Judd Hirsch, 78, is the veteran star of numerous classic movies and TV series, including Ordinary People, Taxi, Independence Day and A Beautiful Mind. He’s currently appearing in a production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, and in Numb3rs, a crime drama on CBS Action. Here, he chats about maths, riding cars with Jeff Goldblum and why he likes mixing things up.[divider]
JN: For those who’ve never seen Numb3rs, what is it all about?
Judd: I believe it was originally about a genius college mathematics professor who graduated at the same time as his brother but is much younger. But it became an FBI show, so it was no longer a college-based drama. But he remains a college professor, and he helps his FBI agent brother solve cases – I play their father.
JN: What makes it different to other crime dramas?
Judd: The cases are very complicated, and the maths enables them to find the suspects. So it’s extremely smart, a very intelligent show. The only thing is, I’m not sure that everyone will be able to follow the maths – I’m not able to. But everything is true, and people across our country were fascinated by the idea. In fact, all the schools started to pick up the show.
JN: Did it encourage more interest in maths?
Judd: Yes. Some say it’s responsible for the rebirth of maths in the school system in America.
JN: How did you get involved in the series?
Judd: The young man playing the mathematician, David Krumholtz. He was an actor at just 13 years old, playing my son in a play on Broadway. We re-met when he was about 31 on this show, so somehow I hold him responsible! Maybe he suggested me, but I don’t know. The producers knew my background as well, that I was a physics graduate, and that maths was one of my favourite subjects.
JN: So what made you switch from science to acting?
Judd: That’s a question I’ve never really answered for myself. I’m pretty sure it’s a very social idea, that I liked more people on the acting side than I did on the other. This is a jollier life!
JN: What kind of character is Alan?
Judd: He’s a semi-retired city planner, which is also up my alley because it’s to do with architecture, which I also studied. He’s a widower, and the young mathematician is always with me. In one episode he buys the house from me. He’s one of those people who really can’t make the break away until he gets a girlfriend. But it’s cosy – everybody meets at my house! At the end of the day, the FBI and the mathematics department meet at my house.
JN: The Scott Brothers – Tony and Ridley – were behind the series. What were they like to work with?
Judd: Them overseeing this project gave it a look that made it what it is, because they’re very visual people. They’re not just line producers, they see the footage and have an influence on how it’s shot. Each episode is a movie for television, and that’s very fortunate because it’s the kind of show that needs special attention, because it’s an unusual category. I think that’s what gave it endurance. I’ve been in a few one-hour detective shows and they never lasted as long as this one.
JN: Were you sad when it came to an end?
Judd: We were getting, I believe, around 11 million viewers which, if we were on at prime time, would be a success. Then something economic hit America – as you probably know – and I suppose they had to pull the plug on some of their shows, and one of them was ours.
JN: Most Brits will remember you from Taxi. Do you still look back on that fondly?
Judd: Right now I’m playing with one of my co-stars from Taxi. I’m in a Neil Simon play called The Sunshine Boys. My co-star in Taxi, Danny DeVito, went to London to appear in the play with Richard Griffiths, who subsequently died. He’d been due to open here in Los Angeles, so when that happened, they called me, so I’m now back with my old pal.
JN: You did Ordinary People at the same time as Taxi. They were very different projects – do you like to mix and match genres?
Judd: I call it opportunity! No actor really wants to be typecast or stuck in one particular type of role. Right now I would certainly welcome another unconventional role. I’ve always tried to do that. When I was younger I played older people, when I was older I played younger people. It all depends on how people see you.
JN: Is there a role you’d have loved to play, or one you’d still like to appear in?
Judd: Oh, there were many. But when you’re doing one thing, you can’t do the other. If anybody 25 years ago had asked me if I would play Iago I’d have jumped at the chance, I wouldn’t even have worried if I’d gotten paid or not. I did a movie with Sean Penn a couple of years ago that went to the Cannes Film Festival. It was called This Must Be the Place. It’s a very strange and interesting movie, and for me it was an opportunity to do something different – and to work with Sean Penn.
JN: Do you have anything else coming up?
Judd: No, it’s too soon; we’re stuck in the middle of this production. After that, I’ll probably go back to New York.
JN: So you’re not going to be involved in the Independence Day sequels?
Judd: I heard they were going to make one. Bill Pullman, who played the President of the United States, is going to be in it. He came backstage the other day after the play and said, ‘I’ll see you there!’. But I think it’s going to be 20 years later, and if you add 20 years onto the life of my character, well…
JN: We’ll have to wait and see…
Judd: Who knows? Perhaps he’ll be in flashbacks. I would love to do it because it was such an event. It was the primer for other movies of its type.
JN: You had a really good rapport with Jeff Goldblum as well.
Judd: Yeah, we had fun. We did some improvisations in the car ride. We had one long, dopey, interesting night![divider]
Numb3rs airs weeknights at 9pm on CBS Action.