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Alan Ball Sinks His Teeth Into 'True Blood'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
After creating the HBO series âSix Feet Underâ about a family that runs a
funeral home and is steeped in death, Alan Ball created a new HBO series about
âTrue Bloodâ is about vampires who have returned from the grave and live on a
newly developed synthetic blood called True Blood. Their presence is so new, no
one knows what to make of them. Some people find them sexy, many fear them, and
some are just curious. The vampires have formed their own lobbying group, which
is pushing for passage of a Vampire Rights Act. In this scene, one of the
vampires is trying to convince a skeptical Bill Maher that the vampires should
have the same rights as any other American.
(Soundbite of TV show, âTrue Bloodâ)
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. JESSICA TUCK (Actor): (as Nan Flanagan) Weâre citizens. We pay taxes. We
deserve basic civil rights, just like everyone else.
Mr.Â BILL MAHER (Talk Show Host): (As himself) Yeah, but, I mean, come on.
Doesnât your race have a rather sordid history of exploiting and feeding off
innocent people for centuries?
Ms. TUCK: (as Nan Flanagan) Three points. Number one, show me documentation. It
doesnât exist. Number two, doesnât your race have a history of exploitation? We
never owned slaves, Bill, or detonated nuclear weapons. And most importantly,
point number three, now that the Japanese have perfected synthetic blood which
satisfies all of our nutritional needs, there is no reason for anyone to fear
DAVIES: âTrue Bloodâ is based on Charlaine Harrisâ âSouthern Vampireâ series of
novels. The second season of âTrue Bloodâ premieres June 14, and the DVD of the
first season will be out later this month.
Alan Ball also directed the movie âTowelheadâ and won an Oscar for his
screenplay of âAmerican Beauty.â Terry spoke to Alan Ball last fall, when the
first season of âTrue Bloodâ premiered.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Alan Ball, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Letâs start with some of the basic plot
points for âTrue Blood.â Why have the vampires come out of their coffins and
Mr.Â ALAN BALL (Writer, Director, âTrue Bloodâ): The vampires have made their
presence known to humans because thereâs been a development of synthetic blood
by a Japanese biotech firm for medical purposes, which the vampires claim
satisfies all their nutritional requirements, and so thereâs no reason for
humans to fear them.
And theyâve put together a lobbying organization, and theyâre lobbying for
equal rights. And ultimately, what is at the root of everything, which is not
very clear at this point in the show, is they want ownership. They want to be
able to own things. And whether or not vampires can actually survive on True
Blood alone is also something we just sort of have to take their word for -
although in this world, there are plenty of people who are willing to let
vampires feed on them.
GROSS: Yeah, because itâs kind of a kick for people. Itâs like wow, theyâre
Mr.Â BALL: Itâs a kick. It usually is accompanied by sex, and apparently
vampires are pretty good at sex, according toâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Yeah, and where does that come from? Where does that part of the lore
Mr.Â BALL: You know, I wondered about that, and I think â well, certainly if
youâve been around 100 years, youâd have time to perfect your technique. But I
also think - and part of the way, weâre playing vampires and the supernatural
in general is that itâs not something that exists outside of nature. Itâs
actually a deeper, more primal manifestation of nature, so deep and primal
sometimes that we as humans donât even have the perception to see it or feel
GROSS: You know, itâs funny. In the original Bram Stoker âDraculaâ novel, the
novel seems to be so much about sexual fear, you know, sexual attraction and
sexual fear, and itâs almost like, you know, a metaphor for sexually
Mr.Â BALL: Well, I think also - I mean, it certainly took on that characteristic
during the AIDS, you know, once the AIDS epidemic hit, but itâs also just a
metaphor for sex. You know, someone is penetrated, and bodily fluids are
exchanged. There is a sort of surrender. So itâs a pretty potent - no pun
intended - metaphor for just sex in and of itself, I think, and has been ever
since Bram Stokerâs âDracula.â
GROSS: And in your series, âTrue Blood,â thereâs a big connection between sex
and danger, and thereâs several characters in it who really like sex and danger
Mr.Â BALL: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And sometimes it gets more dangerous than they expected. But why was
that interesting for you to â exploring that connection that exists for some
Mr.Â BALL: I donât really know. I think it was just a visceral thing. I think
when I started reading the books, they had a sort of pulpy sensibility.
Everything was heightened, and each chapter ended with a cliffhanger. And there
was â you know, thereâs a big body count, and danger lurks around every corner,
as does romance, as does, you know, finding someone you love or meeting your
maker, and, you know, however you choose to interpret that. And when I pitched
it to HBO for the first time, I said this is popcorn television. You know, this
is a popcorn TV show.
GROSS: What else did you tell them?
Mr.Â BALL: Well, they asked me, well, what is the show about? And I had no
answer, but being, you know, the Hollywood person that I have become in some
ways, unfortunately, over the years, I just started talking and hoped that
something would come out of my mouth that sounded vaguely coherent.
I think I talked about the, you know, the fears that we project onto any
minority group that is misunderstood or feared, and then I said at the heart of
it, though, it is a show about the terrors of intimacy.
And I heard myself say that, and I thought well, that sounds pretty good. And
actually, the more that I look at it, I can sort of see that it is, in a sense,
about the terrors of intimacy, about breaking that wall that keeps you separate
and safe from a sometimes savage and dangerous world and letting another person
in ultimately is a terrifying act.
GROSS: Especially when youâre just meeting the person, and you donât really
know who they are. And you know, in a metaphorical way, itâs done in âTrue
Bloodâ because the main female character is telepathic. She can read peopleâs
minds, but not the mind of the vampire that sheâs falling in love with.
And so in this â sheâs meeting this vampire and not really sure, like is he
good or evil or a combination of both, or can she trust him or not.
Mr.Â BALL: Right. But at the same time, she can relax and just be herself
without putting up this guard that she has to work at.
GROSS: Yeah, so she guards against other people because reading their minds
really complicates things.
Mr.Â BALL: She doesnât want to hear other peopleâs thoughts.
GROSS: Yes. Theyâre usually not good thoughts.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â BALL: And itâs a really - itâs a really sort of seductive space for her to
just relax like that.
GROSS: My guest is Alan Ball, and his new series, âTrue Blood,â is about
vampires who come out of their graves because synthetic blood is now available.
So they no longer have to feed on humans.
Did you grow up with any vampire movies or books?
Mr.Â BALL: You know, when I was a kid, âDark Shadowsâ started airing, and me and
some of the neighborhood kids would rush home from school so that we could be
there when it started. And when that organ music came on or whatever the music
was â it was kind of spooky, and there were shots of waves crashing against
rocks - we would hold our necks like we couldnât breathe while the music was
on. And then once the music was over, weâd leave and go outside and play
because the show itself was kind of boring to us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â BALL: But that was â I mean, I knew what vampires were, but Iâve never
really â Iâm not what one would call a vampire aficionado. I donât really - you
know, I havenât read a lot of the popular vampire fiction. There are movies and
television shows Iâve never even seen.
GROSS: Have you seen the Bela Legosi âDracula,â orâ¦
Mr.Â BALL: Yes, of course, Iâve seen that.
GROSS: â¦âNosferatu,â the Klaus Kinski âNosferatuâ?
Mr.Â BALL: I have seen the Klaus Kinski âNosferatu.â
GROSS: In the Klaus Kinski âNosferatu,â thereâs so much brooding about the
curse of eternal life.
Mr.Â BALL: Yeah.
GROSS: People think theyâd love to live eternally, but if you ask the Klaus
Kinski Nosferatu, he would see it as a curse.
Mr.Â BALL: Yeah. I would imagine that there is a curse aspect to it. Because if
you live forever, then why is this day important? You know, you lose
everything. Everything you have, you lose eventually, unless there are other
vampires, and I donât know. I just feel like the finite nature of life is kind
of what makes it important.
GROSS: You had to think a lot about blood in making this, both how you wanted â
like what kind of stage blood you wanted to use, what color it should be, what
thickness it should be. You had to think about how it should taste to people.
So what kind of things did you do, blood-wise, to prepare for making âTrue
Mr.Â BALL: Well, in the world of âTrue Blood,â there is human blood, and thereâs
vampire blood. Human blood is the blood that flows through all of our veins.
Itâs the same color. Itâs the same thickness. Itâs the same viscosity.
Vampire blood is a highly volatile, organic substance that, when ingested by
humans, can have aphrodisiac qualities. It can have increased strength,
increased senses as a byproduct. It can also be hallucinogenic. It can be a
doorway into other perceptions. And so we wanted to make that very different
and very sort of really decadent. So we made it darker and thicker. Itâs almost
like molasses, and itâs a really dark, brownish red.
As far as what it tastes like, I never really even thought of that. We
certainly have - I just let the actors act, you know, how they seem to enjoy it
when they start drinking it. And we have dialogue referring to how True Blood,
the synthetic blood, is a poor substitute for refined vampire palates.
DAVIES: Alan Ball, speaking with Terry Gross. His HBO series, âTrue Blood,â
will begin its second season in June. The first season will be out on DVD later
this month. Weâll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Weâre listening to an interview with Alan Ball, who created the HBO
series, âTrue Blood.â Itâs about vampires who want to rejoin society and live
among the living. Hereâs a scene from the first episode. Anna Paquin plays a
waitress in a small, Louisiana town, where many of the vampires reside. A
handsome and mysterious stranger has walked in, and sheâs ready to take his
(Soundbite of TV show, âTrue Bloodâ)
Ms.Â ANNA PAQUIN (Actor): (As Sookie Stackhouse) Hi, what can I get for you
Mr. STEPHEN MOYER (Actor): (As Bill Compton) Do you have any of that synthetic,
Ms.Â PAQUIN: (As Sookie Stackhouse) No, Iâm so sorry. Sam got some a year ago,
but nobody ever ordered it. So it went bad. Youâre our first vampire.
Mr. MOYER: (As Bill Compton) Am I that obvious?
Ms. PAQUIN: (As Sookie Stackhouse) I knew the minute you came in. I canât
believe nobody else around here seems to.
Mr. MOYER: (As Bill Compton) He does.
Ms.Â PAQUIN: (As Sookie Stackhouse) Oh, donât worry about Sam. Heâs cool. I know
for a fact he supports the Vampire Rights Amendment.
Mr. MOYER: (As Bill Compton) How progressive of him.
Ms.Â PAQUIN: (As Sookie Stackhouse) Well, anything else you drink?
Mr. MOYER: (As Bill Compton) Actually, no, but you can get me a glass of red
wine so I have a reason to be here.
Ms.Â PAQUIN: (As Sookie Stackhouse) Well, whatever the reason, Iâm glad you are.
GROSS: Iâd love to hear what casting was like, how people showed up,
especially, like, for the lead vampire role, the role that Steve Moyer plays.
Like, how do people show up for the role? Were they wearing what they thought
would be appropriate? Yeah.
Mr.Â BALL: A lot of people came in wearing all black. You know, thereâs â Iâve
learned, now that Iâve done a season of the show, you know, youâve got to be
careful when you give an actor fangs, because their tendency is to go mad
immediately and start doing vampire acting, which I really wanted to avoid.
I didnât want to have any of the strange contact lenses that, like, come into -
that all of a sudden their eyes change when their fangs come out, or thereâs
any sort of prosthesis change in their facial structure. I just wanted to give
them fangs and let them act.
It was a really hard role to cast. We saw a lot of men. There were people that
I took to the network that the network was not crazy about. There were people
the network wanted to see that I was not crazy about. And then Stephen I saw
off a video that a casting director in London had made, and I watched in a
tiny, little, postage-stamp-sized video on my computer, and there was something
so - for lack of a better word - real about him and this sort of world-weary-
but-tragic feeling that he brought to it - aside from being really, really
handsome, which helps.
GROSS: In a worn-out way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â BALL: Yeah, exactly, like heâs been through hell. And thereâs actually a
great line in one of the episodes where Sookie says how old are you? And he
said I was 30 human years when I was made vampire. And she goes, wow, you look
older than that. And he says well, life was harder then.
But he really brought - for me, what he brings to the role is the sense of itâs
tragic. Itâs tragic what happened to him. He did not ask to be made vampire. He
lost his family and his children. He lost his life, and now heâs condemned to
wandering the world at night, not being a part of the world that he was so much
a part of before he was made vampire, before he went off to fight in the Civil
So we brought Stephen over, and I worked with him for a day, and then we went
into HBO, and it became very obvious very fast that this was the guy weâd been
GROSS: So did he not dress in all black for the audition?
Mr.Â BALL: You know, he wore jeans and, like, a blazer.
GROSS: No chains or anything?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â BALL: No, he didnât come in all black and he didnât come in with, you know,
the sort of extreme eyebrows and that kind of thing. I like that about him
because I want Bill to, you know, just be a guy who is a vampire.
GROSS: You said you wanted to just give your actors fangs and let them act, and
so talk about the fangs.
Mr.Â BALL: Well, in keeping with our idea about the supernatural being a deeper,
more profound manifestation of nature, we really thought a lot about the
physiology of the fangs, and we created fangs that actually lie flat along the
roof of the mouth and then click into place when a vampire is in danger or
aroused or ready to feed, much like a rattlesnakeâs fangs click into place. And
we actually created a model of teeth with showing how the fangs click in and
click out, and then we put the fangs, not on the â not with the four front
teeth between them, but with only two because it worked better for the
physiology of the rattlesnake, the snake fang working.
And I like that, because it looks a little different. It doesnât look like the
classic thing. And I like the fact that itâs not just like the supernatural
teeth morph into fangs, you know. Itâs actually part of their physiology, and
thereâs a sound they make when they click, which is kind of like a weapon being
loaded. So it really worked. It helps - you know, it works well for the show in
that regard, I think.
GROSS: Did you have to work with a dentist in order to get them made?
Mr.Â BALL: Oh, yeah. Everyone â and even when we cast, you know, a guest vampire
for one episode, they have to go off and get impressions made of their teeth
and they make fangs. And itâs hilarious to watch the dailies because the actors
will, like, make a face, and then weâll stop, and everybody will go get their
little plastic cup with their fangs and put their fangs in and, you know, make
sure theyâre fit, and then the scene keeps going.
GROSS: So can the actors activate the fangs by pressing a button in their
Mr.Â BALL: No, no, no. They have to - that has to be done with visual effects.
They actually - the fangs are just the actual fangs that they place on their
teeth once theyâve extended. But the extending and the retracting of fangs we
have to do as a visual effect, and we have to putt little dots on the actorâs
face as tracking marks.
GROSS: I see.
Mr.Â BALL: So if you ever watch an unfinished cut of our show, thereâs some
unintentional humor in those moments.
GROSS: So we talked a little bit about casting Stephen Moyer as the lead
vampire. Anna Paquin plays a waitress who is telepathic and starts to fall in
love with a vampire and he with her - or at least thatâs the way itâs looking.
So talk about why you cast her. People will probably know her from âThe Piano.â
Mr.Â BALL: And the X-Men movies.
GROSS: And the X-Men movies, yeah. And in âThe Piano,â she was, like whatâ¦
Mr.Â BALL: Eleven.
GROSS: Yeah, she was really young.
Mr.Â BALL: Yeah. When I heard that Anna wanted to come in and read for Sookie, I
was surprised. I felt, well, why does she want to do this? Sheâs a movie star.
But she aggressively pursued it, and then I thought about it, and I thought
well, it makes perfect sense. Itâs a great role. Itâs the lead of the show.
Sheâs sexy and sheâs a romantic heroine and sheâs strong and sheâs â you know,
she gets to play the gamut of human emotion and also have all these great chase
scenes and fight sequences. And it actually makes perfect sense to me.
And I wasnât too sold on the idea at first because Sookie is described in the
books as being blonde and blue-eyed, and I had only known Anna with dark hair,
which is her natural hair color. But, you know, once she came and she started
reading and I started working with her, what she was playing and what I really
thought made the character really interesting was I could see that this is a
woman who had been hearing other peopleâs thoughts her entire life and that she
was kind of skittish and nervous and jumpy and a little angry. And it kept her
from being - you know, a lot of girls came in, and they were like sorority
You know, they overdid the Southern accent, or they sort of came in dressed
like Daisy Mae, and I was like oh, no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â BALL: And the character just came alive in a way with Anna that was the
most interesting. And so thatâs who we cast. Because I always feel like I donât
â you know, I will have a clear idea of what I think a character looks like
when I write it, but the minute I start going into casting I let it go because
you donât want to - you want to be open to people coming in and doing different
interpretations because sometimes those interpretations are going to be better,
and theyâre going to work better and theyâre going to make the character live
GROSS: Well, Alan Ball, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr.Â BALL: Thank you, Terry. I really loved talking to you. Letâs do it again.
DAVIES: Alan Ball, speaking with Terry Gross. The second season of Ballâs
series âTrue Blood,â premieres June 14th on HBO. The DVD of the first season
will be out later this month. Iâm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Pullman Porters, Creating A Black Middle Class
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. Tomorrow is
National Train Day and a good time for us to remember a uniformed cadre of
railmen who defined a period of American train travel and became an agent of
social change, the Pullman porters. They got their name from George Pullman,
who started a train company in the 1860s that had sleeping cars and promised
luxury travel. The passengers were assured of special treatment by the Pullman
porters. Pullman intentionally hired black men for the job, which was
exhausting and sometimes demeaning, but also one of the best available to
In fact, the Pullman porters helped to create and enlarge the black middle
class. The Pullman Company terminated its sleeping car service in the late
1960s. Journalist Larry Tyeâs book about the porters is called âRising from the
Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.â Terry spoke
to him in 2004.
TERRY GROSS: You write that by the 1960s, Pullman porters had come to personify
the grinning servant, the Uncle Tom. But the Pullman porters had been real
agents of social change in their prime. In what ways did they helped to create
Mr. LARRY TYE (Author): In a couple of ways. They first started in the 1930s.
They launched the first successful black trade union in America. And this was a
union that did all the conventional things that a union does in terms of giving
them substantially more wages, shorter working hours, general better working
conditions. But much more important than that, it gave them a sense of self-
respect and a sense of identity, that they werenât just these nameless,
faceless guys who worked on the cars.
They actually gave them name badges, which were very important things for these
men who had either been called George or been called by conventional
profanities over the years on the Pullman cars. And they were called George
because in the tradition of a slave being named after a slave master, they were
seen as the servants of George Pullman, the man who launched the company they
GROSS: George Pullman started hiring Pullman porters shortly after the end of
slavery. And he intentionally wanted to hire dark-skinned ex-slaves. What was
Mr. TYE: His reasoning was twofold. One it was that they would come and work
for him for whatever price, however low the price he decided to pay them, and
he paid them next to nothing, and that they would work as long and as hard as
he would demand of them, and he demanded them working 100 or more hours a week.
But the more interesting reason that he hired them was he was trying to sell
railroad customers back then on a whole new concept, on the concept of
overnight travel. And his sleeping cars were more than double the price of a
conventional railroad ticket.
So he had to convince these passengers that they were going to get such
ultimate service, such luxurious service, that it was worth paying this, what
seemed like an extremely high fee. And who better to convince them that they
were going to be waited on brilliantly than ex-slaves, who embodied for these
white passengers the whole notion of service.
GROSS: What was the service that they were asked to provide?
Mr. TYE: They were asked to do everything from serve as a chambermaid to a
valet, shining shoes, nursing hangovers, taking care of passengers who were
drunk or who had lost their temper. They were basically asked to do everything
that somebody would do in a hotel on the entire service staff. And they were
the only service staff on this railroad trip across country that could often
take three or four days. So they did every job that was asked of them.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned that there was another reason why George Pullman
wanted to hire dark-skinned African-Americans, and that was to clearly
differentiate between the porters and the passengers. Because these was sleeper
cars, people were going to be undressing, preparing for bed. What was this
Mr. TYE: It was a sense of the social separation, that these should be men who
were so clearly from a different world than his white passengers that nobody
could ever see themselves as running into these guys in other situation off the
train. And the blackness of their skin was seen as one more way to
differentiate them from their white passengers and to say these are people who
are different, they are almost invisible to you and you should not worry that
you would ever be embarrassed if youâre in a compromising position with them on
the train in terms of ever having to see them again in your other life.
GROSS: There was a whole rule book that he published regulating the portersâ
interactions with their passengers. What were some other things in the rule
Mr. TYE: There were some extraordinary things in the rule book. Some of the
things that I find most interesting and were most offensive to the Pullman
porters were that they should use different-colored blankets than either the
passengers or the white conductors to make sure that no white employee of
George Pullman or no white who rode on his train should ever have to worry
about using the same pillow or blanket that a black porter had used. There were
rules governing everything from how to fold a sheet to how to swat a fly, that
everything - George Pullman believed in a system of management that didnât
leave any detail to the discretion of his employees generally and particularly
to his black Pullman porters.
So he specified how they should dust the passengerâs jacket when they were
leaving the train, on exactly what they should do when shinning shoes. Every
little detail was written down in his hundreds of rules in his thick rule book
that every porter was required to carry every moment that they were on the
GROSS: Do you think that African-Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s
considered this a good job?
Mr. TYE: It was actually considered one of the two best jobs you could have in
the black community back then, particularly for black men. They used to say -
there was a wonderful expression, Pullman and postal were the best things that
a black man in that era could do, and it meant their working for the post
office was one of the best jobs in terms of having higher pay and having a job
with more status. And the only thing that beat that in terms of blue-collar
work in the black world back then was being a Pullman porter.
GROSS: What was the life like â the day-to-day life of a Pullman porter?
Mr. TYE: The day-to-day life was one of having to largely wear a mask that
essentially allowed them to accept some of the humiliation, some of the abuse
that they took from their passengers, and not give it back to them. They had â
they lived in a sense in two different worlds. One was a world that they showed
and the face that they showed to their white passengers, and that was a
perpetually obliging one. And the other was a world that they live in with
fellow Pullman porters, where they actually developed their own language and
their own way of learning how to absorb this abuse without giving it back, that
gave them very much of a schizophrenic world back then.
GROSS: Where did they sleep?
Mr. TYE: They slept in the smoking room, which doubled as the menâs toilet.
They had a little curtain that separated them from the toilets and the wash
basins. And they had an old couch back there. And they were given at most four
hours to sleep at night. Now, in fact that sleep was interpreted anytime a
white passenger or white man came in to use a toilet or to have a poker game
into the late night in the smoking room or just to have a smoke. And so it was
four hours maximum sleep, perpetual interruptions, and a very uncomfortable old
couch separated by a thin curtain that was where they were supposed to get
enough sleep to function for their 100 hours of work a month.
GROSS: Must have been hard to function and hard to be cheerful with so little
Mr. TYE: A little hard to be both of those, absolutely, and yet these guys
managed to do it for careers that spanned 30 and 40 years, which was a function
of two things, of how few other choices they had and of how the upside of the
job, the idea of being able to travel the country, being able to absorb lessons
from their wealthy and interesting white passengers, that all of that look so
good compared to what other choices they had in those days, that they were
willing to absorb the downsides of the job for all those years.
GROSS: What impact do you think it had on the porters and on the families of
the porters for them to be exposed to the travel and to so many different
Mr. TYE: We can see directly, thatâs a big piece of this book in terms of
trying to understand how they absorbed those lessons and what role it played on
their lives. They came to see the value of education there. White passengers
perpetually talked to them about the importance of getting advanced degrees or
getting - going to college at all, and they learned those lessons and saw that
their kids could get schooling.
They learned how to invest the money that they made, and it started out as very
little money, but after they had a union, they had enough to actually think
about what they would invest it in. And they saw Americaâs leading financiers
riding the train with them, and these were people they spent three and four
days with, and they learned really concrete lessons. One porter after another
would tell me the great investments they made, which in many cases let them get
off the railroads or at a minimum let them put their kids through school.
They absorbed the whole lesson of how the white world worked in ways that they
went on to put into use in their own life and that let them become, if not
themselves, through their children and grandchildren the founding members of
the black middle class.
DAVIES: Larry Tye, author of âRising from the Railsâ speaking with Terry Gross.
Weâll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Weâre listening to Terryâs interview with journalist Larry Tye, author
of the book âRising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black
GROSS: How did the Pullman porters start to unionize?
Mr. TYE: They tried to unionize originally in the late 1800s, and every attempt
to unionize was quashed. George Pullman had a monopoly on sleeping car service.
He despised the notion of unions, whether they were white unions or black
unions. And he managed to fire workers or do anything he had to do to
intimidate them. But there was a slow process that began in the mid 1920s,
where a guy named A. Phillip Randolph, who was not a Pullman porter, came in
and began a process of unionizing them.
And it took a full 12 years from the day they started the process to the day
they actually got a union to make this effort work. And Randolph and all of his
lieutenants went through dire(ph) poverty, experienced brutality at the hands
of the Pullman Company, and they were never discouraged enough that they - one
way or another managed to keep fighting the battle, whether it was in the
courts, whether it was through regulatory agencies, and most importantly trying
to keep the Pullman porters on board with him, and he miraculously succeeded in
doing it through this long 12-year effort.
GROSS: What are some of the specific things that the Pullman Company tried to
do to discourage the African-American workers from unionizing?
Mr. TYE: They beat up, they hired thugs, and this came out in a court case, to
beat up one of Randolphâs top lieutenants. They fired dozens and some people
say hundreds of Pullman porters who were involved with the union effort. They
went to court and they did everything they could to quash every effort there.
They tried to lobby Congress and successfully did that to pass laws that made
it very difficult to unionize the porters.
And they did all these things over a consistent period of 12 years, led at one
point by Abe Lincolnâs son, who took over for George Pullman as the head of the
Pullman Company, Robert Todd Lincoln. And he was one of the best union busters
of anybody the Pullman Company had ever had on board.
GROSS: Hmm. Once the Pullman porters did unionize, what impact did that have on
the labor movement?
Mr. TYE: It had two impacts on the labor movement. One is it helped to
desegregate the labor movement. In the early days, Randolph - A. Phillip
Randolph and his portersâ union were the only black union who was affiliated.
They were not a formal part of the AFL but they were an affiliated union, and
Randolph kept pushing for full status, equal status within the AFL hierarchy.
He would go to every executive committee meeting and push for all the black
unionists to get more equal treatment.
And he was a perpetual thorn in the side of everybody who ran the AFL-CIO for
about 25 years until he started seeing that his efforts yield some results. It
had a profound psychological effect on blacks who were trying to unionize, to
see as visible a workers as the Pullman porters were successfully create their
own union, and then he yielded practical results by pushing the union movement
to accept blacks on an equal basis.
GROSS: You know, itâs still registering on me that President Lincolnâs son
became the head of the Pullman Company and was so anti-union. Is it going too
far to say that Lincoln signed the proclamation to free the slaves and then his
son made sure that some of those ex-slaves or descendants of slaves didnât make
a lot of money/
Mr. TYE: Actually, the Pullman porters over the years had their own expression.
Lincoln freed the slaves and his son re-enslaved them, and they didnât feel it
was going too far to say that. And thatâs precisely what Robert Todd Lincoln
did. He was as vehement as George Pullman had ever been in terms of trying to
limit salaries, limit any potential for promotion, basically limit the
opportunities for his Pullman porters and keep them as Chattel slaves. And I
think that Pullman porters over the years found that a really grim but ironic
situation they were perpetually pointing to.
GROSS: Do you think that the Pullman porters or their union had much of an
influence on the civil rights movement?
Mr. TYE: I think they had a profound influence. If I can tell you a quick story
about when we think of the beginning of the civil rights movement, we often
date it from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began
when Rosa Parks was asked to step to the back of the bus, refused to do it, and
was arrested. The first person that she summoned to the jail to bail her out of
jail was a Pullman porter named Edgar D. Nixon. She knew Nixon because she
worked for him. He was â he had an office that - he held two hats in that
office. And one was as head of the local chapter of the NAACP. The other was as
head of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. And Nixon
had been waiting for years to have just the right test case to try this boycott
of the Montgomery bus system.
He had one problem though in trying to organize this boycott and that was that
he was a Pullman porter, who was out on the road so much that he couldnât be
there to be at all the meetings. So he looked around town for who would be
somebody that could be the perfect front man for him in this boycott and he saw
this young minister who had just graduated from Boston University named Martin
Luther King who happened to have the biggest church in town. And he saw King as
He represented a wealthy church, a large church and he was young and
impressionable enough that Nixon could pull the strings in making this boycott
happen with Martin King as the front man to start with. And I think thatâs an
interesting story to me because itâs a metaphor for what porters did throughout
the years in the Civil Rights Movement, that they used their union halls -
turned over their union halls for civil rights meetings. They bankrolled the
Civil Rights Movement at a time when there was no money to support civil rights
activities. And their people behind the scenes were critical actors from the
earliest days of the Civil Rights Movement.
GROSS: As part of your research for this book, you found as many surviving
Pullman porters â former Pullman porters that you could and tried to interview
them. You also interviewed - you know, family members of former Pullman
porters, how did you find these people?
Mr. TYE: It was - I had been a journalist for 20 years and the most difficult
job I think I have ever done in those 20 years was finding these Pullman
porters. I did everything that - I called on every trick and every convention
that Iâd learned during those years as being a journalist from putting ads in
railroad retirement magazines, putting ads in every black newspaper and every
railroad city in America. I had Amtrak helping me track them down. I found
their old employment data that was left behind by the Pullman Company and tried
to track them down.
That way I wrote letters to probably 500 Pullman workers from these old Pullman
Company records. I talked to black ministers in major cities across the
country. I talked to civil rights leaders. And those things yielded precious
few porters. The technique that actually worked the best, and it shouldnât be
surprising but it surprised me and I was late to come to it, was talking to
people who ran nursing homes in cities and major cities across the country and
they tended to know - the Pullman porters were out of the normal network of
They were so old and so tuned out from the normal networks, they were in their
late 80âs, in their 90âs, one was 102. And the people who knew who they were
and where they were, were people who were running the nursing homes that they
were living in. In every city, once you found one Pullman porter, they would
generally be able to lead you to others. But finding that first one was a
wonderful challenge and I ended up coming up with dozens of them but it was
really difficult and a real challenge.
GROSS: Now, Pullman porters have figured into a lot of movies, even songs. Do
you have any favorites of all the ones you poured through?
Mr. TYE: I - first of all I found fascinating the way that porters were always
background characters in the movies. It wasnât a movie from âThe Thin Manâ
movies to an entire year of movies from the 1920s to about the 1950s where
there was a trend that you didnât see this obliging, smiling Pullman porter
character, who generally had no speaking part in the movie. And they were the
perfect backdrop partly because they conjured up this whole era of elegance and
when they said things, it was generally roles as the compliant, obligate fool.
But I think that there were a bunch of authors who managed to go a little
deeper. And one of them and my favorite was Studs Terkel. And he had
interviewed E. D. Nixon, this guy who brought Martin Luther King into the Civil
Rights Movement in an oral history that Terkel was doing of the Great
Depression. And he quotes Nixon as saying a Pullman porter can always get into
a conversation anywhere. He walked into a barber shop, somebody would say, I
didnât see you around here. Or may be theyâd noticed his pants with a stripe.
Everybody listened because they know that the Pullman porter been everywhere
and they never been anywhere themselves. These were men in the black community
who stood out and who were seen as the most prominent and respected men in that
world. They had been everywhere. They had seen things nobody else had and they
shared their experiences when they came back from every train trip.
GROSS: Well, Larry Tye, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. TYE: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Larry Tye speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. Tyeâs book is âRising From
the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.â Coming
up, David Edelstein on the news âStar Trekâ film. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
The âStar Trekâ Franchise Moves Forward
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Live Long and Prosper, Beam me up, Scotty, The Final Frontier, Vulcan Mind
Meld. Phrases and ideas from the 60s TV âStar Trekâ populate our language and
culture. Now thereâs a new big budget Hollywood film that goes back to the
beginning, when the crew of the Starship Enterprise first meet, called simply
âStar Trek.â Itâs directed by J. J. Abrams, creator of TVâs âLost.â Film critic
David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: The first generation of âStar Trekâ actors is old or gone to
the most final of frontiers, the so-called next generation up in years, and
people barely recall the generations after that. So Paramount, eager to re-
launch their franchise, tapped director J. J. Abrams for a new incarnation. The
ad said, forget what you know and trekkies were incensed. Forget what we know?
What we know is the point. Has Abrams dared to take Gene Roddenberryâs sacred
universe, fount of five TV shows and 10 movies and thousands of geek
conventions and change it? Yes and no.
They change it a little. Abramsâ âStar Trekâ features old characters: Kirk,
Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekhov at a young age, students in
Starfleet Academy. But thereâs a key difference, thanks to a black hole. You
know what happens when you travel through a black hole in a sci-fi picture,
right? You go back in time. You change history. âTrekâ opens with a smashing
prologue in which a ship from the future hurtles through a black hole with a
vengeful Romulan called Nero, played by Eric Bana.
I wonât tell you why heâs angry, thatâs explained later in the film. But before
you can say, lock on photon torpedoes, the âTrekâ we know is changed. Kirkâs
father is killed moments after Kirk is born, so our hero, played by Chris Pine,
grows up a fatherless neâer-do-well. He doesnât even want to be on a starship,
much less captain one, until heâs shamed by his fatherâs contemporary, Pike
played by Bruce Greenwood.
(Soundbite of movie, âStar Trekâ)
Mr. BRUCE GREENWOOD (Actor): (As Pike) Enlist in Starfleet.
Mr. CHRIS PINE (Actor): (As Kirk) In what? You guys must be way down in your
recruiting quota for the month.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GREENWOOD: (As Christopher Pike) If youâre half the man your father was,
Jim, Starfleet could use you. You can be an officer in four years. You can have
your own ship in eight. You understand what the federation is, donât you. Itâs
important. Itâs a peacekeeping and humanitarian armada.
Mr. PINE (Actor): (As Kirk) Are we done?
Mr. GREENWOOD: (As Pike) Iâm done. Riverside shipyard, shuttle for new recruits
leaves tomorrow 0800. Your father was captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He
saved 800 lives including your motherâs and yours. I dare you to do better.
EDELSTEIN: A peacekeeping and humanitarian armada. Who could resist that? Itâs
no surprise Kirk shows up for that shuttle where he meets disheveled hipster
Dr. McCoy played by Karl Urban, whoâs funny even if he talks like Owen Wilson.
But the biggest change is between Kirk and Spock. They loathe each other on
sight, theyâre antagonists. Weâre on Kirkâs side, though. Chris Pine mugs like
mad, but he seizes the space with a likable impudence, as if both channeling
and poking fun at William Shatner. On the other hand, Zachary Quinto is hard to
His Spock is a know-it-all even geeks would want to slam into a locker. Thereâs
an issue larger than Quintoâs lack of charisma. Do we want Kirk and Spock at
odds instead of with that symbiotic rapport of the TV series, where the point
was to watch Kirk, the virile man of action, navigate between Spockâs cool
logic and Dr. McCoyâs passionate humanism? If you care about this universe and
I do, youâll argue with this âTrekâ at every turn. But you can nitpick it to
death and still adore it. I mean, itâs âStar Trekâ.
The action is furious, the banter bright. The real suspense isnât whether the
crew can take down the villain Nero, who turns out to be quite a dull fellow,
itâs whether Kirk and Spock will be friends as before and Kirk will captain the
Enterprise. Yes, we want it different but also the same. A time travel
conundrum worthy of âStar Trekâ itself. The actors show tons of promise, even
if theyâre sometimes like baby âLooney Toonsâ doing familiar shtick in high
voices. Zoe Saldana is a knockout as Uhura, and itâs great to see Simon Pegg,
Shaun of âShaun of the Dead,â as Scotty, and John Cho, Harold of âHarold and
Kumarâ as Sulu. Best of all, Leonard Nimoyâs Spock comes through that black
He looks very old but happier than he has in years. When he meets Quinto as his
younger self and suggests being less of a prig, thereâs a wonderful subtext. I
am entrusting you with Spock, he seems to say. Cherish him. And let the
franchise live long and prosper.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download
Podcasts of our show at frshair.npr.org.
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.