It was as Alex Reiger, the caustic but commonsense driver among the eccentrics of the Sunshine Cab Company, that Judd Hirsch became a television star.
On the acclaimed Taxi, which ran from 1978 to ’83, he earned two of the show’s 18 Emmy Awards.
Now, nearly 40 years later, Hirsch has come full circle in Superior Donuts. Like Taxi, it is a workplace comedy with offbeat regulars, shot before a studio audience. The CBS series, based on the 2008 play by Tracy Letts, premiered in February and has been picked up for a second season.
Hirsch’s Arthur, a grumpy widower who owns a struggling donut shop in a transitional Chicago neighborhood, finds himself a father confessor to his patrons. Franco (Jermaine Fowler), his only employee, is eager to bring Superior Donuts into the 21st century.
Though reviews have been mixed, Hirsch, now 82, appears buoyant about the show. “If I’m not happy doing it, it ain’t worth it,” he says. “I don’t care what it is — drama, comedy, small part, big part — it makes no difference. This show is gonna make it because America likes us.”
On a warm afternoon, he’s sitting down to a salmon appetizer and a glass of wine at an Italian restaurant near the L.A. studio where the series is shot. He observes with a smile that his journey across the decades seems sudden. One day, “I was 43, and then I skipped a whole bunch of years and went into the 80s,” he quips. “What happened between then and now?”
Actually, a lot — starring in the NBC comedy Dear John (1988-92), for one. Hirsch is no stranger to CBS, either, having played dad to Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz on the network’s 2005-10 crime drama Numb3rs, as well as dad to Johnny Galecki on The Big Bang Theory. Still, his age initially made him a hard sell at CBS for his current series.
James Burrows (Cheers, Frasier, Will & Grace), who met Hirsch on Taxi, pushed for him to play Arthur after the first actor hired, 40-something Brian d’Arcy James, exited the project.
“They wanted to get a younger demographic,” says Burrows, an executive producer and director of Superior Donuts. “But I think there needs to be gravitas in the role. In the play, the guy was a lot older. You just needed that.”
Burrows also wanted Hirsch because he is a master at comedy. “Judd works from the emotion, rather than telling jokes,” Burrows says. “He’s a stage actor. He knows how to ride a laugh. He knows how to throw a joke away. He knows how to be the window through which you watch the show.”
Fowler, who is also an executive producer of the show, describes Hirsch as “the sage” of the set. “He gives me suggestions between takes,” says Fowler, whose background is in stand-up. “It’s much better than having an acting coach.”
Beyond television, Hirsch has won two Tony Awards for his theater work: as lead actor in two Herb Gardner plays, 1985’s I’m Not Rappaport and 1992’s Conversations with My Father. On the film side, he was Oscar-nominated as supporting actor for Robert Redford’s 1980 Ordinary People.
He’s also starred in features such as Sidney Lumet’s 1988 Running on Empty and 1996’s Independence Day. Even more remarkable: he didn’t become an actor until he was in his 30s. “I never expected to be in this position,” says Hirsch, whose early jobs included a junior engineer at Westinghouse while he attended acting school in New York.
“I got fired from every single job I’ve ever had, except acting. Every job. One, I had for six years, but I finally got fired. It was always about temperament, personality, disagreement. Employment — it’s not my best suit.“
But acting was, he realized. Especially after meeting William Hickey, an Oscar nominee for 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor, at the HB Studio in Greenwich Village.
“The thing about him is, he wasn’t teaching acting,” Hirsch explains. “He was making an atmosphere for it. He’d say things like, ‘The most believable thing about you is when you’re innocent of what’s happening.’ That’s the state the character has to be in — to not know what’s coming next.”
So he always looks for the “real” scene in a comedy, which helps him get a fix on his character. He hasn’t had to look far in Superior Donuts. Though Arthur isn’t a chip off the Archie Bunker block, he has his share of prejudices and fears of a changing society.
Hirsch recalls an episode in which Franco calls Arthur a racist — he thinks Arthur has blamed Franco’s friend for stealing an autographed Chicago Cubs baseball, because the friend is black.
“I’m trying to say, ‘No, no, it was because he was right near it.’ Franco goes at me. Neither one of us can be blamed for our thoughts. Society’s doing it. Chicago’s doing it. We’re in the middle of it. That’s where we came from.”
Though Arthur has an uneasy relationship with Franco, that’s certainly not the case for the actors. Hirsch quips that he’s become Fowler’s driver, since his costar doesn’t have a car. “He’s very sweet and very young,” he notes. And, given that the series is returning, life is especially sweet these days.
“I love that we can do this show,” Hirsch says, “about race, about now, about the gap between us older guys and these young kids. I love its possibilities.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017