DATE April 29, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bill Paxton discusses his directorial debut for the
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Bill Paxton, has starred in such independent films as "One False
Move" and "A Simple Plan," and he's starred in such big-budget pictures as
"Twister" and "Apollo 13." He makes his directorial debut with the new
thriller "Frailty," which he also stars in. Paxton plays a man who has
recently lost his wife and is now raising two sons. One night he has a
vision, which he shares with his two boys.
(Soundbite of "Frailty")
Mr. BILL PAXTON (Actor): The end of the world is coming. It's near. The
angel showed me. There are demons among us. The devil has released them for
the final battle. It's being fought right now. But nobody knows it except us
and others like us.
Unidentified Boy #1 (Actor): I'm scared, Dad.
Mr. B. PAXTON: There's nothing to be afraid of, tiger. We've been chosen by
God. He will protect us. He's given us special jobs to do. We don't fear
these demons. We destroy them. We pick them up one by one and we pitch them
out of this world. That's God's purpose for us. The angel called us God's
Unidentified Boy #1: So we're like superheroes?
Mr. B. PAXTON: That's right. We're a family of superheroes that are going to
help save the world.
MATT O'LEARY (As Fenton): Well, Dad, that doesn't make any sense.
Mr. B. PAXTON: I know it sounds that way, son, but it's the truth.
GROSS: After sharing this religious vision with his sons, Paxton, guided by
the vision, kidnaps and brings home several people who the angel says are
really demons. For the greater good of the world, he kills them with an ax.
He asks his sons to help him with the murders. The younger son believes in
his father's vision. The older son is sure his father has lost his mind, but
he still loves his father and is afraid to turn him in. The children,
particularly Matt O'Leary, who plays the older son, turn in good performances.
I asked Paxton about the difficulty of auditioning children.
Mr. B. PAXTON: A lot of child actors kind of have their shtick that they kind
of come in with, and one thing I noticed with Matt O'Leary, of all the actors
he came back. He'd had a good audition with the gals, and they brought him
back to read for me. He was the only actor who didn't ask for pity in his
portrayal of young Fenton. He didn't try to go for the emotional thing. He
was very stoic. And as I talked to him about the part and how he saw it, he
saw it as a guy who's trying to keep his family together. And he's kind of
looking out for his kid brother, but he also really loves his dad. And I tell
you, the way he read it, without going for those, you know, obvious
sentimental kind of things and saying he wants pity--`Pity me. I'm in this
horrible situation. Please, pity me'--he was stoic and it just sent a chill
up my spine because it was so, so unbelievable.
GROSS: Since "Frailty" is about a father who has these visions...
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.
GROSS: ...and he really believes that an angel has come to him and told him
to kill people who aren't really people; they're demons...
Mr. B. PAXTON: Destroy demons. Yes.
GROSS: ...and he takes the message to heart and starts killing people...
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.
GROSS: ...were you afraid when you made this movie that a lot of Christians
would be very angry and take it as an affront against fundamentalists in
particular, or Christians in general?
Mr. B. PAXTON: No. I didn't make this movie to offend anyone's personal or
religious beliefs. This movie is not the gospel according to us, the
filmmakers. This is a `What if?' movie. And it deals with some fundamental
belief issues that deal with the Old Testament. But it also deals with the
idea--see, for me "Frailty" is a family tragedy, and even though you don't
know till the end of the movie what is kind of true and what is false and who
is good and who is evil, I always saw it as a familial tragedy. And whether
this God, this Old Testament deity, came to this man or not, still the final
result was chaos and destruction of a beautiful family.
I guess I was always disturbed by certain stories in the Old Testament. See,
again, I was raised in the Catholic Church, and I guess it was more about
Jesus and, you know, loving one another. I think to me the movie ultimately
is really about the folly of man's ego when he ordains himself to be God's
executioner or punisher. I didn't make the movie to be controversial. I
really kind of made it 'cause I thought it was a good Gothic kind of Grimm
GROSS: This is just a very practical question.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Your film "Frailty"...
Mr. B. PAXTON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...starts with the credit sequence.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: A lot of films nowadays, the credits don't come till the end of the
movie, or maybe they come five minutes into the movie. Just on a practical
level, how do you decide where you want to put the credits?
Mr. B. PAXTON: Actually the images we did were from a collection of master
detective magazines that I collected. They're mostly from the '30s and '40s
and '50s. And they...
GROSS: These are still photographs that...
Mr. B. PAXTON: These are still photographs.
GROSS: ...you see in the opening sequence.
Mr. B. PAXTON: And it gave us a chance to set the tone...
GROSS: They're kind of crime scene photographs.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Crime scene, kind of rural crime scene photographs, just
something that, you know, you're seeing a guy, you know, pointing into the
lake, or you see an arrow in the woods, it's pointing to a mound. And it
just--it's something like what was that? What happened there? And this movie
has to do with the whole kind of idea of kind of murder out yonder, stuff that
takes place beyond the city limits where, you know, people are isolated and,
you know, things can go undetected for, you know, a long time, and the
desolation of people kind of being separated.
GROSS: Bill Paxton is my guest, and he makes his directorial debut with the
new film "Frailty." He also stars in the film.
Since you play a father in "Frailty," tell us about your father.
Mr. B. PAXTON: I'm very close to my dad. I was raised in Ft. Worth, Texas,
and I come from a family of four kids. And I have an older brother and a
younger brother and a younger sister. And when I was a kid growing up in Ft.
Worth, my dad loved movies and plays. And obviously it affected, you know, my
life's career. But my dad loved to go to movies, and he would take me and my
older brother, Bob, downtown to Ft. Worth. That was where there were like
three kind of main old movie palaces. I remember The Palace, the Worth and
The Hollywood. My dad would never take us to a Disney film. If we wanted to
see something like that, then we had to go to a Saturday matinee. My dad
liked to see--these were probably not R-rated movies, but, you know, movies
like the Bond films and different things. I remember seeing "The Ipcress
File" and "Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte" and some of those. And when we'd come
out of the films, he would talk about the artifice of the films. He'd say, `I
really liked the lighting or the props or the camera work or, you know, Sean
Connery's tailor.' And in a way, at first, we thought, `What in the hell is
he talking about?' And then after a while, we started kind of digging the
artifice, and we would discuss it. And I guess from an early age, I was aware
of the illusion of filmmaking, and I've always loved the illusion. I've
always loved, you know, the idea of image-makers and, you know, creating these
other worlds that are fabricated.
GROSS: What did your father do for a living?
Mr. B. PAXTON: My dad worked for his father in a family-run hardwood lumber
business. They were hardwood wholesalers out of the Midwest. It started in
Kansas City back, oh, before the First World War. And after World War II, my
dad and his brothers went to work for their dad. My dad--there was a yard in
Chicago, and eventually after he married my mom, he moved down to Ft. Worth,
Texas, because there was a yard there as well. And he traveled, mostly
calling on the trade, cabinet makers and musical instrument makers. He loved
people and he loved art. Over the years, he's kind of been my greatest
resource. He sent me books like "Simple Plan" and "Lords of Discipline" when
they were still in hardback and said, `Hey, they just sold this to the movies.
You ought to go in there and try to see if you can do this.' And he's...
Mr. B. PAXTON: ...been a great inspiration to me.
GROSS: I understand that one of your father's dreams was to act himself.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.
GROSS: And he actually has a small part in the movie "A Simple Plan" that you
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes, he does. Yeah.
GROSS: And I thought I could play this scene.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Oh, terrific.
GROSS: Let me introduce the scene. Jump in if I don't have any of the
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.
GROSS: ...straight. OK. In "A Simple Plan," you, your brother and a
friend--and your brother's played by Billy Bob Thornton--the three of you
stumble on this small plane that's crashed outside of town.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes, in the snow.
GROSS: And there's millions of dollars...
Mr. B. PAXTON: That's right.
GROSS: ...in this plane, and you decide to keep the money.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah.
GROSS: So, you know, all kinds of terrible things happen. But anyways, while
you're struggling with this guilt, because you know you're doing something
that goes against your nature, but you're going to keep the money anyways,
you're working in this feed store, and a customer walks in. You're very
distracted. A customer walks in and complains that he thinks maybe he was...
Mr. B. PAXTON: He's been overcharged, yes.
GROSS: ...cheated, yes.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Oh, yes.
GROSS: And the customer is played by your father.
Mr. B. PAXTON: It is.
GROSS: Here's the scene.
(Soundbite of "A Simple Plan")
Mr. JOHN PAXTON (As Mr. Schmidt): You listening to me, Hank? Every Monday,
I come down here, buy two bags of feed, regular as clockwork; two bags a week,
four times a month. That's eight bags I'm supposed to be billed for. I don't
know how else to get through to you.
Mr. B. PAXTON (As Hank): Well, December started on a Monday, Mr. Schmitt,
so there were five Mondays in the month. So you came in here five times...
Mr. J. PAXTON (As Mr. Schmitt): Are you telling me there were five
weeks last month?
Mr. B. PAXTON: No, sir. I'm telling you there were five Mondays.
(Soundbite of telephone ringing)
Mr. B. PAXTON: Excuse me. I got it. Yeah?
Mr. BILLY BOB THORNTON (As Jacob): Hey, Hank, it's me.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Hang on a second. Listen, check that calendar over
there if you don't believe me, sir.
GROSS: That's Bill Paxton and his father, John Paxton, in a scene from "A
Simple Plan." What's the story behind the scene?
Mr. B. PAXTON: Well, there's a few stories. I mean, my dad sent me this book
when it was a hardback, and I think it'd only been out about four weeks. This
is a debut novel by a great writer named Scott Smith. And he sent it to me
and he said, `You won't be able to lay it down. It's got a lot of hair on
it.' I don't know what that means, but that means it's good, especially
coming from my dad. I sat down to read this book. I could not lay it down.
I called my dad after I read it, and I said, `Dad, I'll never get to play this
part. It's a brilliant part, but I'll never get to do it. I think there'll
be a lot more prominent actors who will be lining up to do this.'
And over five years, I watched other actors who were slated to do it, but for
one reason or another, the film kept capitulating, and eventually, I kind of
won the role by default, one of the greatest roles I ever got to play. I go
up to Starr Production. Sam Raimi directed the picture. And we started
production actually in northern Wisconsin, but the production office I landed
in was in Minneapolis. I walk into the production office to see Sam, and I'm
looking up at the wall, and they usually put, you know, the actor's 8-by-10s
on the production office wall. And, you know, there's Billy Bob, there's
Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, there's my dad, there's Chelcie. Wait a second,
what's my dad doing up there?
Now my dad--I've got to back this up a little bit. My dad retired from the
lumber business about 10 years ago and basically said, `I've really always
wanted to be an actor,' and I said, `Oh, my gosh. You mean, my life's work is
just some continuation of your fantasy?' And anyway, he had written Sam Raimi
a letter and said, `I've always admired your films and I was wondering if
there are any small parts that I'd possibly be right for?'
GROSS: And he didn't tell you he was doing that.
Mr. B. PAXTON: And he didn't tell me that. And Sam, a real gentleman, said,
`Well, I liked your dad's letter, so I thought I'd give him a chance.' And I
said to Sam, `Well, he'd better be good.' But my dad was terrific in the
part, and actually has gone on to work for Sam Raimi again. He'll be featured
in the upcoming "Spider-Man," where he plays--Willem Dafoe, who's the
villain--I think he plays his houseman. So...
GROSS: Oh, that's great. Was it bizarre to work opposite him in a scene?
Mr. B. PAXTON: It was very bizarre, very bizarre. And I realized, you know,
he's an older guy and he was kind of falling into a rhythm with his lines, and
so I had to kind of shake him up a little bit, and I said, you know, `Come in
and give me the business like you give it to me as Bill, you know.' Like my
dad will want me to send an autographed picture to some guy at an auto body
shop, and boy, he will fax me, he will call me, he will just rail me till I
take care of it. And so I said, `Give me some of that,' and I kind of got him
worked up, and I kind of gave Sam the signal to be ready to go. And so once I
thought I had a good froth worked up with my dad, they rolled the cameras, and
he really nailed it.
GROSS: My guest is actor Bill Paxton. He makes his directorial debut with
the new film "Frailty." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actor Bill Paxton. He makes his directorial debut with
the new film "Frailty." He's starred in big-budget films like "Twister" and
"Apollo 13" and in independent films like "One False Move" and "A Simple
Now I want to play another scene from "A Simple Plan," and again, in this
movie, your brother, played by Billy Bob Thornton, and a friend, come upon
this plane that's crashed, a small plane, and there's $4 million there. You
decide to keep it; although your character knows that it's morally the wrong
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.
GROSS: ...but you do it anyways because it's too irresistible. And there's
just one bad...
Mr. B. PAXTON: Regrettably, yes.
GROSS: ...consequence after another that happens as a result of keeping this
money, and you have to keep covering up things. You have to cover up that
you're keeping the money and then you commit a murder, and you have to cover
up the murder, and one bad deed leads to another bad deed.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Once you start digging that hole, the more you dig, the deeper
you get in.
GROSS: Right. Now in this scene, your brother, who's kind of a little
mentally slow and socially slow--your brother, played by Billy Bob Thornton,
has asked you to meet him at the farm that your parents used to own.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Poignant scene.
GROSS: Yeah. And in this scene, you know, you've already both murdered
somebody. Your brother's asked to meet you at the farm. It's now broken
down, in total disrepair. Your brother tells you that he'd actually like to
buy back the farm and live there. Let's hear the scene.
(Soundbite of "A Simple Plan")
Mr. B. PAXTON: Jacob, farming--come on. You don't just buy a farm. You've
to work it. You've got to know about machinery and seed.
Mr. THORNTON: I know that.
Mr. B. PAXTON: No, you don't. Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicide, drainage,
irrigation, the weather. Come on, you don't know about any of that stuff.
You're going to end up just like dad.
Mr. THORNTON: Why do you think he ended up like that?
Mr. B. PAXTON: I'll tell you how he ended up like that. He had two mortgages
riding on the place. He couldn't make the payments.
Mr. THORNTON: Where do you think the money went, huh?
Mr. B. PAXTON: He was a bad businessman.
Mr. THORNTON: Where do you think the money went? No, you think he spent it
all on the farm? I'll tell you exactly where the money went. Four years of
college, bud. Yeah. Didn't you ever think about how he paid for that?
Didn't that ever occur to you?
Mr. B. PAXTON: No. My tuition was...
Mr. THORNTON: Listen, I'm supposed to get the farm. What do I get? I'm
supposed to get the farm.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Jacob, you've got the whole world. You can...
Mr. THORNTON: I don't want to hear that.
Mr. B. PAXTON: You can go anywhere you want.
Mr. THORNTON: This is what I want. This is where I want to be. This is my
GROSS: That's Billy Bob Thornton and my guest, Bill Paxton, in a scene from
"A Simple Plan."
Mr. B. PAXTON: That's a very poignant scene, the idea that the brother,
Jacob, wants to stay and fix up the old farm. I think for a lot of guys like
the character that Billy plays--and women of the same, you know,
background--there's something about their childhood that they want to go back
to; whereas most of us grow up and we move on and, you know, we have memories
of our childhood, fond or indifferent. But, you know, we realize as we mature
you have to kind of let things go and move on. But many people get stuck in
the past, and it's such a poignant thing when he wants to fix up the old farm.
That movie is an intensely personal film for me because my relationship with
my older brother Bob, who is one of the great gentle lambs of the world, but I
think in his heart of hearts, he wishes we still all lived on Indian Creek
Drive in Ft. Worth, Texas. And he's had a tough adulthood and been through a
lot of stuff. And I drew off of that relationship. So for me, being in the
movie was--again, it was very, very personal.
GROSS: In what other ways does he remind you of the brother in your movie?
Mr. B. PAXTON: Well, he has the same kind of sly sense of humor, my brother,
and he has kind of a penchant for saying, you know, the appropriate thing at
the awkward moment. And actually, I had Billy talk to my brother on the phone
several times, and he drew his character from my brother as well as kind of
the innocence of his own relationship and the innocence of his own children.
He was kind of playing that innocence in the role.
GROSS: Did you feel a responsibility to guide your brother in the same way
that your character feels a responsibility toward his brother in the movie?
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah. I've been very involved in my brother's life. He's
kind of my closest sibling in many ways, just because physically, we grew up
together, we went to camps together, and after his accident when he was 24...
GROSS: What accident?
Mr. B. PAXTON: He was in a car accident and lost most of his eyesight, and he
had had emotional problems before then and just compounded everything. He
came up and lived with me in New York City. I was struggling. I remember I
was working as a doorman at the Paramount Theater up in Columbus Circle there,
and we lived in kind of a one-room flat with my girlfriend down in the East
Village, and those were kind of tough times, but we look back and we laugh
about them now. We've always been close, my brother and I.
GROSS: Now you got started in movies working on Roger Corman low-budget
films. Which ones did you work on?
Mr. B. PAXTON: My first film, I was a set dresser in the art department on a
movie called "Big Bad Mama" that starred Angie Dickinson, William Shatner, Tom
Skerritt and Linda Pearl. And I was hired, I'd been out here a couple weeks
and I met a young art director by the name of Peter Jamison, brilliant young
production designer, and he hired me. I remember I didn't realize that Culver
City studios was over here and Universal was over the hill in the Valley and
Paramount was in Hollywood, and I had a 20-foot van, a panel van, just full of
everything from phony saguaro cactuses to all kinds of period furniture and
things, draperies. And by the end of that movie, I think I worked eight or
nine weeks without a day off, I knew this town like the back of my hand.
GROSS: So your job was to find things that were needed for the set?
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes. Yes, I traveled around--this was a period film set in
the early '30s, so I had an old, I think, 1929 Sears and Roebuck catalog that
I kind of used as a guide to pick out furnishings.
GROSS: What's the coolest or most unusual thing you had to find?
Mr. B. PAXTON: Oh, that's a good question. Let me--I'd have to think back.
Those saguaro cactuses were pretty bizarre, from Walter Allen Plant
Rental(ph). I remember going to places that are no longer; this was, you
know, in the mid-70s. I remember going to Western Costume. And what was
amazing about Western Costume--I think people remember it from Nathanael
West's classic "Day of the Locust," the novel and the book--it was a giant
eight-story costume house right next to the Paramount Studios.
It's been torn down. It's really a shame because it was great to go in there.
And you'd pull a shirt of the rack and it might say, `Made expressly for Tom
Mix' or John Wayne or Gary Cooper. And the people that had worked there, it
was kind of a generational type of job. There were people who worked there
going back to silent films. And I guess I've always loved the history of the
business I'm in. And it's a shame that more of it hasn't been preserved out
GROSS: Bill Paxton directed and stars in the new film "Frailty." He'll be
back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music; funding credits)
GROSS: Coming up, we talk about composer and musician Charles Mingus with his
widow Sue Graham Mingus. She's written a new memoir. And we continue our
conversation with actor Bill Paxton. He directed and stars in the new film
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actor Bill Paxton. He
makes his directorial debut with the new film, "Frailty." He also starred in
the big-budget films "Twister" and "Apollo 13," and in the independent films
"One False Move" and "A Simple Plan."
Now I think your first role acting was in "Mortuary."
Mr. B. PAXTON: You have done your homework.
GROSS: I haven't seen "Mortuary."
Mr. B. PAXTON: "Mortuary" was...
GROSS: Tell us what it's about.
Mr. B. PAXTON: ...a classic. I remember I didn't--this was back in the days
when I was just starting out. This is probably about 1980, right thereabouts.
In those days, you know, I'd go in and--very tough, the auditions, you know.
Nine out of 10 times they'll take not the best actor for the role but the
biggest actor they can get for that part. And I would kind of go to great
lengths to convince people I was the guy for the part. In "Mortuary," I play
the son of an undertaker who's gone a little around the bend with the death of
his mother, and because of my experience as a set dresser, I went down to a
place I used to rent a lot of medical equipment from. It was a place called
Physicians' Supply House, or something, it's like down in downtown LA, and I
ended up, you know, getting a trocar. It's this thing for, you know,
disembowelment, and they pump the formaldehyde through the tube, and a rubber
tube, and I had like a handkerchief that I put all this red, you know, blood
on. And I remember in the middle of the scene, this dramatic moment, I pull
out this trocar from out under my coat, and I tell you, the people were about
to call the, you know, studio security--cracked actor.
And I remember not getting the part, but apparently the lead guy got fired.
He got in a big fight with the director the first day of filming, quit the
picture, and I got a call to come in and take over the role. It was a lot of
fun. I guess I've always been drawn to kind of Gothic movies. From a kid,
I've always had kind of a healthy sense of the macabre and the perverse.
GROSS: When you were working on cheap movies, early in your career, did you
meet a lot of people who were on their way up and on their way down?
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah, sure. That escalator goes both ways, for sure. I
remember, I worked with some great people. One of the first art directors I
worked for, a man named Jack Fisk, who's done a lot of David Lynch's films,
and his wife, Sissy Spacek, used to travel around in a panel van with me
picking up set dressing. She had done "Badlands," you know, the classic Terry
Malick film that she co-starred with Martin Sheen in.
But I met James Cameron the same way. I was hired on to be his set dresser in
1980 on a low-budget sci-fi movie called "Galaxy of Terror," and here's this
young art director and I'm picking up drawings off the stage floor that are
beautifully rendered and they're all--Jim's a great draftsman, a great
artist--and Jim took an interest in me, saw that I was more than just a guy
painting flats, and he was telling me about a script he was writing and that
he was going to direct at the time, called "The Terminator."
Mr. B. PAXTON: And I'd be like--it would be like 4:00 in the morning, we're
painting a set, I'd be going, `So let me get this straight. This cyborg comes
back from the future to kill somebody in the past to prevent, you know, a
revolution that's going to happen 100 years from now,' you know, and Jim's a
force of nature, and he's been a great friend, a great colleague and a great
GROSS: Now you were in the remake of "Mighty Joe Young" a few years ago.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.
GROSS: I grew up watching that film over and over. I lived...
Mr. B. PAXTON: God, I did, too!
GROSS: Did you? I lived in New York, where on "Million Dollar Movie" they'd
show the same movie all week.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah. I remember. I mean, they'd show the marquee, the
Million Dollar Marquee.
GROSS: So "Mighty Joe Young" was on just all the time, and you know, `Joe,
Joe, no one can hurt you now,' and...
Mr. B. PAXTON: And what a surrealistic movie. You know, I guess that because
of the success of "King Kong," RKO wanted to try to capitalize on that
franchise. But how do you capitalize on it when Kong dies in the first film?
I mean--so they came up with this new concept of this other, you know, this
smaller, you know, giant gorilla, "Mighty Joe Young."
GROSS: Smaller and more family-oriented.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah, yeah, exactly, although when you watch that movie now,
you realize just how politically incorrect it was, the way they're throwing
those lions around in that nightclub scene and the way, you know, the guy's
feeding Joe the liquor and getting him all agitated. They wouldn't let you
make a movie like that today.
One of the highlights for me was the idea that I was getting to reprise the
role that was played by the great cowboy actor Ben Johnson. Ben, I got to
meet years ago in a little movie called "Back to Back" that starred Apollonia.
And Ben Johnson was in it and an actor named Luke Askew, who plays the sheriff
in "Frailty"; he plays the villainous sheriff. And we were down in Arizona at
the bottom of the Superstition Mountains, shooting in a little town called
Apache Junction; it's where Elvis shot "Charro!" years ago. That was...
GROSS: Where else have I seen the sheriff? I didn't see "Back to Back," so
where else would I have seen him?
Mr. B. PAXTON: Luke Askew was in my movie "Traveller" that I produced.
GROSS: I saw that. OK, maybe that's it.
Mr. B. PAXTON: And he played the head of the Gypsy clan that I was a part of.
GROSS: Oh, maybe that's it.
Mr. B. PAXTON: But he is a--no, he was a very well-known actor. You would
have remembered him from movies like "Easy Rider"...
Mr. B. PAXTON: ..."Cool Hand Luke," Pat Garrett in "Billy the Kid," "The
Great Northfield Minnesota Raid," "The Green Berets," "Hurry Sundown."
Mr. B. PAXTON: But he was very outspoken, kind of a Southern intellectual,
raised a lot of hell, got himself, I think, kind of blacklisted in a way, but
one of the most intelligent actors I've ever worked with. And I've kind of
been on a crusade to kind of see him make a comeback. And I love Luke, and
Luke actually gave me the idea for making the angel more of kind of an
archangel with a flaming sword.
GROSS: Well, I thought he looked like Kirk Douglas.
Mr. B. PAXTON: He did. Yeah, I wanted to go for that kind of "Spartacus"
kind of look.
GROSS: Yeah, exactly.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Absolutely.
GROSS: "Spartacus" era, right, yeah, absolutely.
Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah. Yeah, and there's these old, vengeful angels from the
Old Testament. When they showed up, it wasn't a good thing. You know, you
read passages like, `We were afraid to gaze upon its countenance.' And
usually when, you know, these angels showed up, something nasty was about to
go down. You know, they did kind of God's dirty work, so to speak.
GROSS: Well, Bill Paxton, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. B. PAXTON: A pleasure, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Bill Paxton directed and stars in the new film "Frailty."
Coming up, we talk about the late composer and bass player Charles Mingus with
his widow, Sue Graham Mingus. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Sue Graham Mingus, widow of composer and bassist
Charles Mingus, discusses her husband's life and music and her new
memoir "Tonight at Noon"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Composer and bass player Charles Mingus would have been 80 last week. He died
in 1979 of the neurological disorder ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Mingus was a composer who could work in extremes. His music was alternately
fierce and gorgeous. The moods and time signatures often shifted within a
single composition. Since his death, his widow Sue Graham Mingus has devoted
much of her life to furthering his legacy. She's the founder and director of
the Mingus Big Band, a repertory ensemble devoted to playing Mingus
compositions. Now she's written a memoir about her relationship with Mingus
called "Tonight at Noon." They met in 1964, moved in together in '73 and
married in '75.
Let's start with a 1959 Mingus recording of his composition "Better Git It In
(Soundbite of "Better Git It In Your Soul")
GROSS: There was something about Mingus that seemed to inspire musicians to
do their best work when they played with him. Some musicians that sound, you
know, OK in other settings sound inspired, fiery, when they're playing with
Mingus. Is there anything that you can think about that he did on the
bandstand or in recording sessions that helped bring out those qualities in
the musicians that played with him?
Ms. SUE GRAHAM MINGUS (Widow of Charles Mingus; Author, "Tonight at Noon"):
Well, it was two things. It was Charles, but I have to say it was also the
music, because we have the same effects now that the musicians will tell you
that he is there lashing and whipping them and egging them on from the very
center of the music, demanding that they play themselves and that they don't
hide and that they bring their own individuality and personality into the
center of the music. I say part of this is absolutely a quality of the music
The other part was that Charles himself at the helm, of course, was shouting
and screaming and making demands on his musicians here and now on the stage.
He would do anything that he needed to do to get the response he wanted. He
would curse them, insult them, fire them on stage, hire them back, cajole
them, love them, anything that he could do to get that particular quality,
that response of the music. He used every method at his command.
GROSS: In your book, you write that Mingus had said he didn't like pencil
composers. He wanted his music to sound like the musicians were making it up
as they were playing it. Maybe you could talk a little bit about Mingus'
approach to composing.
Ms. MINGUS: Well, I have to say up front that Charles never pretended to be
consistent. And his views and his method of approaching music changed
constantly, as his own approach to life. He once said that he was trying to
play the truth of what he was, and the reason that was so difficult was that
he was changing all the time. His notions about music changed as well. There
was a time when he didn't like pencil composers. He felt that it took away
from the immediacy of the music. Then he would shout out the lines to the
musicians and hum the melodies. But that changed. Of course, "Epitaph,"
his magnum opus, which was a score of 500 pages, it weighed 15 pounds on my
bathroom scale; I weighed it one day. I mean, this was all written out. So
you see, his approach changed, and what was true one decade was not
necessarily true the next decade, or it expanded and included other approaches
GROSS: From what I know of Charles Mingus, he seems like he was an
exceptionally moody person, swinging back and forth between mania and
depression. I don't know whether he was clinically manic depressive or not.
Ms. MINGUS: You know, I would not really say that. Certainly, living with
Charles at home, he was not moody. He was intense. He was very focused on
his music. He spent hours at the piano. It was where he found the center of
his being and where he found his peace. He was a very sensitive artist in a
society that did not accept who he was, either as an artist or a musician or
as a man with a skin color that wasn't approved. And he fought back. But I
don't know that I would talk about mood swings or manic depressive.
GROSS: He did have one incident in which he was committed. This story is
actually part of jazz lore now. Would you tell us your understanding of the
Ms. MINGUS: Bellevue was his own decision. He wanted to get his `crazy
papers,' as he called them. An attorney told him he had signed, so the story
went, some kind of contract with a Mafia promoter, and he wanted to get out of
it. An attorney had told him, `If you have crazy papers, you know, you can
deny the contract.' So he went to Bellevue. He was not taken to Bellevue at
all. He went under his own steam, and he talked himself in after hours of
talking to the guard. And the guard tried to tell him, you know, `This is not
a hotel. This is not'--'cause Charles was saying he was insomniac, he was
tired of New York nightlife, he wanted some sleep. Anyway, bottom line, he
talked himself into Bellevue and, whammo, you know, he barely escaped having a
lobotomy. He got out with the help of his friend Nat Hentoff. And he found
out it was not a picnic in there. And he wrote a poem called "Hellview of
GROSS: You said that he really did have a nervous breakdown. When did that
Ms. MINGUS: He did have a nervous breakdown in the early '70s. Things had
been building and building, and the problems of confronting this society and
the problems of trying to get his music played. And he came back from a tour
and had an episode, as they called it, in Central Park, throwing hundred
dollars to the wind and throwing off his clothes. And he was taken to a
hospital nearby, where he spent three months. And then he was released and
put on medication and then eventually taken off medication. But that was the
only event in the time that I knew Charles where things came to a head where
it actually was a question of going to a hospital and being treated.
I think a lot of the things people say about Charles had to do with being a
sensitive artist in this society and fighting back with means that were not
conventional. Duke Ellington would say, `I love you madly.' You know,
Charles might raise his fist. I mean, you know, people used different
But Charles was crazy like a fox, I think, and sometimes he carried it to
extremes. I remember one time he said, when Bird was in Birdland and there
had been some impossible scene on stage and Monk walked in and they were
sitting around backstage talking, he said, `I told you guys to act crazy,' he
said, `but I didn't tell you to fall in love with your act,' because of
course, you know, this could be useful. Acting crazy was a way to get
attention, a way to get write-ups and so on and so forth.
GROSS: I want to play a composition that Mingus dedicated to you. And this
was recorded in the latter part of the '70s. It's called "Sue's Changes."
What did he tell you about this piece when he told you about it.
Ms. MINGUS: Well, you know, Charles didn't talk about his compositions, nor
did they necessarily reflect their titles. He would sometimes tack on a
political title if there was something that moved or disturbed him in the
news. And it might be a very lyrical little up-tempo piece and it might have
a title like "Remember Rockefeller at Attica," during the prison uprising
or remember "Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi USA," and it might be this kind of
lilting little tune that didn't sound like it represented the title at all.
And again, there were other political pieces with vocal parts like "Fables of
Faubus" that did indeed reflect a political statement of the time.
"Sue's Changes"--I don't think we talked about--he was actually going to call
that "Sue's Moods," because it goes through many different tempo changes and
melodies. And I had a newspaper called Changes(ph) at the time, and I said,
`Why don't you call it "Sue's Changes"?' So he did, but he would always make
a point of saying it had nothing to do with my newspaper.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Sue's Changes."
(Soundbite of "Sue's Changes")
GROSS: "Sue's Changes," recorded in 1974. We'll talk more about Charles
Mingus with his widow, Sue Graham Mingus, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Sue Graham Mingus. Her new book, "Tonight at Noon," is a
memoir about her relationship with her late husband, the composer and bass
player Charles Mingus.
Charles Mingus died from Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS. When was he diagnosed,
and how did you get the diagnosis?
Ms. MINGUS: He had felt that something was wrong. His drummer had pointed
out that his fingers weren't as nimble in his bass solos. And he was having
trouble with his toes. And he was losing energy. He started sleeping. For
someone who wrote a piece called "The Man Who Never Sleeps," he started
spending most of the days in bed, all day long, thinking that that might be
the problem. And we went to many specialists around the world in Milano and
Argentina and in St. Louis. And finally, at the Neurological Center at
Columbia Presbyterian, they diagnosed ALS, popularly known as Lou Gehrig's
disease. And they said he had three months--three to six months to live, just
like that, out of the blue.
So, you know, it was a pretty shocking, unexpected, terrible thing. We moved
to the building that I'm in now, which is an elevator building because they
told us he would be in a wheelchair very quickly. And we ended up going to
Mexico to spend time with witches and healers there, which is where we spent
the last six months of our life in a fairly rollicking, vital kind
of--considering that Charles was completely paralyzed in a wheelchair and
ordering us all about. And we went out and had feasts at nighttime and
traveled up mountains and down valleys and to volcanoes, and with all of
Charles' appetites, which never ceased for a moment.
GROSS: Were you in Mexico hoping to find some kind of, like, miracle cure?
Ms. MINGUS: Oh, absolutely. We were down there to beat the rap. We never
talked about my carrying on his music, for example. I mean, we were down
there running after a miracle.
GROSS: At what point did he have to stop playing?
Ms. MINGUS: Well, he stopped playing at the time that he was diagnosed. We
had been out in Arizona, the state where he was born. He played his last
concert there in Phoenix. And he barely could walk off the stage, and he got
a standing ovation for what turned out to be the last concert in his life.
And we canceled the tour then and there, flew back to New York and went to the
hospital, where eventually the physician who had been called in when Bobby
Kennedy was shot diagnosed this disease. I told Charles, you know, this
prestigious physician, etc., and he wasn't the least bit impressed; all he
said was, `Bobby Kennedy died, didn't he?' But anyway, it was diagnosed.
And then we began the circuit of terminal hope. You know, there are all kinds
of--the cobra doctors and the cobra medicine doctors and the God-knows-what.
You know, you run after every possible hope you can. We went to Switzerland.
Charles was shot with these cells of an unborn lamb, which probably has
something to it. You know, this is the old wives' tale that if you treat a
sick liver with a healthy liver from an animal, from whatever. And there was
a clinic in Switzerland that a lot of famous people--Churchill and Charlie
Chaplin and so forth--had gone to. As I said in my book, you know, the famous
and the celebrated make the same mistakes the rest of us make. But Charles
had all these shots of cells, I think 16 or something, from an unborn lamb.
And the next morning he woke up and I looked at him crucified in the bed
beside me, and the sun was coming over these mountains in Switzerland, and I
realized that he was awake and he was staring at me. And I looked at him, and
all he said was, `Baa.'
GROSS: Did you have any faith in these experimental cures?
Ms. MINGUS: I did, indeed. I think hope is a wondrous thing, and you cling
to it. And miracles have happened before. The nurses, of course, are the
first ones--they're all very upbeat; they all tell you they believe in
miracles, and you believe right along with them up until the very end.
GROSS: At what point did Mingus start to talk about what he'd wanted for his
Ms. MINGUS: Well, I don't know that we ever really talked--his son asked him
once what he wanted and he said, `What kind of funeral do you want?' And
Charles said, `Do what you like; I won't be there.' But beyond that, he
believed in reincarnation. He wanted his ashes scattered in the Ganges River.
I think he probably didn't want the gangsters and the promoters and the club
owners messing with this passage of his soul from one life to the next. I
think he wanted to be on the far side of the globe, away from--he had become
disenchanted with jazz funerals, where he felt everything was pretty
self-promoting and musicians were up there like a gig, and where was the
spirit of the person who we were supposed to be remembering? So I think he
wanted a very quiet passage into his next life. And I went to India and
scattered his ashes in the Ganges as he had asked. That's how I begin the
GROSS: Where are Charles Mingus' basses now, his instruments?
Ms. MINGUS: Well, there's one, the one that he says plays itself. It has a
resonance. If you pluck a string, the sound goes on and on. And our current
bass player, Boris Kozlov, is playing that, the Lionshead(ph) bass in the
Mingus Big Band.
And there's another bass that he used to bow with, and he carved out one of
the shoulders and inverted it because he had a belly and he could lean over
more easily to bow. And this is a priceless--this was one of the first
basses; it's kind of between the size of a cello and a bass. It's absolutely
beautiful-looking. This is in my apartment. Another bass I gave to a
Hungarian bassist, and he left one to Red Callender, a dear friend of his.
GROSS: Sue Graham Mingus, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. MINGUS: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Sue Graham Mingus has written a memoir about her relationship with her
late husband Charles Mingus called "Tonight at Noon." She's the founder and
director of the repertory ensemble the Mingus Big Band. We'll close with the
title track from their new CD, "Tonight at Noon."
(Soundbite of the Mingus Big Band performing "Tonight at Noon")
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of the Mingus Big Band performing "Tonight at Noon")
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, we talk with satirist Al Franken about humor
after September 11th. He has a new book spoofing advice books on how to
achieve success and happiness. I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH
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