September 22, 2014
Guest: Ron Perlman
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HELLBOY II")
RON PERLMAN: (As Hellboy) Stop it right now.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Or what? Are you threatening me? Because I think I can take you.
PERLMAN: (As Hellboy) Excuse me?
GROSS: That was my guest, Ron Perlman, speaking first and last in that scene from "Hellboy II" - a movie adaptation of the comic book "Hellboy." It's just one of several Ron Perlman roles, in which his face and or body is covered by prosthetics and special effects make-up. He had a lion-like face - in the role that made him famous - as the Beast in the TV series "Beauty And The Beast", which premiered in 1987. He was also physically transformed for his roles in "Quest For Fire," "The Name Of The Rose" and "Star Trek Nemesis." More recently, he's become known for tough guy roles. In the 2011 movie "Drive," he was a mobster. And he's now famous for his portrayal of a ruthless, brutal leader of a motorcycle club in the FX series "Sons Of Anarchy." Perlman has a new memoir called "Easy Street (The Hard Way)." Let's start with a reading by Perlman from the first chapter of the audiobook. In this passage, he's looking back on himself in 1969 when he was 19. Perlman refers to his younger self as this guy.
PERLMAN: (Reading) This guy - whose future would have him being a Neanderthal, a lion-faced man, a red-tailed, red-bodied, wise ass devil, a Romulan, a hunchback, a cross-dresser, a cop, a lawyer, a biker and a hundred other personas - was just a 19-year-old kid back then. He was six-foot-two, with piercing blue eyes and curly, blondish hair. He was thick-boned - as they used to call it - though not noticeably overweight, as he had been the majority of his childhood. He did, however, have a unique face - a distinctive kisser - as he had been told a thousand times; with a pronounced jaw and high forehead. He was the kind of face that was not ugly but surely one of its kind. And he had gotten accustomed to people sometimes taking a double look. He had learned to counter this seemingly endless barrage of negativity with a tough guy, good-humored bravado - which he had learned as a necessity to survive - when growing up on the streets of Washington Heights, New York City.
GROSS: Ron Perlman, welcome to FRESH AIR. This is going to be fun. I love your voice, so I'm looking forward to hearing it.
PERLMAN: I'm excited to be here.
GROSS: So what had you been told about your face when you were growing up?
PERLMAN: I probably wasn't told as many negative things by the outside world as I was told by myself. I mean, you know, most of the source of discomfort - especially now that I look back on it - was self-inflicted. Just esteem things or whatever it was that kind of tripped up my reading of myself and gave me an impression that was something short of completely positive.
GROSS: Since you were self-conscious as a kid about your face and about your body 'cause during about eight years of your childhood, you say, you were considered, like, the fat kid in school. Was it...
PERLMAN: No, I was in considered. I was the fat kid. (Laughter).
GROSS: You were. (Laughter).
PERLMAN: Yeah. That wasn't made up. That was reality. I mean, I was, like - I was up around 300 pounds by the time I was 12 and a half, 13 years old. And it stayed that way for - till I took my college physical, which I failed.
GROSS: Yeah. So you had to go on a diet, and...
PERLMAN: I had to - had to finally, you know, pay the piper.
GROSS: Right. So since you were self-conscious about your body and your face when you are coming of age, was it helpful for you to literally have a mask to be behind in some of the early roles?
PERLMAN: Having a physical layer between myself and the outside world that I was performing to really enabled me to kind of free myself up and not worry about all of the things that my inner voices were saying were in the way of giving the kind of free performance one wants to give when one is portraying a character. So it was kind of like a pattern. I mean, it was one heavy duty prosthetic make-up transformation after another, you know, starting with the very first one, which was "Quest For Fire," then "Name Of The Rose," than "Beauty And The Beast." Those things happened in succession and gave way to the "Island of Dr. Moreau" and "Hellboy" and a number of others.
GROSS: It's funny you'd done so many roles and prosthetics and elaborate facial make-up, you decided, like, no more. And then you got the script for "Beauty And The Beast" - the TV series. (Laughter). And at first you refused to read it, and then you read and really liked it. So it's basically like a contemporary version of the fairytale "Beauty And The Beast," and you're the Beast. Describe yourself in the character in the series.
PERLMAN: So the character of Vincent in "Beauty And The Beast" was - this was a character that was an outcast physically and that was not even allowed to roam the earth because he was - it was too dangerous for him because he would've been a target and yet, who had more humanity than any 15 people you could think of and a bigger heart and a more beautiful soul.
And there it was. I mean, it was - I was being paid to play the Beast on prime time - eight o'clock Friday nights on CBS. But it was like therapy for me because I was exercising this very, very deep-seated set of feelings that I needed to get out. And so that was that.
GROSS: Your character in "Beauty And The Beast" - his face looks kind of like part man, part lion. Let's play a scene from the TV show. This is a scene, you know, early in the series. Like, what kicks the story off is that Linda Hamilton, who plays an assistant district attorney, is mugged and nearly killed. But she survives. You find her and bring her down to the underground world where you live, hidden from the rest of the world. And you nurse her back to health. And here's a scene between the two of you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEAUTY AND THE BEAST")
LINDA HAMILTON: (As Catherine Chandler) How did this happen to you?
PERLMAN: (As Vincent) I don't know how. I have ideas. I'll never know. I was born, and I survived.
GROSS: That's my guest, Ron Perlman, and Linda Hamilton in the series "Beauty And The Beast". You know, you mention in your memoir that one of the reasons why you got asked to do the part is that you'd done other prosthetic work, and you had a very good reputation among the special effects make-up people that you could do it. Like, you could be patient enough to get the make-up done and that, also, you could show character. You could show emotion coming through whatever prosthetic or make-up with on your face.
PERLMAN: Well, now, the state-of-the-art in special effects make-up - and I was lucky enough with "Beauty And The Beast" to be working with the modern-day genius - the - you know, the guy who was head and shoulders, you know, above everybody else - Rick Baker.
You know, the thing is you look like you're doing a lot of stuff because you're covered, but the make-up is so seamless and so liquid that really all you're doing - the more subtle you are, the more expressive you are. And everything that you're doing, even if you're just thinking something without moving a muscle, it shows through. And when I realized how little I had to do in prosthetic make-up and that - how the make-up was nothing more than just an enhancement, an addition, another layer that added to the texture of the character, it was kind of a liberating feeling for me.
GROSS: So you're allergic to most of the glues that are used for these prosthetics. I feel for you because I have such sensitive skin. I understand what it must be like to (laughter)...
GROSS: ...To - so - but you found one that works?
PERLMAN: They're very - actually, right at the very outset of my career, they invented this glue which has since been taken off the market because, for some strange reason, it's not good for the environment. So it's been replaced by something else. But it's hypoallergenic.
GROSS: Oh, that's...
PERLMAN: Isn't that weird?
GROSS: That's amazing. The one thing that sensitive enough for your skin is bad for the environment. (Laughter). It's not fair.
PERLMAN: And I mean, how much - how much of it is get it added to the ether, anyway? I mean, how many guys are having rubber applied to their face around the world at any given time for the purpose of making a movie? I don't - of all the things that they wanted to attack for the sake of the ozone layer - and don't get me wrong. I love the ozone layer as much as the next guy, but, you know, I thought that was rather strange and bizarre.
GROSS: Now I know who to blame for climate change (laughter) - the make-up guy. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ron Perlman. He's written a new memoir, and it's called "Easy Street (The Hard Way)." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ron Perlman, and he's written a new memoir that's called "Easy Street (The Hard Way)." Let me skip ahead to one of your latest roles, and that's "Sons Of Anarchy." Now, your character was killed off last season, but you were - you were, you know, one of the stars of the series.
PERLMAN: I don't think people on the East Coast know that show. Do they?
GROSS: (Laughter). Oops. (Laughter).
PERLMAN: Oh, wait a minute. Is it the West Coast? Or is it New Zealand? People - this is just - we just screwed it up for everybody. Sorry, Peter Jackson and all your friends.
GROSS: (Laughter.) So in "Sons Of Anarchy," it's kind of like the opposite of "Beauty And The Beast." Like, you're a real tough guy in this, and you have - you have, like, no scruples. You're the head of a very violent motorcycle club. This is like a criminal operation. And you became the president of the club after you plotted to kill the person who had been the head - John Teller. And the person you plotted with was Teller's wife, Gemma, who became your wife. And I want to play a scene in which Gemma has figured out that you actually ordered a hit on her daughter-in-law. And the - this is the woman who's married to her son, Jax. So Gemma is furious, and she has a gun.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SONS OF ANARCHY")
KATEY SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) What's the matter? Change your mind? Get a refund 'cause they didn't kill her?
PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) I don't know what the hell you're talking about.
SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) You promise me. You look me in the eye, and you promise me you wouldn't hurt Tara.
PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) You're insane.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)
PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) I had nothing to do with what happened to Tara.
SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) You took money out of that safe this morning. Hours later, somebody goes after Tara. She'd probably be dead if Jax wasn't with her.
PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) You need to stop right now.
SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) You didn't know that Jax was going to be with her, did you? Or the boys? Jesus Christ. Those babies could have been hurt.
PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) Enough.
SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) Maybe Jax needs to know that truth. You stay away from me you son of [bleep]. You stay away from my family.
PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) Or what? You're kill me, Gemma? Huh? Like you did the first husband?
SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) You killed John.
PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) No. Baby, you killed him. You played me for a chump, and I was. I was no match for that tight, [bleep] broken, angry heart. Yeah. Maybe Jax needs to read some of that truth.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)
GROSS: That's a scene from "Sons Of Anarchy" with my guest, Ron Perlman, playing Clay Morrow. And Ron Perlman has written a new memoir, which is called "Easy Street (The Hard Way)." How did you get the part? Did you have audition for it?
PERLMAN: I did have to audition for it. They had already shot the pilot with another actor playing Clay Morrow. And the network decided that they weren't getting what they were hoping to get and that they were willing to - they loved the series enough to - if they thought they found the right actor, they were willing to reshoot the pilot and start - restart the clock and green light the show for a whole first season, which is 13 episodes.
So they met with me, and they said, you know, the caveat is, you know, this is a big risk we're taking. We would love for you to consider coming in and reading for the show. And I, you know - I was more than happy to do that. Read through it, got it. We re-shot most of the pilot, and merrily we rolled along.
GROSS: Did you have any idea what the original actor had done wrong that they thought was not quite right for the part?
PERLMAN: The original actor is a brilliant actor. I won't mention his name, but he's - I'm a huge fan of his. But he's a very subtle guy. And he has a very kind of a quiet, understated presence about him, which, in terms of this particular guy, Clay Morrow, they were looking for way more dynamic. They were looking for higher highs and lower lows and a lot of very, very kind of...
PERLMAN: Resonance. Yeah. Things - and, you know, much more explosive, much more unpredictable and much more capable of this kind of dark humor that exists in worlds where life and death are, you know, constantly, you know, coexisting. So I understood going into it that, you know - that they were looking for a more operatic version of this guy. And I just so happened - you know, happened to be free that week.
GROSS: (Laughter) Had you ever ridden a motorcycle?
PERLMAN: I had learned to ride a motorcycle for a movie that never happened. So just as I was getting it, my sea legs under me, it got pulled out from under me. And I never rode any more than that until "Sons Of Anarchy" came around. And depending on who you ask, I never did much riding after the fact, either. Me and the bike - we - let's put it this way - I'd rather be eating Haagen-Dazs.
PERLMAN: That's my wheelhouse, baby.
GROSS: Did you feel like you should meet any motorcycle gang members before doing the series?
PERLMAN: That was all done for us. You know, Kurt Sutter created the show. He spent a lot of time in Northern Cali, hanging out with the real deal guys. And so by the time we started shooting, there were a bunch of them on set with us who were kind of consulting and making sure that we got the mores and the customs and the sort of, you know, swagger right and that we weren't doing a kind of one-dimensional kind of a - what you see in a lot of movies. You see a lot of movies about motorcycle gangs. And everybody's scratching, and everybody's fat, and everybody's hairy. And, you know, it's kind of like - it's almost like a caricature version.
We really - not we, but Kurt really went out of his way to make sure that we had the endorsement of the MC world because we took the time to be as authentic and as subtle and as gray - rather than black and white - as we possibly could be. So I laud him for that.
GROSS: Your character really goes off the rails after a while. You know, he betrays everyone, including, you know, everyone in the motorcycle club. He goes through prison. He bites off parts of a guard's face. And you write in your memoir that when your character started becoming a pariah after betraying everyone he knew, you felt like you were becoming - being treated like a pariah on the set. As if everybody could sense that your character wasn't long for the world, and therefore, you weren't long for the set. What were you picking up on?
PERLMAN: I was experiencing being cut from the herd - you know, being isolated - truly isolated. I mean, you know, that last season I spent on the show, I pretty much never saw anybody that I had been working with for the prior six years, until the last episode, when they offed me. I was - you know, I was doing kind of a separate show. And the isolation and the kind of exile was not just caricatures, it was also physical in nature. And...
GROSS: 'Cause you are in different scenes?
PERLMAN: But, yeah - but, I mean, the closeness that had characterized the first few years of the show when we're all getting to know each other and all getting so swept up in what it was that we were a part of had turned into something else - something much more lonely, much darker, much - OK, this is it. This is - I'm done. I'm out of this world. And pretty - and surely enough, in short order, I was.
GROSS: How did you find out your character was going to be killed off? Did you find out about that through the script you were given? Did the - did Kurt Sutter, the creator of the show, tell you?
PERLMAN: He brought me in at the beginning of season six and told me that I would be - I would not make it to the end of the - of the season and that I would find my demise at the end of that season. So that's how I found out.
GROSS: And I imagine you were sorry to hear that?
PERLMAN: I was surprised because it ran counter to what had already always been the plan.
GROSS: What had been the plan?
PERLMAN: The plan was I was going to make it all the way through. Something changed. I'm not really sure what, nor is it important that I ever answer that question. But the plan changed. And so - and then I think he had a plan in his mind about how season six unfolded for me. And there was supposed to be some sort of major redemption in Clay's character, and then that morphed into something else, as well.
So season six was rather uncomfortable for me on a lot of levels, partially because of how much I grew to love the guys and the world of the show and what we had built together. And, you know, it was what it was, and it was never anything that was in my control. The places the character went were places I felt very uncomfortable going as an actor. Things that he was given to do...
GROSS: You mean like biting off a guard's face?
PERLMAN: Just how completely Machiavellian he had become - how completely overwhelmed his own humanity became by these events that he created for himself.
GROSS: Ron Perlman will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Easy Street (The Hard Way)." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actor Ron Perlman, who has a new memoir called "Easy Street (The Hard Way.)" His breakthrough role was in the '80s TV series "Beauty And The Beast," as a man with a beast-like face, but a poet's soul. He starred in the "Hellboy" movies and is now probably best known for his role as the ruthless, brutal leader of a motorcycle club in the FX series "Sons Of Anarchy." His character was killed off last season.
So your final scene, you're basically executed by Gemma's son - by your wife's son. And, you know, other people, including your wife, are just, like, standing there, either in the room or just outside the room, watching - you know, watching from in the room or watching through the window from just outside. So - and you're shot - you're shot in the neck and then shot several times in the chest. Can you just talk about what went through your mind when you knew this was your last scene? And you're getting killed in an especially, you know, brutal way. It's an execution, so you're probably experiencing, like, the real pain of knowing this is the end for you as an actor and then you're experiencing your character's pain as he's getting executed.
PERLMAN: Well, by the time we reached that penultimate moment, I had already made my peace with everything. You know, and made all - did all my adjusting to the various things that happened that were kind of out of left field. For me - for me - now, you know, it depends on who you talk to about this, I mean, you know, if you talk to the creator of the show, he's going to give you a whole list of reasons why this was essential and inevitable and all that stuff. As these things were imparted to me, I had to evolve to a place where not only could I execute them in a way that was commensurate with how I wanted to play the character, or, you know, the same professionalism that I bring to bear in anything that I do whether I love it or not. And the fact that, you know, this was a great run. This was a six-year triumphant run, the longest I've ever participated in any avenue of show business. Six years - you don't get a chance to do that very often. It would've been nice if it was seven, but it was six. And you can't take that away. And I made some great friends. And the world still is kind of rocked by this phenomenon that was - that was and is "Sons Of Anarchy." Everywhere I go, people just want to stop and talk to me about it. So I'm not going to let anything overwhelm how beautiful and how blessed an opportunity this was in the big scheme of things.
GROSS: Can you describe what it's like to experience the death of a character you've inhabited for six years? Where, you know, like the character shot in the neck, you have to give as realistic a performance as you can not having experienced anything like that, obviously. So what are you thinking in that moment where - where you're shot?
PERLMAN: Well, what you're thinking is let me get this moment right, you know. Did I like the fact that I was shot in the jugular, that Jax readjusts his aim to make it even uglier than it needed to be? No. I mean, you know, Ron and Clay are two separate entities. But Ron is hired to play Clay. And so Ron doesn't exist in that moment. All that exists is getting it to the point where everyone who's playing that scene is on the same page and you make it look as - as realistic as possible. It's a brutal moment. It represented something none of us wanted to see, which is us no longer contributing to this thing that we had all been a part of building. These guys are going to see it - they're about a month away from ending the shooting of season seven, which is the final season. And they're all going to understand what it's like to say goodbye to a character they've been playing for that long a time. And it just happens. Is it fun? No. But is it inevitable? I mean, the minute you start something, it's going to end. And if you get a chance to go as long and make as much noise as we did, then, you know, there's - the good far outweighs the parts of it that you're probably hearing in my voice right now, which is that it's difficult.
GROSS: I want to ask you about "Hellboy." You have such a following for those two movies. And this is a couple of films directed by Guillermo del Toro, who also did "Pan's Labyrinth." And it's based on comic books. Do you want to describe the "Hellboy" character for listeners who aren't familiar with it?
PERLMAN: Well, "Hellboy" is summoned to earth in a ritualistic kind of a ceremony in the dark of night in the middle of World War II by the Third Reich. He's summoned when Hitler realizes the tide is turning and his momentum is starting to change and he's starting to be the hunted rather than the hunter. And so he calls upon this fantasy character, Rasputin, to perform the ceremony that summons Hellboy. And Hellboy is the seed of destruction. Hellboy is there to be the ultimate tool of the Third Reich to finally finish what they set out to do, which is to destroy humanity and build a new world order. So that's who Hellboy is and what he's intended to be. But he's raised by this Western scientist named Professor Broom, as played by John Hurt in the films. And he's taught to use all of his powers for good rather than for evil. So Hellboy is the quintessential discussion of nature versus nurture.
GROSS: And in the role you have horns - kind of like devil horns that you've filed off so you just see the stumps. You have a tail. You not only have a lot of prosthetic makeup on your face, you kind of have a prosthetic body, like prosthetic muscles, a prosthetic chest.
PERLMAN: Yeah. I don't think people really - I think they think those are my muscles.
PERLMAN: I'd really rather keep it at that...
GROSS: Yeah sorry.
PERLMAN: ...If that's okay with you.
GROSS: Sorry about that. Is it hard to act with all of that on?
PERLMAN: Everybody thinks it's burdensome to sit in a makeup chair for as long as it takes to transform and to have to maneuver your way through that stuff all through the day. But - for crying out loud, I'm Hellboy at the end of it all.
PERLMAN: I mean, this - I never stop thinking about how many guys wish they were me - wished they had a chance to walk in his shoes and have that swagger and play that guy. And so whatever you have to go through to get to the point where you become Hellboy, it's worth it.
GROSS: Did you know and love the comics before you got the role?
PERLMAN: I deliberately refuse to immerse myself in the world of the comics because I never thought Guillermo who - I was always his first choice to play the character. But it took him seven years to convince the guys who write the big checks to actually write one with Ron Perlman as the title character because let's face it, you know, it's a business. And I was never a household name and I never expected that Guillermo would pull it off. So I didn't want to fall in love with a character and a world that I knew I would never be able to participate in because that just would've been more heartbreaking than the reality of it. When he finally pulled it off and got green-lit by Sony for the first film, then I took out all the comic books that he bought me over the years and finally read them and fell in love, face-to-face with the character.
GROSS: Let's talk about your early years. Your father was a musician - he was a drummer - before - before the children were born, he played in swing bands. You say he played with Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and others. Was he a regular member of the bands or did he sit in with them on tour?
PERLMAN: He never rose to that level. He never played with those guys. I think what I was trying to infer is that he played in the time of those guys.
GROSS: Oh, I see.
PERLMAN: You know, he was always kind of, you know, a low-level kind of a guy - devoted to those artists by the way - you know, those were his heroes. But he never played with those guys. He was just kind of a blue-collar guy who, you know, gig from here and there and scratched out a few bucks, but never enough when it came time to raise a family to really feel like he could stick with this as his - as his bread-and-butter.
GROSS: So what did he do professionally?
PERLMAN: So then he went to technical school and learned television and radio. TV was kind of just in its infancy at that point. So I guess that seemed like a rather good idea at the time was to, you know...
GROSS: Television and radio repair?
PERLMAN: Television and radio repair. So that he would go to people's homes whose TV didn't work and fix them. And he became known as honest Bert Perlman because he charged $3 for a house call...
PERLMAN: ...And never raised his prices. That's probably why he was such a lousy TV repairman because he didn't change with the times.
GROSS: And then he became a teacher?
PERLMAN: And then - yeah, in his mid-40s, he started realizing that kneeling down behind TVs and pulling out picture tubes was probably losing its charm. So he found out that if - he could use his practical time that he spent in the business and apply them to educational credits. And he started teaching in a vocational high school in New York - TV and radio technology. And that's when he found out what he was really born to do. He was really born to be a teacher. He only got a chance to do it for about three or four years before he was failed by this massive heart attack that actually took his life at the age of 49. But he found out what he was supposed to do before it was too late. So for that I am eternally grateful.
GROSS: Since he had initially wanted to be a professional musician, did he support you in your teenage years, or do you think he would've supported you later on in your ambition to become a professional actor, to have a life in the arts?
PERLMAN: Well, he was wary of any noise that either of his sons made to sort of pursue a life in the arts because he knew how precarious it was. And he knew what the odds were of success or of just even scratching out enough of a living to, you know, be able to use the word secure - security. And, you know, him having grown up as a depression baby, security was really paramount to that generation of parents. And then this thing happened where he saw me in a play in college. And he came the first night with my mom and, you know, the whole rest of the family and then came back the second night by himself. And then the following day in the car, he pulls over as he's driving me someplace and he goes, you know, I just came back last night to see if what I saw the night before was an illusion or whether it was reality. I said what are you talking about, Pop? He said I think you got to do this. And I said do what? He said I think you got to be an actor. I think that's what you've got to do. And I came back a second time to have another look at it because it's a very hard thing for me to say because I'm maybe asking you to, you know, inviting you into a life of abject terror and horror, you know, because I know how hard it is to make a living. But I think this is what you have to do. And a year later he was gone, so this was the ultimate, like, almost like a deathbed wish, where he gave me permission - not only gave me permission, but gave me a certain resolve that only a father can give to a son. And it was beautiful. And it's taken me to where I am, you know, to this day.
GROSS: So I want to thank you very much for talking with us, for sharing...
PERLMAN: My pleasure.
GROSS: ...Some of your life with us. It's been a pleasure. And good luck with...
PERLMAN: It turns out...
PERLMAN: I really like talking about me.
PERLMAN: So it's been really a pleasure. It's been a lot of fun and thank you.
GROSS: Ron Perlman's new memoir is called "Easy Street (The Hard Way.)" Coming up, as the fall TV season begins, our TV critic David Bianculli suggests some new shows worth watching. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. For the major broadcast networks tonight is the official start of the new TV season. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has a list of the new shows you should make an effort to sample. He says it is not a very long list.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: On broadcast television each fall in the best years there's at least one new show that clearly is a must watch. You must watch "Pushing Daisies." You must watch "Lost." You must watch "Friday Night Lights." But that doesn't always happen. And it certainly doesn't happen this fall.
There's not a single must-see show in the mix, but most of the network have at least one ought-to-try show. And two of them premiere tonight. One is the Fox networks' "Gotham," the most talked about show of the new season. It's a prequel to the DC Comics "Batman" franchise. Set in Gotham City at the very moment a young boy named Bruce Wayne witnesses the death of his parents by an armed robber. Investigating the crime is the hero of "Gotham" - a hero without a costume - a straight-arrow, young detective who eventually will rule the police force as the man named Commissioner Gordon. But here he's just a cop named Jim, consoling a young boy named Bruce who's just become an orphan. Ben McKenzie, star of "Southland" and "The OC", plays Jim Gordon.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOTHAM")
BEN MCKENZIE: (As Detective Jim Gordon) When I was about your age a drunk driver hit our car, killed my dad. I was right next to him. I know how you feel right now. And I promise you however dark and scary the world right might be right now, there will be light; there will be light, Bruce.
BIANCULLI: But at that moment in Gotham City the dominant shade is darkness. Organized crime controls most of the town and much of the police force. And the series introduces us to characters who in time will dawn alter egos and become Catwoman or The Riddler or The Penguin and so on. To put it in terms of an SAT analogy question - "Gotham" is to Batman as "Smallville" is to Superman. A prequel series where we don't get the costumes, but we do get lots of motivation and character development. The "Gotham" pilot, which airs tonight on Fox, looks cinematic and features some strong performances. Especially by Donal Logue as a somewhat shifty detective and Robin Lord Taylor as the man who would be Penguin.
It's definitely worth a look. So is "Scorpion" - a CBS series that also premieres tonight. It sounds like a superhero show, and in a way it is. Like the "X-Men," it's about a team of young misfits with extraordinary gifts, crafted into a crime-fighting and world-saving team by a gruff, father figure - except these misfits are geniuses. It's like the gang from "The Big Bang Theory," only their spending their time stopping terrorists rather than buying comic books. The off-center personalities of these team members are what make might "Scorpion" a hit. Along with the unexpectedly sincere and effective appeal of Katharine McPhee, a former "American Idol" contestant who proves a much better actress here than she did as one of the leads in NBC's musical drama "Smash."
The other show worth sampling during this premiere week is ABC's "Black-ish," which premieres Wednesday. Most of the jokes in the first episode are too obvious, but at least this is a sitcom that's about something, that has a definite point of view. Anthony Anderson plays a husband and father who worked hard to hand his family the American dream, only to worry - even if they don't - that their dream may have turned out to be a little too white. It's a concern amplified by the live-in grandfather, played by Larry Fishburne, whose scenes with Anderson are the best part of the pilot. It's still rare for a prime-time TV series to tackle a significant topic, which is why it's worth taking "Black-ish" for a spin, and even giving a little time to grow. I have the same reaction to a new Fox drama series that premiered last week - "Red Band Society" - which is about teens facing serious illnesses. I like the effort these shows are making, even if I'm not as completely sold on the shows themselves. The other shows worth noting don't premiere until October, but I'll at least identify them now.
Fox has "Gracepoint," a remake of the British miniseries "Broadchurch" which even has the same leading man - David Tennant, but this time adopting an American accent. I like the original just fine, but this American remake has its merits. Starting with Anna Gunn from "Breaking Bad." Finally, the CW network has two new dramas, and they're both surprisingly entertaining. One is another DC Comics-inspired show - "The Flash." That's actually a spinoff of "Arrow," but is much lighter and much better than that returning superhero series. And then there's "Jane The Virgin," based on a telenovella from Venezuela starring Gina Rodriguez as a 23-year-old single woman who gets artificially inseminated by mistake. Of all the new fall shows, "Jane The Virgin" is the one where I'm most looking forward to episode two. With most of this year shows, it isn't even any fun slogging through episode one.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website "TV Worth Watching" and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by pianist Jason Moran. This is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Jason Moran's new album, "All Rise," began in 2011, when he staged a dance party salute to pianist Fats Waller in Harlem, featuring singer Meshell Ndegeocello. Now that party has become a touring project and a new album. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead admits to mixed feelings.
(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN SONG, "HANDFUL OF KEYS")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Jason Moran, putting a little extra bump in Fats Waller "Handful Of Keys." It's from Moran's "All Rise," his wildly uneven Waller tribute on Blue Note. Fats Waller was, among other talents, a two-fisted pianist who got a brilliant sound from the instrument. He could keep going for hours without exhausting his ideas or energy. Jason Moran has a knack for modernizing Waller-era material at the piano. He gets the spirit right and then tosses in gleeful anachronisms. This is 1921's "The Sheikh Of Araby," which Fats recorded in 1938.
(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN SONG, "THE SHEIKH OF ARABY")
WHITEHEAD: The instrumental pieces on "All Rise" salute Waller, the pianist who dabbled a little in electric keyboards. They take liberties with the material in his spirit. The rest of the program takes fuzzier aim at Waller, the songwriter and singer. Here's how the album begins.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT YOUR HANDS ON IT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Put your hands on it. Get that right ticking rhythm. Put your hands on it. Put your - put your hands on it. Put your - put your hands on it. Get that right ticking rhythm.
WHITEHEAD: You see what they did there? Slow Waller down, decontextualize him - the emotional tone changes, and he's not funny anymore. That snippet sets the tone for the vocal pieces on "All Rise." Slowing Waller down, Moran, singer Meshell Ndegeocello and their helpers do something conceptually bold, if a little unnerving. They turn Fats' rollicking tunes into smooth jazz.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'")
MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) I know for certain you're the one I love. I'm through with flirting. It's just you I'm thinking of. Ain't misbehaving. I'm saving my love for you, for you, for you, for you, for you, for you, for you, for you.
WHITEHEAD: Not since Markie Post's character sang it in the 1988 TV movie "Glitz" have I heard "Ain't Misbehavin'" sound quite so glitzy. When fats Waller sang, as when he played, everything had a lightness and bounce to it. He never took a song or himself too seriously. His off the grid moments - the shaggy sung or spoken asides - are central to his art. These slick updates smooth all that away. Listen to a bit of Waller's musical house party, "The Joint Is Jumping," then Jason Moran's re-think.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JOINT IS JUMPIN'")
FATS WALLER: (Singing) Check your weapons at the door. Be sure to pay your quarter. Burn your leather on the floor. Grab anybody's daughter. The roof is rockin'. The neighbors knockin'. We're all bums when the wagon comes. I mean, this joint is jumping. Let it be. Yeah. Burn this joint, boy. Yeah. Oh, my. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JOINT IS JUMPIN'")
NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Piano's thumping. Dancers bumping. Come on, cats, and check your hats. I mean, this joint is jumping. Just check your weapons at the door. Just check you weapons at the door.
WHITEHEAD: I'm mindful that this recording project stems for an evening of stylish entertainment. And I'd bet it makes for nice evening out, but maybe you have to be there. And it's not like you need to dress Fats Waller up to make him stylish or entertaining. In the end, the vocal numbers on "All Rise" are really about their rhythm-and-blues-ification of jazz that major labels and booster websites have gotten behind. Even so, I doubt Fats Waller would've minded.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JOINT IS JUMPIN'")
NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Work it for me. Work it for me, for me. Work it for me, for me. Move for me. Move...
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead's writes for Point of Departure and Wondering Sound and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "All Rise," the new album by pianist Jason Moran on the Blue Note label.
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