JUF's Jewish Celebrities

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor Photo

Elizabeth was one of the most famous actresses of all time. And now, she’s in the news again… for a very sad reason. She died in early 2011, at age 79.

In recent years, Elizabeth (supposedly, she disliked her famous nickname, “Liz”) has become known for her work raising money to fight AIDS. She created two AIDS foundations and raised more than $50 million to combat the disease, even selling one of her engagement rings for the cause.

But, once upon a time, Elizabeth Taylor was famous for being an actress. In fact, she was so in demand, that she was the first woman to be offered $1 million to star in a movie, as Cleopatra.

But let’s start at the beginning. Her parents were from St. Louis, but they went to open an art gallery in London, and that’s where she was born (in London, not in the art gallery, silly!). So she was both a US and British citizen. She started taking ballet lessons when she was 3 and moved back to the US when WWII started; she was 7. Soon, a family friend noticed how pretty she was and said she should audition for the movies.

Elizabeth was in her first film when she was 9. You would like the movies she made a as a tween and teen that co-starred animals. First, she was in Lassie Come Home, with the famous collie dog. National Velvet, her first big hit, was about a girl named Velvet who wins the National horse-racing championship. Then she made another Lassie movie, then Life With Father, a comedy about a big family with a very strict dad.

As she grew, she started being in more serious films. One of her most Jewish movies was The Last Time I Saw Paris, a love story set after the city was liberated from the Nazis. When she was 22, she starred in James Dean’s last movie, Giant. She was then in movies based on plays by some of America’s greatest playwrights, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams - in which she appeared with Paul Newman - and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Jewish playwright Edward Albee, for which she won her second Oscar.

Her first Oscar was for a movie called Butterfield 8 (which sounds weird to us now, but was an old-fashioned way of remembering telephone numbers). She was nominated 3 other times, too.

Probably her most famous recent acting job was just one word! You know how, on The Simpsons, the baby Maggie never talks? In fact, she said just one word the entire 20 years that show has been on the air, and they used Elizabeth Taylor’s voice for it! The word was “Mama.”

For all her acting and charity work, Elizabeth was given one of the highest honors by the US government. She also was made a Dame of the British Empire by another Elizabeth… the Queen of England!

Elizabeth also was famous, let’s face it, for being married 8 times! One of her marriages was to a singer named Eddie Fisher, who was Jewish, and she converted to Judaism to marry him. (Speaking of singers, she lived in a house once owned by Frank Sinatra!) She had four children and nine grandchildren.

One man, she was married to twice! He was an actor named Richard Burton. They are considered one of the all-time classic screen couples. She starred in 12 movies with him, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Taming of the Shrew, Cleopatra, and Anne of the Thousand Days.

While some stars today have their own clothing line, Elizabeth had her own line of jewelry! She was even considered an expert and wrote a book about it. Her line of perfumes was named after jewels, too, with names like “Diamonds and Rubies” and “Black Pearls.” But probably her most famous “gemstones” were her glittering eyes, which weren’t blue or brown but violet!

In honor of her landmark 75th birthday, a magazine called Interview dedicated every single article in one of its issues all to her! Interview magazine was founded by famous artist Andy Warhol, who once painted her portrait.

One of the only other actresses as famous as Elizabeth shares something with her - she also converted to marry a famous Jewish man. His name was Arthur Miller, and he wrote the plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.

Her name? Marilyn Monroe!


Other famous people who converted when they married Jews include: Elizabeth Banks (when she married her husband, producer Max Handelman), Kate Capshaw (Steven Spielberg), Connie Chung (Maurie Povich), singer Jim Croce (his wife, Ingrid), Carolyn Jones (TV producer Aaron Spelling), Anne Meara (Jerry Stiller) and Nikki Ziering (Ian Ziering).

The most recent one we know was Isla Fisher, who planned on converting when she married Sacha “Borat” Cohen!

Bonus Bonus:

There is a quote in a famous scene in Sunset Blvd. (directed by Billy Wilder, see this Bonus) that we’re sure you’ve heard: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.” But who is Mr. DeMille?

It’s legendary Jewish director Cecil B. DeMille (the “B.” stood for “Blount”), who we are bringing up because he directed Elizabeth in what was then the most expensive movie ever, Cleopatra. It cost $44 million, which isn’t a lot for an epic movie today, but remember, it was made in 1963! Today, that’s like $300 million!

Cecil made a couple of movies based on Jewish ancient times, too, including his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments (a remake of his own 1923 version) and Samson and Delilah. He specialized in epic movies with “a cast of thousands” as they said. His other movies also were mostly about great events in history, from the Crusades to pirates to the creation of the American railroad system. His movie about the circus world won the Oscar for Best Picture, and when he died, he was working on an outer-space movie.

Earlier in his career, he also made romantic stories and a few comedies. One was called Brewster’s Millions, and it was remade four more times! The version you’ll like best is the 1985 version with Richard Pryor as the star (also Tovah Feldshuh, see this Bonus). The story is about a guy who inherits millions of dollars, but it comes with a test. He has to spend all of it in 30 days, but he can’t own anything afterward! If he does, he gets ten times as much money, hundreds of millions. But if he doesn’t, he loses it all! How to spend that much money without buying anything is harder than it seems… but it’s still not a bad problem to have! (There are rules about how much you could give to charity or gamble with.)

Cecil was born when his parents were on vacation! His mom was Jewish but his dad was Christian and she converted. We have to assume he was raised Christian, but obviously he liked the Bible stories he learned.

He started as a Broadway actor back in the year 1900. His co-stars would later act in his movies! Cecil was one of the early directors who defined, even for today, what a “director” is and does. He was one of the very first directors in Hollywood altogether, with his first movie coming out in 1914! That’s the same year that World War I started. Cecil’s movies saw the move from black-and-white to color and from silent to sound. He directed some 80 movies in all.

He also discovered many talented actors and made them stars, and used his regular ensemble of trusty character actors to support the A-list stars of his day, like Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Gloria Swanson, Robert Preston, Charlton Heston, and Elizabeth Taylor. 

Cecil’s historic epics paved the way for today’s blockbusters with huge effects, and shot huge movies on location. Today, the Golden Globes hands out awards every year for a lifetime of achievement in movies— it’s called the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

Cecil was one of the first directors to become a star in his own right, and it was Cecil himself onscreen in Sunset Blvd., when Gloria Swanson turns to him and delivers her immortal line: “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

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