Wings of the Dov

Dov Navon, nearing 50 and one of the busiest - and surely funniest - actors in Israel, finds it hard to accept his lofty status in the local pantheon

How old are you?

"Old enough. I'm hot and sweaty. Give me a break. I'll answer anything except that."

Dov Navon
Yanai Yehiel

Why? Because you're approaching 50?

"It started back when I turned 20 and got into a real funk. Ever since I can remember, I have refused to grow. In the army I didn't shave, so as not to accelerate the rate of hair growth, and I had to stay on base for Shabbat because of it. I am ashamed, I am pathetic. I used to make a living out of fear, but today I am aware, successful. I function and I am not afraid."

Life's a bummer?

"I have to accept it, but I don't want anyone telling me there's anything beautiful about it. I don't count white hairs. From the moment you're born that's your punishment, you are hurtling toward the end. I don't feel old, but I know it will all end. There's something pathetic about the effort to stay young."

You seem pretty well-preserved.

"Right, but a year ago, when I was in a clothing store, the seller said, 'Forget T-shirts, what you need is Botox.'"

Gray temples and white bristles or not, Dov Navon still finds it hard to accept his status in the local pantheon. The combination of his natural gift for story-telling, off-the-wall self-humor, distinctive tone of voice and intriguing appearance - a little like Sean Penn, but compact and laid back - have made him one of Israel's most brilliant comic actors.

That fusion of talents, which reached their peak in the satirical television series "The Cameri Quintet," "The Bourgeoisie" and "A Wonderful Country," has guaranteed Navon a stable career. Now, his face pops out from every corner: an impressive supporting role in the new film by Avi Nesher, "Once I Was"; a lead role in "This is Sodom," the new feature film by the "Wonderful Country" group; appearances in the new season of "Arab Labor," and in "Short Circuit"; plus once a week he's onstage in the Habima Theater production of the satirical play "Anxiety Struck."

Navon isn't sure how to deal with this abundance of activity. "It's work, it's my living," he says. "Hey, doesn't a carpenter make another table?"

"This is Sodom" has given Navon his first lead role in a film. He plays Lot, the last just man, who suddenly discovers the delights of hedonism. The movie purports to offer a contemporary interpretation of the biblical story as viewed through the prism of modern day political corruption, but adolescent obscenities turn it into a cross between a political allegory and a high school flick. Script and direction are by Muli Segev, the chief editor of "A Wonderful Country," and the program's stars take most of the lead roles. Navon left "A Wonderful Country" three years ago, but for Segev he was a natural candidate.

"The feeling that Doveleh is part of things remained even after he left the weekly program," Segev says. "When we thought about the only just man in Sodom, his face jumped out at us. First of all, he is an actor, not only a comic, and to hold a feature film you need someone who is capable of constructing a character that people will connect with. There's something about him that makes it very easy to identify with him. He's small and nervous, but with a heart of gold."

The film was shot mostly in Bulgaria during three weeks last year. On a day off from the shooting, Navon suddenly felt a fever coming on and his pulse racing rapidly. His diagnosis: The panic attacks which had afflicted him in past years had returned.

"When you work, you keep functioning," Navon says. "But, I was suddenly frightened of the role, of everything that was riding on me. I tried to understand what was happening, and when I did, I took [the actor] Shai Aviv for a spin outside and the fever went down and everything was all right. But, hey, I'm a man's man."

Holocaust and stuff

Dov Navon was born in Tel Aviv, the first child of Mazal, a Turkish-born housewife and kindergarten teachers' assistant (now 73 ), and David, a Polish-born optometrist (77 ).

"My parents met in Tel Aviv and sort of got on each other's case," he relates. "They lived in a kind of symbiosis."

When Navon was eight, the family moved to Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv. He describes himself as a "sad, happy, thorny, angry, rebellious, child - like everyone. My mother is very garrulous and my father has these thunderous, unpleasant silences. You know, Holocaust. He escaped from Poland to Russia as a boy, alone, after his mother told him, 'Go.' His sisters were killed. These are things he did not tell us and which I did not want to listen to. To this day there is a kind of fog there, from my point of view.

"From my father's point of view," he continues, "what is one way now can change and become something else instantaneously. The message I received in that house was that life can be rough, so it's best to enter a routine and look after yourself. The world they painted for me was one of Little Red Riding Hood in a forest of wolves and life that is no picnic."

Accordingly, his parents gave him "a rigid, very moral, no-frills education. But, really, I had marvelous parents and I received warmth and love."

When Navon was 13 the family moved to Holon and he was signed up for a drama group. Here he made his first stage appearance, playing the lead in "The Good Soldier Svejk." A few hours before the first performance of the play, he recalls, "I panicked and didn't want to go on. I behaved like a prima donna. The drama teacher bought me a lemon popsicle and I went on and got applause and enjoyed myself very much."

He wanted to go on to a school for the arts, but his guidance counselor told his parents he would be better off learning mechanics at an ORT vocational school. His parents sided with the establishment.

"They believed the counselor, and in some part of my being I also thought that if she says I am a clown, maybe she's right," Navon says. "A few years ago, I ran into her in Tel Aviv and told her she made my life miserable. I remember filing steel for a whole year and the teacher checking to make sure it was straight. I wanted to cry. No one listened to children back then ... To this day I have a fear of authority. I sometimes get that feeling when I meet with my daughter's teacher in school, or in interaction with authorities - clerks, City Hall, policemen."

Navon then enrolled in a drama group in Holon. "Half a day I was dead and half a day alive. Going to my aunt's house in Tel Aviv by bus I would pass Habima Theater and say, 'I will be an actor here.' I also went to a lot of plays. I knew that after the army I would study acting as a profession."

He then joined a children's and youth theater in Tel Aviv that was run by Tzipi Pines, now director of Beit Lessin Theater. Pines says that she saw at once that Navon was enormously gifted. For his part, Navon says she imbued him with the confidence he needed in order to persist when others belittled his ambitions.

Pines: "I saw a sensitive, talented boy who was funny and touching. Already then I spotted his talent, his ability to connect and to move people. When I met him again, at Beit Zvi [the Ramat Gan-based drama school], I saw that I had not been wrong, that something very special was emerging. Not the usual gloss, but a character. Not a winner but a loser, a little like Seinfeld. And his motivation stood out."

"She gave me oxygen," Navon explains. "One time she said, 'There are some who have it and some who don't.' She looked at me and went on: 'Dov Navon has it.' That is power: to think that if you decide that this is what you want to do, you have the talent for it."

So in the end you didn't heed the advice of your parents, and became an actor.

"Maybe it was a type of rebellion. When I decided to study acting, my father thought it wasn't practical. As far as he was concerned, to be a driver in the Egged bus cooperative was terrific. He was unhappy about my choice. It wasn't until I appeared in Ionesco's 'Rhinoceros' that he hugged me and said I had made the choice that was suitable for me and that he was sorry he had been unsupportive."

So you waited until the age of 20 to get a hug from him?

"He was busy making a living. At an early age he fell ill and survived, and my mother, who comes from some village in Turkey, kept up the house and went to work. She's something else."

Were you ashamed of them?

"When my mother listened to Arab music on the radio - Umm Kulthum or Farid al-Atrash - I would lower the volume so my friends wouldn't hear. And I had the same reaction when she spoke Arabic with her mother and her grandmother. At the seashore she would take out bourekas and watermelon and I would say, 'Yo, Ma, I don't want to eat outside.' I thought it was insane, Levantine. These days I go on picnics and I offer my daughter a peach at the beach and I understand a little Arabic. It's really crappy to be ashamed of your parents ... I have no scores to settle with them. Everything I am is also them. I have come to terms with myself, apart from a few small little things that I still have to finish."

By the end of high school Navon already knew he wanted to be an actor. However, he did not try to get into the army's theater unit ("I don't know why" ) and instead served in the Armored Corps in the Lebanon War. It was there that his faith in the establishment, inherited from his parents, began to crack.

"When I saw a tank of ours burning I realized that I had been raised without being told about the complexity of all this. I peed in my pants and I cried. Then the lightbulb went on and I understood that this place uses you. It was a crisis of trust. When we crossed the 40-kilometer line in Lebanon, my reaction was, 'But they said only 40 kilometers! Why aren't we stopping? Again they lied.' I want to believe that I was being told the truth, but from the experience of life I grasped that there is a system of vested interests at work and that it's a lot more complex than, 'We have to make peace.'

"I was in Lebanon another six months. When I got back I threw out the uniform and the army shoes. At first we were not called for reserve duty, but afterward, when the brown envelopes arrived in the mail ... I felt terrible fear. In the reserves I wasn't capable of putting on the uniform. I transferred to the Education Corps and did my service in civilian clothes. The army understood that it was preferable having me there to my not showing up at all."

Do you still have flashbacks from Lebanon? Dreams?

"Not any more, but there were years when I did. Everything related to the uniform, to those envelopes was immediately engulfed in horror. I have one especially powerful memory. A smell. A nighttime picture, guard duty. Something moves in the bushes. I have a flashlight, there is a pungent stench. With the light, I see a dog eating the bodies of Lebanese soldiers. I remember falling on the ground and throwing up, revolted, and uncontrollably crying."

He did not keep in touch with any of his army buddies - "only with people from the period at Beit Zvi and afterward. From the moment I got to Beit Zvi I was drawn into that world. The people there spoke my language, thought like me and wanted the same things I did. That's where I parted ways with my friends from high school and the army."

Was 'deleting' your army buddies an attempt to destroy the memories of that period?

"Don't press me - now I'll go home and start to pester myself with questions."

Loser type

Although he appeared in a number of films and plays already in the 1980s, Navon first gained real fame during his work with the Cameri Quintet. Starting out as a project of the director Eitan Tzur and the screenwriter Asaf Tzipor in the film department of Tel Aviv University, it became a cult series in the 1990s. Navon was brought in at the behest of Keren Mor, whom he had met "at all kinds of parties in people's homes. She was a student at Nissan Nativ [Acting Studio] and really made me laugh. Her parents were friends with the parents of Asaf Tzipor and she knew I was an actor. What should I say, that it's a miracle? Amazing? That it's a delightful group based on friendship and love?"

Tzur notes that in the casting of the Cameri Quintet, "We tried to create a mix, and Navon is the classic little guy, the one who has a constant propensity for getting into trouble, to whom things happen, who can play supposedly foolish roles but with a certain type of charm or madness. He has a special kind of high voice that lends color. And he is a true mensch. He is also a great storyteller. He was usually half an hour late for every rehearsal and then took another half-hour to tell a story about why he was late. I tried to introduce discipline on the set, but it was impossible to control him. In real time, you're under pressure and it's not good, but it's also fun, because we try to enjoy the work. We're not curing diseases."

Navon's modest height (he swears he's 1.70 meters ) and unusual voice strengthened his image as a model of dejected manhood. "To myself I sound like a real Eli Yisraeli," he says, referring to a well-known broadcaster. "You don't see your own hump. It's the same with my height - it's only when I'm next to tall people that I remember I'm short. But it's made me ambitious, created the desire to be accepted."

Wouldn't you like to play other types, too? Maybe King Lear or Stanley Kowalski?

"Obviously. Some places typecast you and want to take from you what you have already given - more and more - and when you want to give something else, it's a big change and you have to 'reformat.'"

Three traits keep coming up in conversations about Dov Navon with his colleagues: innocence, good-heartedness - and two feet planted very unsteadily on the ground. In 2002, for example, he forgot to show up for a play in which he was performing at Beit Lessin.

"In the afternoon I took my daughter, who was then three, to the Chinese Festival of Lights. She wanted noodles, but without chicken and vegetables, so I sat on the floor and separated them out. I was immersed in that and forgot I had a play to do. When I got home, around 9 o'clock, Netta [his wife] told me that Havazelet had been looking for me. 'Who?' I asked and then immediately remembered that she was the administrative director of the play and that, oy, I had to go. I rushed to the door, but Netta said, 'Don't bother, they already sent the audience home.' I couldn't stop crying the whole night. After that event, Tzipi Pines screamed at me, 'How can you not have a phone?' The first thing I did the next day was get a cellular phone."

Dad's behavior

Dov Navon lives with his family on a quiet street in north Tel Aviv, directly opposite the rock singer Berry Sakharof, and near veteran actress Gila Almagor. He bought the place 11 years ago, "with help from my parents and my grandmother. Today it's not just a house - it's real estate, it's making money from money."

Aren't you well off? Don't your TV successes and the commercials you've done pave the way until you retire?

"Absolutely not. I live well and that's terrific. So I have an apartment! When you're working on an operation like 'A Wonderful Country' you really feel protected - it's a little like being in the womb. You work, you make a living, you could be there forever."

But you weren't.

"That was an achievement for me, to get up and make a move [Navon left the program when he felt he had gone as far as he could there professionally]. I am learning to ignore the fears about when I will get the next phone call about a job offer. I used to be very scared, professionally and in terms of my livelihood. When I was single nothing bothered me - my water and electricity were cut off, too. I found myself in financial straits and my credit card was blocked. But when you have a family, you have responsibility. You pay rent and send the kid to school and when she comes home there has to be electricity and food."

Does responsibility translate into doing commercials?

"During the Cameri Quintet period, I felt commercials were a matter of, you know, 'Hey, that's not for me. I do only art and no one will use me to sell a product.' Nowadays, when I'm asked about where my inspiration comes from, I say: 'the bank manager.' When he calls me, I know I have to work. I am not whining. I live well and all that. But I have to work."

Navon is married to the artist Netta Harari, who is about a decade younger than him. They have two daughters: Tamara, 6, and Atalia, 12. Before her he had three girlfriends ("But one night does not a girlfriend make, right?" ). He did not lose his virginity until the army, not long before completing his service: "I didn't want to get killed in Lebanon as a virgin. How embarrassing. Until a few years ago I was ashamed to talk about it, but one time I was sitting with friends and it turned out that others have the same story."

What's the hardest thing about being your partner?

"I am obsessive. Sometimes I ask her for things she can't give me. But I am learning to let go and be by her side. I can also be insufferable when I am scared and frightened and untrusting, and at times I am impatient and don't allow others to have air or freedom. I am sometimes suspicious, overbearing, a terrorist. I think everyone prefers me to be away from home, they're happy when I leave for work.

"I used to be afraid when things got moved in the house; everything had to be in its place. But this morning, when I left home, there were kids and there was a mess and I was proud of myself for being able to leave. In the past, when my daughter brought a girlfriend over I would start to rearrange things as soon as she went home. I remember that one time she brought a girlfriend from kindergarten and they ate couscous. I crawled under the table and picked up all the bits that fell while they were eating."

Fifteen years ago, two years after he started to go out with Netta, Navon discovered psychology: "It didn't bother me when I was on my own. When I entered into a relationship, I understood it was hard to be with me and that there are a lot of things to deal with to make life livable."

How did you arrive at that understanding?

"People told me. My daughter also sometimes says, "Daddy, you are shouting and it's not nice.' I wondered why I would lose control and become like a spinning top. A few years after I broke up with my first girlfriend, she told me how hard it had been to be with me. That was a revelation for me. You think you're doing fine, but the other side doesn't. When she left, I felt hurt and angry. I didn't understand that things I had done also contributed to the parting. What, could I hurt anyone? Am I capable of doing anything bad?"

What's the latest insight you have reached in your therapy?

"To take my foot off the gas pedal, to relax, not to come on so strong."

What do you like least about yourself?

"That I lose control and see a reality that does not actually exist. Last night, someone - never mind who - didn't put on her seat belt in the car. I go mental over such things and then understand that I have to back off."

Are your daughters ashamed of their parents?

"The younger one sometimes says, 'Daddy, behave normally' - such as when I sing songs on the way to kindergarten. It seems to me that I am perfectly fine, but she apparently sees that she has something of a clownish father. But she also brags about me. Yesterday at the beach, a little girl asked me if I am an actor. My daughter immediately fired back, 'Yes, he is an actor, his name is Dov Navon.

"Not long ago I drove my older daughter to a party and she asked me to drop her off before we reached the place. But when she was in the first grade and 'A Wonderful Country' was the hottest thing around, she brought her whole class just as I lay down for an afternoon nap and introduced me: 'This is Federbush'" - the name of the character he played.

When were you yourself last ashamed?

"Small things do it. I am embarrassed when I take off my clothes. I find it strange that people shower together. I haven't yet come to terms with such things. I find physical exposure more difficult than psychological exposure."

Who is your most bitter enemy?

"My other side, the one that keeps bugging Doveleh, but with which I am dealing. Now you will say that I am schizophrenic, too." W