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Illuminating the Big Screen from page 103
Schreiber has traveled a similar
road in coming to terms with his
personal history, the loss of his
grandfather and the mystery —
the unspoken family history his
Milgram had been Schreiber's
primary male role model after
his parents divorced when he
was 4 and his father left during a
bitter custody battle.
The grandfather spent his life
savings to ensure that Schreiber's
bohemian mother, Heather,
received custody of young Liev.
Although poor, Milgram pro-
vided whatever financial assis-
tance he could as the destitute
mother and child moved into a
series of squatters' apartments
on the Lower East Side, without
electricity or running water.
The boy was often left alone all
day while she drove a cab; his
grandfather helped by taking
him to the circus and to baseball
games, buying him clothes and
introducing him to Judaism via
seders at his home.
Yet Milgram wasn't a talker; he
declined to discuss his child-
hood in a Ukrainian shtetl or his
teenage years in Lodz. Nor would
he talk about why he immigrated
to the United States in 1914 or
about his relatives who died in
After Milgram's death,
Schreiber felt tormented by
"Because of the poverty and
isolation of my childhood:' he
said, "I had grown into a
detached, neurotic adult, afraid
of new relationships, and those
feelings intensified after my
"But I knew I had felt deeply
connected to him, and I intuited
that exploring those feelings
might be a good way to begin
feeling connected to everyone
He began by writing a screen-
play about Milgram. He wasn't
satisfied with the result, however.
That's where things stood in
2001, when he chanced to read a
pre-publication excerpt of Foer's
Illuminated in the New Yorker.
Schreiber immediately felt a
personal connection to the
loosely autobiographical piece
about a withdrawn young
American seeking to understand
his grandfather's life.
"The protagonist felt like me:
This odd, very introverted char-
acter who has become obsessed
with his grandfather's history:'
The actor (The Sum of All
Fears, The Manchurian
Candidate) identified with the
story so much that he invited
then-24-year-old Foer for a
drink to talk about movie rights.
"I really trusted [Liev] right
away:' Foer said in an interview
with studio publicists. "I had no
idea of what he was going to do
with the book, but I knew that he
cared about it and whatever he
did would be a reflection of that
After hours of schmoozing
about their grandfathers and
what it means to be Jewish, Foer
gave Schreiber the go-ahead and
handed him his agent's number.
Before long, the actor was
adapting a book that went on to
become one of 2002's most
hyped (and [best-selling) novels.
It was proclaimed the first 21st
century Jewish masterpiece by a
reviewer for the Forward.
Although a first-time director,
Schreiber wasn't such an unusual
choice for the perfectionistic,
A graduate of the Yale School
of Drama, Schreiber is consid-
ered one of his generation's
finest Shakespearean actors, hav-
ing performed acclaimed turns
as Hamlet and Othello at New
York's Public Theater.
During a recent interview
from his home, not far from his
grandfather's old apartment, he
mentioned that he was still wear-
ing the sleazy mustache required
for his role as a real estate shark
in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen
Ross, for which he won a 2005
Schreiber is an intense student
of words. During an interview, he
peppered his speech with refer-
ences to Russian literature and
also to classical music, as he
spoke quietly and seriously
about his life and career.
His acting work also included
conscious efforts to connect with
his late grandfather, he said. He
September 29 2005