Back in the ‘Garden State’
Scrubs star Zach Braff returns to his home territory in his first feature film

by Steven M. Bloom
Special to NJ Jewish News

Every week millions of fans delight in the 20-something-generation humor, streams of consciousness, and sight gags of Zach Braff as medical intern Dr. John Dorian on the NBC series Scrubs. This summer, Braff sheds his scrubs to display broader talents in his initial foray into feature movie writing and directing, Garden State, a coming-of-age story filmed last summer on location in Livingston and in his hometown of South Orange. How apropos for this Hollywood star to have chosen to return to MetroWest, where his spark of talent was first ignited and grew into a roaring blaze.

Braff was eight years old when he first saw his father perform on stage with the Livingston Community Players. The event made a major impact on him: “Opening night, when the curtain closed and the lights went up, was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen,” said the 29-year-old Braff. Three years later, he attended Stage Door Manor, a children’s acting camp, where he was approached by a talent scout and persuaded to turn professional. Supportive of their son’s ambition, Braff’s parents arranged a theater motif for the reception for his 1988 bar mitzva (at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange). The following year his first role came in a television pilot in which he costarred opposite Gwyneth Paltrow and which was never picked up. But he was soon cast in other teenage parts, notably as the son of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery.

Braff never performed on stage in school productions while attending Jefferson Elementary, South Orange Middle School, or Columbia High School. But at Columbia High he did participate in the school’s extensive television training program and won Excellence in Directing awards for two straight years. Frank Mullin, Columbia’s TV coordinator, told NJJN, “The hardest thing to do in our program is to put on the headset and direct your fellow students. Zach won their respect. He just had the knack; he was a natural.” On a shelf in his office, Mullin keeps a copy of the premiere episode of Scrubs alongside a sampling of Braff’s high school productions, including a cleverly edited comedy short, Do You Know Your Alma Mater?, which, to this day, Mullin includes in his core television curriculum.

Kvelling grandma
Braff also displayed an entirely different dimension of character during his high school years by responding to over 100 calls as a cadet-volunteer with the South Orange Rescue Squad. Mary Connor, a 35-year squad veteran, rode with Braff and recalled that he was trained to use every piece of equipment on the ambulance. “We’ve had volunteers go on to become doctors in real life, but Zach was the first ever to go on to play a doctor on television!” said squad president Sherry Weintraub, proudly displaying the autographed Scrubs photo that Braff sent her last year to commemorate the squad’s 50th anniversary.

If Braff’s early talent and drive to master all facets of television and film were factors leading up to his big break on Scrubs, so too was the support of his family. Father Hal Braff is a prominent trial attorney, adjunct professor at Rutgers University and Beijing University, and former national vice president of American Inns of Court, a professional legal association. Step-mother Elaine Braff is a family therapist and, with her husband, teaches PAIRS, a marriage education course here in the MetroWest area. Mother Anne Braff Brodzinsky is a clinical psychologist, and stepfather David Brodzinsky is also a psychologist and a professor at Rutgers.

Braff has two brothers, screenwriter Adam and author Josh, and a clothing-designer sister, Shoshana, whose son Jagger joined his uncle on the Scrubs float three years ago in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Step-sisters Jessica Kirson, a New York stand-up comedienne recently seen on television; Jennifer Gelman, owner of the Livingston shop Gift Solutions; and Lara Brodzinsky, a New York City photographer, round off the list of his extended siblings.

And then there’s Bea Farbman, one proud step-grandmother, who told NJJN, “The best part of Tuesday is lying in bed, turning on the television, and kvelling over my grandson’s performance on Scrubs!”

The MetroWest community may very well kvell, too; native son Zach Braff is a star on the rise.

Steven Bloom is a freelance writer from Springfield.

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