There’s a memorable scene in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, rants about finding anti-Semites everywhere he goes.
“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC and I said, ‘Did you eat yet?’ and [they] said, ‘No, Jew?’ Not, ‘Did you,’ but ‘Jew eat? Jew?’ Not ‘Did you,’ but ‘Jew eat?’”
To which his pal Rob — played by the prolific stage and screen actor Tony Roberts — replies, “Max, you see conspiracies in everything.”
It’s an exchange that sums up a quintessential relationship in Allen’s oeuvre: the nervous, insecure schlemiel (played by Allen himself) and his level-headed, self-assured friend.
In several of Allen’s films in the 1970s and ’80s — including “Play It Again, Sam,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Stardust Memories”— that role belonged to Roberts.
Still handsome at 76, though his brown curls have long since turned cloud white, Roberts says today that his comedic interplay with Allen was nothing less than serendipitous.
“I don’t even know what chemistry we lucked upon,” Roberts tells JTA. “[Woody] said to me, ‘You know, people like our schmoozing.’”
“Well, clearly people liked it because he made use of it in six films,” he adds.
Those films with Allen have been on Roberts’ mind quite a lot lately. The actor has published a new memoir that entertainingly dishes on his decades in film, theater and TV, and explores how he built a successful career while teetering somewhere between fame and anonymity.
In “Do You Know Me?,” Roberts writes that he could star in Broadway shows and hit films and receive critical praise — yet people would approach him on the street wondering where they had seen him before.
And of course, there’s a lot about Woody Allen. Roberts calls Allen “Max” throughout the book, a nod to the personal nickname that started when the perennially introverted Allen told Roberts not to call out his name in public. In fact, the nickname “Max,” used in “Annie Hall,” is a direct reference to their off-screen joke.
Today, Roberts looks back on his nearly 60-year career with a sense of pride, but he’s reluctant to call himself an artist. Sitting in Lexington Candy Shop, the classic Upper East Side diner he’s frequented since the native New Yorker was 7, Roberts contemplates how to define his work.
“I’m like a musician in an orchestra,” he suggests. “An interpreter, not a creator.”
His parents were secular Jews who raised their son to love culture and uphold a moral code of behavior. In his memoir, Roberts writes that though he was raised without religious observance, he grew curious about his heritage and took a trip to Latvia where his grandfather had lived before immigrating to the United States.
Roberts got an early start as a professional actor, landing a part on the soap opera “The Edge of Night” just after college in 1966. He first met Allen backstage when he was starring in “Barefoot in the Park.” It was around the time that Roberts unsuccessfully auditioned — four times — for Allen’s first Broadway play, “Don’t Drink the Water.” Seeing Roberts perform in “Barefoot in the Park” convinced Allen that Roberts was talented and worth casting. According to his memoir, Allen told him, “You were great. How come you’re such a lousy auditioner?”
Today, Roberts and Allen are still good friends (the director’s romantic and personal scandals don’t come up in the memoir). And though they haven’t acted together in some time, Allen still screens his new films for him and seeks his feedback.
Thinking back on their most famous film together, “Annie Hall” — which won four Academy Awards in 1978, including best picture — Roberts says, “I don’t think Woody wants ‘Annie Hall’ to be his signature achievement. He would much prefer if it were one of his more obscure, experimental films. Like ‘Zelig’ — that’s the one they should put in the time capsule.”