By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Montclair actor, storyteller and author Gerald Fierst felt incredibly lucky when he was invited to be part of a major project early last year.

Fierst, like many in the entertainment industry, had been out of work since the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person gatherings. 

“Even though my jobs were mostly in schools, museums and festivals, not in Broadway, it was still a public performance,” Fierst said. “Everything that I had done was stopped. And then out of the blue, I got an inquiry asking if I was available for a four-month period to do ‘Only Murders in the Building.’” 

In the Hulu series, Fierst plays a core background character, one of the tenants in the building. 

“That means that I’m ongoing,” Fierst said. “You see me getting on and off the elevator or sitting down at a funeral.” 

Fierst said the production crew was lovely and inclusive. He said every actor was tested for coronavirus three times a week and given gift bags with T-shirts and hoodies at the end of filming the first season. 

“And then everybody said, ‘Maybe there’ll be a second season.’ And sure enough, it turns out we are a hit,” Fierst said. “Once again, the casting came and said, ‘Are you available?’ And I’m still not working very much. … So, again it was like winning the lottery a second time. We started up in production at the beginning of December and we’re going through March. And this season looks even, frankly, more exciting than last season.” 

Fierst said he will reprise his role as a tenant in the building in the upcoming season. He said the role might not be fancy or significant, but it’s ongoing work, something difficult to find these days. 

“To survive as an actor, you know, to make a life as I have, even at the lowest level, even as a core background [actor], takes a kind of intelligence, endurance and craft,” he said. 

Fierst has been an actor for most of his life. In 1969, he was working in a New York City theater company when he met Olympia Dukakis, the actress who’d eventually become best known for her Academy Award-winning performance in “Moonstruck,” and who left a legacy deeply tied to her decades in Montclair when she died last year. In 1971, he was one of the founding members of The Whole Theater Company, which Dukakis started in the township with husband Louis Zorich. 

While working in the Whole Theater Company in 1985, Fierst also worked as a teacher in his son’s monthly cooperative school, telling stories to the students. 

Fierst said he continued working as a storyteller, and participated in a storytelling festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee. In that festival, Fierst met Peninnah Schram, an author of Jewish folktales, who invited him to become the artistic director of the Jewish Storytelling Center New York City’s 92nd Street Y, a position he took.

“And then somebody else called me and said, ‘Are you willing to work for the State Department and go to Spain?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I’m willing,’” Fierst said. He performed stories with children’s author Margaret Read MacDonald as part of the State Department‘s cultural programming. “So, you transform, you change. And I think what really keeps people working is the challenge of always discovering something new, you know?” 

Before the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in March of 2020, Fierst was working on a project with Glenfield Middle School’s planetarium based on his children’s book, “Imagine the Moon.”

“[It] deals with all of the science, myth, folklore that surrounds the full moon,” Fierst said. 

For the project, he would perform a grandfather with a puppet granddaughter, based on his own real granddaughter. They’d tell stories about how the universe began, from the big bang to Greek and Eskimo mythologies. 

“Isaac Newton comes in and Galileo comes in,” Fierst said. “We have different characters. They’re all puppets that come in to talk about looking at the moon and what they’ve discovered, and how the moon has inspired us all the way through to the point of exploration and setting rockets to the moon.” 

He said at the moment, the project is on standby, but he hopes it will return in the next year. In the meantime, Fierst said, he is working on another children's book and he is thinking of writing a young adult novel, something he hasn’t done before. 

“Only Murders in the Building” season one is streaming on Hulu.