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Going Undercover with the 'Mongols'

From 1998 to 2000, William Queen went undercover for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and rode with the Mongols, a southern California motorcycle gang. His new book is Under and Alone.

30:49

Other segments from the episode on April 25, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 25, 2005: Interview with William Queen; Interview with Anthony LaPaglia.

Transcript

DATE April 25, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: William Queen talks about his memoir, "Under and Alone:
The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America's
Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Mongols might not be as well known as their rival, the Hell's Angels, but
the Mongols motorcycle club is considered the most violent motorcycle gang in
the country, according to the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms. My guest, Billy Queen, infiltrated the Mongols' San Fernando Valley
chapter from 1998 to 2000 while working undercover for the ATF. He was at the
center of the most extensive undercover investigation of an outlaw motorcycle
gang in the history of American law enforcement. Using the name Billy St.
John, Queen posed as a prospect, a provisional member of the gang, and rose as
high as the chapter's secretary-treasurer.

After he accumulated evidence of illegal acts, ATF agents moved in throughout
the LA region and parts of three other states, making arrests and seizing
firearms, drugs and stolen motorcycles. Fifty-four Mongols were convicted,
but it didn't put the gang out of business. The Mongols have a bounty on
Queen's head, and he's spent time in hiding, although he isn't in hiding now.
His memoir, "Under and Alone," has just been published, and the movie rights
have already been sold. I spoke with him earlier this month about his
undercover work.

Billy Queen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Now you're not in disguise now, and I know that there are a lot of Mongols who
would like to kill you. I mean, is it likely that anyone's going to bust into
the studio while we're recording and try to take you out?

Mr. WILLIAM QUEEN (Author, "Under and Alone: The True Story of the
Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America's Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle
Gang"): No, it's not likely. Nobody knows I'm here.

GROSS: And is that the way your life is now, nobody knows when you're where
or...

Mr. QUEEN: That's kind of the way I like to keep it, yes. I don't want to
stick my neck out there where it can get chopped off, so, yeah, I'm laying
low.

GROSS: I want you to describe the Mongols. Just, like, describe, in the
world of motorcycle gangs, where do they fit?

Mr. QUEEN: Well, they're an old-school motorcycle gang. They're what people
probably think of as the Hell's Angels back in the '60s, riding free and doing
exactly what they want to do. The Mongols, unlike the Hell's Angels, are more
into the violence and intimidation, more so than the Hell's Angels or even the
Outlaws or Pagans. The Mongols want to be the most violent out there. They
want to be noted as the baddest guys riding on two wheels.

GROSS: How did you get the assignment from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms to infiltrate them undercover?

Mr. QUEEN: I've been working undercover for ATF for many years, and there
were very people in ATF, agents, that had the undercover background that I had
that would stand up to the scrutiny of the Mongols. Plus, I was one of the
very few at the time that had the beard and the look, the personality or the
character that could do it, too, so I was asked by the case agent, in this
case John Ciccone, if I would do it. At the time, I was riding with the
Hell's Angels, gathering information on them, and told Ciccone that I would
give a shot at riding with the Mongols, because at that time, the Mongols were
a much more violent group and perpetrating violent crimes in the LA area a lot
more than the Hell's Angels were.

GROSS: So before you could start riding with the Mongols, you had to convince
them that you were serious and that you were their kind of guy. So why don't
you describe that look a little bit that you, I think, cultivated even a
little more for the Mongols.

Mr. QUEEN: Well, I--my hair was long. I had a long beard.

GROSS: Long and pointed--Right?--a little point at the end?

Mr. QUEEN: Well, it got like that, but when I first went in, when I was
riding with the Hell's Angels, I had a full beard. Later on in the
investigation with the Mongols, I had cut most of that beard off and just had
a real long goatee, Fu Manchu-type operation going on there. But I was also a
person that would stand his ground in these rough bars that they hung out and
we...

GROSS: Give me an example of how you would do that.

Mr. QUEEN: Well, you have people that go to these bars, and they drink and a
lot of them just want to fight. And they get loud and pushy and try to bully
people around. Well, they found out real quick that I wasn't the kind of
person that could be bullied around. If somebody wanted to get loud with me,
I got loud right back with them. If they wanted to push, I pushed back. And
the Mongols are into that. They like that. And they saw that I wasn't a
person that could be pushed around, and they like that kind of person. And
they began to invite me to other bars, and if they got into fights, I would
stand there and stand in with them in these fights and stuff.

And then they asked me to be a member. And to be a member, you'll start out
as a prospect, and to try to let everybody know, when you become a prospect,
these outlaw bikers wear patches, or colors, if you will, the patch of a club,
like the Hell's Angels, where you'll see a Hell's Angel rocker on top, and
you'll see the death head in the center, and then you'll see a state rocker
underneath it. Well, the Mongols have the same thing. I put on a lower
rocker, started wearing a black and white patch that the Mongols wear and that
everybody identifies with. And at that point, becoming a prospect, you've
become property of a club. And then at that point, the good times of just
riding with them and shooting pool and drinking beer and going to
entertainment events, it all changed.

When I became a prospect, I became their property, and at that point, I had to
prove myself. And I had to do whatever any patched member in that club told
me to do, to include, you know, assist in stealing motorcycles, running dope
for them, standing up for them in these fights and things, just whatever they
wanted me to do that that time. Well, life became miserable at that point.

GROSS: Is there anything that you flat out said no to?

Mr. QUEEN: No, I could not do that. I could not do that. I could have done
it, but I would have been out of the club. The case would have been over.
And I did--I got into some situations where it was just plain luck that I made
it out of them where they intended to rape women. And I knew that the case
was going to be over. I couldn't rape women along with them. But it just so
happened in one particular case I'm talking about, the women that they were
planning on raping didn't show up. But again, I thought, `This case is over
with. The only thing I can do is get on my bike and just ride, try to get
away from them.' And the case would have been over. But I did luck out, and
these women didn't show up. And it was a constant challenge like that.

GROSS: One of the things you were asked to do was to snort a line of
methedrine and--or snort two lines of methedrine. And was that so that you
could prove yourself and prove that you weren't a cop because it's illegal for
a cop to do drugs unless--you know, it's illegal for someone in the ATF
undercover to do any drugs unless their life is at risk? So was this a way to
test you or did they just want to see what you were like when you were high?

Mr. QUEEN: No. No. It was a test. That particular incident you're talking
about happened in Laughlin, Nevada, and that was a test. Rocky, the Mongol
that challenged me on that, put a knife in my face. After he had lined out
those two lines of dope, he snorted one of them himself, methamphetamine, and
then he turned around and pointed that knife in my face and asked me if that
was too much for me, and it was clearly a challenge. And I was just lucky
enough to be able to step in between Rocky and the table where the dope was
and bend over like I was snorting it and was able to wipe it off on to the
floor without him seeing it.

But I knew I wasn't going to be able to continue with that. If there had been
more people in the room, I wouldn't have gotten away with it. He was
threatening me. Whether I really thought that he was going to stab me if I
did not do that line of dope or not, I don't know. I just lucked out; that
particular time was able to wipe that off on the floor. However, soon as I
left that room with him and met up with a group of other Mongols, Rocky told
the other Mongols, `Hey, he did the line of dope,' and everybody was happy,
'cause they know that cops can't do dope and everybody was high-fiving, `Yeah,
he's OK.' So it was a challenge.

GROSS: Did you not do the meth because you were afraid you would be out of
control or because you were afraid it would end your assignment, I mean,
because it would have been illegal for you to do it?

Mr. QUEEN: No, this is the way that it is, and this is a big issue. A lot
of people ask this question, `How could you do this without doing dope? We
know you had to do dope. You had to do it.' But this is the way it goes.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has a policy: You don't do dope
unless your life is threatened. And then if you do do it, it's just like you
have gotten injured on duty. You'll go to the hospital. You'll have blood
work done. They will watch you. You'll fill out all the reports just like
you would in a situation of getting hurt on the job.

Now here's another thing. If you were to make the decision as an undercover
agent, `Hey, I'll just do the drugs, I won't tell anybody,' you are subject to
take a drug test at any time with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
They give you random drugs tests. And if you haven't told them that you were
forced to do drugs and the drugs show up in your system, you're fired. So I
wasn't willing to risk my job, and I really didn't need to risk my job. Time
and time again, you know, I lucked out on the drug thing.

But the biggest thing that carried me through was that the president of the
chapter that I was in, Domingo, had just gotten out of prison, and he was
having to take a drug test every week. He couldn't drink alcohol, let alone
do methamphetamine or cocaine or smoke marijuana. So when the drugs came out,
everybody would offer Domingo the drugs first before they would offer them to
me. When Domingo turned them down, I put my arm around Domingo and hugged my
president and said, `If my president's not doing them, hey, I ain't doing
them.' And that got me through for months.

GROSS: I thought you were going to tell me he needed your urine to be
drug-free so that he could pass his test.

Mr. QUEEN: Oh, no, no. They'll stand there, and they'll watch you. When you
take a urine test, they stand there and they watch you.

GROSS: Make sure it's yours?

Mr. QUEEN: Yeah.

GROSS: What's it like to ride in a pack of, you know, like, about a hundred
motorcyclists from the Mongols?

Mr. QUEEN: You know, it's awesome. It's just absolutely awesome. The first
time that I ran with these guys across town in Los Angeles, there was probably
150 or 200. And it was like some giant centipede rolling through town,
connected. These guys ran their own traffic. They sent people into
intersections and stopped traffic, and they rolled through. It didn't make
any difference whether the cops were there, the Highway Patrol, they rolled
through the intersections. And 150 or 200 Harley-Davidsons screaming through
a town like that is an awesome sight to see.

GROSS: I found your observations of the women who hang with the Mongols
really interesting. And you say basically that the women are designated as
sexual property of an individual member or of the gang. What does that
actually translate to?

Mr. QUEEN: Well, they are, and they wear patches that say `property of' an
individual or `property of the Mongols,' although you don't see too many of
those around anymore. But they are considered property, right there, in a lot
of cases, not as valuable as the motorcycles they're riding. And if they want
the women to go out and make money and support the men, you know, they do that
and seemingly with honor and glad to do it. The Mongols can't ride around
with patches on their backs all the time. They get stopped by the police all
the time and don't carry weapons with them, but they'll give those weapons to
the women, and the women will carry the weapons, the women will carry the
drugs for them, but, you know, putting them in jeopardy of being busted.

GROSS: Well, one of the things that really puts the women in jeopardy is just
being close to these guys, 'cause it sounds like the members of the Mongols
would, you know, readily beat their girlfriend or wife. I'm not sure what the
reasons they would give were, but you describe one time where one of the wives
was beaten so that her face basically split open, and you were called in.
They knew that you could do a fairly decent job of stitching skin, 'cause
they'd seen you stitch one of your wounds, a knife wound in your palm.

Mr. QUEEN: Yes.

GROSS: And so, you know, the husband called you to come in and stitch up her
face. Why don't you describe the scene you walked in on?

Mr. QUEEN: Well, I had been up most of the night and had gone home to my
undercover pad, and it was about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, best I can
remember. Got a call from Domingo, who wanted me to go over to Evil's house,
a gang member, 'cause he had beaten his old lady. And he had just gotten out
of the jail not too long before that for beating her. And he knew that he'd
be on his way back to jail for beating her again. But this time, he had hit
her and split her lip through and through almost all the way up to her nose.
It required--the best I can remember now--four or five stitches on the outside
and a few stitches on the inside.

But they had called me, and I rode over to Evil's house, and I walked back in
the bedroom, and she was lying on the bed and they had taped her face together
where it was split apart.

GROSS: With Scotch tape?

Mr. QUEEN: With Scotch tape. And they were saying, `Billy, sew her up. We
need you to sew her up. We can't take her to the hospital. They'll call the
cop's Ev'll be back in jail.' And I pulled the tape off of her, and I looked
at it. It was split all the way through and through. And I told her, `I
can't do that.' You know, I've sewed things up, people up on the outside, but
not on the inside like that. And I told them they really need to come up with
some kind of a story to take this girl to the emergency room. And finally
they just said, `No, if you're not going to do it'--they started taping her
back together. And I realized they weren't going to do it, and there was only
a certain period of time that you can leave a wound open like that without
stitching it before you face surgery. So I agreed to do it and I rode home
and got my stuff and then rode back to the house and stitched her up inside
and out.

GROSS: How did it heal? Do you know? How's her scar?

Mr. QUEEN: You know, it healed really well. She was asthmatic, and she
ended up having to go to the doctor anyway for her asthma and she had the
doctor take a look at it. And the doctor looked at it, and he said, `Oh, it
was a good job.' He said, `I would have used a different technique, but, oh,
it was a good job.' I saw her, you know, a month or two later, and it looked
really good.

GROSS: It sur...

Mr. QUEEN: It looked better than my own hand that I sewed up myself.

GROSS: Did it surprise you that there were women who willingly took on this
kind of life, that they were willing to be somebody's sexual property, they
were willing to accept being beaten, they were willing to live a life where
the men basically really didn't care about their well-being?

Mr. QUEEN: You know, it did surprise me, and it surprised me every time that
we were out somewhere. I was out with the Mongols, and they would go into
some club and some girl would be willing to climb on the back of one of those
motorcycles and ride off. I mean, I would look at her, thinking to myself,
`You ain't got no idea what you're getting into.' And it just surprised me
that they would climb on the bikes and do that. My president, his old lady,
she was the daughter of a police officer in the area. And she was beaten one
day, and I remember she told her father, `That's part of it. That's just part
of it.' And so, yeah, it was amazing to me. You know, the guys can be rough,
and they can be violent, and they can be nasty. But, you know, it surprised
me that there were women out there that can be just as rough and nasty as they
are.

GROSS: So how did you decide to actually end the operation? What was the
last straw where you decided, `It's over now'?

Mr. QUEEN: Well, it was a progressive thing. The longer I was in, the more
isolated I had become. I lost contact with my wife. I had lost my
girlfriend. I had lost contact with my friends, with my colleagues at ATF.
And for the greatest majority of the time, I was only able to talk to John
Ciccone. All the rest of the time, I was living the life of a Mongol. I
mean, I slept with them. They slept with me. All my partying, it was all
done with them, hanging out day after day. I had become a Mongol, and that's
the only life that I had.

But over that two-year period of time, because of all the criminal acts that
had occurred that we had passed on and that other agencies had learned about,
other state and local agencies in the Los Angeles area, they knew about the
murders, they knew about the extortions and the robberies and everything else
that went on. Well, the ATF would go to those agencies and say, `Look, just
back off. We know what's going on. We're handling it.'

More agencies knew that ATF was targeting the Mongols. They didn't know that
ATF had an undercover agent inside the Mongols, but they knew that they had an
investigation going against them. And the more people that knew it, the more
the chances were that they were going to find out what was going on. And if
they would have found out at any time that I was an undercover agent, it would
have been my death, and I knew that and I knew that I had used up my luck in
this investigation. And it had worn on me, and I was getting worn out. I was
getting tired. And it was just time to end the investigation.

GROSS: What was it like to show up in court to testify against the guys you
had actually become friends with? I mean, you had to be tight with them in
order to not blow your cover. So you had created some kind of bond, and they
did trust you. They did respect you. And here you were proving that the
whole thing was based on deceit and now you were turning against them.

Mr. QUEEN: That's true. And in some cases, that was very difficult for me.
Domingo became a friend of mine. Rocky became a friend of mine. Evil, J.R.,
a number of them became friends of mine. But when I say friends of mine, they
really became friends of Billy St. John, not Billy Queen. He was killed...

GROSS: Your persona, your undercover persona was Billy St. John.

Mr. QUEEN: Right. Sometimes, it was hard to differentiate between Billy St.
John and Billy Queen, and that did make things tough for me. If I could--I'll
back up and tell a quick story about that. My mother passed away while I was
doing this undercover operation, and I had been working for weeks on end
without a day to myself. And when that happened, I went to the Mongols and
said, `Look, guys. My mama died, and I got to go home.' And, you know, they
said, `Hey, take off, Billy. We'll see you when you get back.' And I told
ATF, `Hey, I'm taking off. My mom died, and I'm going home.' And I took off,
and it was in late December when that happened.

And I got back to LA right when the Mongol's New Year's run was to occur. And
ATF said, `Get back on the bike. Get back in there. This is a big run. We
can get information here. We can do all these things.' And I did get back on
that bike, and I rode back into the Mongols. And I rode to a guy's house by
the name of Evil. I got off my bike and walked up to Evil's door. When I
knocked on his door, Evil came to the door. And I reached out for the usual
Mongol handshake, and he grabbed me, and he gave me a big hug, and he said, `I
love you, Billy.' He said, `I'm sorry about your mom.' And I could have fell
to me knees. I almost cried. And the next guy that came in, it was the same
thing. Big J.R. came in, he grabbed me around the neck, and he said, `I
love, brother. I'm sorry about your mom.'

And, you know, not one ATF agent said that. I didn't get a card from them. I
didn't get a `sorry about your mom,' nothing. But these guys, they all
grabbed me around the neck, told me that they loved me and that they were
sorry about my mom. And I'm going to tell you what. I was close to climbing
on that motorcycle and riding off as a Mongol. It became confusing and
difficult.

GROSS: You know, reading your book, I felt really bad for your ex-wife. I
mean, you're not even married anymore. And when the bust happened, she and
your two sons had to leave their home and go underground, a kind of witness
protection type of thing, because, you know, their lives would be in jeopardy
from Mongols who wanted to seek revenge against you, and, like, she had
nothing to do with it. She's not even married to you anymore. It seems so
awful.

Mr. QUEEN: Yeah, it did. It upset her life, too, and I was very sorry for
that. And I don't hesitate to say, `If I had this thing to do over again, I
wouldn't do it over again.'

GROSS: Really, you wouldn't?

Mr. QUEEN: I lost--yeah, I lost too much. You know, it upset her life. It
upset my kids' life. I mean, it needed to be done. Law enforcement needs to
be on these guys all the time, everywhere, from coast to coast, but I was the
wrong person to do it. The guy that goes undercover, he doesn't need to have
a family. Things are going to happen to him. Things are going to happen to
his family. And when they consider undercover agents for an assignment like
this, that's one of the things that they do need to consider. `Hey, you're
not going to be able to stay here if you've got a family. Your family's not
going to be able to stay here. You're going to have people looking for you.'
And had I known the way that this thing was going to turn out, I wouldn't have
done it. I would have helped. I would have helped take these guys off,
everything that I could do, but I wouldn't have been the one that was
undercover and living the results of that undercover operation.

GROSS: So what kind of life do you have now? I mean, you're not in disguise,
'cause they already know what you look like. You lived underground for two
years, but with the publication of the book, you've emerged again. I mean,
what's your life like now to the extent that you can divulge that?

Mr. QUEEN: Well, I'm kind of waiting to see what kind of reaction that I'm
going to get out of the Mongols with all this coming out now. And I sleep
with a double-barrel shotgun by my door. I never go anywhere without a gun.
And I'll never be able to stop looking over my shoulder. I know that. And
it's kind of a wait-and-see thing. I imagine it's not going to take too long
before I start getting reaction out of the Mongols. But ATF keeps an eye on
them, and we have ways of gathering intelligence and knowing what they're
thinking and what they're up to. And so I'm kind of waiting to see, but I
know that I'll never be able to stop looking over my shoulder, and I won't.

GROSS: Well, William Queen I want to wish you good luck. Be safe. Thank you
very much for talking with us.

Mr. QUEEN: Well, Terry, thanks for having me on.

GROSS: William Queen's new memoir about infiltrating the Mongols is called
"Under and Alone."

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

Interview: Anthony LaPaglia discusses his new movie, "Winter
Solstice"
(Soundbite of "Without a Trace")

Mr. ANTHONY LaPAGLIA: I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to run a
test on that gun. My guess is it'll be a forensics match to the gun that
killed Tyson Dibbs. And even if it's not, those hands that were just
around your neck--they're going to be there again, I promise you. And next
time we're not going to be here to stop him. Where's the boy?

TERRY GROSS, host:

That's Anthony LaPaglia in a scene from his CBS series "Without a Trace." He
won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of an FBI agent heading the missing
persons division in the CBS series. He won an Emmy for his performance on
"Frasier" as Daphne's drunken, obnoxious brother Simon. LaPaglia's movies
include "Lantana," "The Guys," "The House of Mirth," "Company Man" and "So I
Married an Axe Murderer."

Now he's starring in the new movie "Winter Solstice" as a single father
raising two teen-age sons. The family is having a hard time recovering from
the loss of his wife. He's losing touch with his sons. The younger one,
played by Mark Webber, is getting into trouble at school. The older son,
played by Aaron Stanford, wants to leave home. In this scene, he breaks the
news as his father is doing paperwork and his younger brother sits on the
couch.

(Soundbite of "Winter Solstice")

Mr. LaPAGLIA: What do you mean you're moving out and getting your own place?

AARON STANFORD: (As Gabe) Uh, actually I'm leaving town. I'm going to go to
Tampa, stay with Brian for a while and then maybe get a place down there.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Why?

STANFORD: (As Gabe) I don't know exactly.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: You're leaving town and you don't have a reason.

STANFORD: (As Gabe) No, I have reasons to.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Well, what's your reason? Where do you think you're going?

MARK WEBBER: This is between you two.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: I want you to sit down over there, Pete. Pete--Pete, get
back in here and sit down!

STANFORD: (As Gabe) Hey, take it easy.

(Soundbite of footsteps; door slamming)

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Why didn't you talk to me? Gabe, why didn't you talk to me?

GROSS: A scene from "Winter Solstice," which also stars Allison Janney. I
asked Anthony LaPaglia what drew him to the film.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: The script was very sparsely written, so it was much more
about--you couldn't lean on dialogue or words for performance. You had to
really kind of use your emotional skill as an actor to get across whatever you
wanted to get across.

GROSS: Well, exactly. I mean, your character isn't very verbal, and the
story takes place during the time of his life when he's feeling kind of
helpless and paralyzed about either moving his life forward or helping his
sons move their lives forward. So what are the difficulties of that kind of
role, where it's really not in what you're saying? It's kind of in what
you're thinking, which you can't telegraph.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Well, you have to, you know--it just means that instead of, you
know--you know, in a lot of film and television these days, you have a
character telling you what he's about to do, and then you see them do it, and
then they tell you what they did. So...

GROSS: I've seen that TV show.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Yeah. And...

GROSS: I've seen that movie, too.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Yeah. And there's a lot of that, and, therefore, you just, you
know--basically, you're a narrative, you're a running commentary. And there's
very few movies now that kind of trust that the audience doesn't need
everything spelled out to them so clearly and so simplistically. And I'm
attracted to that kind of material. It's more difficult because you have to
focus more. You have to really kind of be connected to the person that you're
acting with. And it's really about--it's more what happens between the lines
than the actual lines. And often the lines themselves are irrelevant. It's
the undercurrent of what's going on between the two characters that you have
to build, and that makes it a more difficult job in terms of acting.

GROSS: Your co-star in the movie is Allison Janney. Now she's one of the
stars of "The West Wing." You star in the TV series "Without a Trace." There
was a period when it seemed like movies offered the great roles, and TV was,
like, the lesser storytelling, and TV used to threaten to ruin film careers,
and now that's really changed. You know, there's some terrific dramas and
comedies on TV, and a lot of actors make their career in television, and that
boosts their movie careers. And I'm wondering if you feel you've seen the
relationship of television and movies change in the lives of actors.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Oh, sure. When I started, to do television was to admit defeat
and admit that you were a second-rate actor that wasn't capable of doing
movies. It was a very strong prejudice. It's interesting, too, because in
England, there is no distinction. You do theater, you do TV, you do movies.
You have to, because that's how you make a living. They don't have a star
system. Nobody gets paid 25 million bucks a film, so you have to work, which,
in the end, makes you a much more complete actor.

Here, there was always a very strong stigma attached to, if you were a TV
actor, why would people pay money to go--if they could see you for free every
week, why would they pay money to see you in a theater? That's changed to the
degree where if you don't have a TV series, it's hard to get a movie career.
It's done the complete turnaround.

GROSS: Did you have any reservations about taking the leading role in
"Without a Trace"?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: No, none, for a multitude of reasons. By the time that role
came to me, I was 43. I was just about to have--my wife and I were about to
have our first child. I didn't want to go to Canada anymore. I didn't want
to go to Prague anymore. I didn't want to travel to go and do films anymore.
I also didn't want to work for scale anymore no matter what film I did.

Basically, since the advent of the 25 million-dollar actor--and I don't
begrudge those people at all. It's, like, if you can make $25 million for
doing a film, then God bless you, that's great. The problem is that the
studio then turns around and cries poor for everyone else. And so other cast
members, crew, they're all supposed to work for basically scale, because they
paid one person all this money. And quite frankly, I got sick of it. I got
sick of being asked to be a supporting actor in a movie with someone who--some
of them were good, and some of them weren't so good. Some of them were just
flavor of the year--and asked to work for basically scale.

And for as much as I love acting, and I treat it as a craft, it's still my
occupation, and I still want to make a living out of it. And it just seemed
unjust to me to have to be in a movie with somebody that was making 22 million
bucks and I was supposed to work for a lot less than that. I'll put it this
way. It's better to be number one on the call sheet on a TV show than number
seven on a call sheet on a movie.

And I also feel like that in today's climate, a lot of the more interesting
stuff is being done on TV. Like, I think "Deadwood" is a lot more interesting
than almost every movie being made. I think that "The Sopranos" has
definitely proved that television is better than most movies.

GROSS: Didn't you almost get the part of Tony Soprano, or at least you were a
contender for it?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: I was actually sent the script and liked the script very much
and committed to doing it. Then the people that we approached--David Chase
and I approached--to do it as a series, it was a network. I'm not going to
get into naming names, but they passed on it. So then it kind of floated
around, and I stayed attached to it for a while, and then it went to HBO. But
by that time, I had gotten the chance to get "View From the Bridge," Arthur
Miller play, up on Broadway, which I'd been working on for a while. And so
that together, with the fact that over time, David Chase and I, I think our
opinion on how the character--who the character was was a little different.

GROSS: What was your view?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: My view was that he was an outsider and that hadn't been
involved in the family business and therefore had a slightly more urbane
quality to him, so he was more of a fish out of water. And David did not feel
that way. David felt that he was--even though he had been out of the family
business and had--in the pilot, he'd been out of the family business and come
back, and he was seeing a shrink. And so I felt that he had--even though he
was trying to hide the fact that he was seeing a shrink, he still had a kind
of insight that was a little harder than the people around him. And as it
turns out, I was wrong, and David Chase was right in his interpretation of who
the character should be. It was perfect, because James Gandolfini totally
embodied that character.

GROSS: Nevertheless, do you ever watch "The Sopranos" and think, `It could
have been me?'

Mr. LaPAGLIA: No, I really don't. I don't envy that. You know, I don't,
because I think James Gandolfini's a brilliant actor, and I think that over
time, he'll turn it into something else. But for a long time, he'll be known
as Tony Soprano, and, you know, that's not meant as a--that's not meant to be
detrimental. It's just that he is so incredibly brilliant at that part, I
think that audiences have a hard time associating him with something else.
And that's kind of the risk that you take, whereas the character that I play
in "Without a Trace" is a lot more generic and a lot more less defined and...

GROSS: Yeah, but who wants--but that's like saying--Isn't that like saying,
`I want to play a character that's more generic and less defined'? I mean,
that's not what you look for in a character.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: If you're going to do seven years on a television series...

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: ...it's better.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Mm-hmm, because at the end of it, you're not locked into--I
mean, I'll give you a perfect example. If you look at "Seinfeld," for
example, George Costanza is such an identifiable character that whenever you
see Jason Alexander, who's a brilliant actor, do something else, it's hard to
get past George Costanza. Whenever you see Michael Richards do something
else, it's hard to see past Kramer, because they were brilliant, very defined
and brilliant. And therefore, after that portion of your career is over, you
then have to reconvince everybody that you're just not that person and there
are other things you can do.

So therefore, having a character that doesn't have--and believe me, I've
thought it out. It was very carefully thought out, the decision to take
"Without a Trace," the reasons to take it, the reasons to play the part the
way I play it. It was about longevity after the series is over.

GROSS: My guest is Anthony LaPaglia. He stars in the new movie "Winter
Solstice" and in the CBS missing person series "Without a Trace." He won an
Emmy in 2002 for his guest-starring role on the series "Frasier" as Daphne's
drunk and obnoxious brother, Simon. Here's a scene from an episode in which
Simon is staying at Frasier's place and brings a woman with him.

(Soundbite of "Frasier")

Mr. LaPAGLIA: (As Simon Moon) Oh, Frasier, this is Loretta. Loretta--well,
you know who you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELSEY GRAMMER: (As Frasier) I'm sorry, miss, but we are not
entertaining guests this evening. You'll have to leave.

Unidentified Woman: Wait. You told me this was your place. You're probably
not even the Duke of England.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LaPAGLIA: (As Simon Moon) Oh, yeah? Then why do I talk this way? Well,
you're ...(unintelligible) aren't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You grew up in Australia, and...

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Yes, I did. Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...how old were you when you came to the States?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Twenty-two.

GROSS: OK. I've been listening as you speak for signs of an Australian
accent, which I do occasionally hear...

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Sure.

GROSS: ...but on the whole you sound pretty American. If I woke you up in
the middle of the night and you just started speaking, would you have more of
an Australian accent?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: No, this is pretty much my normal accent now. After 22 years
of--you know, at first I had to consciously do it just to get work, because
when I first came here 20-something years ago, Australians were not in vogue.
They are now, but 20 years ago, if I went into an office to audition for a
part and I used my normal accent, I would never get the role. And it took me
a few auditions to figure it out, and then I started going in, and basically
what would happen is that about the time I first got here, Paul Hogan had
become kind of a big thing because he had done a tourist ad for Australia, and
it was the `put another shrimp on the barbie' thing. And so Americans seemed
to be completely enthralled by this commercial, and every time I went in to
meet someone and I said I was from Australia, there would be a 20-minute
conversation about Paul Hogan and another shrimp on the barbie and blah, blah,
blah. And then I would have to audition, and after every audition, the person
would say, `Mm, I can hear your Australian accent. It's not going to work.'
And I used to think oh, that is--couldn't possibly be true because I'd worked
so hard on developing a credible American accent, and I realized that it was
the 20-minute conversation about Paul Hogan that was killing me. So I...

GROSS: So that guy nearly ruined your career. That's not fair.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Yeah, he did. He did. And so I--one day I went into an
audition and the casting director said, `Where you from?' and I said,
`Brooklyn.' And he went, `Great. Let's read.' I read the part and I got it,
and that was it.

GROSS: So you never went into an audition with an Australian accent again?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Ever.

GROSS: So how...

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Never, ever.

GROSS: How did you work on changing your accent? What did you do?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Well, you know, I was very--you know, I was 22 or 23 years old
and I was very broke, but I managed to get a--you know, New York was fantastic
back in the '80s. It was what we used to call sidewalk shopping, and people
would just throw stuff out on the sidewalk and some of it was good. It
worked. I got a TV that worked. I got a little couch. I furnished my entire
apartment from the sidewalk. And I got like a double cassette player that
somebody had tossed, and then I got a copy of "Dog Day Afternoon," and--which
was my favorite movie at the time--and I watched it all the time. And then I
taped some of it, and so I would tape little fragments of it and then I would
on the other side--I would play it, and then I would tape myself repeating the
sentence on the tape player. And I would do that every day for about an hour
and then I would just go out into the world of New York and I would just apply
my American accent. And within six months, I had completely eradicated my
Australian accent.

GROSS: So you modeled your accent on Al Pacino?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: I did. It's since kind of developed into its own thing, but in
the beginning, it was Al.

GROSS: Does he know that?

Mr. LaPAGLIA: No.

GROSS: That's really funny.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Although I meet him from time to time, and I just never told
him that story.

GROSS: Well, Anthony LaPaglia, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. LaPAGLIA: Oh, it was my pleasure.

GROSS: Anthony LaPaglia stars in the new movie "Winter Solstice." You can
also see him in the CBS series, "Without a Trace."
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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