DATE October 1, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Steve Martin on his new book "The Pleasure of My
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our guest is the great actor and comic
Steve Martin, the star of such films as "The Jerk," "All of Me," "Roxanne,"
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Parenthood," "LA Story," "Father of the Bride,"
"The Spanish Prisoner," "Bowfinger" and "Bringing Down the House." Steve
Martin also has established himself as a novelist and playwright. "Shopgirl,"
the novel he published three years ago, was a best-seller. He's now adapting
it into a film. Martin's most recent novel, called "The Pleasure of My
Company," is coming out in paperback next week. If you're thinking it's a
wild-and-crazy-guy kind of story, it's not, but it is witty. It's about
Daniel Pecan Cambridge, a man who has so many neurotic fears and compulsions,
he seldom dares to leave his Santa Monica apartment. Terry spoke with Steve
Martin last year about the "The Pleasure of My Company." She asked him to
start with a reading.
Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Actor/Comedian/Writer): This all started because of a
clerical error. Without the clerical error, I wouldn't have been thinking
this way at all. I wouldn't have had time. I would have been too preoccupied
with my new friends I was planning to make at Mensa, the international society
of geniuses. I had taken their IQ test, but my score came back missing a
digit. Where was the 1 that should have been in front of the 90? I fell
short of the genius category by a full 50 points, barely enough to qualify me
to sharpen their pencils. Thus I was rejected from membership and facing a
hopeless pile of red tape to correct the mistake.
Santa Monica, California, where I live, is a perfect town for invalids,
homosexuals, show people and all other formally peripheral members of society.
Average is not the norm here. Here, if you're visiting from Omaha, you stick
out like a senorita's ass as the Puerto Rican Day Parade. That's why, when I
saw a contest at the Rite Aid drugstore asking for a two-page essay on why I
am the most average American, I marveled that the promoters actually thought
they might find an average American at this nuthouse by the beach.
This cardboard stand carried an ad by its sponsor, Tepperton's(ph) Frozen
Apple Pies. I grabbed an entry form and, as I hurried home, began composing
the essay in my head. The challenge was not to present myself as average but
how to make myself likable without lying. I think I'm appealing, but
likability in an essay is very different from likability in life. See, I tend
to grow on people, and 500 words is just not enough to get someone to like me.
I need several years and a ream or two of paper. I knew I had to flatter,
overdo and lay it on thick in order to speed up my likability time frame, so I
would not like the sniveling patriotic me who wrote my 500 words. I would
like a girl with dark roots peeking out through the peroxide who was laughing
so hard that Coca-Cola was coming out of her nose, and I guess you would, too.
But Miss Coca-Cola Nose wouldn't be writing this essay in her Coca-Cola
persona. She would straighten up, fix her hair, snap her panties out of her
ass and start typing.
`I am average, because,' I wrote, `I stand on the seashore here in Santa
Monica and let the Pacific Ocean touch my toes, and I know I am at the most
western edge of our nation and that I am a descendent of the settlers who came
to California as pioneers. And is not every American a pioneer? Does this
spirit not reside in each one of us in every city, in every heart, on every
rural road, in every traveler in every Winnebago, in every American living in
every mansion or slum? I am average,' I wrote, `because the cry of
individuality flows confidently through my blood with little attention drawn
to itself, like the still power of an apple pie sitting in an open window to
I hope the Mensa people never see this essay, not because it reeks of my
manipulation of a poor company just trying to sell pies, but because, during
the 24 hours it took me to write it, I believed so fervently in its every
GROSS: Thank you. That's Steve Martin reading from his new novel, "The
Pleasure of My Company."
Well, your character, although he's writing this essay on why he's the most
average American, is very not average, wouldn't you say?
Mr. MARTIN: Very not. He's a young man in his early 30s. He's unclear in
the book about his real age, which he doesn't reveal until the last couple of
pages for a reason you'll find out later. And he's isolated. He's kind of a
benign neurotic. He has certain rituals. He can't cross the street at the
curb. He has to find two opposing scooped-out driveways. He has to keep the
wattage in his apartment constant at 1,125 watts. For example, if he turns
out a light in his bedroom, he must turn on a light in the living room or
kitchen, and it's only a three-room house. And this is a story of how his
life opens up, finally opens up as he describes himself, that he has narrowed
his life down to keep everything out. In fact, his stated goal was to have so
many rules and conditions that he could control everything that was coming
into him, and then he would slowly open the doors one at a time.
GROSS: Now your character wants to get into Mensa, and he thinks they made
some kind of clerical error in leaving off the number 1 before his 90.
Mr. MARTIN: Right.
GROSS: You also wrote a piece for The New Yorker about Mensa.
Mr. MARTIN: Yes. As I say, there was precursors to this.
GROSS: Right, right.
Mr. MARTIN: And I think that I needed to start that way in order to kind of
go back to that essay, revisit that character in my head and kick it off from
where I left it off before.
GROSS: What does Mensa mean to you? I mean, it's this group of people with
high IQs who get together.
Mr. MARTIN: Right. I always saw it in this way. OK, well, you might have a
high IQ, but what have you done lately? And I think the real stroke of genius
is in what you do and not in some score. So I looked at it a little bit
cynically. I have no, you know, cynicism toward any Mensa member, but it was
just a way I looked at the world, that accomplishments are what matters and
GROSS: I'd be interested in hearing why you want your writing to be writing
for the page as opposed to writing for the screen.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I started writing in 19--probably--60--What?--'5 when I
wrote little essays in college that later became a book I published called
"Cruel Shoes." And then I was writing for my comedy act throughout the '60s
and '70s. And then in the late '70s, I started writing screenplays,
co-writing them with, you know, other writers, "The Jerk" and "Dead Men Don't
Wear Plaid" and "The Man With Two Brains."
GROSS: Of course, right. Right.
Mr. MARTIN: And then in the mid-'80s, I started writing solo screenplays;
"Roxanne" and "L.A. Story" and "Simple Twist of Fate." And then--I really
have written a lot of screenplays, "Bowfinger," too.
And then in the early '90s, I really got a call from The New York Times asking
me to write something on this--there was a discovery of a Michelangelo statue
here in New York City. So I wrote a little parody of that and went into The
New Yorker ultimately. Actually, the truth is, I really enjoy writing for the
page because it's an utterly different thing. You know, screenplay is
description and dialogue.
Mr. MARTIN: And a book is really about sentences and paragraphs and their
structure and their rhythm and the use of words, the exact, precise use of
words. You know, a screenplay can be--you know, I remember one year, I, you
know, saw a little list in a magazine of the, you know, best lines from the
movies this year. And they were all, like, `Come on, let's get out of here.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: The catch phrases.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, it's just a very different--what
your best line in a movie is is very different from a best line in a book. So
it's a completely different enterprise.
GROSS: You know, as an actor, particularly early in your career, your persona
was usually very extraverted. As a writer, like, your two novels are about
really introverted characters, and I think that's an interesting contrast.
Mr. MARTIN: Right. Well, I think actually that without, you know, being too
boring, analyzing my sort of stage act, that character--sorry to talk about
that in that way, but he was a bit crazy. He was a little--I was, on stage,
very similar to this character. Really, it's like, on stage, I was really
just expressing a perverse thought on the way the world worked. And I
remember this one bit I did was that I was so mad at my mother--I used to
scream it, of course--because she wanted to borrow $10 for some food. And you
know, there's just some kind of link here between this character, who just
sees things in the odd, odd way.
GROSS: All writers talk about, you know, facing the blank page and so on, but
it really is true that the difference between being an actor and being on the
set and being--you know, working with other people is so different than
staying at home and writing.
Mr. MARTIN: Right. You bet.
GROSS: Do you like that? Do you like that more isolated process of writing?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, they complement each other so well, because, like
you say, movies are active and social and physical, and writing is solitary
and personal. And I never wanted to be an actor who sat home and waited for
scripts to come through the door. I mean, that would drive me insane, waiting
and hoping. And so I always wrote. I always did comedy, and I just like the
activity of it, you know. I just find that when I'm idle, which I always
enjoy, I always find that something comes up. Something pops up, so I'll get
out the computer and start typing. You know, having the working...
GROSS: Did you think you approach writing with a different personality than
the one you approach acting with?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I would have to say yes, because, you know, it's just so
different. They are completely different. But I really think that my acting
has influenced my writing, because as an actor, you finally, as you get a
little better at it, you realize you're observing character. And you realize
that it's the details that make character. It's the little tiny actions. And
so in writing, I think I realize, or at least I like to pick up those details
that determine character.
GROSS: And those are the same kinds of things you have to pick up when you're
acting, too, aren't they? I mean, you're not describing them.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, absolutely. That's what I'm saying.
GROSS: You're doing them, yeah. Yeah.
Mr. MARTIN: Right. It's from acting, but the strange thing about acting is,
it's also what you don't do. I mean, it's almost a thought process in your
head that is so expressive. So the more you can detail it in your mind, and
without, you know, what we call in acting indicating an emotion--I remember
once, the director, Herb Ross, he was mad at an actress. And I said, `What's
the matter?' He said, `Well, she supposed to be mad. She's supposed to be
mad.' And I said, `Well, she's yelling.' He says, `Yes, but anger has a
thousand faces,' and I always remembered that. It's, like, `Oh, yeah.' Some
of the angriest moments I've ever felt are when I did nothing or said nothing
and expressed nothing.
Mr. MARTIN: So there's always those choices in behavior.
GROSS: Steve Martin is my guest, and he has a new novel called "The Pleasure
of My Company."
You know, I think it's hard when you're so accomplished at something to try
something that you're new to, as you were new to writing novels.
Mr. MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yes.
GROSS: And, you know, when you're at the top of your profession in one thing
and then you're brand-new to something else, you can fail. You can be flawed,
and you can be very insecure. You have no track record. So did starting to
write bring out insecurities that you weren't used to? Because...
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Mr. MARTIN: But there's a trick when you first start writing, is that...
GROSS: Teach it to me, please.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, you don't have to show it to anybody.
Mr. MARTIN: When you're sitting there alone, and you haven't, you know, made
a deal with somebody to deliver a book, you're really on your own. And it's
like putting your toe in the water. You can have written something, and then
you give it to a friend, or you ask someone's opinion. So you always fool
yourself, because--you know, the reason I say you fool yourself, ultimately,
you do want it to be out there, but you fool yourself by saying, `It doesn't
matter. It can be lousy. No one will ever see it if it's lousy.' And, of
course, they do see it, and sometimes it's lousy.
GROSS: So you would agree that self-delusion is an important part of writing.
Mr. MARTIN: Very, very important. I really do. I think it is. Like, I
remember the first night I previewed my play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," I
had never written a play. I had written screenplays. But I was in Melbourne,
Australia, and now it's 10 minutes before curtain, and all I could think is,
`What have I done?' I didn't know if there was going to be a laugh, you know,
anything. It could have been so humiliating. But then only, you know, 40
people would have seen it, and I could have gone home with my tail between my
legs. But I just like to add that I really don't have a tail. It's just a
figure of speech.
BIANCULLI: Steve Martin, speaking last year with Terry Gross. His novel,
"The Pleasure of My Company," is coming out in paperback next week. More
after the break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Steve Martin about his
novel, "The Pleasure of My Company." The paperback comes out next week.
GROSS: Do you write many drafts before publishing?
Mr. MARTIN: What I do is I write without inhibiting myself, and then I
will--draft is not quite the right word in my head. I go through, and I start
editing. I start reading it, and I start reading it over and over and over,
which can get very tiresome, so sometimes I'll put it down for three months,
come back, read it again. Then I'll read it aloud to myself. And then I'll
read it to my dog. And I find that reading it makes you catch every word.
And to me, every word is important, because I'm a reader who gets bored
quickly, so I need to have these sentences on the move and be interesting all
the time. So I try to catch everything.
GROSS: Is your dog helpful when you're reading to him?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, he's my audience. I'm not looking for his response.
GROSS: You just need somebody to read to?
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
GROSS: Did you feel an obligation to be funny when you started writing,
'cause that's what people expect of you?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, no, because the first book, "Shopgirl," although it has
funny moments, I wouldn't call it a funny book.
Mr. MARTIN: But in "Pleasure of My Company," I actually wanted the book to be
funny, and I knew that I had a character who could be funny. And, you know,
whenever you start, whenever I start even a New Yorker essay, I have the idea,
I think, `OK, what is the potential of this?' I have no idea what the
individual bits will be or moments or anything, but does it seem rich or does
it seem I'm going to run out of steam in a couple of paragraphs? And I felt
with this character, he could really keep going. And it's a cliche to talk
about the discovery of character as you keep writing, but I found that my mind
retains little details of things I've written 40 or 50 pages ago. And so
something that you wrote that was very, very casual, a little aside, a little
something he did comes back at a certain moment, and it becomes big, because
now this tiny little thing impacts something else. And it's like weaving a
web or weaving something else, a caftan, I don't know which I'm weaving. But
that's what I really like, is where the details start to add up.
GROSS: Well, you know, you've had your success in the book world and the film
world, and you've been on the best-seller lists, and you're probably the only
person to have hosted both the Academy Awards and the National Book Awards?
Mr. MARTIN: I guess I am.
GROSS: Yeah, I think so.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. I'll have to stop any Oscar hosts from hosting the
National Book Awards, so I can keep my uniqueness.
GROSS: So, I mean, I think that would probably give you a good seat as to
some of the differences between the two worlds, the film world and the book
Mr. MARTIN: Well, the differences--you know, the book world is much, much
slower than the film world. I mean, the film world is so oriented to
promotion and getting the word out in certain ways, getting the word out in
very vibrant ways and very specific soundbite ways. And, for example, I mean,
here I am talking to you for 40 minutes about my book. This would never
happen about a film, I mean, in terms of the way a film is generally promoted.
But it's the way books are promoted. They're talked about in depth, in much
slower, slower ways.
GROSS: Well, and the numbers are so much smaller, too, aren't they?
Mr. MARTIN: Right, right.
GROSS: Like a best-selling book probably doesn't come close to the ticket
sales of a mediocre-selling movie.
Mr. MARTIN: Probably, yeah. But you know what I found is that when I started
writing for The New Yorker, I noticed I got more reaction from one essay--and
I'm talking about actual reaction that I could feel, I mean people saying
things--than I did for movies. Like entire movies that cost millions and
millions of dollars to come out, and I would hear, you know, very little, or
somebody would say, `Nice movie,' or something. But these essays, they
started to--I guess because they're so intimate with the reader, they're so
intimately involved, that it stays with them longer. You know, a movie,
sometimes I walk out, I've forgotten it, you know, as I'm exiting the lobby.
BIANCULLI: Steve Martin, speaking with Terry Gross last year. His novel,
"The Pleasure of My Company," will be released next week in paperback.
Here's Steve Martin trying to impress the audience from 1978 comedy album, "A
Wild and Crazy Guy."
(Soundbite from "A Wild and Crazy Guy")
Mr. MARTIN: Hey, I'm not trying to be a big shot or anything like that, but
get my drinks half price. That's right. For every one you buy, I get two.
So I can just have about as much as I want, you know what I mean? And it
doesn't affect me.
(Soundbite of Martin falling)
Mr. MARTIN: No, I'm not on the step. OK. I have had a lot of fun since I've
been here. I do like coming to San Francisco because it is an intellectual
town, and that's kind of what I'm into, the intellectual kind of thing. And I
had a good time since I've been here. I know that sounds phony, 'cause every
entertainer comes out, and no matter where they are, they go, `Hey, it's
really great to be here!' It really sounds fake, but I am sincere when I say,
`Hey, it's really great to be here!'
BIANCULLI: Coming up, James Earl Jones. When he played the voice of Darth
Vader, he had no idea how big the "Star Wars" films would become or what it
would do for his career. There's a new DVD box set of the "Star Wars"
trilogy. Also, reviews of the new ABC series "Desperate Housewives" and the
film "The Motorcycle Diaries."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New TV show "Desperate Housewives"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily News,
sitting in for Terry Gross. And since I'm sitting here, let's talk some
(Soundbite of "Desperate Housewives")
Ms. BRENDA STRONG: (As Mary Alice Young) My name is Mary Alice Young. When
you read this morning's paper, you may come across an article about the
unusual day I had last week. Normally there's never anything newsworthy about
my life, but that all changed last Thursday. Of course...
BIANCULLI: That's the opening of "Desperate Housewives," the new ABC series
premiering this Sunday. What changed in Mary Alice's life that day is that it
ended. She killed herself, and no one else in the neighborhood knows why,
even though everyone in every home harbors at least one juicy secret. And
just because Mary Alice, played by Brenda Strong, dies in the opening scene,
that doesn't keep her from narrating the rest of the story. She's looking at
her neighborhood now from a distant, somewhat amused vantage point, and so are
"Desperate Housewives" is an hourlong soap opera that's heavy on the dark
comedy but is filled with lots of characters you can relate to as well as
laugh at. It's the best show of the new season and one of the most original.
It's also got one of the strongest and most unusual casts around. "Desperate
Housewives," created by Marc Cherry, is headlined not by one female star or
two but five. Most have starred in their own TV shows before and they all
deserve equal billing on this one. Listen to this lineup. Felicity Huffman,
who was so great in "Sportsnite," plays Lynette, a former corporate executive
who traded that life to have kids--four of them in three years. She's the
walking definition of frazzled. Terri Hatcher, who humanized Lois Lane in
"Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," plays Susan, a suddenly
single mother coping with being unexpectedly dumped by her husband for a
younger woman. Nicolette Sheridan, a veteran vixen from "Knot's Landing,"
plays Edie, the neighborhood sex symbol and sexual predator. Eva Longoria,
who's coming to prime-time from "The Young and the Restless," plays Gabrielle,
an ex-model trophy wife with a taste for vengeful affairs. And Marcia Cross,
who is so deliciously twisted in "Melrose Place," plays Bree, a Martha Stewart
type whose outer perfection masks some inner turmoil.
Like the other women on Wisteria Lane, Bree reacts to her friend's suicide by
showing up at the wake bearing comfort food for the new widower, Paul, played
by Mark Moses. Brenda Strong, from her heavenly perspective as Mary Alice,
describes the scene.
(Soundbite of "Desperate Housewives")
Ms. STRONG: (As Mary Alice Young) Bree Van De Kamp, who lives next door,
brought baskets of muffins she baked from scratch. Bree was known for her
cooking and for making her own clothes and for doing her own gardening and for
re-upholstering her own furniture. Yes, Bree's many talents were known
throughout the neighborhood, and everyone on Wisteria Lane thought of Bree as
the perfect wife and mother; everyone that is except her own family.
Ms. MARCIA CROSS: (As Bree) Paul, Zachary.
Mr. CODY KASCH: (As Zachary) Hello, Ms. Van De Kamp.
Mr. MARK MOSES: (As Paul) Bree, you shouldn't have gone to all this trouble.
Ms. CROSS: (As Bree) It was no trouble at all. Now the basket with the red
ribbon is filled with desserts for your guests, but the one with the blue
ribbon is just for you and Zachary. It's got rolls, muffins, breakfast type
Mr. MOSES: (As Paul) Thank you.
Ms. CROSS: (As Bree) Well, the least I could do is make sure you boys had a
decent meal to look forward to in the morning. I know you're out of your
minds with grief.
Mr. MOSES: (As Paul) Yes, we are.
Ms. CROSS: (As Bree) Of course, I will need the baskets back once you're
Mr. MOSES: (As Paul) Of course.
BIANCULLI: Every one of these women has at least one wonderful scene in the
pilot. Some are steamy, some are funny, some are even poignant, but
"Desperate Housewives" most of all is a flat-out wry comedy served up in a
one-hour dose, with no laugh track, lots of intelligence and with the goodwill
ensemble feel of a repertory theater company. These actresses all seem to
know they've been handed something terrific here and each one not only matches
the material but adds something to it. "Desperate Housewives" is a new show
you really shouldn't miss, and this fall, those kinds of shows are precious.
Watch "Desperate Housewives" on Sunday and be prepared to talk about it on
Monday. It has the smell, the home-baked yummy smell, of an instant hit.
Coming up, the voice of Darth Vader. James Earl Jones. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: James Earl Jones discusses his life and career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
James Earl Jones has a voice that conveys power and authority. He also tends
to lend that voice to projects that turn out to surf some of the biggest tidal
waves of the cultural zeitgeist.
(Soundbite of "Star Wars")
Mr. JAMES EARL JONES: (As Darth Vader) There is no escape. Don't make me
destroy you. You do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to
discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training. With our
combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring forward the
Mr. MARK HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) I'll never join you.
Mr. JONES (As Darth Vader) If you only knew the power of the dark side.
Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Mr. HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) He told me enough. He told me you killed
Mr. JONES: (As Darth Vader) No. I am your father.
Mr. HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) No. That's not true. That's impossible.
Mr. JONES: (As Darth Vader) Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
Mr. HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) No! No!
BIANCULLI: Jones was the ominous and evil voice of Darth Vader in the "Star
Wars" movies. The "Star Wars Trilogy" has just been released on DVD. This
year Jones also provides one of the voices in "The SpongeBob SquarePants
Movie." Yet in his memoir, called "Voices and Silences," James Earl Jones
talked about all the trouble his voice has caused him. In the book, he writes
about his personal life and his varied and distinguished career: on stage, in
such plays as "The Blacks," "The Blood Knot," "The Great White Hope,"
"Othello" and "Fences"; in films such as "Field of Dreams," "Coming to
America" and Sommersby"; and on TV, including the miniseries "Roots: The Next
Generation" and his own series "Gabriel's Fire" and "Paris."
Jones grew up in rural Mississippi. His family moved to Michigan when he was
still a boy. In retrospect, he credits this uprooting with causing his
stuttering. As a child, the stutter was very bad. In fact, there was a
period between the ages of six and 14 when he barely spoke at all. Terry
talked with James Earl Jones in 1993.
Mr. JONES: I did the basics. I was able to function as a farm kid, did all
those chores where you call animals. You had ...(unintelligible). I think I
had my best conversations with a dog, who was a good friend of mine and didn't
challenge me in any way. And I certainly let the family know what my needs
were, but when strangers came to the house, the mute happened. I didn't want
to confront them and I wasn't ready. I hid in the state of muteness.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Why--I mean, did you not want to speak or did you feel physically unable to do
Mr. JONES: It was just too embarrassing and too difficult.
GROSS: Because of your stutter?
Mr. JONES: Yeah. Yeah. There's some serious framework around the problem
of stuttering but at the same time, although it is totally incorrect for me to
say this--politically incorrect--stutterers are very funny. I mean, when I
evoked laughter in the Sunday school class from the kids behind me because I
stuttered, I understood that. I understand how funny it is, but it's also
very painful, you know.
GROSS: Can you tell us the story of how you started speaking again?
Mr. JONES: Donald Crouch was an associate of...
GROSS: Donald Crouch was your teacher?
Mr. JONES: Yeah--Robert Frost. He was a college professor, but he ended up
in this high school because he retired. He was a Mennonite farmer and he
retired to his farm in Brethren, Michigan, and the idea that there were kids
down the road at this high school who were studying Chaucer and Shakespeare
and stuff, he couldn't stand it so he came back and taught high school, you
know. And he was the first English teacher I had--now see, I'm stuttering
again. He was the first English teacher I had and he accepted that I
didn't--I wasn't verbal. That I wasn't wasn't oral. But he didn't like the
idea that I could privately subjectively enjoy poetry and not sound it out
loud. He one day discovered that I wrote poetry and he said to me, `This poem
is so good, I don't think you really wrote it. I think you plagiarized it,'
which was a shock to me. And I could admit that it was Longfellowesque, but
it was not certainly stolen from Longfellow. And he said, `The way you can
prove it to me that you wrote it was to get in front of the class and recite
it by heart.' And I accepted the challenge and did it and we both realized
then we had a means, we had a way of regaining the power of speech through
GROSS: What was it about having words written down for you that made it
easier for you to speak?
Mr. JONES: Not that they're written down but that they're rhythmic. I think
you'll find many stutterers today--I'm trying to think of the country western
singer who was a stutterer but does not stutter when he sings--but there are
many, many cases like--Mel Tillis, thank you. Thank you, Mel Tillis. And
there are many cases like that, actors, singers who don't have their problem
when they are performing. Walk off stage and you can't understand a word
they're saying. It is--has to do with the rhythm. Rhythm carries us through.
It does not--it smooths out those areas that allow the logjamming and the
stuttering to be triggered.
GROSS: So how--does the stutter come back very much for you?
Mr. JONES: You've heard it several times now. It's always with me, you know,
and I have to be careful not to talk too fast. It certainly becomes a problem
whenever I do something emotional, whether in real life or as an actor. I
give an emotional speech, whether it's positive emotional or negative, joy or
pain, and that often leads to overload and I have to be very careful. There
was a time when my acting was affected by the thing. Gladys Vaughan was the
first to notice that. She said, `When you get emotional, when your Othello,
for instance, gets emotional, I sometimes believe you less,' and it's because
I'm being too careful. You can't measure out emotion. It has a flow.
GROSS: Could you give us a sense of the kinds of exercises or the type of
training that you had that helped you find the power in your voice, because
you have a very powerful voice.
Mr. JONES: Oh, the exercises were--I got to move back a bit.
Mr. JONES: Sooey, pig, pig, pig. Hog calling, cattle calling.
GROSS: That's something you did on a farm without having to go to voice...
Mr. JONES: My dad always said that the reason he became an actor was because,
even in grade school--and he didn't have a whole lot of it--but even in grade
school, he was the loudest kid in class.
GROSS: From calling the animals.
Mr. JONES: So he was destined to be an actor. And that's kind of true,
though. Farm kids are never told, `Hush, you'll wake the neighbors.' Farm
kids are told, `Use your voice to get those cows in here.'
GROSS: So you think you developed that power on the farm long before acting
Mr. JONES: Yeah. And also--it is also genetic. I inherited whatever
resonating chambers my father possesses. They're not too dissimilar from Paul
Robeson and another actor of my generation, Geoffrey Holder. So when the
Darth Vader voice became a mystery, as many people thought it was Geoffrey
Holder as who thought it was me. And that has to do with just how the voice
is produced, you know; how it, you know...
GROSS: How it resonates in the head and everything, yeah.
Mr. JONES: Yeah, in the head and in the body. Yeah.
GROSS: In your memoir, "Voices and Silences," you devote a total of about a
paragraph to "Star Wars," to your voice as Darth Vader, and I get the
impression that it's not something you really want to call that much attention
Mr. JONES: Are you kidding? Not true. It's just that I have very little to
Mr. JONES: Had I been one of the actors and given points, I would not only
be wealthy, I'd be probably much better known.
GROSS: You got a flat fee?
Mr. JONES: Oh, yeah. I think George Lucas, first of all, realized
he--although David Prowse was the actor he wanted, it was not the sound he
wanted, so he searched around for a technically and symbolically a darker
voice. He eventually came to me and said to Lucy, `Would Jimmy like to earn a
day's salary?' The job took two and a half hours. They paid me all of
$9,000, which was not bad for two and a half hours' work.
Mr. JONES: None of us knew what we had, you know.
Mr. JONES: And that was fine. Almost, not out of embarrassment, but out
of his traditionally--his non-traditional traditional capitalism or lack of
capitalism, George gave me a Christmas bonus that amounted to the same amount
of money. But I was just acting as special effects. That's all that was. At
the same time I was--having done "The Great White Hope" film, I'd become a
member of the board of directors of the Oscar board--you know, the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences--at a time when the controversy over whether
Mercedes McCambridge deserved credit for her contributions to Linda Blair's
voice as the devil coming out...
GROSS: In "The Exorcist."
Mr. JONES: Yeah, in "The Exorcist." And I thought that was a silly argument;
that I said to myself, all Mercedes is is special effects. And I wanted to
keep that clear in my case, so I didn't even take credit for the voice of
GROSS: Forgive me. I know it's a small part of your career, but I have to
ask you about the CNN voice. The first time someone said to me, `You know, I
think that's James Earl Jones,' I said, `Nah,' you know. ...(Unintelligible).
Of course, everybody knows this now, that you do the voice of CNN. Why did
you decide to take that on when you were offered it?
Mr. JONES: Oh, you asked me what has the "Star Wars" involvement meant to
me. What it did, it made my voice--What do you call it?--viable in the
commercial world. But I don't know why really I avoided that great way to
make a living and great craft unto itself. But the "Star Wars" sort of put my
name on the A list, as they say out there, for authoritative voices.
GROSS: So your attitude was, `Why not take advantage of it.'
Mr. JONES: My attitude, yeah. Oh, exactly. Yeah. I mean, why kick
something that's going to sit on your lap out of the house. I think the first
commercials I did--I did one for Chrysler and one for Goodyear and one for
Fisher audio products, and they asked me to just give us the sound of God.
Goodyear Vector tires, you know. Let God sell Goodyear Vector tires.
GROSS: No problem.
Mr. JONES: They were not embarrassed about saying that.
GROSS: So do you have a voice of yours that you think of the voice of God?
Mr. JONES: No, no. It just--the sound is--let it go as bass as it can go and
still be clear.
Mr. JONES: And to sound like I mean it. There's not a product I've ever
promoted that I don't use, including Wells Lamont gloves, working man's
GROSS: And, of course, the Yellow Pages.
Mr. JONES: And Reuben's dinners out in--Rueben's chain of restaurants. Orson
Welles and Vincent Price and I were once asked to simply, on a recording, read
the menu with as much slobbering, lustful sounds as we could conjure. And we
got paid for it.
GROSS: One quick, very quick last question. Have you ever been in a kind of
difficult situation, either on the verge of being mugged or given a traffic
ticket that you didn't want to pay or something where you used your big,
authoritative voice to intimidate the other person?
Mr. JONES: The last time I was mugged it was multiple muggings because my
(unintelligible) St. Louis, Missouri, at the age of 14. I was mugged several
times one afternoon before I figured it out, what was going on. And in those
days, you didn't always get killed when you got mugged.
Mr. JONES: You got surrounded by a bunch of kids who said, `Give me your
money.' I said OK. Being a farm kid, why would you fight over some movie
change? The idea of fighting didn't occur to me, so therefore I was quite
safe. The only time I've used the voice, though, in my adult life was when I
got my first CB radio and I used the Darth Vader as my handle and panicked a
few people on a cross-country drive from New York to Los Angeles and I've not
done it since.
BIANCULLI: James Earl Jones speaking to Terry Gross in 1993. He'll provide
the voice of Darth Vader again in next year's "Star Wars: Episode III:
Revenge of the Sith," the final entry in the George Lucas space epic. And you
can hear James Earl Jones as Darth Vader now in the just-released DVD box set
of the first "Star Wars Trilogy."
Coming up, a review of the film "The Motorcycle Diaries." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New movie "The Motorcycle Diaries"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
"The Motorcycle Diaries" stars Gael Garcia Bernal, the young Mexican actor
from "Y Tu Mama Tambien," as the young Ernesto Guevara, before he became the
guerrilla leader known as Che. The film is based partly on Che's diaries,
which recount his momentous and consciousness-raising 8,000-mile journey
across South America as a 23-year-old medical student. Film critic David
Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
Robert Redford has done many heroic things for the independent film movement,
but as a filmmaker, his name stands for the blandest kind of humanism, liberal
and thrust, but that thrust could hardly dent a marshmallow. He's the
executive producer of "The Motorcycle Diaries" and here he is on why he picked
the Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles to direct. `I knew that Walter would
handle the story with lyricism and humanity,' he said, `rather than focusing
on the politics of who Ernesto would later become.'
The movie Salles made, from a script by Jose Rivera, is so awesomely beautiful
to look at, you want to sink to your knees. Salles and his friend,
cinematographer Eric Gautier, retrace much of the 1952 journey of Guevara and
his amigo Alberto Granado. Che, a medical student, is 23; Alberto, a
biochemist, 29. They're upper middle-class young men with a starry-eyed
notion of traversing South America on Alberto's ramshackle 13-year-old
motorcycle, which they nickname The Mighty One and which predictably sputters
to a halt at regular intervals. They travel from Argentina to Chile and into
the mountains of Peru, and these aren't picture postcard images. The camera
is both restless and contemplative. The cinematography somehow imbues the
landscape with the onlooker's thrill and spiritual hunger. You can almost
touch the huge clouds passing over the dark mountains and feel the icy
sharpness of the deep blue rivers.
"The Motorcycle Diaries" is transporting. And, yes, it's so lyrical that you
almost don't notice how stiff and programmatic it is and how undramatized.
The working poor shuffle on, photographed in the Walker Evans manner. And
excerpts from Che's actual diary inform us that their faces are tragic and
haunting and that time with them on a cold night makes him feel closer to the
In the supernally green Peruvian mountains, Che and Alberto come upon the
ruins of an Incan civilization, wiped out by the capitalist Spanish
conquerors. `How can we feel nostalgia for a civilization we never knew,'
wonders Che in voiceover. By now the friends are ennobled, although they try
to scam free lodging by posing as leprosy experts, they're soon doing actual
good works in a leper colony, defying the nuns, who insist on a strict
distance between caregiver and patient. His moment of epiphany is when the
asthmatic Che swims across a dangerous channel at night to share his 24th
birthday with the disenfranchised lepers. It's a rousing finish. Not for
nothing did the film win a much reported standing ovation at the Sundance Film
The director uses Gael Garcia Bernal as an object of frail beauty. He has
pillowy lips like Julia Roberts and a soft demeanor, his dreamy eyes fixed on
the horizon. He's a picture-perfect budding martyr but he hasn't been filled
in. Salles reportedly trimmed scenes of Che sharing a prostitute with Alberto
and having sex with a leper. This gorgeous movie is generic and sexless.
More important, it's incomplete.
Michael Almereyda, who did the modern "Hamlet" with Ethan Hawke, had a Che
script I read a few years ago. It was a romantic portrait too, of the same
period, but it ended not with Che bidding a tender farewell to Alberto but
with his decision to embrace violence and his first guerrilla kill. That
strikes me as a more honest and gutsy way to connect the dots. It wasn't
Che's awareness of historic injustice against the working class and the
indigenous peoples of both American continents that made him one of the most
galvanic figures of the 20th century. It was how he used that awareness to
transform himself into a romantic symbol of righteous violence, violence that
led to the overthrow of corrupt and murderous governments but also to wanton
executions and prison camps.
Turning the birth of Che the revolutionary into a story of lyricism and
humanity is to throw out the most fascinating and unique part of the story and
turn politics into middle-brow art movie myth.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is the film critic for the online magazine Slate.
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.