—the kind of cold that wraps itself around you and wrestles you to the ground. I was walking across campus loaded down with eight books when I saw it: out of the snow, as if in an impressionistic movie, came this gorgeous, yellow fourplus-four Morgan. In it was a good-looking English teacher with a blonde shiksa delight by his side. They just kind of whizzed by me, and I thought, ‘Something is wrong here: I’m walking in a blizzard with eight books and there’s that Morgan passing by.’ I wanted that Morgan so badly.”
He got what he wanted, as indeed he always has. He took his first paycheque from a show called Music Scene, then tootled around Los Angeles to show, if to nobody other than himself, that he had arrived. No longer the beleaguered, envious scholar, nor the precocious Duddy Steinberg from Winnipeg’s north end, he had become David Steinberg, a man of many pursuits: star of Chicago’s Second City, then stand-up comic supreme who packed them in on the college circuit. His knack for offending people’s religious sensibilities helped to hasten the demise of the controversial television show hosted by the Smothers Brothers. Among comics, he was the foremost political satirist during the Nixon administration, the man who compared Nixon’s face to “a foot badly in need of a sock.” For outspoken behavior, he garnered a fat FBI file and had his life threatened. Watergate took away the best punching bag he ever had; he went on to guest and hosting spots on The Tonight Show, playing Las Vegas, acting and, now, a first crack at directing with the just-released Paternity, starring his friend Burt Reynolds.
With Paternity, a gentle and ably made romantic comedy about a man’s search for a surrogate mother to bear
his child, the fanged funster has lost some of his bite. “I feel very energetic, but now that I’ve started to direct I’m interested to see how those energies work for me.” At 41, he has mellowed. “Maybe I’m not interested in negating as much as I get older,” he muses. “I hope that isn’t a weakness, but it’s who I am.”
“I just think he’s the best,” says Beverly D’Angelo, Paternity's surrogate
‘There is no question that a need for vindication is why I got anything done at all. ’
mother. “He’s defined himself. He knows who he is.” Not only does he know who he is, he also knows why. “There is absolutely no question,” he confesses, “that a need for vindication is why I got anything done at all. I was very popular in Winnipeg at one point and then I wasn’t. So I said to myself, ‘I’ll show them I am something.’ ” At the height of his comedy career he was persuaded to return to Winnipeg for a
concert and managed to sell only 400 out of 2,000 seats. “They have this love-hate relationship with me. No, you can’t go home again . . . especially to the north end of Winnipeg. It’s exactly what I expected: make me come home and have no one show up.” In retaliation Steinberg has referred to Winnipeg as “the Buffalo of Canada.”
Pre-stardom, the diminutive, multitalented Steinberg was once just plain Duddy. “Duddy got his start in my living room,” says James Diamond, an old friend with whom Steinberg directed a Jewish day camp. “He’d come over and do his improvisations there. But we never predicted he’d go so far.” When he was 15, Steinberg attended a yeshiva (rabbinical school) with Diamond in Chicago. A whiz at Hebrew, Duddy nevertheless forsook divinity for English lit, whereas Diamond went on to become a rabbi. Duddy had other plans, which is to say he had fantasies.
Those fantasies took the form of lies, more charitably known as fibs. The joke among those who knew him was, “When will his nose grow longer?” “What got Duddy into trouble,” says Diamond, “was that he became a real bullshitter, and that put a lot of people off. Though he mes-
0 merized people and was really a É warm person, he could be ma-
1 nipulative at times.” Steinberg $ seemed happy on the surface, ¿ but he was, in fact, “a driven Í person, out to prove himself.”
Today, Steinberg doesn’t deny his fibbing; he has even referred to his former self as a pathological liar: “I couldn’t control it—I didn’t want to!” He would lie about anything, in part to make conversation more interesting, but mostly to impress. Even the embarrassment of being caught out didn’t stop him. “If I had met Monty Hall,” he explains, “I’d say I met Barbra Streisand. If I met Streisand, then why not say I knew the Duke of Windsor?” He displays a wondrous row of teeth with a grin.
“Fibbing comes from an insecurity: you don’t believe in yourself,” he says. Following the yeshiva, Duddy went to Israel for a year, an experience he re-
members as “elevating.” But when he returned to Winnipeg, he became depressed and began drinking. “I had no idea who I was or where I was,” he says, recalling what he terms the worst period in his life. He returned to school in Chicago, and then, at 21, he saw Lenny Bruce. “I could not believe what I saw. Except for six or seven people, including myself, everyone disliked him. I felt he was a combination of James Joyce, Eddie Cantor, myself, yourself—I just couldn’t believe it. I knew what I wanted to do.” The following year Second City appeared on campus, Stein-
berg sneaked into the hall to watch and within a year was with the company.
Once he knew what he wanted to do, he discovered that his past was an asset, not a liability. “When you have been a liar and are converted you become an embarrassing truth teller. You proselytize the truth. I think that’s where my irreverence came from. If you are irreverent you will say what no one else will say, and what you are saying then is usually the truth.”
A rich source of material was his Jewish background. It resulted in one of his best routines, “Disguised as a Nor-
mal Person.” Taking the tack that being Jewish was definitely not normal, he would come out on stage and hiss the name — Stein-berg—then offer suggestions as to how to improve this deficiency which, in addition to new nomenclature, also meant cutting off his nose. He embraced his Jewishness with the same gusto he reserved for the Nixon administration. “I never saw him as a self-hating Jew,” says James Diamond.
What he did resent was Winnipeg, and all he felt it stood for. “Winnipeg,” says Steinberg, “measures people by how well they do in Winnipeg. I didn’t go to the University of Manitoba like my cousin Maurice did, so anything I accomplished outside it didn’t really exist.” Cousin Maurice became a psychiatrist. In a famous routine, “The Psychiatrist,” Steinberg played the doctor while a volunteer from the audience played patient. But it was the shrink who was the raving maniac and went about the stage shouting “Booga-booga” at the poor patient.
As for Canada, says Steinberg with a mischievous glint in his eye, “I love to tease Canada. Canada takes itself so seriously.” The scars of Winnipeg are definitely healing. One—a long gash down the side of his chin—has already done just that. It was the result of falling on a ginger ale bottle when he was 4. “I used to fill up ginger ale bottles with dirt. This,” he says, “was an example of how much there was to occupy your time in Winnipeg. After the tragedy had unfolded and I came rushing home to tell my mother, she fainted. Rather than take me to the Catholic hospital,
three blocks away, my father [both parents were immigrant Russian Jews] chose to take me to the Jewish one, which was 23 stitches away. If he had just gone down to this little goyish place down the street, you wouldn’t have noticed this scar. But for fear that the nuns and the crucifix were going to jinx my life, I have this mark of Cain on my chin.”
The vagaries of vindicating himself far behind him and a new career ahead, Steinberg claims the kind of calm he’s feeling is due, in large part, to his nineyear marriage to Judy Marcione. He got the Morgan and the shiksa delight. But aside from the Morgan, he says he has never craved material possessions. “I don’t have things I care about a great deal. I have them and would probably miss them if they were taken away, but they were never goals of mine.” In fact, he has been broke several times during his ever-changing career and has been short of money very recently because of turning down more lucrative projects in order to direct. “I don’t like that,” he frowns, adding, “but I’m not afraid of it.” His one indulgence is clothes, natty suits and snazzy casuals that heighten his tanned, five-foot, six-inch frame.
He lives in a smallish house (for California, that is), is well-liked and counts Johnny Carson and Burt Reynolds among his best friends. On the racquetball court he’s regarded as a bit of a terror: “I’m surprising—I play a lot of sports. I’m not expected to be a jock.”
Call it holdover vindication.
Steinberg and his wife have no children and have never felt the need for them.
Not even after directing a movie about a man who desperately wants a child? Well . . maybe ... he concedes:
“Now I’m starting to like the idea.” Pause. “Yes, I want a little slave. I want someone to whom I can say ‘Go get me this or go get me that.’ I want someone to do things for me.
want the child to be screwed up by virtue of how successful am as a celebrity.” It’s the old Steinberg who used to hold scathing court in the university cafeteria. The old edge is back for a moment.
But it’s probably just a reflex. The new David Steinberg wants to continue directing, but only comedies (“You direct best what you know”), and says, “As I give
up the anger, I become more and more successful, on my own terms, in what I do. I’m curious about how much energy there is in me creatively without that anger.” Even if the anger was still there, he couldn’t go back to stand-up comedy. “When you’re a stand-up comic it helps to have a reason for being there on that stage. During the Nixon administration I had a reason. The country was very polarized and I had a lot to say about it. When I started to be just funny, I started to lose interest.”
The times have changed and Steinberg with them. If Paternity is a suc-
The country was polarized and I had a lot to say about it When I started to be just funny, Host interest ’
cess, the offers will pour in. Meanwhile, he continues to read voraciously for new material and for pure pleasure. (“I love gossip, I love trash. I’ll read anything. Errol Flynn’s Nazi-homosexual experiences. Anything.”) And he still has the yellow Morgan. “I have one obnoxious nephew who wants the Morgan desperately, and I will not give it to him. Not because he’s obnoxious but because one of the greatest pleasures I have is to hold on to that Morgan as a memento.” It’s a reminder of just how well Duddy did, and of how much further he may well go. 0
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