Are You Anybody? by Jeffrey Tambor. (Memoir, 2017).
Jeffrey Tambor has built an enviable record of success as an actor. He’s won Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, despite the deep-seated insecurities that he details in this revealing and personal memoir. Of course insecure actors are anything but a rarity. That he attributes his insecurity largely to growing up in a dysfunctional family isn’t unusual, either.
Still, this accomplished performer deserves praise for the forthright way he reveals his inner demons and owns up to mistakes he’s made in both his personal and career life.
Growing up in the 1950s San Francisco, the second son of fear-driven Russian and Hungarian Jewish parents was difficult enough. Haunted by the still-fresh horrors of World War II’s Holocaust in addition to the more run-of-the-mill forms of prejudice, they drilled into young Jeffrey that he must be a “good boy” and modest to a fault. His father taught him that anything he values could easily and abruptly be taken from him. “Don’t make waves” or celebrate openly or “they” will take it all away.
Worries about being “husky” (if not quite fat) and the lisp he struggled to overcome didn’t help, either.
Then murky incidents his family never spoke of directly and which are still only vaguely understood by Jeffrey soured Barney and Eileen Tambor’s previously happy relationship. This signaled the beginning of his mother’s descent into a bitter, increasingly unstable, emotionally abusive and at times actually suicidal state. The cliche about “walking on eggshells” soon characterized the Tambor household’s atmosphere and an increasingly desperate Jeffrey gravitated to acting as an escape.
His uncertain early adult years, learning his craft and slowly building a reputation, make fairly interesting reading. His experiences in college, as a junior member of various repertory stage companies and then working up the acting ladder on Broadway, television and films include a number of compelling stories.
But in all honesty, most are not in themselves overly new or different from the stories of numerous other struggling young actors. The book’s title refers to a somewhat humiliating experience from his Broadway debut in a bit part. An autograph-hungry man approached him after a performance. Learning that Jeffrey was an unknown newcomer, the man instantly lost interest and went off in search of better-known cast members.
His obsessive need to please (especially one acting coach who became as much a substitute father figure as a teacher and mentor) dogged his budding career and at times wrecked his personal life. Learning to put that aside and grow is a recurrent theme in the book–and something he still struggles with.
Tambor discusses his failed first marriage, his missteps as a parent, his addiction and sobriety, an unsettling flirtation with Scientology and even the time he received billing below a trained seal when guesting on an episode of The Love Boat.
He also details his deeply effecting friendship with Garry Shandling; working with great behind-the-camera figures like Mitch Hurwitz and Jill Soloway; his current marriage and trying to be a better father, now with four young kids as he approaches seventy years old.
Jeffrey Tambor has led an interesting life, it’s true. He’s not a particularly gifted writer, I must admit. He’s undeniably well-read (and his respect for and love of literature is abundantly clear). There are many humorous aside here, as well–including the series of reprinted emails at the start that detail how he was reluctantly ‘wooed’ into writing this thing by persistent publishers. But while heartfelt and honest, this book does strike me as a bit repetitive in spots.
So it’s not perfect. But it’s a worthwhile effort, by and about an interesting public figure.