HOLLYWOOD - Growing up Jewish in New England, Adam Sandler was enthralled with stories about Israel and the heroics of its commandos in defending the tiny nation from its many enemies.
"As a Jewish kid you were proud of that," Sandler recalls.
Years later, Sandler got to know several Israelis in Los Angeles, including a tough-looking male hairstylist. That introduction triggered a blip on his comedy radar. What if he made a movie about a hard-bitten Israeli commando who harbors a secret wish to be a hairstylist? Enter "You Don't Mess with the Zohan."
Collaborating with "Saturday Night Live's" Robert Smigel and comedy producer Judd Apatow - his onetime roommate - Sandler fleshed out the story.
As Zohan, Sandler is a top Israeli commando who fakes his death at the hands of a notorious Palestinian terrorist. He sneaks away to America and assumes a new identity in hope of fulfilling his dream of becoming a top hairstylist.
Arriving in the Big Apple with no money and no training, he manages to secure a job as a sweeper at a small Brooklyn salon. He eventually persuades the beautiful manager to allow him to work on clients' hair.
He soon becomes a favorite, particularly among the older females. His heart is only for the manager, though, but she's Palestinian. Zohan's folks would never approve. Meanwhile, someone in the neighborhood is stirring up trouble between the Israeli and Arab immigrant populations, who have been enjoying a peaceful coexistence.
"Zohan" is the filmmakers' way of approaching an unapproachable problem - the Arab-Israeli conflict - in a comedic way. "My intention is not to hurt anyone," assures Sandler. "We just wanted to make a funny movie."
"We tried to be equally offensive to both sides," adds Smigel.
"You Don't Mess with the Zohan" marks a return to Sandler's roots - he plays an outlandishly wild, broadly drawn character, as he did both on "SNL" and in his early films. The sex-obsessed, fish-out-of-water may remind some viewers of Borat with bigger muscles and more stylish hair. But he also can kick butt like it's nobody's business.
"I always pictured (Zohan) like Charles Bronson in 'Death Wish,' " Sandler says.
To get into top form before the start of production, the actor worked out with a Navy SEAL for four months, lifting weights, running and doing sit-ups. The really tough part, he admits, was giving up snacks.
"Working out that long - I hated it," he says. "I did it, though. I had to do it every day, and not eating as much as I like."
He also worked on his Israeli accent and consulted with a former Israeli soldier who now works in a Los Angeles hair salon. He learned how to cut hair too, though he insists he will keep his day job.
The 41-year-old assembled a wide assortment of comedic talent, including several people he'd previously worked with, including director Dennis Dugan ("Happy Gilmore," "Big Daddy," "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," "The Benchwarmers").
John Turturro, who previously starred opposite Sandler in "Mr. Deeds" and "Anger Management," plays the villain. Former "SNL" castmate Rob Schneider delivers another comic performance as a Palestinian immigrant cabdriver with a grudge against Zohan.
Co-star Emmanuelle Chriqui plays the Palestinian woman Zohan falls in love with and was pleased to be part of a project that promotes unity. "We were Arabs and Jews making this movie and we really bonded," says the Canadian actress of Moroccan descent. "I had the time of my life."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Manchester, N.H., Sandler had his first brush with comedy at age 17, when he performed during an open-mike night at a Boston comedy club. After graduation from New York University, he returned to the comedy club circuit and made some TV guest appearances.
While performing at a club in Los Angeles, he was spotted by comedian Dennis Miller, who recommended Sandler to "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels in 1990. Starting out as a writer, Sandler quickly became a cast member and created a number of memorable characters on the show, including Opera Man, Canteen Boy, Cajun Man and Gap Girl.
Smigel recalls that Sandler polarized the comedy show's staff like no one else before or since. Some thought he was brilliant; others didn't get his brand of comedy and thought he talked like a monkey.
"It was almost a referendum on comedy at the time," Smigel says, adding that he was in the "brilliant" camp.
After five years with "SNL," Sandler embarked on a lucrative movie career. His first hit was "Billy Madison." He subsequently starred in "Happy Gilmore," "The Waterboy," "Big Daddy," "Little Nicky" and "Mr. Deeds."
He swept Drew Barrymore off her feet in the 1998 romantic comedy "The Wedding Singer," and the two were paired again in the 2004 comedy "50 First Dates."
In 1993, Sandler released his first comedy album, "They're All Gonna Laugh at You!" which earned a Grammy nomination. Subsequent albums have gone multiplatinum and he has sold more than 6 million copies to date.
Proud of his Jewish heritage, Sandler wrote and recorded "The Chanukah Song," which has become a holiday favorite. He also produced and provided four of the voices in the animated Chanukah movie "8 Crazy Nights."
In 2003, he co-starred in the hit comedy "Anger Management" with Jack Nicholson. A risk-taker, he starred in the P.T. Anderson drama "Punch-Drunk Love," earning critical praise. He subsequently starred in another adult-oriented drama-comedy, "Spanglish." His latest film, "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," paired him with comedian Kevin James.
The boyish-looking Sandler married model-turned-actress Jackie Titone in 2003. They have a daughter, Sadie Madison, 2, and another child on the way.
"My parents wanted me to marry a Jewish girl - they thought it would be an easier life for me to raise a Jewish kid and have a Jewish wife, so I have a Jewish wife and a Jewish kid and they seem pretty happy about it," he says.
Though faithful to his own religion, Sandler is obviously a man of tolerance. He is optimistic "Zohan" audiences will walk away with a hopeful message.
"We are saying, wouldn't life be so much easier if we were just hanging out and getting along?" he says. "It's not a brand new theory, but that's what it gets down to." *