By Curt Schleier
(JTA) — Actor Josh Gad may be best known for voicing Olaf in the animated Disney hit “Frozen” and originating the role of Elder Arnold Cunningham in the Tony Award-winning musical “The Book of Mormon.”
He’s also been a correspondent for “The Daily Show,” co-starred with Billy Crystal in the short-lived Showtime series “The Comedians” and, more recently, played Le Fou in the live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast.”
But in a manner he describes as “almost kismet,” a chance meeting with producer Paula Wagner two years ago as he was leaving a Los Angeles restaurant provided Gad with the opportunity to sink his teeth into what is likely the most meaningful role of his career to date.
In the forthcoming film “Marshall” — a biopic about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice — Gad plays Samuel Friedman, the real-life Jewish attorney who helped a young Marshall defend a black man accused of raping a wealthy white woman in WASPy Connecticut in 1940. The movie opens Oct. 13 and has received advance praise, particularly for Gad’s nuanced performance.
For Gad, the role was not just a chance to show off his acting chops. It also was an opportunity to honor his grandparents, who survived the Holocaust.
“The stories of my grandparents surviving the camp makes the chance to play this hero who had to deal with anti-Semitism — though obviously in a much less sinister environment — personal, ” he told JTA. “I wish my grandparents were alive to see this very personal part of my journey.”
The film is set long before Marshall became the grandfatherly, rational voice on an increasingly divided mid-20th century Supreme Court, and a dozen years before he won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which established that “separate but equal” public schools were unconstitutional.
Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman), at the time the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is sent to Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a chauffeur accused of raping his Greenwich socialite boss, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Friedman, a local attorney, is tricked into filing a petition to allow Marshall to practice in the state.
Friedman doesn’t want to do even that. At the time, the film shows, Bridgeport was as racist and anti-Semitic as any southern city, and the young white lawyer was concerned about his practice.
“I got a reputation to think of,” he tells Marshall.
When the motion is surprisingly rejected by the judge, Friedman is assigned the case. Marshall is allowed to sit at the defense table, but not speak. That works for him, since in Friedman, he has what Marshall wants: “I need someone who’ll do what I say.”
While the 120-minute film focuses narrowly on the trial, Juan Williams’ authoritative biography “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary” devotes only a page to the case and makes no mention of Marshall being silenced by a judge.
When a reporter mentions this in a phone interview, Gad readily acknowledges the disparity.
“It’s not entirely accurate,” he said. “I did the same research; I delved into it. The case was a lot quicker than it takes in the film, though by all accounts Sam really did have to adjudicate it by himself.
“Was it as dramatic as it played out in our film? Perhaps not. But the liberties that were taken were well within the accepted limits of films.”
Gad, 36, comes across as intelligent and quick witted, ready to engage on the topics of history and creative license.
“I don’t mean to ruin the surprise, but in reality, Alexander Hamilton was not a Latino who sings rap,” he quipped. “We’ve taken some creative liberties to tell a story that is compelling about an African-American man and a Jewish man who team up to defend a black man at a time when both were under enormous pressure to stay away from the case.”
“Marshall” director Reginald Hudlin told Hadassah magazine that his film “is a celebration of the alliance between black and Jewish attorneys in the civil rights movement. The constitution says all men are created equal, but it was the brilliant work of people like Marshall and Friedman who made it a reality.”
There is a moving scene where an apparently Sabbath-observant Friedman is approached in his synagogue’s restroom by a fellow congregant who asks, “Feel like a big shot defending that schvartze? What do you think your father would say?”
An apprehensive Friedman — not to mention the feelings of this advance viewer — replies, “No idea.”
“I think he’d say he was proud,” the man says, handing Friedman $20 “for the defense fund.”
Gad grew up in Hollywood, Florida, the son of immigrants: His mother was born in Germany and his father is an Afghan Jew. Gad believes his father is likely a direct descendant of the original Tribe of Gad, one of the 12 Tribes of Israel.
“He came from a very religious family that was on a nomadic journey searching for a home,” he said. “They went through India before finally settling in Afghanistan.”
While he “went through the checklist of Jewish education” — Hebrew school and a bar mitzvah — Gad considers himself largely secular today. Still, he likes to give holiday shout-outs to fellow members of the tribe.
New Year’s greetings aside, Gad’s social media accounts are political in nature. Take an Aug. 15 tweet in response to President Donald Trump’s reaction to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville: “My grandparents lived in concentration camps as they watched their families die because of Nazis. F*** u Mr. President 4 legitimizing hate.”
For Gad, current events, combined with working on “Marshall,” reinforced that there is still much social justice work to be done.
“Unfortunately, the problems of racism and anti-Semitism are as relevant today as they were in the 1940s,” he said. “Trying to overcome anti-Semitism, fighting people who want to reverse the progress we’ve made in civil rights the last 50 years is important to me.
“It would be easier to ignore it and just talk about a new project I have coming up than to stand up for what is right. I come from a family that almost lost its entire family. I had to speak up.”