For Israelis, actor, director, screenwriter and producer Assaf “Assi” Dayan was the local matinee idol — a brash, irreverent sabra who repeatedly questioned himself and his country in everything he did.
Given his background, Dayan, who died on Thursday in his Tel Aviv home, didn’t have much of a choice.
The youngest son of the mythical Moshe Dayan, Israel’s chief of staff and then illustrious defense minister who oversaw Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War, he was born in 1945 in Nahalal, the country’s very first moshav, a cooperative community in the north.
His mother, Ruth, now 97, is known for establishing Maskit, the country’s first fashion label; Dayan’s grandfather, Shmuel, was a Mapai Knesset member; and his uncle, Ezer Weizman, was an air force commander, defense minister and the country’s seventh president. His older sister, Yael, was also in the Knesset and the Tel Aviv City Council, and his brother, Ehud Dayan, is a sculptor.
Throughout his 68 years and for the duration of his acclaimed career, the handsome, talented Dayan alternately turned toward and away from his family, seeking to align and differentiate himself at different times.
After studying philosophy and literature at Hebrew University, Dayan began working as an actor, receiving his first role in the iconic “He Walked in the Fields” (1967). Considered a nationalistic film about a young kibbutz member dealing with his love for a young immigrant and his duty to his country, it established Dayan as a star.
Dayan often said in later years that he tired of the constant references to the film, given its subject matter and his own alienation from the romanticized notions of duty and country. Yet he returned repeatedly to the subject of the army and its effect on Israeli life throughout his career.
By the time he played a political prisoner sentenced for anti-state activities in Uri Barbash’s “Beyond the Walls” (1984), nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign language film, Dayan was clearly more comfortable disagreeing with his father’s world. He played disgracefully discharged commanders in “Till the End of the Night” (1985) and “Real Time” (1991), and also moved into directing, taking a closer look at Israeli life and society.
At that point, his father had retired from active political life, and his parents had divorced. But the younger Dayan stayed close to issues of the army and its role in Israeli society.
The 1976 film “Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer,” which Dayan wrote and directed, went on to become one of the most popular Israeli films of its time. It offered one of the first comical looks at the IDF, with a trio of funny guys doing reserve duty in the Sinai Desert.
Dayan made several more comedies in the 1980s, and by the 1990s began a trilogy of films about what he considered the breakdown of Israeli society. “Life According to Agfa” (1992), was shot in black and white in a Tel Aviv pub, depicting sad, broken characters and ending in violence. It was followed by “Electric Blanket” (1995), about a prostitute and her pimp. The trilogy was completed with “The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum” (1997), which shows the final minutes of Micky Baum, a successful businessman suffering from an incurable disease.
In 2002, during an interview about his role as an Orthodox rabbi in Joseph Cedar’s film “Time of Favor,” he told the interviewer that the three movies were “sort of a philosophical trilogy dealing with the human condition — a nice little subject.”
Dayan won an Ophir award, the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Award, for his portrayal of Baum. An American remake of the film, “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn,” starring Robin Williams and Mila Kunis, is about to be released.
“It’s a film that deals in a very genuine and honest way with what’s going to happen to every single person and about not dealing with stuff,” said Daniel Walker, one of the producers of the American adaptation. “It’s about embracing who you are and making the most of what you’ve got and how much time you’ve got left.”
With his writing and portrayal of Baum, Dayan began taking his work in a different direction, contemplating life and his place in it.
“Israel is more than grapefruit and soldiers,” Dayan told The Guardian newspaper at the 2013 opening of the London Israeli Film Festival.
The later years of Dayan’s personal life were difficult, full of personal family strife and illness. He was married three times and had four children. He also suffered from substance abuse, receiving a suspended sentence for drug-related offenses in 2009, and was indicted for beating his girlfriend. During the same year, he also suffered a massive heart attack.
His mother, Ruth, always famously rejected her son’s tendency to live his personal life in the public eye. She told the Haaretz daily last June that “there is a limit to how much one can deal with this and make everything public.”
Despite his issues, Dayan continued working. He starred as a therapist in the award-winning television series “BeTipul,” which later became the acclaimed HBO show “In Treatment.” In 2008, he starred in “Jellyfish,” a whimsical film written and directed by his niece, Shira Geffen, and her husband, absurdist novelist Etgar Keret.
He kept up the therapy theme in “Dr. Pomerantz” (2012), starring and directing a film about a clinical psychologist whose life is a mess. The film was nominated for Best Screenplay at the 2012 Ophir Awards.
Throughout, all of it, clearly, was couched in metaphor. For Dayan, the son of the famed eye-patched general, born to a family of achievers, did not take his role lightly. He constantly and continually grappled with his own demons, at times successfully, at other times less so, never letting go.