September 21, 2018 @ 10:00 pm


Actor Jeremy Piven spent nearly 20 years of his career in supporting roles, and though he was a familiar face to movie-goers, was never considered a box-office draw. His fortunes, however, improved immensely when he began playing Ari Gold, the caustic Hollywood agent on the hit HBO series Entourage, and won an Emmy for his second season in the role in 2006. It was the first industry honor the actor had ever won, though he had, according to Time ‘s Joel Stein, “made a career of playing supercharged supporting characters as if he were Al Pacino on a leash. His talent is being big and real simultaneously.”

Entourage debuted on the cable channel in July of 2004 and immediately garnered critical accolades. The storyline was loosely based on the early years of actor Mark Wahlberg’s career, one of the series’ producers, and the friends who came with him to Hollywood from his Boston hometown. On the show, the hot new heartthrob actor is Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), whose posse includes his older brother, an actor whose career seems to be skidding downhill as Vincent’s is taking off; the part was given to Kevin Dillon, real-life brother of actor Matt Dillon. Also eager to spend Vincent’s money is a dope-smoking, X-Box-addicted layabout named Turtle (Jerry Ferrara). The foursome was rounded out by Eric (Kevin Connolly), Vincent’s level-headed manager, who is often mocked for his last paid job, as manager of a Sbarro pizza outlet back in Queens. Piven’s role was originally a small one as Vincent’s new agent, a powerful Hollywood deal-maker named Ari Gold who was loosely based on Wahlberg’s onetime agent, a notorious industry figure named Ari Emanuel.

Piven had just one scene in Entourage ‘s pilot episode, but the character’s manic energy and rapid-fire putdowns in subsequent episodes led to a decision by the show’s writers to flesh out more of his role, including a home life. Though Ari is a feared presence in the industry, he appears to be dominated by his independently wealthy wife, known only as “Mrs. Ari,” and dotes on his kids. On the second episode, Piven improvised a line of dialogue that quickly became a catchphrase for the show. It came at the close of a tense confrontation with Eric, the manager, when Piven’s Ari uttered the line, “Let’s hug it out, [b****]!” The phrase was picked up by viewers and moved into the slang lexicon and even instant-messaging and e-mail acronyms, LHIOB! It even emerged as a mobile phone ring-tone and soon even “a cliche, as beloved by sports commentators as it is weepy drunks,” noted Jonathan Bernstein in London’s Guardian newspaper, “testament to the irresistible rise of Ari Gold.”

Entourage was a hit with critics and viewers alike. “The show that started off confident has become indomitable,” asserted New York Times writer Virginia Heffernan. “The intricacies of male interdepen-dence—the infallible hierarchy, the twin fears of marriage and solitude, the generously distributed rage—all contribute to avid comedy.” Heffernan singled out Piven’s performance, noting that “many of Ari’s showdowns take place on cell- or speaker-phones while the men are in motion, a device that allows Mr. Piven to bring the full force of Shakespearean monologue antics and scenery chewing to what might otherwise be television’s monotone pseudo-naturalism.” Bernstein, writing in the Guardian , also offered strong praise. “It’s a rare week when these four friends don’t seem like supporting players in The Ari Gold Show,” he declared. “Within the confines of a character who, by the very nature of his job, spends his every waking moment scanning the room for someone more important than the person he’s currently talking to while simultaneously concocting methods of stabbing the same person in the back without them knowing it, Piven and the Entourage writing staff have imbued the potentially irredeemable Ari with a surprising amount of heart.”

Nominated for an Emmy Award for the first season of Entourage , Piven won a year later as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, in part thanks to a memorable episode in which Ari’s attempt to stage a takeover at his own agency brings a swift downfall. “Summarily dismissed, he was stripped of his clients, company phone and company car (an S-class Mercedes), and reduced to being driven home by his assistant in what he derisively called “a prop car from The Fast and the Furious ,” wrote Hilary De Vries in a New York Times article about the series’ “frighteningly realistic” depiction of the Hollywood power game; the episode, “Exodus,” had caused enough of a stir on Internet chat rooms and fan sites to prompt De Vries’ article in the first place.

Thanks to the success of Entourage, Piven began landing more leading film roles. He appeared in Keeping Up with the Steins , a 2006 bar mitzvah comedy, and was the target of murderous ill will in Smokin’ Aces , a Las Vegas-set thriller that hit movie theaters in early 2007. He played Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel, a nightclub illusionist turned federal informant for the mob, in a cast that also included Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, and rapper Common. “Piven tears into the role,” wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone , who noted that the actor seemed to borrow some of his inspiration from Ari Gold. “Piven nails the laughs, for sure, but he finds something more penetrating in Buddy’s silences when the master magician can’t fool himself. Chasing hookers, snorting coke and pushing around his bodyguard, Hugo (Joel Edgerton), is only for show…. [A] brutal face-off reveals Buddy as a cookie full of arsenic. No wonder everyone wants him dead.”

Piven’s rise to stardom seemed to come just as the long-ago agent predicted, with his Emmy win coming just a few weeks after he celebrated his fortieth birthday. In the interview with Riley for Back Stage West , he reflected on his long career as a sidekick and almost-star. “The Ari Golds of the world don’t have the patience to nurture a career like mine, nor do they want to,” he said. “One of the lines I spit out the first season was, ‘I don’t represent talent; I represent temperature, and you’re not hot.’ That was me; I never had fire…. I was never on these lists of people who could walk in the room and be allowed to audition for a movie.” Instead he credited his parents with providing the best framework for his career. In the same interview, he described his father, who died in 2002, as “a real pioneer as an artist…. He started a theatre with my mom, hung the lights, put shows up on his back, directed himself in the Scottish tragedy with my mom playing the lady. I mean, who does that? He was a real artist, an actor’s actor. And he never was recognized on a national level, and I’ve been lucky enough to be recognized. And I’m not a better actor than my father, by any means. Or my mother. They just happen to have paved the way for me.”