By Jason Bonderoff
On RYAN'S HOPE, Jack Fenelli underflows with the milk of human kindness. Marriage makes him nasty. Babies make him nervous. Family life makes him lose his appetite.
Ironically, Michael Levin, who plays Jack with such grim and grizzly precision is actually a devoted family man himself. He shares a charming tudor house in the New York suburbs with his wife, Elizabth, two dogs, one cat and three teenage boys. The kitchen bulletin board is littered with PTA reminder notes. There's sports equipment in the driveway and schoolbooks on the hall table.
It looks like the kind of scene you'd encounter in any typical American suburb, but the people who live here are far from typical. For the three young men Michael shares the Sunday sports section with are a real case of yours, mine and ours.
First, there's Scott, 17, who is Elizabeth's son from her former marriage. Then, there's Jason, 15, Michael's son from his former marriage. And finally, there's Aaron, 12, who is Michael and Elizabeth's only child together.
Michael marvels how special - and different - each boy is. Scottie, who's tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed, is a high school track star. He's very motivated academically, hopes to attend either Harvard or Williams College, and wants to become a lawyer. Jason, whom Michael describes as "dark-haired, very bright and gifted, but slightly undermotivated," is on the junior varsity football team. Aaron, the youngest, plays the trumpet, studies French and "is probably the most scholarly of the boys."
Raising each of them takes a different kind of approach. With Scottie, Michael sees himself as only part-authority figure and part-friend. "A stepfather is in a strange position," Michael says. "I can't speak for everybody else, but I think the best thing I do for Scott is that I try to be fair. I like him, he's a terrific kid, but, frankly, I don't give him the attention or the love that a father would. What I supply for him is the male model in the house. When there's a problem with his mother, maybe I can help resolve it, or help him with questions about school or sports. We have a good relationship, but I wouldn't call myself a full-time father."
Scottie grew up living in the Levin house, but Jason did not. After Michael and his first wife were divorced, Jason spent ten years living with his mother, first in New York and then in Los Angeles. In fact, he only moved in permanently with Michael this summer. It's a homecoming tht everybody looked forward to, but Michael concedes it's been "an enormous adjustment" getting re-acquainted with his son.
"The boys get along fairly well, but its still too early to tell how it will all work out. Jason was five years old when his mother and I were divorced and this is the first time he's actually lived here for any length of time."
"I've always spent a lot of time with him, though. When he lived in New York, he visited us every weekend, and after he went to L.A., he spent holidays with us. The boys always got along, but there was a lot of unspoken jealousy. When he was younger, Jason didn't quite know who they were, why they lived with me and he didn't - and they kind of wondered why is he special? So, they've had ten years of that. Now they're all together under one roof, and finally getting a real chance to know each other......and I'm grateful for that."
Unlike his two half-brothers, 12-year old Aaron had the benefit of growing up with both his parents, and, Michael describes him as "a very tough, very together kid." There are no big problems with him, except, "I had to go to school today because Aaron forgot to bring his teacher four dollars for the social studies magazine - and that's a crisis!"
Since Michael is Jewish and Elizabeth is Catholic, they decided to let Aaron make his own religious choice - and he picked his father's faith. "On his own, he opted to go to Hebrew school and become bar-mitzvahed (confirmed), which is really wild because I hadn't been in a synagogue in 15 years. But Aaron brought me back and I'm a member now. I go to services with him on High Holy Days and we both fasted on Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement)."
"Aaron decided he was a Jew when he was about 9 or 10. It wasn't peer pressure because many of his classmates are Catholic and Protestant. He was very impressed though, when he saw a nephew of mine confirmed in Minneapolis. But more than that, he really wanted to know who he was - and after thinking it over very carefully - he identified with me. Elizabeth encouraged him, but I told him he had to be serious about it. I said, "Don't think you'll just take a couple of lessons, get bar-mitzvahed and get a bunch of presents. But if you really want to go ahead and study, then okay. Well, he's just dynamite. His teacher says he's the best student they ever had in Hebrew school!"
Michael believes in keeping a firm rein - and an open line of communication - with all the boys; and it seems to pay off. "So far, we've been very lucky," he says. "There have been no big problems - no drugs or dropping-out or anything like that. They all seem to be finding themselves pretty well."
"It seems to me, with teenagers, there's got to be freedom and discipline at the same time. The key is activity. If you can find a way to keep them doing, then you're all right. As soon as you can't, then you've got trouble."
"With teenagers, theres's an enormous amount of energy flowing through that body and it's got to be channeled somewhere. The body is growing, the mind is changing, the sexual organs are developing. There's good energy, bad energy, fear and an awful lot of questions. Am I going to be a man? What's sex all about? How do I handle girls? As long as they're outwardly directed into sports and academics and a social life, they're fine. But if you dont push them, that's when you get the drugs and the loud music and the sitting around and avoiding things."
Michael thinks physical outlets aren't such a bad idea for adults either. To let off steam, after a hard day before the TV cameras, he often comes home and chops wood for the fireplace or carves furniture for the backyard. And Elizabeth, who's an actress, published playwright and former English teacher, enjoys working with her hands, too. A few years ago she ran a crafts program for disturbed youngsters in Westchester County, and she now has her own ceramics studio.
Visiting Micahel in his suburban digs, he radiates pride and self-confidence. But he admits that the success he's gained on Ryan's Hope and the serenity he's found in his personal life didn't come easily. He got where he is today only after a long uphill climb that was marked by bouts of unemployment and several years of psychoanalysis. There was a bleak time in his life when he couldn't stop being his own worst enemy and he said, "I blew every single break I ever had."
Now he's determined to help his sons find the right road as they reach manhood. Michael knows he can't make the journey for them, but at least he's going to send them off with all the love and encouragement a father can give.