A UBS Banker’s Role of a Lifetime
By day, Mark Axelowitz is a managing director at investment bank UBS; by night, he dabbles in acting. That’s how the New York financier found himself — much to his amazement — sharing scenes with Robert De Niro in HBO’s biopic about Ponzi mastermind Bernie Madoff.
When UBS managing director Mark Axelowitz learned he had wrangled a bit part in a movie about Bernie Madoff starring Robert De Niro as the Ponzi mastermind, he could not control himself.
“I screamed like a little girl, I was so happy,” he laughs.
The 56-year-old financier Axelowitz had caught the acting bug in 2004 after winning a minor role on “Law and Order” at a charity auction for Boys and Girls Harbor, a not-for-profit focusing on educational opportunities for Harlem children, on whose board he serves. To have his first speaking scene with the legendary De Niro was more exciting than landing a billionaire client; Axelowitz has for six years managed money for wealthy individuals and family offices in the bank’s private wealth division.
Axelowitz had only two scenes in the movie, “Wizard of Lies,” aired on HBO in May. His scenes were shot on Yom Kippur of 2015, but the Jewish financier had no qualms about working. “God will give me a pass to have scenes with Robert De Niro,” he told his family, only half in jest.
The New York financier remembers the shoot like it was yesterday: “My heart is pounding. I can’t believe this is happening. I had five lines. I counted the words,” he says. “De Niro’s on the phone, and off camera you hear my voice: ‘I was just saying to Maurice, Bernie’s like the Jewish T-Bill. He’s that safe.’ ”
No one on the set, including director Barry Levinson, then knew Axelowitz was a Wall Street pro. But Axelowitz’s day job worked to his advantage. He convinced Levinson to give his character, stockbroker Robert Jaffe, who had steered $1 billion in client money to Madoff, a second talking scene. In the script Madoff was to brush off Jaffe. Axelowitz told Levinson, “I’m a Wall Street guy for 30 years, and a Wall Street guy would not be blown off by Bernie Madoff a second time.”
Levinson agreed, and Axelowitz got the line, in which Jaffee charges at Madoff, who tries to ignore him. “Bernie, Bernie. You can’t give me just one minute, just one minute? Come on, I want to introduce you guys.” he says, in a fit of pique. After Axelowitz proved his Street cred, the crew called on him for advice on such esoteric matters as hedge fund redemptions.
Hollywood has ended up as a side business for the banker, who donates all his acting earnings to charity. An auction at another charity, Children for Children, landed him an audition for the Cohen Brothers movie “A Serious Man.” He bombed, which eventually led him to acting lessons at the Strasberg School in New York, after well-known casting director Ellen Chenoweth told him he couldn’t act.
Working as an actor, Axelowitz says, has broadened his view of the world. “My actor friends are very grounded,” says Axelowitz, who was raised on Long Island. “They don’t come from money. I’m in two different worlds, and I think that helps me in my day job.”
The Madoff story also struck a chord. “I grew up with a father who lost every dime in the market,” he says. Axelowitz’s father had begun investing in the stock market in the 1960s boom and lost nearly everything. The senior Axelowitz, now 96 and still living on Long Island, bet big on Penn Central Railroad — on margin. The railroad’s 1969 bankruptcy financially devastated the family, and Axelowitz, then 9, his two sisters and brother all went to work.
Experience is the best teacher, of course. “The way to prevent a Bernie Madoff or any really bad investment is very simple: Don’t have all your money in one place. You have to be diversified,” he cautions. “If you only have 3 to 5 percent in one investment, even if it’s a Ponzi scheme, it stinks but it ain’t changing your life.” Even actors need to learn that line.