Skip to main content

Actor Jeffrey Tambor on His Role as a Sidekick

For five years, Tabor played the part of Hank Kingsley, talk-show sidekick on the HBO comedy series, "The Larry Sanders Show." He's had many character roles on television and film. He made his film debut with a critically-acclaimed performance as Al Pacino's deranged law partner in the 1979 film "And Justice For All." He's currently starring in the TV movie "Weapons of Mass Distraction" written by Larry Gelbart. It premieres May 17.

18:24

Other segments from the episode on May 12, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 12, 1997: Interview with Robert Hughes; Interview with Jeffrey Tambor.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 12, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051201np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Robert Hughes
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Robert Hughes, has been described in the New Yorker as the most famous art critic in the world. He's the art critic for Time magazine and reached a TV audience through his PBS series about modern art called "The Shock of the New."

He's commented on the so-called "culture wars," criticizing both political correctness and patriotic correctness. Now, he has a new book on the history of American art called "American Visions." It's a companion to his new PBS series which begins May 28.

Hughes first learned about American art from afar. He grew up in Australia, and remains an Australian citizen, although he's lived in the states for over 25 years.

One of the great paradoxes he's found in American art is that although he considers America the most religious country in the developed world, America has never produced great religious art. He traces that back to the Puritans.

ROBERT HUGHES, AUTHOR, "AMERICAN VISIONS: THE EPIC HISTORY OF ART IN AMERICA": Puritans didn't like religious iconography. They were great believers in the word, but not in the image. You know, their source of aesthetic delight and of the fountain of truth, as far as they were concerned, was the word.

But anything that resembled a religious image, you know -- God or the saints, or whatever, smacked to them of Rome, of Catholicism, which they loathed above all else and thought diabolic.

And they associated religious painting or religious sculpture with idolatry. And what came out of it was a kind of free-floating suspicion of the usefulness of art at all.

You know, art thereafter often, and during the 19th century in particular, had to justify itself to an American audience in terms of ideas about uplift and morality and self-improvement, which all lie at the heart of the origins of the American museum.

But, you know, people in America did not take very kindly to the idea that art should just be there in order to be enjoyable. You know, that it should provide an educated pleasure of the senses of whatever.

See, the -- this fancy that art is morally improving still, you know, actually, I think haunts American reactions to works of art, and you see it, you know, come out in a particularly vehement form in all the, you know, the NEA controversy in recent years. If it ain't morally improving, when how can it be art? You know.

GROSS: Right. Well, how do you think the American museum was different than the European museum?

HUGHES: Well, first of all, the American museum was not a kind of -- a depository of plunder. There were no royal collections or ducal collections to pour into the American museum and make public. Everything that came to the United States has to be brought here, and it was brought her quite late.

I mean, serious museum collecting of art in America did not really begin until the 1870s, 1880s, and it began because there was this enormous wealth which had been generated after the Civil War, and a lot of squillionaires, topped off by the prodigious presence of J.P. Morgan, but including people like Frick and Isabella Stewart Gardner.

And they really wanted to improve themselves and improve themselves in the eyes of others by buying the Renaissance. The -- there was all this stuff available, and they bought in huge quantities, in such a way that actually, you know, if you want to study the Italian Renaissance now, you really have to come to America to do it, as well as go to other places.

So these -- they began as essentially private museums. They were never state museums, although this came later with things like the National Gallery. And the -- so the whole background to American collecting was quite different to what it had been in Europe.

GROSS: So it was the -- American collecting was generated more by self-made millionaires and businessmen, than a royal court...

HUGHES: Absolutely.

GROSS: ... or the church or the state.

HUGHES: Absolutely. Yeah.

GROSS: So, tell me more about where you think the notion of art as self-improvement enters into America in a way that's different from Europe?

HUGHES: Well, people placed a great emphasis on it in America because of their evangelical background. You know, that was the way in which art, which was somewhat suspected by earlier generations, was allowed to go public.

It was thought that it would, you know, morally improve people, that being exposed to the true, the good, and the beautiful was going to repaper your soul, as it were.

And of course, we know -- we would like to believe this, but we know in our heart of hearts that it just ain't true. I mean, the Rothko on the wall does not turn the corporate tycoon from a saber toothed tiger into Bambi. It just doesn't do that.

I mean, art can do a lot of things. It can make you more responsive to your surroundings. It can make you think and feel a bit more clearly and, you know, precisely. It can -- above all, it can give you pleasure, but it doesn't actually make you a morally better person.

But this was one of the great delusions of the time, and it was a fruitful delusion because it, you know, an enormous amount of accumulation of really superb objects was raised on it.

GROSS: And Europeans never bought into that idea?

HUGHES: Not really. Ruskin did to some degree, but the -- there wasn't anything like the same strength of belief in that idea. See, America never -- it's an odd thing about American art. It never really produced much in the way of the -- of art that was intended to sort of self-delighting educated pleasure of the sense. I mean, there's no American equivalent to Henri Matisse, for instance.

GROSS: So, where does American art begin for you? Art that you consider truly American and not a European-made art -- made by a European who came to America?

HUGHES: The first art that really starts to look independent in America isn't painting; it isn't sculpture. It's furniture. And you know why? It's because there was that limitless supply of really fine hardwoods, so that instead, for instance -- yeah, I mean, American furniture makers would follow Chippendale or Sheraton pattern books.

They used them. But the thing is that if you -- if you're making a cabriol (ph) leg, you know, one of those curvy legs, and you hogged out the basic form from a four-by-four piece of mahogany, you'd get a certain amount of curvature, right?

But if you have an eight-by-eight slab of mahogany, and, you know, it's that much deeper and wider, then you can cut into the space much more. You can produce much more extravagant kind of effects, as in the great, you know, there are these wonderful shell desks and cabinets that were made by a firm called Townsend (ph) and Goddard in Newport in the late 18th century. And they're incredibly generous and robust in their proportions, and they have this beautiful deep carving.

And the -- and this is because you could waste so much wood, you know, and so the work begins to diverge from the English pattern books for that reason. I mean, there's nothing provincial about Philadelphia furniture by the 1760s. It's, you know, it's an autonomous set of designs.

GROSS: When I was reading what you wrote about colonial furniture in America, I was wondering: did you already know this when you started?

HUGHES: No, I didn't know all of it.

GROSS: Did you follow American furniture before that?

HUGHES: Well, I'm a carpenter, you see. I've...

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.

HUGHES: ... got a, you know, I've got my own workshop out in Shelter Island where I live, and I love, you know, fiddling around in the shop. And so I am sort of interested in that stuff. You see, I don't take the view that, you know, you've got a gradation between high arts and low, with furniture somewhere at the bottom of the heap and painting up the top.

You know, if you learn how to read a, you know, really fine or even a crude chest of drawers, it may surrender up as much in terms of social understanding and, you know, give you nearly as much aesthetic pleasure or more, in some cases, than a painting, you know?

GROSS: Yeah, you describe the early American landscape painters as having a very important role in the development...

HUGHES: Oh, very, very important indeed.

GROSS: ... of early art in America. What is the importance of their place?

HUGHES: Well, I'll tell you. It's because, I mean, as we were talking about earlier, the -- there was no doctrinal religious painting of any substance in America. I mean, the only, you know, religious art that you get, you know, comes out of a Baptist and mainly a black Baptist tradition in the South.

But as for doctrinal paintings, no -- suppressed by Puritanism. So the visionary urge, the religious urge, got shifted sideways and it got projected upon the landscape. Why? Because the landscape was new. There were no rooms in America. There were no picturesque works of man that you could connect with.

But what America had, which Europe didn't have, was this sublime, unedited endlessly beautiful and never previously painted landscape which, in the eyes of artists, some artists anyway, and preachers and so forth, was -- mattered because it was the unedited fingerprint of God. This is how God had set down the world, and it was right there in America.

I mean, it's curious: you still get that kind of reaction when you go to -- have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?

GROSS: No, I wish I could say I have, but I haven't.

HUGHES: Well if you do and you talk to people as we did, you know, among the -- you know, doing vox pops more or less at random along the canyon rim, still, you get, you know, nice pious visitors with their five-year-old tots, saying: oh, you know, this is wonderful because God put it in -- God put this in America to let us know that we're American, and then he invented Americans so that they could look at it. You know, I mean this was the -- and this is very much a kind of 19th century survival.

Cole, who invented, who created the American landscape school -- this transplanted Englishmen who got to New York in 1825 -- painted a stream of pictures in which he expressed first of all his anxiety about development; his anxiety about the commercialization of landscape; his desire to keep it as a perfectly unsullied Eden.

And he believed that if you did keep it that way, then, you know, it would act as a kind of moral conduit, because you would see the world as God made it, as God meant it to be. Well, of course, this sounds very familiar, doesn't it?

Because it's actually Cole and then, you know, after him Frederick Church and writers like Thoreau and Emerson who create this sense of the sacredness of the fragile wilderness and its ability to teach us lessons. And this, then, is amplified in the writings of people like John Muir and it eventually forms the mainstream of the conservation movement.

And it still is strong -- it's even stronger today than it ever was, except that it's been secularized.

GROSS: My guest is art critic Robert Hughes. His new book is called American Visions. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: Robert Hughes is my guest, art critic for Time magazine, and he has a new book called "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America." The book is a companion to the PBS TV series which starts at the end of May.

You grew up in Australia.

HUGHES: Yeah.

GROSS: In the '50s and '60s.

HUGHES: Yeah.

GROSS: When you were studying art in Australia...

HUGHES: I never studied art.

GROSS: You never studied art.

HUGHES: No, there were no art history courses available. What I did was that I studied architecture, and then I dropped out in the my final year in order to write a book about art. I just learned on the job.

I started as an art critic at 21, and Australia was about the only place where somebody of my transcendent ignorance could survive as an art critic at the age of 21. And, the, you know, -- it's -- no, I have no degrees, except honorary ones. I never earned a real degree.

GROSS: What, what, what did American art mean to you when you were starting out?

HUGHES: Oh, it meant freedom and freshness. But we were thinking of abstract expressionism. You know, the copy of Art News -- I'm talking about the late '50s, early '60s -- the copy of Art News would arrive and it would be torn to -- you know, this message in a bottle from the other side of the Atlantic. And you'd tear out the four-by-five inch reproduction of the de Kooning and you'd go home and pin it to your studio wall, and then proceed to paint a purple version of it.

We never got to see this stuff in the original until much later. The museums were very, very much behind the times and the -- I think I'm right in saying -- that no work by an American abstract expressionist was really seen in Australia until at least the early '60s.

GROSS: So, when you were coming of age artistically...

HUGHES: So, I didn't have much of an idea of...

GROSS: ... you were looking at reproductions all the time.

HUGHES: Absolutely. Absolutely. We were in the post-modernist condition without knowing it.

And it was -- it was a fairly weird business because, you know, your passionate arguments would ensue over paintings that one had not, in fact, seen. That was why I decided to leave, you know, I wanted to see this stuff and older stuff too, of course.

But the -- in a way, it was probably not unlike the situation that artists in America were like vis-a-vis Europe, you know, in the, you know, up until at least about 1900, and as far as modern art was concerned, until the 1920s.

GROSS: When you came to New York in 1970, what was happening in New York that most caught your attention?

HUGHES: Well, what was all around you at that time was minimalism. It was one of those -- you know, from time to time, the American art world has a little convulsion and it decides that something or other is dead and can never be revived. A lot of people at the time thought that was painting was dead, and would never be revived.

So there was a lot of minimalism. There was a lot of conceptual art. There was, you know, the beginnings, I would say, well, not the beginnings, you know, the sort of -- not the first faint flutterings, but a developing stream of performance and process and video art and what have you.

And I must say that I've never really been interested in conceptual art. Talk about the inheritance from Puritanism and the distrust of the sensuous object. You know, a few words on the wall or a couple of stones on the floor -- no thank you.

The -- but you know, there were some extraordinary painters still walking around. Philip Custer (ph) was alive. Bob Motherwell was still alive; de Kooning was still alive, of course, although I never met him.

GROSS: Did you never believe it -- did you never believe in that era that painting was dead?

HUGHES: Of course not. Painting never dies. It just keeps on assuming new disguises. And, I mean, painting is such a fundamental language, fundamental in its concreteness and its flexibility and its able to -- its ability to encapsulate high physical sensations that I can't see that it would ever become useless.

GROSS: Do you think painting has had to compete with television and movies...

HUGHES: Yeah.

GROSS: ... and a pop culture of so many different sorts, which have visual components. I mean, even rock videos have a visual component. You don't need to...

HUGHES: Sure, I mean...

GROSS: ... go to a museum to see something that's provocative or sensual or beautiful.

HUGHES: But you do need to go to a museum to see a painting.

GROSS: Right.

HUGHES: And the -- because, you see, the one thing, the one claim that can be made for dear old painting is that it's got itself and itself only. That is to say, you can't get the message from reproduction or, for that matter, from looking at it in one of my television programs.

You can't get the full thing from there. You can't experience -- you can't truly experience painting at second hand. The only place you can experience a sort of facsimile thing, but you know, you can't know the real thing unless you've met it on the wall because they are objects -- they have a, you know, a particular scale, a particular array of color.

They've got densities or thinnesses of opacity and depth of pigment. You know, none of this comes across in virtual reality or on television. Only approximations of it do.

There's no reason why the physicality of painting should be resented. It's certainly true that, you know, other media are superbly good at moving huge streams and blocks of information around the board. But that again, is not what painting is for. Painting is for delaying the eye, not making it faster.

GROSS: I'm wondering if there's any one chapter within American art history that you feel you have really rewritten from the way it was perceived before.

HUGHES: I don't think completely rewritten. I think -- I mean, I hope that I've brought some insights to an understanding of American art, which maybe had not been there before or perhaps not so clearly expressed. I would hope that.

But -- and I dare say that quite a number of my opinions will be, you know, shrugged off or not believed, and quite rightly so, too, because they might be wrong.

But the -- you see, above all, I wanted to get away from this conventional way of thinking about American art, which was that it all came of age after the Second World War and that what went before was embryonic or larval or merely preparatory, and then American art really grew up with the abstract expressionist.

This is not so. I mean, American consistently produced extraordinary painters in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I mean, if somebody said to me: who do you prefer, Jackson Pollock or Winslow Homer? I would be unable to give you an answer because I -- but I certainly don't think of Pollock as in any way a superior painter to Homer.

Not at all. Eakins (ph) the same. Frederick Church -- I mean, Frederick Church's pictures when I first came to America in 1970, were just thought of as the height of silly bombast. Well I think probably a few years down the line, you know, I mean, as Church is rehabilitated, it may indeed be that people will look at Barney Newman's (ph) paintings and think they are the height of silly bombast.

GROSS: Let's do an end-of-the-millennium type of thing here. Where do you think we are now vis-a-vis American art at the end of the...

HUGHES: Well, I think we're in a bit of a troth, quite frankly. I don't think that -- I mean, if you look back, well, I mean, that's also true of art pretty much within the West. I mean, if you look back at who was walking around in Paris in 1897 and what was being made there by a whole variety of people ranging from Cezanne and Monet to Marcel Proust, and then you compare it with what is being produced in Paris right now, there isn't actually much of a comparison, in my view.

And I think that in the -- we make a mistake if we imagine that cultural periods or epochs can sort of maintain their vitality right throughout. You know, the sort of parody of the old Marxian idea of permanent -- you know, refreshment by perpetual revolution.

Nothing of the sort happens. I mean, you know, periods do, it seems, run out of steam. And I think it may be that that's what's happening now.

But on the other hand, this is not a reason for, you know, rejecting the present or anything like that. You just have to -- I mean, if you do feel that the -- the level is dropping, you don't to just turn around and walk away.

Because there are, you know, always at any given time, some pretty good artists that you can look at with pleasure and think about and perhaps know. And the -- it doesn't suddenly go from a very lively scene to being an absolutely dead, glacial scene.

I mean, look, they are wonderful sculptors in America. Look at Richard Serra (ph). Look at Martin Pulyear (ph). There are some very, very good painters around, too.

And I think the idea that America could, you know, keep on producing radically new movements with the sort of incontinent fecundity that it -- that it was much credited with, I think that idea has actually gone out the window because we -- you know, the rise, inflation, and collapse of the art market at the end of the '80s made people skeptical about that -- the sort of ridiculous bombast that was associated with so many '80s artists and the absurdly exaggerated claims that were made for them that made people nervous about claims of artistic greatness.

And the -- it's a much more modest, though still overcrowded, scene now.

GROSS: Robert Hughes. His new book is called American Visions. His PBS series on American art begins May 28. Robert Hughes will be back in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Robert Hughes, art critic for Time magazine. He has a new book called "American Visions," which is a companion to his eight-part PBS series on the history of American art. It begins May 28.

Do you collect art? Do you, you know...

HUGHES: No I don't. I don't.

GROSS: Well, why not?

HUGHES: I have a few etchings, you know, I've got a few prints. My walls are not completely bare. I like -- you know, I have a few nice, sort of, you know, rather folk pottery-type Japanese -- you know, oldish Japanese pots and things like that.

You know, and there are a couple of paintings and prints that artist friends have given me in the past. But that's it. I've never collected, and I'll tell you why, because there's a conflict of interest problem, you know, for a critic collecting the contemporary.

GROSS: Oh, 'cause then you could help make the artist's reputation and the prices would rise.

HUGHES: Yeah all that sort of -- if a critic can't make a living as a writer, then he or she, you know -- and has to go into a kind of pseudo-dealership, then he or she should perhaps consider just really being a dealer and not bothering writing criticism.

GROSS: Do you wish that you could surround yourself in your own home with art that you love?

HUGHES: Oh, of course, I'd love to have a great big Pirandello Franceso (ph) on one wall, and you know, Titian's (ph) "Rape of Europa" on the other. Who wouldn't? But you know, I get my pleasure from other things.

I -- the -- there's a lot to be said for privately-owning a work of art, because, you know, it enables you to see it under all sorts of lights and conditions of consciousness, and you'll certainly get to understand it better than you would the same painting if you just visited it episodically in a museum.

But this is a sort of trade-off, you know. I -- I mean, yeah, I mean, like anybody else, I would love to have really fine furniture and fine ceramics and so forth, but I don't think it's imaginable that I would ever get to own the sort of things that I really most love, and so, therefore I'm perfectly content to see them in museums.

GROSS: You are an Australian-born art critic writing about American art. Do you ever feel like you have a different perspective on American art because you came here when you already, what, in your 20s.

HUGHES: I was 32.

GROSS: Oh, even older. Yeah, and you kind of like yearned for American art, in a way, imagined American art before you actually saw the real thing.

HUGHES: Sort of, yes. Yes, that's right.

GROSS: Do you think that you have a different perspective on American art by virtue of being somewhat of an outsider to America, 'cause...

HUGHES: Yeah, absolutely. I do. I do. And -- but it's not just a different perspective on American art. It's, I think, probably a sort of slight shift of perspective on America as such, because the -- see, all Americans, whether they want to or not, grow up with this idea of American exceptionalism.

You know, that America was founded and forged for a particularly exalted destiny. You know, that it -- the first among the nations of the world. You know, there was the -- and this idea of exceptionalism, that it was a special case among nations, stayed absolutely solid from the time of the Puritans to the end of the Cold War, and then it began to falter.

Now, we Australians, on the other hand, know very well that we were not picked out for a sacred mission. We were convicts, at the beginning. And, so consequently, whereas Americans are continuously in a state of disappointment, we aren't.

GROSS: You expect the worst.

HUGHES: We don't expect too much.

LAUGHTER

HUGHES: Yeah.

GROSS: I guess that leads to my last question, which is that I read that, after, I guess, after completing the TV series maybe, you fell into a depression.

HUGHES: Oh, horrible. Yeah.

GROSS: That might be too personal, I don't know, but ...

HUGHES: No, no. That's OK. I don't mind talking about it. I mean, this is not Oprah Winfrey and I don't believe in making a big point about it, but you know this sometimes happens in the lives of writers. We're not as tough as we imagine we are.

I'd overworked. The series had really burnt me up, and then I realized that I had, you know, to finish a book more than 200,000 words- long in nine months. And the -- it's certainly true: I rather caved in. I became reclusive, melancholic. I felt dreadful.

I therefore went for the first time in my long lapsed-Catholic life to see a shrink. And it did wonders.

GROSS: Did it?

HUGHES: Striking. Yeah, it did actually. I'd never been to a shrink before. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Talk therapy, or pharmaceuticals, too?

HUGHES: What, pills?

GROSS: Yeah.

HUGHES: Yeah, sure. I had some pills, too. You know, uppers, downers, and you know, the usual sort of pills to get you over the big humps. But I'll tell you, I hated the whole thing, but it made me realize some things about myself which are never going to be beneficial as a writer.

And I'll tell you one thing that I did realize, that the -- you know, that agitated, depressive state is probably much more common in American life than anybody acknowledges. It's that feeling of having absolutely no safety net underneath you.

GROSS: What gave you that feeling of not having a safety net?

HUGHES: Despair. I thought that the -- I thought I was going to burn myself out writing the book. In practice, I didn't. But I was just terribly worried. I was anxious. I was looking over my shoulder the whole time. It was hell on my wife.

But I -- but it's one of those sort of things that can be either crushing or valuable, depending upon -- this sounds like a, you know, sort of flow of therapeutic cliches -- but it's one of those things that can be either crushing or valuable, depending upon what you bring to it and what you bring out of it.

And the, you know, I was very lucky in that, you know, it didn't -- it wasn't like being leapt upon by something incomprehensible in the dead of night. I had a fair idea of what was going on.

But the big problem is always to enable yourself -- find a way in which you can keep working consistently through the maze of negative feeling.

GROSS: When you were going through that depressed period, would art -- would like going to a museum, or something, temporarily get you out of it? Or was that not...

HUGHES: Well, it wouldn't get me out of it, but I certainly still liked going to museums and like Saul in his madness, I would enjoy listening to music, too. It isn't as if the whole world turns into shit.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: That's reassuring.

HUGHES: Yeah. It was. Anyway.

GROSS: Well, thanks a lot.

HUGHES: All right. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Robert Hughes is art critic for Time magazine. His new book American Visions is a companion to his PBS series on the history of American art, which begins May 28.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Robert Hughes
High: Art critic Robert Hughes. He has been Time magazine's art critic for more than 25 years. He is the author of a number of books and the recipient of a number of awards, most recently one from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His latest book is "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America." There's also a companion 8-part PBS series which he hosts, beginning May 28.
Spec: Art; Media; Television; History; Education
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Robert Hughes
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 12, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051202np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Jeffrey Tambor
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, THE "LARRY SANDERS SHOW")

JEFFREY TAMBOR, ACTOR: OK, now, you see this gentleman? Now, he's giving me this -- this sign, and it says we're on in ten seconds, so get ready to have a good time.

All right, here we go. This is exciting, isn't it?

UNNAMED MALE VOICE: Ten, five, four, three, two...

SOUND OF A BAND

JEFFREY TAMBOR: Live, on tape from Hollywood, the Larry Sanders Show. Tonight, join Larry and his guests Emma Thompson, Frank Langella, comedian Drew Fink (ph), and me, Hey Now, Hank Kingsley. And now, because the governor called, Larry Sanders.

APPLAUSE

TERRY GROSS, HOST: My guest, Jeffrey Tambor, plays Hank Kingsley, the announcer and side-kick on "The Larry Sanders Show," Gary Shandling's always-funny spoof of late night variety shows and the world of celebrity ego.

HBO has a Larry-thon planned for the week of June 2, featuring all the episodes from this past season. Meanwhile, this Sunday, you can see Jeffrey Tambor in a new HBO movie called "Weapons of Mass Distraction," satirizing the power games of media and sports tycoons.

Tambor plays Alan Blanchard (ph), the right hand man of media mogul Lionel Powers, played by Gabriel Byrne. Powers and his rival tycoon, played by Ben Kingsley, are both trying to buy the same football franchise, believing that whoever controls sports, controls it all.

Here's Jeffrey Tambor in a scene where, over a nice dinner, he tries blackmailing the owner of the football team, Billy Paxton (ph), played by R. Lee Ermey.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, FILM, "WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION")

TAMBOR: Just a few of the medical bills in connection with a small secret surgical procedure your niece, Pipa (ph), required a month after the intimate high school graduation party the two of you shared.

R. LEE ERMEY, ACTOR: Kind of hitting a little bit below the belt here, aren't we, Alan?

TAMBOR: That's where most of the really good stuff happens, Billy.

IRMEY: Where'd you get all of this stuff?

TAMBOR: I can't reveal my sources. Journalistic integrity, and all that.

IRMEY: Lionel Powers wouldn't know integrity if it jumped off the toilet seat and reamed out his insides.

TAMBOR: I will certainly pass that appreciation on to him.

IRMEY: You are a snide (expletive deleted). Do you know that, friend?

TAMBOR: Let's not shoot the messenger, Billy. No pun intended.

IRMEY: And what is Mr. Integrity going to do if he knocks Julian out of the box and Sayles (ph) decides to block the deal so that neither can buy the Tigers? Is that really what Lionel want out of all this? Playing the dog in the manger.

TAMBOR: Top dog in the manger, Billy. Always top dog.

GROSS: So, how does the character in Weapons of Mass Distraction compare to Hank Kingsley?

TAMBOR: Well, put an apple in your hand, then put an orange in your hand, then you have the contrast. I mean, they're just two different people. Alan's pretty much button-down -- much more of a "killer" and he's sort of, I would say, more straightened than Hank, who is pretty much all over the emotional map.

GROSS: And how did you get the part of Hank Kingsley on the Gary Shandling Show?

TAMBOR: I paid Gary.

GROSS: How much?

TAMBOR: An enormous amount of money.

GROSS: What'd it cost you?

TAMBOR: No, I ...

GROSS: I mean, did they call you up? Or was it a an audition...

TAMBOR: No, no, no. It's a very interesting story. Don't you like it when people are being interviewed, and they say, you know, this is a very interesting story, and then they proceed with a very dull story.

GROSS: Right. Yeah.

TAMBOR: But this is -- no, I was up for a -- up for a pilot at a network, and it didn't work out. I was neither enthused. The network was not enthused. No one was really enthused about it.

And there was much -- I wasn't really right for the character. And then I -- but the producer -- writer/producer of that show that evening apparently called Gary, he was a friend of Gary's, and said: "have I got the guy for you" or words to that effect.

And the very next day, a script came and I went in the very next day after that, and read for Gary. We read together, and we have a great, great, great time of it. And then I got the role.

So, I auditioned, and it was -- the very first script was called "Hey Now" -- the "Hey Now" script, and I knew that that role was a good one for me and I could contribute to the show.

And I'm a huge -- was and am a huge fan of Gary's and of "The Gary Shandling Show" and the audition went very well. And I actually called him at five o'clock that day, later that day, to say I really loved that role and I really want to play it, which I've never done.

And I said, you know, I've never done this -- I've never called somebody and said I want this role, and he said, no, but Hank Kingsley would, so it was my introduction to it. And I'm very happy, we're going into our sixth season, starting, you know, in the, I guess, winter.
And I'm very happy with it.

GROSS: When you started out performing on the Larry Sanders Show, did you start watching late-night television more.

TAMBOR: No.

GROSS: Or start watching it differently than you used to.

TAMBOR: I did one thing and it, you know, an actor researches, and I just wanted to find out -- I mean, I know what a -- I knew what he did on the air, but I went to watch Mr. McMahon, Ed McMahon, and I sat up in the bleachers there at NBC and I watched Ed listen or respond to Johnny Carson's monologue.

The first surprising thing is that he was no more than 12, 15 feet away, and he was right there, you know, with him -- really responding, really laughing at him, really egging him on and really being supportive. And I remember saying, "well, that's the character."

I mean, that is his job, and I later corroborated that with Ed, and it was very helpful. And that's the only thing. But I didn't ape him or do anything like that. I tried to find his own way, and I'm still finding him.

The wonderful thing about doing the show is that each week, the writers, who are really the unsung heroes -- well, they're not unsung. I mean, they're rewarded up and down the line -- but the real heroes are those guys who write and continually kick out the characters week after week and add dimensions to them. That's what's so very interesting.

Normally, when you do a network show, not to be pejorative about network TV, but usually you play the same function week after week after week. Here, there's a difference where you get to add a different trait. I mean, one week he's foolish.

The next week, he is wise. One week, he's having marital problems. The next week he's involved in sex tapes. I mean, it's just a -- the other week, he rediscovers his Jewish roots.

They've been quite demanding of the character, and the character changes from week to week and I like that.

GROSS: Did you always want to be a character actor?

TAMBOR: Yes. From, yeah, yeah I did. I always -- I was -- in school, I always looked a little older than the -- they were better roles. They were just better roles. And I just sort of always decided to do that. I mean, even in summer stock when I was 16 years old, I was playing fathers and uncles, and things like that, and monsters and things like that.

So it's -- no, I'm very blessed. I wouldn't have it any other way.

GROSS: What made you look older when you were in high school?

TAMBOR: Well, I started to lose my hair when I was around 16, 17. That would get me into character work.

GROSS: Was that upsetting to you? You know, some...

TAMBOR: My father cried. My father actually cried.

GROSS: Did he really? When you started losing your hair, he started to cry?

TAMBOR: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Why? 'Cause you were...

TAMBOR: Bald. He was bald. I don't know. You know. I don't know. He just was an emotional man, a great man, but -- no, it wasn't upsetting to me. It's not upsetting to me. I don't even think of myself as a bald man now. I mean, when I see a film I go "oh, no hair." But I -- it doesn't bother me.

GROSS: My guest is actor Jeffrey Tambor. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: Back with Jeffrey Tambor. He plays announcer and sidekick Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show, and he co-stars in the new HBO movie Weapons of Mass Distraction, a satire about media tycoons which premiers Saturday.

How did you realize you were seriously interested in acting?

TAMBOR: I lived across the street from a theater in San Francisco, and one day I helped them, you know, strike the set and one day I, you know, we talked about this, and I just sort of -- it was sort of the kid who hung around.

I even remember the play that they were doing -- it was "Home of the Brave" and they were, like, they were the kids. They were like 18 years old, but I thought they were these giants. And they actually asked what I thought and things like that, so it was really from that moment on, I was really hooked.

GROSS: And did you do school productions?

TAMBOR: Mm-hmm. I think so. Yes, I did. My first play was "Little Women."

GROSS: Mm-hmm. And who'd you play?

TAMBOR: Jo. No, I played Lawrey (ph), the boyfriend next door. There's one male role in that, and I played him.

GROSS: Did you sing and dance?

TAMBOR: I sang at my bar mitzvah.

GROSS: The barroches (ph).

TAMBOR: The barroches -- the famous barroches. Yes -- no, I love to sing. I've been in musicals. I've done two or three musicals. I love to sing.

GROSS: So you know, you sang at your bar mitzvah. I always think of the bar mitzvah for people who are interested in acting, as being their foray...

TAMBOR: Their debut.

GROSS: ... into show business. Yeah.

TAMBOR: Yes, "now appearing." Yeah, it was -- I was very nervous. I do remember that, and I remember the -- it was very interesting. My whole association with that whole area has to do with milk.

GROSS: With milk?

TAMBOR: With curdled milk. Yeah. My cantor -- you know what a "cantor" is?

GROSS: Yeah. Explain it to the audience, though.

TAMBOR: Well, the cantor is the singer, in Yiddish we say "kassem." (ph) And he teaches you your bar mitzvah, because you have to, you know, do this section from the Torah. And for about a year, he coaches you, you know, every Wednesday, I remember. And this gentleman, his name -- he was a lovely man named Cantor Bornstein (ph) -- and he would eat lunch during my particular lesson, and he always ate cottage cheese sandwiches on toast.

And I had trouble with the "tschook" (ph) sound in Hebrew, and I would say: "barroch." And he would say: "No, barrooch." Mind you, he was eating a cottage cheese sandwich, and these curds of cottage cheese would come flying across the room, and land on my face. I looked like one of those speckled ceilings in the valley when I got through with my lesson.

And I just have always associated that. But he -- I was doing my bar mitzvah, there it was, and Cantor Bornstein, God bless him, forgot to tell me that after I sang for a while, that the whole audience -- audience -- congregation would say "amen."

Well, now he didn't tell me. And so I sang my whole thing, and I got to the end of the first paragraph, let's say, and this entire droning of "amen" -- I mean, like, huge, shocked me so much that I forgot my entire bar mitzvah, and began to sort of scat sing...

LAUGHTER

TAMBOR: ... a sort of Ella Fitzgerald's approach to one's bar mitzvah, and then I got back. But the look of panic in Cantor Bornstein's eye, I'll never forget. But he paid me back, because right afterward, they have a little coffee and cake and everything like that, and he said to me: "and now, the bar mitzvah boy will do the blessing over the cake."

Well, I didn't know any blessing over the cake. And so he sort of paid me back for that.

GROSS: So what did you do?

TAMBOR: He sort of fed it to me line by line. It was very funny. But I don't know why we're even talking about this, but that was -- I'll never forget that. It's indelibly printed in my mind.

GROSS: Well, you were a regular on "Hill Street Blues" back in the 1980s.

TAMBOR: Yes, I just got through working with Betty Thomas, who was a regular also. I wasn't a regular. I was a reoccurring, or recurring.

GROSS: Right. OK.

TAMBOR: But Betty Thomas just directed me in "Dr. Dolittle" (ph), which is great ...

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.

TAMBOR: .... and we were about two stages over from where we worked in Hill Street Blues, which is 17 years ago. Yeah -- and I...

GROSS: Is it that long?

TAMBOR: ... remember. It's 17 years, and that was great and -- that's quite a guy, Steve Bochco (ph), he wrote and he sort of prodded that character, Alan Wachtel (ph) sort of developed into this weird, wonderful, eccentric, fabulous character. I just enjoyed that so much.

GROSS: This is a cross-dressing judge.

TAMBOR: He was a -- he was going through, as they say, "gender re-identification" and I remember coming -- and they said: "You know, you must come from a costume fitting." And I said: "What are you talking about?"

We've been in, you know, been in production a couple of years by that time. And I said: I have my suits. And they said, no, no, you must come for a costume fitting. I got there, and David, the designer, said that you want to pick out a dress. And I hadn't even seen the script. I got the dress before I got the script.

GROSS: So you didn't know...

TAMBOR: No. But see, that's what I like so much. I mean, in other words, I would -- I liked that -- I'd go what's this going to be? And it's fabulous and very, very exciting.

GROSS: After Hill Street, you got your own series in which you played a blind teacher.

TAMBOR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Very short-lived, right? The series?

TAMBOR: Thirteen episodes, but it was a miracle. There was a blind -- there was a bald-headed, bearded, fellow doing a professor, blind, on television, for 13 episodes, opposite "Dallas." Hello.

LAUGHTER

So, I mean, you -- that it was 13 was a huge event in itself, and very, very important for me in my career because I got to work with great people. John Rich (ph) was the director.

And a great cast, and Gene Reynolds (ph) was one of the executive producers and Henry Winkler and -- great, great work. Great, great scripts. I like scripts. I like good scripts. I like quality stuff.

GROSS: Now, did it leave you heartbroken...

TAMBOR: Like "The Ropers."

LAUGHTER

GROSS: That was the sequel to "Three's Company" that you co-starred in.

TAMBOR: That's right. We won the Pulitzer on that.

GROSS: How'd you feel about being in that? Lots of -- lots of "bosom" jokes, probably.

TAMBOR: No, it was great. I had no idea. I came out here, and I said I'll do a series. I mean, how long can, you know, how long can this go?

GROSS: Is there a kind of role you'd really like to do that you haven't gotten a chance to do yet?

TAMBOR: "King Lear." I would like to do King Lear. I'd like to -- I love that play. I would like to someday do it. It seems to be something that I'm after. I think it has -- it's just a horrific, beautiful text and I would like to do that someday.

GROSS: Have you done much Shakespeare?

TAMBOR: Mm-hmm. Done a lot. Done a lot of Shakespeare. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. What's coming up on the new season on The Larry Sanders Show?

TAMBOR: I don't know. I have no idea. I mean, I know that the -- they very seldom clue us in. We know it from week to week, but I have no idea. I know that they're putting the writers together and they're putting the whole thing together, and I look forward to it with great expectation. I will be very happy to rejoin.

I miss the cast very much. We have a great, great time, and I miss my friends and Gary and Rip and Penny (ph), and Scott and Wally. And it's fabulous.

GROSS: Well, Jeffrey Tambor, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

TAMBOR: Well, I want to thank you very much for hearing me.

GROSS: Jeffrey Tambor co-stars in the new HBO movie Weapons of Mass Distraction. It premiers Saturday. And he plays announcer and side-kick Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show.

HBO will present a Larry-thon featuring all the episodes of this past season the week of June 2. Here's a scene from the episode in which Hank briefly returned to his Jewish roots. Here he is with his rabbi, played by Amy Akino (ph).

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW")

AMY AKINO, ACTRESS, AS RABBI: Hank, you have been blessed with a gift, and, with so much talent, it...

TAMBOR: Thank you.

AKINO: It is wonderful. You get to share it with so many people.

TAMBOR: Thank you. You know, you're talented, too. No, when I saw you in front of that congregation, and the passion in your voice and the way you commanded everyone's attention. I think Rabbi's are so wise and so good, and they let you guys marry, right?

AKINO: Yeah, that's right.

TAMBOR: Well, that's so healthy because Catholic priests can't do that, which is why I believe so many of them have prostate problems.

AKINO: Hmm.

TAMBOR: I really want to join your Temple, Rabbi Klein.

AKINO: Well, I'm very glad to hear that. Do you observe the sabbath?

TAMBOR: In what way?

AKINO: Do you go to Temple on Friday nights and refrain from all work?

TAMBOR: Oh, no, no, no. I mean, because we have the show every night.

AKINO: Oh.

TAMBOR: And Friday night, well, that's a big night for us because we usually have a band.

AKINO: Do you keep kosher?

TAMBOR: No.

AKINO: You observe the high holidays, though.

TAMBOR: Yom Kippur and the Fourth of July.

LAUGHTER

TAMBOR: As a Jew, I'm not very good.

AKINO: Well, as a Jew, you're almost a Methodist.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jeffrey Tambor
High: Actor Jeffrey Tambor. For five years he's played the part of Hank Kingsley, talk-show sidekick on the HBO comedy series, "The Larry Sanders Show." He's had many character roles on television and film. He made his film debut with a critically-acclaimed performance as Al Pacino's deranged law partner in the 1979 film "And Justice For All." He's currently starring in the TV movie "Weapons of Mass Distraction" written by Larry Gelbart. It premieres May 17.
Spec: Movie Industry; Entertainment; Television; Cable; HBO; Legal Affairs
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Jeffrey Tambor
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

36:13

No More Mr. Nice Guy: Hugh Grant Embraces The 'Blessed Relief' Of Darker Roles

Grant started out in romantic comedies. Now he's up for an Emmy for his role as a narcissistic doctor accused of murder in the HBO series The Undoing. Originally broadcast Dec. 1, 2020.

05:40

Albums By The Murlocs And King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard Explore New Sounds

The Murlocs are a side project of sorts to King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, where Ambrose Kenny-Smith and guitarist Cook Craig join other musicians to amalgamate all different styles of pop.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue