A consummate “hey-it’s-that-guy!” actor, Canadian Saul Rubinek can, by this point in his career, predict just what performance he’ll be asked about the moment that he spots a fan beelining toward him.
“It all depends on what they look like, and partly it’s generational. Oh, this guy is a Frasier fan. This guy, he’s a Trekkie who remembers me from that one Star Trek episode. Then there’s the Unforgiven people, the Warehouse 13 fans,” the 74-year-old actor says from his Los Angeles home.
“Or sometimes it’s just, ‘Oh, where do I know you from? What did I see you in?’ At that point I just have to say, ‘Google me,’ because otherwise we’re going to be standing around for half an hour.”
But even the hardest core of Rubinek devotees might not remember the actor’s early work with the CBC – a run of TV movies and pilots that helped the actor hone his chops, and that enabled the Canadian broadcaster to develop its original-programming vision under John Hirsch, head of television drama in the late seventies.
There were the comedy pilots, 1774 and The Rimshots, both featuring Rubinek alongside future SCTV players Catherine O’Hara and Dave Thomas. There was Mordecai Richler’s The Wordsmith, starring Rubinek as a Montreal writer. The anthology drama, Seer Was Here, starred Rubinek alongside Martin Short. And the Rubinek-led Friday Night Adventure was one of Canadian TV’s earliest programs depicting gay life.
Rarely seen, these productions will be available to view online for free across the country from June 1-11 as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. This year’s TJFF, now in its 31st year, is actually a veritable Saul schmooze. The fest is also screening the new Ukrainian drama, SHTTL, which features Rubinek in a tale of a Jewish village on the eve of the Second World War, and will host an in-person conversation with the actor June 10 at Innis Hall, where he will recount his long and stacked career playing characters who are crusty (Hunters), contemplative (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and coked-up (True Romance).
For Rubinek – who remains as busy as ever, including a wry supporting turn in the new Canadian comedy BlackBerry, now in theatres – the TJFF is an opportunity to revisit work he hasn’t thought about in decades.
“John Hirsch back then, you know he opened a lot of doors to different writers and directors. For us in alternative Toronto theatre, it felt like a real birth of Canadian television,” Rubinek recalls. “Working with directors George Bloomfield, Ralph L. Thomas, Claude Jutra – those were important people in my life as a young actor. It helped me a lot when I went to New York to expand my career.”
But more than looking toward the past, Rubinek sees the TJFF events as chances to dig deeper into his twin passion projects that, in their own ways, cut to the heart of how he views contemporary Jewish culture.
In SHTTL, Rubinek gets to perform for the very first time in Yiddish, the language that he grew up speaking as the child of Polish Jews. After being born in a refugee camp in Allied-occupied Germany in 1948 – “It was located outside Munich in an old Nazi slave-labour munitions camp, where all the streets were named after American states. I was born on Tennessee Avenue’” – Rubinek and his family moved to Montreal when he was nine months old.
“My first languages were Yiddish mixed with street French. I didn’t really speak English until we moved to Ottawa when I was six-and-a-half years old,” Rubinek says. “Yiddish was there for me, always. But I’ve never had the opportunity to use it much on-screen, until I went to Ukraine to make this film.”
Shot just six months ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, director Ady Walter’s SHTTL replicates life in one of the countless small villages that populated Eastern Europe in the pre-Second World War era. Production on the film was so detailed that producers even built a synagogue from scratch, consecrated by a Ukrainian rabbi. After filming wrapped, the site was intended to be set up as a national museum, a window into the past built from the ground up – though that plan has been complicated by the war.
“Zelensky allowed drones to go over the site earlier this year, and we were able to discover that everything was somehow still intact,” Rubinek says. “But we also believe the area was indiscriminately mined by Russian on retreat, so there’d have to be mine-clearing if anyone goes back there.”
In addition to SHTTL, Rubinek is eager to spread the word about his new play, All in the Telling, which he is hoping to stage in the near future. A reworking of Rubinek’s 1987 documentary and book, So Many Miracles, which followed Rubinek’s parents reuniting with the Polish farming family who saved their lives during the war, the play traces how three generations of his family have reckoned with the legacy of the Holocaust.
“When the book and documentary came out in ‘87, I learned to be very cautious about Holocaust education. I didn’t like it because it exclusive-ized the Jewish Holocaust away from all the other holocausts that happened – against Armenians, Native Americans,” Rubinek says. “In the years since, it’s transformed. We have to embrace the fact that there isn’t a day that goes by when there isn’t a genocide going on in some place in the world in different ways.”
The Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs June 1-11 (tjff.com).