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
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
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
“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
socialaction.com. In 2009 / 5770, Heshvan will be from October 19 through
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
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
“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
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
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
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.