Michael Zegen, who grew up in Ridgewood, has been associated with some of the best shows in the history of television.
There was the “Sopranos.” All right. That was only one episode and he just played the “partygoer.” But who knows what might have happened to Tony and the gang if someone else had that role?
After that there were seven seasons playing Denis Leary’s nephew, Damien Keefe, on the hit series “Rescue Me,” three more as Bugsy Siegel on “Boardwalk Empire,” and multi-episode arcs on “The Walking Dead and Girls.”
And through all this he has managed to stroll through life relatively unrecognized. “I think that’s a good thing,” he said in a telephone interview. “I like being able to take the subway.”
That appears to be changing since he took on the part of Joel Maisel in the “it” (and most obviously Jewish) program of 2017, Amazon Prime’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He’s the bad guy, the one who leaves his adoring wife for his secretary. Yet his departure allows his wife, Miriam, to blossom as a comedian, with a Johnny Carson appearance in her future.
One outgrowth of the show’s popularity: On a recent plane trip “I got approached by at least five people,” he said, adding hopefully, “but maybe that’s just for now while the show is new and fresh.”
It will remain fresh for at least another season. It is the first program in Amazon’s history to be picked up from the get-go for two years’ production. Michael starts filming season two in March, and in the meantime has allowed himself the thespian’s luxury of taking a worry (and audition-) free break.
But even before “Maisel,” Michael wasn’t the type of actor who’d try out for every role he heard about. “No, not at all,” he said. “I’m super picky. I hardly ever audition, much to the dismay of my mother, who wants me to audition for everything.”
That would be Rachelle, who, like his bubbe Szoszana, subscribe to this paper and are Michael’s career clipping service. (As an aside, if you had a problem getting your copy of the Standard from its normal stand this week, it just might be Rachelle and/or Szoszana’s fault. Just saying…)
That career began when Michael, who is 38 now, was 12 years old. “As a kid I always wanted to be an actor, and my mom told me about it not thinking I’d be interested,” he said.
The “it” that Rachelle told Michael about was auditions for the role of Tiny Tim in a production of “The Christmas Carol” at the John Harms Theater, now the bergenPAC, in Englewood. Mom was wrong. He was very interested.
So his parents “reluctantly took me. I was the last person to audition.” But he got the part. The run, he thinks, was about a month long. He’s not sure. “I just know I missed a lot of school, which made me love it more.”
It was not as much fun for his parents, Rachelle and his father, Jeff, who had to schelp him back and forth and weren’t as enamored as Michael was about him missing all those classes. “They wouldn’t let me audition for any more parts,” he said. “They didn’t want that life for me — and I also think they didn’t want that life for themselves.”
That choice might have been prescient, at least based on his next solo appearance. Michael was raised in a Conservative household, attended Hebrew school at the Glen Rock Jewish Center, and was totally prepared for his bar mitzvah until…
“I had a panic attack,” he said. “Everything started spinning. I was the one who wanted to be an actor in the family and everyone in town knew I was going to be an actor and I nearly fainted. I had a nervous breakdown, but I eventually got myself together and was able to complete it.”
Ultimately, seeing their son’s determination to succeed as an actor, his parents backed him unreservedly, sending him off to weekend acting classes. Michael participated in the “great theater program” at Ridgewood High School and then majored in theater at Skidmore College, where he founded an improv sketch group.
When he graduated, he started knocking on doors. “I don’t think success happened as quickly as I imagined,” Michael said. “It was a lot of work and a lot of auditions. Some people say it takes 10 years for an actor to really make it and I say you’d be lucky to make it in 10 years. It took me almost 10 years to get my foot in the door.
“But I really don’t have any complaints. I’m in a show I love — and who knows what comes next?”