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She was neither French nor a chef but Julia Child had the chutzpah to believe she could teach anyone to cook. It was the early 1960s when she went to her local PBS station in Boston to pitch an idea for what would become the first-ever cooking show.
Child would cook her favorite French recipes on camera and open up a new world to American housewives. Though she had some success as a co-author of the 1961 book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” she had a few very big obstacles on her way to TV stardom.
She was a 50-year-old woman with an unusually high-pitched voice and she had a non-traditional appearance. The network suits weren’t quite sure anyone would watch and when the first episode of The French Chef aired on February 11, 1963, no one involved with the production thought there was any chance of a second episode. Child was middle-aged and just starting her career on TV, a feat that seems challenging at best even now in 2022.
It could have been a huge failure but the award-winning series would turn her into a household name. It ran for ten years with a total of 201 episodes. In the HBO Max series, Julia, showrunner Chris Keyser (Party Of Five) and first-time TV series creator Daniel Goldfarb (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) take the viewer behind the scenes into Child’s life just before she made TV history. We are also privy to her home life with her husband Paul Child, played brilliantly by Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce.
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Sarah Lancashire (Last Tango in Halifax) is marvelous as the cooking icon and after the eight-episode binge, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. However, Keyser and Goldfarb admitted in a recent joint phone interview that she wasn’t their first casting choice.
Originally, they admit, Joan Cusack was a the top of the list but as fate would have it, the timing didn’t work for her schedule. As often happens in Hollywood, a list of actresses considered for the role was created and Lancashire’s name was on it.
“Sarah was the only one on that list everyone believed could do this,” Keyser explained. “It quickly became Sarah or no one. She nailed the tone of it and her performance was transformative. It’s very hard now to imagine anyone else as Julia.”
Goldfarb admits that he, too, is impressed with Child’s ability to start a TV career in her fifties. “We wanted to do a second act story with Julia to show that it is never too late to start a new chapter in life.”
Goldfarb adds that for him it was also Child’s zest for life that made him want to tell her story. “I was incredibly inspired by her joyousness. She lived life to the fullest. And I love food and she was so delightful and so influential in the way we eat and cook.”
Both agree that her legacy went far beyond cooking rich French cuisine laden with butter and cream. “Her joy for cooking was also a metaphor for her joy for life,” says Keyser.
The series premiered on March 31 and runs through May 5 on HBO Max. Also starring are Bebe Neuwirth as Avis DeVoto, Brittany Bradford as Alice Naman, Fran Kranz as Russ Morash, Fiona Glascott as Judith Jones and Judith Light as Blanche Knopf.
TV lovers have a hearty appetite for content but collectively we’ve never needed uplifting storytelling more. Julia satiates this hunger as we follow her quest for happiness. Though you may have to do some work to find that thing that gets you excited about life, just remember it’s not too late to reinvent yourself and start anew.
Child began cooking at 32 years old and started her television career at 50. As the Queen of French Cuisine famously said, “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.”