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Journalist Floyd Norris

He is chief financial correspondent for The New York Times. He'll discuss the Bush administration's economic plan, including the tax break on stock dividends.

32:14

Other segments from the episode on January 15, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 15, 2003: Interview with Floyd Norris; Interview with Michael Chiklis; Review of two albums "Gong With Wind Suite" and "Theme and Variations."

Transcript

DATE January 15, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: New York Times financial columnist Floyd Norris on
President Bush's economic plan, including the tax break on stock
dividends
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Last week, President Bush announced his latest economic plan which would cut
taxes by $670 billion over the next 10 years. He expects over half that money
to come from the elimination of the tax on stock dividends, which is the
centerpiece of his proposal. He calls the current system double taxation
because corporations pay tax on their profits and then when they pass on some
profits to their investors in the form of dividends those investors pay tax on
that money, too. What the president presented as a simple plan may be more
complex than it sounds.

My guest, Floyd Norris, is the chief financial correspondent for The New York
Times. He points out that the Bush proposal doesn't eliminate taxes on all
dividends; it's only on dividends issued by companies that have paid enough
federal taxes. And many profitable corporations avoid paying taxes through
loopholes or creative bookkeeping. Norris expects that if this proposal
passes, there will be many complicating factors.

Mr. FLOYD NORRIS (Chief Financial Correspondent, The New York Times): It's
going to be very complicated. Companies are going to have to disclose when
they pay the dividend and the details haven't all been worked out here.
Congress will--you know, may not accept this at all, may amend it a lot. But
presumably, Congress will set up a provision whereby companies will have to
disclose when they pay the dividend, whether it's taxable or how much of it is
taxable. And that will be a revolution.

For the first time, it'll be possible to easily figure out how much tax a
company is actually paying. And after that's been going for a couple of
years, it's going to be clear which companies are paying taxes and which are
not. And in some future Congress, if we have a Congress that's looking for
way to raise revenues, they might end up taking a look at some of these
companies, some of these industries and saying, `This industry is profitable.
It's paying no taxes. Why?' And then we'd see some of the corporate tax
loopholes that have come into the system over the years, often with little
public attention--we might see those loopholes start to get closed.

GROSS: Would you describe this as an unintended consequence of the proposed
dividend tax break?

Mr. NORRIS: I don't know whether it was intended. Certainly, the
administration has not discussed that at all. Now this is largely based on a
1992 Treasury study done during the administration of the first President
Bush, this tax plan, and that study did discuss some of those effects, so it
was not unknown to the people who came up with this. But it certainly is not
a selling point they've gone for.

GROSS: OK, I'm a little confused. Say you invest in a company. The
company's profitable. It pays taxes, therefore, your dividends are tax
exempt. A couple years down the line you still own your stock in this
company, but now the company's losing money, therefore it's not paying
corporate income tax. So what happens to your dividends? Now do you have to
start paying taxes on those dividends?

Mr. NORRIS: You certainly may. It depends on how they fine tune the plan.
One thing they're considering is allowing companies to carry over some of
these profits so that next year's dividend would be paid out of not this
year's taxes, which there were none of, but last year's taxes. They're also
considering not allowing that. If they don't allow that, companies would be
distributing a different tax benefit the first year, which would mean enabling
investors to get lower capital gains taxes when they sold their shares. So,
yes, it's quite possible that one year a company's dividends would be tax
exempt and the next year they'd be taxable.

GROSS: So it seems to me it's going to make investing maybe a little more
complicated because it adds a lot of guesswork into this.

Mr. NORRIS: Well, there's plenty of guesswork already. And, yes, it will
cause some shocks to people when they discover that a dividend they thought
was going to be tax exempt is not.

GROSS: Since the only dividends that will be tax exempt are the dividends of
companies who pay taxes, is there a chance this might lead to more, shall we
say, creative accounting on the part of corporations?

Mr. NORRIS: Well, what's going to be very interesting is to see, if this
does prevail, what happens in the Congress. But the way the Bush people have
written the provision, there's only one loophole for that and that's for taxes
paid to foreign governments. Otherwise, it's pretty simple. If you write a
check to Uncle Sam, you can pass on some benefits to your shareholders and
it's a simple relationship. The corporate tax right now is 35 percent. So if
your company writes a check to Uncle Sam for $35 million, that means that they
had $100 million of real taxable profits they reported. Therefore, the
remainder of that $100 million, $65 million, they can hand out in dividends.
And that arithmetic is actually pretty simple. You write the check, you get
the benefit. You don't write the check, you don't get the benefit. And in
that regard, that is one of the few simple things here. There are some others
things that make this complicated.

So I don't think you're going to see creative accounting in that way. You
might see some creative accounting in people buying and selling foreign tax
credits, which is a complicated area that I don't think we want to get into
the details of. You might see some of those games being played. I don't
know.

GROSS: The Bush plan brings a new concept forward and that is the deemed
dividend. What is that?

Mr. NORRIS: The deemed dividend is something that relates to a company that
could pay tax-exempt dividends, but chooses not to do so. It's paid taxes to
the government, but it wants to reinvest the money in its business. The
argument was that it's not fair to let a company that hands out the cash to
its investors have a tax break for them, but to not let a company that
reinvests the money have a tax break. And the solution to that, under the
Bush proposal, is called a deemed dividend.

Here's how it would work: Let's say that the company you own stock in has the
ability to pay out $50 million in tax-exempt dividends but chooses not to do
so. And it chooses not to do so because it wants to reinvest the money. And
to make life real simple, let's assume there's 50 million shares of this
company, meaning that that works into exactly $1 per share. What it can do
instead is pass out the deemed dividend to you and that would enable you to
lower--excuse me, to raise your basis in the stock. Now that sounds all
complicated, but what it means is if you paid $40 a share for your stock and
they handed out a $1 deemed dividend, when you got around to selling your
stock, you'd report not that you paid 40, but that you paid $41 for it. And
if you sold it for, say, 50, that would mean you had a $9 profit to pay
capital gains taxes on instead of the $10 profit and that would give you a tax
savings just like it would have given you a tax savings if they'd paid the
dividends.

GROSS: A lot of people who invest in the market invest through their
retirement plan at work and those plans are tax deferred, so will they get any
benefits from the dividend tax cut?

Mr. NORRIS: They get no direct benefits. Now the advocates argue they'll
get an indirect benefit because this will drive up the prices of stocks and of
course, therefore, it will drive up the prices of stocks in their portfolio.
So if that happens, they get that benefit. But directly, they get no benefit.
And in fact, were this to become law, this would present an argument for an
investor to put his stocks, if he has both a retirement plan and a regular
taxable plan--it'd present an argument for an investor to put his
dividend-paying stocks not in his retirement plan, but outside of it. The way
it's going to work is an investor puts money into his 401(k) at work and that
401(k)--the money is not taxed going in. That's a great advantage for the
investor.

Eventually, he'll withdraw that money from the 401(k) after he retires and all
of that money is going to be taxed and it's going to be taxed at ordinary
income tax rates. Now that may be a lower rate because your income may be
lower when you retire. But it's going to be taxed. And that will be true
regardless of how the money got into that plan, regardless of whether the
profits in that plan came from capital gains or from dividends or from
interest on bonds or whether it's just the money you put in to begin with on a
tax-deferred basis and you didn't make much in the way of profits over the
time it was in. So therefore, investors, I think, will want to consider
trying to own more stocks outside of their retirement plans if this becomes
law.

GROSS: My guest is Floyd Norris, the chief financial correspondent for The
New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Floyd Norris. He's the chief financial correspondent for
The New York Times.

How much money will the government lose in taxes if dividends are no longer
taxed?

Mr. NORRIS: They claim that it would be something over $300 billion over the
next 10 years. This number is a guess. It may not be an especially good
guess. These 10-year projections are often ridiculous and one of the sad
things about this administration is the games they have played with the
10-year projections, both in the previous tax bill they passed last year and
now in this one, where they're not fixing up something they vowed to fix
because it would cost too much money in the 10-year number. But this one is
even harder to estimate because nobody's done a study. Nobody knows what
proportion of corporate dividends come out of profits on which taxes have been
paid. And, therefore, nobody knows what percentage of dividends now being
paid would be tax exempt, let alone how this would change behavior of
corporations. And corporate income taxes have withered away in the last 20 or
30 years. So it's possible that this would, as I explained earlier, have an
effect of increasing that. So that number, that $300-odd billion could prove
to be an exaggeration and, of course, it could prove to be an undercount as
well.

GROSS: How is the Bush administration justifying a 300 billion tax cut just
on the dividend tax break alone at a time when we're facing the possibility of
a very expensive war with Iraq and the possibility of a very expensive
rebuilding and democratizing period after the war?

Mr. NORRIS: The answer of how they're justifying is they talk about
stimulative effects from this package. Critics question how much economic
stimulus there is. They talk about encouraging investment, which would help
get the economy moving. Businesses now are not investing much money, and the
reason they're not investing much money is because they don't see much
opportunity for profit. There's massive overcapacity in certain industries,
most notably telecommunications. And this wouldn't do anything about that.
But mostly, they're arguing that we need this, and they're not focusing on
budget issues.

Some people suspect that President Bush remembers that Ronald Reagan passed a
massive tax cut early in his administration. It led to huge unprecedented, in
fact, unthinkable budget deficits, deficits that he denied would ever happen
and that happened. But that he became a wildly popular president, was
re-elected in a landslide in 1984 and would have been re-elected again in 1988
had the two-term limit rule not prevented him from running.

On the other hand, the man who did win that year, President Bush's father, was
persuaded by people who cared about deficits that he had to raise taxes in
1990, and he did raise taxes, breaking a campaign pledge, and two years later,
he was defeated. I think this president is far more worried about his
political popularity and about the economy and about being perceived as
helping the economy than he is about running some deficits.

GROSS: What do the people who are in the middle class or the lower middle
class get from the Bush tax program?

Mr. NORRIS: Not a lot. This particular program, it will accelerate
reductions in individual income tax rates. The tax bill they passed last
year--or I guess it was 2001--provided for gradual reductions in rates over
the next seven or eight years. And this will accelerate those reductions so
they will all come immediately. That means virtually everyone who is paying
income taxes will pay a little less. And that will have some stimulative
effect, probably not a huge one.

GROSS: What are some of the things that people in the middle class and the
lower middle class might lose if there are lots of tax cuts and a bigger
deficit?

Mr. NORRIS: Well, arguably, that drives interest rates up, making it harder
to borrow money. That effect is arguable. Basically, they'll end up--you
know, they and their children will pay higher taxes in the future to pay off
that deficit. But the real issue I think the Democrats are focusing on is a
proposal that was kicked around, supported by a number of politicians of both
parties, tending to be the more liberal Republicans, for a temporary, perhaps
six months, perhaps a year, reduction in payroll taxes. You know, payroll
taxes are the Medicare tax and, more importantly, the Social Security tax.
And collectively, they raise about as much money as the individual income tax
does.

But this is not a progressive tax like the income tax. It's a regressive tax.
Low income earners, most middle-class earners, people who make up until
80-some-thousand dollars this year--and that goes up every year--will pay
Social Security taxes on all of their wages. Rich people pay Social Security
taxes on the first 80-some-thousand of their wages. They don't pay it,
however, on other income. They don't pay it on dividends. They don't pay it
on capital gains. And the result is that they pay a lot less in these taxes
as a percent of their income than do poorer people or middle-class people.
The Medicare tax does apply to all of the earned income of people, but again,
doesn't apply to dividends or capital gains.

What had been suggested was a six-month or a year moratorium on the first
$10,000 of income on Social Security taxes and perhaps Medicare taxes on that
income, with the government making it up--just appropriating the money out of
the general Treasury. That would serve as a real benefit to lower wage
people. They'd get a lot of money back that they wouldn't otherwise get.
They'd save some real money. For upper-income people, they'd get a little
money back, but it would be diminuous relative to their income. The effect
might have a lot of stimulus, and the reason it might have a lot of stimulus
is the simple fact that poor people, if you give them a tax break, are more
likely to spend the money. Obviously, if you're a millionaire, an extra $20 a
week in income is more likely to be saved simply because you're already buying
what you basically think you need. If you're just getting by, that $20 a week
may very well go into another pair of jeans for the kids or something, and
that has a more stimulative effect on the economy.

GROSS: Now President Bush has also, since he was elected, emphasized the end
of what he describes as the death tax, the estate tax. What's the status of
that now?

Mr. NORRIS: The status is a fascinating one, because in the first tax bill
they passed, they gradually phased out the estate tax. So if you're a very
rich person, your estate will pay less in estate taxes if you die this year
than had you died last year. It'll pay less if you managed to make it to
2004, and so on each year, until in 2010, if you die, there will be no estate
tax. However, under the current law, in 2011, everything reverts back to the
way it used to be. Suddenly, the estate tax will go up to the level it is not
this year but the level it was a couple of years ago before they passed that
bill. Individual income tax rates will also go up to those levels under this
bill the Bush people passed.

Now this has provoked a lot of dark humor. I call it the Dr. Kevorkian bill,
because, of course, if they don't change it, in 2010 and you are very rich,
it is conceivable that your children or your grandchildren will be discussing
this with you and pointing out to you that, `You know, if you really care for
your grandchildren, were you to die before the end of 2010, they'd end up a
whole lot better off than if you manage to make it to January 2011.' This is,
of course, a ridiculous situation.

The reason it happened before was that they were under pressure from a few
liberal Republicans in the Senate to hold down the size of the overall tax
bill the first time around. And the way they accomplished that was to assert
that in the 10th year, there would be no cost. The 10th year, in that
calculation, was 2011. And therefore, they could make the overall 10-year
numbers add up, and 10-year numbers under the current budget rule are what
people count. This is all, of course, completely ridiculous in real life.

Now it was taken for granted that in a new tax bill, they would fix that up
and make those cuts permanent; say that in 2011, the rates that were in effect
in 2010 would remain. But they didn't do that. And the reason they didn't do
that was they didn't want to have this bill appear to be costing too much, so
they still got all this flip-back in 2011 coming out. Now the assumption
everyone makes is that some future Congress will fix this, and that if the
estate tax is repealed in 2010, they'll find a way to keep it repealed. But,
of course, now the Bush administration is not excessively worried about 2011.
He'll run for re-election in 2004, and if he wins re-election, the president
who will have to deal with that will be man who's elected in 2008. And that,
by definition, will not be George W. Bush.

GROSS: Floyd Norris is the chief financial correspondent for The New York
Times. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.

Unidentified Man #1: One, two, three, four. One, two....

Unidentified Man #2: ...three, four.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Let me tell you how it will be. There's one
for you, 19 for me. Because I'm the tax man. Yeah, I'm the tax man. Should
five percent appear too small, be thankful I don't take it all. Because I'm
the tax man. Yeah, I'm the tax man. If you drive a car...

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, our TV critic, David Bianculli, talks with Michael Chiklis.
He won an Emmy last year for his starring role as a rogue cop on "The Shield."
Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new recording by Lee Konitz and a
reissue by John La Porta. And we continue our talk about the Bush tax cut
plan with Floyd Norris, chief financial correspondent for The New York Times.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Floyd Norris, chief
financial correspondent for The New York Times. We're talking about President
Bush's plan for cutting taxes.

As we are facing paying less in taxes, particularly less in dividend taxes,
there's the possibility of another tax that the middle class would have to pay
more on, and that's the alternative minimum tax, which is, I think, a pretty
confusing tax. It was one that was meant to make sure that the wealthy paid
taxes and didn't get around taxes with a lot of loopholes, but it's a tax
that's increasingly affecting the middle class. Can you explain why?

Mr. NORRIS: Yeah. The alternative minimum tax was meant to assure that
people who were using the tax code to duck taxes would pay something, and the
idea was, you compute your taxes two ways. First you compute it with all the
deductions that they've allowed, and you take your tax rate that is in the
code. Then you compute it again, and you throw out a lot of deductions, and
you compute it with a lower tax rate, and you pay whichever number is greater.

This, of course, confuses people who don't have accountants something fierce.
What we've seen is gradually as incomes have crept up, more and more people
fall into this. It's especially a problem in the high-tax states of the
Northeast, because one of the preferences is the deduction you get for state
and local income taxes. Right now if you pay $5,000 in state income taxes to
New York or Pennsylvania or whatever, you get to take that as a deduction from
your income on your federal income taxes. But for alternative minimum tax,
you don't get to take it as a deduction, and the result is that more and more
people are paying AMT.

In addition, because they reduced the rate on ordinary income, but didn't
reduce the AMT rate, your ordinary income taxes will now be lower under the
bill they passed two years ago, and then the bill they're passing this year,
or that Bush wants them to pass, but they haven't changed the AMT, and so more
people will discover, `Well, my ordinary rate came down but my AMT rate
didn't, so I'm not saving any money.'

Now what the president has proposed here is a temporary fix on the AMT. He'll
raise those limits a little bit, and that'll mean some people won't go into
AMT. But again, that's only a one- or a two-year tax break, and the reason
it's only that short a period is that if they made it permanent, it would make
the 10-year numbers much bigger than they think is politically palatable, so
they didn't do it. Again, there is an assumption that a future Congress will
have to do it.

GROSS: The estimates are that the president's proposed new tax plan would
cost over $600 billion, close to $700 billion over the next 10 years. What's
the estimate of the deficit we will have 10 years from now if this plan goes
through?

Mr. NORRIS: I don't know, and I pay no attention to those. You remember a
couple of years ago, I'm sure you had people on your show who were learnedly
discussing the surpluses that were going to last for years and years and
years.

GROSS: Correct.

Mr. NORRIS: And you know, they were wrong. Ten-year deficit forecasts are
nonsense. They are based on all kinds of assumptions, and they're really not
worth the effort that goes into producing them. What we've learned since then
was that a terrific amount of government revenue, at the federal level and at
the state and local level, was dependent on the bubble in the stock market.
Individual investors who--corporate executives who were cashing in those stock
options, in some cases for hundreds of millions of dollars, were paying huge
amounts of federal taxes and, in many cases, large amounts of state taxes on
the profits they made from those options. The budget forecasts had not
incorporated that kind of money coming in, and so suddenly the budget
forecasters were grossly underestimating government revenues, and this went on
for several years.

Their solution was to assume there was a permanent increase in government
revenues. They didn't understand why it was happening, but they said, `Hey,
it's happening. We'll assume it's going to happen all the way into the
future.' And then the bubble burst and, of course, they're not collecting
profits on their options anymore, certainly not the kind of profits they were
collecting before, and so now you've seen state and local revenues and federal
revenues fall sharply below what was forecast, and that's going to continue
for a few years. Will it revive? Hey, you're asking me is the stock market
going to go up, and then what will be tax laws? That's what you need to do to
get these estimates, and they're not worth much.

GROSS: Are the Democrats united in an alternate plan, an alternate tax plan?

Mr. NORRIS: By no means. Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic leader of the
House, has put forth some ideas. She has the support of many Democrats, but
because everyone knows there's no chance of passing her plan, they aren't too
concerned about the details of it, as they would be if she were in a position
to perhaps push a plan through Congress. The Democrats, you know, I think
have learned that running against tax cuts is not a productive thing.

They've also learned something--they're beginning to learn that there's
something to be said for aspirational voting, and that is to say that if you
look at the circulation of magazines that focus on yachting or something, a
lot of them go to people who don't own yachts and who reasonably are not
likely to buy yachts any time soon, but some of them enjoy dreaming of perhaps
being a person who could afford a yacht and some of these people, it appears,
vote based on their aspirations as much as their current condition. And the
Democrats attempting to appeal, to organize the middle class to be appalled by
the breaks of the rich, haven't done that well, because a lot of the middle
class hope they're going to be rich someday.

GROSS: In conclusion to our conversation, I would like to say this: I think
there is such a fundamental paradox when it comes to taxes in the United
States. Politicians are always running on taxes and tax cuts and so on.
Taxes are always such a big issue in elections, but when you read the fine
print of any kind of new tax code or tax break, it is so confusing and it's so
hard to tell in the long run how much you as an individual will benefit or
lose by this. Everybody wants to hear they're getting a tax cut, but nobody
has the patience to really comprehend what it means.

Mr. NORRIS: That's true. Russell Long was a senator from Louisiana who ran
the Finance Committee in the Senate for many years, who had this line, `Don't
tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.' And it's true.
People want to avoid paying taxes themselves. They also want all the
government programs and they also want a balanced budget, and to some extent,
the politicians who are successful are the ones who manage to define the
issues. If the issue is, `Do you want to pay less in taxes?' you can guess
what the answer is going to be, and to some extent, that's been the great
success of President Bush. He's defined that as the issue, and he's gotten
the answer you'd expect.

GROSS: Well, Floyd Norris, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. NORRIS: Thank you.

GROSS: Floyd Norris is the chief financial correspondent for The New York
Times.

Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli talks with the Emmy Award-winning
star of "The Shield," Michael Chiklis. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Michael Chiklis discusses his role on "The Shield"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Michael Chiklis stars on the FX cable channel network drama "The Shield,"
playing an intense, often violent cop named Vic Mackey. It's a role and a
portrayal strong enough to have earned Chiklis the Emmy last September as best
actor in a drama series. "The Shield" is now in its second season. We set up
an interview between Chiklis and our TV critic, David Bianculli.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

In the opening episode of "The Shield," Vic Mackey is trying to get
information about a missing girl. He enters the interrogation room to
confront a suspect, but in a different way than detectives who have tried
before him. He opens a brown paper bag and takes out a bottle of whiskey, a
beat-up telephone book, a cigarette lighter and a box cutter.

(Soundbite from "The Shield")

Unidentified Man #1: What's that stuff for?

Mr. MICHAEL CHIKLIS: (As Vic Mackey) It's what I'm going to use to get you to
tell me where Jenny Rerog(ph) is.

Unidentified Man #1: Your turn to play bad cop?

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Mackey) Nah. The good cop and the bad cop left for the day.
I'm a different kind of cop.

BIANCULLI: Certainly, the complex and volatile Vic Mackey is a different kind
of cop than the last one Michael Chiklis played on TV. That would be the
title role in "The Commish," an ABC series in which he played a cuddly,
friendly 40-ish police commissioner. Chiklis had shown his range in previous
movie and TV roles, playing everything from John Belushi in the film version
of Bob Woodward's "Wired" to Curly in an ABC telemovie about the Three
Stooges. But "The Commish" was successful enough to get Chiklis typecast,
which was both good news and bad.

Mr. CHIKLIS: Well, it was all about the challenge as an actor. I really
liked the pilot episode for "The Commish." I thought it was really
well-written, it was based on a real guy's life, I liked the mentality, and I
thought as an actor, jeez, here I am, I'm 27 years old. If I could win this
role, you know, I'll gain 45, 50 pounds and age up and play this
40-something-year-old police commissioner from New York. And I looked at it
strictly, you know, as a wonderful acting challenge, but I--you know, there
were certain miscalculations.

You know, I had just done guest work up to that point, or a pilot, up to that
point, but you know, what I failed to really realize the weight of is that
when you do a pilot, if it gets picked up, you have to do it, and you have to
live in that role now, potentially for a long, long time, and you know, you
don't really think of that in the moment, you know, especially when you're a
kid. You're just sort of like, `It is a great role, I can do a great thing
with it,' you know, and I had a wonderful experience, five years of my life,
playing Tony Scali. But I found myself at the end of that run coming down to
Los Angeles, and people--the perception that I had created was that I was a
now probably 50-something-year-old fat guy, you know, and I was 33 and going,
`No! No! Yah!' You know, `No, you don't understand. I can do this and I
can do that,' you know. Again, I was influenced by guys like De Niro so much,
particularly in my formative years in going to college, that, you know, the
idea of having to transform like that really appealed to me. But series
television is very different than doing a single feature film, you know. You
do that for three months to six months and you're done, and that's it, you
move on.

BIANCULLI: I'm speaking with Michael Chiklis, who won an Emmy for his role as
rogue cop Vic Mackey on the FX cable network series "The Shield." Here's
another early scene establishing the character of Vic. He's called into the
boss's office to defend himself against charges of police brutality, and isn't
exactly apologetic.

(Soundbite from "The Shield")

Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Estejana(ph) claims you used excessive force during
his arrest.

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Mackey) Really? Is that what you claim, Miguel? Hey,
that's some hickey. Boyfriend give you that?

Unidentified Man #3: No, sir, you did it, with some pliers.

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Mackey) I don't recall any pliers. I do remember the eight
dime bags of pure H we nabbed you with, though.

Unidentified Man #2: Surich(ph) will be contesting with Judge McAllister(ph).

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Mackey) I'm sorry. I'm drawing a blank on this whole pliers
thing. Feel free to ask any of my guys, but I don't think they'll remember it
that way, either.

Unidentified Man #4: You're a disgrace.

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Mackey) That's funny, I don't recall signing up for ethics
class from a scumbag drug lawyer.

BIANCULLI: Now this character is such a violent character at times.

Mr. CHIKLIS: At times, sure. Sure. Sure.

BIANCULLI: And in the pilot, from the very first season, he shoots a fellow
cop point-blank. In some of the episodes so far this year, he...

Mr. CHIKLIS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...does a level of interrogation that...

Mr. CHIKLIS: Very volatile guy, yeah.

BIANCULLI: Very volatile guy. I'm wondering what reaction you have gotten
from real police since the program has been televised and sort of championed.

Mr. CHIKLIS: One of the security guys on the set which was a retired LA
police officer said to me, `Michael, cops below the rank of captain will love
this show. Cops above the rank of captain will love this show privately and
denounce it publicly.' And that's been the case. Here's the thing that I get
from cops, is where they certainly, across the board pretty much, denounce
what Vic Mackey does in the pilot, they appreciate the ambiguity and the gray
areas that we enter and delve into without judgment in the show. They seem to
really respond to the fact that, hey, you know, people don't really understand
what we do and understand what we face every day.

And people have a tendency to look at it in a real armchair, judgmental way,
whereas if you're the guy or the woman, whatever the case may be, in the
middle of the street with this stuff happening around you and, after all, you
are trained but you are a human being, that sometimes you don't react in the
way that maybe even yourself, that you would wish that you would. And those
are things that inform who you are as a person from that point on. And that's
what I'm trying to bring to the portrayal of Vic Mackey, that he has a
particular viewpoint that's galvanized by years of being the guy to knock down
the worst doors and deal with the hardest people.

BIANCULLI: How hard is it as an actor to get as intense as Vic Mackey must
get in some of these scenes? And are you surprised that you have that in you?

Mr. CHIKLIS: What people get shocked by, I think, on our set is how goofy we
are. And I think it's really out of necessity. We delve into such dark areas
so often that I think that, you know, between `action' and `cut,' we are
intense and very present and right there. And all the rest of the time, we're
pretty loose and goofy and laughing and joking a lot because I think it's more
of a stress release. It's very difficult to stay in an intense place 12 and
14 hours a day, so we don't. You know, so we sort of pace ourselves. No, I'm
not surprised that I have those places in me to go to because we all have
them.

BIANCULLI: When you were making the choices of the role and how far to go
with it in the pilot, how important was your relationship with Clark Johnson,
who was such a good actor on "Homicide" and he's directing you in that, in
helping you find the right tone?

Mr. CHIKLIS: Giant. Huge. He calls me `Chiks.' And he'd say, like--you
know, and he calls me `Daddy' instead of `Daddy-O.' So he'd go, `Chiks, do me
a favor, you know, play against this thing, will you? Like, go the other
way.' You know, and he'll like--he loves working with opposite colors in a
situation, fighting against the obvious, the typical. He'll always jerk
around a situation and try it in different ways. So, yes, he's very adept
with camera and setting up a shot and telling the story through camera. But
he's also--because he's a very equally talented actor, he's great with actors
and getting performance out of actors. So, you know, he really gets in there
and talks about nuance and, you know, every little moment and what that means
to the character with you. So he really, really was integral with shaping Vic
Mackey with me.

BIANCULLI: You said that when you were young, I guess seven or so...

Mr. CHIKLIS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...your dad sort of steered you towards Marlon Brando...

Mr. CHIKLIS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...and showed an intense performance to a very young child.

Mr. CHIKLIS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Your daughters--What?--nine and three now? Or...

Mr. CHIKLIS: Yes, nine and three.

BIANCULLI: Nine and three. Have they already been able to see what their
daddy does now?

Mr. CHIKLIS: What? In "The Shield"?

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHIKLIS: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. You know, for as tense a
performance as, you know, "On the Waterfront" was at the time, it's still, by
comparison, innocent in terms of its content. So I think it would be grossly
inappropriate for me as a father to allow my daughter to watch a show that
she's a participant in. It's interesting, kind of a, you know, irony for me
is that she plays my daughter in the show and she doesn't get to watch it.

You know, and it's not about the swear words that we use or that there is some
brief nudity or, you know, that stuff. It's really more about the kind of
psychological issues that are delved into that I don't think are appropriate
for a young mind to process, even with an adult. You know, there will be a
time when I will think that she's ready for it and I will let her watch it,
and we'll talk about it. And I'll help her process it. But, you know, I
really believe that "The Shield" is an adult show for adult people, you know,
for adult minds.

BIANCULLI: Well, Michael Chiklis, I want to thank you. Congratulations on
your Emmy and on a really distinctive TV role. And thanks for being here with
us on FRESH AIR.

Mr. CHIKLIS: Well, thank you, David. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Michael Chiklis is the star of the FX cable series "The Shield." He
spoke with our TV critic, David Bianculli.

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD by Lee Konitz and a
new reissue by John La Porta.

This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: Lee Konitz's "Gong With Wind Suite" and John La Porta's
newly remastered "Theme and Variations"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Early in their careers, alto saxophonists Lee Konitz and John La Porta both
studied with pianist Lennie Tristano, an early champion of cool jazz on the
East Coast. Konitz went on to become a leading jazz improviser, recording
widely in various settings. John La Porta, after a stint with Charles Mingus
in the 1950s, spent 30 years teaching young musicians at Boston's Berklee
College of Music. A new Konitz recording and a La Porta reissue are now out.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(Soundbite of "Gong With Wind Suite")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:

Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and drummer Matt Wilson from their duo CD "Gong
With Wind Suite" on SteepleChase. There have been other and usually
rip-roaring jazz saxophone and drum duos, but this one is eerily low-key.
Where, say, drummer Han Bennink works to surround or push his many duo
partners, Matt Wilson stays mostly in the shadows. At times he's like a
disembodied hand reaching out from behind a curtain to play lightly as a
ghost.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: As Matt Wilson is one of New York's more respected drummers and
co-billed as leader here, his quietude is all the more curious. But his
choices make sense. By sticking to one symbol or drum for long stretches and
playing sparsely, even when using the whole kit, he reduces his part to
something like a single line on an equal footing with the linear saxophone.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Lee Konitz is one the great living jazz musicians, both for his
beautifully plaintive tone and his lifelong commitment to avoiding cliches and
really improvising. Another reason drummer Matt Wilson plays quietly is out
of respect for Konitz's intense concentration. In a way, his playing
vindicates the East Coast cool school that nurtured him five decades ago. The
long, snaking lines that propelled that music then struck some folks as wimpy,
but a lot of it still sounds fresh now.

(Soundbite of "Theme and Variations")

WHITEHEAD: John La Porta on alto saxophone with Louis Mucci on trumpet, 1956.
It's from the CD "Theme and Variations" on the Fantasy label, reviving two
1950s La Porta LPs, one getting its first release. Like Lee Konitz, John La
Porta had studied with Lennie Tristano, who valued Bach as a model for lucid
improvised counterpoint and who mistrusted displays of transient emotions
while improvising, aiming to express a deeper level of feeling. But cool
musicians were less about repressing their emotions than about expanding their
options as improvisers. The entwined lines and other fancy stuff were
intended to make the music more expressive, not less. Here's trombonist Sonny
Russo with La Porta's octet.

(Soundbite of Sonny Russo on trombone)

WHITEHEAD: As a composer, John La Porta could also get a bit hot. He'd
played in and written for Woody Herman's explosive postwar band. But he was
always a thinker, keeping some cool principles close at hand, like the idea
that a melody could develop over a long time, even when interrupted, and that
two interwoven lines could be better than one. On his "Concertina for
Clarinet," his solo clarinet and a light harmonized horn section stay in
balance, each focused on its own long development. With its lighter tambours,
cool jazz didn't always weigh that much, but its structures were built to
last.

(Soundbite of "Concertina for Clarinet")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago
Sun-Times.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Concertina for Clarinet")
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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