In the original HBO one-hour Curb Your Enthusiasm special, Larry David’s wife was supposed to be Jewish. “On the first day we were shooting the actual series,” says actress Cheryl Hines, “Larry turned to me and said, “You know, I don’t know if anybody is going to believe that you’re Jewish.”
“Well,” I said, “Do I have to be?'”
And so Cheryl David the TV shiksa wife was born.
But to the show’s credit, her ethnicity has never been manipulated to explore anxieties about class and race. The fictitious David marriage (separation at the time of writing) may be fraught, but that tension isn’t attributed to cultural differences as it might have been in decades past. The relationship is fraught simply because Larry is an asshole.
Unlike her character, Cheryl Hines has a background that begs for caricature. Growing up in Winter Haven and Tallahassee, Florida, Hines’ “redneck” dad drove a silver El Camino with a bumper sticker that read “Honk If You Love Jesus.” “He thought that was a little classier than a pick-up truck,” says Hines. “When we went anywhere, all the kids would ride in the back.”
Raised Catholic, Hines and her family—she has two brothers and a sister—would attend church, but none too fervently. “I never really thought about it,” Hines says about any childhood beliefs in God. “I just sort of went along with the herd. The priest would come over after mass and watch football and drink beer with my dad. I remember going to midnight mass one year and laughing the whole time because Star Wars had just come out and [the clergy] just looked like something out of the movie.”
Underwhelmed by her high school coursework, Hines didn’t see much point in college. So she took the road favored by so many other young Southern belles.
She headed to beauty school.
“I went to this vocational technical institute in Tallahassee called Lively,” Hines fondly recounts. “There was a small group of girls right out of high school, and we’d get into a lot of trouble for partying all night and then going in the next morning, washing each other’s hair, setting it in rollers and sleeping under the hair dryer for, like, an hour.”
At one point, Hines was on double probation for showing up to class in pajamas and a sleeping bag. “I wasn’t taking it seriously,” she laughs.
One botched jheri curl job away from dropping out a la Frenchie in Grease, Hines’ mother convinced her to stick with it. “The black and white girls in my class would make pacts with one another,” describes Hines of how she earned her certification. “You know, like, ‘I’ll hold your hand when you do a jheri curl if you hold mine when I’m doing a perm.'”
She got her license and cut hair for a year, bartending at night to save up money for college. “I was like, ‘Okay, what am I doing with my life?'”
After earning a degree in Communications from Florida Central University, Hines took a job as a Janet Leigh stand-in at Universal Studios in Orlando. “I was a professional actress at that point!” says Hines of her paid gig getting stabbed in the recreated Psycho shower scene. She followed up that theatrical coup by landing an agent in Orlando who repped theme park thespians. “His big client was Beetlejuice,” Hines deadpans.
Hines’ first booked job was a print ad for (natch) a hair salon. Next came her “big break”: a guest-starring role on a series called Swamp Thing.
“I went to L.A. before Swamp Thing premiered because I wanted to be in town before it broke big,” quips Hines of packing up her Toyota Tercel for a cross-country tour. “Sadly it didn’t quite have the impact that I was hoping it would.”
Bartending at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Hines met Phil Hartman’s sister who told her about The Groundlings, the improvisational theater company that’s launched the careers of such comics as Kathy Griffin and Will Ferrell. “I didn’t have enough money for classes,” sighs Hines, “I didn’t have a refrigerator.”
But friends from work chipped in for her birthday and Hines found herself in her first Groundlings class, taught by Lisa Kudrow, who, at that point, had a recurring role on Mad About You and had just landed Friends. Hines was asked to join the company and landed a “real” Hollywood agent.
Bits on Unsolved Mysteries (“I got to reenact a nanny-gone-bad scenario,” says Hines) was followed by lines on Suddenly Susan and The Wayans Bros. She had a stint as Rob Reiner’s personal assistant. “I had to buy coloring books for his kids for Passover and on the way back to his office, I read them at all the red lights because I wanted to know more,” describes Hines of her entrance into Jewish culture. “I had never even heard of matzoh ball soup.”
Then she auditioned for Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“It was love at first sight,” remembers Hines of that first meeting with Larry David. “We got along so well and had so much fun and they called me the very next day.”
So natural was their on-screen pairing that some from Cheryl’s home state believed that perhaps she really had become Mrs. Larry David. “When the show first came out, people from Tallahassee thought, ‘Well, maybe Cheryl got married,'” she recalls of the show’s initial impact. “Sometimes, I do feel like I live two lives.”
Throughout Curb‘s seven-season run, Hines has found herself in plots revolving around baptisms, Holocaust survivors, Hasidic hookers and the Hollywood cause du jour: the environment. “It’s been a good educational experience for me,” says Hines of David’s (and his ex-wife’s) high-profile involvement with green issues. “I drive a hybrid now. It’s a Lexus.” She mockingly flicks her wrist. “I’m so sick of the Prius.”
And while Cheryl’s on-screen character has cooked an entire seder meal, in real life she makes one mean pig. “Larry is still mad at me because I invited him over for dinner the other night and I served pork chops,” she says. “You know, whenever I invite him over he’ll ask me if I’m cooking a ham.”
With a recent turn in the lauded indie flick Waitress, Hines’ film career is taking flight as well. “I read the script and I loved the characters,” says Hines of actor-writer-director Adrienne Shelly’s screenplay. “The women were smart and funny and a little bit off their rocker—complicated, like people are.”
Of Waitress‘s Sundance premiere, which followed on the heels of Shelly’s tragic murder in New York, Hines felt a surge of pride wound up in deep sadness. So when Shelly’s husband, Andy Ostroy, came to her and asked if she’d direct a script called Serious Moonlight, a dark comedy that his wife left behind, Hines had to say yes. “I just thought the universe was giving me a sign,” says Hines of prepping for Moonlight‘s production, “And there are a lot of emotions attached to it, but I’m very honored.”
Also in the works is a movie with William H. Macy called Bart Gets a Room in which Hines plays—yup—a Jewish mother. “There must be something about me,” posits Hines, who played a yiddishe mama in Keeping Up With the Steins, as well. “I feel like an honorary member.”
So much so that, to her persnickety Floridian mother’s chagrin, matzoh ball soup ranks currently as one of Hines’ favorite comfort foods. “Every time she’s in town I ask her if she wants to go get matzoh ball soup,” says Hines, doctoring up a deep-fried Southern accent, “and she’ll say to me, ‘No I don’t.’ As if to say, ‘I don’t know what it is and I don’t want to.'”
Admits the honey-haired, aqua-eyed actress, “I’m still not even sure what [goy] means. But I’ve been called that for a while, since I started Curb. Honestly, I couldn’t give you a definition.” Thanks to television’s first accidental shiksa, the word is much more difficult to define.