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The Chosen

The Chosen(1981)

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teaser The Chosen (1981)

Based on Chaim Potok's 1967 novel, Jeremy Paul Kagan's The Chosen (1981) dramatizes life within the seldom-depicted Hassidic community through the story of a friendship between two young Jewish men.

Set in the final months of World War II, The Chosen stars Barry Miller as Reuven Malter, a New York high-schooler who has been raised by his father, professor David Malter (Maximilian Schell) as a liberal Jew. In a neighborhood baseball game, Reuven encounters a group of young Hassidim, who are much more strict in their observance of religious custom, and has his eye injured by a line drive hit by the soft-spoken and socially awkward Danny Saunders (Robby Benson). In spite of the lingering animosity from the baseball-to-the-face, and the cultural differences that separate the two, Reuven and Danny become tentative friends. Danny's father is a respected Rebbe (Rod Steiger) and to gain his approval, Reuven must prove his intellect and faith. Reb Saunders is concerned not only about Danny's friendship with Reuven, but also about the influence Reuven's father -- a Zionist intellectual -- may have upon the young student's future. Reb Saunders permits Danny to study Hebrew alongside Reuven at Hirsch College, rather than a more traditional Yeshiva. But the more of life that Danny experiences "outside the fold," the more concerned his father becomes that he might betray his spiritual legacy.

Author Chaim Potok (1929-2002) was raised by Polish Jewish immigrants in the Orthodox Jewish faith. His first novel, The Chosen was nominated for a National Book Award and sold a phenomenal 3.4 million copies. Potok has written numerous novels and plays, but to date, only The Chosen has been adapted to the screen. A renowned Hebrew scholar, his non-fiction work includes a number of books and histories documenting and commenting upon the Jewish experience, including Wanderings: Chaim Potok's Story of the Jews (1978) and the memoir The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family (1996). Potok appears briefly in The Chosen as a Talmudic scholar.

Potok discussed the film adaptation in a 1983 interview with College People magazine. "Interestingly enough the film initially was acquired by a Methodist fundamentalist from New Orleans named Roger Harrison. He wanted the world to see that there were American boys who were serious about their studies and about how to relate to their families and the world and that not every American teenager was into drugs and sex and hot rods, as he put it. He was the one who got the initial seed money together to acquire the property and get a screenplay written."

As is common in the film world, The Chosen spent several years in a development purgatory before actually going into production. Potok remembered, "The film was his dream for about seven years. I trusted [Harrison]. Ultimately when it went into production the people we chose had an absolutely fine track record, they had made some extremely high-quality films in the past. Again it was on the basis of trust and I was very satisfied with the results." (from the website

In spite of the presence of such seasoned actors as Steiger and Schell, most eyes were upon Robby Benson at the time of the film's release, to see how the heartthrob of such films as Ice Castles (1978), One on One (1977), and Ode to Billy Joe (1976) would fare in such a departure from his dreamy image.

In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Benson, who might not be expected to be the quiet surprise of a movie like this one, nevertheless makes a fine impression as Danny. He is eager without being overeager, and full of a gentle inquisitiveness that can't help but win the audience's sympathy." Though she considered the film, "gently evocative," she felt that, overall, the film failed to engage the audience, "the performances are uniformly guarded and cool, and the story becomes less involving than it might be. The friendship between Danny and Reuven is presented carefully enough, but it doesn't have much warmth."

Though he continues to act (and is, in recent years, best known as the voice of Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast franchise), Benson has directed more than 100 sitcom episodes and pilots, for such series as Evening Shade, Ellen, and Friends. Benson fictionalized his career and satirized the entertainment business in a 2007 novel, Who Stole the Funny?

Ely Landau (who produced The Chosen in collaboration with his wife Edie) began his career in television, specializing in adaptations of theatrical plays. In the 1970s, Landau engineered one of the boldest experiments in film marketing, the American Film Theatre. With the help of A-list directors and actors, Landau produced unedited adaptations of influential plays and exhibited them theatrically as if they were plays (limited engagements with tickets sold by subscription, printed programs, intermissions, etc.). Schell was the star of one such film, Arthur Hiller's The Man in the Glass Booth (1975), based on Robert Shaw's play about the trial of a Nazi war criminal. Landau's other credits include the epic three-hour documentary King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis (1970) which, like the AFT productions, was exhibited as a one-time theatrical event on March 24, 1970. The Landaus' son Jon has become a producer in his own right, with credits including James Cameron's Titanic (1997), Avatar (2009), and Steven Soderbergh's Solaris (2002).

Like Landau, director Jeremy Paul Kagan (who has since dropped the middle name) strives to create work with socio-political impact. In 2005, he directed the ten-part mini-series The ACLU Freedom Files. With big-screen credits including The Big Fix (1978, starring Richard Dreyfuss) and The Journey of Natty Gann (1985), the bulk of Kagan's career has been spent in television, directing episodes of such diverse series as Chicago Hope, The West Wing, and Picket Fences. In 2008, Kagan founded The Change Making Media Lab at the University of Southern California, its mission being "to foster positive social and environmental change by promoting research on effective media techniques and creating strategic high-impact cinema, television, and multi-media visual imagery to inspire individuals, organizations, and communities into action."

The Chosen was resurrected as an off-Broadway musical in 1988, but only briefly. George Hearn (Tony-winner for La Cage aux Folles) starred as Reb Saunders. The songs were written by composer Philip Springer and lyricist Mitchell Bernard. The show, which opened at the Second Avenue Theatre on New York's Lower East Side, closed after four days. A non-musical stage adaptation followed, performed in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in 1999, then Washington DC and Florida in 2001.

Producers: Edie Landau, Ely A. Landau
Director: Jeremy Paul Kagan
Screenplay: Chaim Potok (novel); Edwin Gordon
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Film Editing: David Garfield
Cast: Maximilian Schell (Professor David Malter), Rod Steiger (Reb Saunders), Robby Benson (Danny Saunders), Barry Miller (Reuven Malter), Hildy Brooks (Mrs. Saunders), Kaethe Fine (Shaindel Saunders), Ron Rifkin (Baseball coach), Robert Burke (Levi Saunders as Robert Burke), Lonny Price (Davey), Evan Handler (Goldberg).

by Bret Wood

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