Hal Linden on Holocaust film that’s all about family

By Ellen Braunstein,Special to Chicago Jewish News

Hal Linden’s father introduced his son to his ardent Zionism in the years before World War II. But the youth didn’t see a need for Israel until the Holocaust “when it became apparent that there had to be a place where Jews could go.”

Linden, 88, who starred for eight seasons in the 1970s sitcom “Barney Miller,” plays a lead role in a new independent film that touches on the memory and sharing of the Holocaust to younger generations.

“The Samuel Project” is opening May 3 at Market Cinemas Old Orchard in Skokie. It is a heartwarming story that re-connects three generations of a family through art.

Linden, an Emmy and Tony award winning actor, plays a grandfather who will speak nothing of his past. His grandson Eli, played by popular Disney star Ryan Ochoa, dreams of becoming a professional artist and pleads for Samuel to share his story for a high school art project.

What drew Linden to “The Samuel Project” is the family relationships explored in the film. “Or the lack of family relations and the stick-to-itiveness of the boy to get the story made, and the humanity of it.”

There have been films about survivors, but what is unique about “The Samuel Project” is the lightness of the film.  “It’s a relationship picture that is universal. We keep the focus on getting the story, not so much on the story itself.”

The boy and the grandfather, a San Diego dry cleaner, become closer as Samuel, reluctant at first, tells how he was saved as an eight-year-old boy after he lost his entire family at the hands of Nazi captors. His saving grace was a young German woman named Uma who found him and took him in after he was shot for trespassing on her family’s farm in Germany.

In discovering the past, it brings the family back together and finally they connect with one another.

“It’s about three generations of one family who don’t really communicate until they have something to communicate about,” Linden said. “That’s done by the boy in accomplishing the project. They tried over the years with words, but nobody talked to each other.”

The challenges of making an independent film weren’t lost on Linden. “We used a dry cleaner shop in San Diego, which meant that every time a customer came through the door, we had to stop shooting. Independent pictures are labors of love. Anybody who does an independent picture should get an award just for making it.”

When it comes to his long career on stage, film and television, Linden is most remembered for his starring role in “Barney Miller.”

“If you are going to be identified by a project let it be one as classy as that one,” he said. “I don’t think there was ever a bad Barney Miller script, probably one of the best written shows in the history of television. It makes it very easy for an actor when you have material you can rely on.”

“Barney Miller” takes place almost entirely within the confines of the detectives’ squad room and Captain Miller’s adjoining office of New York City’s fictional 12th Precinct, located in Greenwich Village.

Miller is the sensible captain of the precinct who uses his odd and dry sense of humor to retain his sanity while dealing with the foibles of his staff and the unending stream of budget problems and paperwork that make up his job. The role earned him multiple Emmy nominations.

Linden was born Harold Lipshitz in 1931 to a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who became a printer. Hal attended the High School of Music and Art and went on to study at Queens College, City University of New York. He later enrolled in Baruch College, then City College of New York, where he received a bachelor of arts in business.

During his youth, Linden aspired to be a big band singer and band leader. A clarinetist, saxophonist and singer, he began his career as a big band musician and singer. He was stationed in Fort Belvoir during the Korean War and played in the United States Army Band.

During his service, Linden began associating with actors more than musicians. The big band era was ending and all music was changing, he said. After seeing a touring production of “Guys and Dolls” in Washington, D.C., Linden thought “maybe I’d give acting a try.”

Linden worked in summer stock and off-Broadway productions. He found success on Broadway when he replaced Sydney Chaplin in the musical “Bells are Ringing.” In 1971, he won a Best Actor Tony Award for his portrayal of Mayer Rothschild in the musical “The Rothschilds.”

A producer saw him in “The Rothschilds” and when it came to casting “Barney Miller,” two and a half years later, he remembered Linden and contacted him.

These days Linden is back to his roots, working seven shows a week in New Hope, Pennsylvania for a 1940s big band music revue called “In the Mood.” Linden released his first album of pop and jazz standards, “It’s Never Too Late,” in 2011.

Since 1997, Linden has been involved in the Jewish community as a national spokesman for Jewish National Fund. He takes a mission trip on behalf of the organization every other year. “I’m a secular Jew, but tribally very involved.” He said he became a Zionist after seeing how the British restricted immigration to Palestine after World War II.

As for retirement, Linden says he doesn’t know the meaning of the word. “What am I retiring from? What am I going to do? Sit and do crossword puzzles and play golf? I do that now.”

“I’ve enjoyed life all along, had a terrific wife of 52 years” (the late Frances Martin), who he met in 1955 doing summer stock. “I have four kids who still talk to me and eight grandchildren who love me,” he said. “None of my kids are actors. Maybe I was just too intimidating.”

“The Samuel Project” is opening May 3 at Market Cinemas Old Orchard, 4999 Old Orchard Rd., in Skokie. To see a trailer of the film, visit the site thesamuelprojectmovie.com/home/showtimes/.

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