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Remembering Larry McMurtry, A Writer Who Helped Define The American West

Best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove, McMurtry wrote more than 30 books and screenplays, many set in the West. He died on March 25. Originally broadcast in 1995.

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Other segments from the episode on April 2, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Friday, April 2, 2021: Obituary for Larry McMurtry; Interview with Christopher Meloni; Obituary for G. Gordon Liddy.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Larry McMurtry, best-known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Lonesome Dove" and other books about the American West, died last week at the age of 84. He wrote more than 30 novels and screenplays as well as books of essays, memoir and history. His fiction helped shape the way Americans perceived the Western frontier.

McMurtry was raised on a Texas ranch, and his uncles had been cowboys. But he was not one to mythologize the West. He wrote "Lonesome Dove" about a cattle drive near the end of the 1800s as an anti-Western, and the miniseries adapted from it became a huge hit. McMurtry was also the author of "The Last Picture Show" and "Terms Of Endearment," which were both adapted into films, and "Horseman, Pass By," which was the basis of the film "Hud." McMurtry also became an antiquarian bookseller and collector, inspired in part by his love of reading, which he said helped him envision life beyond the ranch.

Before we hear Terry's interview with McMurtry, let's listen to a clip from the TV adaptation of "Lonesome Dove." At the heart of the story is the relationship between Augustus McCrae, played by Robert Duvall, and Captain Woodrow Call, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Both are former Texas Rangers. Duvall's character loves life and talks about his feelings. Jones' generally doesn't. In this scene, Jones has come upon Duvall, who's weeping over a lost love. The conversation turns to prostitutes and one Captain Call has apparently fathered a son with.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LONESOME DOVE")

ROBERT DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) I don't know why you're so down on whores, Woodrow. You've had yours, as I recall.

TOMMY LEE LONES: (As Woodrow Call) Yeah, and that was the worst mistake I ever made.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) It ain't a mistake to be a human being once in your life, Woodrow. Poor little old Maggie left you a fine son before she quit this world.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) You don't know that. That boy could be yours or Jake's or some damn gambler's.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Yeah, but he ain't. He's yours. Now, anybody with a good eye can see it. Besides, Maggie told me. We were good friends.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) I don't know about friends. I'm sure you was a good customer, though.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Well, the two can overlap, you know.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) You're the one that'd know about overlapping with whores, I reckon.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) You know what hurt her most? You wouldn't call her by name. You never would say Maggie. That's what hurt her most.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) I don't know what it'd amounted to if I had.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) It would have made her happy.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) What are you talking about? She's a whore.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Well, whores got hearts, Woodrow. And Maggie's was the most tender I ever saw.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) Well, why didn't you marry her then?

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) She didn't love me. She loved you. You should have seen how she sat in that saloon every day watching the door after you quit coming around.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) I reckon a man has got more to do than to sit in a saloon with a whore.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Like what - go down to the river every night and clean his gun?

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE SNORTING)

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Maggie needed you. You let her down. You know it, too; don't you?

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) No, I don't know anything of the dang kind.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) That's why you won't claim that boy's your own - 'cause he's a reminder - see? - a living reminder that you failed somebody. And you ain't never going to be up to admitting that, now are you?

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) Like I said, Maggie was just a whore.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Well, my God, Woodrow. At least you finally called her by name. I guess that shows some improvement, now don't it?

DAVIES: Terry spoke with Larry McMurtry in 1995.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LARRY MCMURTRY: Of course, I come from ranching stock. I had nine uncles who were cattlemen. My father was a cattleman. Some of my uncles were old enough to participate a little bit in the last years of the trail driving era, which only lasted one generation. The reason they were trail drives is because there were no railroads to transport the cattle to market. As soon as there were railroads, it became very inefficient to drive cattle hundreds and thousands of miles, and, of course, they stopped.

So - but the myth of the cowboy as we have it today came out of that roughly 20-year period 20, 25 years after the Civil War in which the range cattle industry suddenly started - flowered kind of like the oil industry did a bit later in which it was necessary to get all the cattle in South Texas, millions of them, North to the markets. And it's very different from ranch life, which is not particularly romantic and not particularly cinematic.

So most of the myth of the cowboy came out of that one generation of trail drivers. And it was perfectly possible since cowboys were often very young - 13, 14, 15 years old; my uncles all left home before they were 14 and became cattlemen - perfectly possible for one boy to have gone up the trail with the first herds in the - say, the mid-'60s right after the Civil War, and the last herds in the mid-'80s are a little bit later. So it was all over in a very brief period of time. And the fact that it lasted such a short while lent a certain romance and a certain poignancy to it.

TERRY GROSS: So you grew up on a cattle ranch.

L MCMURTRY: Yeah, on a small ranch in central - north central Texas, just below the Red River near a town called Wichita Falls, about a hundred miles west of Dallas, Fort Worth Northwest.

GROSS: Did your father expect you to keep on the ranch and...

L MCMURTRY: I think he might have liked it. It was evident pretty early that this was not going to be my skill. It was also - my father was - you know, was not dumb. And he saw that the cattle business had already ceased to be a viable family business unless you own immense, immense amounts of land, which we didn't. And even my uncles who left home early and got to the panhandle when it was open range and ended up with very substantial amounts of land couldn't survive as ranchers.

Ranching is an industry almost entirely supported by oil or by other money. You know, the ranchers now are doctors and lawyers and architects and people who have gotten rich in other professions. It's - my father foresaw this as early as I can remember, which is by the mid-'40s. He saw that the amount of land that we had - well, he - you know, he made a decent living throughout his life. He was very, very skilled. But he was still in debt for 55 years. And he had four children. There's no way that if you divide that ranch by four that it can make a living for anybody. You wouldn't make a living for anybody even if it wasn't divided by four. And that was foreseen by my father very early on.

GROSS: What was the life that you imagined you wanted when you were growing up in Texas, realizing that you wanted to get off the cattle ranch and you wanted to get out of this small town?

L MCMURTRY: Well, I wanted a life in literature, essentially, and I realized that quite young. I didn't imagine that I would become a writer, but I knew that I could become a reader. And so reading drew me. Reading has always drawn me from the age of 5 or 6. It drew me out of the small town. It drew me to Houston, to Rice University. And it was sort of the strongest motivating factor for most of my youth. And as it turned out, you know, like many readers, I began to try it for myself to see if I could do this thing that had given me so much pleasure, and I was lucky and successful. But it was reading that took me off the range.

GROSS: Were there bookstores around when you were growing up...

L MCMURTRY: No.

GROSS: ...So you could get what you wanted?

L MCMURTRY: I had almost no books until I got to Rice. I did have a cousin who, as he was going off to war in 1941 - I was, like, 5 at the time - stopped by the ranch house on his way to what turned out to be the Pacific Theater and left me some books - 19 books, in fact, a tiny - just a bunch of sort of the normal boys' books of the time. And that was my library for quite a spell. There were - you know, there were some books in the high school library in Archer City but not a whole lot. And I didn't really have adequate literary resources until I was a college student. Perhaps that's one reason, you know, I'm a rare bookseller as well as an author.

GROSS: When you started writing books about the Old West, was your idea to further the myth, to debunk the myth of the West or revise the myths of the West?

L MCMURTRY: You know, I didn't start really writing books about the Old West. I think "Lonesome Dove" was my 10th novel. Most of my books were set in the contemporary West and still are. In fact, in my fiction, I think I've written 19 novels and one with my collaborator, Diana Ossana. And of those 19, only about four of them deal with the Old West. Mostly, I've dealt with contemporary Western life a la "Terms Of Endearment," a la "The Last Picture Show" or the book called "Horseman, Pass By" that became the movie "Hud."

I thought that the Western myth or the myth of the cowboy was very powerful. I thought that "Lonesome Dove" was, in a way, a critique of it because I'm not - I grew up with cowboys. I respect them up to a point. But I'm not crazy about them. And I know I think something of their limitations having grown up with them. So I didn't set out to write a book which glorified the myth of the West. I didn't particularly set out to write a book that debunked it either. You know, I was telling a story of three men who had been, you know, friends for a long time who got caught up in an adventure. And the book was a description of that adventure and its consequences.

GROSS: Give us an example of something in the story that you see as a critique of the myth of the West.

L MCMURTRY: Well, the - for example, the scathing denunciation that Clara Allen makes of Captain Call when he arrives at her house with Gus' body when she tells him why she didn't marry Gus, although he was her great love, because she didn't feel that she could hold Gus, that she didn't feel that there was any room for a woman and a domestic relationship in Gus and Call's life. It's not that she felt that they hated women. It's just that they simply didn't give them their due. I think that women had a terrible time in the early West. Many of them went berserk. And I think that it was a masculine culture, maybe of necessity. But it was a masculine culture and to some extent crude, to some extent fascistic, certainly not welcoming to women.

GROSS: Well, one of the main characters in your series, Lorena, is - I mean, she's a prostitute during some of the story.

L MCMURTRY: Yeah. She's a prostitute. And she's a whore and - in "Lonesome Dove." And that's what kind of...

GROSS: She's kind of forced into it, really. I mean...

L MCMURTRY: Well, there's a character, strangely enough, in "Dead Man's Walk," the movie that we're - the book that's being filmed now, when they're debating - two men are talking about a woman named Matilda Jane Roberts, who is a whore. And one of the characters remarks on her origins. She came into the West when she was 14. And both her parents died trying to get from St. Louis to Santa Fe or somewhere along the trail. And she became a whore to survive. And one of the characters says there wasn't no room for churchgoing women in the West and that it was just room for whores. And a lot of them didn't survive. That's true enough, you know?

My grandmother was as a pioneer woman. And the West was sort of unsettleable (ph) until after around 1875 simply because the Indian wars were still raging intensely. And my own grandparents paused in their Western migration at a safe line in northwest Texas and lived there for 10 years. They didn't go any farther west because they wouldn't have survived the Comanches very likely if they had. And when the Comanches were finally subdued, more or less, in 1974, when their horse herd was destroyed, my grandparents went onto the place where they raised their family and where, in fact, I have the ranch house now about 100 miles farther west into the Comancheria after it became safe. It wasn't...

GROSS: Did your grandmother give you insights about what it was like to be a woman in the early days of Western settlement?

L MCMURTRY: My grandmother - I don't remember my grandmother ever even speaking to me, although, I lived with her. She lived in our house until she died. And I was a boy of 10 when she died. She had raised 12 children, lost one on a frontier. She was completely tired of children. She probably had 100 grandchildren by then or between 50 and 100. She was used to that. I don't - I mean, I don't recall a single thing that my grandmother ever said to me.

GROSS: Were you hurt?

L MCMURTRY: No, no. I wasn't. I mean, it's only in the last few years that I've been looking back on that. Both my grandparents had - I mean, all four of my grandparents lived and died in the house that I was growing up in. And I had some relations with one grandfather. One of my grandmothers was substantially broken by the time I came into this world. And the other one wasn't broken. But she just sort of was through with children. I wasn't hurt at the time. I only reflected on that in the last few years that I really can't remember my McMurtry grandmother ever speaking a word to me. She must have. But I think it was more like, get out of the way or shut the door or something like that. Certainly, no stories ever came from her.

DAVIES: Larry McMurtry speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. He wrote the novels "Lonesome Dove," "The Last Picture Show" and "Terms Of Endearment" and many other books. He died last week at the age of 85. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASIL POLEDOURIS' "THEME FROM LONESOME DOVE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with writer Larry McMurtry. His novel, "The Last Picture Show," was adapted into a film in 1971, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. It stars Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms and Cybill Shepherd in a coming-of-age story set in a small Texas town. Let's hear a scene. Actor Ben Johnson won an Academy Award for his performance in the film as Sam the Lion, the owner of the town cafe, movie theater and pool hall. Here he is with a couple of boys at the local fishing hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST PICTURE SHOW")

BEN JOHNSON: (As Sam) I never liked to clean fish or eat them either. You spend half your time picking out bone. Yeah, I just come out here to get a little scenery - too pretty a day to spend in town. You wouldn't believe how this country's changed. First time I seen it, there wasn't no mesquite tree on it, a prickly pear neither. I used to own this land, you know? First time I watered a horse at this tank was more than 40 years ago. I reckon the reason why I always drag you out here is probably I'm just as sentimental as the next fellow when it comes to old times.

Old times - I brought a young lady swimming out here once more than 20 years ago. It was after my wife had lost her mind. My boys was dead. And then this young lady was pretty wild, I guess, and pretty deep. We used to come out here horseback and go swimming without no bathing suits. One day she wanted to swim the horses across this tank. Kind of a crazy thing to do, but we'd done it anyway. She bet me a silver dollar she could beat me across. She did. This old horse I was riding didn't want to take the water. But she was always looking for something to do like that, something wild. I bet she's still got that silver dollar.

TIMOTHY BOTTOMS: (As Sonny) Whatever happened to her?

JOHNSON: (As Sam) Oh, she growed up. She was just a girl then, really.

GROSS: Did the place in Texas that you grew up in resemble the small town that you wrote about in "The Last Picture Show?"

L MCMURTRY: Well, it was. That's where "The Last Picture Show" was filmed. I have the unusual circumstance of having seen one of my stories filmed in the place where it would have happened. "The Last Picture Show" and "Texasville" were both filmed in the small town of Archer City, Texas, which is where I grew up. The town is now sort of slightly confused. There's been so much fiction touched on it, it doesn't really know whether it's fact or fiction. And sometimes, when I go home, I feel like I'm living in my own theme park.

GROSS: (Laughter).

L MCMURTRY: You know, they have restaurants called Texasville. And...

GROSS: (Laughter).

L MCMURTRY: So it's rather odd. I've inundated that little town with fiction. And, you know, people don't - most people think that they must be some character in one of the books, they're not quite sure which. And, yeah, it's unusual.

GROSS: That's funny because I think the reaction to "The Last Picture Show" was pretty bad when it was first published, the reaction in your town, because of the sexuality in the book.

L MCMURTRY: That's a little overblown...

GROSS: Is it?

L MCMURTRY: ...Actually, that's because journalists have to have something to write about. And the Baptist minister, indeed, was offended by the movie and one or two other people in town. But, in fact, a lot of people in the town worked on the movie and saw what was happening. A lot of - and, you know, even then in 1971, it brought three or 4 million - it brought about, you know, a million dollars into the town. In a time like that, that county, which, I suppose, was cattle country when my grandparents stopped there in 1880, was definitely the oil patch by then. And it depends upon the fluctuation of - fluctuations in oil prices, not cattle prices because cattle prices haven't amounted to anything for - hardly in my lifetime. And I'm 60 years old.

It's the oil patch. And when the oil business is up, it's - you know, it flourishes a little bit. And I've been buying building after building and putting, you know, books in them. The townspeople, I think, are slightly alarmed. But, in fact, nobody but me wants those buildings. And, you know, the town is down to a hardware store and a drugstore, doesn't have a hospital anymore. And it has a couple of filling stations, a hardware store and a drug store, you know, and an abstract company and a bank. And that's about it. If there's any other services in Archer City, they're oil-related services, not cattle.

GROSS: You know, I was thinking maybe we'd end the interview with a song by your son, James, who's a singer-songwriter. Do you see his songs connected to your writing in any way?

L MCMURTRY: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think James is remarkable in that he's found a way to work that's not my way - that is, he's not a novelist. He's really more of a musician. But I think that the songs reflect a later stage of the same phenomenon, you know, the post - certainly, the post-rural West, even the post small town West, in a way. I think a lot of them are very good songs.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

L MCMURTRY: Thank you very much. It's been a very good talk.

DAVIES: Larry McMurtry speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1995. He died last week at the age of 85. Let's finish with a song by his son, James McMurtry. This is "Levelland," which was one of Larry McMurtry's favorites. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEVELLAND")

JAMES MCMURTRY: (Singing) Flatter than a tabletop, makes you wonder why they stopped here - wagon must have lost a wheel. Or they lacked an additional one. In the great migration West, separated from the rest - though they might have tried their best, they never caught the sun. So they sunk some roots down in this dirt to keep from blowing off the Earth. They built a town right here. And when the dust had all but cleared, they called it Levelland, the pride of man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "I'M AN OLD COWHAND")

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Actor Christopher Meloni spent 12 seasons playing Detective Elliot Stabler on the TV series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" before leaving the show in 2011, but he's back. Last night NBC premiered the latest series of the franchise "Law & Order: Organized Crime." The first episode was a crossover event with "Law & Order: SVU" in which Meloni teamed up with his old partner, Mariska Hargitay as Detective Olivia Benson, who's now a captain. We thought we'd commemorate the reunion by listening to some of my 2019 interview with Meloni. Meloni's also known for playing a sociopathic inmate in the prison drama "Oz," for his work on the series "Homicide" and for his starring role in the sci-fi series "Happy!"

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about "Law & Order," which is probably the role you're, I assume, best known for.

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: Yeah.

DAVIES: You spent - what? - 12 seasons there. And you worked as Detective Elliot Stabler working on special victims crimes with Mariska Hargitay, playing - she played your partner. Were you guys together the whole time you were there?

MELONI: Yeah, yeah. We screen tested together. We tested for the role together. There were six actors.

DAVIES: So you didn't know each other beforehand?

MELONI: No, no. And...

DAVIES: Why do you think you got the parts?

MELONI: Oh, boy. You know, all the actors who screen-tested were great. But - and this is one of the rare moments when I walked in with Mariska. First of all, we were walking down the hall, and I was telling her joke, telling her a story that was a funny story. And we walked into the room with all the suits and, you know, all the decision-makers. And I said, hold on guys; let me just finish this story. And from that - and - the hutzpah - I thought about it afterwards. But that was the idea. You guys will hold on 'cause we got control of the room. We're in here, and we got control of everything. We're going to control this scene and our characters.

And it was pretty obvious. Even though I hadn't seen what the others had done, I just - I walked out of that room going, wow, that was it.

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to play a clip here. And in this scene, you are, as Detective Stabler, interrogating a child rapist who's been eluding you for years. He's played by Matthew Modine. And the scene begins with you, as Detective Stabler, leaning right into the suspect's face.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT")

MELONI: (As Detective Elliot Stabler) I don't need a Ph.D. need to know what kind of person you are. You're a loser. What? You had a tough childhood? That makes you special? That makes you a victim? You're nothing. You contribute nothing. The reason your life sucks is because you've done nothing.

MATTHEW MODINE: (As character), laughter) I've done nothing?

MELONI: (As Detective Elliot Stabler) You're counting the little children that you've raped and murdered? Is that what you're saying to me? You want to walk me through that, you piece of garbage? Tell me how good you are at torturing children. Tell me how strong you've got to be to kill a little girl, huh?

DAVIES: That's our guest, Christopher Meloni, in "Law & Order: SVU" in a scene with Matthew Modine. A lot of intense stuff in this series - and, you know, it's known that people that do this kind of investigative work, you know, who track predators, who prey on defenseless people and commit the most awful of acts, it's psychologically damaging. It's hard to sustain. You did this for 12 years. And you weren't - you know, it wasn't real. But - I don't know. Did it take a toll on you? Did it affect your mood?

MELONI: Yeah. First of all, let me just say, the real SVU detectives - 'cause we toured their facilities and we got to speak with them - boy, they're really heroic. And they would tell us a few stories that - you know, you just - you can't believe it. It's - there are moments of true horror out there that these civil servants try to take care of. Boy, they're the heroes. So, having said that, we took our role seriously. You know, it became less of a job and more of a - I wouldn't say a crusade or a - something larger than ourselves. I'll say that.

DAVIES: Right.

MELONI: And you know, you're doing these scripts back to back, and it would take eight days to do an episode. So you know, you start on Monday, and the following Wednesday you finish. And Thursday, you have your new script. And this continues for nine months. And after about four or five months, you're more liquid than solid. It just - you know, the horrors just keep coming and coming. And invariably, you know, it was the women - our women writers who would write the toughest scripts. They pulled no punches. And I think the guys would feel intimidated or something. But the women...

DAVIES: Restrained, yeah.

MELONI: Yeah, restrained. That's a better word. The women would just lean into it. And so any time I would see a female writer had written the script on the front page, I'd be like - I'd take a deep breath and go, oh, boy. Here we go.

DAVIES: You left the show after 12 seasons. What was it like - I mean, it just had become a part of your life for so long - to not have that?

MELONI: What it was like - and I knew it. I was actually very proud of myself. I always thought, when I do this, I'm going to feel like the house cat that got locked out of the house - you know? - so this pampered animal. You work your whole career for what I got. You know, I hit the jackpot. I hit a show that meant something, was well-written, was well-received. You loved the working conditions and the people. It was a well-run machine. Every aspect was there. And yet, you know - the - fill in the blank. The artist in me, the restless actor or creator - that guy needed to move on. But you know - so in the interim, I just worked on other projects, and I got my pilot's license 'cause I figured I really needed to truly focus on something that was, without question, a life-or-death endeavor.

DAVIES: This is something I didn't know. You fly airplanes?

MELONI: Yeah, yeah. As a matter of fact, I - yeah. I was - I got type rated to fly a jet.

DAVIES: But - so this was something that you kind of felt you needed to do the - I don't know, the thrill, the danger of it or what?

MELONI: I started "SVU" as a, you know, sometimes very employed actor, but always, you know, a journeyman-type actor. And all of a sudden, I had a home. And I had a lucrative home. And I had a satisfying home, and I built a family. I built a whole life. And I knew if I was walking away from all that, I needed to place that focus 'cause, you know, if you're an - unemployed - an actor unemployed is not a good thing, especially when he's been employed. So - and I knew that about myself. I needed to employ myself in something that was - that required every fiber of my being to stay focused and on top of things. And it was also good for my brain. I mean, I often said that I've never studied - I haven't studied that hard since college...

DAVIES: Wow.

MELONI: ...Getting all of my ratings.

DAVIES: Actor Christopher Meloni recorded in 2019. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALEXICO SONG, "CLOSE BEHIND")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to some of the interview I recorded in 2019 with actor Christopher Meloni, best known for his 12 seasons as Detective Elliot Stabler on "Law & Order: SVU." Meloni is returning to the franchise. He stars in the new series "Law & Order: Organized Crime," which premiered this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about your background, you grew up in D.C. - Washington, D.C. - right? - middle-class family, went to school in Colorado, studied drama. Is that right?

MELONI: I studied drama, but I walked out of there with a B.A. in history.

DAVIES: Right. And how did you get into serious acting?

MELONI: Serious acting (laughter)?

DAVIES: (Laughter) Well, I mean, the kind of thing where you're not doing it for fun. Like, maybe I can make a living here, maybe this could be my thing.

MELONI: I took some acting classes as a lark, you know, as a - in college. And I liked it. And I actually thought to myself, my God, I'm pretty good at this. But even more importantly to me, I realized how little I knew and that there was something to learn. There was an art here, and I was very curious about it.

My father was a doctor. And I just didn't think that I could ask him to pay for my college tuition so I could take costuming and makeup and all that. I just didn't think he'd appreciate that. So I didn't major in it. I took as many classes as I could, and that was that. And I graduated. That was it.

I went home, promptly went back to a construction site 'cause that's the only job - basically the only job I'd ever had through high school and college. You know, every summer I'd get - try and get a construction job. But this time, I didn't have college to rescue me. So I was a little bit depressed.

I was calling around to figure out what guys were doing - what my old classmates from high school were doing with their lives. And I called up a high school buddy. And I said, what are you doing? What are you doing with your life? And he said, I'm going up to New York to study acting. And I thought, oh, my God. Well, if you can do that, so can I. I asked him for the number. I called up the Neighborhood Playhouse, and I flew up the next day and interviewed with them.

DAVIES: Yeah, that's a serious acting school, right?

MELONI: Yeah, yeah. And in the interview - it was for the summer program - summer school program. In the interview - I'll never forget this - the guy told me to calm - he said, you've - just relax. You've got to calm down. I was so desperate. I think of Richard Gere in "An Officer And A Gentleman"...

DAVIES: Right.

MELONI: ...Where he tells Lou Gossett Jr., I've got nowhere else to go...

DAVIES: Right, right. I remember the...

MELONI: ...In that desperate moment of his.

DAVIES: Right. Right.

MELONI: I'll never forget that. I go, oh, my God, I'm living the Richard Gere "Officer And A Gentleman" life right now.

DAVIES: So you got in. But I mean, you didn't immediately start getting big, paid roles, right? I mean, you had to support yourself in New York.

MELONI: Yeah. Yeah, I was a bouncer and a bartender and a trainer and, you know, sleeping on people's couches. And, you know, I was America's favorite guest for the six - first six months.

DAVIES: So you were working as a bouncer and other jobs. And you're working on your craft in the classes. And then you're going to auditions, right? You want to work. What did you learn about how to audition?

MELONI: What an absolutely separate art it was from actual acting. And at the end of the day, it was more of a Zen practice and a psychological - you had to find psychological tricks for yourself to trick yourself into confidence and to almost manipulate the room. And if you're trying to please them, it's just like any relationship - you're toast. You have to - who am I vis-a-vis this character? And this is it. And once you do that - once you're able to do that, all of a sudden, you go into auditions feeling more empowered, and you walk out of being far more satisfied and empowered.

DAVIES: The one other thing I have to ask you about - you were the quarterback of your high school football team, and you went undefeated. Is this true?

MELONI: That is true.

DAVIES: You know, for most guys, like, their lives would be all downhill after that.

MELONI: (Laughter).

DAVIES: Didn't define you, huh?

MELONI: It actually did define me. And I - leading into my senior year, I had been on defense. I'd played on defense. I'd been a starter on defense. And, you know, and I - but I was the backup quarterback on my sophomore and junior year. So senior year, this is now my turn, my shot. And I set three goals for myself. One was obvious - I'm going to be the quarterback. No. 2, I wanted to be captain. And I wanted to go undefeated. And I willed that. I prayed for that. It happened. And I walked away. That defined me. And how it defined me was I felt that if I could - if I put my mind to something, I could bend the spoon. I could do anything I wanted to. I used that moment, and it's stayed with me. It's - I still carry it. And I still - I treasure that moment as one of the - I think, one of the top five things that ever happened to me.

DAVIES: Well, Christopher Meloni, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MELONI: The pleasure was all mine. Thank you.

DAVIES: I spoke to actor Christopher Meloni in 2019. He returned to the "Law & Order" franchise this week, starring in the new series "Law & Order: Organized Crime." Coming up, we hear some of Terry's 1980 interview with Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, who died this week. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "THE GOON DRAG")

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. G. Gordon Liddy, the former FBI agent who planned the Watergate burglary that led to President Richard Nixon's downfall, died Tuesday at his daughter's home in Virginia. He was 90.

Known for his dark, bushy mustache and fierce loyalty to the president, Liddy was among the most colorful of the Watergate figures. Working for Nixon and his reelection campaign, Liddy developed many bizarre plots to neutralize Nixon's adversaries, including kidnappings, sting operations, using prostitutes, even the proposed assassination of newspaper columnist Jack Anderson. Most were never acted upon.

Liddy never pleaded guilty to his Watergate crimes or testified to Congress about his activities, as many others did. Convicted of burglary and conspiracy, he served more than four years in prison before his sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. After Watergate, Liddy wrote books, gave college speeches, dabbled in acting and had a long-running syndicated radio talk show. Terry Gross interviewed Gordon Liddy in 1980, when FRESH AIR was a local radio program in Philadelphia. Liddy was touring to promote his memoir, called "Will."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: When do you believe that a person is above the law? Is a person ever above the law?

G GORDON LIDDY: No, a person is never above the law so long as one understands what the law is and certain maxims about the law. First of all, I believe that what Cicero said is correct. The good of the people is the chief law. The question logically next to him is, well, who's to say what's the good of the people, you know - you, Gordon Liddy? Well, certainly not.

The person who is chargeable with that responsibility is the president because he's the one who is elected by the people. And if you disagree with him, well, then you elect somebody else the next time around. That's the way it works. That's why when I would have certain suggestions, they would be nothing but suggestions and would never be acted upon unless they were approved by my superiors in the White House 'cause I was not at that high level where I could arrogate to myself very serious decisions such as those I was involved with.

GROSS: So if a president says, yes, I think it's a good idea to bug Democratic National Committee headquarters, or, yes, I think it's a good idea to assassinate a person, then, in that case, it becomes as if it was legal because you've gotten the corroboration...

LIDDY: Well, no. It doesn't become - we've got to distinguish here because you're getting into a legal area and a technical area, and I think it's important for us to distinguish. I was engaged in two different kinds of work when I was at the White House. One was, in my judgment, legal. It involved national security and not politics, and that was the activities of the Odessa Group when we were, for example, trying to determine whether Daniel Ellsberg was a romantic loner of the left or whether he was an agent of the KGB.

Now, that, in my judgment at that time, the state of the law at the time was clearly legal. On the other hand, when I was no longer with the Odessa Group and we were engaging in a political campaign and seeking political intelligence, clearly what was done was illegal but not wrong - morally wrong.

GROSS: What do you think you could have gotten if the Watergate break-in had worked?

LIDDY: Well, people misunderstood, I think, the purpose of it. They said, gee whiz, Larry O'Brien wasn't there half the time. You know, what's the point? Also, they said, you know, McGovern was the candidate, and McGovern wasn't going anywhere. What's the point? Well, first of all, when all these plans were laid, nobody knew who the candidate was going to be. And indeed, the prime candidate at the time was Muskie, who was considered to be a potentially formidable candidate. And there was always in the back of the minds of those high in the Nixon White House that at any time Teddy Kennedy said, I want it, he could get it. And he was considered someone who would have been potentially a very formidable opponent.

But when we went in there to put in, one, a room transmitter and a telephone transmitter, the idea was not so much just to get what O'Brien might say in there when he was in there. But we knew that whoever the Democratic candidate would end up being from their convention, he would undoubtedly come back. Instead of his little headquarters that he'd been operating out of as a potential candidate, he would move into the DNC headquarters, his vast system of offices. And with our stuff already in place, we'd be able to read them from the word go.

And also, bear in mind that once a person is the candidate, they'd be surrounded by the Secret Service. It'd be a lot harder to get in there and do the job. So it made very good sense for us to do what we did when we did it.

GROSS: I'd like to get back to the separation that you made between what's legally and what's morally wrong and what's legally and morally OK. One of the things that you were considering doing when you were trying to monitor Daniel Ellsberg was to put LSD in his soup before a speech that he had to give.

LIDDY: Right. That had been approved from above as a technique to disorient him. Right.

GROSS: Now, where does it fit into in the spectrum of...

LIDDY: Well, elsewhere...

GROSS: ...Legality and morality?

LIDDY: Yeah, no problem with that either because had Ellsberg been a political opponent, I would say that that would have been wrong. Ellsberg was not a political opponent. Ellsberg was someone who was stealing and had stolen highly classified information. And when one does that, when one puts oneself in the posture of an enemy or an antagonist of the state, one really ought not to be surprised when the state strikes back. It's the same situation as the thing we had in the '60s. When you, you know, riot and burn and things of that sort, you ought not to be surprised when the National Guard is called out, and you get yourself shot. You're asking for it. And I don't have any problems with that at all.

GROSS: When you, G. Gordon Liddy, put acid in someone's soup, or when you consider attempting to assassinate someone, that is different than a person who has had a fair trial, which is the demands in this country. It's something we cherish. In one case, you're taking the law in your hands, and you are being the arbiter of what's right and what's wrong and what's legally correct, what's morally correct.

LIDDY: No. You see; the difference is...

GROSS: In another, it's an organized system with checks and balances in it and either a jury or a judge. Is that correct for you to be...

LIDDY: No. If I were a gas station attendant, your argument would make sense. But I was working for the president of the United States. And the difference is, as I think I may have mentioned - Cicero said the chief law is to go to the people. And laws are inoperative in war. And when we look back on the '60s through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, we are inclined to conjure up visions of, oh, young lady such as yourself in a long granny dress. Maybe instead of wearing horn-rimmed glasses...

GROSS: Begging your pardon, I never wore a long granny dress.

LIDDY: I say such as yourself.

GROSS: OK.

LIDDY: But in any event - and holding daisies in her hand. But what actually occurred was 125 cities went up. We had the National Guard and paratroopers called out to restore order, bombing of the Capitol of the United States. I mean, it just went on and on. That is, in my judgment, a state of civil war. And it certainly was permissible, as far as I'm concerned, for us to take what in other circumstances would have been extralegal means in order to restore order.

GROSS: OK. I'd like to hear a little bit about some of the things that you did to strengthen your will, which you describe in the book. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

LIDDY: Yeah, for strengthening my will, primarily, I did - I used fire because I had a twofold effect. When I was a child, a little child, I happened by accident - because I didn't know what it was - to pick up a hot coal. And it burned me, and it scared me. And I was afraid of pain, and I was afraid of fire for that reason. And at first, what I wanted to do was get rid of the fear of pain and fire. And so I used fire and pain to overcome that. And then I simply used that as the same technique one would use when trying to strengthen physically an arm to increase the weights that one would lift. I increased the amount and duration of the fire until I reached the point of diminishing returns, which is where serious injury would set in. And that seemed to me to be unreasonable. And so I didn't do it.

GROSS: You also tell a story about how you overcame your fear of rats. Could you tell us that?

LIDDY: Yeah. First thing I did was, again, when I was a child, I would go down underneath the piers on the waterfront and try to confront the rats. And this didn't work very well because, first of all, rats swim very well, and they would just jump off and swim away. And I remained fearful of them less and less, to be sure. But still, I had residual dread. And finally, when my sister's cat killed one freshly, I recalled the fact that certain American Indian tribes used to consume the heart of an enemy that they consider to be courageous to overcome the fear of that tribe. And so I can cooked and consume part of the rat. And thereafter, I had no fear of rats.

GROSS: So that worked.

LIDDY: Yeah.

GROSS: Gordon Liddy, how do you measure yourself to other people in history? Is there someone who you compare yourself to?

LIDDY: No, I don't think I would rate status as an historical figure.

GROSS: Do you feel at some point, Americans will appreciate what you did when you were with the White House?

LIDDY: I don't know that I'm all that significant. I think that at some point, Americans will realize that, you know, Watergate was a tempest in a teapot, and the judgment of history on the Nixon administration and Richard Nixon in particular will be very close to what it is now in Europe, Asia and Africa, and that is that he was a very competent president.

DAVIES: Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1980. Liddy died Tuesday at the age of 90. On Monday's show, Terry talks with Brandi Carlile. She won three Grammys in 2019, including best Americana album. Her new memoir opens with her as a very sick child in a coma and near death. The book ends with Carlisle, her wife and their two children living in a compound with their extended family in the state of Washington. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT WASN'T ME")

BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) Hang on. Just hang on for a minute. I've got something to say. I'm not asking you to move on or forget it, but these are better days. To be wrong all along and admit it is not amazing grace.

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, and Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT WASN'T ME")

CARLILE: (Singing) Did I go on a tangent? Did I lie through my teeth? Did I cause you to stumble on your feet? Did I bring shame on my family? Did it show when I was weak? Whatever you see, that wasn't me. That wasn't me. Oh, that wasn't me.

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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