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From the Archives: British Film Actor Michael Caine.

Actor Michael Caine. He’s made over 70 films, including “Get Carter.” (REBROADCAST from 11/17/92)


Other segments from the episode on October 6, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 6, 2000: Interview with Mike Hodges; Interview with Michael Caine; Interview with John Spencer.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Mike Hodges discusses his new film "Get Carter"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new movie "Get Carter" opened today. Sylvester Stallone stars as a
who returns to his hometown to avenge his brother's murder. "Get Carter" is
remake of the 1971 British film of the same name, which starred Michael
In the remake, Caine plays the former boss of the murdered brother. Here's
Stallone and Caine in a scene from the new film.

(Soundbite from "Get Carter")

Mr. SYLVESTER STALLONE (As Jack Carter): Where's Eddie?

Mr. MICHAEL CAINE (As Cliff Brumby): He's not working today.

Mr. STALLONE: Where's he live?

Mr. CAINE: Well, what's going on?

Mr. STALLONE: Where does he live?

Mr. CAINE: Jack, Jack, Jack, will you--will you listen to me for just a
minute? I've been in it all my life on--on both sides of the ocean, and
I--and I'm telling you this. If you get mixed up in whatever it was your
brother was into, you've got a pretty good chance to winding up exactly the
same as he did. And those two ladies are going to have to go into mourning
all over again. Now I can't tell you what to do, but I can tell you this.
Getting yourself killed won't bring Richard back. Revenge doesn't work.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STALLONE: Sure it does.

GROSS: The 1971 British version of "Get Carter" isn't well-known in
but a British Film Institute survey of England's top 100 films ranked "Get
Carter" number 16.

The film marked the directorial debut of Mike Hodges, who recently directed
the film "Croupier." Last May, when I spoke with Hodges about "Croupier,"
also talked about his 1971 film, "Get Carter."

Pauline Kale(ph) said, in praise, I think, `There's nobody to root for but
smartly dressed, sexual athlete and professional killer in this gangland
picture, which is so calculatedly cool and soulless and nastily erotic that
seems to belong to a new genre of virtuoso viciousness.' Now you adapted
movie from a novel by Ted Lewis. You wrote the screenplay and you directed
it. Why did you choose this kind of really nasty story for your first film?

Mr. MIKE HODGES: During the '60s I'd worked on a program called "World
In Action," which is kind of like your "60 Minutes," only we would do just

And I'd really seen the underbelly of life just about everywhere I went to.
You know, I went to Vietnam. I was in Dallas in 1964 doing a program with
Maisel brothers(ph) on Barry Goldwater as the Republican nominee. I'd done
program on Freemasonry which had been banned in my own country because most
the board of directors turned out to be Freemasons, which, not surprising,
never got out on the air.

And I just had basically observed in my own country a great deal of
and a great deal of corruption. And we always had such a grand view of
ourselves. Our police were wonderful. You know, it was only--it was
cops, you know, that were corrupt and there was no such thing as corruption
here. And all of that changed, really, in the late '60s when we had some
unbelievably vicious villains, basically, some criminals, the Krey
brothers(ph) and the Richardson brothers(ph).

So I--when I was offered this film, whilst I would readily admit that I took
it on because it was my break into feature films, I took it on also because
could make a film that I thought would try to show a completely different
to the British character. Many of the elements in "Get Carter" were based
a factual story. And it is a cruel film, you're quite right. But I decided
if I was going to make it, it would have to be as ruthless as the--as I
make it, actually.

GROSS: No one is redeemed at the end of this movie. There's no moral
resolution. Did that suit you, as a filmmaker?

Mr. HODGES: Again, I think that you have to be as honest--if you're going
take on a story like that, you have to be as honest to it as, say, I was to
something like "Flash Gordon," which is the opposite end of the spectrum. I
mean, "Flash Gordon" is truthful to its source, actually. It is a strip
cartoon on film. So I think that when you're dealing with people like
and the people that he uncovered when he goes north to that town, of
Newcastle, none of those people are redeemable. You know--it's interesting,
there is a remake being made with Sylvester Stallone, which I'm now told is
redemption movie. So it's very interesting that...

GROSS: Figures.

Mr. HODGES: Yes. There's more money in redemption, I think, to be honest
with you. So--but I couldn't possibly--I mean, the thing that I did insist
on, which obviously they tried to talk me out of, is Carter's demise at the
end of the film. And that I absolutely insisted on. And it was always in
original script and I never wavered from that moment. And that he had to be
dismissed in exactly the same way that he dismissed all the other people who
got in between him and his revenge. And that I would not deviate from.


Mr. HODGES: Because I thought that the justice was there. It was built-in
justice. I do believe that your life ends up much the way that you lived
So Carter had lived by violence and he would end violently. I mean, it's
always the case but it is to a large degree, I think.

GROSS: Michael Caine is really terrific in "Get Carter." His body language
and his speech are so perfect and he's, obviously, a really cold guy but he
could turn on the charm, he could be funny in a really nasty way. And there
are those moments where you can tell that there is some kind of heart
underneath all of that. Let me play a short clip from the movie.

In this scene he's--the Michael Caine character, the hitman, has just gotten
to Newcastle. He's gotten there in time to see his brother laying in state
before the cremation. And now he's going to avenge his brother's death. So
one of his first stops is at a racetrack where he finds someone who he
is in on his brother's murder. His name is Eric. He wearing a chauffeur
uniform and Michael Caine's trying to see what he's up to. And, of course,
Eric is a little concerned about Michael Caine having come by.

Mr. HODGES: Bet you I would be, too.

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of "Get Carter")

Mr. MICHAEL CAINE (As Jack Carter): So who you working for these days,

Mr. IAN HENDRY (As Eric Paice): Oh, I'm straight. Respectable.

Mr. CAINE: Yeah. What are you doing, advertising martini?

Mr. HENDRY: Oh, you've been watching television, haven't you?

Mr. CAINE: Yes. Come off it, Eric. Who is it? Brumby.

Mr. HENDRY: Obviously, it isn't.

Mr. CAINE: Kinnear.

Mr. HENDRY: What's it to you anyway?

Mr. CAINE: Well, I've always had your welfare at heart, Eric. Besides
I'm nosy.

Mr. HENDRY: Well, that's not always a healthy way to be, is it?

Mr. CAINE: And you should know, hmm?--if I remember rightly.

Mr. HENDRY: Oh, yes.

Mr. CAINE: So you're doing all right then, Eric. You're making good.

Mr. HENDRY: I'm making a living.

Mr. CAINE: Good prospect for advancement, is there, huh? A pension? Do
know I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. They're still the
piss holes in the snow.

Mr. HENDRY: Still got a sense of humor.

Mr. CAINE: Yeah. Yes, I retained that, Eric.

GROSS: Well, that was a scene from Mike Hodges' first film, "Get Carter,"
made in 1971. You were so lucky to have Michael Caine to work with in your
first film and then you worked with him again in your movie "Pulp." Did you
learn things about acting and directing actors from watching Michael Caine
and directing him?

Mr. HODGES: Oh, well, you could not re--I mean, I'd worked with actors
before but Caine's technique was impeccable. I must say his--you know, his
knowledge of filmmaking is impeccable. Well, I have to say that
is much the same. It's just this kind of extraordinary sense of filmmaking.
So the hitting of the marks and the understanding what the camera's actually
doing was amazing. And, of course, I was pushing Michael because if you
at "Carter," there are scenes in there, again--for example, there was one
scene in his landlady's--the room he rents in Newcastle where he brings a
character back and he interrogates him and he--there's a bottle of whiskey
so on.

And I shot all of that scene in one and a lot of it on Michael Caine's back
and I sort--looking back, I had a lot of chutzpah, actually, because you've
been led to believe that stars wanted preferential treatment and they wanted
their close-ups and so on. Michael was never like that. So I could do
with him that I probably wouldn't be able to do with other major stars. So
that sense, I was terribly lucky. And I was allowed that kind of freedom.
went with me completely in the way that I wanted to direct the film.

GROSS: Mike Hodges directed the original 1971 version of "Get Carter." He
also directed the recent film "Croupier." By the way, like he said, the new
remake starring Sylvester Stallone is about redemption. Coming up, we'll
from the star of the original "Get Carter," Michael Caine, who's featured in
the remake. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Michael Caine discusses his acting career

The new remake of "Get Carter" stars Sylvester Stallone as a hitman who
returns to his hometown to avenge his brother's murder. It's a remake of
1971 British cult film which starred Michael Caine. In the remake, Caine is
featured as the former boss of the murdered brother. Caine first
himself in the movie "Alfie" as a playboy, and in "The Ipcress File" as a
secret agent. He won an Academy Award for his role in the recent film "The
Cider House Rules" and another for his role in "Hannah and Her Sisters." He
also starred in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Mona Lisa," "Educating Rita" and
"Dressed to Kill." I spoke with him in 1992 after the publication of his
autobiography, which told his story from his birth in the charity ward of a
hospital to his coming of age in a working-class neighborhood and his rise
a movie star. I asked him about playing gangsters and killers and what he
does to convey that sense of power.

Mr. MICHAEL CAINE (Actor): Authority is shown not only by voice but by
movement, and what it is, is first thing in authority is you never move.
people who are trying to attract your attention with no power move their
hands. If you look at aristocracy and really powerful people, they move
little, because everybody is awaiting their every word, wish or command, and
their voice is very, very slow, because everybody will wait while they have
their thought and wait no matter how long it takes for them to say what they
are going to say. What you have to add, in this case where I've played a
gangster, which would be menace. And menace would come if you--I mean, in
that I had a gangster accent, which is again a working-class cockney accent,
but there is a sort of cheerful, chirpy working-class, sort of, `Hello,
Let's all go down to t'pub,' and all this. You know, that sort of accent,
for the chirpy cockney lad, cheerful little soul.

But then there's another one which is--it's kind of very drawn out, and it's
very flat. And so they will actually say things to you. I mean, I grew up
with gangsters like this, and they will say, `I like you.' And there's
absolutely no emotion in the voice whatsoever. It's like an icicle. You
know, they say, `I think you're one of the nicest fellows I've ever met.
Really do. I really think you're very nice.' So--and they say silly little
things. When you know you're in trouble with your cockney gangster, he'll
something like, `Well, who've been naughty then?' Now that question means
you're probably gonna get knee-capped to the floor. But it's one of those
things of just flattening the voice out. The voice just flattens right out;
no matter what you say, it just flattens, flattens.

GROSS: Now when you say you're in a position of power and authority, you
don't move a lot...

Mr. CAINE: No.

GROSS: ...that means you don't blink a lot, too.

Mr. CAINE: No. Oh, that's a trick for actors on film. I used, and it was
told--I think first place I heard it was Marlene Dietrich said it first--is
that you don't blink. If you blink on camera, it signifies weakness. It's
very difficult to do this trick on radio, about blinking. But if you look
the mirror yourself and just stare and start saying things to yourself,
see how powerful it is. And if you just blink once in the middle of it,
you'll see how it all dissipates. It just dissipates the whole thing. And
course, if you're on a movie screen, you have to remember when you blink,
eyelid is somewhere between two to seven feet wide, if you're in a close-up.

GROSS: That's a good point.

Mr. CAINE: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, how do you learn to not blink? It's hard to not blink. Your
eyes start to hurt. You can do it for a little bit, but after a while, it's
real strain.

Mr. CAINE: You just walk around--I walked around all my life not--when I
a young lad--I wrote about this in the book--when I was a young lad, I found
book in the public library, "How to Teach Yourself Film Acting." And the
first thing it said in it is, `You must not blink.' And so I walked around
this sort of working-class district of London, which was used to some very
rough people, you know, without blinking, and I looked like a sort of early
serial killer. And I'm sure I frightened the life out of people, because I
used to have long conversations with people and never blink, and I would
people getting hypnotized, and they would walk away from a quite simple
conversation with me quite flummoxed as to what actually went on.

GROSS: Well, here's what I'm wondering: You know, since you learned
obviously by making movies, how did you pick up everything that you know now
about how to look into a camera or, like, where to look when the camera's
looking at you? Did you pick that up over years after watching yourself and
watching yourself?

Mr. CAINE: No, I never watch myself. I never see rushes and I only see the
finished film once just to see how it turned out and who goofed, including
And--no, it's--film is listening, reaction and behavior. That's what film
acting is. It shouldn't be called film acting at all, because it's not
acting, it's something entirely--acting is what you do on stage, as far as
concerned. And people behave--the only time real people act is if they're
showing off or trying to make an impression, like a guy with a girl or
something. Then they act and then they're artificial and we can all see
they're artificial because they're acting. But normally what you do is you
listen and you react and then you behave, and that's all it is.

You'll see actors, like, for instance, making gestures on the phone with no
one there. You don't make gestures on the phone with no one there. You
you do, but you don't. And so you get sort of strange things happening like
that when you see actors acting.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now--but what about where to look when the camera's looking
at you? I mean, you really learned how to...

Mr. CAINE: Yes.

GROSS: in front of a camera, and if you didn't spend a lot of time
watching yourself, how did you learn that?

Mr. CAINE: No, well, I learned by watching where the camera was. I mean,
instance, you always--if you're going to--the thing is, if you're gonna play
part--you're playing a part with another actor and you look in their eyes,
what you do, if you're acting, you suddenly go, `Well, how do I look into
person's eyes?' Now during your lifetime, you've looked into hundreds of
people's eyes every time you speak to someone, but you can't remember how
did it. And what you do is you only look into one eye, because if you look
into two eyes you go cross-eyed. And the one eye you look into is the one
that is nearest to the camera, because that throws the one eye that you're
using straight into the lens.


Mr. CAINE: That's how you do that.

GROSS: How did you learn that?

Mr. CAINE: I figured it out. I figured it out, how do to it. I figured it
out myself, actually. I figured out a lot of stuff myself because you get a
feeling in movies when you play someone, the actor should disappear and
should only see the person. I mean, it's a self-defeating thing in a funny
way, because half the time people see me and they say, `Well, he's only
playing himself.' It's because I've made the actor disappear. And that's
where you come down to this thing where you've got behavior, and where
got the camera, you can come down to the absolute minimum thing to do for
camera to pick up, and that's what's fascinating about film acting, because
the camera always finds it.

GROSS: You were born, actually, not only working class, it was really a
pretty poor family. You were born in the charity ward of the hospital.
father was a porter at the fish market, your mother a cleaning woman. You
spent several years in an apartment that had no electricity.

Mr. CAINE: Yeah. Oh, I never lived at a house that had electricity until I
was 12 years old, which was in 1948.

GROSS: So what did your friends think of your ambition to act?

Mr. CAINE: Oh, they thought it was complete and utter--completely
utterly derisory. I mean, no one--I mean, I was just treated with absolute
contempt by everybody, or ridicule.

GROSS: Now why ridicule? I mean...

Mr. CAINE: Because--well, for a start, people of my class and in that
never went into show business. No one knew anybody who was in show business
or anything. And also, like my family, the male members of my family would
regard any male going into show business or acting as being homosexual
or a possible homosexual. There was a tremendous gay inference. I mean, we
didn't use the word `gay' in those days, but if you said--when I said to my
father I was going to be an actor, it was the equivalent of telling him I
a homosexual, as far as he was concerned.

GROSS: So did you feel that you had to do things to prove your manhood
studying acting?

Mr. CAINE: No, I was already doing those, but my father didn't know about

GROSS: I think I get what you're saying.

Mr. CAINE: Yes. But I really had to prove to him. I married very young,
which I sometimes think was an effort to prove to him that I wasn't gay, and
had a child when I was 22. I had a daughter when I was 22. And of course,
with his simple-minded way of looking at it, he was again wrong because the
fact that I was married and had a baby meant to him that I was definitely
a homosexual, and so he was wrong in both cases, you know, because there are
lot of people who are married with children who are homosexual. But he had
very simplistic view of the world. I mean, he was a very, very tough man.
mean--and it's very hard to put across to anybody just how tough he was.
again to the gay analogy, he actually thought that any man who ate chicken

GROSS: Chicken?

Mr. CAINE: Yes.


Mr. CAINE: Because of this red meat thing. You know, real men ate red meat
and all this stuff, and he thought that was sissy food, chicken.

GROSS: Michael Caine, recorded in 1993. He starred in the original 1971
version of "Get Carter" and is featured in the new remake, which stars
Sylvester Stallone. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

"The West Wing" started its new season this week with a two-hour episode.
show's first season won nine Emmys and a Peabody. Coming up, we hear from
John Spencer, who plays the president's chief of staff.

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

Interview: Actor John Spencer discusses his role on the TV drama
"The West Wing" and looks back on his life

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The TV White House drama "The West Wing" made its season premiere this week
with a two-hour episode. Last season ended with a cliff-hanger: Who was
when bullets were fired at a group which included the president, President
Bartlet, his aides and his daughter. This week, we learned that the
was wounded, his aide, Josh Lyman, was more seriously injured and barely
pulled through. The episode also included several flashback scenes about
the characters first met.

In this flashback scene, Leo McGarry, now the president's chief of staff,
organizing the presidential campaign for Governor Bartlet. They're in New
Hampshire for the primary. McGarry has just fired several people on

(Soundbite from "The West Wing")

Mr. JOHN SPENCER: (As Leo McGarry) Freezing cold in October. I don't know
how you people live here.

Mr. MARTIN SHEEN: (As Josiah Bartlet) Did you just fire Cal Minnicus(ph).

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Yeah.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) You fired him.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Yeah, and Jerry and Mac and Steve and the other

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Is there anyone you kept?

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) I kept Toby Ziegler.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Oh, you kept Toby Ziegler and you fired everybody

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Yeah.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Toby Ziegler is the only person working for us I
don't know, and he's the one you kept.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Take him home, would you?

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Those were the only people I knew.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Those people were worthless. It's time we bring
in what we need.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) So you made that decision on your own?

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Yeah. You know why? Because you're a crappy
politician. I think you'll find I'll be making a lot of decisions on my
so start getting used to it.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) You know, I got elected to Congress by this state.
This state sent me to Congress three times, and then elected me governor,
without your help. Don't start.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) No, seriously, that's a real political
accomplishment, considering your family founded this state.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Hey...

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Were you even opposed in any of those elections?

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) You got rid of all the people I know.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Yeah. Have a good night.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Why are you doing this? You're a player. You're
bigger in the party than I am. Hoynes'd make you national chairman. Leo!
Tell me this isn't one of the 12 steps.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) That's what it is, right after admitting that
we're powerless over alcohol, and that a higher power can restore us to
sanity. That's were you come in.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Leo...

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Because I'm tired of it--year after year after
year after year, having to choose between the lesser of who cares, of trying
to get myself excited about a candidate who can speak in complete sentences,
of setting the bar so low I can hardly look at it. They say a good man
get elected president. I don't believe that, do you?

GROSS: On this archive edition, we have an interview recorded a few months
ago with John Spencer, who plays the president's chief of staff. I asked
Spencer to describe his character.

Mr. SPENCER: Leo is a man who's very impassioned about what he does. I
think he's a politician in the best sense of the word, a caretaker, someone
who is out for the ultimate good. I think he's a workaholic. I think he's
man who invests all of his passion and his time at the workplace, and has
little left over for his family, which is why his marriage is in trouble.
evolution, I think, comes week to week. I think some of the rude awakenings
of the amount of compromise that is necessary to run an administration--you
often have to give up A and B in order to achieve C and D, and I think that
frustrates Leo. I think it's--frustrates Leo; often the idealism of the
inception of their ideas of what they want to accomplish this
and the reality there of what they can accomplish. I think that often
disappoints him.

GROSS: When you get a script, do you read through the whole thing straight
through, or do you go just to you part first, and see...

Mr. SPENCER: I re...

GROSS: ...what's up for your character?

Mr. SPENCER: I read through the whole script. One of the things--I was
mentioning this to someone yesterday--one of the really positive things
the show and why I know it's as good as I feel it is, is I and the rest of
cast--I mean, we get the new scripts sometimes hot from the oven; the pages
are still warm from the duplicating machine--and we immediately--all of our
heads are in the script, looking at what happens to our character, what
happens to this person. So there's a great enthusiasm and interest in
going to happen for the cast, and I can't imagine if we're that interested,
that other people who are not into the daily grind of making this show
wouldn't be interested, so I take that as a good sign.

GROSS: I'm wondering if there's ever something in the script that you think
doesn't work and has to be redone, rewritten?

Mr. SPENCER: With Aaron's writing, for the most part--I would say 99
of the time--there's nothing that I would change. Every once in a while, in
charting the character's growth, I will have a question, like, `Well, why
would Leo come out on this side of this, given all of that?' And I'll
talk to Aaron about it and he'll explain it, and I'll understand it, or I'll
not agree with it and we'll talk it out, and either it will be `tweaked,' as
he puts it--changed a little bit--or he'll convince me that this is the way
the character would behave.

GROSS: Let me ask you about something that happened in a recent episode.

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Your character is a former alcoholic...

Mr. SPENCER: That's right.

GROSS: ...who hasn't touched a--you know, hasn't touched a drink for

Mr. SPENCER: Right.

GROSS: I forget how many.

Mr. SPENCER: Eight.

GROSS: Recently the fact that he had been to a rehab center was made public
by a kind of new aide in the White House...

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...someone who's very young and very new to...

Mr. SPENCER: Right.

GROSS: ...this kind of job. Was she an intern?

Mr. SPENCER: She was an intern. She worked...

GROSS: Yeah, she was an intern. OK.

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. She worked in the administration office. She really
didn't work in the West Wing itself. She was in administration, but that
her privy to files.

GROSS: So she secretly makes this file public, you know, that...

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that you were in rehab.

Mr. SPENCER: She leaked it to a friend, socially.

GROSS: Yeah. And it...

Mr. SPENCER: And--who was in the opposite political party, and he took the
football and ran with it.

GROSS: And it gets into the press, really big story...

Mr. SPENCER: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...very difficult for the White House to handle.

Mr. SPENCER: Absolutely.

GROSS: One friend of yours suggests that you resign--he's no longer your
friend, I think.

Mr. SPENCER: That's right.

GROSS: And then when the story's traced back to the intern, she's fired.
comes into your office...

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...because you invited her in.

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You talk it through, and then you tell her to keep her job.

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I was thinking, I wonder...

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. I...

GROSS: ...if the chief of staff would really say to the intern, who leaked
something like this, `Go ahead, keep your job.'

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm. I read a thing in The New Yorker magazine where they
felt that was one of the few elements of Aaron's writing on this show that
they didn't totally buy, that we would hire this woman back, or that might
happen in real life. I had much less problem with it, because I think it's
quick transition. I think it happens in the moment, and being in recovery
myself for 10 years, I kind of have an intimacy with the rooms, with AA, and
one of the precepts of the program is forgiveness and lack of proselytizing,
share your story, don't do inventory on other people's points of view, love
and forgive constantly.

And I think the turning point for Leo, which I had to find as an actor, I
think it just--you know, it is a conversation, he plans to fire her. He
her why she's done this, and in questioning why she did this, when she comes
out with that fact that her father was an alcoholic and his irrationality
strange behavior was so aberrant to her, so horrifying, that this was the
other alcoholic she knew, and suddenly finding out that the chief of staff
the White House of the United States was also an alcoholic--her only point
reference was her old man, was her dad, and I can't imagine how horrific it
must have been for her thinking someone with these mood swings, someone who
might act like this is in such a seat of power, where people's lives could

And as she expresses that, I think myself as Leo have to realize well, the
motivation is a positive one. The result might have been horrible for me
for my friend, the president, and for our administration, but this woman--it
was not kind of nasty, you know, water-cooler gossip. It was someone who
really feared that it could be very dangerous, and--to have a man with this
weakness, or this problem in this important position. And when I see that,
and I kind of note that she has a love of the government and a love of its
responsibility, feeling that she was well-motivated, I think I have to give
her a second chance, and God knows my character's been given, through his
life, a lot of second chances. So how you can you get and not give, you

GROSS: Was the chief of staff character originally written as a recovering
alcoholic, or was that aspect of his character written in after you got the
part, because of your own experience?

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. Good question, and often asked me. The truth in the
matter is, it was not originally written that way. I have since--because
been asked this question so many times--gone to Aaron and said, `Listen, how
much did my life influence you there?' because we've talked very rarely
it. I mean, I remember one time going into the sound stage and I was yet
struggling again with the cigarette, no cigarette thing, and we were talking
about addiction, and I said, `Well, this is the last threshold for me and
is the hardest.' And then I started talking about being in recovery, and I
don't know if he knew about it before then or not, but it was a very light,
casual conversation. And since the episodes have aired that cover this,
been asked that question a lot, because I'm not anonymous and people know
I'm in recovery. So I went to Aaron and I asked him if my life influenced
desire to put the character that way, and he said, `Absolutely not.' He
you know, it was part of his creative imagination, part of his own life
experience, knowing people in recovery, and I triggered it off by saying I
in recovery, but he was not basing it on my life.

GROSS: What episode has gotten the biggest response, and do you find that
Democrats and Republicans respond to either different story lines or
aspects of the story?

Mr. SPENCER: I think Democrats and Republicans--people's political points
view comes into how they respond to the episodes. When our first episode
on, a lot of pundits sort of said, `Ah, liberal left-wing Democrat Aaron
Sorkin writing; a liberal White House, pro-left, anti-right.' And then, of
course, Aaron, in his great talent, surprised everyone, turned around and
the liberal Democratic president want to bomb the Mideast after his friend
went down in a plane. So we take everything on. He took on the--you know,
then the Hollywood liberal agenda also, you know, these moguls who throw
fund-raisers with their own agendas. So no one's safe with Aaron. He's
on the right, the left and the middle.

GROSS: My guest is John Spencer. He's one of the stars of "The West Wing."
He plays the president's chief of staff, Leo McGarry. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Spencer, and he plays
White House chief of staff, Leo McGarry, on the series, "The West Wing."

How did you get the part as the chief of staff on "The West Wing?"

Mr. SPENCER: It's--I had just done another--a short-lived series for our
executive producer, John Wells, a thing called "Trinity" that was shooting
New York, and was not well-received commercially. We couldn't get an
audience, so we went off after nine episodes. So I really had a good time
with that experience. My agent called me and said, `I've just read a
brilliant pilot,' and I said, `Oh, no, not another hour drama.' I just did
that, and I wasn't sure I wanted to get involved again so soon with that,
because there's a great luxury to being able to do one or two films a year.
You have time off in between, you can make--you're not--you get to play more
than one character. So I wasn't sure I wanted to kind of, you know, sign on
for the big ride again. And he said, `Well, read it.' And I read it, and
I'll tell you, I got maybe a third into it, and I just thought this was some
of the most brilliant writing I've ever seen for television, and I loved the
role, and that's when I decided I really want to go after this one.

So I chased it down like a wild man, and I really went after it. I worked
up, I read it with Aaron and apparently, if I can take Aaron and Tommy's
for it, after I read for them, they saw no more Leos, and I was the first
person cast. So that makes me feel very good. I didn't know that at the

GROSS: Now were the other people cast with you to see if the chemistry

Mr. SPENCER: We were sort of cast one at a time, I guess, as they found the
people they thought best suited each of the roles. They told me I was cast
first; I don't--I think Josh--Brad Whitford--came along soon thereafter.
Aaron says that this is the first time in his career that he got his first
choice for all the roles, and that's very nice.

GROSS: And when was Martin Sheen cast as the president?

Mr. SPENCER: Martin was cast--I believe he was one of the last people cast,
and to start with, he was going to be recurring. He was only going to do
about five or six of the 22 episodes, and then after we did the pilot, they
reconsidered, and they thought, `Well, we really just don't want to be
about the president, with the audience waiting to see him each week,' so
asked him if he would, you know, sign on for the whole ride, and he was only
too happy to, and here we are.

GROSS: In TV, you're best known for your roles on "LA Law" and "The West
Wing." But your first recurring TV role...


GROSS: ...was on "The Patty Duke Show"...

Mr. SPENCER: It certainly was.

GROSS: Kathy's boyfriend, the British identical cousin.

Mr. SPENCER: The British identical cousin--I think--what was the role
called? Henry Anderson, I think, was the guy's name.

GROSS: You don't even remember.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, I was 16. I'm 53 now, so it was a while ago. Yeah.
What a lucky stroke--it was one of the first jobs I ever did in the show
business, and it was a lucky break. I mean, they were basically
they saw is what they got. I had no training at the time, and I guess there
was something in my personality that they thought suited that character, and
that's what they got.

GROSS: Why don't you refresh our memory and describe the character?

Mr. SPENCER: Oh, he was kind of goofy, he was, you know, kind of a typical
teen-ager in the '60s. I watch some of the reruns every once in a while,
I look particularly tall and skinny to myself, with very big ears, and the
kind of voice that cracked as it got up into the higher register. So it's
almost at times if I see that, like I'm watching a different person, you

GROSS: Were you in it from the first episode, or was the character written

Mr. SPENCER: It was recurring. I was in the first episode and I say I
maybe--did 10 or 15 of the 22 of the first two seasons, and then the show
moved to California because Patty turned 18, and it was working codes and
things--she was not under the child labor law any longer, so they could
do the show in California--and they didn't take any of the recurring people
with them to California, so I was only on the first two seasons.

GROSS: Did she get a new boyfriend?

Mr. SPENCER: Kathy? Kathy kind of played the field, as I remember.

GROSS: She was such a swinger--no, she wasn't.

Mr. SPENCER: No, she wasn't. The other one was.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. SPENCER: Do you remember the theme song?

GROSS: Oh, of course.

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah, I do, too.

GROSS: Why don't you sing it? I'm not going to.

Mr. SPENCER: No, I can't sing it. I won't go near that. But it's amazing
how many people do.

GROSS: Now when you were in--you were in high school when you got the role?

Mr. SPENCER: I was. I was...

GROSS: Did...

Mr. SPENCER: Go ahead.

GROSS: Well, could you walk down the halls of your high school without
singing the song to you?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, at that point, I--when I was about 16, I left my New
Jersey home and moved into New York City, much to my parents' chagrin--and
bless them for ultimately letting me do this, as petrified as it must have
made them; now as a 53-year-old man, I look back and realize the horror I
have put them through--and I was pretty rebellious, and I was pretty sure of
what I wanted to do. I knew by eight years old that I wanted to act. Why,
don't ask me. It just seemed a certainty for me in my mind.

So I went into New York, and I didn't know the first thing about anything,
alone how to break into this elusive business that I wanted to be a part of,
so I got a job as a--I wasn't a waiter, they couldn't hire me as a waiter
because I was too young and I didn't have working papers--so I was a busboy,
and then I found out when the summer was over that I had to go to school if
wanted to work, because I had to get things called working papers, and I
needed that up to the point that I was 18. So I enrolled in this high
called Professional Children's School, not like the "Fame" high school. We
were not taught craft things. We were not taught singing, dancing, acting.
It was just academics, but it was academics for children, teen-agers, high
school students, who had working lives.

I was in school with Pinchas Zukerman, who at that time was a concert
violinist, has since become a very famous conductor, famous ice skaters,
ballet dancers--all of the New York City Ballet was in that school--actors.
We had some rock singers. It was a very eclectic mix of teen-agers.

GROSS: For a lot of people who grew up with "The Patty Duke Show," they
probably thought that like one day they'd be old enough to go to the malt
with a date.

Mr. SPENCER: Oh, I know.

GROSS: Did the whole idea of what being a teen-ager was on "The Patty Duke
Show" affect your idea of what it meant to be a teen-ager?

Mr. SPENCER: We were kind of different teen-agers, a little more jaded, a
little more worldly-wise, a little more out there, because we had no time to
go to the malt shops. We were either at the studio or trying to make up

GROSS: I'm not sure you could have found a malt shop like that in

Mr. SPENCER: We had a place called Rudley's(ph), which was right by the
school. It was a coffee shop, no longer there--the Gulf Western Building is
there now--and we would often--I'm talking out of school here, Terry--we
often cut classes and hang out there and drink Coca-Colas and eat English
muffins and smoke cigarettes, a habit that I picked up early and I'm still
trying to get rid of.

GROSS: It's hard. It is really hard.

Mr. SPENCER: Oh, boy. It seems to me my Achilles' heel. This is now my
third attempt. I stopped for 18 weeks and then very cavalierly, over
Christmas, decided, `OK, I'm strong, I'll--you know, I'll have a few
cigarettes. I'm on vacation.' Well, there was a really stupid point of
because within three or four days, I was smoking completely again.

GROSS: Your character on "West Wing" doesn't smoke, does he?

Mr. SPENCER: Not at all.

GROSS: That's good, because you wouldn't have to smoke--you wouldn't...

Mr. SPENCER: No, I--I made that as a...

GROSS: That would really hurt to have to smoke to be in character.

Mr. SPENCER: Absolutely. I made that as a conscious choice. Also, the
White House is a smoke-free area.

GROSS: Of course.

Mr. SPENCER: So we'd have to run outside to have one. Do you smoke?

GROSS: Oh, I gave it up a long time ago. I gave it up...

Mr. SPENCER: You did? How'd you do that? Cold turkey, or did you use

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what happened to me. I lost my voice twice on
air, because I had a cold and I was smoking right through it.

Mr. SPENCER: That'll do it, won't it?

GROSS: And I realized, you know, this is going to be really awful if I lose
my voice again like this, so that definitely inspired me to stop, and I
didn't--I just stopped.

Mr. SPENCER: You did.

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, I was sick when I stopped. I had really bad cold, no
voice, so it was easy...

Mr. SPENCER: Ah-ha.

GROSS: get through that and then keep going. But I had stopped, you
know, an amazing number of times before that and started again.

Mr. SPENCER: It's a squirrelly habit. It really gets you.

GROSS: My guest is John Spencer. He plays the president's chief of staff
the TV series "The West Wing." We'll talk more after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with John Spencer. He plays the
president's chief of staff on "The West Wing."

There's some actors who did some pretty great bits of business with
cigarettes--Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, I mean...

Mr. SPENCER: Absolutely.

GROSS: remember how they looked when they smoked. When you were
starting acting and smoking, was a cigarette a really good prop for you?

Mr. SPENCER: Absolutely. I taught myself. I stood in front of a mirror in
the upstairs bathroom and taught myself to smoke. I smoked, and I thought,
`This doesn't look right. This doesn't look like other people.' And so,
know, I kind of did that holding them with the first three fingers, you

GROSS: Oh, yes, right.

Mr. SPENCER: ...that kind of tough look.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SPENCER: And then I thought, `It still doesn't look right,' and I
realized I wasn't inhaling--I didn't know what inhaling was--so why isn't it
coming out of my nose? And I took a deep breath, and it came out of my
the room started spinning around. I was sick on the bed, and the next day,
started again. And with enough practice, I learned how.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite smoking scene from your movies?

Mr. SPENCER: From my movies--let me think. Mmm--not really, but I loved
concept that David Kelley wrote, my first episode of "LA Law." Mullaney was
smoker, and they often let me smoke on that show--I believe after a while
character became very popular, and NBC got very worried that I was a good
smoking, and there was some pressure from the network that I shouldn't smoke
on the show, but that came the second and third season. The first season, I
smoked like a fiend. In fact there was one scene I remember where Leland
McKenzie--Richard Dysart--walked in my--opened the door and, like, smoke
poured out of my office. But my first litigation, my first case was
smoke suit, where I got the client millions of dollars and attacked the
cigarette companies, where in between scenes I was smoking like a wild
and I loved that dynamic. I thought that was so great and so David Kelley,
that kind of, you know, complex situation.

GROSS: You know, it's funny, a lot of actresses complain that when they hit
their 40s, the roles dry up. Your career really took off in your 40s and

Mr. SPENCER: Absolutely.

GROSS: I'm wondering, do you have any thoughts about why that is?

Mr. SPENCER: I do. I was a character actor in a young man's body. I don't
think people knew what to do with me in my 20s, you know, because I wasn't
Matt Dillon, or I wasn't your typical young leading man. Yet I also wasn't
so much of a character actor that, you know, I could play the occasional
really offbeat sidekick. I fell somewhere in the middle, and therefore in
cracks. As my face began to age and more meet the roles, things got better
and better. I'm one of those examples of it getting better and better with
time. The older I got, the better it got.

My real view about acting is unless you need it like an opiate, unless you
really--I mean, you Jones for it, you can't live without it--I would do
something else. There are so many other things that are easier on the soul,
more lucrative, more steady. But if you need your art, and it's undeniable
you, then you don't have much choice. That's why when young actors ask me
I think they should act, I say, `No,' because unless they know they have to
act, I don't think it's worth it. It's hard enough when it's going well.
it's not going well, it's impossible.

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

Mr. SPENCER: What a great interview. I can see why people like your show.

GROSS: John Spencer plays the president's chief of staff on "The West
Our interview was recorded last spring.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits given)
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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