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From the Archives: Actor J.K. Simmons on His Chilling Performance in "Oz."

Actor J.K. Simmons. He's a regular on HBO's "OZ" the graphic and disturbing drama of life in a maximum security prison. The show is produced by Tom Fontana, who also wrote and produced "Homicide: Life on the Street." Simmons plays convict and neo-nazi Vernon Schillinger. "OZ" is about to begin a new season. Simmons film credits include "The Jackal" and "Extreme Measures." His TV credits include: "Law and Order," "Homicide" and "Spin City." (REBROADCAST from 7/30/98)

19:10

Other segments from the episode on July 9, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 9, 1999: Interview with Mario Puzo; Interview with J.K. Simmons; Review of the films "Les Amants du Pont-Neuf" and "Conte d'automne."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 09, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070901np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: A Tribute to Novelist Mario Puzo
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

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

On this archive edition we're going to listen back to an interview with Mario Puzo. He died of heart failure one week ago at the age of 78. Puzo wrote the novel "The Godfather" and co-wrote all three "Godfather" screenplays.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM FILM "THE GODFATHER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: We've known each other many years, but this is the first time you ever came to me for counsel, for help. I can't remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee. But now you come to me and you say "Don Corleone, give me justice."

But you don't ask for the respect. You don't offer friendship. You don't even think to call me Godfather. Instead you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to murder for money.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I ask you for justice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: How much shall I pay him?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Bono sera (ph). Bono sera. What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you come to me in friendship, I'm the scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And that by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies then he will become my enemies. And then they'll revere you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Be my friend, Godfather?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Good. Someday, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you to do a service. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day.

GROSS: Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola won Academy Awards for their "Godfather" screenplay. Puzo's novel, "The Godfather," sold about 21 million copies.

I spoke with Mario Puzo in 1996 after the publication of his novel "The Last Don" about a Mafia family that tries to go legit and branches out into Vegas casinos and Hollywood studios. Puzo wrote so convincingly about the Mafia people always assumed he had some inside connection, which he denied.

I asked him how the Mafia became the theme of so much of his work.

MARIO PUZO, NOVELIST, "THE GODFATHER": It started off in my second novel, "The Fortunate Pilgrim," where a minor character was a Mafia leader and everybody said, "gee, you should have had more of that character." And really all it is, is telling stories I heard in my childhood, you know, about people in the neighborhood and all that stuff.

GROSS: What neighborhood was it?

PUZO: Hell's Kitchen in New York.

GROSS: Now, isn't that primarily an Irish neighborhood?

PUZO: It was, then it became Italian. So, when I was growing up it was primarily Italian with a good mixture of Irish. And we started off as enemies and then intermarried a great deal.

GROSS: So, who did you hear the stories from?

PUZO: Oh, members of my family. You know, like the rugs stealing scene and the keeping of the guns from the police, you know, that kind of stuff. That happened in the family.

GROSS: Well, tell the story the way it was told to you.

PUZO: Well, my brother, who's older than me, this guy through his guns over the airway, you know, the space between apartments. And my mother took them and held them for him. And then he came and got back his guns, and he said, "would you like a rug?"

So, she sent my brother over to get the rug and my brother didn't realize the guy was stealing the rug until he took out the gun when the cop came. So, that's almost entirely in the book and in the movie, you know. There's little stuff like that.

GROSS: Now, how did your mother feel about protecting this guy's guns?

PUZO: Oh, in those days, this was when I was a very little kid, that was the thought of as nothing. You know, that was like he was a neighbor and he wanted you to do it and you did it because you were afraid of him; because you hoped that he would help you out.

GROSS: Do you think your mother looked at the mob figures in your neighborhood as people who could protect your family or as people who were more likely to harm your family?

PUZO: No, protect. Because, for instance, the business about the dog being committed to stay in the apartment, that happened in my family. My mother didn't want to get rid of the dog so she went to the local guy of respect -- I don't even think they thought of them as criminals. They were people who had influence the way you would go down to your congressman for instance.

GROSS: So, tell the dog story.

PUZO: No, as it happened in the movie the landlord wanted my mother to get rid of the dog, and she didn't want to get rid of the dog. He was going to kick her out and the local whatever he was, I never really understood what he was, told the landlord not to do it. And the landlord didn't do it.

GROSS: Did she owe anything in return?

PUZO: No, she was the cousin or the niece of somebody who knew the Mafia guy. You know, one of those very family things. You know, a family courtesy.

GROSS: Did she do anything to pay a respect to the local organized crime figures who in part controlled the neighborhood?

PUZO: Well, you have to remember that those figures are usually related by blood, you know, and were members of a family so you gave them presents. If you had a family member who was powerful, you know, you made sure that you gave a present at Christmas, you know, or special occasion. Which was not regarded as a payoff in any way.

For instance, my parents grew up in Italy where, since they were mostly illiterate, when they had a letter that had to be read they would go to the local priest to have the priest read it for them. But they would automatically bring a gift, they'd bring three or four eggs, you know, a chicken or something like that. It's a whole different relationship.

It wasn't a bribe, it's a mark of respect. It's not like they said you got to give me a piece of chicken, or you got to give me an egg and I'll read it for you. It was just understood, in the same way the local neighborhood guys that had influence, you gave them presents.

GROSS: Describe Don Corleone the way you first envisioned him.

PUZO: He was sort of very much like you had a brother who was much older than you who would always protect you, you know, who would always stick up for you. He was somebody who was a protector.

GROSS: I'm wondering if the character Don Corleone was changed in your mind when Marlon Brando was cast in the film and you saw Marlon Brando inhabit the character.

PUZO: No. No. I'm the guy that picked Brando.

GROSS: You did pick Brando?

PUZO: Oh, sure. I wrote him a letter and he called me up and we had a chat. And then I tried to get Paramount to take him and they refused. Then when the director came on the picture I talked to the director, Francis Coppola, and he managed to talk Paramount into letting Brando play the role.

But it was my idea to cast Brando, which caused me a lot of trouble before it finally got done.

GROSS: What did you say in your letter to Marlon Brando when you were inviting him to play the part?

PUZO: I think it was something like, help, they're going to kill -- they're going to kill me. I think they're going to cast -- I think it was Danny Thomas as the Godfather.

GROSS: Danny Thomas? Wow!

LAUGHTER

PUZO: Yeah. Well, he was going to buy Paramount so he could play the role. At that time, Paramount wasn't really worth that much. And Danny Thomas was very rich off television and I read an item he was going to buy Paramount Pictures so he could play the Godfather. So that scared me so much I wrote a letter to Brando.

I knew some people who knew him, so, you know, I had an entree. And he gave me very good advice. He said, no studio will hire me. Wait until you get a director and then talk to the director. And he was quite right. When I talked to the studio they swore they would never hire Brando.

GROSS: Why were they so opposed to the idea?

PUZO: Well, because Brando had built up, what to them was a terrible reputation of being a trouble maker, you know, on his "Mutiny on the Bounty" where he cost them a lot of money and he was always a rebel. So, they didn't want him in their movies. He was too much of a headache. And his movies had been flops.

GROSS: Did he cause any trouble for you on the set?

PUZO: No. I was never on the set, but they tell me he was perfect -- you know, every actor just loved the idea of working with Brando; he was their idol. So, when he came on the picture he caused no trouble for the director and he caused no trouble for the actors. He was, you know, they really liked him.

GROSS: What were some of the battles that you and Francis Ford Coppola had to fight with the studio?

PUZO: Well, over Al Pacino. At first I was for Al Pacino, then when he tested he tested so terribly I was against him. And then Francis talked me around into being for him again, you know. Because I had given Francis a letter saying I wanted Pacino, and after I saw him test I told Francis, "give me my letter back." And he says, "no, wait." He wouldn't give me the letter back.

GROSS: What was so bad about the test?

PUZO: Francis knew what was wrong with him. He said he was very insecure. Sort of like his way of saying, you know, "to hell with you guys. I don't have to test for you guys." I think. Because Pacino, who I got to know a little bit, is really like the most dedicated actor, the most dedicated work person that I've ever met in the movies.

GROSS: Now, what were some of the most difficult parts of adapting the novel into the screenplay?

PUZO: You mean the first one?

GROSS: Yeah, the novel of "The Godfather."

PUZO: It was a cinch.

GROSS: Yeah?

PUZO: Yeah. I mean, it was a cinch because it was the first time I had ever written a screenplay, so I didn't know what I was doing. You know, and it came out right. And the story I tell is that after having won two Academy Awards, you know, for the first two "Godfather's" I went out and bought a book on screenwriting because I figured I'd better learn, you know, what it's about. Because (unintelligible) it off the top of my head.

And the first -- the first chapter of the book said, "study `Godfather I' as the model of a screenplay." So, I was stuck with the book.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Now, I'm wondering with the dialogue everything is so -- not everything, but the characters who really have power are very euphemistic in their language. So, they could be saying -- they could be giving you the message that they're going to kill you unless you follow their orders. But they'll be saying it in the nicest way. And of course killing would never be mentioned. Everything is kind of beneath, you know, between the lines, beneath the surface.

What made you write the dialogue for these powerful, violent people in that coded way?

PUZO: Well, it does come from the way the Sicilian Mafia operated. In fact, there was a funny story that an Englishman came to live in Sicily and he got a kidnapping note, because they like to collect the money for kidnapping you before they kidnap you so they didn't have to go to the bother of kidnapping you.

LAUGHTER

No, that was the way they operated. But the Sicilian Mafia wrote this Englishman such a flowery note that he really didn't understand what they were saying. He had to get to get an interpreter. He thought they were paying him some sort of compliment, he didn't realize they wanted like 50 grand off him before they kidnapped him. So it saved everybody the trouble of going through the kidnapping.

But it was very flowery, "your eminence." "We love you." You know, "we'll do anything. If you're having trouble give us a call." You know, and meanwhile just send us 50 grand and you'll never have any trouble with anybody.

But that's how they talked. That's where I got it from, you know. And that horse's head thing was strictly from Sicilian folklore, only they nail the head of your favorite dog to your door as the first warning if you didn't pay the money.

They were great believers in collecting money before doing the job.

GROSS: One of the most famous lines that you come -- that you came up with was about making an offer you can't refuse.

PUZO: Yeah.

GROSS: Does that line have its roots in mob lore that you knew or did it...

PUZO: No. I made it up. I wrote memos on how we could plant that line because I was sure it would become a famous line. You know, I recognized the fact that it would become one of those lines that people would always be using. So, that was really sort of carefully constructed.

GROSS: We'll continue our 1996 interview with Mario Puzo after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1996 interview with Mario Puzo, the author of the novel "The Godfather;" co-author of the three "Godfather" screenplays. Puzo died one week ago of heart failure at the age of 78.

Did you come up with the expression "Godfather?"

PUZO: Yeah. And that was really an accident. Of course, before I used no Mafia man ever used the word "Godfather" in that sense. Nobody used it. And I got it from -- in Italian family culture the friend of your parents -- when you're a little kid your parents have very close friends. You call them godfather and godmother the way in the American culture you call family friends aunt and uncle even though they're not your aunt and uncle. You know, if they're a close family friend.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

PUZO: You know, and you're a kid you say that's auntie or uncle so and so. So, that was just the only way in which it was used except in a religious sense. So, I remembered it. And the more I used it during the book the more it became, you know, what it was.

So, now the Mafia uses it. Everybody uses it, you know. The word didn't exist.

GROSS: Now, how did you become a reader and a writer? You've said that your parents were nearly illiterate.

PUZO: They were illiterate, yeah. And because of the public libraries and the (unintelligible) house library -- (unintelligible) library. And you started to read, and it was just the greatest thing the world, to read. That's all.

GROSS: What did your parents think of your reading? That was something that they couldn't do. Were they proud of you for being able to do it?

PUZO: No. I wrote a line some place where my mother regarded my library card with the same horror that present-day mothers look at their sons heroin needles, you know. I mean, some sort of comparison to that. It was -- reading was not relevant. Reading didn't help you make a living, you know.

GROSS: Wrong.

LAUGHTER

PUZO: Right, yeah.

GROSS: So, what did they think you should be doing? What did your mother think you should be doing instead?

PUZO: Oh, you know, a good clerical job on the inside. And if you could avoid hard labor that was the big thing.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm. Well, your mother was thinking that you couldn't make money as a writer. I think that was true of your first couple of books.

PUZO: That's -- it was very true, yeah.

GROSS: Did you figure that that would always be the case? That you were never really going to make money at it?

PUZO: No, I always thought I would become rich and famous and be a great writer. I always believed that until -- let's see, when did I stop believing that? I stopped believing that after I wrote "The Godfather." I'm only kidding.

LAUGHTER

No, I think you get less confident as you become more successful. Before I was successful I was very arrogant as a writer, you know. I wouldn't listen to anybody.

GROSS: And after you became successful you lost faith?

PUZO: I was very shaky.

GROSS: What -- could you explain that phenomena?

PUZO: Oh, I think it's easy to be arrogant when you're unsuccessful because you have nothing to lose. You know, I know used to brag a lot more when I was unsuccessful than I do now. I do my share of bragging now, but before I was successful I was really terrible.

GROSS: How have you reacted to criticisms from Italians, for instance, that in American popular culture Italians are always shown as mob figures, and criticisms from people who say that the "Godfather" movies were just really violent and, you know, upped the amount of violence in American popular culture?

PUZO: You know, it sounds like some of my relatives.

LAUGHTER

But to me it's a completely irrelevant thing. For one thing, there was a time when Italians ran crime in America. So, I'm not maligning them in anyway. In fact, I present them as very lovable people, you know, that have to make a living. Unfortunately, in a way that society doesn't approve.

But also, I know that most Italians that I grew up with are law abiding, you know, that getting a traffic ticket was terrible, you know. You know, it's for the working class Italian people.

GROSS: Your novel and the "Godfather" movies have had such an impact on American popular culture. And I'm wondering what you think it is about the stories that enable them to have the impact that they had?

PUZO: Well, I think it's a story with warm personal family feeling, and I think also it's everybody's wish. I mean, that they would have somebody that they could go to who would correct all their injustices without the problems of going to court, hiring a lawyer. You know, somebody fixing up your world for you.

GROSS: And if you crossed them you'd be dead.

PUZO: But that's OK because why would you want to cross them if they, you know, did everything for you.

GROSS: Of course, everybody does end up -- I mean, everybody -- there's always a bloodbath.

LAUGHTER

PUZO: People are not perfect.

GROSS: Mario Puzo, recorded in 1996. He died of heart failure one week ago at the age of 78.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Mario Puzo
High: Novelist Mario Puzo. The author best known for his novel "The Godfather" died last week. We rebroadcast his interview, recorded in 1996 at the time of his novel "The Last Don." Besides "The Godfather," Puzo wrote "The Fortunate Pilgrim" and "The Dark Arena," both novels. He was also a two-time Academy Award winner and wrote several screenplays, including all three Godfathers and Superman I and II.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Mario Puzo

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: A Tribute to Novelist Mario Puzo

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 09, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070902NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Profile of J.K. Simmons
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

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

The HBO prison series "OZ" begins its third season next Wednesday. "OZ" is short for Ozwald Maximum Security Penitentiary (ph), the fictional prison in which the series is set.

The program is about the lives of prisoners and correctional officers in the experimental unit of "OZ," known as Emerald City. Most of the prisoners in Emerald City are violent, sadistic and psychologically damaged. A good example is the Neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger (ph), played by my guest J.K. Simmons.

Early in the first season of "OZ," the Neo-nazi psychologically tormented his new cellmate, a young lawyer, and turned him into a sex slave. In this scene, Schillinger, the Neo-Nazi, has stolen his cellmate's family photos. And is using these photos to further intimidate the scared newcomer.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP - SCEN FROM THE HBO SERIES "OZ")

J.K SIMMONS,ACTOR: You've got a lovely family. I'm amazed you haven't showed me these pictures before. Amazed and a little hurt.

I hope you don't mind me finding these hidden underneath your mattress. Beautiful. My wife is dead. But I got two sons, 17 and 16. Handsome (EXPLETIVE DELETED) kids to. Good Arian stock, you know?

My sons are devoted to me. I am an icon to them because I went to prison for my beliefs. They would do anything I asked them to: steal, maim, kill. Maybe I should have them go visit your family, huh? Just a little friendly call, what do you think? My sons and your wife. My sons and your daughter.

GROSS: J.K. Simmons' chilling portrayal of the white supremacist is so good, yet we had never noticed him before and very little has been written about him. So we invited him to FRESH AIR.

On this archive edition let's listen back to interview we recorded one year ago.

J.K. Simmons, let me ask you to describe your character of Vern Shillinger on "OZ."

J.K. SIMMONS, ACTOR: He's the leader of the Arian Brotherhood in the maximum-security prison, which is, of course, a Neo-Nazi organization. He's a prisoner in for longer and longer as it turns out. And one of the main relationships I have is with another prisoner. And he and I have sort of gone back and forth in this dominant, submissive, torturous relationship.

GROSS: Yes, well, early on when this other character, whom you refer, who's a lawyer who was imprisoned for drunken driving in which he accidentally murdered a child, you made him your sex slave early in "Oz."

SIMMONS: I did indeed. I made him my lovely wife.

GROSS: Yeah, I'm wondering what it was like for you to play this sadistic Neo-Nazi that takes this young lawyer, makes him his sex slave?

SIMMONS: Oh, it was pretty fun.

LAUGHTER

You know, it really actually is just as bizarre and twisted and sick as much of what we do on the show is, and, of course as much of what happens in a maximum security prison actually is. It's sort of like that, you know, like a M.A.S.H. unit. We really have a great time.

And we keep referring to the jokes. And, you know, and this joke is really gonna work where I tattoo his rear end, that will be, you know, funny because...

GROSS: With a swastika, I might add.

SIMMONS: ... yeah, with a swastika. Sort of, you know, leaving my mark. It really is just a good time. It's just a bunch of wonderful actors working with Tom Fontana's words. And we're all just so happy to be there that no matter how dark this stuff is that we're doing, it's just kind of a release in a way, getting that stuff out in a safe way. And we just have fun.

GROSS: I thought one of the high points of the first season was when your character, the Neo-Nazi, got your sex slave to perform at, I guess it was the talent show or something with lipstick on singing "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

SIMMONS: Yeah, actually originally Tom wanted that to be "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". But for some reason, they didn't want to give him the rights. So I was all prepared with my...

GROSS: That was a little "OZ" joke, wasn't it?

SIMMONS: Yeah, yeah. I was all prepared with my "I-don't-think-we're-in-Kansas-anymore" adlib, and then they had to change it. But "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" was, you know, a pretty good second choice. And Lee pulled it off pretty well.

GROSS: Who chose the song?

SIMMONS: Tom. Tom Fontana, our erstwhile leader.

GROSS: Now what did you bring to the character in terms of research? Did you feel like you had to hang out with brothers of the Arian Nation or go to prison and see what life was like inside? Did any of that seem necessary to you?

SIMMONS: No, frankly, and it's also not as available to us working schmucks as it would be if I were Robert DeNiro. It's, you know, it's not like I could just call the prison and say, "Hey, I'm J.K. Simmons. I want to come live with the prisoners for a few days."

But I did do -- I actually did -- the research that I did do was mostly on the net, you know. Checking out some Arian Web sites, and just getting -- trying to get an idea of their philosophy and how they state it so that I could have some kind of place to come from.

And that was one of the things that Tom and I talked about between the first and second seasons. Was trying to get more into a little bit of the politics and relating my character with some of the other characters, the Black Muslim, and some of the other characters in the show.

GROSS: Now the way you play the character of the neo-nazi on "OZ," there's always this veneer of solicitousness. You always make it seem as if what you're doing is for everybody's larger good...

SIMMONS: Veneer?

GROSS: ... and you're a real understanding kind of guy.

LAUGHTER

SIMMONS: Vern's a sweetheart.

GROSS: Well, that's how he sees himself, that's how he projects himself as he's, you know, doing some very sadistic thing to you.

SIMMONS: Yeah, you know, my general philosophy of playing bad guys, which I've sort of done, you know, half the time, is, you know, very few people who we view as bad guys get out of bed and think what evil and terrible thing am I going to do today? Most people see their motivations as justified, as, you know, justifying whatever they do. And that's what I try to go with.

GROSS: My guest is J.K. Simmons. And he plays the Neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger in the HBO prison series "OZ". And it's set in a maximum-security prison in the experimental wing.

Do you work out either just for your own fitness or for the fitness of the characters you play?

SIMMONS: That's a good question. I weigh 47 pounds less right now than I did when Vern Schillinger was butt naked in the solitary confinement cell. I really had always taken pretty decent care of myself and, you know, and been an athlete and been in pretty good shape. And just the last few years I think as a combination of being in my 40s and being, you know, reasonably comfortable and being able to eat whatever I wanted, I put on a lot of weight.

And when I started playing Vern, a very tough intimidating character, you know, the first season as I watched the show I just found myself thinking, who is the fat guy trying to act tough? And that was really part of my -- I mean, you know that -- along with, you know, wanting to be healthy and be able to continue playing softball and be an athlete and, you know, live a long life and all that.

I've really in the last year gotten very healthy again. And I get my butt to the gym every morning and eat more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff and all that. And actually during the course of the second season of "OZ," during the 12 or 14 weeks that we shot, I -- you'll see Vern drop some weight between the first and the eighth episodes. And then I've dropped most of the rest of the excess in the meantime.

So I'm campaigning for Tom to get -- to write me another nude scene next season so we can say, "oh, Vern must have been in hole for a long time because he lost some weight."

GROSS: Yeah, you and all the characters, after they're thrown in solitary naked, look so vulnerable. And that's, you know...

SIMMONS: Believe me, I felt very vulnerable.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: It's interesting, you know, because you're such an intimidating character and then, you know, there you are stripped naked lying on the floor of a dark cell...

SIMMONS: Right, and that...

GROSS: ... kind of, you know, in a fetal position looking very vulnerable.

SIMMONS: Yeah, that was also at a time -- I mean -- I think there -- if I had been thrown into the hole at other times, it would have been less vulnerable and more angry. But, you know, that was also a time when I had just been thoroughly beaten, figuratively, by Lee Turgeson's (ph) character, you know. And so I was vulnerable on a number of fronts. My power had really been pretty much yanked away.

GROSS: My guest is J.K. Simmons. And he's now co-starring in "OZ," the prison series on HBO. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is J.K. Simmons. He plays the Neo-Nazi inmate Vern Schillinger on the HBO prison series "OZ."

"OZ" was the first time I actually noticed you. I actually realized, who, I mean, who is this guy? He's really great. Let me find out more about him. And I'm wondering, where were you before that?

SIMMONS: At the Big Fork Summer Playhouse in Big Fork, Montana doing musical theater...

LAUGHTER

... which is what I started out in when I was in college in the '70s in Montana. And I bounced around doing regional theater all over the country for a lot of years. And when I finally got things going in New York it was all on stage also. I did several Broadway shows. And really just 3 or 4 years ago started doing television and film and things that people might actually recognize me from.

GROSS: Now why did it take so long for you to break into television and film?

SIMMONS: Well, because at first when I started doing this I just thought it would be kind of a fun thing to do. I never had any intention of coming to New York or LA and actually doing more than scraping by, you know, doing plays.

And as my career sort of progressed of it's own volition, I did come to New York. I did Broadway shows, and I started realizing that this is actually how I'm going to make my living. So maybe I should try and do television and film and make a better living and get an occasional residual check so I can pay a mortgage someday.

And, you know, I went shopping around for agents who I thought could help me more with those kinds of jobs. And I ended up in a big hit Broadway show, the revival of "Guys and Dolls," a few years ago. Which all of us in that show ended up getting a lot of attention. And that helped sort of launch other aspects of our careers.

GROSS: Now I saw that revival on Broadway. And I guess I saw you and didn't realize it at the time because I hadn't yet seen you in "OZ."

SIMMONS: I played Benny Southstreet (ph), Nathan's right hand guy.

GROSS: So you get to sing in the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York?

SIMMONS: Mmm-hmm. And I sang the title song, "Guys and Dolls..."

GROSS: "Guys and Dolls..."

SIMMONS: ... with Walter Bobby (ph). And I sang the "Fugue for Ten Horns..."

SINGING

"I got the horse right here, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta..."

... yeah, it was a great job. It was a great, fun show.

GROSS: I think we should hear you sing. So why don't we play something from the cast recording of the recent Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls." And...

SIMMONS: ... oh, good. I thought you were going to make me sing live, and I didn't warm up.

GROSS: So, lets see, you said you were on "Fugue for Ten Horns." Why don't we play the part that you sing on the song, on one of the parts that you sing.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP - "FUGUE FOR TEN HORNS" PERFORMED BY J.K. SIMMONS)

LYRICS UNINTELLIGIBLE

GROSS: What a great score.

SIMMONS: Yeah.

GROSS: So, have you sung a lot on stage?

SIMMONS: Yeah, I actually was a musician in college, a composer and singer and really intended to be the second coming of Leonard Bernstein when I got out. But I sort of segued into doing musicals and then into all aspects of theater and then into a maximum-security prison.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: A natural progression.

SIMMONS: Sure.

GROSS: It's interesting, while you were getting known as the Neo-Nazi on "OZ", your brother, David Simmons, is becoming known as a Christian performer.

SIMMONS: He is indeed.

GROSS: An interesting contrast.

LAUGHTER

SIMMONS: We're really not that different.

GROSS: So how is he doing in his career in Christian music?

SIMMONS: He's doing great. He has a CD out. The CD is called "UBU" as in the letters "U"-"B"-"U." And he has a Web site and everything, "UBUmusic." And it's a great CD. It has all original songs that David wrote the music and lyrics and did most of the playing for.

And I don't see him enough. And, David, I love you man. He listens to NPR.

GROSS: Is there anyone among your friends and family who you would rather not have see you on "OZ"?

SIMMONS: Well, the ones that I would rather not have see me on "OZ" choose not to watch "OZ" anyway. Most of my dad's family in rural Illinois, you know, would completely disapprove not only of the content but some of the language. And I certainly respect that, and, you know, they see me in my more G-rated kinds of things.

I was actually -- during the first season especially where I guess I was, as my wife said, bringing it home with me, she found it difficult to watch. I think she said something like -- it was airing at 11:00 at the time, and she was doing a Broadway show. So she would get home just before the show would be on.

And after the second episode she said, "so, I'm supposed to come home from work, watch this with you and then get into bed with you? I don't think so."

LAUGHTER

So she actually kind of stopped watching during the first season. But she is watching it with me again now.

GROSS: Can I ask what your brother, the Christian musician, thinks of your role as the Neo-Nazi, and of the kind of language you have to use on the show and the kind of extreme circumstances your character is in?

SIMMONS: He thinks it's a reflection of the reality of prison life and the world today. And I don't think that he's got his 7-year-old staying up to watch it, nor do I think anyone should. And David and I really come from -- obviously we grew up together -- but the same background even professionally, you know.

He started out doing theater. We did musicals together at the Big Fork Summer Playhouse in, you know, the '70s. Despite him being four years younger, he played my father and my father-in-law because he was slightly portly at the time and could grow a good beard.

And, you know, these are just the divergent paths that our careers have taken. We are ultimately not that different and certainly philosophically and politically and spiritually and all of that, we are much more in accord than you might think based on the work you see us do.

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

SIMMONS: Yeah, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: J.K. Simmons plays Neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger on the HBO prison series "OZ". "OZ" begins its third season next Wednesday. Our interview with Simmons was recorded last July.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: J.K. Simmons
High: Actor J.K. Simmons. He's a regular on HBO's "OZ," the graphic and disturbing drama of life in a maximum security prison. The show is produced by Tom Fontana, who also wrote and produced "Homicide: Life on the Street." Simmons plays convict and Neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger. "OZ" is about to begin a new season. Simmons' film credits include "The Jackal" and "Extreme Measures." His TV credits include "Law and Order," "Homicide" and "Spin City."
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Lifestyle; Culture; J.K. Simmons

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Profile of J.K. Simmons
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 09, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070903NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: John Powers Reviews Two French Films
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Two new French films have come to the U.S. Our film critic John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: The Argentine writer Borges once said that art is a mix of algebra and fire. Of course, sometimes there's more fire and sometimes more algebra. Which is one way of describing the difference between two new French movies about love. One by an "enfant terible (ph)," the other an old master.

Few films burn more wantonly than Leos Carax's "The Lover's on the Bridge," which for financial reasons, has taken eight years to reach the States. In that time, this visionary portrait of l'amor fu (ph) has come to be recognized as one of the decades most thrilling films.

The movie stars the pre-Oscar Juliette Binoche as Michele, a young artist with a degenerative eye disease who's estranged from her middle class home. She gets caught up in an obsessive passion with Alex, a young tramp played by Denis Lavant, whose skills include fire breathing and theft.

They live together on the Ponte Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, which has been closed for repairs. This landmark unites the two banks of the river, and Carax uses it as a metaphor for the brutal modern city whose famed lights twinkle opulently around those forced to sleep on the street. And as a magical domain where unhoped-for dreams can come true.

This is a movie that feels like a dream. There are really no more magical scene in contemporary movies than Carax's evocation of the 1989 bicentennial celebration when Alex and Michele dance on the bridge while fireworks bloom in the darkness around them, and Michele risks her life water skiing on the Seine.

Carax made "The Lovers on the Bridge" in his late 20s, and it's bursting with a young man's excesses. It cost $28 million back when the average French film cost 1/40 of that. I won't deny that Carax's flamboyant male fantasies can become too much. There are moments when I wanted to smack some sense into him.

But his extravagance is forgivable in a movie that's all about the too muchness of living in the moment: reckless love, irredeemable loss, harrowing public cruelty and beauty so fierce that it tears at your heart. From its late-night tour of the Louvre to Alex and Michele's final plunge into the river, this is movie making at it's most staggeringly romantic.

After such a starburst of youthful passion there's something soothing about "Autumn Tale," made by Eric Rohmer. Who is famous for films like "My Night at Maude's " and "Pauline at the Beach." Rohmer has spent his career charting the charms and delusions of love, and now at age 79 he looks at the subject with the cool wisdom of sage.

In "Autumn Tale" he sets aside his usual preoccupations with young people to explore the romantic yearnings of middle age. Beatrice Romand plays Magali, a feisty 45-year-old winegrower who's been without a man since her husband's death. She becomes the target of a double machination.

Her best friend, played by Marie Riviere, schemes to set her up with an amiable businessman. Meanwhile, her son's girlfriend plans to pair her off with a professor who has one distinct flaw: he's into young women. Magali wanders through the labyrinth of these intrigues in search of an autumnal love.

Rohmer has an aristocratic fondness for delicacy. And if he lived forever he'd never make a movie with all the storm and drawn (ph) of "The Lovers on the Bridge." "Autumn Tale" has been constructed as neatly as a mathematical proof, but it doesn't feel pinched like some of his work.

The story is suffused with a new warmth and tenderness as if Rohmer, that great anatomist of human self-deception, can't stop himself from rooting for his characters to find happiness before it's too late. This is a film alive with sophisticated pleasures: sly dialogue, exquisite lighting, enthralling actresses and the glorious Rhone Valley.

And it's bracingly affirmative. Rohmer doesn't see true love as a flame that must consume us, but as an unexpected visitor who can arrive at any time in our lives if we're willing to hear the knock.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue" and FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: John Powers
High: Film critic John Powers reviews two French films, "The Lovers
on the Bridge" and "Autumn Tale."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; John Powers

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Powers Reviews Two French Films
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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