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Reconstructionist Judaism guides TV producer
(Originally printed in the San Diego Jewish World, July 26-27, 2009)

By Douglas J. Gladstone
Photo: Marina Rice Bader

PACIFIC PALISADES, California--Anyone who fights for the future, Ayn Rand once observed, lives in it today. If his career in show business has proved anything, it’s that award-winning producer Joseph Stern is indeed a fighter.

Once dubbed the “pugnacious conscience of L.A. theater,” by the Los Angeles Times, the 68-year-old Stern has produced and developed stories that raise the social awareness and consciousness level of a generation of film, theatre and television audiences for more than three decades.

“I’ve always been in search of fairness and justice for people,” says Stern, a disciple of the Reconstructionist movement. “I’ve always been that way.” Born on the cusp of the Hebrew month of Elul, on September 3rd, you’ll forgive Stern if he wasn’t born in the month of Heshvan, which has this year been declared Jewish Social Action Month by KolDor and In 2009 / 5770, Heshvan will be from October 19 through November 17.

Founded by Mordecai Kaplan in the 1920s, the Reconstructionist movement views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization that stresses modernism. In short, Reconstructionist Jews exist for people, people don’t exist for Judaism.

So important is this philosophy to Stern that he keeps a message in his wallet which reads, in part, that “Reconstructionists …. believe in the equality of men and women. We see God as the power that infuses all creation with transcendence and inspires us to improve the world and ourselves.”

That Stern would be a Reconstructionist is not surprising, given his moral compass and tendency to green light scripts dealing with social causes and prejudice. Best known as the executive producer of all 138 episodes of the hit television series, Judging Amy, Stern has produced over 300 episodes of television, including Other Mothers, the CBS 1993 Schoolbreak Special about alternative lifestyles that was honored with seven Emmy nominations and which received three.

“Everyone at the network was afraid of it,” he says of Other Mothers. “For four or five years I had to battle to get it made.”

In 2002, Stern produced Our America for Showtime. The 95-minute drama, about two inner-city Chicago teenagers who become radio journalists, went on to receive four Emmy nominations and won the coveted Humanitas Award. Based on the Lealan Jones book, Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago, the production was a frank and provocative view of America's minorities from the inside of a ghetto housing project.

“Someone once said to me, ‘Your work is political,’” recalls Stern. “The fact is, I don’t try to manipulate the audience with a specific message. My main interest has always been in telling strong stories.”

If his productions reflect any orientation or mindset, it’s that Stern has practiced Zechariah 8:16 ("the world stands on three things: on truth, on justice and on peace...Execute truth, justice and peace within your gates…when justice is done, truth is achieved and peace is established.") whether he realizes it or not.

“I’m not the smartest guy in the room,” Stern admits, “but I’ve learned to trust my gut. The idea comes first and I follow it. I will never sacrifice the material. You cannot shortchange the product, no matter where it leads you.”

Stern also served as Executive Producer for the first three seasons of Law & Order, as well as producing the pilot, which earned him two of his six Emmy nominations, and two Golden Globe nominations.

Stern says he is particularly proud of the record number of minorities and people of color he cast on L&O, specifically to reflect the diversity of the City of New York. Regrettably, he says, “Daytime soaps are way ahead of nighttime television in depicting African Americans. It has always seemed to be a problem on prime time.”

Stern’s feature credits include Dad, which starred Jack Lemmon, Ted Danson and Olympia Dukakis, and No Man’s Land, which was penned by a then largely unknown writer named Dick Wolf. Wolf, of course, would later create the original L&O and its subsequent spin-offs.

Born in Los Angeles and raised two blocks from The Matrix, the 99-seat theater located on Melrose Avenue that he and his good friend, actor Wiliam Devane (of Missiles in October and Knots Landing fame), purchased in 1976, Stern attended Fairfax High School, Los Angeles City College and UCLA.

A onetime actor himself – his most memorable television appearance was arguably his guest starring role in the classic “Adam’s Ribs” episode of M*A*S*H* -- Stern says he quit acting at the age of 37 when he gave himself permission “to be who I am” and find his real identity. As it happened, his true calling was being behind the cameras, not in front of them.

Similarly, on stage, Stern, who became the sole owner of The Matrix in 1980, functioned best in the wings. He has produced more than 45 plays over the course of his distinguished career.

As a producer, Stern’s productions at the Matrix Theatre Company and other venues have garnered more awards than any other 99-seat house, including 40 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (LADCC) Awards. He is also the recipient of the prestigious Margaret Harford award given by the LADCC.

“I was impressed with his substantial history and dedication to excellence,” says playwright Lydia Diamond, whose critically acclaimed show, Stick Fly, enjoyed its West Coast premiere at the Matrix Theatre. “I can say that, in this challenging economic time, anytime a producer puts his/her faith in your work and actually makes the bold leap to produce it, it is almost a radical act. Joseph’s commitment to producing quality work and telling relevant stories is evident, and I am honored to have worked with him.”

Diamond’s play, about an upper class African American family wrestling with parental expectations, sibling rivalry, and issues of class and race, was presented at the Matrix earlier this year, from March 31st through June 14th.

Fittingly, since many of the scripts he has developed over the years deal with inequities and injustice, one of the first shows Stern ever tackled as a producer was about a real life witch hunt. In 1975 actor- writer Allan Miller asked Stern to help produce Eric Bentley’s Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? in Los Angeles. Focusing on prominent figures in the entertainment industry who testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? was directed by Stern’s buddy, Devane. The show played a record breaking 14 months before moving to Washington D.C.

“We are rarely tested in our lives,” notes Stern. “Most of us don’t know whether we’d jump into a foxhole to save someone else. I’d like to think I’d do the right thing if faced with such a scenario but, when we’re tested, when our ideals are tested, it’s difficult.”

What’s not difficult for Stern to do is take a principled stance on something he feels is just plain wrong and unfair. He cites as an example his experience years ago siding against his own brethren -- television producers -- in a labor dispute involving the equitable distribution of television residual payments to actors.

“I’ve always been the jail house lawyer who defends people’s rights,” says Stern. “I’m Solomon-like about all issues.”

Series actors earn about one-third of their income from residuals, according to Stern. Since low paid actors working in television commercials often earn four times as much from residuals as they do from their initial fees, he continues, residuals are an important source of compensation for writers, directors and actors.

The point is, your typical television or movie producer wouldn’t necessarily be advocating on behalf of the rights of actors. In that respect, Stern is exceedingly atypical.

Doing the right thing, often without thinking of the consequences to his professional reputation, is a quality Stern credits his parents with having taught him. A salesman who lent both his son and Devane money to buy The Matrix Theatre, Stern’s father also instilled in him the attribute of rewarding loyalty and generosity in people.

Of his mother, who turns 97 this year, Stern says that “she is one of the most humane people you’d ever want to meet.” From her, he continues, Stern learned about treating all people with dignity.

Personally, Stern was tested when his first wife, Peppy, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Active in the Kehilath Israel Synagogue, on Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades, California, where she served as the chief administrator, Peppy Stern passed away on November 26, 2002. The couple had two sons and three grandchildren. The Peppy Stern Adult B’nai Mitzvah Education Fund was established in her memory.

Stern remarried a fine art and commercial photographer, Karen Bellone, who runs KB Films. Accomplished in her own right, Ms. Bellone has shown her work in solo and group shows, and has shot for Warner Brother Records, the City of New York and Conde Nast, among others.

By his own account, Stern has led a rich and rewarding life. Reflecting on his work over the years, Stern says the greatest gift a parent can leave his child is his legacy. “One’s deeds are how people remember you, and I’ve tried to build a memory bank for my kids that they can be proud of.”

One thing’s for certain: that bank, like the contents of Stern’s wallet, is filled to the brim with wealth that can’t be measured in money.

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