A TV movie called The Law, in which Hirsch played a public defender wrapped up in a high-profile murder case, was “the first thing I ever did on television,” Hirsch recalls. Though the movie won an Emmy for Outstanding Special — Drama or Comedy and Hirsch’s performance won raves, he was not nominated for a statuette. That’s OK, he maintains, because the competition would’ve included Sir Laurence Olivier (for Love Among the Ruins) , Richard Chamberlain (for The Count of Monte Cristo) and Henry Fonda (in the title role of Clarence Darrow). “And of course,” Hirsch says, “Laurence Olivier won.”
Hirsch played the title role in a late ’70s CBS drama about a Los Angeles detective studying to become a lawyer. “I learned a lesson by doing that show,” Hirsch says. “I had something to learn about the speed at which you have to do a television show. You really don’t have time to talk about it too much.” Steven Bochco, the creator of Hill Street Blues, was a writer on the series. “Steve Bochco loved to write a lot of words for me,” Hirsch says, laughing. “By about the sixth show, I said, ‘I’m blank. I don’t know what the hell I’m going to say next. I can’t remember anything.’ And they said, ‘Well, that’s TV. That’s your one-hour dramas.'”
“I was the guy who came in later, you know what I mean? The husband was gone, right? And the show was different,” Hirsch says of his part in the Mary Tyler Moore spinoff, in which he played Mike Andretti, Rhoda’s first date after her divorce. “I loved the opportunity of all of a sudden playing a guy who loves somebody.” Alas, Rhoda and Mike’s courtship wasn’t meant to last; Hirsch only appeared on two episodes of the CBS sitcom.
“Actually, I was through with television” by the time the prospect of starring in Taxi came to his attention, Hirsch says. “I had decided that I was going to be a father and take my kid to Europe or whatever.” But when he read the comedy’s script — which had Hirsch playing disillusioned New York cabbie Alex Rieger — he had mixed emotions. The premise and writing resonated; still, Hirsch considered himself a theater actor who wasn’t sure he wanted to spend that much time away from the boards. “I say, ‘Oh my God. I’ll be old when I get out of that.’ I was 40,” he remembers. In retrospect, the only downside of the job — which ran for five seasons and earned Hirsch two Emmys — “was that everybody remembered me for that and nothing else, so I had to go back and reestablish” his theater cred. “Every time we had a hiatus, I did a play.” To sum up the experience, Hirsch says: “Of course it changed my life. It had to, right?”
Two factors drew Hirsch to the CBS drama about an FBI agent (played by Rob Morrow), his mathematical genius brother (David Krumholtz) and their dad: “It was about mathematics, which I absolutely adore” — he holds a physics degree from City College of New York — and “I got to play with a kid [Krumholtz], who his first part was with me on Broadway in Conversations With My Father… It’s 13 years later, and I’m going to play his father again.” Hirsch remembers a conversation with his younger co-star early in the series’ development. Krumholtz “said, ‘I did seven pilots. None of them worked. Thank God you’re here,'” he says. Hirsch’s reply? “‘Karma! It’s gonna work.'” The series ran for six years.
Hirsch’s Bill Herndon was a “de-barred, ex-lawyer alcoholic,” he says fondly. “I thought, ‘Ooh, let me do that!'” But FX’s gritty legal drama wound up sidelining the character, intriguing as he was, and Hirsch understands the decision. “They didn’t have the time or the energy to do it, because they needed to tell all the stories,” he says. “They told more important stories, much more important.”
The Good Wife
Though many New York-based actors with a certain gravitas have played Good Wife judges, Hirsch’s character is one of the few who was exposed as guiltier than the defendants in his courtroom… except “I figured out a way where he wasn’t,” the actor says, grinning. “We come to the last day [of shooting], and I’m thinking if I don’t say that word they gave me [in the script], I can prove… that I am innocent.” The show wasn’t exactly on board with Hirsch’s script-doctoring. “They chickened out. You can tell them that,” he says, laughing. After all, the idea grew from his affinity for the character. “I didn’t want him to be guilty. What I wanted him to be was desperate. The guilt of a desperate person is something that you can understand.”
Sharknado 2: The Second One
When Hirsch saw the finished version of the Syfy channel schlockfest — in which he plays a New York taxi driver (heh) — two things sprang to mind. First: “I thought, ‘Oh wait, a minute, why did I bother acting?'” he says, laughing. “I could have been a [computer-generated] animation.” Second, one of his ad-libbed lines didn’t make it into the final cut. In the scene where Hirsch’s character must swing across a flooded (and shark-infested) intersection, “for some stupid reason, I decide to say a line from a play that I remembered. It was stupid. I just thought about it and said, ‘They who will hear it in my past will know what I’m saying.'” And in case you’re wondering, “The play’s called Not Enough Rope by Elaine May,” Hirsch adds. “It’s very short.”
The warm, turned-on-its-head relationship between Henry and Abe — turns out, Hirsch’s character is the son of Ioan Gruffudd’s eternally-30something alter ego — was an quick thing, Hirsch says, and it took no effort. The actors’ “instantaneous” bond started when they found they share a mutual passion: golf. “If you get someone who talks about golf and plays golf,” says Hirsch, who took up the game at age 67, “you’ve got a friend for life.”