October 25, 1993 12:00 PM

DRESSED IN A DARK BLUE SUIT, WHITE sneakers and his signature floppy bow tie, Fyvush (roughly “Phillip” in Yiddish) Finkel beckons the waiter in a Bel Air grill. “You got an omelet?” Finkel asks. “And what goes, with it besides the check?”

Okay., so his stuff is more Youngman than Seinfeld. But this former Borscht Belt tummler, who recently turned 71, has won a devoted following—and an Emmy nomination—for his deft portrayal of Douglas Wambaugh, the nattering, nettle-some public defender on CBS’s Picket fences. Not bad for an actor who only two years ago was doing songs and shtick in Florida condos. “I’m still thinking,” Finkel marvels, “how did this all happen? After 60 years, I’m an overnight success.”

Indeed Wambaugh’s popularity as Fences’ courtroom mensch has made him an icon of sorts. Lawyers and judges post photos of his vulpine mug on their office walls and write letters thanking him for saying all the things that defense attorneys never get to say in real life, e.g., baiting a judge. “Let’s get on with this case,” Judge Bone (Ray Walston) growled in one episode, “I’m not feeling well.” Wambaugh answered sweetly “How are we to know?” As the self-declared “champeen of the underdog” in the mythical Wisconsin hamlet of Rome, Wambaugh/Finkel has gone to the mat for, among others, an AIDS-infected dentist and a Mormon bigamist. Says Walston: “He’s excellent at comedy, but he’s also good at the heavy stuff. Sometimes I sit up on that bench, and I’m fascinated at the things he does.”

Finkel’s emotive blend of comedy and tragedy was the meat and mead of the Yiddish theater, where Finkel learned his craft. He was the third of four boys born to Harry and Mary Finkel, who ran a shirt-repair shop in Brooklyn.

The family lived in two rooms behind the store. Still, there was always hot water in the taps and food on the table, thanks in part to Fyvush, who earned a dollar a performance singing “Oh, Promise Me” in the obligatory marriage scene in Yiddish plays. Soon he was playing children’s roles in Yiddish theater productions on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; by 19, he was the equivalent of a second banana.

Exempt from military service because of flat feet, Finkel in the ’40s refined his role as a Yiddish character actor—sour as a dill pickle one moment, sweet as honeycake the next. In 1947 he married Trudi Lieberman, a junk dealer’s daughter, who bore him two sons, Ian, now 45, a musical arranger, and Elliot, 42, a concert pianist. Finkel settled into a sweet niche in the late ’40s and ’50s, traveling on the Yiddish circuit in the winter and working the Borscht Belt in New York’s Catskill Mountains in the summer. His job was to entertain guests, fair weather or foul. “In the heat of the day,” he recalls, “I’d put on a raccoon coat and jump in the pool. Was that entertainment? They screamed!”

Life was not all blintzes and sour cream though. “Am I going to lie to you?” says Trudi. “It was hard. I was with my children. They were my friends in the early years.” But work became increasingly difficult to find as the Yiddish theater waned. Then in 1967, Jerome Robbins picked Finkel for the national touring company of Fiddler on the Roof. On and off over the next 12 years, Finkel played supporting roles and Tevye, the indomitable Russian milkman. “After you do Tevye,” he says wistfully, “every role seems anticlimactic. Tevye, that’s my Hamlet.” He also played Mr. Mushnick in the original off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors (1982-87), then landed a siring of commercials (Pepto Bismol, Subaru) and several small film parts before nabbing the role as the ham-on-wry attorney in the white-bread town of Rome, Wis. On the Picket Fences set, Finkel keeps things lively. Says star Tom Skerritt: “With Fyvush there’re plenty of bad jokes around—but always delivered with perfect timing.”

Finkel’s dandy performance in the current film For Love or Money has made him doubly hot in Hollywood, but his contract with Picket Fences has forced him to turn down some nifty offers. At that, Finkel, who is enjoying late success, just shrugs. “There’s a Yiddish saying, With one face, you can’t be at 10 weddings,” he says. Then he laughs and whispers to his lunch guest, “In English, I cleaned that up for you.”


STANLEY YOUNG in Los Angeles

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