As July Fourth rolls in and the Weber grills roll out and the flag flies high, I wish we had someone, if only on TV, who brought back that untarnished, joyful, growling, daring, mad, clever, ruthless, tormented, and fun spirit that, long ago and probably only in our imaginations, defined America.
Someone, that is, like Peter Dragon.
If the name means nothing to you, you’ve Fox to thank: The network killed the character, along with its sitcom, Action, after only 13 episodes, which aired in the fall of 1999. Dragon, portrayed by Jay Mohr, was a Hollywood producer who took his town’s venality, insecurity, and lustfulness to a degree that would have made even Robert Evans blush. Backed by his lover and confidant, played by the sublime Illeana Douglas, and his uncle and chief of security, played by Buddy Hackett in his full Borscht Belt glory, Dragon endeavors to make the magnificently idiotic Beverly Hills Gun Club, a movie whose emotional pull depends mainly on a scene in which a madman shoots up a zoo with semi-automatic weapons. Like other Hollywood satires—Robert Altman’s The Player comes to mind—Action, too, is thick with inside jokes and celebrity cameos, but the show, like few other works before or since, doesn’t feel in good fun. Like its protagonist, it cares mostly about decimating its targets and allows nothing sweet or redeeming to dull its stabs.
Here, for example, is the first time Dragon appears on screen. We see him parking in a spot reserved for the studio’s employee of the month. Said employee, Manny, a waiter in the commissary, is driving right behind him; his spot stolen, Manny leaps out of his car and confronts Dragon. The producer fires right back.
“Hey, that’s fantastic, man,” he says after Manny explains all about being employee of the month. “Hey, what is that, some kind of award for not peeing in the Cobb salad?”
Offended, Manny protests he had never peed in the salad. Dragon fires back: “Really? That’s too bad. Because if I was you, I would have peed in the Cobb salad. In fact, I would pee in every fucking Cobb salad every fucking day so every one of those fuckers in the commissary would have had a little taste of Peter fucking Dragon. But you know what, Manny? That’s just me. Move.”
He starts to walk away, but Manny, star-struck, stops him. “You’re Peter Dragon?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Dragon replies. “I’m Peter Dragon. And while you admirably restrained yourself over the years from peeing in the Cobb salad, I made 10 motion pictures that have earned this studio a billion dollars. So, I’m going to continue to park wherever the fuck I want, because unfortunately for you, I’m employee of the fucking century.”
Even as you shudder at the abuse, you recognize in Peter something beyond cruelty, the same unrestrained vigor that, decades earlier, moved a gaggle of middle-aged Jews to a forlorn southern California town to start an industry based on stories and light. It is not so much Dragon’s tongue, then, or even his bad decisions, that define him; it’s his single-mindedness, his dogged dedication to seeing his film to production at all cost.
It is, of course, the very same sentiment that had driven America into some of the darkest corners in its 237 years of existence. But it is also the engine of its greatness: From the invention of the light bulb to the restructured meat technology wonder that is the McRib, American ingenuity was always fueled by a robust lack of regard for convention or civility. Which, as Action so joyfully points out, isn’t always a bad thing: Walking out of the premiere of one of his own movies, for example, a blunt thriller unimprovably named Slow Torture, Dragon asks his associates for their thoughts. They all take pains to hide their true opinions behind such feeble facades as complimenting the film’s score; the only one who speaks her mind is a former child star turned drug addict turned prostitute whom Dragon only took to the premiere after having accidentally run her over with his limo en route to the theater. Impressed, he appoints her his vice president of production. She turns out to be the best employee he’s ever had, the only one in the swarm of besuited boobs who actually understands what makes movies work.
And what makes movies work is their ability—to borrow a motto from a certain company that was itself the subject of a pretty good film—to move fast and break things. These happen to be Peter Dragon’s twin talents; the show is never funnier than when the brash producer, desperate for the tens of millions of dollars he needs to make his silly film, rushes into mortifying situations. On one such occasion, for example, Dragon finds himself across the table from Shlomo, an elderly, rich hassidic Jew who’s made millions in the diamond business. The old man is reluctant to invest in Dragon’s film, and the producer, exasperated, picks up a small rock from the dozens lying on the table. “You’ve got a billion dollars in ice on the table,” he says. “This one alone could’ve financed Schindler’s List.” But Shlomo is unmoved and remains unmoved even after Dragon tries to lure him with a custom made tallis bearing the movie’s logo. Realizing he’s running out of time, Dragon takes one last shot. “Shlomo,” he says, “this is your last chance. The opportunity train is pulling out of the station and I want you on that train.” The old Jew doesn’t miss a beat. “Peter,” he replies, “any time people tell Jews to get on a train, it ends up bad.”
By now you may have intuited that Action is not only a thoroughly red-blooded American show, but also a profoundly Jewish one. Although most of the characters aren’t explicitly Jewish, their universe inescapably is; the Hollywood of Action is a place where even African American pimps receive guns for Hannukah and run an escort service named Yentl Rental.
This weekend, then, as you’re bloated with burgers and beers and freedom, look for Action online. It doesn’t take long to watch. And in Peter Dragon you may find just the man for the hour, an American Jewish badass. We could use a guy like him.
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