Written off but she co-created Friends

SHE was told she would never make it as a writer. Yet Marta Kauffman has had the last laugh, co-creating one of the world's most successful and lauded sitcoms.

Together with close friend David Crane, she introduced Monica, Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe in Friends.

Lasting for 10 years, it made global stars out of the cast and is still syndicated around the world.

"My English teacher at high school said I was the least perceptive person and that I would never be a writer," Marta told me from her Los Angeles home.

Friends was based on characters Kauffman and David Crane knew when they were living in New York City.

"I am most like Monica as she is the control freak one," Marta, who was also the show's executive producer, revealed.

Marta and David knew they had something special as they sat down to watch the first stage of filming when Friends began in 1994.

She recalled: "It was a scene in the Central Perk coffee house and all six of the actors were on set.

"We had a feeling when we watched them that this was a magical group - a chill went through me when I saw them all together for the first time.

"But it never occurred to me that it would become so big."

Friends became a global phenomenon and made icons out of its cast, perhaps the most iconic in Jennifer Aniston.

Marta said: "Sure, David and I experienced its success but not in the way the cast did. Those guys would be mobbed walking through the airport, for example."

Dedicated Friends websites abound with theories about which of the characters are Jewish.

And Marta, 54, confirmed that only Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) is Jewish according to halachic law.

"Monica and Ross Geller have a Jewish father," she added.

In real life, David Schwimmer (Ross) and Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe Buffay) are Jewish.

Brought up in Philadelphia, she read theatre at Boston's Brandeis University before moving to the Big Apple.

"I always knew I wanted to have a job in showbusiness," Marta recalled.

"I was keen on dancing and acting, but it was not until I went to college that I realised I wanted to be a writer. There were no plays for undergraduates to perform in so David and I wrote some and I really enjoyed the behind-the-camera work.

"I got hooked - I thought it was a lot more fun than being in front of the camera."

After moving to New York, Marta and friend David tried to make a living in musical theatre, but only managed to stage shows off-Broadway.

They were working on a musical version of Arthur when they decided to move to Los Angeles.

Marta explained: "We always said that if we didn't have a show on Broadway within seven years we would go to LA.

"It didn't happen for us in New York so we went there."

Marta had met future husband Michael Skloff, a musician who later composed the Friends theme tune, while in New York.

He had been David's flatmate.

Once in LA, Jewish writer and producer Norman Lear asked Marta and David to develop scripts for television.

"I didn't think he liked us," Marta recalled. "He found our scripts superficial and shallow.

"He told us that we owed him a pilot and we thought to ourselves, 'Why are we killing ourselves working on ideas when he doesn't like us?'"

They wrote cult adult comedy series Dream On, which aired for two years from 1990.

But their big break came with 1992's The Powers That Be, which ran for two series.

Telling the story about a senator who has an affair with his secretary, it quickly became a success.

Marta said: "His wife was a lesbian, he had a suicidal son-in-law and a bulimic daughter.

"For those reasons we thought Norman and the network would never run it - but they did."

The end for Friends happened in May, 2004.

The episode, The Last One, attracted an audience of more than 50 million across America.

"The challenge was how to move on and how to redefine myself," Marta explained.

"It was extremely emotional, but everything must end.

"I compare it to raising a child and then the time comes for the child to leave and go to college.

"It was time for Friends to go.

One of the characters, Matt Le Blanc's Joey Tribbiani, was given his own spin-off show, Joey, after Friends ended.

It was not a rating success - and Marta is not a fan.

She said: "I was not involved with that and spin-offs so rarely work. They are really difficult to make work."

Brought up in a Conservative Jewish home, her parents, Dorothy-Rose and Herman, were the children of eastern European Jews who had emigrated to America.

Her family kept kosher and she went to Jewish summer camps and visited Israel.

Sister Andrea is Frank Sinatra Junior's manager.

Marta's Jewishness has certainly influenced her work.

Some Friends episodes featured Chanucah and Jewish storylines, while she produced Blessed is the Match.

Nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature in 2009, as well as winning a Primetime Emmy, it tells the story The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh as a serious contender. The film, which Marta produced, tells the story of Hungarian-born Hannah Senesh.

She was a resistance fighter who parachuted into Hungary during the Second World War in an attempt to rescue Jews, but was captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis.

"Hannah Senesh was a hero of mine from a young age, because I had learned about her at Jewish summer camp," Marta continued.

Marta had been told about the Blessed is the Match project by friend Roberta Grossman, who was directing it.

Senesh's story was told through a mother and daughter correspondence.

"Hannah was only 23 when she died," Marta said.

"I really wanted to get involved with the project and Roberta is a fantastic lady, really smart, funny and interesting."

And Marta and Roberta's collaboration has continued with their work on new film Hava Nagila.

It tells the story of the iconic Jewish song, celebrating 100 years of Jewish history and culture through the journey of a song, as well as revealing the power of music.

"The song Hava Nagila has a fascinating history," Marta said.

"You can trace the journey of where Jews have been and where we are going through the twists and turns of this song.

"It is also a springboard for asking big questions.

"As Hava Nagila has crossed over into pop culture and become more secular, has it lost some of its meaning?

"By extension, are we, as modern Jews, in danger of losing meaning in our lives? Are there messages embedded in this song that we can rediscover?"

Celebrities will appear on camera to provide their own takes on the song for the film, which is due for release next year.

And a 10-minute fundraising clip of the film, featuring singer Harry Belafonte and Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy, has already become an Internet sensation, amassing more than half a million views worldwide.

Two women directing and producing a film is refreshing, but even though we live in the 21st century there is still a lack of "big name" female film directors.

And Marta claims there is a certain amount of misogamy in Hollywood.

"I have experienced it in a number of different ways," she said.

"It is not quite as bad as it used to be, but there is still an exclusionary feel. It has been different for me because I have, fortunately, enjoyed success."

Continuing the feminism theme, Marta is producing Project Five, a five-part series about breast cancer with segments directed by Jennifer Aniston and Demi Moore.

Perhaps Marta would like to escape it one day, but she is more than happy to keep discussing Friends.

After all, it is what has made her.

"It was 10 years of my life, so of course I have great affection for it," Marta explained.

"My mother never told me how proud she was of me.

"But I did find a scrapbook she kept that had clippings from every article that had ever been done on me."

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© 2011 Jewish Telegraph