Skip to main content

Braugher Returns With 'Thief'

Actor Andre Braugher stars in the new series Thief, which debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX. Braugher plays Nick Atwater, leader of a small gang of thieves. Braugher is best known for his work on the TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets.


Other segments from the episode on March 23, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 23, 2006: Interview with Andre Braugher; Interview with Michael Grunwald.


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

Interview: Actor Andre Braugher discusses his career and new show
"Thief" on FX

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

My first guest today is Andre Braugher, who stars in a new drama series
premiering next Tuesday on the FX network. It's called "Thief" and Braugher
stars at Nick Atwater, an accomplished thief whose life of crime is a well
hidden secret from his wife and teen stepdaughter. But those two worlds
threaten to intersect, as in this scene, when Nick is interrupted mid-robbery
by his vibrating cell phone. He and his fellow thieves have just cracked into
a walk-in safe, and on the other line Nick's wife, Wanda, played by Dina
Meyer, calls with bad news about their daughter Tammi, played by Mae Whitman.
And she's calling from a police station.

(Soundbite of "Thief")

(Soundbite of cell phone vibrating)

Mr. ANDRE BRAUGHER: (As Nick) Dammit.

(Soundbite of cell phone vibrating)

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Nick) Come on, let's wrap it up. This is not a good time.

Ms. DINA MEYER: (As Wanda) Tell me that. I'm calling from a police station.
They want to talk to Tammi's father.

Ms. MAE WHITMAN: (As Tammi) He's not my father.

Ms. MEYER: (As Wanda) You, shut up.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Nick) What did she do?

Ms. WHITMAN: (As Tammi) Waited outside while some kids broke into the

Ms. MEYER: (As Wanda) Isn't that nice? These are her new friends.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Nick) Wanda, I can't do this right now.

Ms. MEYER: (As Wanda) And I can?

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Nick) I'm not her father.

Ms. MEYER: (As Wanda) Do you want to have this conversation right now? They
are standing right here, they want to talk to somebody.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Nick) OK. I'll take care of it. Put them on.

Ms. MEYER: (As Wanda) What is that noise?

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Nick) Wanda, put him on.

Ms. MEYER: (As Wanda) Here you go.

Unidentified Man: (As Officer Melovich) This is Officer Melovich. Are you
the father?

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Nick) Stepfather. I'm in a meeting right now, officer,
but I want to assure you Tammi has never been in any kind of trouble before.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Braugher, of course, is best known for playing a cop, not a
robber. From 1993 to 1998, he played Detective Frank Pembleton on "Homicide:
Life on the Street." It was a stand out role and an Emmy winning role in a
ground breaking show. Frank Pembleton was a Baltimore detective whose
speciality was taking suspects into the interrogation room and getting them to
confess. On that show at that time, Braugher was the best actor on

Prior to "Homicide," Braugher was featured in the 1989 movie "Glory," as one
of the union soldiers in the first all-black fighting unit during the Civil
War. He also starred in such TV movies as "Murder in Mississippi," "The
Tuskegee Airmen" and "The Court Marshal of Jackie Robinson."

In the years during and after "Homicide," Andre Braugher has appeared in
several movies, including "Primal Fear," "City of Angels" and "Duets." He'll
soon appear as the captain in "Poseidon," the remake of the disaster movie
"The Poseidon Adventure." And between "Homicide" and "Thief," Braugher starred
in two other TV series, the well received medical drama "Gideon's Crossing"
and the not so well received character drama "Hack." I spoke to Andre Braugher
earlier this week.

Andre Braugher, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. BRAUGHER: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

BIANCULLI: What do you look for in a script, especially in something that
might go to TV series to make you consider doing it?

Mr. BRAUGHER: Hmm. Well, you know, I like messy dramas, so when I read the
pilot, the question in my mind is, `Is there enough of a mess that needs to be
cleaned up that will allow this show to live on?' So that was true when I read
the sides basically back when I was doing "Homicide," I was intrigued by the
character Pembleton that they had laid out for me. That was true when I did
"Gideon's Crossing." I said this is a hell of a mess. Pretty much know from
the moment I finish reading the script, I pretty much know whether or not I'm
going to do the episode, to be a part of the piece, and that was true with the
show that David Morse starred in called "Hack," down in Philadelphia, and
that's true also with Nick Atwater here in "Thief."

BIANCULLI: If you know when it's over when you've finished reading the entire
script, that's one thing. When's the first moment in this script, in "Thief,"
where it grabs you and said, `Well, no, this is something I really want to
keep reading and there might be some gold here.' Was there such a moment?

Mr. BRAUGHER: Well, it's somewhere around the time that, in retrospect, I
think, it's somewhere around the time where Nick picks up the phone in the
vault and has a conversation with Wanda. It's a blending of two different
worlds, and Nick has been such a master at keeping these worlds separate, he's
been such an accomplished thief and liar and husband and been able to keep
these worlds separate, and now they're starting to blend. And, in essence,
from the moment that these worlds start to blend Nick, has a decision about
being a very wise thief or being a very wise father, and they seem to be
mutually incompatible. And what I saw in this pilot was a man who's going to
be forced to choose what his loyalties were. Were they loyalties to his
nature in terms of being a their, or were there going to be loyalties in terms
of what he hoped to be as a man, which was a good father and a good husband?
And because they're seemingly incompatible the fallout is going to be
terrific, and I want to be around to see how he gets out of this one.

BIANCULLI: You shot the pilot on location in New Orleans in 2004.


BIANCULLI: And then it was picked up much later than most series usually are,
almost a year later, and you were just about to start and go back down and do
location shooting again in New Orleans and Katrina hit.


BIANCULLI: What was like that?

Mr. BRAUGHER: Well, I was up in Jersey. I was flying down maybe on the 7th
of September to start this, and we were on vacation, as a matter of fact, when
Katrina struck. And at first, I didn't realize how serious the damage was in
New Orleans. I thought it was going to be easily contained. But the more I
heard and the more I read, I began to realize this was a much, much bigger
issue and that consequently everything had changed right before our very eyes.

They immediately began to think about what it was that we were going to do.
Filming was suspended, even the idea of filming was suspended in New Orleans,
and we had to start thinking about where were we going to go, what were we
going to do. And various locations were bandied about--Los Angeles, Chicago,
Vancouver, Toronto, just other places, Atlanta--which we could either move the
series to and set it in that locale, or use those locations as a convincing
double for New Orleans. And eventually we settled in Shreveport, which was
only five hours north of New Orleans, and Shreveport welcomed our production
with open arms and were very, very helpful and we were able to complete the
season. Most of the crew, who were all based in New Orleans, made the journey
up to Shreveport. Shreveport has in essence become the new hub of film making
in Louisiana. And we successfully completed it. I think we have a convincing
double for New Orleans.

Katrina's a much, much larger story than we could ever possibly contain within
"Thief," so we folded it in in places that we found to be appropriate. But
the story of rebuilding New Orleans is much bigger than "Thief," and we
couldn't do it justice, and so consequently we refer to it in places that I
feel are appropriate without minimizing the wreckage or the damage of Katrina.

BIANCULLI: Forgive me if this is a sort of naive question, but does the
reputation of FX at this point enter into it at all in terms of your deciding
to do this series because of it getting well established with "Shield" and
"Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me" and even "Over There," that it can be a place to do
TV, or was it purely based on what was on the script?

Mr. BRAUGHER: It was a consideration. You know, two years ago FX was an
upstart, more of an upstart than it is right now. Right now it's being
favorably compared, even though it's basic cable, to HBO in terms of the kind
of content that they're willing to put on air. But two years ago, that wasn't
necessarily the true. What intrigued me about the show was their willingness
to support a show. They did very good work, and they promoted and supported
their shows, and so consequently I took great comfort in the fact that when
they believed in the material and they were willing to stand by their creators
as well as the talent who was involved in their shows, then consequently we
would get a real shot at going on the air and staying on the air.

And that's been important to me ever since "Gideon's Crossing," which was a
show that I felt was prematurely pulled. And so what was important to me is I
want to do a show where I think I can do my best work, but I also want to be
on the air next year. And I want to be given an opportunity to do that based
upon our merits and the quality of our work rather than short-term

BIANCULLI: Andre Braugher, star of the new FX series "Thief." More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: We're talking to Andre Braugher, star of the new series "Thief,"
which starts next week on FX.

I have some "Homicide" questions.


BIANCULLI: Well, one is, because I remember going down to visit the set at
one point, and I was amazed at the method of filming which was to make you
poor actors run through the entire scene from beginning to end with a single
camera, shooting it from wherever it was pointing, and then stopping and doing
it again a second or a third time. And, I guess, emotionally it must be more
exciting because rather than just doing pick-ups and close-ups, you're getting
to the truth of the scene each time. I also thought, `Man, that's heavy
lifting.' What was that like?

Mr. BRAUGHER: It was fun. It was fun. I mean, it was fun. And I really,
really enjoyed my time down there in Baltimore. I felt more like I was on
stage than any other piece that I've ever been involved with.

When we first started, of course, everything that we were doing, we were
pushing the envelope in terms of how we were using the camera and the kinds of
stories that we were telling. But subsequently, I mean, over the next couple
of years, so many of people adopted those same techniques that it's now become
quite commonplace. But when we first started, it was unheard of to have a
16-millimeter camera sitting on John DeCegonac's shoulder and running through
the entire scene from beginning to end. And Tom Fontana wrote long scenes.

The one that I think back in particular from our first season was the episode
6 where Bayliss, Pembleton and the Araber are in the box, basically, for 44
minutes. Moses Gunn and Kyle Secor and myself sitting in the box for 44
minutes, and we would do huge scenes, page after page of dialogue, and then
we'd stop and we'd do it from another angle. But, in essence, we were doing a
play. We were doing a drama in which it was just as dangerous, in a certain
way, as if we were on stage and it was happening right there before our very
eyes. And we got a lot of very interesting, spontaneous human emotion by
filming it that way, and I loved it. I absolutely adored it. Now, my
subsequent shows have been different from that, but my love of the film making
on "Homicide" has never changed. I'm thrilled with it.

BIANCULLI: Well, I can tell you that I share your being thrilled with that
particular episode, which was called "Three Men and Adena."

Mr. BRAUGHER: Right.

BIANCULLI: And Fontana wrote it, and I have always held it up as one of the
best hours of dramatic television I've ever seen written and performed. And
it is the other clip that I brought in to play today, a piece from this,
because I thought, you know, essentially it boils down to your character of
Frank Pembleton, and Kyle Secor's character of Tim Bayliss, as two detectives
who have 12 hours to try and flip a prime suspect, played by Moses Gunn as the
Araber. And so the scene that I want to play is at the very beginning where,
basically, at this early point in the interrogation, Pembleton is acting very
friendly and very loose and very curious and polite, and it's Tim Bayliss
who's acting impatient and trying to push in and to ask questions about the
young girl, Adena Watson, who was killed.

So you ready to hear a little bit of this one?


BIANCULLI: OK. So here we go with "Homicide: Life on the Street."

(Soundbite of "Homicide: Life on the Street")

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) For the record, your name is Risley Tucker?

Mr. MOSES GUNN: (As Risley Tucker) Yeah.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) You live at 2003 Greenmount.

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) Yeah.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) How long have you lived at the present address?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) All my life.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) Really? No one in that neighborhood calls you
Risley, do they? No one calls you Mr. Tucker?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) No.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) They all call you the Araber.

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) Yeah.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) Well, you know, that term the Araber has caused
a lot of trouble around here. Two detectives and two other detectives got
into this big argument because one said Araber and the other says Arab. Both
grew up in Baltimore but they have different expressions for...

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) I've never heard of either and I've been a
native. But this has nothing to do with being an Arab, right? I mean, you
don't look Arabic or Arabian.

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) No.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) So what does it mean?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) We go from neighborhood to neighborhood selling fruits
and vegetables from a cart, a horse drawn cart. We're like nomads.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) How long have you worked as an Araber?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) All my life.

Mr. KYLE SECOR: (As Bayliss) How long did you know Adena Watson? You
remember the first time that you met her?

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) Can I--I'm sorry. This--this Araber thing,
this fascinates me, moving about the city, selling fruits and vegetables. I'm
used to going to a supermarket or Food Town or something, you know. Are your
prices cheaper?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) No.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) Then, what's the advantage of buying from you?
I mean, other than the obvious one, you come to people's front door, people
don't have to get in their car and drive 10 blocks.

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) Fresher produce.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) Well, that's interesting.

Mr. SECOR: (As Bayliss) What did you think about Adena? I mean, Frank and I
here, we didn't really know her that well. What would you say about her
personality? Was she feisty? Outgoing? Energetic?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) Yeah.

Mr. SECOR: (As Bayliss) So she worked for you how long, doing what?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) Taking care of Magdalene.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) Magdalene?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) My horse. Cleaning out Magdalene's coat with a curry
comb, untangling the mane and the tail.

Mr. SECOR: (As Bayliss) That sounds like a great job for a girl. Why did
she stop working for you?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) Horse died.

Mr. SECOR: (As Bayliss) Is there any other reason?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) The barn burned down.

Mr. SECOR: (As Bayliss) That's the only other reason?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) I stopped being a Araber.

Mr. SECOR: (As Bayliss) Any other reason?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) There was no more job.

Mr. SECOR: (As Bayliss) Adena's mother didn't make her stop working for you?
Huh? Isn't it true that Mrs. Watson was afraid for her daughter because you
were getting a little too friendly with her? Huh?

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) Is being an Araber a good job? I mean, are you
respected in the community?

Mr. GUNN: (As Tucker) Most people think of us as vagrants. But since the
economy gone sour, you see a lot of people selling on the street.

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Pembleton) Your whole family are Arabers?

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: You know, we had a sort of an argument beforehand about where to
cut off this clip, and we couldn't cut off the clip.

Mr. BRAUGHER: Never stop.

BIANCULLI: It was just too good. It's not only great television, but it's
great radio. What are your memories of filming that episode?

Mr. BRAUGHER: Well, we had, I don't know, 14 pages a day to do. So my most
visceral memory was we would leave the set, and I would go home, and I would
sit down and I'd learn 14 pages of dialog a day. But I do have to say, Moses
Gunn really turned in a very sweet performance in my mind, because it's never
definitive whether or not that he had anything to do with Adena Watson's
murder. But at the very end of this show, he says, `You know, why should I be
proud? Why should'--you know, he's crying. He's weeping. He says, `Why
should I be proud? Why should I be happy when I'm forced to admit that the
greatest love of my life was an 11-year-old girl?' And nothing is definitive
by saying that she's the great love of his life, but what I began to realize
is that, once again, the great pathos of this episode comes from the fact that
we begin to really actually realize that Risley Tucker loved this girl. And
we're talking fictionally, of course, because in real life we have no evidence
to that effect. But this is part of Tom Fontana's genius is that we are never
quite certain as to what it is that we have on our hands because evidence may
point in one way, and our feelings about the Araber may point in a certain
direction, but Tom's genius is that he's written a man who is fully
dimensional. So consequently there is a tremendous amount of heartbreak and
sadness on his part because Adena's no longer alive.

But what I also think is interesting about what Tom did in this episode is
that I came in firmly convinced that the Araber was not the man, as a prime
suspect that this was absolutely bone headed, and that that rookie had gone
out on a limb. And by the end, Pembleton feels quite certain that the Araber
is the man. And Bayliss is not so certain at all, you know, based upon the
same interview and the same information that we gained.

So I really enjoyed working with this piece with Tom. Tom's written some
dynamite episodes over the years, as has Jimmy Yoshimura. Jim and Tom worked
very closely together during those years, and I have to say they really turned
in some spectacular episodes. Tom wrote the episode where Pembleton has a
stroke. He wrote it over the weekend. He called me up and he said--because
I'd said to him, basically I think we've played all the stories with this
Pembleton character and maybe it's time for me to move on. He says, `Well, no
I don't think so.' He says, `Let me put my thinking cap on.' So he came back
and he called me on the phone. Maybe it was Thursday he called me on the
phone. He says, `You know, Andre, I think I'd like to give your character a
stroke.' And I said, `Huh. That sounds really interesting.' I said, `It
really sounds interesting. Let me run it by my boss.' So I spoke with Ami,
and Ami's an actress also. And she understands...

BIANCULLI: Ami, your wife. Yes.

Mr. BRAUGHER: Ami, my wife.


Mr. BRAUGHER: And she understands how challenging and needy this would
happen, and I said to Tom, I said, `My only condition is that I not
immediately recover and have a spunky therapists that I grow to love and all
of the cliches that come with rehabilitation.' I said, `I would like to do
some research so that we can tell these stories in a much more, I think,
truthful manner.'

So during that summer, the summer of 1996, between seasons, I went to the Rusk
Institute in New York City to learn about stroke and the rehabilitation from
stroke. I was doing "Henry V" out in the park by night and over the Rusk
Institute for rehabilitation by day. And for me, the aftermath of the stroke,
it was not so much about the rehabilitation but how fundamentally changed all
of our relationships were by the fact of Pembleton's stroke.

So his marriage is falling apart because he is absolutely obsessive about
getting back on the force because he considers what he does to be vastly more
important than holding his wife's hand or raising his daughter or anything.
He actually rather would be standing over a dead body cracking jokes with his
pals in the middle of the night than he would rather be doing anything. So
his marriage suffers terribly by the fact that he'll do anything to get back
on the force, including not taking his medication so that he can pass the gun

And whereas he was once the grizzled veteran and Bayliss was the rookie, the
power has changed, absolutely, in the relationship. And in a certain way we
flipped places. So at one time Pembleton was first among equals, and now he's
a much more humble man.

BIANCULLI: Andre Braugher, star of the new FX series "Thief," which premieres
next Tuesday. We'll conclude our talk in the second half of the show. I'm
David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Coming up, alligators, orchids and lots of grass. We'll talk with
Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald about his new book, "The Swamp."
He'll tell us about the opposing forces of conservation and destruction in the
Florida Everglades. Also, more with actor Andre Braugher.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry

We're talking with Andre Braugher, star of the new drama series "Thief," which
starts next Tuesday on the FX network. He's also starred in the TV series
"Homicide: Life on the Street," "Hack" and "Gideon's Crossing." But when he
started as an actor, his earliest experiences were in the theater.

You had a long career in television even predating "Homicide." And if I have
your early career right, where you came to acting fairly late at Stanford, I
don't know if you finished all of your degrees and were out of Juilliard
before you began acting professionally or if you were juggling the two, but...

Mr. BRAUGHER: Oh, I came to acting, I guess I was 20 years old, somewhere in
my sophomore year. I changed my major at Stanford University, so I graduated
with a BA in drama in '84. And graduated from Juilliard four years later in
'88. And then my first movie experience was "Glory" in 1989. We came out the
Christmas of '89. And I did a little bit of television, a lot of stage before
that movie broke, which began to create a reputation, I think, as a moral
force, a moral reputation as an actor. And I've done a variety of feature
films, but television has always been my mainstay, and I enjoy television so
it works out.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's talk about two of those very early things. I mean,
with "Glory," you were right there with Denzel Washington, who was just off of
or still in "St. Elsewhere," and Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick. And a
very ambitious movie. And then the first thing I saw you on on television was
on the remake of "Kojak" with Telly Savalas. You know, and, I'm sorry, I've
been a TV critic for a long time. And...


BIANCULLI: ...I don't know if you're exhausted from answering "Kojak"
questions, but I have one for you.


BIANCULLI: You're doing "Glory," you know, you're out of Juilliard, you're
out of Stanford, and your doing "Kojak." What was that like?

Mr. BRAUGHER: It was a tremendous opportunity, and I think I was wise to be
involved with it. It was my first experience with television. We were doing
two-hour movies of the week, and I said to myself, you know, `This is, I
think, the right thing to do.' It was one of the golden opportunities. Oddly
enough, it was one of the golden opportunities that I was wise enough to
actually go ahead and pick up. And so I look back and say, `Yeah. That
turned out good.' So I guess we did five or six of those little television
movies, but I really enjoyed it, and it really introduced me to the craft of
television acting. Acting is acting wherever you go, but there's certain
things that you need to know about the pace of television work. So I was
happy to be a part of that.

BIANCULLI: When you talk about acting on television and learning how to act
on television, what did you learn from "Kojak," from those early TV movies
that you needed to learn to be a better TV actor?

Mr. BRAUGHER: That the terrific pace of television demanded a tremendous
amount of preparation before I even stepped foot on the set. So I knew from
that moment that I needed to be superbly well prepared if I was going to be
able to be a success at this. The pace that we used on "Kojak" was so
accelerated that if it was good for the camera, it was good. So on many
occasions, everything was one take, maybe two. So in that way, it resembled
almost watching, you know, daytime drama. It was very, very camera
orientated. And I knew that in order to be successful at that, I would have
to be very well prepared. So the necessity of creating for myself a
compelling and specific back story as well as knowing my lines in intimate
detail, and all of their import meant that if I discovered anything on set
that I had a foundation for to deal with it. And that served me well.

In television, the pace has always been accelerated. For example, when we
came down to Shreveport to do the remaining five episodes of "Thief" this
season, we had five days of rehearsal. Well, five days of rehearsal is an
incredible luxury on television, and I made the most of that by making sure in
a certain way, while we were in rehearsal, to find out what was at the bottom
of these scenes to the best of my ability. So that when the time came on set,
I had already dealt with and discarded all of the choices that I felt were
wrong, you know, so that the stuff that I was doing on set was much more of
what I thought was the essence of Nick's character. I left a lot of bad
choices in the rehearsal room, and for me that was essential to reaching the
next step with this character.

BIANCULLI: Well, your performances on television have been so much fun for me
to watch over the years, so thanks so much. Thanks for being here on FRESH
AIR, Andre.

Mr. BRAUGHER: My pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Andre Braugher. His new series "Thief" premieres on the FX
network next Tuesday.

Coming up, the life and slow death of the Florida Everglades. This is FRESH

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

Interview: Author Michael Grunwald discusses his book "The
Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise"

Michael Grunwald's book "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics
of Paradise" came out of newspaper series he wrote as a reporter for the
Washington Post on the Everglades and on the Army Corps of Engineers.
According to Grunwald, pretty much anyone in South Florida who's living west
of I-95, the north/south highway running only a few miles from the East Coast,
lives on land that once was part of the former Everglades. That's several
million people living in a place that early explorers once compared
unfavorably to hell.

"The Swamp" explains the unique ecosystem of the Everglades. It recounts all
the wars fought between natives and would-be settlers over the vast wetlands
and all the industrial era efforts to tame, drain and develop the river of
grass known as the Everglades. The book begins with the passage of the
Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a multi-billion dollar
environmental cleanup bill passed by Congress six years ago. The bill hands
the work of saving what's left of the Everglades to the Army Corps of
Engineers, the same group that became famous and infamous in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina.

Describe the Everglades to people who have never been there, both the basic
boundaries of it and what you're likely to find inside there.

Mr. MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Hah. Well, you know, I always like to say about the
Everglades that it's kind of less ohh and ahh than hmm. You know, it's not
the Grand Canyon and it's not Yellowstone National Park. And the guidebooks,
they're still always warning tourists--they have these euphemisms. They say
the Everglades take some `getting used to.'

BIANCULLI: They say, `Don't go.'

Mr. GRUNWALD: Or, `It reveals its secrets slowly.' You know, `Its appeal may
escape many visitors at first glance.' Which is a kind of kind way of saying
that you're not going to see, you know, giant mountains and rugged cliffs and,
you know, craters and geysers. It looks like a meadow. Or a, you know, or a
very wet tundra. It's essentially a river of grass. It's the slowest moving
and widest river in the world. And it flows essentially from Lake Okeechobee,
or it did in its natural state, which is in the center of peninsula, all the
way down to Florida Bay and the 10000 Islands. And it's just this broad
sheet of gently flowing water going through the sawgrass.

So, you know, it can look kind of monotonous. It had these sort of teardrop
shaped islands with trees on it and had plenty of wild flowers and, you know,
it had royal palms and panthers and gators and otters. It's the only place on
earth where you'll find crocodiles and alligators side by side. But,
essentially it was water and it was grass. But it is, at first glance, you
wouldn't necessarily say this is, you know, this is a national park. You see
plenty of tourists out there saying, like, `Is this it?'

BIANCULLI: Michael, this book grew out of a series that you did for the
Washington Post, which grew out of a previous series that you had done for the
Washington Post on the Army Corps of Engineers. At what point did you visit
the Everglades for the first time?

Mr. GRUNWALD: You know, I went in August, 2000. I was writing a series
about the Army Corps, investigating how they were cooking the books of their
economic studies in order to justify boondoggles that usually had really
serious environmental consequences. And I'd heard that, you know, the Corps
had helped to destroy the Everglades and now the Corps was in charge of this
great project to restore it. So I thought that might be a nice way to cap the
series to write about the possible future of this agency that, in the past,
was better known for dams and dikes and dredges. So I went in August of 2000,
and it was hot. There were bugs. And, you know, it was wet and nasty.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, I can say as a former resident of Florida that August in
Florida is no paradise by any means.

Mr. GRUNWALD: You know, but I had some very good tour guides who explained
to me, you know, kind of how the Everglades works. Which is, you know, one of
the really cool things about it when you start to see, gosh, you know, there
are all these species that don't seem to belong on the same continent much
less the same ecosystem. You know, how can a panther and a hammerhead shark
be in the same place.

But what I also started to realize was that this restoration project was a lot
more complicated than I had thought. In Washington, it had just been sold to
us as kind of like, `Hurrah, we're saving the Everglades. So let's all sing
"Kum Ba Yah."' But, in fact, this 8 billion, now up to nearly $11 billion,
project, is much more complicated. It's a water supply project. It's
supposed to provide water for another six million people to move to south
Florida for the sugar industry, for real estate. And it's supposed to provide
some for the Everglades, too. But what I found is that the benefits for
economic interest are really swift and sure in this project, but the benefits
for the Everglades were delayed for decades and highly uncertain. And, in
fact, I came back a couple years later and decided to do an entire series for
the Post that was just on this restoration project.

BIANCULLI: "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of
Paradise" is the title of your book, and it sort of gives the various chunks
of the book. There's the history of the state in geographic and geological
and biographical terms. And then there's all of the wars between European
settlers and natives, and then when American colonialists came in and the
whole claim for the state. And then once the state is established, there's
the development and exploitation of the state. And then after environmental
disaster after disaster, then opportunities and chances to try and reclaim it.
And at every single stage, there's politics, and there's people, and there's
all sorts of amazing characters. And I don't know, as you went around
researching the various chunks of this, which one surprised you the most, and
which one was hardest to wrestle to the ground?

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, thank so you much for your kind words. I mean, I saw
this as a story. It's a very important story, I think. I think the
Everglades is kind of ultimate test of sustainable development, but most of
all I was really drawn to it because it's such a gripping story.

You know, the Everglades was really America's last frontier. And I didn't
realize that in 1880, the census for Dade county, which at that point was most
of south Florida, the equivalent of about five million people today, it was
257. So that was one of the real surprising things was tracking the
transformation of the frontier. I mean, you know, frontier stories, that's
where the action is. I was also really shocked by, you know, that we all have
a sense--that kind of, you know, man's relationship with nature has changed,
that we used to think about taming nature and now we want to work more in
harmony with nature. But I had no idea that it was the conservationists who
were the most aggressive about taming nature. The drainage of the Everglades,
which has had such disastrous environmental consequences, was a conservation
project when it was first started.

My favorite character in the book is Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. And
you hear about Broward County. Well, this is a guy who was a colorful as his
name. He was a, you know, had a crazy Horatio Alger childhood, later became a
gun runner for Cuban revolutionaries, and then became governor of Florida by
running on a platform where his top priority was to save the Everglades. But,
of course, he didn't mean to save it from drainage or development. He meant
to save it from oblivion. He was a conservationist, a guy who wanted to
protect fish, protect birds, and turn this great wasteland, which is what
wetlands were considered in those days, into really productive land, something
that people could use.

That was really what conservationism was all about. It was the opposite of
waste, the wise use of natural resources. And, you know, everybody remembers,
particularly in Florida where people seem to multiply a lot, that, you know,
God told us to be fruitful and multiply. They forget the rest of the quote,
which is, `and replenish the earth and subdue it, and take dominion over the
fish of the sea and the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that
moveth upon the earth.' So back then exploiting nature was not just man's
right, it was man's duty. It was God's work. That was something I didn't
understand before I buried myself in the archives.

BIANCULLI: One of the things that's most striking about your history, because
you stop being a reporter and start being a historian when you put it between
hard cover, is that you are sort of forgiving of a lot of different sides and
a lot of different political viewpoints in different eras, that, you know, you
sort of accept manifest destiny, you sort of accept the various driving forces
that were accepted at the time. And was that an original approach that you
took from square one, or was it when you were collecting everything and trying
to make sense of it?

Mr. GRUNWALD: Once I got to know these characters, you know, it was
different from journalism, where when I'm reporting a story for the Washington
Post, I'm talking to people who are living in the same era as I am. But as I
was, you know, reporting on somebody like Napoleon Bonaparte Broward or Henry
Flagler or someone from another era, I started to feel that it was really
unfair to judge them by the standards of our day, that I really had to put
them in context. You know, you take somebody like John Gifford, who was the
great Florida conservationist of the early 1900s. He was actually the editor
of a national magazine called Conservation. And he called the Everglades
drainage project the greatest conservation project of its day. And not only
that, he imported these seeds from Australia of a tree called melaleuca, which
he thought would be a natural swamp tree because it was a very thirsty tree,
and it kind of sucks the wet right out of wetlands, and he planted a few over
by Biscayne Bay and a little bit by the town of Davie. And today, 100 years
later, there are a million acres of melaleuca in the Everglades. It is a
weed. It is, you know, everybody hates it. But John Gifford didn't know
that. You know? He was trying to help. So I try not to be too judgmental
about guys like that.

BIANCULLI: Talk a little bit about the history of the draining of the
Everglades, the very first time that people went in and wanted to claim the
bottom half of Florida and use it for their own purposes.

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, it, you know, it originally was supposed to begin, you
know, right in the 1840s, and there was a guy named David Levy Yulee who had
sort of led Florida into statehood with this great socialist vision of a state
owned railroad across the state. But it turned out he decided, once he got
power, that a better idea would be a Yulee owned railroad across the state.
Instead of Florida spending the next couple of decades focusing on draining
the Everglades, state government ended spending up most of its time promoting
David Yulee's railroad, which ended up being a really great thing for the
Everglades. It preserved it for another generation.

Then in the 1880s, a Yankee industrialist named Hamilton Disston--he had
inherited a factory from his dad, and he really wanted to get out of his dad's
shadow--came down to Florida on a fishing trip, and he saw what so many others
saw, this deep black soil, this gorgeous climate, this bountiful rain. And
all he had to do was just get rid of that water, just drain it off, and you
know, water runs down hill. So he thought that would be a piece of cake. But
15 years later, he really didn't get the job done.

Henry Flagler, the great developer who's John Rockefeller's partner at
Standard Oil, he considered draining the Everglades, and this guy had the
money to do it. He was one of the richest men of the era. But at the last
minute, he decided that he was going to focus instead on his railroads and
hotels, and he ultimately built a railroad all the way to Key West through the
ocean. He was willing to do that, spent the equivalent of $1/2 billion on it,
but he fortunately didn't turn his considerable energies to draining the

And then finally, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward really got the program going in
the early 1900s. He, you know, he was a great conservationist, a progressive,
and drainage was the hallmark of progress. He thought he could save the
Everglades by, you know, not from drainage and development but from oblivion.

BIANCULLI: Michael Grunwald, author of "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida,
and the Politics of Paradise." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: We're talking with Michael Grunwald, author of "The Swamp: The
Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise."

Let's talk about "The Politics of Paradise" for a minute here. As Florida
develops, as various interests want to get down there with railroads and for
sugar cane and for everything else, talk about how important it is, some of
the other things that were going on in the country that affected Florida. You
mentioned specifically the National Parks Service when it was established in
1916, and things that you would think at first blush wouldn't have a lot to do
with the Everglades but turned out to be crucial.

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, you know, the Everglades National Park was started in
1947. It was the first national park established for biology rather than just
its scenery. And it really represented an understanding that, you know, it
was one thing to sort of stop hunters from killing birds or stop fishers from
over fishing. You really had to protect a sense of place. But of course, at
the same time, the Army Corps of Engineers was getting going with its central
and southern Florida project, which has contributed so much to the decline of
the Everglades. Though at the time, again, conservationists saw no conflict
between the two whatsoever. It wasn't that kind of understanding that the
things that happened outside the borders of a national park can effect what
goes on inside.

The Everglades is essentially a water park. What made the Everglades work was
water. It used to flow. The ecosystem really began in Orlando, what's now
Orlando, and flowed all the way down to the coral reefs off the Keys. And the
life blood was this clean, fresh, gently flowing water. And, you know, the
story of the last hundred years is how we've dammed and dyked and diverted
that waters, and how we've developed half of the Everglades. Today, half of
it's gone. The other half is an ecological mess.

BIANCULLI: So if clean water is so important to the Everglades, you have the
Clean Water Act of 1972. Is that a big tipping point or a turning point in
the history of the Glades?

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, you know, the late '60s and early '70s are a really
important time because there was this sort of national awakening to this
notion that we were essentially fouling our own nests. This is a time when
that river caught fire in Cleveland, the bald eagle, the symbol of America,
almost went extinct. And there was this kind of understand that you don't
have to be this kind of eco-freak to care about, you know, the air that we
breathe, the water we drink, the, you know, the landscapes we like, the
fisheries that feed us.

And, you know, in Florida's there's been a real sense that as the development
of the Everglades has continued, there have been terrible impacts for people.
I mean, first with Broward's canals. You know, in the dry season, they
carried out the water and pretty soon the swamp was on fire. You had the very
muck soil that had attracted these settlers to the Everglades in the first
place was drying up and blowing away. The drinking wells, the aquifers for
most of south Florida sit right underneath the Everglades and they had
terrible salt water intrusion.

And now, in modern times, you're starting to see an extension of that, that as
we've sprawled into the Everglades, not only are you losing ecotourism
industries and the, you know, the fisheries and, you know, the diving over by
the Keys, but that you're also finding Floridians are spending their time
sitting in traffic, that their schools are overcrowded. You know, in Broward
County, kids have to start lining up for lunch at 9:50 in the morning. That
Florida kind of began to lose that sense of place, that the things that made
Florida Florida were gone and that this wasn't the reason people had moved
there. So that really is what has created to the extent there's been a
political backlash against the destruction of the Everglades. It's as we've
realized that what hurts the bugs and bunnies isn't always good for us.

BIANCULLI: In the six years since the $8 million Comprehensive Everglades
Restoration Plan was passed, what was that supposed to do and how much of it
has it done do far?

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, it's essentially supposed to restore some semblance of
the natural Everglades, and obviously you can't entirely restore it. That
would be like restoring the omelet you ate for breakfast to its egg. But, you
know, there's a lot you can do to try to recreate that flow. What they're
always talking about is getting the water right. Get it in the right amounts,
in the right places, with the right quality and with the right timing. And,
unfortunately, the news the last few years has not been very good. In fact, I
write about this one Army Corps memo where the guy overseeing the project in
Washington says, `We're, you know, we're only five years in. We're already
way behind schedule, over budget and this isn't restoration at all.'

BIANCULLI: And since the book has been published, are you keeping tracks on
it, like checking in on a critically ill patient, to see how the Glades are

Mr. GRUNWALD: Absolutely, and I think it is a quagmire. You're kind of
stuck for life. You know, I really think that, you know, this restoration
project is hugely important, not just for Florida, you know, but really for
the world. I mean, south Florida is where we're going to figure out whether
man can live in harmony with nature, and this project is being watched in the
Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Louisiana's coastal wetlands.

I spoke to the guy who's in charge of trying to restore the Garden of Eden
marshes that Saddam Hussein destroyed in southern Iraq. And he says he's
paying careful attention to what goes on in the Everglades, that that's a
model for him. You know, the Everglades where you've got this unbelievable
political support all across the spectrum, you know, you've got the world's
most beloved wetland, the world's most intensely studied wetland, you've got,
you know, plenty of rain and, you know, you've got plenty of science, not to
mention plenty of money. You really have to wonder if you can't save the
Everglades and its ecosystem, what are you going to save?

BIANCULLI: All right. Well, Michael, thank you very much. Thanks for coming

Mr. GRUNWALD: Thanks so much for having me, David.

BIANCULLI: Michael Grunwald, reporter for the Washington Post. His book is
"The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise"

(Soundbite of music)


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

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.


'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

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


Just play me something
Your Queue

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

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue