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Channel Changes: Jay Leno And 'Boston Legal'

TV critic David Bianculli shares his thoughts on the final episode of Boston Legal — and the announcement this week that Jay Leno will begin a new nightly prime-time talk show on NBC next year.

06:24

Other segments from the episode on December 12, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 12, 2008: Interview with Clint Eastwood; Review of "The Jay Leno show" and "Boston legal;" Obituary for Robert Prosky; Review of the film "Doubt."

Transcript

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Fresh Air
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Eastwood's Veteran Turn in 'Gran Torino'

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of movie "Gran Torino")

Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) Ever notice how you come across somebody once in awhile that you shouldn't have (bleep) with?

(Soundbite of spitting)

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) That's me.

BIANCULLI: That's Clint Eastwood playing a tough guy again in his new movie "Gran Torino," which he also directed. This time, the tough guy is named Walt Kowalski, a grumpy, old widower living in an increasingly rundown neighborhood in Detroit. He has a mint-condition 1972 Gran Torino in his garage - that's where the film gets its title - but nothing else in the movie is anywhere near mint - not Detroit and certainly not Walt, who is approached at a local bar by a young priest played by Christopher Carley. The priest informs Walt that Walt's wife, before her death, wanted the priest to reach out to Walt. The suggestion doesn't go down well.

(Soundbite of movie "Gran Torino")

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) What do you want?

Mr. CHRISTOPHER CARLEY: (As Father Janovich) I promised your wife I'd get you to go to confession.

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) And why would you do that?

Mr. CARLEY: (As Father Janovich) She was very insistent. She made me.

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) Well, you're kind of fond of promising things you can't deliver on. Right, father?

Mr. CARLEY: (As Father Janovich) Let's talk about something else.

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) What?

Mr. CARLEY: (As Father Janovich ) Life and death.

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) Life and death. What the hell do you know about life and death?

Mr. CARLEY: (As Father Janovich) I'd like to think I know a lot. I'm a priest.

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) Yeah, you get up and preach about life and death, but all you know is what you learned in priest school, right out of the rookie preacher's handbook.

Mr. CARLEY: (As Father Janovich ) I don't know about that. I think...

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) Death is bittersweet, sort of bitter in its pain, but sweet in its salvation. That's what you know about life and death, and it's pathetic.

Mr. CARLEY: (As Father Janovich ) What do you know, Mr. Kowalski?

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Walt Kowalski) I know a lot. I lived for almost three years in Korea with - thanks.

(Soundbite of glass on bar)

Mr. EASTWOOD:(As Walt Kowalski) We shot men, stabbed them with bayonets, hacked 17 year olds to death with shovels - stuff I'll remember till the day I die, horrible things, but things I'll live with.

BIANCULLI: New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, writing about "Gran Torino" and Clint Eastwood's prolific and impressive film output, said, quote, "I'm not sure how he does it, but I don't want him to stop - not because every film is great - though, damn, many are - but because even the misfires show an urgent engagement with the tougher, messier, bigger questions of American life," unquote. Clint Eastwood spoke with Terry Gross earlier this year, when his film "Changeling" was released. At the time, she also asked him to describe his role in "Gran Torino," playing a guy who, as the film begins, doesn't much like anybody, including his Asian neighbors.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, October 23, 2008)

Mr. EASTWOOD (Actor; Director): Well, he - no, he has - he's not just anti- - he's not anti-Asian; he's anti everything.

TERRY GROSS: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EASTWOOD: He's a guy who was in the Korean War - it's present day - a guy who was in the Korean War, but then after that he went to work in the Ford factory for over 50 years. And he's now an older guy, and he is - lives by himself and his neighborhood has changed and the world is changing around him. And he's having a rough time communicating with his own family, and it's sort of how he befriends these Asian people, who he at first doesn't like just for the principle of it. The neighborhood's changed a lot, but then he forms a relationship with these people, and the story goes on from there.

GROSS: Now, you were drafted during the Korean War. Do I have that right?

Mr. EASTWOOD: That's true.

GROSS: And you were in a military plane crash?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Yeah, I was actually drafted in the Army, but I was hitchhiking in a Navy plane, and they'd lost the plane in the ocean by Drakes Bay in northern California. So, I was supposed to stand by for a hearing.

GROSS: A hearing investigating what happened?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Yeah. So, the Navy asked if I'd stand by for a hearing on the circumstances. And so what happened is the Army, of course, said, sure, we'll keep him standing by for a hearing. Well, to make a long story short, the hearing never came, and so I'm sitting there waiting and all of a sudden my two years are up and the hearing never happened.

GROSS: Were you glad that you weren't sent to Korea?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, yeah. I don't think anybody was really too happy to go over there. Korea was a rough war. It's kind of - a lot of people call it the forgotten war now - very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. And I don't think anybody that I knew volunteered for it, but most of my company did go. The irony of this mythical hearing is the only reason I didn't go.

GROSS: How did you survive the plane crash?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Oh, we just got out, and we were close - you know, offshore. So, we had to deal with rough weather, and it was in November. The pilot and I tried to stick together, but it didn't work out too well because he was - we got in, and he thought I was dead and I thought he was dead, so I hiked south and he hiked north.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EASTWOOD: And he came across a farm, and the coast guard picked him up out there on the farm. And the coast guard then came and got me. I was at a RCA relay station up on the - in Marin County there.

GROSS: So, not to make light of it, but that was, like, your first big stunt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EASTWOOD: Oh, yeah, it was an interesting stunt. It was something you wouldn't want to do now. It's - you know, it's interesting. Drakes Bay, all that area, has been noted for being a white-shark breeding ground.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

Mr. EASTWOOD: I didn't know that at the time or else I probably would have had apoplexy and just passed out and probably wouldn't be here today.

GROSS: My guest is Clint Eastwood. Of course, one of the series of movies that you're very famous for is "Dirty Harry." And a "Dirty Harry" box set recently came out with all the "Dirty Harry" movies and a lot of extras and documentaries. Let's just start here with a mix of some of the most famous lines from your "Dirty Harry" films.

(Soundbite of movie "Dirty Harry")

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Inspector Harry Callahan) I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking, did he fire six shots or only five? Now, to tell you the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya(ph), punk?

(Soundbite of movie "Sudden Impact")

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Inspector Harry Callahan) Go ahead, make my day.

(Soundbite of movie "Magnum Force")

Mr. HAL HOLBROOK: (As Lieutenant Neil Briggs) You're a killer, Harry, a maniac.

(Soundbite of motorcycle-engine revving)

(Soundbite of explosion)

(Soundbite of fire crackling)

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Inspector Harry Callahan) Man's got to know his limitations.

GROSS: Clint Eastwood, when you read those lines for the first time...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you think these lines will live in film history?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, I thought they had potential. The first one is a - from "Dirty Harry," the original "Dirty Harry," and when I first read the script by Harry Julian Fink, he had that little speech in there. But I also chose to reprise it at the end, too, because I felt it was such a good line, I felt it was a good way to wrap up the movie.

GROSS: What were your first impressions when you read "Dirty Harry" the first time?

Mr. EASTWOOD: I just thought it was - actually, Paul Newman had led me onto it. He told Jennings Lang, who was an executive at Universal at that time, that there's a script that I read, this exciting detective story; it might be great for Clint. And of course, when Jennings told me that, I said, well, how come Paul doesn't want to do it? He says, well, he's got some questions about the political ramifications or what have you, but he thinks it's an exciting story and you might want to do it. And I read it and I did. I thought it was an exciting detective story and wanted to do it. I don't care much about political ramifications one way or the other. You know, you have to tell some points of view in different movies; so, why not?

GROSS: I think the political ramifications that Paul Newman would have been concerned about would include that Harry doesn't believe in Mirandizing people. I mean, because it just gets in the way. In fact...

Mr. EASTWOOD: True.

GROSS: Let's play a clip of that.

(Soundbite of movie "Dirty Harry")

Mr. JOSEF SOMMER: (As District Attorney William T. Rothko): You're lucky I'm not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder.

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Inspector Harry Callahan): What?

Mr. SOMMER: (As District Attorney William T. Rothko): Where the hell does it say you've got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you have been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I'm saying is that man had rights.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Mr. EASTWOOD: (As Inspector Harry Callahan): Well, I'm all broken up about that man's rights.

GROSS: Harry doesn't have a lot respect for the mayor in "Dirty Harry." Was your payback for that becoming a mayor and having to oversee a bureaucracy and oversee a police department?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, it was - no, that was strictly a local deal in my community that I live and I enjoyed that very much. But the question of whether it's payback of "Dirty Harry," I can't say that because Dirty Harry is just a character. I don't really believe like that person. In fact, it's much more fun to play a person that you don't necessarily agree with, in a lot of ways. But it's a fantasy thing. It's a fantasy saying, wouldn't it be great if there was somebody like this? If I was in trouble in society or if you were or any one of us out there was in trouble, wouldn't you like to have somebody as dogmatic as this coming out trying to work on your behalf?

GROSS: In your films - the "Dirty Harry" films, the Westerns - you've had to give and take a lot of physical abuse. What did you have to learn to do in order to take physical abuse within your roles?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, you get nicks and scrapes and bruises and things like that from whenever you do stunts, but you kind of live with it because you're into the roles. In fact, I always wanted to do all the stunts and stuff when I was a young man doing those things because it was all part of the character. But then as you get older and wiser, you decide, well, maybe you shouldn't jeopardize the production by putting yourself at risk and putting the whole production at risk by not having a stunt double.

GROSS: What's the least wise stunt...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That you did in your career?

Mr. EASTWOOD: I remember having to be on the hood of a car. The scene is he's going to roll off the car just before the car piles into the bay. Well, they had me wired onto the car so I wouldn't roll off and get hurt along the way. So, they had a cable up - drilled through the hood. And so, I was wired onto the car. Well, all of a sudden, when you get wired on there with this cable and you think, what happens if they don't stop in time and you go right into the bay? I'm stuck wired on there. I can't even float to the surface. So, it was - you know, a couple of things like that that cause you to get a little bit of - get a little reticent. But in the meantime, I've had quite a few of them, jumping through windows and jumping off roofs and things like that.

GROSS: What's the, like, the worst real injury that you've got from a fight or a stunt scene?

Mr. EASTWOOD: I think the worst one is I had a dislocated shoulder, but it wasn't from the stunt itself. It was - I was riding a horse through a field of ice, and the horse's feet went through the ice, and it did a roll and I went off. So, I landed in some rocks and stuff, and I had a dislocated shoulder. It was the last shot of the day, and it was the right time to be the last shot of the day. The bad part was, I had to sit in a pickup truck and ride for about an hour, an hour and a half, to get to the hospital to get it put back in, so that was a long ride.

GROSS: I'll bet.

Mr. EASTWOOD: But - and then the movie went on because I just did everything left-handed for a few weeks until things kind of healed up.

GROSS: Which movie was that?

Mr. EASTWOOD: That was in "Pale Rider."

BIANCULLI: Clint Eastwood speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with actor/director Clint Eastwood. His newest film, "Gran Torino," opens today.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, October 23, 2008)

GROSS: I want to ask you about some firsts in your life. You love music. You play piano. You write some of your own movie music. What was the first record that you remember buying?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Boy, that goes back awhile. I think it was - my mother bought some Fats Waller records, which kind of turned me on to sort of traditional jazz music and sort of stride piano playing, and then I started liking Wally Rose, Ralph Sutton and people like that. Then I started getting into Bebop in the mid-'40s and that was - then they went from more of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk kind of things. So, as you sort of advanced along with it, music sort of became more bizarre.

GROSS: You've made a lot of Westerns. What was the first time you rode a horse?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, I rode a horse when I was young. When I was a kid, I rode out when I lived with my grandmother. I lived - my cousins had horses, and so, I rode frequently. And then when I got to - in the early '50s, I was a contract player at Universal Pictures, and as a contract player, you could go out on the back lot in those days and check out a horse and go riding, and I did that quite often. And so, I got fairly proficient at it. So, when I did get into a Western on a regular basis, like "Rawhide" was in the late '50s, I had some fairly good chops.

GROSS: So, when you were making "Rawhide," did you have a good relationship with your horse?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, I didn't date him or anything, but you know, it was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EASTWOOD: Yeah, it was a good relationship. I mean, you know, the horse is a 1,000-pound or more, maybe 1200 pounds of animal, that is a - who's got the brain about the size of a walnut. So, you always have to be very, very careful with horses and realize that they're only going to be doing - only going to contribute so much to the ride.

GROSS: I probably told you this before, but I was such a big fan of "Rawhide" when I was a kid. I know it was probably a very frustrating experience for you, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I loved the show. And one of the things you had to do is learn how to - as the theme song goes - rope, roll and brand them, because it was all about, you know, a cattle-driving herd. So, did you have to learn how to, you know, rope, roll and brand steer?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Well, I did it periodically. Most of the time it was done by trickery, and then you'd come in and you'd catch the steer, and then you'd cut to some other thing, and then come back and the steer was already branded or something. But it was great fun. That series was a great way to - a chance to be acting every single day on a regular basis where you can really kind of find out what your characteristics are.

GROSS: How would you describe your character of Rowdy Yates on "Rawhide"?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Sort of an imbecile of the plains. He's kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EASTWOOD: He was - no, I used to call him Trail Flunky. We had a lot of fun making him, and he was sort of the impetuous youth. So, I was...

GROSS: Right, yeah.

Mr. EASTWOOD: Yeah. And I have no regrets. It was a great learning ground.

GROSS: Do you remember the first time you put on the poncho and chewed on a cigar stub for "A Fistful of Dollars"?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Yeah, very well, very well. In fact, that was - I'd gone to - first time I did it was in Italy. I was on my way to Spain, but we did a couple scenes from it, and so I just - it was another character for me, another character away from being the Trail Flunky.

GROSS: Did you go shopping for ponchos, or did the costume director just give you the red one?

Mr. EASTWOOD: I did. I took ponchos and stuff with me when I went over there. But we ended up picking up one in Spain, and that was the one that we ended up using. But most of the wardrobe I brought with me, and I even brought the cigars with me. And the cigars were a very, very long, a thin cigar called Vajinja(ph), and they're very, very powerful, unappetizing, and they put you in a terribly foul mood. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EASTWOOD: It worked for my character. They were great because I could chop them up in threes and put them in pockets and stuff like that and smoke them at different lengths.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did you smoke for real at the time?

Mr. EASTWOOD: No. No, I've never smoked for real. I've smoked in films and stuff. I mean, I can smoke, but I never got a charge out of it. I never felt any addiction for it.

GROSS: Because you became a star on "Rawhide," you did what a lot of stars at the time did: You made some pop recordings. And since we're talking about firsts, I thought we could talk about the first recording that you ever made. And I believe that was "Unknown Girl"?

Mr. EASTWOOD: Yeah, I think I did something like that. Yeah.

GROSS: Let's hear the first recording that you made, and this was a single called "Unknown Girl" in 1961, and here's how it sounded. This isn't the best recording of it, but it's the only one we have.

(Soundbite of song "Unknown Girl")

Mr. EASTWOOD: (Singing)
I would travel far and wide
Just to have you by my side,
Unknown girl of my dreams.
Take your hand...

GROSS: That's Clint Eastwood recording in 1961. One of the things I find so interesting about that is, you know, here you are, this guy who, like, loves Fats Waller, and then decides, no, I also love Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. And here you are making this, you know, kind of very generically produced pop recording.

Mr. EASTWOOD: Thank you for not playing the whole record.

GROSS: You're welcome, you're welcome.

Mr. EASTWOOD: I have to give you a lot of points on that one. But yeah, well, you know, you just - that's what music was all about in the '60s. Everything was starting to get into the rock, rock 'n roll era, and it wasn't complicated. But to have to listen - you think looking at yourself on the screen is tough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EASTWOOD: That is really tough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: There's nothing wrong your voice. It's the arrangement that's so generic-sounding.

Mr. EASTWOOD: I know, I know. The arrangements are really corny.

GROSS: Well, Clint Eastwood, thank you so much for talking with us. A pleasure to talk with you.

Mr. EASTWOOD: Terry, good talking to you again.

BIANCULLI: Clint Eastwood speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His latest movie, "Gran Torino," featuring him as both director and star, opens today. Here's stride piano player Ralph Sutton, to whom Eastwood had referred earlier. I'm David Bianculli, and this is Fresh Air.
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Channel Changes: Jay Leno and 'Boston Legal'

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting and Cable Magazine and TVWorthWatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. Earlier this week, NBC announced that Jay Leno, after he steps down from "The Tonight Show" next year as scheduled, will begin another nightly talk show for NBC, this time in primetime. NBC will give up one-third of its evening schedule to a talk show running Monday through Friday at 10 p.m. eastern.

Why? Because of one adage that in this case turns out to be particularly true: Talk is cheap, really cheap - so cheap that making even reality shows is a lot more expensive; so cheap that NBC's "Today Show" makes more profit for NBC than any other program on its schedule, day or night; so cheap that even if no one watches Leno in primetime who isn't already watching him now in late night, the low ratings his new show will get will be more than offset by the fat profit margins. From a business standpoint, this makes perfect sense. But what is good for business isn't necessarily good for TV. Every primetime hour that Jay Leno occupies is an hour that can't be occupied by a scripted drama, and broadcast television already has precious few of those left. And every time a great one leaves, it's less likely to be replaced.

One of broadcast TV's best shows left us this week when ABC's "Boston Legal" presented its final episode. This David E. Kelley courtroom series bounced effortlessly and constantly from outrageous buffoonery to deadly seriousness. It was the only current scripted show in primetime, week in and week out, to tackle controversial and topical issues. And now it's gone. But it was poetry, pure and simple. And its two-hour finale was one last dazzling stroke of brilliance.

The star of "Boston Legal," James Spader, has won Emmys for his role as attorney Alan Shore, and he's famous for his passionate, lengthy legal arguments. In this scene, Alan and his fellow lawyers have just learned their law firm, Crane Poole & Schmidt, has been taken over by a Chinese consortium. The new owners have decided to fire all the litigation attorneys, but Alan threatens to have them fired instead and calls a meeting to state his case.

On one side of the conference table, there are a dozen or so Chinese men in suits. On the other are Alan and his colleagues, Denny Crane and Shirley Schmidt, played by William Shatner and Candice Bergen, and the rest, who all smile on cue. But it's Alan who does all the talking. He talks for three full minutes. And on this one occasion, to savor one last time how Alan Shore goes from jokes to politics and back again and how great Spader is at delivering these lengthy rants, we're going to hear it all.

(Soundbite of TV show "Boston Legal," December 8, 2008)

Mr. JAMES SPADER: (As Alan Shore) So, where to begin? How about, welcome to Crane Poole & Schmidt, I'm afraid you're all fired? Nothing personal, you seem like fine folk - love the discipline, the 10,000 drummers - but it's not working out. So sorry, out you go, single file, please, move along. Bye-bye.

(Soundbite of claps)

(Soundbite of people murmuring in Chinese)

Mr. LO MING: (As Hyung Lee) Mr. Shore, we now own the firm.

Mr. SPADER: (As Alan Shore) Well, it doesn't much matter, Mister...?

Mr. MING: (As Hyung Lee) Lee.

Mr. SPADER: (As Alan Shore) Lee, yes. This is America, and in America, it all comes down to who the jury likes better, and I don't think an American jury will side with a communist, do you? Juries typically frown on oppressors, even when they're capitalists. So, the idea of China...

Mr. MING: (As Hyung Lee) On what grounds could you possibly prevail?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPADER: (As Alan Shore) Grounds? Who cares about grounds? Cases always come down to who the jury likes better. Did I not just say this? I think I did. So, anyway, meet the group. We're a fine, very likable group, infectious smiles. Smile, group. And best of all, bad for you, we're very good. Did you check out our win-loss record? Good for us, bad for you. More importantly, did you note the kinds of cases that we argue week to week? Typically preposterous, mostly unwinnable on their face, and yet, we win them, whether we have grounds or not. It must be the smiles. Smile, group.

And here we actually do have grounds for you to summarily Schmidt-Cannon(ph) an entire litigation department, a successful one, no less, because, well, hm, because I guess you don't like us. It seems arbitrary, capricious, actionable, winnable, of all things. It doesn't really seem fair, does it, for us to have both the merits and the smiles. Smile, group. What do we do? A wrongful discharge subject to compensatory impunity damages could be lots and lots of money, not to mention, think of the fallout here at the firm. You see, we're not just good litigators; we're popular. Again, could be the smiles, and you firing us, well, that would be a terrible, terrible way to introduce yourselves. I mean, Denny Crane, Shirley Schmidt, you must be joking. I know how the Chinese love to kid - like with the tanks in the square, the monks in Tibet, or daughters - but you could have a mass exodus of lawyers long before we even get to trial, which we will, of course, get to just the same, and when we do, take caution.

Here's a little tip: We Americans love to trade on fear. Ask W; ask Dick; ask Rummy: Fear sells. Fear works. The fear I'll be trading on is China, Communist China, taking our jobs. First over there, then over here, where you once were passive investors, now you want active control. That scares Americans: Active communists, made in China, seeking control. Ooh! Scary. One last thought: We're giant slayers here; it's what we do - be it the United States government, big pharmaceutical, big tobacco, big oil - it never gets old. And just when it seemed we were fresh out of bigs, along came you - China, the poster child for big. Oh! To parade you in front of an American jury - well, here's your out. We'll agree not to fire you, not to sue, on one condition: We stay and we stay in charge. Do what you want with corporate or tax, but in litigation, we run the show: Shirley Schmidt, Denny Crane, Carl Sack, Jerry Espenson, Katie Lloyd, me. It's our party. Stay out of our way; we'll stay out of yours. That is the deal.

BIANCULLI: Almost no one on television talks for three minutes, unless you're Jay Leno doing a monologue. But now that you've heard that, tell me, whose monologue would you rather hear?
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'Hill Street Blues' Actor Robert Prosky, 1930-2008

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Robert Prosky, the renowned stage actor who also found fame playing roll call Sergeant Stan Jablonski on "Hill Street Blues" died this week in a Washington, D.C., hospital of complications from a heart procedure. He was 77.

Prosky got his high-profile "Hill Street" role when he was in his 50s. He didn't start acting on film until 1981 in Michael Mann's "Thief." Other movie roles followed in "Broadcast News," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "The Natural" and "Dead Man Walking." But on stage, Robert Prosky was a respected veteran. On Broadway, Prosky received Tony nominations for his work as a real-estate agent in "Glengarry Glen Ross" and a Soviet arms negotiator in "A Walk in the Woods." And for decades, Prosky worked with the Washington, D.C., based Arena Stage, one of the most respected regional theater companies in the country.

He appeared in more than a 125 roles over the years, including playing Willy Loman in a highly acclaimed staging of "Death of a Salesman." Washington Post drama critic Peter Marks, in his appreciation of Robert Prosky's stage work there, wrote, quote, "His name on a cast list was like the guarantee on the label of a premium brand. As you sat and waited for him to appear, you knew you could count on something solid, packed with flavor," unquote. Terry Gross interviewed Robert Prosky in 1988, when he was co-starring in the David Mamet film, "Things Change."

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, 1988)

GROSS: You spent about - what - 23 years with the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.?

Mr. ROBERT PROSKY (Actor): That's right. I went down there from New York to do one play and stayed there and raised a family and got married there. And it was something that was rather unusual for an American actor to have that kind of background or that kind of opportunity. It's one of the best, still is one of the best - I just saw a play out there the other day - theaters in the country, and they do everything - new plays, old plays, classics. I played something like 130 roles there over 23 years.

GROSS: I guess that's a terrific opportunity. I think of so many actors who, for instance, if they get their start on television, play one role every six years. To play 130 roles over a period of years gives you - certainly, you must learn a lot doing that much.

Mr. PROSKY: You certainly do. And I performed every night. In fact, for, I think, for the first 20 years, I didn't miss a performance, and I was working all the time. I think it was a kidney stone that finally stopped me. But it is unusual, and it gives, hopefully, a large range to the actor who does it. I think, you know, most of the people know me as Sergeant Jablonski. But I've done a great deal of Shakespeare. I've done Brecht. I've done Chekov. I've done Shaw. I've done modern plays - I've done a lot of David Mamet. And our society doesn't particularly reward the actor who can do that. That's a more European concept for an actor.

GROSS: You're from a working-class background yourself.

Mr. PROSKY: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Is it any easier to fit into a working-class role?

Mr. PROSKY: Not necessarily. The role that's easy to fit into is a well-written role, no matter what it is. There's more challenge. Jablonski was pretty well-written generally, particularly in the segment that David Mamet wrote. No, I don't think my background - my background helps me in many, many different ways. I come from a huge Polish family in Philadelphia, as a matter of fact, and I went to college there. It's helped me a great deal with Jablonski, certainly.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Let's hear an excerpt of you playing Jablonski. Now, this role was start under extenuated circumstances. Michael Conrad, who had played the role call sergeant since the beginning of the show, died very tragically. And after awhile, you were chosen to take that part of the role call sergeant. The part was written very differently for you than it was for him. But you probably felt really on the spot having to, not only replace this really popular actor in the role on the series, but to also take his place in the ensemble cast that you were playing with.

Mr. PROSKY: Yeah. Well, it was an interesting parallel. Jablonski was a different character coming into an established job that had been vacated by the death of the former desk sergeant. Jablonski had been a desk sergeant in another precinct. So, he's a man of a great experience who was coming into a new situation. So, he was somewhat on the line. I, as an actor, had some of the reputation. Most of the people on "Hill Street" had seen me in "Glengarry Glen Ross" on Broadway. But I also was coming into a new situation as an actor. So, the character's experience was paralleling the actor's experience, and that's usable material for the actor.

GROSS: Well, I want to play an excerpt of a very first role call that you did on "Hill Street Blues."

Mr. PROSKY: All right.

(Soundbite of TV show "Hill Street Blues")

Mr. PROSKY: (As Sergeant Stan Jablonski) Officer Renko?

Mr. CHARLES HAID: (As Officer Andrew "Andy" Renko) Yes, sir. That would be me, sarge.

Mr. PROSKY: (As Sergeant Stan Jablonski) I understand you could be expecting to be with child.

(Soundbite of groaning)

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

Mr. PROSKY: (As Sergeant Stan Jablonski) All other units, you be prepared to the back Hill and Renko up, OK?

(Soundbite of crowd assenting)

Mr. PROSKY: (As Sergeant Stan Jablonski) That's it. Let's get out there; let's do it for them before they do it for us.

(Soundbite of people talking, moving around)

Mr. PROSKY: (As Sergeant Stan Jablonski) Hey, hey, hey, don't forget. Stahsh(ph) Jablonski never cold-cocked no woman.

GROSS: Yeah, I should mention, when he takes on that job, he was accused of hitting a senior officer who was a woman at his previous precinct.

Mr. PROSKY: That's right, in the other precinct, right.

GROSS: So, tell me what it felt like that very first day when you played the part of Jablonski filling into that role.

Mr. PROSKY: Well, it was a little difficult. I was uptight, I would say. Of course, that's not unusual for me. I've never got rid of that in 30 years of being an actor. The opening night of the first time is a tension-provoking situation for me, always. I knew some of the actors. I had played Shakespeare with the man who plays Belker, Bruce Weitz. It's difficult for people to believe that he's done Shakespeare. Maybe it's difficult for them to believe that I have. But I knew a few of them. I had work with Charlie Haid once before, but a series is different situation, and I had never done a series. That's what I was uptight about. There isn't much time for rehearsal. There isn't much time for research. They'd light it, and you'd do it. And the role calls were done as a straight go. I mean, there was no cutting back and forth. I mean, eventually they did in their editing. But they put two cameras on me, and the role call started at the top and went through to the end. Then they would turn them around and do the shots of the reactions from the other policemen.

GROSS: During part of your stay on "Hill Street," you were out for a few weeks. Your character had had a heart attack. I figured, you actually got a role in a movie...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PROSKY: Actually...

GROSS: Or a show and asked to be written out for a few weeks.

Mr. PROSKY: That's not far from the truth. One of my problems was that I had never done a series, and I avoided series as much as I could. I had a number of offers. I was - and actually, I had accepted "Cheers" once before they ever started it. It was for a 13-week commitment to play the bartender, and then I turned it down because I can't imagine myself playing the same role for seven years. So, with "Hill Street," we were in the third year and I was getting offers and we talked about it. And I actually did another pilot and, if the other pilot had been picked, I probably would have died of the heart attack on "Hill Street."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, I guess they left it open-ended, huh?

Mr. PROSKY: Yes, they did. And that's unusual for a series, but "Hill Street" was an unusual series. There was an open-door policy between the writers and the actors and the producers and Steven Bochco, who was one of the originators who now does "L.A. Law," and he's an extraordinary man. He's unique in television, he really is.

GROSS: Let me talk a little bit with you about your background. I know that your father had worked in a factory and then owned a grocery store.

Mr. PROSKY: That's right.

GROSS: When you were in the Army, you had to get a hardship discharge after your father died. Your family needed you to help support the family.

Mr. PROSKY: That's right.

GROSS: And you took over the family grocery store.

Mr. PROSKY: Yes, I did.

GROSS: Did you have other aspirations and see taking over the grocery store as being a burden?

Mr. PROSKY: Yes. I did not particularly appreciate it, but it was an obligation I had to do. And I wasn't very good at it, frankly. And I continued - I'd never really thought of myself as becoming an actor. I love the amateur theater that I did in Philadelphia, but I never had the courage to think of it as a profession.

GROSS: Is it harder, do you think, sometimes, coming from a working-class background, where there isn't a history of art or theater or entertainment in the family, and it might seem like a really out of reach aspiration?

Mr. PROSKY: That might be true, but I have worked with a lot of actors who come from the same sort of background, and they bring a vitality to the work that is useful. There's an actor in New York called Phil Bosco. I worked with him years ago. I don't know if you know him. He does an awful lot of classics. He's a very fine actor. Off stage, he sounds and looks like a Jersey City truck driver. On stage, he's John Gielgud. But there is a vitality, and I draw a great deal on my background and that huge family and the interrelationships. In fact, I have two sons who are actors, and they are beginning to think that they wish they had that same sort of background - having worked with my hands, having worked hard, all those marvelous, colorful immigrants that I knew who were my relatives, older relatives.

GROSS: Did you have to leave the grocery in order to start acting professionally?

Mr. PROSKY: Yes, I did. I had an opportunity in Philadelphia - it was an amateur TV dramatic talent search. It was sort of a silly thing, actually. It was competitive acting, if you can imagine that. And I won that, and one of the prizes was a role at Bucks County Playhouse. Walter Matthau was in the play, and it was directed by Ezra Stone, who used to do Henry Aldrich on the radio. And they suggested I get some training. I had never literally opened a book about acting. And I won a scholarship to the American Theater Wing, which had a school at the time. The scholarship was given by the New York Drama League. And my mother recognized that I really did not like what I was doing and encouraged me to go off to New York and become an actor.

GROSS: So, that spared you the guilt of feeling that you were walking out on the family by leaving the store.

Mr. PROSKY: Yes, yes, it did. I was an only child, although the family was huge; there were innumerable cousins and aunts and uncles. I was an only child, and the store did close after I left. Luckily, my mother remarried, and that worked out very well. But it was very much to her credit - and indeed, to the other relatives - they all encouraged me, which I find interesting. They had none of the cliche feelings about, you know, you shouldn't do that, you shouldn't try that, that's what we shouldn't do. They encouraged me.

GROSS: I know that one of your frustrations when you were working only on the stage was that you never had a permanent record of your work. After the show was over, there was no record of its existence, except for print reviews. Now that you have a more permanent record through your work on TV and movies, what meaning does it have for you? What do you do with it? Do you sit down and watch it to see how you've changed? What uses of it are important to you?

Mr. PROSKY: Just that it's there. I don't look to see how it's changed or anything of that sort. As a matter of fact, it's not really there. I don't have a record of me doing Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" or Galileo or some of those roles. And I would love to be able to do work of that level on film, and I haven't really as yet, I don't feel. Of course, even though that is frustrating, and it frustrated me more and more as I was doing larger roles and, I hope, better work at Arena, there is also a joy in a stage production. There is a unique event that's built each evening between the audience and the actor. It's not just the actor. It's built together, and it's unique to that event. Joe Chaikin, who writes on theater, said that one of the beauties of theater is the shared mortality in the space. And that's why it's precious, is because it lasts an instant. And it's the essence of the actor's work, is to create the moment, the now, and the now only exists for an instant.

BIANCULLI: Robert Prosky speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. The respected stage, screen and TV actor died this week at age 77. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new movie version of "Doubt," starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is Fresh Air.
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Revealing Virtue in the Anti-Absolutism of 'Doubt'

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

In 2005, playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play "Doubt." The story centers around a nun who suspects a priest of sexually molesting a male student. Shanley has now adapted his play for the screen and directed it himself, with a cast led by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: John Patrick Shanley's film of his play "Doubt" is a heavy slab of dramaturgy. It's dark, somber, yet unbelievably intense. Even opened up for the screen, with air and trees and extra kids and nuns, it has the compression of great theater. One confrontation forces the next, and backs are driven against walls. It's set in 1962, in a church and boys' school, where Father Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, delivers a sermon asserting that doubt can be as vital to humans as certainty, as faith. In that era, an age of absolutes, few understand what he's talking about, least of all the school's severe principal, Sister Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep. Why, she wonders, this liberalism? There must be a sinister motive.

Sister James, a fresh-faced, hopeful nun, played by Amy Adams, notices Father Flynn paying special attention to the school's sole, and very vulnerable, African-American student, who returns from a private meeting with the priest looking shaken. Flynn is lured to a meeting with Sisters Aloysius and James to discuss the coming Christmas pageant. And the interrogation that follows is circular, yet driving. Carefully, Sister Aloysius drops the student's name.

(Soundbite of movie "Doubt")

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) The Christmas pageant.

(Soundbite of throat clearing)

Ms. AMY ADAMS: (As Sister James) And we must be careful how Donald Miller is used. I...

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Easy there, sister.

(Soundbite of utensils clinking)

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) All right. What about Donald Miller?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) We must be careful in the pageant that we neither hide Donald Miller nor put him forward.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Because of the color of his skin?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) That's right, yeah.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Why?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Come, father.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I think he should be treated like every other boy.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Well, you yourself singled the boy out for special attention. You held a private meeting with him at the rectory a week ago?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) Yes.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) What are we talking about?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) Donald Miller?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) The boy acted strangely when he returned to class.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) He did?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) When he returned from the rectory, a little odd, yes.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Can you tell us why?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) How did he act strangely?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) He - I'm not sure how to explain it - he laid his head on the desk in some...

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Do you mean you had some impression?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) Yes.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) And he'd come from the rectory, so you're asking me.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Mm.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) That's it.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Hm.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Mm hmm.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Hm.

(Soundbite of throat clearing)

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Did you want to discuss the pageant? Is that why I'm here? Or is this what you wanted to discuss?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) This.

EDELSTEIN: Whose voice is that coming out of Streep? Edith Bunker's? Among these naturalistic actors, it's distracting. Yet Streep's busyness is riveting. She shows that Sister Aloysius, however monolithic her worldview, is alive on the inside. The constant asides under her breath suggest she understands that people might not live up to her strictures. In Flynn, though, she might have met her match, because he has what she doesn't - the privileges of patriarchy. On one hand, he's generous, progressive. He sees how this discriminated-against boy needs a father figure. But his sense of entitlement is vast. Hoffman often overstresses the grotesqueness of his characters, but this is one of his best performances, warm and likable. His Flynn doesn't believe he's a predator, so we can't quite either.

There's a fourth major performance, brief but breathtaking - Viola Davis as the boy's mother, who in her desperation to see her son survive has made questionable choices. But in the end, it's her view that makes our hearts bleed. The issues here ought to be clear-cut, but in every exchange Shanley drives home the doubt. Roger Deakins' cinematography could hardly be crisper, more focused. There's no escaping the starkness of this universe. It is on one level heavy-handed, but that heavy hand sure knocked me for a loop. It took me awhile after the movie ended to stop shaking. Shanley understands that the most essential art of the dramatist is to set down points of view that can't be reconciled. He makes visceral the idea that one can be right but never absolutely right, that the capacity for doubt, which can devastate us, might also be our last, best hope of understanding the world.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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