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'Downfall' from Ganz and Hirschbiegel

Actor Bruno Ganz and director Oliver Hirschbiegel's new film is Downfall, about the last days of Hitler. Ganz stars as Adolf Hitler. He's made over 80 films mostly in German, and was in the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Downfall is Hirschbiegel's third film, and his most popular to date.

31:05

Other segments from the episode on February 28, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 28, 2005: Interview with Bruno Ganz and Oliver Hirschbiegel; Interview with Bill Lee.

Transcript

DATE February 28, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bruno Ganz and Oliver Hirschbiegel discuss making the
movie "Downfall"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

We're used to seeing Nazis depicted in film as pitiless monsters, but are we
ready to see them as human beings committing monstrous acts? That's a
question posed by the new German film "Downfall," which presents a detailed
and historically accurate account of the last 12 days of the Third Reich as
experienced in Hitler's underground bunker. A half a million Germans saw
"Downfall" in its first five days, and it earned an Oscar nomination for best
foreign film. The film has stirred controversy because it depicts Adolf
Hitler and other Nazi leaders--Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler among
them--as people with families and feelings. But Hitler in "Downfall" does
indulge in rants of self-pity and paranoia. But he also shows kindness
towards his aides, secretaries and his dog, Blondie.

Our guests today are the film's director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, who has
directed in film and German television, and veteran actor Bruno Ganz, who
portrays Hitler.

Ganz was born in Switzerland, but has lived in Berlin for much of his life.
And he's a familiar figure in German cinema. He starred in Wim Wenders'
"Wings of Desire" and has appeared in several American movies, including "The
Boys from Brazil" and the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate." To prepare
for his role, Ganz immersed himself in firsthand descriptions of Hitler. He
read books and studied archival film, and listened to recordings of his voice.

Political leaders are known for having ways of being persuasive to people.
Some of them inspire their followers; some of them bully; some of them joke.
As you looked at these materials from those who had firsthand experience with
Adolf Hitler, what was his style, one-on-one? We all picture him as a ranting
speech-maker, but what was he like one-on-one? What did you learn?

Mr. BRUNO GANZ ("Downfall"): I learned that all of them are saying that he
was quite a gentle man, that he could be generous, that he treated them well,
that he was--oh, yeah. And then they mentioned--all of them say that he was
yelling, screaming and terribly angry sometimes. They couldn't find out or
figure out why, but they accepted this because he was a big, big shot. And
so, you know--but I was really surprised by--it was rather warm feelings they
had. And what they wrote and said about him was after '45, which is important
because they didn't know the entire--I mean, they didn't know really what he
did, the genocide side of what--I mean, what he did to the Jews, that was
really known after the war. So even then, they said he was, he could be, a
very gentle man. And this surprised me.

But I--from the very beginning, I thought the really interesting point is, how
did he come in power? Why was he supported and, I will dare to day, loved by
a lot of German people? And you should try to show that the rest or even
ruins of what he once represented is still present, even in maybe a very
deranged way. That was my goal.

DAVIES: Hitler's biographer, Ian Kershaw, remarked that you, Bruno Ganz, had
Hitler's voice in this film down to perfection. He described it as chillingly
authentic. Let's just listen to a little bit of you in this film portraying
Adolf Hitler.

(Soundbite of "Downfall")

Mr. GANZ: (As Adolf Hitler) (German spoken)

DAVIES: That was Bruno Ganz in the film "Downfall," in which he portrays
Adolf Hitler.

Bruno Ganz, how did you find Hitler's voice? How'd you duplicate it?

Mr. GANZ: We in Europe, we have, let's say, my generation still, we have--we
remember his speeches, which was frightening. But you are kid when you--when
I heard him or listened to his--even in Switzerland where I was brought up.
And you still remember really this kind of screaming and then it's so--it was
frightening. That's the only--that's what we remember.

But then when I got that tape that you can hear him talk to Finnish
diplomat--it was secretly recorded, and he's completely relaxed. And he
sounds so--I mean, he is talking about the usual stuff, about his army and the
Russian front, which it was in '42, and I think he started to understand that
this adventure in Russia maybe would go wrong. And so he's talking about his
army would be rather a summer army and not prepared for winter, and summer
army and winter army and this kind of distinction. You can hear him
completely relaxed, and I thought, `That's a good example for the bunker,
because in the last days, in talking to people really close to him, like Eva
Braun, he will not be yelling at her.

And so--and I could clearly hear the mixture between his Austrian dialect and
this kind of militarized real correct German, and he managed to mix these two,
because he came from Austria, and he had quite a heavy accent. And he managed
to learn the official German, but underneath, you can still hear where he is
from, and this is, for German-speaking people, interesting. I always wondered
what kind of language he used, and so this was one of my training. The other
was the Parkinson disease. I went to hospitals and watched people with that
disease, and so I learned this kind of trembling, shaking hand and whatsoever.

DAVIES: Hitler had Parkinson. You felt that's something you had to learn
about, huh?

Mr. GANZ: Yes.

DAVIES: Yeah. What did that add to the performance, do you think?

Mr. GANZ: Well, it was--hard to say. It was a technical difficulty. When
I'm using the term `technical,' I mean this is really actor language or my
language. I mean, you had to keep shaking or trembling one--in this case, it
was the left hand--while you are screaming at some, and you are emotionally
completely--I mean, really, you get furious, and you are engaged, and
you're--it's you're completely concentrated on your emotions, and it shouldn't
stop that your hand keeps trembling. And that's just--that's some problem
sometimes for an actor.

DAVIES: Yeah. A lot of actors, when they're shooting a movie for a period of
time, bring the part home with them. At least some essential core of the
character they are playing stays with them in their off hours. And I wonder
if you found that was true while you were shooting this film and if it
bothered you.

Mr. GANZ: No, but I feared that, so I thought, `I got to construct'--well, I
don't know. How far shall I explain this--kind of a security wall or
something so that I would be able, really, to go into it at the studio in the
shooting hours, and once I leave the studio, I could completely lose him and
turn away and be myself and go back to the hotel and have dinner or not and
just not to care anymore about Hitler. That's what I managed, but, you know,
now five months later, I feel that I didn't--it's not--I mean, there is still
some shadow.

DAVIES: Our guests are Bruno Ganz--he is the actor who played Adolf Hitler in
"Downfall," the new film about the closing days of the Third Reich in Adolf
Hitler's underground bunker. Also with us is Oliver Hirschbiegel, who is the
director of the film.

Oliver Hirschbiegel, you were born in Germany in 1957. You've seen the German
people come to terms with the Nazi experience over the years. And I'm
wondering--I mean, this is a big question, but where do you think the German
national consciousness is today with the Nazi experience, and how has that
affected the way you would want to portray or the kind of artistic picture of
Hitler that you wanted to present?

Mr. OLIVER HIRSCHBIEGEL (Director, "Downfall"): See, I don't think there
hasn't been and there will never be a coming to terms with that part of our
history. To me, sounds like as if that there is a chance to find peace, you
know, and I do not think so. I think even though I was born after the war and
that my children will certainly not be guilty, but the Germans, for the next
hundreds of years, have to live with the responsibility. There is no coming
to terms with the fact that we stand for the worst crime in the history of
human mankind. That's the wrong--I think it's the wrong idea.

We, especially the younger generation, myself, we have always just been
lectured about this part of our history, and I always found that ridiculous.
Firstly, I do not want to be lectured about things. I want to be able to ask
questions and get sufficient answers. And then it is not enough to describe
horror. I always had the feeling that just only describing it kind of
diminishes the horror. I think we really have to understand that the blood of
the people who were responsible for this is still in our veins, and we have
to--we really have to do research. What is it in the German soul, what is it
in the German history that made this possible in this particular moment? And
I think that for years to come, we will have to work on this.

DAVIES: Director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Also with us, actor Bruno Ganz, who
portrayed Hitler in the new German film "Downfall." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to our conversation with actor Bruno Ganz and director
Oliver Hirschbiegel about the new German film "Downfall."

You wanted to make this film as historically accurate as possible, and so you
did a lot of research. Tell us, first of all, about the bunker. I mean, it's
this cavernous, multicorridored place in the film. Tell us a little bit about
it and how you wanted to depict it.

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: Well, I had watched all the other films, and all the
directors had taken their freedom and had used this bunker situation for their
purposes--Right?--the color and the shape and all that. And I thought
that--and I still believe--there is no messing around with the Third Reich. I
think you have to take on this subject very serious. So it was only logic for
me to tell my production designer that I wanted this bunker to be constructed
exactly in the same way it originally was following the floor plan. And we
were lucky enough to get the original floor plan. And what you see in the
film is to the centimeter--or to the inch, as you say here in this
country--exact what it was like.

DAVIES: What was remarkable about the bunker to you?

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: Well, it's--considering the size of the horror the Third
Reich created, the bunker situation there--it was nearly funny. There was the
whole--this whole system was reduced to a dirty, little kind of community
kitchen or something like that.

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. GANZ: Furniture was great, yeah.

DAVIES: What was that furniture?

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: It was a mixing. It was like these concrete little--these
rooms made by concrete. And then they just took down some of the furniture
from the Reich Chancellery, which was way too big because it was designed for
the Reich chancellery, which was a huge building. And it was odd. It must
have been odd then, and it was very odd to walk around in my own set. It was
surprising. And, you know, I had an adviser at hand, the Baron
Loringholfen(ph). He was the assistant of General Krebs, and he's 92 now.
And he could, like, exactly describe which furniture was standing. He could
tell us all the details and could tell us things that were not quite right.
And it was amazing to see him walk around there because he just said, `Yes,
yes, this is how it looked like. This is how it was.'

DAVIES: One of the most disturbing subplots or scenes in this is we see
Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda--and his wife, without necessarily giving
away a part of the story everyone might know, has the notion that she should
kill all of her children because she does not want them to live in a world
that does not have national socialism. And I think what's interesting about
the scene, as she approaches this resolution of hers to murder her own
children, is an absence of ambivalence about it, I mean, or regret. I mean,
she seems completely determined. In fact, she weeps hardest for Hitler when
she falls at his knees and begs him to keep leading. Do you think a woman
could approach killing her own children without shedding a tear, as she does
in this film?

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: Well, we know that after she had killed her children, she
went back stone-faced, sat down and laid out card game, Solitaire, and that
her tears were streaming, but that she did not show any emotion aside from
that. That seems logic to me because I--whenever I watched this documentary
footage, watching her, she always appeared as a very cold person in a way. Of
course, she deals with the killing in a loving way, but to me, she always
appears rather like a machine. And then, to my own surprise, I watched
Goebbels himself--I mean, this is one of the meanest characters you find in
history. And you watch this man, and you know this man loves his children.
He really cares for them. You see him as he plays with them, and it's obvious
he doesn't do it for the news. It's something, as a director, I can judge
that; that was real. And that's very unsettling to see that. And, of course,
it was very helpful, too.

DAVIES: My guest is Oliver Hirschbiegel. He is the director of the film
"Downfall," which depicts the closing days of the Third Reich as seen in
Hitler's underground bunker. Also with us: Bruno Ganz, who plays Adolf
Hitler in the film.

About a year ago we interviewed the director Bronwen Hughes, who had made a
film in South African called "Stander." And in that film, there was a scene
in which he reconstructed a deadly confrontation from the apartheid era
between white South African police and demonstrators in a black township. And
one of the things she said was that it was very painful for the South African
actors and the extras to depict this traumatic part of their relatively recent
history. And I'm wondering whether--as those of you worked in this
claustrophobic reconstruction of Hitler's bunker, whether it was hard for any
of the German actors and crew to relive this painful part of Germany history.

Mr. GANZ: Well, now it's the actor answering. I mean, I wouldn't say
painful, but German actors do not like to do this. And once--they do it
because they--I don't know--money or because just they need work or something.
It's a very ironical way they approach. It's a lot of joking, and they do
this Hitler salute, and it's all--it's embarrassing. And so they try to
overcome with jokes. But I didn't like it very much because I couldn't afford
that for my Hitler interpretation, so I tried to stop them. And we--so after,
oh, I don't know, 10 days or so, we had the way calm, and it was quiet, and we
were concentrated on what we had to do. And we got somehow used to enter
early in the morning this bunker and to leave it late at night and being, as
actors, somehow close to the leading Nazi figures. This was part of the job.
But I felt that my colleagues--I am not born in--I'm considered as a German
actor, but--so maybe for me it's easier...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. GANZ: ...or it was easier. But...

DAVIES: You were born in Switzerland, but you...

Mr. GANZ: I was born in Switzerland, yeah.

DAVIES: ...lived many years in Berlin, right?

Mr. GANZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. GANZ: I feel very close to Germany, and I would not be ashamed to be
German, not at all. But, you know, my parents or grandparents had not to deal
with--or I had never to ask them, `What did you do at that time?' because they
lived in Switzerland, and so they were not involved, which made it maybe
easier for me.

DAVIES: Oliver, what are your thoughts on this?

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: Yeah, one must be aware that the symbols that we're using,
the swastika, these SS runes, the uniforms, all the other symbols, they have a
very strong power still, a frightening power. So I would not call it painful
but very unpleasant. And you have to deal with it day in, day out, month for
month for month. For me, it never ended because I had to cut the film as
well. What was really painful was the shoot of the sedating and killing of
the children. That was really painful. That was the most terrible shooting
days I ever had, and that was painful for the actors as well.

And, of course, it was not for the children because I had explained to them
what we were setting out to do. I had explained that story. I told them that
it was so unbelievable that children could be killed by their own parents that
we had to restage it now to make sure that that would never happen again. And
they went with that, and they were happy again, outspoken. They took it as a
cool game to play. But all the adults were standing by, and, you know, we're
fighting tears, right?

DAVIES: Right, right.

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: I'm a father of two children. Corinna has three children.
It's so...

DAVIES: Her...

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: It's...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: ...inconceivable.

Mr. GANZ: But these were nice kids.

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: Yeah, very talented, too.

Mr. GANZ: Yeah.

DAVIES: Right.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel and actor Bruno Ganz, who portrays Hitler in the
new German film "Downfall." They'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Coming up, we continue our interview about the making of the German
film "Downfall," which depicts the end of the Third Reich in Hitler's
underground bunker. Also, we meet one of baseball's most colorful players,
Bill "The Spaceman" Lee. After leaving the big leagues, he ran for president
on the Rhinoceros Party ticket. His new memoir is "Have Glove, Will Travel."

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.

My guests are actor Bruno Ganz and director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Ganz plays
Adolf Hitler in the new German film "Downfall," which depicts the end of the
Third Reich in Hitler's underground bunker. Hirschbiegel directed the film.

This film has been widely viewed in Germany. It's caused--it's earned praise,
and it's also stirred some controversy. And I wanted to address some of the
criticism. One of them, there was a--I guess it was Julie Salamon in The New
York Times kind of was struck by the telling detail and the candor of this
picture, this portrait of Hitler in his final days. But she said, `What does
this really tell us,' I mean, `that--in his final days in the bunker? He
sits, he shakes, he has lunch, but so what?' And David Denby of The New Yorker
also has a similar take--sort of says that, `It evokes a picture, but do we
really learn anything from it?' And I--what is your reaction to the idea that
in seeing these, Hitler--the details of his last--we don't learn anything new
or meaningful about him and the Nazi experience? Oliver, I guess that is to
you.

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: Well, there are 82,000 books written about Adolf Hitler
alone, and none of these books give sufficient answers about this whole
complex, especially Adolf Hitler, so a film will never be able to explain all
that. There's a lot of knowledge in this film that was not common before we
had done it, so I do not really understand that question. I read the piece by
Denby, and I was a bit--yeah, I was a bit sad because I'm a big admirer of The
New Yorker, and it, for me, stands for doing precise research and homework.
And the gentlemen has not done it. He says things like--that I would stage
the suicides of these officers as heroic acts. I did not...

DAVIES: And just to clarify for our audience, some of the officers in the
bunker, as it's coming to the end, shoot themselves, and David Denby
criticizes you as sort of portraying this as if it's a noble act.

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: Yes.

DAVIES: You're saying it was not at all noble.

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: Of course not. I think it's cowardice to kill yourself and
not face the consequences of your doing. But you must know that that was just
following the tradition of the Prussian army. It was not an invention of the
Nazis. It was a very German thing to do. And who am I to make them kill
themselves as cohorts? They just did not do it. They just took the guns and
put it to their heads and pulled the trigger. Now the concept of this film is
that we only show things that we know about. We have accounts and
descriptions, and that's what I did. And I did very thorough research.

Mr. GANZ: And I think that the younger generation, people about, let's say,
20 or so in Germany--that they can learn something about their German history
because, you know, it's one thing--and I think it's quite abstract--to read
books about it. And movie's something very, very physical, and you see these
people. He, Hitler--he got the face, he got movements, he got a way to speak,
and that's something they lack at school. So for them, I'm sure this film
will--I mean, if it's--this is the question: if you can learn something. I
think they really can learn something.

DAVIES: I watched the film with my wife, and when it ended, I mean, I think
we both found it riveting. But she said, you know, `I'm not sure what the
point of view here is,' and I wonder if this isn't at the heart of some of the
criticism you're getting because--and we have to say that the film doesn't
just depict Hitler in the bunker. There are terrible scenes of the suffering
that German civilians are enduring outside as the war continues. But in order
to show Hitler as a human being and the other characters as human beings, you
inevitably show their point of view, and inevitably the--some part of the film
empathizes with them. And I'm wondering if the problem is that in seeing
these characters as human being, you're simply bringing us close to something
that we don't want to--a part of us doesn't want. We don't want to see these
people. We...

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: Because you know we all have evil in us. That seems to be
the frightening point. See, if we talk about the point of view, the point of
view is not the point of view of these people. The point of view of the film,
in wanting to be obviously a film against war, what you see are perpetrators,
basically all bad people. Now as I do not do a documentary, it's my job as a
director to kiss these characters to life, as they were. They were human
beings. They were fathers, they were sons, and they were just human beings.
And that seems to be the upsetting fact in some cases because we all know that
evil can come around with a smiling face and very friendly. And stating that
these people were not just evil monsters but human beings implies, of course,
that this can happen again or might happen again. And I understand that is a
frightening thought. But as the Germans, we can't let go just by saying,
`This was terrible.' And we are responsible, and this must never happen again
because it's a dead-end road.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: To say the horror was tremendous is not enough. We have to
find out how this was possible. And the only way to do it is by reaching down
into the German soul. We have to touch the German soul to come up with
answers and questions.

Mr. GANZ: And in addition, I would say that we are artists, which includes
that we are curious, and we should be allowed. Even if we are not allowed, we
should take risks. And in this film, we take the risk of a closer look. And
this might be disturbing and people might not like it, but somehow it's true
what we did.

DAVIES: Well, Bruno Ganz, Oliver Hirschbiegel, thank you so much for speaking
with us.

Mr. HIRSCHBIEGEL: You're welcome. Thank you.

Mr. GANZ: Welcome. Thank you.

DAVIES: Director Oliver Hirschbiegel and actor Bruno Ganz. Their new film
about the end of the Third Reich is called "Downfall."

Coming up, the Spaceman of major league baseball, Bill Lee. This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Bill Lee discusses his new book, "Have Glove, Will
Travel," co-authored with Richard Lally
DAVE DAVIES, host:

If the game of baseball has produced an odder specimen than Bill Lee, we
haven't met him. He was a long-haired, left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red
Sox and the Montreal Expos in the '70s and '80s. He won 119 games and pitched
in the World Series. But he's better known for a host of other achievements
and offenses, like admitting to marijuana use as a player, wearing a gas mask
to batting practice to protest pollution, calling his manager, Don Zimmer,
`the gerbil' and running for president on a party whose platform including
lowering the boiling point of water. He earned the nickname the Spaceman in
the '70s, and it stuck.

Lee has a new book with writer Richard Lally about his life after major league
baseball called "Have Glove, Will Travel." In it, Lee explains how he's
managed to keep playing for the past 20 years in minor leagues, charity games,
senior leagues and traveling road shows. The journey has taken him through
the United States as well as to Canada, Venezuela, Russia and Cuba. At age
58, Bill Lee is still throwing trick pitches and making mischief on and off
the field.

One of the things that you tell us in this book is that--now you were a guy
who never believed in a no-alcohol, no-drugs training regimen. You enjoyed
your time in baseball. And one of the things I found interesting was you said
that you often pitched better with a hangover. Why?

Mr. BILLY LEE (Co-author, "Have Glove, Will Travel"): Yes. I learned that
Marichal. Marichal always said he--whenever he was hurt, whenever he was
lame...

DAVIES: Let me just interrupt and remind our--we're talking about Juan
Marichal, the...

Mr. LEE: Juan Marichal.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. LEE: You're right. He's the great--the Dominican Dandy, and he and I
are still close. And I remembered him going out against Drysdale and against
Koufax, and he would be sore and he'd be cranky, and his windup would be
flawed, and, you know, he'd give up a lot of long foul-ball home runs. And
then next thing you know he'd just--all of a sudden he's turn it around, and
he had pinpoint control. And, you know, he always told me, `You pitch a lot
better--a little better when you're a little hurt and a little lame.' And I
remember the Indians, they always--lame beaver was always a very good
distinction. A three-legged beaver's tougher than a four-legged beaver.

DAVIES: Now why do you pitch better if you're hung over or a little impaired?

Mr. LEE: I think you don't make mistakes. You realize that you're a little
hurt, and you can't afford to get cocky, you can't afford to let your ego take
over. You've got to make pinpoint pitches. You have to really read the
hitter better and know when to subtract and when to come inside. And you just
seem to dance better. And it's kind of a--pitching is a sobering thing. I
think as you get into the third or fourth inning, all of a sudden you're
running on what you'd call--it's a Zen quality where you're--you know, it's a
Zen mind, beginner's mind. All of a sudden you're throwing the ball even
before you release it, and everything seems to fall into place. And I could
always get into that state for some reason. And people couldn't believe that
I could do what I did with as little as I had, and I think that's a credit
that--and I've always tried to be a minimalist, and I think I did that when I
pitched.

DAVIES: Well, the remarkable thing about that is that a pitcher isn't just
playing catch. If he's got runners on base, he has to keep track of each of
them. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of the hitters that are against
him, the runners on base. He's communicating with a catcher about the
selection of a pitch and its location. How is that Zen, how is that
minimalist? That's a lot to keep track of.

Mr. LEE: Well, you don't think about that. My coach said, `Tiger, don't
think out there. Cut your head off. Let your body do the work. I'll do all
the thinking.' And I think we take it to a level of--I call it parasympathetic
level, where we don't use our head; it's kind of our eyes to our spinal cord
to our fingertips to our feet. And it's kind of a dance that we get into.
And I get into a cardiovascular nature as I work fast. I used to work fast.
It'd drive hitters crazy. You know, Cotton Eye and some of the good ones that
could pitch would get--control the tempo of a game and get to the end result a
lot faster. Hitters would step out on me, and if they stepped out on me, I'd
throw at them, you know. I said, `Get back in the box.'

You know, I don't intimidate anybody with my fastball, but I would throw it
right at their skull and tell they, `Hey, lookit, they're not here to see you
step in and out of the batter's box.' Hargrove hated me. And Fisk, my
catcher, was a notorious malingerer, too, and so I tried to get him to speed
up the tempo of the game. And umpire like that. Most umpires, you know--when
I got to the National League, they questioned me initially and wanted to see
my resolve. But when I didn't complain when they'd make a bad call, they
realized that, you know, they weren't out there to watch them umpire or to
watch me pitch. They were out there to watch a ball game and see how it
unfolded.

DAVIES: The interesting thing about hearing you describe this sort of cutting
your head off, sort of forgetting about all that and just pitching, is that I
think--I'm fascinated by your descriptions in this book of the mechanics of
pitching and of baseball, I mean, the precision and kind of poetry of what
works and what doesn't. For example, when you said how--one game in Venezuela
you were trying to impress somebody and throw too hard. And what you
discovered was that in doing that, you were coming down too quickly, screwing
up your release point, and so the pitches didn't have the dip that they needed
to have, the snap. So while you don't think about it, you certainly analyze
it in an interesting way.

Mr. LEE: Well, Lally does (laughs).

DAVIES: That's your co--that's Richard Lally, your collaborator.

Mr. LEE: I barely--Richard, he's a pitcher wannabe...

DAVIES: All right.

Mr. LEE: ...likes to be an athlete and a great guy. He and I are--he's a
Yankee fan; I'm a Red Sox fan. We've hooked up. He--back in the old days,
when I wrote "The Wrong Stuff," he came to me with a proposal. And I'll tell
you, that was a great marriage made in heaven because we both played off of
one another. It's--I called it kind of like `Educating Richard,' you know.
And I don't--I do know--my theory is if I'm backing up third base, I did
something wrong, you know, or give the hitter credit that he hit the ball in
the gap--made a good pitch, and he went the other way, drove it in the right
center field. Gap--and now I've got to go over and cover third base 'cause
he's going to be coming around second, into third. But I'll tell you
something. As far as analyzing it down to that minutia, I know that if I'm a
little high, I overstrided--`Shorten your stride.'

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. LEE: Everything's like tempo. It's the tempo of a golf swing. It's not
how hard you swing: Sam Snead--nice, smooth tempo; Bobby Jones--you know, all
of them. It wasn't until Palmer started swinging out of his ass that guys
started trying to knock the ball down the fairway. And then you had Jack
Nicklaus that came out there, and he was a walking rain delay. He used to
drive me crazy, and I couldn't stand him. I loved Julius Boros. I liked guys
that got up there, read the line, knocked the putt, walked up there. If they
didn't make it, so be it. You know, they never agonized over things, like
Nicklaus--was--it's "Agony and the Ecstasy" and...

DAVIES: So it's letting the flow of the game happen, staying in rhythm.

Mr. LEE: Letting the flow of the game happen and having a tempo. That's why
I love old-time baseball. I love watching the older games and the guys with
the full windups. And these guys are out there, and they play baseball. They
never pulled muscles. They never had weight machines. They never did
stretching or anything else. They played pepper, they chewed tobacco and they
went out and played baseball. And they had a good time. And the game was
over, and they went out and had a couple of brews, went home and did it again.
Now you got your Halliburton, you go out with your cell phone and you talk to
your agent, and you go do a couple commercials, and you do this and that. And
I'm going, `Why would the American public want to know what a ballplayer ate
or what a ballplayer did?' And that's our society that we've created.

DAVIES: Let's talk about the modern game a little bit. I mean, the big
controversy now is steroids. There's a lot of controversy because some people
think those who take steroids cheated. Did you ever cheat as a ballplayer,
like put sandpaper in your glove or emery board to play tricks on the ball?

Mr. LEE: Every chance I could get, yeah. I'll tell you, I'd--they
eliminated--you couldn't chew Slippery Elm anymore, and that was a--a lot of
spitballer threw.

DAVIES: Now explain.

Mr. LEE: And then we'd use...

DAVIES: What is--is that a brand of tobacco?

Mr. LEE: Slippery Elm is a throat lozenge that's got elm in it that's highly
slippery, and it increases your saliva flow, so you can lick your fingers when
you're dry at the seventh inning of a ball game and put a foreign substance on
the top of the ball. So when you release it--you put a little pine tar on
your thumb, first of all, to get more tension on the bottom of the ball and
more friction. And then you put Slipriome on the top, and then you have a
tumbling fastball that you just can't flat-out hit. Man, if you can make the
ball go down and you could only hit the top half of the ball, first of all,
you don't need any outfielders. You can take them and just put them on the
bench because it's going to be all infield play. And hitters are going to
have to make an adjustment. Most hitters are dumber than a post, so they'll
never make that adjustment. So the game's going to be 2-to-1. And I love
sinkers. I love spitballs. I love anything that'll make the ball go
downward.

DAVIES: Well, what about those--then is it OK if hitters cork their bats
and, I mean...

Mr. LEE: Oh, sure. You know, when you see hitters having to do stuff, it
means they're hung over, their bat slowed down; they're starting to worry
about things. When guys start corking their bats, it's the beginning of the
end, and it's a symptom that they can't hit. And that's why Sosa is not in
Chicago anymore. They feel that he's--you know, they're sending him down for
the last time and stuff. And I love it when hitters start having to do things
or go to a lighter bat because they're getting jammed. And we know that.
Pitchers--there's a great bind out there. And we find out when someone can't
hit it, don't worry; it's on the Web.

DAVIES: So do you think the league should even have any of these rules, or is
it a matter of, `Well, if you get caught, fair enough'?

Mr. LEE: Heck, they shouldn't. Those rules--umpires never did it. Gaylord
Perry--you couldn't--every ball they threw into the umpire, he couldn't even
catch it. It'd squirt up in his hand like a banana, you know, and they never
threw him out of the ball game. And he's in the Hall of Fame. You look at
Cap Anson, who was a big racist and everything else, and Ty Cobb, another big
racist, and you look at all these people in the Hall of Fame--put them all in
the Hall of Fame. They're all crooks.

DAVIES: Well, one more thing about the modern game. I mean, when you played,
salaries weren't anything like they are now. And you've got, you know, a
system that a lot of people think allows the big-market teams, like the
Yankees, to just really compete unfairly, to buy players. Do you think that's
unfair? I mean, should the game have rules that make the competition fairer
among the different teams?

Mr. LEE: Well, that's called the National Football League.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. LEE: And they have a weak union, and they have a strong ownership group,
and they control everything. And every Sunday they put a good product out
there on the field, and, you know, that's--but that's football. And football
is the Monroe Doctrine, where we--expansionism from coast to coast, and we
take care of everything, and it's all run on a clock, which I really hate.
But baseball is--it's timeless.

DAVIES: It's...

Mr. LEE: It goes out. It's--you play it on--and beautiful fields when the
grass turns green. You don't play it when it rains. It's a civilized game
without a clock. And it is--you know, it's our economic system. I'm an
anarchist, a socialist. I'm the only Communist ever to pitch in the big
leagues. And I think it's--that's the whole nature of what we do.
It's--gosh, it drives me nuts.

DAVIES: And it costs $85 to buy an infield ticket at Fenway Park nowadays. I
mean, are you disenchanted, or do you still love to watch major league
baseball?

Mr. LEE: Oh, gosh, I love baseball. I don't care what level it's played on.
I would rather watch a bunch of Cubans for 10 centavos down in Havana smoking
a beautiful Cohiba that was hand-rolled by a gentleman right there at the
ballpark, drinking a cerveza that cost a nickel and watching the ball game
there for eternity. I would rather go to Cuba and watch a game than watch a
game anywhere else.

DAVIES: My guest is Bill Lee. He was a big league pitcher for the Boston Red
Sox and the Montreal Expos. His new book is called "Have Glove, Will Travel."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're back with Bill Lee. He is a former big league ballplayer. His
new book about his life after major league baseball is called "Have Glove,
Will Travel."

Now you wrote that Vermont saved your life. Why?

Mr. LEE: Yeah. Oh, it did. Took me away from a bar in Vermont, and it took
me away from a bar in Montreal. I call my house a halfway house; it's halfway
between those two bars.

DAVIES: (Laughs)

Mr. LEE: And the funny thing is I'm a gregarious drinker; I'm not a closet
drinker. I'm not the kind of guy that sits around and drinks when there's not
a party happening. It's only--in my house, there's hardly a party, so I'm
pretty sober most of the time.

DAVIES: There's a moment in the book where you are--someone's trying to
convert you to religion, and you recognize that he's a reformed drinker, you
think. And you write, `Addicts must replace their addiction with other
opiates, be it smoking, bodybuilding, cybercruising, game shows, gambling, raw
sex, anything that can substitute for their habit. So they never truly lose
their compulsions. They simply take up more benign ones, like playing
baseball 250 days a year.' That's obviously you. Is there an addiction
you're running from?

Mr. LEE: Oh, God, no, not anymore. All of them are the same. I mean, I
have--I'm not fearful of anything. You know, the greatest line I think I
had--he asked about mandatory drug testing, and I said, you know, I tested
them all in the '80s, and I don't think it should be mandatory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You've tested all of them, right?

Mr. LEE: Yeah.

DAVIES: You finish the book by talking about your family, your dad and the
way baseball has an enduring appeal and something that's brought you all
together and that you've enjoyed together. I mean, you have generations on
the diamond. You play father-and-son games.

Mr. LEE: Yeah. It's...

DAVIES: Would you want to read a little bit of--well, let me ask...

Mr. LEE: Well, I'll just tell you a story.

DAVIES: Tell me a story.

Mr. LEE: I'll tell you a story; it might not even be in the book. We're
playing in the father-son games down in Arizona, and I've got my son, Michael,
hitting behind me and Andy hitting in front of me. And we were down two runs,
and I got two men on base. And I fight off this young college pitcher, and
he--breaking ball, breaking ball, fastball in, jams me. He hangs a slider,
and I hit a baseball right by his ear, a bullet up the middle, to tie up the
ball game. I'm at first base. Now my son Michael gets up. My dad's right
behind there. This is the 18th inning of a double-header in a hundred-degree
heat--well, it wasn't that hot. It was about 82. And he's standing there
with his little hat on, chewing tobacco, behind home plate.

And Andy--I've had a slight hamstring pull in my right hamstring 'cause I've
played a lot of ball, and I was beat up pretty bad. And Michael hits the
first pitch over the right fielder's head. I think it's a home run, but it's
a top-spinner, and it's coming back into the park. And it hits right at the
base of the fence. I'm off at the crack of the bat 'cause there's two outs.
I hit second, and I'm dragging my right leg around. And I hit third, and I'm
going to score the winning run, and we're going to go to the championship.
And I hit home plate with the winning run. My son gets thrown out at third
before I touch home plate, and the run doesn't count, and we end up losing.

And I go to my dad, and he's standing behind this screen, and I'm going, `Dad,
Dad, I was running as hard as I could. I was running as hard as I could,
honest.' And he looks at me, and he goes, `Yeah, son, in one place,' spits
his tobacco juice down on my foot exactly like "Dirty Harry" and--What was
that? One of those Clint Eastwood movies.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. LEE: Boy, it was a meaningful thing. `Yeah, son, you were running fast
as you can but in one place.' And that's it. That's it. You know,
you--we're a tough family, and that's what keeps us going. And I think that
that's life. You gotta be tough and strong and weather the storm, and
that's--my father's 84. He's about a 14 handicap, shoots his age all the time
and spits tobacco juice on your shoe, and you take it.

DAVIES: But, you know, I think a lot of Little League dads would say that,
`When my kid goes around the bases and he tries to score, does his best, gives
it all he has and then he doesn't score because a runner's thrown out behind
him...'

Mr. LEE: Yeah.

DAVIES: `...you don't insult him. You say, "Great job." You know, "You did
the best you could do."' Isn't it...

Mr. LEE: That's what's wrong with our society.

DAVIES: That's what's wrong with it.

Mr. LEE: We're so much looking for supergratification and praise. Baseball's
a game of failure. Baseball's a game of getting out there and only succeeding
some of the time. And that's--we give this, I call it, gratuitous handshaking
and high-fiving. You miss a free throw now, and a guy comes down and shakes
your hand in the middle of an NBA game and gives you a high-five. And that's
it. You got Moss doing all this stuff, answering his cell phone--or one of
the guys--and all these guys--premature celebrating is what's wrong with this
sport in America. We got way too much premature celebrating out there, and we
got to put an end to it. And that's the whole thing.

My dad pointed out to me--it was funny. It's kind of a--he wasn't insulting
me. He was just making a statement that was just kind of a double-edged
sword. And you've got to take it. That's the problem with us out there.
We've mollycoddled our kids and everything else, I think, way too much instead
of showing them the reality of failure.

DAVIES: Well, Bill Lee, may your slider never lose its snap. Thanks for
talking with us.

Mr. LEE: Oh, my pleasure. Never had a slider.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You never had a slider?

Mr. LEE: No, I--overhand deuce. I had a cut fastball, and I had a slurve,
but sliders are--fastball pitchers have sliders. I'm a junker. What I had--I
have a change-up that you can't hit to this day. And if I ever get a chance
to play against you, we gotta--tell you, if you don't like softball, play
hardball. You only have to play once a week, and you get all the satisfaction
you need.

DAVIES: I find my way to Vermont occasionally. Maybe we'll do that. Thanks
so much.

Mr. LEE: Take care.

DAVIES: Former major league junk-ball pitcher Bill Lee. His new book about
playing baseball after leaving the big leagues is called "Have Glove, Will
Travel."

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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