Mark Feuerstein developed, writes and stars in his new sitcom — based on his own life

The Jewish News
Suzanne Chessler

Suzanne Chessler

Josh Roberts, a recent divorcé and out-of-work actor, recently returned to New York City after 12 years living in L.A.

Mark Feuerstein may not be able to relate to those exact details in the character he portrays in his new sitcom, 9JKL. But there are plenty of others.

For a time, Feuerstein lived in a New York apartment exactly in between apartments occupied by his parents on one side and his brother’s family on the other side.

“When I shared with a producer how I was living, he said, ‘That’s a TV show,’” Feuerstein recalls. “I said, ‘You’re right,’ and I was so grateful when he called me and said, ‘Let’s make it.’ I was even more grateful when my wife agreed to come on board.”

9JKL, which debuts Oct. 2 on CBS and is named after his apartment number, is a takeoff on his own experiences — particularly his parents. Feuerstein developed and is writing it with his wife, Dana Klein, a writer and producer for Friends.

Also on board is Linda Lavin as his mom, making for a reunion of sorts — Lavin played his mom in the 1998 sitcom Conrad Bloom. In that show, she was a widow; this time, Elliott Gould plays her husband. (Actor Matt Murray, who plays the doorman, is from Detroit.)

Feuerstein’s more recent TV credits include Royal Pains, Prison Break and Nurse Jackie. Among his feature film credits are Defiance, In Her Shoes and Abandon. His Broadway debut cast him in the starring role for Alfred Uhry’s Tony Award-winning play The Last Night of Ballyhoo.

Feuerstein, who grew up in New York, entered Princeton thinking he would study international relations but found acting. The son of an attorney and teacher of teachers, he auditioned for a play and got caught up in theater. Feuerstein went on to win a Fulbright scholarship and studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. As his career progressed, he describes his parents as shepping nachas (deriving pleasure) from watching him perform.

“There are things in the pilot that are absolutely real,” Feuerstein explains. “My father really did make me develop a viral video for his law firm in which we acted together, and I hope to show it on a talk show. In the pilot, I have a date, and my father shoves a piece of melon down her throat. That really happened on a date with a girl I brought to our country house; it was mortifying and guaranteed that I wouldn’t get that far with her.”

The family’s Judaism also is brought into the show.

“We’re so obviously culturally Jewish that when it comes to [winter] holiday time, there’s no question that we’re going to be doing the Jewish version of it,” he says. “We haven’t pressed the issue of religion because it’s hard for a new show to be that explicit about religion.”

Away from the screen, and at a difficult time in the family’s life, the Feuersteins found hope through the rabbi at their spiritual community, IKAR (meaning essence) in Los Angeles. The couple has three children, and the youngest, now 7, needed heart surgery.

“The rabbi just showed up at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and we sat on the grass lawn in front of the hospital and said a prayer,” Feuerstein says. “When things are completely out of your control, you can turn to faith for sustenance.

“The rabbi was there, and Judaism was there; and God smiled down on us. That’s why I get to visit my daughter’s school and look at her self-portrait. She’s doing fantastic, thanks to the brilliant surgeon, who also operated on Jimmy Kimmel’s son.”

With this new series, Feuerstein gets a little stressed splitting his time on roles beyond the character he is portraying. He thinks about how lucky he is to reduce tension.

“I’m creator, writer, director and executive producer, and my wife and I are constantly editing the episodes that we’ve been making,” he says. “The show follows in the tradition of shows like Arrested Development and Everybody Loves Raymond in telling a truthful and grounded approach to the complications of family.

“On the one hand, everybody wants what’s best for themselves, but, on the other hand, we cannot live without each other. You navigate that line, and when you’re a very enmeshed family, like mine is, you’re very close, and it becomes tricky.

“My character is trying to find the woman of his dreams and get another job in television or movies, and it’s very hard for him to do all that with the family constantly interfering. “

Feuerstein’s experience beyond acting was gained with Royal Pains. He wrote and directed rap videos that promoted the show, and he directed episodes.

While so many actors do a series and then fall out of the limelight, Feuerstein, 46, maneuvers ways to keep appearing in the spotlight.

“I know if I sit around and wait for someone else to create something for me, I won’t be able to rely on the kindness of strangers,” he explains. “I try to [be instrumental in making] my own good luck.

“I have a few projects carved out of my deal with CBS because I wanted to preserve the right to develop projects. One idea is based on professional wrestling, and another is connected to Hollywood agenting. I’m always trying to keep an iron in the fire.”

Feuerstein, Liza Lapira, David Walton, Linda Lavin and Elliott Gould star in 9JKL.
Mark Feuerstein

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9JKL premieres at 8:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2, on CBS.

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