Other segments from the episode on September 25, 2006
DATE September 25, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actor Ben Affleck talks about his new movie,
"Hollywoodland," his life and other roles
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is Ben Affleck. Earlier this month, he won the Best Actor Award at
the Venice Film Festival for his starring role in the new movie,
"Hollywoodland." He plays George Reeves, the actor who starred in the 1950s TV
series, "Superman." As portrayed in the film, Reeves wanted fame, but he
wanted it through movies, not through playing a superhero in a TV series for
kids. We're going to talk about playing the man who played Superman, then
we'll talk with Affleck about his life and some of his other roles. His other
movies include "Chasing Amy," "Dogma," "Shakespeare in Love," "Pearl Harbor,"
"Armageddon" and "Good Will Hunting," which he co-wrote with Matt Damon.
Let's start with a scene from "Hollywoodland," just after Reeves has gotten a
call from his agent. Reeves is describing the call to the woman he is having
an affair with, who's the wife of an MGM executive. She's played by Diane
(Soundbite from "Hollywoodland")
Mr. BEN AFFLECK: (As George Reeves) Got a call. They're picking up
Ms. DIANE LANE: (As Toni Mannix) They're what?
Mr. AFFLECK: (As George) Kellogg. They bought it.
Ms. LANE: (As Toni) After two years?
Mr. AFFLECK: (As George) That's right. I will be on television in a month,
wearing brown and gray underpants.
Ms. LANE: (As Toni) Well, hurray!
Mr. AFFLECK: (As George) Christ.
Ms. LANE: (As Toni) Well, maybe it wasn't your proudest moment...
Mr. AFFLECK: (As George) No, I'm quite sure it wasn't.
Mr. LANE: (As Toni) But you did create a very likable, very attractive, very
Mr. AFFLECK: (As George) Is that right?
Ms. LANE: (As Toni) Mmm. I'd pick you in a second.
Mr. AFFLECK: (As George) Well, one thing we can be sure of, no one with a
lick of sense would watch that show.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Ben Affleck, welcome to FRESH AIR. When you got the part of George
Reeves and you went back and watched again old episodes of "Superman," what
things about his acting did you notice that you'd never noticed before, things
that you wanted to do, too, when you were portraying him?
Mr. AFFLECK: Well, there are a number of things, you know, chief among them
was that he had a real, sort of, a real charm, and it was a kind of kindness
to him and a kind of sweetness that I think is what kids responded to, and I
don't think it's something you can really fake, but he seemed to have a really
good heart and that he enjoyed this idea and played with this kind of
fundamental central underlying element of the show that made it, I think,
really good. What it was was that he was sharing this experience with kids,
that he was sharing his secret with them and kind of--I mean, sometimes quite
literally winking at the audience.
GROSS: One of the things I think you capture about him as Superman is the way
he kind of almost plants his feet on the floor, shoulders back and almost like
military-style posture and put his like hands on his hips.
Mr. AFFLECK: There was no--one of the nice things about the period is that
there wasn't a lot of pretense, you know. Nowadays we have a kind of--our
heroes have to also be sort of slouching and conflicted...
Mr. AFFLECK: ...and have the weight of the world on their heads.
Mr. AFFLECK: There was no pretense to that. It was like he was Superman.
He was proud and strong and he had his hands on his hips and he looked out
into the middle distance because he was strong and he was going to protect
people. It wasn't, you know, this whole idea, of like the hero now in movies
and stories is, you know, doesn't want to have the curse of these powers. You
Mr. AFFLECK: He had no such qualms. And even the kind of acting and the
behavior style, and I think that if you kind of read further into it, it was
kind of a presentationalism that was present in acting, which was a kind of
self-conscious way of saying, `I know I'm about to sit on this couch and smile
at this woman and I'm going to do so in a way that I hope is kind of
endearing,' you know, like Spencer Tracy, for example, did that really well,
or Clark Gable, and I think that was present in social interactions too. You
know, men wore hats and had kerchiefs in their pockets and even if you didn't
have any money, you know, you chose--you know, real working people tried to
wear suits. It was an era of kind of trying to, you know, put on airs, wasn't
a bad thing, wasn't a put-down, you know?
GROSS: And there was even a more formal style of speaking in movies, no
matter how informal the characters were supposed to be, and all of this is not
your generation's style of acting, so do you feel like you had to change your
style of acting and not be conflicted and be more presentational?
Mr. AFFLECK: Well, playing him in a way--I mean, obviously people still felt
the same things, so one of the things I thought was really interesting about
this character was he was a guy who had the same conflicted feelings. In
fact, I think George had a tremendous amount of sadness, maybe depression,
definitely he was an alcoholic, probably addicted to pain pills by the end of
his life, and he was a very ambitious guy who suffered from the kind of
thwarted ambition and the continuing humiliation that that offered. So here's
a tremendous amount of pain and difficulty, and yet, he's living in a world
that really--where you have to kind of stiff upper lip and, you know, be
gracious and still kind of be charming because anything less than that is to
admit a kind of unimaginable and terrible defeat. So I thought there was
something really dramatically interesting in, on the one hand, having a guy
who's full of agony and pain but, on the other hand, has to put on a good
GROSS: But when you're playing him as an actor on the set acting...
Mr. AFFLECK: Right.
GROSS: ...you have to go into a different...
Mr. AFFLECK: As Superman...
GROSS: Yeah, as Superman...
Mr. AFFLECK: Yeah.
GROSS: ...you have to go into a different acting style.
Mr. AFFLECK: Absolutely and one of the things I did to research that that
was really interesting is rather than just watching him--I watched all his
movies. I listened to all his stuff. I watched home videos. I talked to
people who knew him. I went through the kind of, you know, the regular steps
that you would take, obviously researching somebody. But additionally I
thought, you know, here was a guy who was ambitious and kind of emul--wanted
to be other people, right? There was a line where he says he'd like to have
Clark Gable's career. He is influenced in a way, not as much by who he
actually is but by who he wants to be, so I watched a lot of these movies of
the time to see what were the things that he would be emulating, what were the
styles that he would be trying to effect in his own performance, and so in
effect, I tried to emulate those as he would have...
Mr. AFFLECK: ...and in doing, I think, ended up with that same kind of style
which, you know, was popular in the '50s, which was to speak really fast, you
know, movies would be a lot shorter now if they had that '50s sort of clip of
like, `Say, fella, what do you know?' `Nothing, chum, I don't know.' `Hey,
back from the war?' `Sure am.' `Smoke Campbell's. They're milder.' It was
like, just, you know, very, kind of...(unintelligible)...kind of zipping
through your lines, and, you know, picking up on that and playing with that
was really fun for me, 'cause it was so completely counter to the sort of
ultra tape-recorder realism naturalistic style of our time.
GROSS: What did it feel like to actually put on the famous tights and the
Mr. AFFLECK: It was daunting to a certain extent. We were really concerned
with realism in the sense that we wanted to be really consistent with how they
did it, particularly in that show, particularly when we were filming, you
know, scenes that had to do with either him as Clark Kent or him as Superman,
because everybody, you know, who watched the show obviously would have a
pretty strong sense of what looked real and what didn't look real, you know
what jived with their memory and their sense of how it was, you know, done.
And so one of the things I was able to do, there's a television, kind of
archive, memorabilia people here who have a museum, and I'm forgetting their
name, which is a shame, because I really appreciated what they did, but
anyway, he came by, brought the actual suit that George wore and the rubber
foam, you know, muscle suit underneath, and let me, not only wear it, you
know, not only touch it but, you know, put it over my head and look at it, and
it was--that was a really, kind of surreal moment where I was like sort of
reaching out and touching the actual clothes that he wore, and you could see
all these sweat stains in the thing. You understood why it was so oppressive.
He complained bitterly about it.
As he got more control, interestingly, later on in the series, there was much
less of Superman and much more of Clark Kent. He would get these rashes and
he would sweat. You know, he drank all day while he was doing the show
because he was so miserable, so then he would start to sweat the alcohol,
which would like break down the foam rubber, and it was just a disaster. And
the outside of the suit--you had this rubber that didn't breathe and then the,
you know, tights, as it were, were basically just a wool sweater. It was
knitted, you know, with the `S' on it and everything else, and, you know, that
combined with the fact that the film was so incredibly slow back then, it
needed so much light to be dumped on to--in order to be able to see
that--these giant incredibly hot lights, and also they hadn't figured out the
technology for keeping lights cooler, so he literally roasted in this outfit,
and I wanted to get a kind of a sense of that because everything I read about
him, they talked about how incredibly oppressive this outfit was, and I
thought that was kind of nicely and, you know, if not too obviously
representative of how onerous he found, you know, playing Superman and the
whole experience was kind of a burden on him.
GROSS: One--the film isn't a comedy but one of the funny lines in the movie
is after he puts on his suit for a promotional appearance he says--and before
he walks out and meets his audience of children in this promotional
experience, he says to somebody after putting on the costume, `Is my penis
showing?' and I thought, this is exactly the kind of thing that everybody
always wondered if he thought about, you know. So is there any evidence he
actually said that and wondered about it?
Mr. AFFLECK: He was a very lively guy, and there's a lot of evidence that he
thought about it and joked about that kind of thing a fair bit, you know. A
lot of times you look back at people in the '50s and because their work is so,
you know, had to fit into constraints of the censors and you know, it was all
kind of pretty chaste that their actual personalities somehow might have
reflected that, which really isn't the case, I don't think. You know, he was
very--I don't know--ribald or whatever. He, you know, would make a lot of
jokes about his penis and what could or couldn't be seen and his--you know,
taking his trousers off, and there's a scene in the movie where we do a bit
where he actually kind of--what he would do quite regularly, which is kind of
like break up on the set by pretending to, you know, like something with Lois,
where he says, `Do you want to see the real man of steel?' and he takes his
pants off and he's sort of like pawing at her, and then, you know, Jimmie
says--the chief comes in and says, `Great Ceasar's ghost!' and you know, he
says, `More powerful than a locomotive,' and you know, he was the sexual
innuendo and jokes like that, I think, did a lot to--and talking about how
obviously foolishly revealing the outfit was, did a lot to kind of mitigate
that embarrassment of feeling like a grown adult working on a television show
and as a way of kind of reminding themselves that they were adults, you know,
trying to hold onto their dignity in some way, ironically.
GROSS: You know, in George Reeves' case he was typecast in that Superman role
and couldn't break out of it, and you know, a lot of people have drawn
parallels to like your life in the sense--not that you were held hostage by a
role but by your private life for a period of time because of the whole
Jennifer Lopez thing, the whole Bennifer thing. So are there ways in which
you identified with Reeves?
Mr. AFFLECK: There are a number of ways in which I identify with Reeves. I
guess there is a sense, kind of what you're alluding to, is there is a
typecasting that happened then which is about, you know, I can't watch George
Reeves in this movie and take him seriously as Captain Stark because I just
think of him as Superman and I can't get it out of my head, and that's all I'm
reminded of so I have no abilities to suspend disbelief and follow along with
And I think there's a modern equivalent of that--it's similar but not the
same, which is you can get typecast as yourself. In other words, audiences
become so familiar with--particularly because the proliferation of all these
entertainment kind of media outlets, which is basically, you know, gussied-up
tabloids, whether they're in print or in electronic media that, you know,
because there's so many of them, and there's this bigger audience, this bigger
market, they run out of materials so they have to kind of create material and
then they really, you know, they overdo the sort of inane, like the truly
pedestrian to the point where, you know, you really know what, you know, some
actor, maybe an actor you don't even like or whose movies you haven't even
seen, how--what they look like taking out the trash and what their marital
status is and where their kids go to school and what they look like in the
morning before they've put their makeup on or whatever it is. You get
inundated with these images, whether you want to or not almost, you know, on
your AOL homepage and everytime you want by a newsstand and everytime you turn
on a television, you know, that it becomes hard to think of the person as
Spaceman or as you know, D.H. Lawrence, or something. You just think, that's
not D.H. Lawrence. So that's the problem with that kind of typecasting, and
I think because I was in a kind of high-profile kind of relationship right
around the time when media companies discovered that there was a bigger market
for this entertainment pop culture stuff than they thought, and so everybody
knew, as you say. It's like nickname for a relationship or you know details
about a relationship that seem--it's just kind of--you can't believe other
people know those sort of things about somebody else. It's like stuff I don't
know about good friends of mine.
GROSS: Well, the idea of being typecast as yourself so people can't believe
you playing a role is really interesting, and that's certainly rings true.
You know, in playing George Reeves in "Hollywoodland," he's actually having an
affair through the movie with the wife of an MGM studio executive, and the
press basically doesn't cover that, and there's another studio executive whose
job it is to make sure that stories like that don't get covered...
Mr. AFFLECK: I know. It was...
GROSS: ...you know, that the stars are protected. So did you think a lot
about the difference between press coverage of movie stars then and now?
Mr. AFFLECK: Yeah, I yearned for those days. I thought, how wonderful would
it be, how much better would my life have been, career, everything,
psychological well-being, if there was some, you know, velvet hammer enforcer
guy who every time the press wanted to write something, you know, ugly about
someone's personal life, they just went around and broke their ankles. The
idea is just so appealing.
GROSS: My guest is Ben Affleck. He's starring in the new movie,
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Ben Affleck, and he plays George Reeves in the new movie,
Your new movie, "Hollywoodland," I think it's a really terrific film. I
really enjoyed it.
Mr. AFFLECK: Thanks.
GROSS: Before that, you were in a series of movies that didn't do so well,
recent films like "Gigli" and "Jersey Girl" and "Daredevil" didn't do that
well. Did you think that...
Mr. AFFLECK: "Daredevil" did pretty well actually.
GROSS: Did it do well? Good. Sorry. Thank you for correcting me.
Mr. AFFLECK: It's OK. I mean, it depends on what you want to--you know, it
depends how you define it, again. It made $100 million. Is it my favorite
GROSS: Well, that's sounds good. Sounds good. But is it hard to judge from
a screenplay how good something's going to be?
Mr. AFFLECK: Well, you raise an interesting point. It's kind of twofold.
One, it depends on what your basis for evaluation is, you know what I mean?
Like "Pearl Harbor"'s a good example. It made a fortune and a lot of people,
it was like, kind of, pretty thoroughly pilloried, so it depends what's your
goal there? Obviously, your goal was to make a good movie and ostensibly a
return on the people who've invested their money on your movie because if they
don't see that, you're not likely to continue to have people invest in you or
your movies. So you have to serve two masters in that sense, to a certain
extent. Although increasingly, I've come to believe that one kind of drives
the other, quality drives the other but not completely. I mean, it would be
naive to say that. I think, you know, I liked "Jersey Girl." "Gigli" was the
movie that had nobler intentions and that got totally derailed and exploded by
me being in a relationship with Jennifer Lopez. It didn't help that the movie
didn't work. You know, and it's really hard. You don't really know. You
know, it's a good example. I mean, Marty Brest directed one of my favorite
movies in "Midnight Run," and it was a really good script, and a lot of people
wanted to be in that movie and it was a coup for me to get the part. You
know, it was a big deal. And then, you know, the movie doesn't end up
working. You never know. If you--it's a gamble.
GROSS: Now, you know, you're playing somebody who played a superhero in the
new movie "Hollywoodland," and you played a superhero yourself, of course, in
"Daredevil." Did you grow up with a lot of like comic books? Because like
there's Daredevil, which is based on a comic figure, of course, Superman. And
in the movie "Chasing Amy" you played a comic book artist. Does that have
like personal connections for you?
Mr. AFFLECK: Yeah. The reason that I did "Daredevil" really was because
that was my favorite kind of comic book character growing up, and you know,
that was a kind of--I had a sort of mixed experience doing that movie and
ultimately in some ways that movie and doing it was sort of about how
losing--another way of saying, like, `OK, I had these sort of feelings about
this character as a child and now seeing how I see it differently as an
adult.' One of the things it definitely did for me was give me an appreciation
for George Reeves' dread of and feelings of absurdity about, you know, putting
on a really cumbersome child's costume and pretending to go out and fight
crime. You know, for one thing, you're acutely aware of the fact that
everytime you put it on that it's kind of difficult just to walk across the
room much less go out there and corral bad guys. Additionally, it can kind of
feel really humiliating. You know, you have it like half on or you're just
wearing the mask and you know, your shorts or whatever because it's just so
hot and it just feels like, God, is this what I spent time, you know, like
dreaming about as a kid and training for and trying to be an actor. So it
was--you know, that wasn't the whole way I felt about "Daredevil,"obviously,
but there were moments where I had those feelings and that movie, if nothing
else, was very good preparation for this movie.
GROSS: Why did you start dreaming about acting as a kid?
Mr. AFFLECK: Well, you know, I was--that's a hard thing to say. I was a
child actor. I--you know, I've definitely been--it's always something I felt
like I had--I liked doing. I kind of guess I felt like I got some sense of
self-esteem from it. I thought I was--you know, I would do sort of imitations
or jokes even as a kid. I guess it's basically kind of, you know,
precociousness, you know, in childhood, and then I sort of cultivated that and
you know I could kind of do voices and stuff.
And then I would--got into--at a young age, got sort of, because of whatever
my personality or for some reason I was asked to audition for something as a
kid. I got that part. It was a PBS television series for children called
"Voyage of the Mimi." So then I did that from when I was about nine, you know,
intermittently, from when I was nine to about 13, and so then I started
getting all this experience acting, and it was something that I felt I really
liked doing. I really felt like I was kind of good at and I didn't feel like
I was good at a lot else. So I got some--like I say, I got some self-esteem
from it, and then I just started educating myself about all these actors out
there and who they are and what their kind of art that they had to offer the
world was, and I just thought like this is who I want to be. I want to be
somebody who can do this and I want to learn how to do it better and I want to
kind of give myself over to that. So I've been trying to do that ever since.
GROSS: What did you do as a child and young teenager to try to learn to act
Mr. AFFLECK: I--you know, I had a really great--and this is probably
something you hear a lot--but I had a really great drama teacher. A guy named
Jerry Speca in high school, and you know, this is when I was 14 and he was--he
kind of taught that acting in some ways, in theater and in art, were all
looked at as part of life, not as a separate kind of a thing. That lessons
could be drawn from one into the other and that you could look at them kind of
all as part of the same whole, and, by the same token, he also taught that
kind of writing and acting were sort of part--and directing--were all part of
the same discipline, which is kind of what empowered Matt Damon and I--who
also had--Matt also had this teacher--to go ahead and kind of have the courage
to write our own movie to act in, and that that wasn't--you didn't have to
be--it didn't require some other additional I don't know what--credentials--to
do that. That we could have the courage to kind of do that and improvise it
and it was very empowering for us.
GROSS: Ben Afflect will be back in the second half of the show. He's
starring in the new movie "Hollywoodland." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross back with Ben Affleck. He's starring in the new movie,
"Hollywoodland." Afflect first became known for the 1997 film, "Good Will
Hunting," which he cowrote with his friend Matt Damon. They won an Oscar for
the screenplay. When we left off, Affleck was telling us that a drama teacher
that he and Damon studied with inspired them to write the screenplay.
You mentioned, you know, working with Matt Damon writing "Good Will Hunting."
When you wrote the film--I mean, he was the one who got the bigger part. Did
you feel like you should have had an equally big part? Did that bother you?
Mr. AFFLECK: I should have had a bigger part? No. Well, part of it was
very, you know, what we did with that movie was we were kind of--because all
these independent movies had started to come out, like "Do the Right Thing,"
and "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused" and, you know "Clerks," "Reservoir
Dogs," there was this growing awareness that kind of, if you wanted to break
in, you could kind of do it yourself and you could do it on the cheap, but you
needed a few components. We knew that, you know, Quentin Tarantino somehow
got "Reservoir Dogs" to Harvey Keitel, and because Harvey Keitel did it, you
know, he was able to make his movie.
And so, when we wrote it, on one hand, we had this kind of creative side to
what we wanted to do, which was we wanted to tell this story. And then in
terms of storytelling, it was equally influenced by the pragmatic kind of `how
do we get our movie made?' side where we knew, `OK, you've got to have a girl,
we need to have a part, a kind of very winning-hero part for an actor that was
say, 50, because that was kind of the age that most of those, like you know,
your--whoever it was, your De Niros, your Pacinos, your--you know, obviously
Robin was the top of our list, but your Robin Williams--those type of guys.
We said we need to have a part that will be appealing to one of those guys
because they'll get to be great in the movie because we can't pay them any
money and we have to make it small enough that it doesn't take up much of
their time and all of the scenes that they're in have to be about them and
then we have to have a girl and we have to have a lead, and then, you know, I
was sort of like, I got to be the kind of Mercutio character, was sort of how
we modeled it now--because you can't really have two leads in a movie in a
way, and Matt, also, we needed--the idea was that someone had to let us do the
movie. That, you know, people looked at us kind of like we were crazy, and I
historically had a few kind of supporting parts in movies and then Matt had
had two leading parts movies, in "School Ties" and in "Geronimo," the Walter
Hill western with Jason Patric. So we felt like it would just be more
palatable to people that--you know, that we could get that past them and then
I would get to play a slightly more outrageous and ostensibly more kind of
charactery and kind of interesting part in playing the role of Chuckie.
GROSS: Well, you know, having cowritten "Good Will Hunting," is there
anything from that movie that comes really directly from your life?
Mr. AFFLECK: You know, there are a lot of different things. It's hard to
say you spend so much time with someone. A lot of stuff from my life, Matt's
life. My father was a janitor at Harvard University. Matt was at MIT but it
was sort of similar. We definitely had a kind of town and gown relationship
with Harvard kids. We grew up in Central Square in Cambridge which was the
sort of, at the time, was the across-the-tracks side of Cambridge. I don't
think there is an across-the-tracks side anymore but, you know--so we had that
kind of relationship that was, you know, where we saw these kind of privileged
educated kids who, you know, came into the city and were somehow, you know,
assumed to be better than us or smarter than us and had that kind of
resentment and something to prove, and so that bar scene where, you know, Will
confronts that sort of pompous preppy kid from Harvard and does so by sort
of--in an intellectual duel, you know, winning the duel was kind of a fantasy
wish-fulfillment thing for us. I was like, you know, kids from that city, you
know, and then there's a lot of, you know, smaller details, the Sean
character, the Robin Williams character, in a lot of ways was based on our
drama teacher that we talked about in terms of a mentor, kind of father
figure, and then there was a lot of stuff that was, you know, a little too
personal to kind of get into, but I don't think you can do anything that you
really care about without having some of your, you know, personal life and
history bleed into it.
GROSS: You have a movie that you directed that's coming out in 2007, I think.
Mr. AFFLECK: Mm-hmm. It will be out about a year--I--my hope is either a
year from either now or it will be out next spring, one or the other.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. So, and is it based on a Dennis Lehane novel?
Mr. AFFLECK: Yes, it's based on a Dennis Lehane novel called "Gone, Baby,
Gone," which was a--his first novel. His first five books were a series of
detective books, with these two detectives, Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie,
who sort of went--who are in Boston and you know, went through and kind of
handled these various cases and such, and this is actually the fourth book in
that series, and it's kind of a--sort of crime, rowdy drama, sort of morally
ambiguous story about children in a really scary, unpleasant world, and
it's--you know, I got a great cast, and we just finished shooting in Boston,
which was terrific, and I'll be editing and trying to put the movie together,
you know, for the next six months or so.
GROSS: Your brother Casey Affleck's in your film. What was it like to direct
Mr. AFFLECK: It was really interesting, you know. It was kind of--it's hard
because you have to put on a different hat, you know what I mean. You can't
have this conversation with your brother the way you'd have it with your
brother if he's an actor in your movie. You have to treat him like you would
treat an actor in the movie, which sometimes means--I mean, something as
simple as trying to swallow the urge to strangle him, you know, be really
curt--just because I said to do it that way, that's why, you know. Instead of
going like, `Well, OK, that's interesting. I hear you. Let's process what
you're talking about.' So it was an exercise in self-discipline. But you
know, my brother--the thing that's really rewarding is he's a really, really
good actor, and he's typically been seen in, you know, kind of character roles
as well, so I think, you know, I have the good fortune of being able to show
an audience something kind of new and surprising that's also really good and
that's a rarity.
GROSS: It's lucky you had faith in him and didn't have to make up an excuse
about why you were not going to cast him in your movie.
Mr. AFFLECK: Exactly. `You're just not that right for it. I don't know.'
No, I'm guessing another 30-year-old Caucasian, five-ten man, but he has brown
GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. AFFLECK: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Ben Affleck is starring in the new movie, "Hollywoodland." Earlier
this month at the Venice Film Festival, he won the Best Actor Award for his
performance in the film.
Singer and guitarist John Pizzarelli has a new album paying tribute to
Sinatra. It features his father, Bucky Pizzarelli, on guitar. Coming up, we
meet them both.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jazz guitarists Bucky and John Pizzarelli talk about
Bucky playing guitar on John's new album "Dear Mr. Sinatra," their
lives and music
TERRY GROSS, host:
Guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli has recorded many albums of great jazz
and pop standards. One of the reasons I like Pizzarelli is his relaxed sense
of rhythm. It seems to come naturally to him, perhaps because he's the son of
the great guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and started playing with him as a boy.
Bucky played with some of the top performers of his time, like Sinatra, Tony
Bennett, Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney. Bucky plays guitar on John's new
album, "Dear Mr. Sinatra," which features songs recorded by Sinatra.
(Soundbite from "Dear Mr. Sinatra")
Mr. JOHN PIZZARELLI: (Singing) "I thought I found the girl of my dreams.
Now it seems this is how the story ends. She's going to turn me down and say
can't we be friends? I thought for once it couldn't go wrong. Not for long,
I can see the way this ends. She's going to turn me down and say can't we be
friends? Why should I care though she gave me the air? Why should I cry,
heave a sigh and wonder why and wonder why?"
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: The songs on "Dear Mr. Sinatra" include "You Make Me Feel So Young,"
"I've Got You Under My Skin" and "How About You?" John Pizzarelli chose this
song "Can't We Be Friends?" as an homage to the late guitarist George Van Eps
who played on Sinatra's recording. On John's version, his father Bucky takes
(Soundbite of guitar playing by Bucky Pizzarelli)
GROSS: That's from John Pizzarelli's new CD, "Dear Mr. Sinatra" and we heard
John singing and Bucky Pizzarelli, his father, featured on guitar.
Welcome both of you back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. BUCKY PIZZARELLI: Thank you.
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: Nice to be here.
GROSS: John, on the writer notes of your new CD, you thank your father for
the best "thump" in the business. What do you mean by that?
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: Well, the thump that you hear throughout the record is
just the way he plays rhythm guitar. I think that his--the sound of his
guitar is the heartbeat of the whole band, you know. Jeff Hamilton will tell
you, too, how great that sound of that is, as a drummer to hear that rhythm
guitar sound. It's really thrilling to me actually, and I just love the sound
of it and a lot of people call it a chunk but I call it a thump because it's
sort of--it's more of a heartbeat to me than it is a--anything else, so I call
it a thump. I love his thump.
GROSS: But, John, you play rhythm guitar yourself, so why do you prefer on
this album, for instance, to have your father playing rhythm?
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: Because he's better than me, so if you have somebody
who's better than you at rhythm guitar, it's always good, especially if he's
related, because he'll work for scale. But in this case--and well, really,
that's really the reason. I mean, he's the best doing what he does, so I
figure--I always try to hire the best musicians. And I can play rhythm guitar
but not like him so--and it's easier for him to do it because he's not
GROSS: Bucky, did you ever sing?
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: No, if I--I wish I could.
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: He'd have made more money, right?
GROSS: Bucky, when John was a boy, did you think at some point that one day
you'd be playing on his records in addition to him playing on yours?
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: No, I never thought of that. I--you know, he had a
little band, and everytime the band rehearsed in the garage, the cops would
show up. It was so loud.
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Yeah.
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: It's true.
GROSS: This must have been rock and not jazz?
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Well, he had so many amplifiers I couldn't park the car.
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: They were all in the garage.
GROSS: So, John, what were you playing in the garage when the police were
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: I was playing--our band just played songs that we could
play that had three or four chords so we played The Allman Brothers, we played
some Eric Clapton and mostly Peter Frampton. I liked him and the Eagles and
James Taylor and Jackson Browne and those kind of bands, and we liked to play
outside in the summer, and that's what got us in a lot of trouble, playing
GROSS: So what got you from there back into the kind of jazz that your father
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: Well, you know, he never said any of that was bad. He
just didn't like the volume so, you know, that was the thing. We loved music
so much, and then, he had said in an interview once, years ago, and I didn't
even realize it, is that I had learned Chick Corea's "Spain" off of a record
to play with a bunch of our friends at a talent show. This kid wanted to play
it on the trombone, so we all learned it, and he was impressed that I learned
this difficult song off the record because that's how I learned songs, rock
songs, and so, that's when the Django Reinhardt lesson came up, you know, and
I learned "Rose Room" off of a Django Reinhardt record and then I learned some
of the duets that he did with George Barnes off of the record. So I got to do
gigs with him, and then I would do my rock and roll gigs. He said I was the
only jazz musician who played jazz to support his rock and roll habit.
Usually, it's the other way around.
GROSS: Bucky, when John was a boy, did you intentionally try to do things to
expose him to music and to the music that you particularly loved?
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Well...
GROSS: I was thinking in the course of things but, you know, like some people
will actually, you know, like make sure that they're playing certain records
to their children when their children are around so that...
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: No, no. Actually, we had a lot of people come over to
the house, like Joe Venuti and Zoot Sims, and Benny Goodman was over many
times, and when they saw these big figures, you know, I think it made a big
impression, especially Zoot.
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: Yeah. They were like stars, you know, so it was sort
of--that was the thing, too. If you really wanted to speak my father's
language, you had to learn his songs. You know, you had to learn "Honeysuckle
Rose" and "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Rose Room" because that way you could get
in on the jam session, you know. Otherwise, you were sort of outside the
GROSS: Bucky, were there things that you didn't want to expose John to about
your musician friends? Did they have any like bad habits or crude language
that you didn't want to expose your son to?
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: No, I mean, they heard that in high school anyway so...
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: It was probably worse in high school. You know,
everybody was gentlemanly around the house. Zoot Sims was one of the greatest
guys to hang around. He liked to play Ping-Pong. We'd play Ping-Pong with
him and he was drinking Scotch the whole time but we never thought anything
about him drinking Scotch, you know, and hanging out all day with us.
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Slam Stewart had Ovaltine every night.
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: Yeah. That was the--everybody was fun.
GROSS: John, how old were you when you started playing with your father?
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: I guess it had to be 16, 17, 18. Somewhere in there is
when I first--I would come on at the end of gigs that he would do a solo
concert and play either "Chicken a la Swing" or "Stage Fright" or "Honeysuckle
Rose." Those were like the three things that I knew. So it was probably 1976,
GROSS: How did you both feel about that? John, how did you feel about
playing with your father?
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: Oh, I always loved it. That was fun for me to go to the
gigs. I loved hearing them play and whoever he was playing with was fun. So
it was--it was an--I loved going with him to record dates when I was a little
kid. I could sit in the studio all day and listen to him play, so there was
something in me that was much like my father, the stories I've heard about him
as a youngster playing the guitar. So I was just meant to be a musician.
It's a good thing he wasn't a plumber or else we wouldn't be on the air today.
GROSS: And, Bucky, what was it like for you to bring your son on stage? Were
you convinced that he was really talented at this point or did it just feel
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Well, he had this...
GROSS: `...give my son a little show case,' because you know, a lot of
parents just want to show off their children.
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Well, he had the passion.
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: I know he had the passion to want to play. I knew that.
So I didn't want to stop him from doing anything. You know, and then if I
brought him out on stage, I knew what he was going to play, so it worked out.
GROSS: Well, John, your new CD is songs associated with Frank Sinatra, but I
wanted to go back to an earlier CD of duets between the two of you, and this
is an album called "Contrast" that was released back in 1998, and I thought
we'd play "Stage Fright," which is a composition that was originally recorded
as a duet by the guitarist Carl Kress and Dick McDonough, so how did you start
working this up together as a duet?
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Well, it was part of the repertoire in the Pizzarelli
family. I learned from my uncles and they told me, `Listen to Dick McDonough
and Carl Kress,' and I listened to George Van Eps and Allan Reuss and...
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: And you had the original records...
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Yeah.
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: ...of Carl and Dick playing "Stage Fright."
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Yeah, the old 78s, so we listened to them, and then we
found the music somehow, and, all of a sudden, we started playing it.
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: Yeah, he had like a third-generation photocopy of "Stage
Fright" and "Chicken a la Swing." And he originally--it is part of the
Pizzarelli repertoire. My sister Mary originally played the parts, the second
parts, that I play on this recording, and then he would sit down and say,
`Here's what you've got to do,' and we'd learn--we'd do eight bars at a time,
and I'd get it over the head a couple of times but, by the end, we'd have it
all worked out, but it was--this is really like one of the first things that
we played together.
GROSS: OK. Well, this is Bucky Pizzarelli and John Pizzarelli, father and
son, from a 1998 album called "Contrast."
(Soundbite from "Contrast")
GROSS: That's "Stage Fright," featuring my guests Bucky and John Pizzarelli
from their 1998 album "Contrast." John's new album, featuring his father, is a
tribute to Sinatra.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guests are singer and guitarist John Pizzarelli and his father, the
guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Bucky plays guitar on John's new album, "Dear Mr.
How would you each describe your guitar styles? How would you compare them?
Bucky, how would you compare your style and John's?
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Well, I started back in the '30s when I was taking
lessons from my uncles Peter and Bobby Dominic. And Bobby was on the road
with a lot of dance bands, Clyde McCoy, Buddy Rogers, Frank Dailey, and every
time he came off the road, you know, during the Depression--he had a little
Dodge, he had a gabardine suit on and a big beautiful Gibson guitar and, boy,
my eyes opened up and the next thing he'd show me a few chords that nobody in
Paterson ever saw, so that's what got me started. So I just followed in his
career, and I said when I get older, I'd like to do the same thing, and
luckily, when I was 17, I got out of high school and I went with Vaughan
Monroe's band only to be drafted about four months later, but I did get a
taste of it from when I was a kid.
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: So you were a product of the big bands.
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Oh, yeah. I mean, everything was a big band setting for
GROSS: John, how would you compare your style to your father's?
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: Well, I think, like he said, he's sort of more a product
of guys all playing together and learning from my father--his uncles. I
learned more off of records and then from playing with my father. We had
these seven-string guitars with the low A, it's a regular guitar with a low A
on it that George Van Eps had invented, and we got the guitars and learned
that, and we could accompany each other because we had the base notes. And I
think that my guitar style is a little--you can--it's just a little more--it's
a little coarser, it's got a little more point to it. I think he's more of a
chord melody, and there's more of a real sensitive style to the way he plays.
You know, it's funny though--is that I had--he came to a gig that we did once
and he played my guitar--I called him up to play my guitar and play a couple
of solos on it, and when he played my guitar, which is a different brand and
you know, just different everything, and he played my guitar, and he sounded
like him on his guitar. So I was like, `Well, it's obviously not the guitar.'
It's something inside his hands where his sound comes from so it's two
different sounds. His is, I think, probably more studied and there's
something about his style that captures every guitar player who listens to
him. Mine, it's just--it's different.
GROSS: John, when did you start singing?
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: I started--well, I sang through--all the way--you know,
I was always--I liked to sing Beatle songs and all that all the way from the
beginning but it was--when I went to college, I would play in coffee houses,
James Taylor and Kenny Rankin and Michael Franks songs, and I
accompanied--when I came back from school in 1980, I accompanied my high
school buddy who sang, like, Dick Haynes and Sinatra and Crosby songs, and I
would accompany him. We'd play in restaurants and things, and when he'd say,
`You sing a song,' I'd play, you know "Popsicle Toes" or some Michael Franks
tune, and that's when I found all the Nat King Cole songs so I would sing--you
know when I found those songs, I really found a repertoire that I could build
a foundation for who I wanted to be on. So it was really around that time
that I started to do that and my--then we'd play concerts together and my
dad--in the middle of the concert, he'd say `Sing "Route 66" or something you
know.' He'd point to me and I'd sing "Route 66" and "Sentimental Reasons."
We'd always do that in the middle of our shows.
GROSS: Well, I have to say, you guys obviously really enjoy playing with
family because you've not only played a lot with each other and then, you
know, there's your uncles, but also, John, you and your wife, Jessica
Molaskey, perform a lot together. What's special about performing with
family? Oh, I should mention your brother Martin, the bass play, who's in
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: That's right. Yes.
GROSS: Yeah. So what's special about playing with family?
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: Well, my father has an expression. You know your
expression? "You can't beat blood." He just loves--there's something
about--that's special about it that I've always loved. We love playing music
in the house, and we don't think of music as a profession, I don't think. We
just love playing, and there's an idea that when I met Jessica, too, she had
the same kind of idea about performing that we did. There's just something
wonderful about being able to play music for people, and we got it from our
uncles. They loved just playing the banjos out wherever people wanted to hear
them. And it wasn't really about making money, and that's what we sort of
learned that and why we like playing together as a family, I guess. It's
easier, and you don't have to pay everybody as much.
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Everybody was out of work.
GROSS: Well, John Pizzarelli, Bucky Pizzarelli, thank you both very much for
talking with us.
Mr. B. PIZZARELLI: Well, thank you very much.
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: It's a pleasure. Good to talk to you again, Terry.
GROSS: John Pizzarelli's new album, "Dear Mr. Sinatra," features his father
Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar. This week John's group The Swing 7 performs at
Birdland in New York. Here's "Nice 'n' Easy" from John's new CD.
(Soundbite from "Nice 'n' Easy")
Mr. J. PIZZARELLI: (Singing) "Let's take it nice and easy. It's gonna be
so easy for us to fall in love. Hey, baby, what's your hurry? Relax and
don't you worry. We're gonna fall in love. We're on the road to romance.
That's safe to say, but let's make all the stops along the way. The problem
now, of course, is to simply hold your horses, to rush would be a crime 'cause
nice and easy does it every time."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with "Tequila," an instrumental that was a number one hit in 1958.
Danny Flores, the saxophonist on the record who also shouted, "Tequila!" died
last week at the age of 77.
(Soundbite from "Tequila")
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