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Alan Rabinowitz

Scientist and conservationist Dr. Alan Rabinowitz. He’s been called the “Indiana Jones” of wildlife science. He is Director of the Science and Exploration Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo in New York. In 1985 his research in Belize resulted in the world’s first jaguar sanctuary. Since then he has spearheaded the preservation of vast tracts of wilderness land around the globe. The survival of the Jaguar is now in jeopardy. RABINOWITZ work to save nature’s largest cat is featured in the new National Geographic special “In Search of the Jaguar” (premiering on PBS, Wed. Nov 26, 8:00 PM ET). RABINOWITZ is the author of three books, “Jaguar,” “Chasing the Dragon’s Tale,” and “Beyond the Last Village.” Two years ago RABINOWITZ was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.


Other segments from the episode on January 13, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 13, 2003: Interview with Dr. Alan Rabinowitz; Interview with Jim Sheridan; Commentary on Lee Dorsey.


DATE November 13, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Dr. Alan Rabinowitz discusses his field work around the
world studying and preserving animals and their habitats

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

People sometimes think that there are no unexplored places left on Earth. But
there are still explorers, and wildlife biologist Alan Rabinowitz is
emphatically one of them. He scaled the remote highlands bordering the
Himalayan Mountains. He's tracked jaguars in Belize and leopards in the rain
forest of Thailand, all with one goal in sight: to preserve vast tracts of
wilderness as habitat for endangered species. Rabinowitz is the director of
the Science and Exploration Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society,
based at the Bronx Zoo. He's the author of a number of books that read more
like scientific adventure stories than nature writing. They include
"Jaguar," "Chasing the Dragon's Tail" and "Beyond the Last Village." While
Rabinowitz has researched many large mammals, he's focused primarily on large
cats--leopards, tigers, (technical difficulties)--and is in the process of
trying to establish a corridor of protected habitat for jaguars that would
stretch from Mexico to Argentina. This project is the subject of a National
Geographic special, "In Search of the Jaguar," airing November 26th on PBS.

I asked Alan Rabinowitz what distinguishes jaguars from other big cats.

Dr. ALAN RABINOWITZ (Science and Exploration Program, Wildlife Conservation
Society): Jaguars are considered one of the three great cats in the world.
They're the third-largest cat after tigers and lions. And they're considered
one of the top predators in the entire world. In the Western Hemisphere, they
are the largest cat, and they're the top predator. So they're a major focus
of my research and always have been because by studying the thing that's
number one, that's the top of the food chain and of the ecosystem, we can get
at everything else below it. So when I do research on jaguars, find out how
large an area they need to live, how large a space we need to protect them,
what I'm actually getting at is not just trying to save jaguars; I'm actually
trying to save intact, whole ecological systems or ecosystems.

BOGAEV: Where can jaguars be found in the wild now?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Currently jaguars range from northern Mexico to northern
Argentina. They used to come up into the United States. We do have recent
evidence that some jaguars are actually coming from the Mexican populations
over the border into southern Arizona, southern New Mexico. So jaguars may,
in fact, be able to come back in the southern United States at some point in
the future if we protect them. But currently they reside from Mexico to

BOGAEV: Well, does their species face more challenges or different challenges
to survival than other large cats? Are they in a category of their own in
terms of that?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: In some ways, jaguars are in a category of their own. Saving
them presents a lot of the same challenges that saving other large cats does
in terms of saving large areas of habitat, trying to stop people from hunting
them. In some ways, saving jaguars is a bit of an easier task than, say,
trying to conserve tigers because we're dealing with almost one uniform
cultural unit where jaguars occur throughout Central and South America,
whereas with tigers we're dealing with fragmented populations scattered over
many different countries with different languages and political systems. But
they're tougher to protect in that they occur in areas where there's a lot of
human conflict, a lot of private land. It's not as easy to buy or set up
large protected areas for the jaguars as it is for some of the other cats. So
it's a balance.

BOGAEV: You say in the National Geographic documentary that one of the
problems contributing to the jaguars' endangerment is that people think
they're more dangerous than they really are, maybe because we don't know as
much about them. But what have you observed in the field that makes you so
sure they're not really that dangerous?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Hm. Well, beyond having actually captured numerous jaguars
and followed the ones which I've captured and radio-collared myself through
the jungle for years, I've actually tracked jaguars numerous times. And on at
least two occasions, I turned around to return to my camp and the jaguar I was
tracking was, in fact, right in back of me tracking me. It had circled
around. And I know this because I went back the next day and actually
followed the tracks of the animal I saw right in back of me. It turned out to
be the same jaguar, which had circled around and was simply walking in back of
me for quite a distance. And I never even knew it was back there. It could
have attacked me, it could have made some kind of vocalization at any time.
But it didn't because, basically, it was curious. It was following me to find
out why I was following it.

And often people will tell stories about being stalked by them or being
followed by them. Well, in actual fact, jaguars are curious, and, in all
likelihood, the jaguar was following them out of curiosity because if a big
cat like a jaguar wants to attack you, you probably will never see it coming.
And if you even see it coming, it'll only be seconds before it hits you that
you'll see it coming. So to be aware that an animal is following you or close
by means it's not really trying to get at you.

BOGAEV: Well, I was just going to ask you that because it's so intriguing,
what you're saying about the jaguar's curiosity. On the other hand, it's so

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOGAEV: know that you're out there and...

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Well, exactly. I mean, you can know--it's really an
interesting thing, especially when I would try to call jaguars. And at night
I would actually sit up in a tree or sometimes at the base of a tree and use a
jaguar call or a special instrument made by the local people, which is
supposed to simulate their vocalization. And you would know a jaguar was
coming in when all of the night sounds would stop. Closer and closer--they
wouldn't stop all at once. You would hear them stopping in the distance and
then stopping closer and closer to you, but you would never see the jaguar or
never hear the jaguar. And then when I heard all sounds stop around me, then
I would turn on a flashlight and, more often than not, there would be the
jaguar right there looking at me.

BOGAEV: What do you mean `right there'?


BOGAEV: In a tree nearby or what?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: No, usually it'd be me who was in the tree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RABINOWITZ: I'd be in the tree. Only once I actually couldn't get up in
a tree, and we stayed down on the ground, which I didn't like very much. And
the jaguar would come within about 10 feet, and I could see it and it could
see me. Or sometimes it'd be in the rain forest around me, and I could hear
it walking around trying to figure out what I was doing once it realized that
I wasn't another jaguar.

BOGAEV: OK, now what happens the moment after you shine your flashlight and
you see the jaguar looking back at you?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Only once did the jaguar actually make a vocalization, which
I don't even think was an aggressive vocalization. Simply, I think it was a
bit pissed off at me. I think it was annoyed that I had brought it in, and
then it realized I was just a human being. But usually, just like when I've
encountered jaguars in other situations, it would look at me curiously, trying
to figure out something for a few seconds, and then it would simply walk off
into the jungle. I'd be shaking. I'd be pretty scared or at least humbled,
not always scared but just feeling like I was in the presence of something
much greater than myself. And I would be frozen, and it would just walk off,
as if it just had other business to attend to.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with Alan Rabinowitz. He's a wildlife biologist and a
conservationist. His work with jaguars in Central and South America is
profiled in a new National Geographic special, "In Search of the Jaguar." It
airs November 26th on PBS.

I want to talk about some of the conservation work you've done in Asia. And I
know you've worked to preserve wildlife in Burma; it's known as Myanmar.
What's happened to the tiger population there? That was the species you were
looking at.

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Working in Myanmar has been one of the most incredible
experiences of my life. I've been involved there since 1993; it's going on 10
years now. And it's been one of the most adventuresome and rewarding
experiences in my professional career. That country always fascinated me, as
well as many other biologists, because, for the region of Asia, it has more
forest left in it than any country in the Indo-Pacific realm. And in the past
it was thought to be home of about 7,000 animal species or more. Potentially,
from the amount of forest which it had when I first went there, I thought it
could have, or did have, the second-largest tiger population outside of India
with the potential of having more tigers than any other country in the world.

That started off a lot of other research over the years, but we did spend
about three years surveying tigers throughout the entire country, which is not
an easy task. Most of the tigers have been killed off in the country by local
groups, who are funneling the tiger parts mostly over the border into China
for the Chinese trade in traditional medicines. But they did have some tigers
left. We estimated that the whole country had perhaps 150 tigers left, which
is pitiful for a place which once had hundreds of thousands of tigers in the
past and still had lots of forest left for tigers. But it was good data to
get because that spurred us on and spurred the government on to try to do
something to reverse this trend and do something about it. And that led to
what I'm involved in right now, which could be one of the greatest
conservation accomplishments of my life and, I think, could be one of the best
models in the world: setting up a tiger reserve of approximately 8,000 square
miles of northern Myanmar by the India border, which will be by far the
largest tiger reserve anyplace in the world and has the best population of
tigers left in the country, which could potentially expand outward and fill
the country up again.

BOGAEV: My guest is conservationist Alan Rabinowitz. We'll be back after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back with wildlife biologist Alan Rabinowitz. His work to preserve
habitat for jaguars in South America is the subject of a National Geographic
special on PBS. Rabinowitz has also worked with leopard populations in
Thailand and tigers in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

While you were in Myanmar, you made a 500-mile trek across lands that very few
Westerners have traveled in. So what kind of terrain were you going through,
and what kind of cultures did you come across?

BOGAEV: Well, that area up there is a fascinating terrain because, well, it's
incredibly mountainous. It's the southeast edge of the Himalayan Mountains.
It's where the Himalayas end and smack up against what's called the China
Plateau to the east. It's one of the most unknown areas zoologically in the
world because nobody has been allowed up there because of various politics.
Even the government itself wasn't--when I went up into that area, not only did
the local people say it was the first time they had seen a Westerner, but it
was the first time they had met a Central Burmese person, a Burman, from the
capital city area because people from most of Burma couldn't get up into that
area because of insurgency. And only in 1994 was a peace treaty signed with
the local insurgents, so that it was open to other people in the country.

But the terrain was incredibly rugged. It was just walking up and down.
There was virtually no flat area to be walking. You were either always going
uphill or downhill. And you would try to stay in villages. There were local
villages back up in there, small settlements. They were always in the river
valleys in between the ups and the downs.

BOGAEV: You've written a book about this trek, "Beyond the Last Village,"
and in it you write that in many of these villages, their greatest necessity
is salt and that at least one peoples eat a meat of a primitive species that's
little known outside the region.

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Yes. Well, there are two things there: One was the
fascinating fact that this is one area of the world where there are no natural
sources of salt to be found. And you really realize how important salt is to
the lives of human beings, although we take it for granted, of course, because
salt is on every table in a restaurant. But in this part of the world, people
will die without salt. People hunt for salt. People base their lives around
obtaining enough salt for the year and obtaining it for themselves and for
their livestock. They will often spend months out hunting rare, endangered
species to trade with Chinese traders just to get salt. So it was a very
interesting thing to realize as well as opening up a lot of doors for me when
trying eventually to figure out, `How do I protect this area? How do I help
these local people? What can we do to both help the wildlife and help the
people?' Salt became the major issue.

Now in terms of what the people eat, it was fascinating because not only are
they--up in this area, since we did the first zoological survey, we indeed
found many rare, endangered Himalayan species, species like red panda, which
people know about, occurring there in abundance but, also, some species which
people know almost nothing about and have not even heard of, like takin or
black barking deer. And we even discovered a completely new species to
science: the second-smallest deer in the world, which the local people call
the leaf deer. And...

BOGAEV: So, I have to ask you, how small is it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RABINOWITZ: The leaf deer stands--full adult size, it stands about 20
inches, and it has antlers which, at their maximum size, are only one-inch
long. And the people call it leaf deer; in their own language, it's called
pedji, which means leaf deer, meaning that when they kill one of these, they
could wrap its entire body inside of a single large leaf of one of the local
plants they use. And, in fact, I ended up going the next year because during
that first survey I didn't really have time, other than finding parts of this
new species and realizing there's a new species up here and then getting it
identified genetically back in New York. But then I went back the next year
with my wife, who's a geneticist, and we stayed among that group of people who
hunted this deer and actually watched them and studied them a lot. And that
was just an incredible experience.

BOGAEV: I know that, as a child, you suffered from a severe stutter, and
that's, in large part, how you came to do the work that you do. It sounds

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOGAEV: When you're working in the field, do hours and hours, even days
perhaps, go by where you don't have to talk?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: That's...

BOGAEV: Is that, like, a respite for you?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Yes. And that's partly why I chose my field initially. It's
a very--I chose my field partly because I loved animals, and I felt a special
bond towards animals. And I chose not only to work and study animals but to
run away to the furthest reaches of the world, not just to go in my back yard
or stay in the United States and study animals. But I wanted to study animals
in the furthest hidden-away spots and cultures where people didn't speak
English, so I didn't have to talk to them or I'd learn another language--and
I thought perhaps I won't stutter in another language--or to where I would
just be alone in the jungle or in the forest following animals for days,
weeks, months at a time and barely, if ever, have to speak to anybody. That's
exactly why I did, and it's exactly what happened.

For years after first going out into the forest, I would do just that; I would
stay with animals, I would radio-collar them, follow them, live in the forest,
and I wouldn't have to speak to anybody. Sometimes there would be local
people around me, but we would communicate using hand signals, if I didn't
know their language. When I worked in Thailand, I eventually learned Thai,
and that's when I learned over the years that if you speak well enough in a
language and you're a stutterer, you will stutter in that language also
because there came a day when I started stuttering in Thai as well.

BOGAEV: Fate is a cruel...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Yeah, that's right. But that is exactly why I was drawn.
It's a fairly complex reason. So many people have an easy answer when asked
`Why do you do what you do?' when it's working with animals. And they answer
because they've always loved animals for their entire life. Mine's a very
complex answer because it involves a lot of different things, both in myself
and in my relationship with animals.

BOGAEV: I know you were diagnosed two years ago with leukemia. How is your
health now?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: I was diagnosed with a slow-acting form of leukemia, chronic
lymphatic leukemia, which has no known cure to it right now but also can
progress very slow. It can speed up also. They don't know. It's just a big
question mark how much longer until I might need treatment for it.

BOGAEV: Well, when you got your diagnosis, did your doctor set you down and
say, `Look, we know you trek through Burma for your work and you track down
jaguars and tigers. That just has to stop'?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: (Laughs) Actually, no. I was very pleased. The doctors were
a bit stymied. They said, `You know, normally when we diagnose somebody of
your age and at this early stage with this kind of leukemia, we tell them to
just go about life as normal and don't change anything in your life. But your
life is not normal,' they said to me. They said, `You've got us a bit stumped
here because we want to tell you go about your life as normal, but the fact is
that if you get sick'--because from all my years in the field, I've gotten
very sick on numerous occasions because there's no way to live with local
people for such a long time as I do and not get things like malaria or typhoid
or dengue or scrub typhus. And I've had all of those things.

And what the doctors are worried about now is that it's possible, though they
don't know if this will definitely happen, that if I get very sick again while
I'm out in the field, it could speed the disease up. Since it kicks my immune
system into overdrive trying to heal myself, it will create more white blood
cells, and it could speed things along. So they were caught between saying,
`Look, go about life as pretty much normal, but try hard not to get as sick as
you have in the past.'

BOGAEV: How much time do you spend in the field now?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Well, I spend now--it was only when I was 40 that I decided
to take some time off from the field and get married. And actually it's since
I've had my first child at 46 in the last few years I've cut down a bit my
time away in the field. Now I spend maybe six months a year in the field
whereas before it was virtually 95 to 100 percent of my time.

BOGAEV: Well, I just want to say I really enjoyed talking with you, and I
wish you godspeed and good luck with your work.

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Well, thank you so much. It's been a true pleasure to speak
with you today. It's been wonderful.

BOGAEV: Wildlife biologist Alan Rabinowitz. His work is the focus of a
National Geographic special, "In Search of the Jaguar." It airs November 26th
on PBS.

I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR on NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Coming up, director Jim Sheridan. His own life is the inspiration
for his new film "In America," but it took him 10 years to make, and it took
the help of his daughters to get the story right.

And Ed Ward remembers Lee Dorsey: singer, boxer and fender-and-body man.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jim Sheridan discusses his new film, "In America"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

Jim Sheridan is best known for directing, writing and producing movies
inspired by the history and politics of his native Ireland. His films include
"My Left Foot," "The Field," "In the Name of the Father," "The Boxer," "Some
Mother's Son" and "Agnes Browne." His new film, however, is based largely on
his own life. "In America" draws on experiences Sheridan had when he moved
with his family from Ireland to New York City in the 1980s. It's about a
husband and wife who have two young daughters. They come to New York still
grieving the loss of their third child, Frankie, who died of a brain tumor.
Here's a clip. In this scene, the girls have just been given an award at
their school for the best homemade Halloween costumes. As they walk home with
their parents, one of the girls throws her award in the trash.

(Soundbite from "In America")

Unidentified Actor: Oh, you can't throw away your prize, best homemade

Unidentified Child Actor #1: They made it up 'cause they pity us.

Unidentified Actor: You've got it 'cause you're different.

Unidentified Child Actor #2: We don't want to be different. We want to be
the same as everybody else.

Unidentified Actor: Why would you want to be the same as everybody else?

Unidentified Child Actor #2: Because everybody else goes trick-or-treating.

Unidentified Actress: What's that?

Unidentified Child Actor #2: It's what they do here for Halloween.

Unidentified Actor: What do you mean, like help the Halloween party?

Unidentified Child Actor #1: No, not help the Halloween party. We don't ask
for help in America. You demand it. Trick-or-treat. You don't ask. You

Unidentified Actress: You can't do that in our streets.

Unidentified Child Actor #1: Why not?

Unidentified Actress: 'Cause you can't threaten drug addicts and
transvestites, that's why.

Unidentified Child Actor #2: What are transvestites?

Unidentified Child Actor #1: Man dresses up like a woman.

Unidentified Child Actor #2: For Halloween?

Unidentified Child Actor #1: No, all the time. All the time.

Unidentified Actress: Come on.

Unidentified Child Actor #2: Why?

Unidentified Child Actor #1: It's just what they do here, OK?

BOGAEV: Jim Sheridan, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. JIM SHERIDAN (Director, "In America"): Yeah, great. It's good to be

BOGAEV: This film is so much more directly autobiographical than your
previous movies. What made you decide to tell this story now?

Mr. SHERIDAN: I've been working on it for about 10 years more since "My Left
Foot," and I wrote a couple of drafts 'cause the stories were quite funny and
the anecdotes were great, and then I gave it to my daughters 'cause I didn't
have a theme, thinking maybe they'd come up with a theme for a film. And what
they did was eliminate my character from their stories.

BOGAEV: That's so telling. That's so...

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yes, I disappeared, and I was just a guy who embarrassed them
by turning up at school with a plastic bag on his head when it was raining and
sang the words to songs he didn't know, and--yeah, when I had a few drinks,
I'd tell them I love them. And that was about it. That was my role in the
family, and it's a kind of humbling experience, so I took the kids'
perspective and put that with my own, but I still didn't have a story, and
then I decided to incorporate the story of my brother who died, but I
transferred it to my son and gave the emotions of myself to the daughter in
the film. And I realize when I did it that it gave me a jewel perspective on
myself and my daughter. And without that, you know, you've got these flat
personalities, 'cause it's very hard to write about yourself.

BOGAEV: The story takes place after Frankie, the family's third child who's
only five years old, has died of a brain tumor, and you dedicate the film to
your brother, Frankie, who died also of a brain tumor when he was young. How
old were you when your brother passed away?

Mr. SHERIDAN: I was 17 and he was 10 in actuality. He fell down the stairs
when he was about seven or so, and you know, he had a big black head, and he
recovered, but it had caused a tumor in his brain which nobody detected, and
that, you know, grew like octopuslike, and when they opened him up, it was
too deep to save.

BOGAEV: Were you able to spend much time with your brother during his

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah. In a way, I often think I was forced to realize there
was something wrong with him because out of the blue I took him to the
pictures and bought him an ice cream called a Nickerbocker Glory, and, you
know, it's one with a long spoon and about 10 colors with a cherry on top.
And I always remember him smiling at me, and for years I thought, `Wasn't it
great I brought him out to get him an ice cream,' when I'd never brought any
of my brothers to anything.

And gradually I realized that it was his smile I remembered because it wasn't
actual, and, you know, the human face has 800 muscles. And the only thing
that we can't do consciously is make a true smile, that seemingly the
conscious mind can't smile unless it's actually authentic, deeper. And so
false smiles are like that you see without the eye muscles engaged.

Now I knew when he was smiling at me, as I was saying `nicker' and `bocker,'
that he was actually smiling, but it looked probably like something else. So
I don't know how, but it stayed with me that maybe at that moment I knew
subconsciously something was wrong.

BOGAEV: So this was after the accident, before any diagnosis...

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah...

BOGAEV: ...had been made.

Mr. SHERIDAN: ...before any dia--he started slowing down slightly. Like his
motor functions just slightly got impaired. And my mother brought him to the
doctor and the doctor said, `You better take him to hospital.'

BOGAEV: Well, in the film, the father, Johnny, he struggles not only
financially to support his family--he's trying to get work as an actor in New
York, but he also has trouble emotionally. He just can't feel anything since
the loss of his son.

Mr. SHERIDAN: Right.

BOGAEV: And he says in one scene that he's just a ghost. How did your father
deal with the loss of your brother, of his son, and did he retreat into his

Mr. SHERIDAN: He was always retreating into his work. My father, he got up
at half-8, he went to work at 9. He came back at 6. He got his tea. He went
to work at half-7. He came back at 11.

I met a man on a train recently and he was looking at me and my wife and said,
`Don't make eye contact,' 'cause what would happen is I'd go over and talk to
him, and he would tell me the story of--you know, everybody comes up to you
and says, `You should make a story about our street.' And I go, `Yeah.' And
they say, `Mrs. O'Brien, in number 10, she has 12 kids. The eldest went off
to the war,' and you'd have to listen to the story of the 12 kids, and then
they'd inevitably be saying, `If you think that's mad, Mr. Turtle next door,
she had 14 kids.' And you'd have to listen to those stories.

So with great fear, you make contact. So this man, I went over to him as the
train was pulling in and he said to me, `You know, I worked with your dad in
the GNR,' which was the Great Northern Railway. He said, `And in the morning,
we'd sell tickets to Galway and Belfast. And at lunchtime, we'd go down to
the old folks, and he was Dean Martin and I was Frank Sinatra.'

So my father went to work in the morning. At lunchtime, he organized the old
folks. He came back at 6:00. He worked Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, and
Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, he did the old folks or the drama group or the
plan giving for the church. And on Saturday morning, he brought the children
from Sheriff Street from the play to the baths. So he never stopped.

BOGAEV: What was it like directing this film in which you're directing a
character that's partially based on your father and also on you? Well, what
did you say to this actor, Paddy Considine, who plays his wife?

Mr. SHERIDAN: I didn't put anything on him. You know, I just let him build
the character, you know, from the words and actions. I didn't have him
imitate me, but...

BOGAEV: Did you, in fact, say, `Don't watch me. Don't imitate me'?

Mr. SHERIDAN: No, all actors watch the director. Most actors are the
director, you know, because, like, although John Wayne doesn't look like John
Ford, he's actually playing John Ford. So, you know, there's an osmosis or
symbiosis or whatever the `-osis' is that happens, you know? But playing my
father was weird because sometimes I would be pointing at the screen and say,
`That's exactly what my father would do.' And it was actions that I had
actually done, do you know what I mean?

BOGAEV: Can you give us an example?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Well, trying to win the E.T. doll, when I lost that story, I
lost the money.

BOGAEV: Now you're talking about in the film the family has left the
apartment building because it's so hot, and they go to the movies and they see
"E.T." and then they walk through the streets of New York and they end up
walking through an Italian street fair like the Festival of San Gennaro or
something. And the daughter sees an E.T. doll and she wants it. And so the
father bets pretty much everything--the rent money, everything--to win this


BOGAEV: ...throwing balls into a basket.


BOGAEV: That happened?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah, that happened 'cause my kid wanted it, so I was going to
win it. And I got up only $16 or $22 and I had seven balls to get in the
hole, and I'd got six of them, and I got up to 128 and I still only had six.
But I would point at that scene and say, `That's exactly like my father,'
'cause what gives it the tension, there's not quite just the father trying to
win it. It's the daughter's attitude towards the gambling, you know? And
that's really my attitude towards my father. He used to go to the races, and
at the races, he had to win, you know, because if he won, it meant he was
right about everything in life. And if he lost, it meant he was a complete
idiot, you know, and he would behave in completely irrational terms if he
didn't win, like he mightn't switch the heat on in the car going home. He was
just crazy about that stuff, and he was a very loving guy, but, you know, the
races meant a hell of a lot to him.

BOGAEV: But you stopped, it sounds like. You didn't win when you bet. You
got up to $128 and then you walked away?

Mr. SHERIDAN: No, I lost...

BOGAEV: You lost, right.

Mr. SHERIDAN: ...and I had $2 left. But what I mean, it's disconcerting to
be still blaming your father at my age for actions that you took yourself in
your life. So, you know, it just proves that--I have this saying, `Everybody
either blames their mother or their father,' you know? And great actors blame

BOGAEV: I'm talking with screenwriter, director and producer Jim Sheridan.
His new film is "In America," and his other films include "My Left Foot," "The
Field," "In the Name of the Father" and "The Boxer."

Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is filmmaker Jim Sheridan. His
new movie is called "In America," and it's about a young family, an Irish
family, who's mourning the death of their young son. They come to New York
City to start a new life.

I want to be sure that we talk about the two actors who play the role of the
young sisters in the film. They are sisters themselves...


BOGAEV: ...Sarah...


BOGAEV: ...and Emma Bolger. They're fantastic. They're just so natural.


BOGAEV: When you began to cast the film, did you have that in mind, maybe
that `We could do that. I'll cast sisters'?

Mr. SHERIDAN: No, what happened was I went into the room looking for
somebody to play my daughter, the six-year-old, and I saw this angelic face
and I'd written the other part over because it was very complex, and I asked
the six-year-old to read the part, and I didn't know why I thought she could
read, never mind act, and she read it perfectly. And I went, `Oh, my God,
maybe she'll be precocious and horrible,' you know? And so I said, `I'll ask
another kid.' So I went over to my daughter and said, `Is there anybody else
here?' and she said, `That kid.'

And I asked the other kid to read it, and as she was reading it, my coat was
yanked from behind, and I turned around and Emma was looking at me with a look
of pity as if I'd crossed some invisible line of etiquette that I wasn't aware
of. And she just said to me, `Jim,' and I said, `Yeah,' and she said, `Is she
reading my part?' And I went, `Well'--I was going to say, `This is an
audition.' I was going to say, `This is the way we do it.' I was going to
say, `I'm sorry. You know, maybe you shouldn't read,' but I couldn't say any
of it 'cause I didn't want to break her belief. So I just stared at her to
see whether she'd flinch and break eye contact, which she didn't do. And I
realized there was a little bundle of self-esteem standing in front of me.

So I found myself saying even though I knew it was the very first odd day of
auditions and the very first child, I said, `Nobody's reading your part.
You're cast.' And without a beat, she said, `My sister's downstairs in the
car.' And I said, `What age is she?' And she said, `Ten.' And I said, `Too
young.' And she said, `Well, you should see her anyway.' So I went downstairs,
met her, decided to rewrite the script, cast her. I didn't have to rewrite
the script; she was so good.

And on the first day of shooting, you know, I thought I'd got back into
control on the set, and I went, `Action!' Something went wrong and I went,
`Cut!' and the 10-year-old came out of the crowd and said, `Jim, can I have a
word?' And I went, `Yeah.' And she said, `It's OK to curse in front of me.
I'm 10, but my sister is only six, and it's rude to curse in front of her. So
I'm going to have to ask you to stop.' So I was, like, `Yeah.' So I said,
`Well, that's not going to happen.' So she kept staring at me and I said,
`Well, the only way out of this is that you'll have to take over and say,
`Action!' and Emma can say, `Cut!' whenever yous want.' And that's the way we
did the film.

And it was very interesting 'cause it was no difference between acting and
non-acting, reality and the set and whatever, but behind it, I come to--maybe
I'm just getting back into my head space. I kind of think there's a rage in
me that wants to put the child back in control of the parents or back in
control of the adults, not the parents.

BOGAEV: So did you have any of those problems that other directors have with
kids on the set that you have to make it more like play and keep it light and
make the set a fun place?

Mr. SHERIDAN: Not really. I don't believe in that stuff. I think, you
know, when people say, `Don't work with children or animals,' it's, like,
`Yeah, I get you.' You know, such a sick sentence, you know? And it just
betrays their feelings that children should be kept in their place, you know?
They should be muted emotionally and grow up, like, messed up, you know? And
I think that you're better off just--you know, those kids forced me to be
honest. So rather than, like--the set is, like, I didn't have balloons
around, you know, but the difficulty was when I was two weeks behind, Emma
would ask me, `What's for dinner, Jim?' and I'd say, `I think it's burgers.'
And she'd say, `And is the white beans on today?' And I'd be, like, `I think
so. Yeah.' She says, `I like them, but what are they called?' And I'm, like,
`I don't know.' And she'd go, `And what are the red things with the strings?'
And I'd go, `Cranberries,' and they were the kind of conversations I had to
have, and it's very hard to have light conversations about reality when you're
stressed out, you know?


Mr. SHERIDAN: So it's actually a question of not saying, `Oh, God, we keep
the kids happy and light and play.' It's more a question of respecting them as
much as any adult or more and imagining that, you know, the potential of a
person reaches back all the way into the conception, you know?

BOGAEV: And letting them be who they are, which is also children.

Mr. SHERIDAN: Yeah, letting them be who they are. It's, like--the kids in
this film are magical. Sam Morton's fantastic, Paddy's great, Djimon's great,
and the kids are magical and we all knew that and we all stepped out of the
way. You know, it's like when you have a holy thing happening, you don't mess
with it.

BOGAEV: Jim Sheridan's new film "In America" opens November 26th.

Coming up, a remembrance of boxer and R&B singer Lee Dorsey.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Lee Dorsey, the singer, boxer and fender and body man

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives, but
you don't have to go any further than New Orleans to refute that. Rock
historian Ed Ward tells us about the three acts in the life of Lee Dorsey:
Boxer, singer and fender-and-body man.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEE DORSEY: (Singing) When Mom and Papa first laid eyes on me, right
from the start, they knew right away a lover was born after breaking love's

Backup Singers: Breaking love's heart.

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) At a very early age, yeah, I began to show signs about
a stone-cold lover was born, Lord, I'm going to let it shine, yeah.

Backup Singers: I'm going to let it shine, yeah.

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) Girl, if I...

ED WARD reporting:

It was 1961 and Bobby Robinson, New York's top black record label owner, knew
that something was happening in New Orleans because "Fats" Domino was selling
so many records. Being so far away, he had no idea how to get a piece of it
until his promotion man down there, Marshall Sehorn, called him and said he'd
found a guy named Lee Dorsey. Robinson flew down and met the small, shy guy
and discovered that he didn't have any material to sing. Pondering what to
do, they sat on Dorsey's front porch and listened to some little girls play a
clapping game, chanting, `Sitting on my la, la, yeah, yeah, yeah.' Inspired,
Robinson and Dorsey headed off to a bar where they had a few beers and wrote
what would be Dorsey's first big hit.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) Oh, well, I'm sitting here, la, la, waiting for my ya,
ya. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. I'm sitting here, la, la, waiting for my ya, ya.
Uh-huh. Uh-huh. It may sound funny, but I don't believe she's coming.
Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Baby, hurry. Don't make me worry. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

WARD: "Ya, Ya," and its soundalike follow-up "Do-Re-Mi" did well, but by
1963, Robinson had hit one of his periodic slumps and declared bankruptcy.
Dorsey didn't mind. He was 37 years old, had a boxing career behind him, a
wife and 11 kids to support and a body-and-fender shop in New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) Twenty long miles from town, my old car broke down.
The clutch is shot and the sun is so hot. Oh, what I'd give to be home.
Nineteen miles from town, my old car broke down. The battery's dead, and,
man, like I said, oh, what I'd give to be home. Eighteen miles from town...

WARD: In 1963, though, Marshall Sehorn called Dorsey's wrecking yard with the
news that he and Alan Toussaint had some great material and needed a vocalist.
With Toussaint's funky piano up front and a cracking band behind, they
recorded smash after smash. "Ride Your Pony," "Get Out Of My Life, Woman,"
"Working In A Coal Mine" and "Holy Cow" all did extremely well on both the R&B
and pop charts for the next three years, but it was the last of this run of
hits, recorded well after the others in 1969, when Dorsey was back banging out
dents for a living, which predicted the future.

(Soundbite of music)

Backup Singers and Mr. DORSEY: Everything I do going to be funky from now

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) Yeah.

Backup Singers and Mr. DORSEY: Everything I do going to be for funky from
now on.

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) I got to be myself and do my thing. A little soul
can't do no harm.

Backup Singers: Yeah.

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) Everything I do going to be funky from now on. Yeah.

Backup Singers and Mr. DORSEY: Everything I do going to be funky...

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) Yeah, from now on.

Backup Singers: Yeah.

Backup Singers and Mr. DORSEY: Everything I do going to be funky.

WARD: By 1970, both James Brown and Sly Stone had redefined black popular
music. Classic, old-time soul music was still strong, but the groove-oriented
pull of funk was attracting more and more record buyers. Groove, of course,
was a specialty of New Orleans, which drew a lot of its inspiration from the
so-called second-line drumming of local funeral parades. In particular, a
bunch of studio musicians Toussaint gathered together, who call themselves The
Meters, were doing great things. Toussaint had written a bunch of songs to go
with these grooves. All they needed was a vocalist, a certain 44-year-old
body-and-fender specialist came to mind.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) Now is the time for all good men to get together with
one another and try not to fight and try not to quarrel and try to live as
brothers and try now to find peace within without stepping on one another and
to respect the women of the world. Just remember we all had mothers.

Backup Singers: Make this land a better land, than the one in which we live.

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) And helping each man be a better man with the kindness
that you give. I know we can make it. I know darn well we can work it out.

Backup Singers: Yes, we can. I know we can, can. Yes, we can, can. If want
to, yes, we can, can.

WARD: "Yes We Can" was Lee Dorsey's last chart record. Actually, it only
peaked in at the bottom of the soul charts. It was also the beginning of a
string of amazing songs which Toussaint believed would break Dorsey as an
important album artist. Instead, several of the songs did well for other
artists. "Yes We Can" was the Pointer Sisters' first hit. Three years later,
Robert Palmer recorded "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley" with The Meters, and
Little Feat included "On Your Way Down" in their set. This last was from
Dorsey's final album, "Night People," which was released in 1977 after another
stint in the body shop. It's a remarkable record, notable for socially aware
lyrics and that patented New Orleans groove.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) We may seem happy like everything's all right. From
the outside looking in, everything's uptight, but deep down inside, we're
covering up the pain. It's a cold thing, it's a soul thing, but it's a real

Backup Singers and Mr. DORSEY: Play down what's going to happen, my brother.

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) We're going to help and be fun...

Backup Singers and Mr. DORSEY: one another...

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) Yeah, you're right.

Backup Singers: To one another.

Mr. DORSEY: (Singing) As...

WARD: By now, in Dorsey was in his 50s, and after "Night People" sank without
a trace, he limited his performing to the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage
Festival and a short tour with The Clash. After that, he stayed home, working
on cars as he always had, because, as he explained to a friend of mine, `at
least the money was regular.' He died on December 1st, 1986, days before he
would have turned 60.

BOGAEV: Ed Ward lives in Berlin.


BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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