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Chicago Bulls Head Coach Phil Jackson

Jackson played for eleven years with the New York Knicks, worked as a television color commentator, and coached minor-league for four years, before becoming the head coach of the Bulls who led them through three consecutive NBA championships with a unique coaching style. The team is currently in the NBA playoffs. He pulled together a winning team of star players Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman. In his book, "Sacred Hoops" (Hyperion) Jackson shares the ways in which he seeks to transform the every-man-for-himself professional play of three of the world's best basketball players into selfless team play. (REBROADCAST from 9/30/96)

30:47

Other segments from the episode on June 13, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 13, 1997: Interview with Phil Jackson; Interview with Red Holzman; Review of the film "Ulee's Gold."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 13, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 061301NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Phil Jackson
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:05

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

Tonight is game six of the NBA Finals. If the Chicago Bulls win, they win the championship. If the Utah Jazz wins, the final game will be played on Sunday.

On this archive edition of FRESH AIR, we have an interview with the Bulls' head coach Phil Jackson.

Last June, Jackson led the Bulls to their fourth NBA championship in six years. He joined the coaching staff of the Bulls in '87 and became head coach in July of '89.

He played with the Knicks for 11 years after joining the team in 1967.

Jackson coaches one of the greatest players in the history of the game, Michael Jordan. This week, in game five, Jordan scored 38 points in spite of being sick with the flu.

Jackson also coaches perhaps the most flamboyant and controversial player in the NBA, Dennis Rodman. Yesterday, Rodman was fined $50,000 by the NBA for his derogatory comments about Mormons.

I spoke with Phil Jackson last September and asked him about his first encounter with Rodman, which Jackson described in his memoir, "Sacred Hoops."

You describe your first meeting with Dennis Rodman. And he's sittin' there in this chair, and he doesn't take off his sunglasses when he meets you, he doesn't stand up to shake your hand.

Isn't that a sign of disrespect? How did you deal with that?

PHIL JACKSON, HEAD COACH, CHICAGO BULLS: Well, it is, Terry, a sign of disrespect. But it's also kind of a juvenile behavior. Now, it might be shyness underneath all that.

So, Dennis and I had many occasions of bumping up against each other in play versus Detroit. And also I coached an all-star game in which Dennis had been a member. He was on the East team that I coached.

But he hadn't spoken a word the whole time he was there except if you addressed him and talked to Dennis. And I found that Dennis had to be addressed personally before he would offer any part of the conversation.

So, I knew that if I was direct with him, I would get a response. And I walked over to him and grabbed his hand and said, "Dennis, I know you stand up when you meet people that like you or you have respect for." And I kind of pulled him to his feet.

And he smiled, just gave a little bit of a smile. But he was, he was shy. And I know from being around him that he's a very shy person initially.

GROSS: What was your approach to telling him that there was certain behavior that was going to be expected or demanded of him that might go against his nature in some ways?

JACKSON: You know, I just had to be really direct and, you know, say there are rules, we have rules like any other society that we have to have met. And if you bump up against them all the time then you're gonna be consistently being, you know, on the edge of either being fined or being in, you know, in behavior that is going to go against the grain of our society, so you've got to find a way.

Well, you know, the first day we have our center court meeting, and, you know, everybody's ready to practice, shoes tied, practice jerseys on, all set up in the middle of the floor.

Dennis comes out. The shirt is around his neck, but he doesn't have his arms through the holes. And his shoes aren't tied, you know.

So, then you gotta -- so I found that Dennis would have a little behavior problem every day, that generally, you know, you'd either have to smile at him or say, come on, get it together, because that's just his behavior mode.

He's not gonna be part of the group. He doesn't want to be a stamp edition of the next Bulls. He wants to be an individual so desperately. But he found that I was willing to give him that little space.

In fact, I called him a "hauyoka" (ph), which he loved, 'cause that's a Sioux term for a backward walking or a person of different orientation, and he definitely is that.

GROSS: Now, you have two of the biggest stars in basketball on your team, Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman. You are very well known in sports for applying the principles of Zen Buddhism to your coaching.

Now, Zen is about transcending ego, about going beyond ego. And being a sports star is kind of about having a big ego. I mean it's hard to not have a big ego when you're a sports star and you're making a lot of money and the press is dying to get at you and women are throwing themselves at you.

How from a Zen perspective do you deal with the ego of your biggest stars?

JACKSON: Well, you know, I think what has to be held up from the standpoint of being a coach, and especially one that's trying to be at some level conscious and aware, is a mirror. And to hold a mirror up in front of people is probably the best recognition that they can have as mirroring back to themselves what their image is.

So, there are subtle little things that I think are available to a coach or to a person in my position that keep or help keep a person at that level grounded.

Some of them are privacy. You know, really trying to keep it as private as possible so that we can, you know, be ourselves, let our hair down, not let our so-called image or our personality be the force of who we are but be the real person in the real moment.

There's a lot of things that go into talking about the team as to who they are as personnel on the floor, what their inadequacies are and what their strengths are.

There's video tape that we use a crutch and a tool a lot of time in which you can do so many variety of things that constantly bring about the aspects and the facets of the media and television and commercials, all of which play at the same time that our games usually play on TV, which are real good tools to use.

So, there are a variety of mirrors to bring up...

GROSS: Right. But I don't understand how you're using like commercials and other programs as tools.

JACKSON: Well, it's very, very easy to use a, you know -- you're video taping a game, you're showing this team the replay of a game that you have.

And you could throw in a couple messages, think you can use a commercial of Michael Jordan or Dennis Rodman or Scottie Pippen, three guys that we have on our team that do a lot of commercial, following a play in which they're involved in in which they're doing something that exhibits perhaps not the character that they're demonstrating on TV or enforcing the character or the image that they have on TV, you know, without mentioning products.

It's pretty obvious that there are a lot of 'em out there which, you know, you can use.

So, it's a lot of fun to use, especially Michael in that with the guru that's sitting there and they're drinking Gatorade, if I get the right commercial right. And he meets this, this guru after climbing and running this mountain to this very spiritual-looking guy.

So, there are all those images that I like to incorporate into video tapes that are a lot of fun for me and for the guys that are on the team because it's pretty much -- a basketball team is a group of guys who can let their hair down and see each other for their strengths and their weaknesses. And when they recognize the weaknesses that they each have, then they become a good team.

And so, coach's responsibility is to constantly hold that mirror up, and that's my job.

GROSS: Do you ever say, go, go meditate, and realize that you're more important than your ego, that you must put your ego and -- yeah, I mean do you tell them, do you...

JACKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ... do you try to use the principles that you follow of meditation and Zen Buddhism to try to get them to just get rid of some of that ego?

JACKSON: There's no doubt that we try to teach them the tool, you know.

I think it's real important that, you know, you carry some of your belief to the marketplace with you when you go out there. And that's something that you can't sit on or hide.

So, you know, I have, I have a professional person that comes in that I really respect that can come in and teach what we call mindfulness or focusing, without using the term meditation because it may carry some weight to the term.

And we talk about its values, its values that -- to play, its values to relieving stress. And we talk about how could do it. We practice it as a group.

But we, you know, it's not something we daily come to practice and sit on our cushions and meditate. You know, this is something that I think is -- where you open the door, or maybe give them the key, and say, here, it's yours to use if you want to use it. Because that's, that's as far as I want to go as a coach. I don't want to, you know, be forceful or controlling, but, you know, allow that freedom.

But there's other things, you know. We'd like to teach, you know, we'd like to teach yoga. We'd like to have, you know, a Tai Chi instructor, you know. I mean there's other things that we'd like to have, but when you only have so much time, we think that being focused, mindful, is maybe one of the most important things that you can -- we can teach or can give them as a tool.

So, that's one of things we talk about.

Then we sit down and when we're going to do something that requires this mindfulness that's incorporated in our work, then we can talk about it as a group. How connected are we so that we have mindful behavior or that we're really, you know, working from an awareness level as to how we perform or what kind of level we're performing at under stress, even in very -- games of great magnitude.

So, it's a tool that is used not only for a personal level, but it's also used at a level to help make the team a better team, I think. So, that's why I've incorporated it.

GROSS: You've said that you try to get players to connect with something larger than themselves. How do you do that?

JACKSON: Well, I do it in, you know, whatever way is, you know, a cause that's greater than, say, well, let's win the NBA championship. We want to, you know, we want to win the NBA championship, and we want to have a great contract, and we want to have materials good bestowed upon us.

Those are things that are all, you know, so ephemeral, material, that to me it's got to be something that's bigger than that. And it's every, you know, every year I just think of a different -- try to think of different challenges.

You know, last year, you know, we had kind of this motto that the journey is the reward, that the reality of working day by day, practice if it's a practice day, game if it's a game day, and the journey of doing this thing day in and day out is in itself the reward. And it was, because we won, you know, 72 games last season, which was an incredible feat for a team that plays 82-game schedule, to do that day in and day out.

GROSS: Do you have a sense of how much of your success comes from this approach to coaching where you're applying certain spiritual principles and so on, how much of your success comes from that and how much of it is just much more practical things about calling plays and analyzing strengths and weaknesses?

JACKSON: Well, you know, I'm trying to paraphrase Yogi Berra's comment about...

GROSS: Ut-oh.

LAUGHTER

Yeah?

JACKSON: You know, 90 percent of it's mental and the other half of it's physical, or something like that.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Right. Right, right, right.

JACKSON: Well, 90 percent of it's mental and the other 50 percent of it's physical.

The reality is, is that you've got to have the athletes and the players that can do this. There's no substitute for the talent and that you have to have talented people.

That's, you know, credit goes to Michael Jordan, to Scottie Pippen, to Dennis Rodman, that they have the talent they can do what they have to do.

The jollies that I get from, you know, doing this spiritual or goal-seeking at a higher level is just, I tell them, you're just appeasing your coach and you're letting me have my fun, so that they have an idea that they're letting me have some fun while they're doing the game playing. They get all the fun playing the games. I get some fun playing mind games.

GROSS: We're featuring an interview with Phil Jackson recorded last September. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

On this archive edition we're featuring an interview recorded last September with Phil Jackson, head coach of the Chicago Bulls. They're now ahead 3-2 in the NBA Finals.

You know, professional sports is so much about money and power and of course winning. And those are things that don't seem that compatible with Zen Buddhism and meditation and spiritual values and so on.

How do you deal -- I mean when you lose, how do you deal with that? And why is winning very important if you're trying to be in a more spiritual plane that's not about ego and so on? How do you -- how do you correlate all of that in your mind?

JACKSON: Well, there's a lot of times we come in an we win, what we call "win ugly." And I don't like to use that phrase. It's just that we didn't do as good a job as we perhaps could do. And there's still lessons to be learned. But we always think there are a lot of lessons...

GROSS: That means that you won but you made real blunders even though you won?

JACKSON: Yes, it wasn't a pleasing game.

You know, we're trying to play a game at a level in which people will remember how we play basketball. That's one of the goals that I say that, you know, it's one of these type things that let's have something beyond just, hey, we won, and that's it. Let's do it in a style or a way that's remarkable, that's, you know, inspiring to people, because we have that ability, we should play at that level.

And there's some games that you come in and you lose and you feel pretty good about losing. It was still a great battle. It was still a wonderful night. And you can still benefit from something that you've had that hasn't been a win. And there's some nights a win may feel just as bad as a loss.

`And so we don't always say that it's measured by wins and losses, but it's measured by how you play.

GROSS: Did you always feel that way?

JACKSON: No. I don't think so. I think winning was the all-important, driving motivation for me as a younger person.

GROSS: And when did that change? Why did that change?

JACKSON: It changed somewhere in my professional career.

When professional ball became a continuation of a very long season of 82 games and I came to a basketball club that was struggling and suddenly became very good in the New York Knicks for a seven-year period of time.

And during that period of time, the enjoyability of winning and the focus on how to do that became more important than just on winning as it was when I was a rookie and this was a -- the Knicks were a struggling team and if you could just win a game it was the most important thing that you could do.

GROSS: What are your pep talks like before games?

JACKSON: Well, first of all, they're very low-keyed, and they're not pep talks. I wouldn't put them in those -- it's a matter of bringing to focus what the group has to focus on.

And so it may be on energy, it may be on developing enough energy for the game. But more or less it's on, you know, what we can do that strengthens us as opposed to what we can do that can take away from the opponent's ability to operate at full strength. And so it's just trying to bring key points out to a group.

I have the oldest team, they tell me, in the NBA, average age over, you know, 30. And they have probably heard every pep talk possible by the time they're 25. And so pep talks are usually gonna leave them deflated. And, you know, they bring their own energy to it.

So, what we'd like to do is bring focus. A lot of times it's just a moment of quietness, and sometimes it's two or three minutes of let's just be still and quiet before this game and get ourselves thinking on one -- as a one-man unit or a one-team, have a mind of one.

So, just so that we can get in stride together, because it's been disjointed, we may have a hard travel schedule, the media may have been busting their seams to try to get into our locker room and have stayed too long, and we just need to focus.

But for the most part the players that are the premier players have great focusing ability, great concentration skills. And to bring everybody to that level is always important.

GROSS: When you were playing with the Knicks, what worked for you best before a game and what were some of the things your coach, Red Holtzman, would do?

JACKSON: Well, Red, Red was very constant, he used to say almost the same thing before every game. And his speeches were probably at most two to three minutes.

And at some point during the talk he'd usually say, if you guys have any trouble concentrating, just nod you head so at least I think that you're focusing on what I'm saying. Or if you have to prop your eyelids open with toothpicks, don't mind me, I'll watch you do it, you know. And he would joke about it himself, that he was saying the same thing.

But what he was trying to do was trying to get us in the same kind of focused mode and concentrating on the same activity.

For me, what worked best of all was to stretch and to be quiet before a ball game. That was the things that I enjoyed doing.

GROSS: How were you first introduced to Zen Buddhism and how did you start incorporating that into the game?

JACKSON: Well, I had a brother that was a college student, a graduate student, and he picked me up at a baseball game I was playing in North Dakota -- I was a senior in high school -- and drove me from Bismarck, North Dakota, back to Williston, and in that very late night drive was telling me about some very exciting things that were happening in his life. And among them were the introduction to Zen Buddhism.

It kind of opened my mind to a new format. I was raised a fundamentalist Christian. In the process, I started searching a little bit on my own and, you know, ended up as religion as one of my minors. I had a composite major actually. One of my majors in college was religion. And I kept exploring until really I kind of found a group that I could sit with in the early '70s.

GROSS: And that connected to the game for you right away or did it take a while?

JACKSON: Well, it really did.

I was disconnected from the game. Actually, you know, it was so opposed, athletics was so opposed to my spiritual life that it was kind of a schizophrenic life for me. I could play sports over here in the very world or I could be over here holy in the very spiritual world in church and in the community that I was born and raised in. And the two supposedly didn't meet.

And as a consequence, I think that's one of the reasons I loved athletics so much, was to get away from all this religion.

And in the process of finding out that, you know, really it goes with you everywhere when I was a little bit older, I can realize that, you know, this was something that you carry with you. You don't have to carry it on your shoulder as a chip, but you can carry it in your heart.

GROSS: Your father was a minister. What were your parents' reactions to you pursuing sports professionally?

JACKSON: Well, my mother was a high school basketball player.

GROSS: Oh, no. Really?

JACKSON: Yeah. She was a high school basketball player and a letter winner. And I often wore her sweater when I was a little kid, you know. And she liked to come out and shoot hoops.

And there was some competitive, a great competitive level that she had. And so basketball was really kind of an accepted format in our family as a game, although I liked all the sports, football and baseball, too.

But as long as it didn't interfere with church it was OK. And we had Friday night meetings in our church. And my brother, who was an older athlete, six years older than I was, was not allowed to participate in athletics because they had Friday night games in the high school basketball team. So, that was a real conflict.

When we moved to a new church out of the state of Montana to the state of North Dakota, they didn't have those Friday night services, they had Wednesday and Thursday night church services to go along with their Sunday services. And so the Friday and Saturday ball games did not interfere, and it was OK. And so I was fortunate.

GROSS: Did you ever go wild after leaving the more regimented life of your parents?

JACKSON: No. I don't think in that regard never went wild. I did explore and was, I think, a person that liked to try different experiences. But I'm not one that went wild.

GROSS: Phil Jackson is the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Our interview was recorded last September. We'll hear more of it in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of our interview with Phil Jackson, head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

Tonight the Bulls meet the Utah Jazz in game six of the NBA playoffs. Our interview with Phil Jackson was recorded last September just before his memoir, "Sacred Hoops," was published in paperback.

I want to paraphrase something that Dennis Rodman says in his bestselling book. He says, you know, in the NBA, off the court 50 percent of life is sex and the other 50 percent is money.

How do you deal with watching some of your players get really caught up in that off-the-court life of sex and money? You come from a much more, from a very disciplined background, and you're very disciplined as a coach as well. You have a spiritual side to help you and to fall back on.

So, what do you -- do you, do you take a part in their private lives off the court, the part that might have to do with the sex and money?

JACKSON: Well, you know, that's a, that's right there. That's a level sometimes of some of the people that, you know, have to live in this world of athletics. It is, and most people assume that that's really where athletics lives at, that level. But that's not so. I think athletics lives at all those levels, from the conscious to the, you know, the very mundane and the very earthy areas of our, of our psyche.

And, you know, from this standpoint, I'm able to do some things that are kind of fun with the team, you know.

There's this kind of a collection of people that know that I give books out to the ballplayers. And we have a long road trip at the early part of the season after usually a week into the year, in November, we usually take off on the road trip for two weeks. Covers Thanksgiving.

And during this period of time I give them books in which, you know, I make a little attempt to try and, you know, move them along on this path, you know.

And one of the things I picked up from one of my teammates, Senator Bill Bradley, was that, you know, there's -- people want to move up. People want to be more conscious.

And, you know, just from my association with him and, you know, maybe going to art museums here, some things that, you know, I wasn't really associated with when I was a young man and learning, you know, some kind of things that were culture or taste oriented. I found myself intrigued by them.

And I feel that other players, and professional players particularly, want to improve their life, they want to be educated. They go to college. A lot of them don't get through college. Some of them still want that education even when they come to the NBA. I like to help push that along or move that in a direction they like to go.

GROSS: Could you mention any of the books that you've given out?

JACKSON: Well, you know, one of the players I gave "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" to was John Paxson, one of our great players in the past. And at the other end of the spectrum, you know, I gave "Beavis and Butthead" to, you know, Stacey King, who loves cartoons and loves television.

GROSS: Have you had to deal with players who grew up poor and now have big money and don't necessarily know how to handle it?

JACKSON: Oh, of course. I mean, you know, that's quite obvious that the younger players in our league, regardless, you know, have never had this kind of money and no one would, regardless of whether you've grown up in an affluent family or not, suddenly have three, four, five hundred thousand, a million dollars at your disposal is, you know, ridiculous to think about.

So, there's a process that goes through the NBA of young players come out of college. In the first year they buy their toys. In the second year they buy their cars. And in the third year they're, you know, they're doing other things with their money.

And it usually takes a two- or three-year period of time for these players to realize that all the material growth and wealth and everything else that they have has not brought them any happiness. It's brought them diversion and it's brought them some, you know, comfort, but it really hasn't brought them the kind of happiness.

And they're starting to get back and think about the fact that, hey, you know, this is a career. I better be a professional. And all this has just made me want maybe to explore life a little bit deeper.

And so, I think that there's an awareness level that comes to players at 26, 27, when they come to the NBA. And that's one of the reasons why we're, we're happy to have the oldest team in the NBA and not the youngest.

GROSS: Well, there's a downside, of course, to the oldest team, which is that the body's a little less flexible, people start performing at a little less than their peak. How are you dealing with that?

And members of your team are now a year older than they were last year.

JACKSON: Yeah. No, that's a good question because that's the, that's our opponent. Our enemy is ourself really, and if we can prepare ourselves for that we'll be fine.

We do have a great program in weights and conditioning. And we dedicate a part of our practice to that. It's not just banging heads and running up and down the court and shooting jump shots. A lot of it is physically keeping ourselves prepared and ready, with massage therapist, with, you know, with stretching, with weights and conditioning. We really put a lot of energy into the maintenance. Nutrition. Those type of things.

And then, I'm a, I'm a coach that has, instead of two-a-day practices like a lot of training camps open, with practice both in the morning and the evening, and the guys run four, five hours a day, we have one practice. And that one practice, even in itself, is still only, you know, a couple hours long.

So, it's not a teaching new tricks to old dogs, it's a fact of let's maintain this body and what we have and bring it along to a point where we can sustain it.

GROSS: Phil Jackson, thank you so much for talking with us.

JACKSON: It's been my pleasure, Terry. I've listened to so many programs it's really been a pleasure to be part of one.

GROSS: Phil Jackson is the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. If the Bulls win tonight it will be their fifth championship in seven years. Our interview was recorded last September.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Phil Jackson
High: Head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson. Jackson played for eleven years with the New York Knicks, worked as a television color commentator, and coached minor-league for four years, before becoming the head coach of the Bulls who led them through three consecutive NBA championships with a unique coaching style. The team is currently in the NBA playoffs. He pulled together a winning team of star players Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman. In his book, "Sacred Hoops" (Hyperion) JACKSON shares the ways in which he seeks to transform the every-man-for-himself professional play of three of the world's best basketball players into selfless team play.
Spec: Basketball; NBA; Phil Jackson; Chicago Bulls; Coaching; Sports; Michael Jordan; Dennis Rodman; Zen Buddhism; Christianity
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Phil Jackson
Show: FRESH AIRs
Date: JUNE 12, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 061302NP.217
Type: REVIEW
Head: Fonda's Gold
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: "Ulee's Gold" is a new film by Victor Nunez, starring Peter Fonda. It was a surprise hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival where audiences were wowed by Fonda's performance.

Our film critic John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Like most people, I got my first strong impression of Peter Fonda from "Easy Rider."

There's a scene in that movie when the two drug-lugging bikers, played by Fonda and Dennis Hopper, spend a night at a hippie commune. As they leave the next day, Fonda turns to the commune leader and solemnly says, "You're doing your own thing in your own time, man. You should be proud."

It was this kind of line, fatuous and flatly delivered, that fixed Fonda's image in the public mind.

Seemingly caught in a counter-culture time warp, he spent years being the third most famous member of his family -- then slipped to fourth when his daughter Bridget hit the screen.

Yet American life is filled with comebacks, and Fonda has his in Ulee's Gold, a fine new movie that is itself about a kind of redemption.

He plays Ulee Jackson, a beekeeper in the Florida Panhandle who believes in living one's life as one makes honey: slowly and carefully, according to time-honored rules.

But modern life has a way of breaking the rules, and Ulee is forced to raise his grandchildren because his son's in prison and his daughter-in-law is hooked on drugs.

In fact, Ulee isn't much of a father or grandfather. Righteous. Emotionally remote. His pace as slow as a sleepwalker's.

He's most concerned with harvesting his Tupelo honey, who's incomparable mellifluousness was immortalized by a Van Morrison song.

But when the family is threatened by two small-time crooks, Ulee is forced to come back to life. He rediscovers the survival skills he picked up in Vietnam. And more important, he begins to open up to those around him.

This is something he's always found hard to do, as you can hear in this scene when his granddaughter asks him about a photo of his old platoon.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF "ULEE'S GOLD")

INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC IN BACKGROUND

ACTRESS, PENNY: And they're all dead? Every last one? Except for you, all dead?

PETER FONDA, ACTOR: That's right.

ACTRESS: Had they been bad? Did they deserve to die?

FONDA: No. No, Penny, they did not.

ACTRESS: Why then?

FONDA: Those were good guys. Your grandpa was tricky, and lucky. That's why I made it out.

POWERS: Ulee's Gold was written and directed by Victor Nunez, who's best known for "Gal Young 'Un" and "Ruby in Paradise."

Working out of Florida, Nunez is one of the rare American filmmakers who doesn't love ordinary people in the abstract, but actually feels genuine reverence for the rhythms and rituals of their lives.

Nunez's movies tend to be slow, partly because he lacks the flair for lyricism, but mainly because he believes in stillness. He finds a profound truth in the methodical way that Ulee dons his beekeeper's mask, carefully removes the special honeycomb trays, and then takes the honey home to be heated and jarred.

In fact, the movie's action is built around the contrast between the steady, Zen-like concentration of the beekeeper's craft and the screeching brutality of modern America with its drugs, guns, and rampant irresponsibility.

It's as if Nunez were contrasting the way he, himself, makes movies, patiently, lovingly, and his concern for humane values, with the loud, ultra-violent impersonality of Hollywood. He's the filmmaker as beekeeper.

This theme might strike us as self-congratulatory were it not for the majestic performance by Fonda who here finds the role of a lifetime.

Fonda has always been a lagging, drawling, low energy actor. But for once, these qualities work for him. And because we can see time's handwriting upon him -- his hair going gray, his handsomeness weathered, his lankiness slightly rickety -- they take on a new and moving resonance.

Fonda has said that playing this role has helped him finally make peace with his father Henry, a cold patriarch whose silent self-righteousness he always found crushing.

Quiet and virile, but tinged with a grief that can never quite be spoken or healed, Fonda's Ulee is an uneasy rider who does make us think of his father, as well as the aging Clint Eastwood.

It's a delectable irony that an actor who made his name as an icon of '60s rebellion should become, in the '90s, a far more convincing symbol of old fashioned integrity.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Film critic John Powers reviews "Ulee's Gold" starring Peter Fonda.
Spec: Movie Industry; "Ulee's Gold"; Peter Fonda; Victor Nunez
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Fonda's Gold
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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