When the name Jeremy Piven comes to mind, it is most often in the context of Ari Gold, the character he played for eight seasons on HBO’s hit series “Entourage.”
Gold was a ruthless celebrity agent, and not a particularly nice guy. Piven’s spot-on portrayal of that character earned him three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe.
Unpredictably, the classically trained, Jewish actor has pivoted career paths and is now touring the country with a stand-up routine. He was in Pittsburgh last weekend to perform four shows at the Improv at the Waterfront, and to join congregants of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha for Saturday morning services. He was given an aliyah, and joined the congregation for Shabbat lunch.
When he heard about the massacre here on Oct. 27, “I felt kind of helpless and so far away,” said Piven, speaking by phone from New York prior to his arrival in Pittsburgh. “At that time, I immediately scheduled the next possible time to perform in that area. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until a few months away, so it’s been a little bit of time, but I still wanted to go and be around everyone and pay my respects and be around some good energy.”
Piven was raised Jewish. He said he has been “observing my whole life, and was bar mitzvahed, and love being part of the Jewish community.”
Most recently seen as a series regular in the CBS television series “Wisdom of the Crowd,” Piven also portrayed Harry Gordon Selfridge in the PBS series “Mr. Selfridge.” He is a veteran of stage as well, but about a year ago, he launched his career as a stand-up comedian.
“It’s all part of the journey, because I am lucky to have been classically trained, but at the same time, I also grew up performing sketch comedy,” he said. “My first job out of college was performing with Second City, which is basically improvising on your feet with a group of actors. And stand-up, at times, is improvising on your feet alone. So I think it is the same engine, but a different gear.”
His turn as a comic “may confuse people,” he acknowledged. “There will be people who will doubt me and, as you know from being Jewish, we’ve been counted out and we’ve been underdogs for centuries, so I welcome that, and I love the opportunity to rise to the occasion.”
In January, Piven took his stand-up routine to Israel, playing shows in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I was kind of shocked because I didn’t know how many of the pop culture references that they would get, and they got them all.”
Israel, he said, “is such a beautiful miracle. It’s such a young country, and they are all so vibrant, and it was just a lesson being there. I loved the energy of the place. And they have their own specific rites of passage, and part of it is going to the army, so people are incredibly well-equipped and hard-working and yet really know how to be present and have a good time and celebrate their freedom. So there is a lot to be learned from the Israelis.”
That was Piven’s second visit to the Jewish state. His first was in 2016, along with an entourage of basketball players. He was invited by Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA.
“I was lucky enough to go with a group that was there to draw some attention to Israel in a positive light, which is the way they should be seen,” he said. “We donated a motorcycle which is being used as an ambulance in Israel.”
Although his parents were founders of the famed Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Illinois, performing was not his only interest growing up. He was on his high school football team, and his immersion into jock culture broadened his worldview.
“I was incredibly lucky to be a part of a bunch of different worlds that usually don’t go together, including playing high school football, and also being in the Piven Theatre when I wasn’t on the football field, which was a very interesting combination,” he said. “Very few people get to experience all those worlds, and I highly suggest it to anyone who has a kid growing up.
“At my bar mitzvah, no one knew what to do with the yarmulke — they were using them as frisbees or pocket squares,” he laughed. “So I was incredibly lucky in that way, that I got to experience all different types of people and to learn intrinsically, in my bones, that we are all the same.”
The Piven Theatre also was a very inclusive environment, he said.
“If you couldn’t afford it, the kids would be on scholarship. Whatever it took. One thing that my family is not necessarily good at is business — we are just simply artists. And anyone that wants to come and work with us is welcome and that’s the way we have always been — open-door policy — which is actually the antithesis of the character I played, Ari Gold.
“It’s interesting growing up and being a Chicago stage actor and then being confused for Ari Gold,” he continued. “I was walking down the street just now and a guy — it was very cute — instead of calling me Ari Gold, he called me Ari Goldstein, and said, ‘Can you sign a contract for me?’ That was adorable. I would love to sign that fictional contract.”
Piven opens his show with addressing the fact that he is not his “Entourage” alter ego, he said, “to give people a context for me, to put them at ease and let them know it’s time to laugh. They are hoping I am going to be funny because they don’t know if I can do stand-up or not. And that’s also what the whole exchange is. I love this challenge.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at