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Keith Hernandez On Baseball And Being His Own 'Worst Enemy'

The former first baseman played on championship teams with the Cardinals and Mets, and made a memorable appearance on Seinfeld. His memoir is I'm Keith Hernandez. Originally broadcast June 4, 2018.

22:30

Other segments from the episode on July 12, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 12, 2019: Interview with Keith Hernandez; Obituary for Jim Bouton; Obituary for Rip Torn; Review of TV series 'London Kills.'

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

You might know our guest Keith Hernandez as a big-league ballplayer or as a memorable guest on two episodes of "Seinfeld." And if you're a New York Mets fan, you'll know him as a color analyst for the team's TV broadcasts. In 17 seasons in the big leagues, Hernandez was known for hitting wicked blind drives and for dazzling defensive plays at first base. He won Gold Glove Awards, a batting title, a Most Valuable Player Award and two World Series rings.

As a broadcaster these days, he's built quite a social media following, at times posting videos of his aging Bengal cat Hadji. Hernandez has a memoir, now out in paperback, which focuses less on his glory days in the game than on times he struggled, especially when he was young and trying to adjust to big-league pressure, big-league pitchers and the stresses of playing every day. The book is called "I'm Keith Hernandez." I spoke with him last year, when his memoir was published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, Keith Hernandez, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I recently read in the new book about Tiger Woods that his dad put him in a highchair in his garage when he was, like, an infant and had him watch his dad taking golf swings. And then he had him swinging a golf club when he was a toddler. And I read in your book that your dad had a kind of a training rig setup in your garage for your brother and you. Tell us about that and what it meant to you.

KEITH HERNANDEZ: Well, our garage in Pacifica, Calif., didn't have Sheetrock on the ceiling, and it was just all the two-by-fours and the cross bars and the beams. So - and we did have a rafter going across. It was a loft, kind of like - almost like an open attic. And Dad set up, on the middle of the garage - and we were - my brother and I were both left-hand hitters - so he set it up more on the right side of the garage if you were looking at the door so we could take a full swing - a rope tied around one of the two-by-fours and extended the rope down and then put two white cotton athletic socks with a tennis ball in it and then tied it to the rope.

And the rope, at full extension, would be a knee-high strike. We started doing this when we were, like, 6, 7 years old. I mean, it was my brother and I. And then if you wanted to get it up higher to a belt-high strike, you just throw the - you just threw the rope over the two-by-four. If you wanted a high pitch, keep throwing it over, maybe two, three, four times, and it was a high pitch. And the ball would swing like a pendulum. And it would - the arc of the ball going up after we stroked it would hit the underside of the loft, which was, like, one-by-fours. So I marked them - you know, single, out, double, fly ball - and I would swing for hours and play games with that.

And my dad, in the beginning, would watch us swing, make sure we were swinging properly. And eventually, he felt that we had it down pretty good. And you know, he didn't have to watch. I remember him saying when I was older that he'd come home from work - he was a fireman in San Francisco for 30 years - and he'd hear that pounding of the tennis ball against the rafters. And you know, it would give him a headache sometimes. And - but it made him laugh because I was there taking - you know, I was probably 500 to a thousand swings a day. I just absolutely loved it.

DAVIES: Right. And you know, you and your brother weren't just slapping at it because your dad knew something about the game. He would look at your mechanics. Tell us a bit about him. How did he know so much about baseball?

HERNANDEZ: Well, my dad was a minor league player, and he was originally drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers before World War II. He got hit in the head his first year, and his eyes - no helmets those days - eyes progressively got worse. And he eventually played for Cleveland and Oklahoma City and then was traded to the Cardinals and played under Johnny Keane in Houston, where he met my mother. And they got married after the season. He was a very good hitter and a very fine fielding first baseman.

And his career was shortened. And so he put it all - after the war - he served four years in the service - in the Navy at Pearl Harbor in a ship repair unit, played on the U.S. Navy team, which played the U.S. Army team and Army Air Corps. Stan Musial, in '45, played with my father. Ted Williams was playing on the teams - the Marine team. So there was all these ex - all these major leaguers playing in this league, were entertaining the troops, basically.

DAVIES: Yeah. So it's clear you had talent. But it was all of that practice from somebody who knew what he was doing that no doubt honed your skills. You were drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals organization and were a prized prospect. A lot was expected of you. And it took years for you, as you write in the book, to really get your stride as a hitter. And partly that was, you know, adjusting mechanics and learning pitches. But a lot of it was emotional. How did your head get in the way?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I always - I describe my fragility - my emotional fragility. I mean, you're - you come out of high school. You're a star in your little area you grew up. I grew up with the baby boomers, and there was lots of kids to play ball with. And all of a sudden, my first spring training, there's 700 kids in the camp, and there's only eight teams. And I know I'm going to make the team. I got a signing bonus of 30,000, which was unheard of for a 42nd round pick.

But it just - the big adjustment is you play two games a week in summer league in - back in those days, in high school. And now you're playing - I believe it was 128 games scheduled in the minor leagues, something like that. And you're playing every day. And you're not going to hit .500 like you did in high school. I hit .256 in A-ball. I hit .260 in Double-A the next year. And you know, it was tough. It was depressing.

And then you go in slumps, and it's your first experience with slumps. And it's all a learning process. And you're a hotheaded, 18-year-old kid, and you don't know how to handle it. You throw helmets. You throw bats. You kick dirt. And you know - and you've got coaches trying to tell you to calm down and you've got to learn to play this game on an even keel. And it's all part of the process. That's what the minor leagues are about. But it - you know, it takes a long time, and everybody's different. It took me a lot longer.

DAVIES: I think you write at one point that one of your coaches thought you needed to be away from your dad a little bit. I mean, he was such...

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: ...An important influence in your life. Was he - I don't know, a challenge, a burden? Was it difficult with him, too?

HERNANDEZ: Well, when the Cardinals were scouting me, Dad negotiated my contract. They got a sense of the strength and the power of my father. Bob Kennedy - there was an A-ball team in Modesto in the California state league. There was three A-ball teams - Cedar Rapids, St. Pete in the Florida State League - and California state league. Bob Kennedy kept me out of the California state league, which he felt I wasn't ready to play in because that was the top A-ball league. And he put me in the middling Florida State League, which was a tough league.

And he told me years later he wanted to kind of cut the apron strings from my father. So there you go - Bob Kennedy being a real influence on my career.

DAVIES: What - do you think you needed to cut the strings from your father a bit?

HERNANDEZ: Yes, no question. It was the right thing to do because Dad - my brother played in the California state league, and Dad came to all of his games just whenever he could. And that would have drove me crazy. Gary had a different relationship with my father than I did with him. And yes, it was the right thing to do to get me away from him and get me to stand up on my own two feet.

DAVIES: Was he hypercritical? You felt like you just couldn't please him?

HERNANDEZ: Well, he coached us all through Little League, and he was just wonderful. And the parents and the kids were all benefited from his instruction. And he was really terrific with the kids. But once I got into high school, he was so petrified that a coach would ruin me. And it was - in other words, he lost control. And that's when things started to get a little dicey between me and him.

He would always watch whenever he can. He was a fireman. He worked 24 hours, off 48. He had two days off, so he would be at every practice in high school, watching. And it was like, you know, "The Central Scrutinizer," you know, from Frank Zappa's "Joe's Garage" album. I mean, it was just like forever watching. And I would feel - it was like a shroud over me. And I would come home on pins and needles. I didn't know if I would, you know, get laid into or he would smile and praise me. It was kind of a tough situation.

DAVIES: And that continued into your major league career, too, right?

HERNANDEZ: Yes, it did.

DAVIES: Well, I'm sure he was a great guy. And he died in 1992. Right?

HERNANDEZ: He did, ironically, one year after my retirement. So it was too bad he couldn't have lived longer.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Keith Hernandez. His new memoir is called "I'm Keith Hernandez." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "BED BOBBIN'")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Keith Hernandez. He spent 17 years in the big leagues, had World Series teams with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets. He has a new memoir called "I'm Keith Hernandez."

I want to talk about playing first base. First base is a natural place for collisions. Right? I mean, when there's a ground ball, you're there to catch a throw from the infielder. And hopefully, it's on target. But it might be into the path of the runner, who may not see it...

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Because the runner is busting it down the line, not necessarily looking at the throw. When you could see that was going to happen - the ball was going to be into the path of the runner - did you have techniques for either warning the runner or just trying to avoid getting hurt or hurting the runner?

HERNANDEZ: Well, No. 1, the runner can't run inside the baseline. He's got to be on the chalk. So a throw into him or I got to stretch towards home plate, I feel pretty confident that I'm not going to get hit. It's up to me to make sure that I stride in fair territory towards the ball - I stretch. Excuse me.

And the only time I was ever scared - when I was older, in my last year in Cleveland, Oakland Raider running back that played for Kansas City, All-American Bo Jackson, hit a ground ball to shortstop. And the throw was down the line into him. And I heard him running like - he was like a herd of buffalo.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

HERNANDEZ: I'm not exaggerating. I'd never had that experience before, and I played against some big guys.

He was running so fast, and he was such a big, strong guy that when I - I remember I cringed when I caught the ball just in hopes that he wouldn't clip me on my left shoulder. And he missed me. Thank goodness. I made sure I stretched up the line, but that's the only time ever in my career.

If the throw is too far up the line, you make a judgment. First base was a part of me, and that's also an extension of knowing where the runner is. I have good peripheral vision. I have good sense of where the runner is. Can I come off the bag? Instead of stretching, can I just come off the bag and get the ball and make the tag instead of staying on the bag? I was able to do that. It was just all second nature to me.

The easy part of the game for me was fielding. If hitting could have been as easy as fielding, I would have hit .400.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

The other thing about playing first base, it's the one place where there are a lot of - there's time to converse with an opposing player. A player - a base runner gets on. And you know, I mean, the pitcher and catcher - I mean, the hitter and catcher are near each other, but they're kind of busy. The catcher's getting the signs.

When you're with a runner at first, you're often waiting for the pitcher to get ready. And you can see there's chatter.

HERNANDEZ: Yes.

DAVIES: Is it friendly? Were there guys who'd try and use that to get in your head? Or would you try to get in other players' heads?

HERNANDEZ: I was a chatterbox and for one reason. I would ask the hitters how they felt at the plate. And if a hitter would - it was just the beginning when the - in the old days, you would never talk to the opposing player during a game, before a game in BP. There was no - it was the enemy. And that was starting to change in my era. It started to change in the '60s. And in the '70s, it even got - it advanced further.

But I'd always ask, you know, if a guy came to the - first base, how do you feel at the plate? And if they start, well, you know, I don't feel so good da-da-da-da-da (ph). Oh, man, I feel great. Well, I'm in a hot streak. You know, well, I would relay that information.

DAVIES: To your pitcher.

HERNANDEZ: Rick - yes. And - actually, to the pitching staff and - or the pitching coach. Rick Monday had a funny story. Rick Monday's a very dear friend. He now does radio for the Dodgers. He goes, oh, we're flying into St. Louis. Hernandez is on first base. We better all hit doubles...

(LAUGHTER)

HERNANDEZ: ...So they wouldn't have to talk to me (laughter).

DAVIES: You know, game has changed since you played. I mean, we now have - they count visits to the mound. There are challenges. There are instant replays. What do you think of the game today?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I really feel that they're - the game is going through radical changes. I don't - all the analytics, I'm kind of - when I finished this book, my - I wish it had been nine months later because I'm kind of getting a grasp of analytics. And I'm kind of - I'll never 100% go with them, but I've talked to too many former players, teammates that are in front offices and say, hey, you can really be surprised what you can wean from analytics. It's so precise, so in-depth. OK. Fine. I'm coming around on that.

But still, statistics are sterile. I miss the complete game - the pitcher going nine innings. And you know, I can't blame the pitchers today. That's what - how they're brought up - you know, five innings and they're gone, a hundred pitches, they're gone. I can't sink my teeth into it. I can't wrap my arms around that. I think it lowers the bar. And it's all about excellence, striving to be the best that you can be. I don't want someone to come in and finish that game for me. I want to finish the game - or if it's an inning and you're in trouble and they take him out - which they do because it's a pitch count - let him finish the inning.

So I don't want to go on and on and on. But that's the way the game is, and that's the way it's going to be. And I've come to - I'm at peace with it, so I'm not going to get all riled about it. And it's just the way it is. And I do miss how the game was played before - you know, a couple decades before.

DAVIES: Well, I don't mind you getting riled at all. What about the pace of play?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I think the big culprits are the pitchers. And I see so many 0-2 counts where they've got the hitter really backed up against the wall. I'm in trouble when I'm 0-2. And they don't know how to pitch and put a - blow a pitcher - blow the hitter away. It goes, inevitably, to 3-2. That adds to pitch count. That adds a - now you're not going to go seven innings. Now you're going to go six, maybe five and two-thirds.

And here comes the bullpens. And a lot of the bullpens stink and - guys that come in and don't throw strikes. I've talked to scouts. They look at the guy get the ball the furthest 'cause of home runs in and the pitcher that can throw the hardest. It's no longer pitch to contact.

Warren Spahn wasn't a hard thrower, the greatest left-hander of all time. Warren Spahn had a screwball - watching Warren Spahn pitch was like watching Rembrandt paint a masterpiece - on the corners, low, a little extra here, a little off there, screwball here, up-and-in fastball there. These hard throwers - they don't have the command of their breaking ball. And Major League hitters can hit fastballs, and that makes for long counts and makes for long games. And now you got the analytics, and I'm up there going absolutely out of my mind.

DAVIES: I'm not enough of a baseball geek to really know what Hall of Fame numbers look like, but, I mean, you've won 11 straight Gold Gloves. You were a career .296 hitter with 162 home runs. You had a batting title, an MVP award, two World Series rings. Why aren't you in the Hall of Fame?

HERNANDEZ: Well, my father - I was a really, really good athlete. And I used to be able to run pretty good - not fast, but above average. I stole 19 or - 19 bases in 1982. Home runs - made a lot. I played in St. Louis. It was 386 in the gaps. It was 335 down the lines.

DAVIES: Big park.

HERNANDEZ: It was a huge park.

DAVIES: Yeah.

HERNANDEZ: And it was sunken and underground one street level. And the only open-air part of the ballpark was from left-center to right-center, and it would blow in. And when it got hot in the summer, you had to hit line drives. And we called it Death Valley. And I was a line drive hitter anyway.

So the 162 home runs, whatever it is - you know, if I'd have played at Wrigley Field or if I'd have played at Veterans Stadium or Three Rivers Stadium, I probably would've hit over two home - 200 home runs, and that would've helped, which means more RBI. I drove in over a thousand runs. So I lost some time playing with some two-strikes and two lockouts, you know? Those are games that won across the board that I wasn't able to play.

DAVIES: Does it bother you that you're not in the...

HERNANDEZ: No, and I'll tell you why. When it's all said and done and I'm long gone, who's going remember? And you know, I'm not going to worry about it. What bothers me the most, Dave, is my .300 lifetime batting average. I'm at .296.

And ironically, my childhood idol - born on the same birthday as him - Mickey Mantle, October 20 - when I got my first baseball card and I saw that, he was my idol. I always had a 7 on my back. That is Mickey's pet peeve. I read in his biography that he lost, 'cause of injury - he stayed around too long - he lost his .300 lifetime batting average. And ironically, I'm in the same boat. I'm a .300 hitter. I'm not a .296 hitter.

DAVIES: Keith Hernandez, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

HERNANDEZ: I can't thank you enough for having me.

DAVIES: Keith Hernandez is now a broadcaster for New York Mets games. His book, now in paperback, is called "I'm Keith Hernandez."

After a break, we'll remember former pitcher Jim Bouton, whose book "Ball Four" is still regarded as a classic, and actor Rip Torn, best known as the gruff producer Artie on "The Larry Sanders Show." Both died this week. Also, John Powers reviews the British television series "London Kills." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME")

DR JOHN: (Singing) Take me out to the ballgame. Take me out to the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack. I don't care if I never get back 'cause let's root, root, root for the home team. And if they don't win, it's a shame 'cause it's one, two, three strikes, you're out, at the old ballgame.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Jim Bouton, the former big-league pitcher better known for his prose than his fastball, died Wednesday at his home in Massachusetts. He was 80.

In 1970, Bouton wrote the book "Ball Four," a raunchy insider's look at the game that drew heavily on Bouton's seven seasons with the New York Yankees. He wrote about players getting drunk, peeping through keyholes at women and popping amphetamines like candy. The book enraged players and some sportswriters and drew a rebuke from commissioner Bowie Kuhn, but it was a bestseller.

After a respectable baseball career, Bouton wrote several other books, did some acting and sportscasting and was a George McGovern delegate to the 1972 Democratic convention. Bouton spoke with Terry in 1986 and began with a story from "Ball Four" about Mickey Mantle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JIM BOUTON: I think the most controversial story in the book was I told about the time Mickey Mantle hit a home run with a hangover. And it wasn't really even so much as a put-down of Mickey Mantle as it was a story of what a great athlete he was. I told about the time we were in Minnesota. And we'd been out the night before a game, having a few drinks - about 2 o'clock in the morning, I guess it was. I don't want to say Mickey was drunk, but he spent about a half an hour trying to make a telephone call from a grandfather's clock.

So he comes into the ballpark the following morning, and he's hungover. And the manager says, you know, sleep it off. Most managers were players themselves. They understand you come to the ballpark once in a while with a hangover.

So Mick is sleeping in the trainer's room. We're playing the Minnesota Twins. We get - stick somebody else in the outfield. And so the game's going on, and it gets tie score after nine innings. And in about the 12th inning, the manager says, I hate to do it, but I need a pinch hitter in the 13th. Go in and wake up the Mick.

So we go in the trainer's room, you know, wake up Mickey Mantle, dress him in his uniform, steer him through the tunnel up into the dugout. Thirteenth inning comes around - he put a bat in Mickey's hands and point him in the direction of home plate. The Mick staggers up to the plate. Fortunately, he's a switch hitter - doesn't matter what side he gets on - steps into the batter's box.

To show you what a great athlete this guy was - and Mickey was the best ballplayer I ever saw - he takes one practice swing and hits the first pitch into the center field bleachers, a tremendous blast 450 feet away. We win the game. The crowd is going nuts, and the players are going crazy in the dugout. We're laughing and pointing and screaming and slapping each other on the back. And suddenly, it occurs to us he still has to round those bases.

TERRY GROSS: (Laughter).

BOUTON: There's a rule in baseball that you must touch the bases in order. Fortunately, he heads off in the right direction. The minute he hits first base, the entire dugout goes, make a left - goes around, touches second, touches third, comes across, misses home plate - we have to send him back for that - comes over to the dugout.

And, of course, the fans are giving him a standing ovation. And as he's waving to the crowd, he looks at us in the dugout, and he says, those people don't know how tough that really was. I went over to his locker afterwards, and I said, how did you do that? You couldn't even see up there. He said, it was very simple. I hit the middle ball.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOUTON: So if this destroys America's illusions about baseball or Mickey Mantle, then I don't know what you do with all the literature that's come out since then where each player tries to top the next in terms of what he can tell or how far he can go.

GROSS: Pitching careers are subject to more problems than other careers are, I think, because your arm is so vulnerable. And your career depends on your arm, and it's what you're abusing all the time.

BOUTON: Sure. And pitching is not a natural motion. Throwing a ball as hard as you can 120 times every four days is not natural.

GROSS: Did you have to change your pitching style because of injuries you were getting?

BOUTON: Well, I had to change my pitching style when I wasn't able to throw hard anymore. See, what happened was I threw very hard when I first came up. I was a overhand fastball pitcher. And then when I hurt my arm, I wasn't able to throw hard for a while. And then when I did, it - the ball didn't have that zip on it anymore. It didn't have that snap. Even though the ball was traveling as fast, it wasn't moving.

So it's like taking a rubber band and stretching it too far, and then it never gets its elasticity back again. And that's what happened to my arm. So I had to change from being a fastball pitcher to a knuckleball pitcher.

Fortunately, when I was a kid, I threw a knuckleball, which is not a pitch that requires very much strength. It's a skill pitch. You push it off with your fingertips. The idea is to get the ball to go through the air without any rotation, and then it jumps around all by itself. And so I became a knuckleball pitcher to compensate for the fact that I couldn't throw hard anymore.

GROSS: How hard are knuckleballs to hit?

BOUTON: They're almost impossible to hit when you throw a good one. The difficulty is throwing a good one. When you don't throw a good one, anybody can hit them. That's the problem with a knuckleball. Nobody can hit a well-thrown knuckleball, and almost anybody can hit a poorly thrown knuckleball.

GROSS: Say it was a full count, and there were a couple of men on base. What would you throw? Would you throw a knuckleball, knowing that if you made one more - one wrong move, it might be a home run 'cause...

BOUTON: Yes.

GROSS: ...It's easier to hit?

BOUTON: I would throw a knuckleball. I would throw a knuckleball because my feeling is I would rather live and die with my best pitch than take a chance with something that wasn't my best.

GROSS: Did you have any gestures that you had to do before you threw a pitch and, like, rub your hand on your side three times or (laughter)...

BOUTON: Nothing that was superstitious. Sure, I went through the same sort of little rituals before I threw the ball because it's important to do that. And athletes need to do that and many performers need to do that because those are the little steps that are really part of the process.

Throwing a ball is not just throwing a ball. Part of it starts when you walk out to the mound - how you walk out to the mound, how you feel about yourself and the fans and the batter and the whole - I mean, all of that - the rosin bag in your hand, how the ball feels. And you want to start playing with that ball in your hand so you get that feeling, and you want to recreate the memory - the muscle memory that brings you back to the last time you were really throwing well. And that whole process starts long before you actually throw the ball.

GROSS: Why do pitchers like to chew when they're on the mound?

BOUTON: Part of it is because of the nervousness and the tension. And it's sort of - chewing relieves that. But the spitting part is different, OK? Spitting - and also all this crotch grabbing and spitting back and forth that you see in Major League Baseball - there's a real reason for that. There's a behavioral reason for that. And that is that what these are is macho displays, OK? It's a man-to-man challenge out there, the pitcher versus the batter. And it's very much like two cats squaring off where they both have to sort of urinate on the shrubbery, saying, OK, this is my yard. I own this space. And the other cat's saying, yeah, but I own my space, and then they're fighting.

You see, what the batter is is - he steps into the batter's box and he spits all over the place. He's saying he's - that's his turf. The pitcher is saying, oh, yeah? Well, (imitating spitting) this is my turf out here, and now we'll see who's the best. And so that's why you have that. It's that mano-a-mano challenge situation, you know? And that's what they are. They're animals marking their territory.

GROSS: Jim Bouton, I want to thank you very much.

BOUTON: Thank you. I've enjoyed it.

DAVIES: Jim Bouton spoke with Terry Gross in 1986. Bouton died Wednesday at the age of 80. Coming up, we'll remember actor Rip Torn, best known for his role as Artie on "The Larry Sanders Show." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "FOUR ON SIX")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Actor Rip Torn, who had a long career in film, television and theater, died Tuesday at his home in Connecticut. He was 88. He earned critical acclaim and one Tony nomination for his performances on Broadway, often in Tennessee Williams plays. His film and television roles ranged from Judas Iscariot to Richard Nixon. He had a colorful personal life, with several DUI charges and a bizarre arrest for breaking into a bank that he said, in his intoxicated state, he mistook for his house. He got probation.

Torn is best remembered as the gruff and loyal producer Artie on "The Larry Sanders Show," a role that earned him an Emmy Award and four other nominations. Here's a scene from the show in which Jon Stewart has been tapped to fill in as host on Larry's late-night talk show and the producers have booked a less than stellar set of guests. Artie's trying to sell Stewart on the lineup.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW")

RIP TORN: (As Artie) Friday night brings us the exciting and still hot Zsa Zsa Gabor. Are you guys mad at me? You've been approached here, Jon. What's wrong?

JON STEWART: (As himself) Well, it's like - I read the "Welcome To The Dollhouse" sketch, and there just didn't seem to be anything - what's the word? - funny.

TORN: (As Artie) I agree, but I've confiscated Phil's bong, and I can assure you the writing will improve. What next?

STEWART: (As himself) Well, Artie, I don't want to push this, but it seems like we got two things going on here. We got the "Larry Sanders Show," which is huge guests and funny comedy, and it's very popular. Then we have this other thing which reminds me a lot of my old show, which was not as popular and, in fact, they stopped making. I mean, the network guys kept talking about all these huge guests that were coming.

TORN: (As Artie) And so they should because they love you at the network. Here's a hot one - the incomparable Charles Nelson Reilly.

STEWART: (As Jon himself) Again?

DAVIES: Rip Torn spoke to Terry in 1994, and he said he based his character on Johnny Carson's longtime producer Fred De Cordova.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TORN: I based it on the kind of brilliant quickness that Fred De Cordova has, the kind of hands-on operation that he had that he's there that - he was totally loyal to Mr. Carson. And since a great producer has to be almost like a military commander, he has to be - have a touch of savagery but hopefully with good heart behind it.

TERRY GROSS: How has "The Garry Sanders Show" (ph) changed your career, if at all? I mean, being a regular on a TV series, especially something that's developed such a loyal following, is - it's a different kind of situation than having movies. It's a recurring character. More people see TV, probably.

TORN: It's a steady work.

GROSS: It's steady work - that, too. Right, right, right. So you're liking it?

TORN: I love it.

GROSS: Good.

TORN: Want me to say more? I mean...

GROSS: Yeah.

TORN: ...We really have a very good - I was talking to John Siffrin (ph), who's a producer of the Shandling show. And my mother, Thelma Torn, from Texas and my sister Pat Alexander - my mother died between Christmas and New Year's, my sister said, ever considerate. And she was a very beautiful, funny, witty person. And I took her on the show. And Garry Shandling talked to my sister and my mother and - kind of mouth a bit agape. And then later, he came over and he said, gee. He said, your mother, Thelma, is so beautiful and gracious. And your sister Pat - such a gorgeous woman. And they're so sophisticated. They're so witty. I said, yes. What did you expect? He looked at me, and everybody laughed. He said, I guess I expected a redneck mother and a redneck sister. And I says, no, Garry. I'm the only redneck in our family. I'm just trying to explain that when I talk to John about thanking him for that for the way that my mother was treated that he said, you know, we are a family. And I know that sounds corny, but we have a great time on the Shandling show.

GROSS: When there is a guest star on the show playing themselves doing a guest shot on "The Larry Sanders Show"...

TORN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Are they always willing to have fun with themselves? In other words, are they always willing to be the butt of a joke or to make fun of their popular image? Or do you sometimes have to encourage people to just, like, relax?

TORN: Well, I - yeah, sure. I mean, they come to me. A lot of times, they say, I'm completely terrified. What's - is it always like this? What's going on? What's going to happen? I said, I don't know. You know, that's part of the fun of it (laughter). That's what I liked about live television, you know? So - but we have a script, and they usually have a wonderful time. And everybody wants to do the show - I mean, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Burt Reynolds, Roseanne and Tom Arnold.

GROSS: Let me ask you the question that I'm sure you've been asked more than any other question in your life, and that is the story of how you went from Elmore Torn to Rip Torn.

TORN: Well, it's just very simple. It's like baseball players that were named Woods or called Piney or - it's just a nickname.

GROSS: When did you get it?

TORN: Oh, I think when I was born, my dad said that the doctor says, you know, since my father's name was Rip, I guess - maybe the guy raised dogs or something - he says, you know, little Rip out of big Rip.

GROSS: So your father was nicknamed Rip, or that...

TORN: He was nicknamed.

GROSS: ...Was his birth name?

TORN: He was - his first name, like me, was Elmore. And he - we had different middle names. And I've got an Uncle Roland down in Houston, Texas. He's the senior Rip in the family now. And I have a cousin Sam, and he's called Rip, too. It's just because it's the last name is Torn that all Torns were called Rip - the male members, anyway.

GROSS: Now, I read that when you first started off in television that some of the programs insisted that you changed your name from Rip Torn back to Elmore or to anything...

TORN: Well, they didn't want Elmore.

GROSS: ...Anything other than Rip.

TORN: They said Elmore sounds like a hick, and...

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

TORN: ...And Rip sounds like a comedian.

GROSS: So when you were getting started in television, some programs didn't want you to use the name Rip Torn because they thought it sounded like you were a comic and not a serious actor.

TORN: Yeah, sure.

GROSS: What'd you think of that?

TORN: I never really worried about that. You know, I think it was a - when I was signed with the MCA - before they became Universal, they had a talent agency - and the woman agent I had, Monique James, says, hold onto your hat, dear. Said, your new name will be Richard Torn. And I says, Monique, they'll call me Dicky Torn.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TORN: So the first time I played on Broadway, the great director Elia Kazan said to me - says, look. You know, Elmore is corny. You know, Rip sounds like a comedian. He says, we got to change the name. I says, look. There will be no changes. That's me. He said, you could have a great career, but you'll never have it with this funny name. I said, OK, we'll use Elmore, but be sure you spell it right and say it right.

I knew a wonderful journalist, Oriana Fallaci. And she said, well, if you had an Italian pronunciation, you'd be Elmore, so that'll be OK.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in Texas. You originally went to college as an agriculture major.

TORN: Yeah.

GROSS: What did your family say when you switched from what was basically the family tradition - agriculture, ranching - from that to acting?

TORN: Well, they didn't like it. And my dad, who was a very remarkable man - Elmore Torn - he sat me down on the back porch. I just - I'd gotten out of the Army, and I was more mature than a lot of people are when they start into the profession of acting. And he said there's been a lot of discussion and raised voices. We have not been able to shake you from wanting to do this. He said, and we've seen you on the stage, and you have a rapport with audience. He said, but if you don't go up to New York City right now and make this attempt to be an actor, he said, whether or not you succeed or you don't, he said, it's something that will trouble you the rest of your life. He said it's better for you to go up there and make a good attempt. Then you'll be satisfied. And he said, and if you do it, do it 100%. And I'm backing you, you know, not with money, but with the father's approval.

GROSS: Good advice?

TORN: Well, it was biblical. And I tell this story - but my mom came in (unintelligible) my lap. She said - started crying. She said, oh, son. Just promise me one thing. If you go to New York to be an actor, don't wind up in the gutter. And I said, Mom, that's where you start in showbiz.

GROSS: (Laughter). Were they proud of you?

TORN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: When your father encouraged you to go, were you surprised that he was giving you that advice?

TORN: I was stunned. I didn't - it didn't produce in me an emotional reaction like it does if - when I tell that story. What it produced in me was a great feeling of exhilaration and strength. And I felt that I would be successful.

GROSS: Because you had his backing?

TORN: Yeah.

DAVIES: Rip Torn spoke with Terry in 1994. He died Tuesday at the age of 88. Coming up, John Powers reviews the British TV series "London Kills." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The British television series "London Kills" focuses on a London police unit that specializes in murder cases. Season one premiered in February on the streaming service Acorn TV, which drops the second season on Monday. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that like him, you'll probably watch it quickly.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you're like me, you've been corrupted by this era of peak TV. Where people once happily watched "Friends" or "L.A. Law" because they offered amusing weeknight fare, we now want and almost expect shows to be special - if not timely brilliant or epic in scope, at least rife with zeitgeisty resonance.

Of course, most TV doesn't rise to this level, and that's OK. It can still provide old-fashioned pleasures. Take the series "London Kills," an original production of Acorn TV, the streaming service so steeped in Anglophilia it's like swimming in Cadbury's chocolate. "London Kills" is, in most ways, an ordinary cop show. Yet it's compelling enough that, having raced through the five episodes of season one in a single sitting, I did the same with what they were able to show me of season two.

The series follows a crack Scotland Yard murder team led by detective inspector David Bradford, played by Hugo Speer as a symphony in G - gruff, growling, gray-stubbled. Bradford's wife mysteriously went missing, which makes him prickly with detective sergeant Vivienne Cole - that's Sharon Small - who's the squad's sharpest mind but apt to do things her own way. Both get along with sensible, sleepy-eyed Rob Brady - a likeable bear of a detective constable deftly played by Bailey Patrick - and with Billie Fitzgerald, that sweet-faced Tori Allen-Martin, a trainee whose empathy can get her into trouble.

Episodes begin in classic fashion with a murder victim - a dead man hanging from a tree, a woman's body found by the Thames and our detectives turning up to sort through red herrings on the way to catching the killer. As it happens, one of these killings has links to the disappearance of Bradford's wife, which is being investigated by another unit. Here, Bradford and Cole clash after he demands to know why she'd met with his wife in the run-up to her disappearance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LONDON KILLS")

SHARON SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) Sarah called me and asked to meet. I mean, I didn't feel that I could say no.

HUGO SPEER: (As David Bradford) Oh, I bet you didn't. So what did my wife want to talk about?

SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) Well, she mentioned that your marriage was in trouble.

SPEER: (As David Bradford) Why didn't you tell me this before?

SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) Because I didn't feel it could help.

SPEER: (As David Bradford) It's an indication of her state of mind.

SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) And that's why I spoke to the missing persons inquiry.

SPEER: (As David Bradford) Which explains why they asked me so many questions about my marriage, my sex life. It's all down to you.

SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) I'm not apologizing.

SPEER: (As David Bradford) No. Why change the habit of a lifetime? So why come clean now?

SMALL: (As Vivienne Cole) Because we're a team. And now you're back at work, I don't want to keep any secrets from you.

SPEER: (As David Bradford) The thing is, Vivienne, you're not a team player, are you?

POWERS: Season one ended with a cliffhanger that shifted our sense of a main character. As season two begins, the squad's members are now keeping secrets, and Cole decides to investigate Bradford's vanished wife. Meanwhile, they still have to deal with the endless allotment of corpses buried in back gardens and blokes bludgeoned in pubs.

Now, "London Kills" is not what you'd call ambitious. A lot of the writing and directing is pedestrian, with the lazy habit of bridging scenes with meaningless shots of East End buildings. It shows us the high-rise known as The Gherkin so often that it seems downright Freudian. Yet the lead performers boast the sturdy realism of good British TV acting. Small is especially good at capturing how Cole's mind never stops bubbling. And it serves up talented guest stars whose faces ring a bell. You find yourself saying, isn't that Daisy, the assistant cook from "Downton Abbey?"

What makes the show so watchable is that it merges two slightly contradictory forms of binge-worthiness. On the one hand, it has the ritualized repetition of the network cop series you call up on the DVR or Netflix when you're tired after work and want to watch familiar officers restore order to our chaotic modern universe. Brisk and trickily plotted, every episode of "London Kills" offers that reassuring form of closure. At the same time, the search for Bradford's wife gives the series a forward momentum that keeps you queuing up the next episode.

Although the story isn't novelistic like "The Wire" or a surprise machine like "The Bodyguard" (ph), it's something of a page-turner, so to speak. It makes you wonder, is this the sort of show in which some of our heroes have done bad things? Or is it simply a conventional police show pretending to be something edgier? Not having seen the whole of season two, I don't know the answer, but I'm eager to find out. Nobody would ever accuse "London Kills" of standing astride the summit of peak TV. But if you're looking for something to keep you entertained during a couple of long summer nights, it makes a great change from "Law And Order."

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the second season of "London Kills" on Acorn TV. Monday on FRESH AIR, Terry's guest will be Emily Nussbaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for The New Yorker. Her new book of essays is "I Love To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution" (ph). She'll talk about how the #MeToo movement has altered the way she considers the work of terrible men, why she thinks you don't have to feel guilty about watching TV instead of reading a book and more. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANDA DE LOS MUERTOS' "CUMBIA DE JACOBO")

DAVIES: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANDA DE LOS MUERTOS' "CUMBIA DE JACOBO")

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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