November 8, 2013
Guests: Margaret Talbot - Stephen Colbert
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. If you look up Lyle Talbot on IMDB, you'll find listings dozens of films and TV shows in which he appeared, starting with the 1931 short "The Nightingale" and ending with roles on TV's "Newhart" and "Who's the Boss?" Talbot made a movie with Bogart before Bogart was a star. He worked with a sexed-up Mae West and the child star Shirley Temple, and he was featured in the cheesy Ed Wood cult classics "Plan Nine from Outer Space" and "Glen or Glenda?"
He played Lex Luther in Superman serials and had a recurring role in ABC's "Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" as Ozzie's friend and neighbor Joe Randolph. Our first guest today is Lyle Talbot's daughter, Margaret Talbot. She's a staff writer for the New Yorker and has written a new book about her father called "The Entertainer" that's now out in paperback.
It's kind of a history of 20th-century entertainment as told through his life. Before he went to Hollywood, he was a carnival barker, a hypnotist's assistant and a performer in touring theater. Terry spoke with Margaret Talbot last year. Let's start with a scene from "Ozzie and Harriet." Margaret's father Lyle, playing the neighbor Joe, has just knocked on Ozzie's door.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OZZIE AND HARRIET")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
OZZIE NELSON: (As Ozzie) Oh hi, Joe.
LYLE TALBOT: (As Joe) Hi, Oz. Close the door, will you?
NELSON: (As Ozzie) What's the matter?
TALBOT: (As Joe) Clara's on her way over here, and there's something I want to talk to you about before she gets here.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) You have nothing to worry about. I solemnly swear that you were with me at the bowling alley until 12 o'clock last night.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Ozzie, I was home in bed.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) Oh I'm sorry, I can't swear to that.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Listen to me, please. Clara's liable to be here any minute.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) OK, what's your problem?
TALBOT: (As Joe) Well, I just thought you might want to have a little talk with Ricky and sort of put him on his guard.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) On his guard against what? What's this all about?
TALBOT: (As Joe) If you'll stop interrupting me and let me finish a sentence, maybe you'll find out.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) I'm not interrupting you. You say something and stop, and I figure it's my turn.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Well, she wants to arrange a date with Ricky.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) Ricky and Clara?
TALBOT: (As Joe) (Unintelligible).
NELSON: (As Ozzie) You say something ridiculous, and then you stop.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Well, only to catch my breath. Now where was I?
NELSON: (As Ozzie) Have you been drinking?
TALBOT: (As Joe) No, do you want to hear this, or don't you?
NELSON: (As Ozzie) Of course I do, but get to the point, something about Ricky and Clara.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Yeah, well, anyway, Clara has this niece who's coming down to visit us for a few days. You know how women are. She wants to arrange a date between Ricky and the girl. Her name's Shirley, maybe you remember her.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) Yeah, it seems to me I do. Yeah, last time I saw her, she was about this high. I think we've still got a couple of pictures of her wrestling around on the lawn with Rick.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Well, of course we're not allowing any of that this time.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
That's Lyle Talbot and Ozzie Nelson in a scene from "Ozzie and Harriet." Margaret Talbot, welcome to FRESH AIR. So one of the things that I found really surprising in your book was that you had family members in the two shows that a lot of people thought of as defining what the white, middle-class suburban family was like in the late '50s and early '60s.
Your father was the next-door neighbor in "Ozzie and Harriet," and your brother, Steve Talbot, played Beaver's friend Gilbert in "Leave it to Beaver." So did you watch these shows when you were young, and did they seem like that's what families were supposed to be?
MARGARET TALBOT: Yeah, I watched them later. I was born in 1961, so I watched them often in reruns, and they'd been on in reruns for many, many years. And it used to really surprise me, for one thing, that people would recognize my brother Steve, who went on to be a documentary filmmaker, was not an actor but would recognize him from his voice, I think, because those shows were such iconic shows for kids in the '50s and early '60s.
But yes, my brother and dad would sort of go off in the morning to work, you know, in the family station wagon, my dad wearing his requisite cardigan, which he did wear around the house, and, you know, Joe and Ozzie were always wearing at home. They spent a lot of time at home in those '50s television shows. They really never seemed to work.
But he did go off to work making these shows, and as you say, these kind of representations of ideal suburban families, and that kind of supported our suburban family in the '50s and '60s. And then my brother, yeah, was the sidekick on the "Beaver" show at the same time.
GROSS: And your brother, you say, went on to become a leader of SDS, the radical student group at Wesleyan University in the late '60s, pretty funny.
TALBOT: That's right, that's right, yeah, and it was a source of real embarrassment for him there. He was always trying to get, you know, fellow students to go out on strike against the war, and people would unfurl these big banners that said gee, Beav, I don't know, because that was one of his lines in the show.
TALBOT: Yeah, yeah, he played it pretty low-key for a long time.
GROSS: So I mean, your father - your family was automatically different from, you know, the sitcom families because your father was, you know, not only in show business, but he was much older than the other fathers that you grew up around. Your father was close to 60 when you were born and nearly 80 when you graduated from high school. That's maybe more common today than it was then, but even today that would be considered, you know, reasonably old for...
GROSS: Yeah, so what impact did it have on you to have a father who was that much older than the other fathers?
TALBOT: You know, yeah, it did feel - you know, when you're a kid, difference embarrasses you sometimes. So I think there were times when I felt a little embarrassed when people would ask if he was my grandfather. And he was very vain and didn't like that question. But mostly it was actually a really positive thing for me because he had this kind of gallantry about him, which I associate with an earlier era and maybe with older men.
And it was quite lovely. I was his youngest, and he had a lifestyle at that point, where he was doing a lot of theater and going out on the road a lot, but when he was home, he was really a stay-at-home dad, very domestic in a way that was unusual for the '60s and '70s. He cooked my breakfasts and made me lunch and took me to school. So we spent a lot of time together, and he told me a lot of stories about showbiz, which, you know, eventually became the basis for this book.
So I actually really valued it and, kind of, after a while, as I became really fascinated by history, loved the fact that I had this very kind of vital living link to the past that I really, sort of, treasured, you know - that he would use terms like, you know, calling movies, well, pictures and talkies and that he - you know, and used terms to compliment my sister and I like you look very smart, you know, which I - which was to me a very sort of '30s, you know, kind of compliment.
So when I came to really value that as I came to value, you know, language and particular areas of language and history, as I say.
GROSS: Let's talk about show business as seen through your father's eyes and through the research you did in researching your father and his times. So your father starts off in show business at the Walter Savage Amusement Company, a job that his father and step-mother helped him get. What was this amusement company?
TALBOT: It was a touring carnival that toured, you know, really, primarily in Nebraska and had, you know, all kinds of sideshows of the kind that you can, you know, you can imagine and have read about. You know, the ape man and, you know, the fat lady. And then it also had - they put on theatrical productions, as well. They performed in a big tent, and, of course, since this was in tornado territory, the tent frequently blew down.
And they traveled from town to town. They had their own train, quite a splendid train, and they were, you know, a very, very big deal for the little towns that they went to because they were the primary form of entertainment, and they were looked forward to, year after year, you know, with great anticipation.
GROSS: What was your father's job at this amusement company?
TALBOT: Well, he had a couple of different jobs. Mainly he started off as a barker and worked at the Kewpie doll stand, and then he later picked up other work as a magician's assistant. And then, ultimately, his first, sort of, I guess you'd call it real break in showbiz was leaving that amusement company and being hired by a traveling hypnotist named McKnight(ph).
And he became kind of a shill in the audience for that guy. And his main role, and this was his big moment, was that he would rocks broken on his chest. He would volunteer from the audience, he would come up, he would lie between two chairs, and then McKnight would ask - would put him into a deep slumber, supposedly, although my father said actually he never was hypnotized and couldn't be. He wanted to be, he tried, but he couldn't be.
And McKnight would invite a guy, a man up from the audience who was a local strongman, you know, a blacksmith or something, and he would wield a mallet and break the rock on his chest and, you know, supposedly Lyle would be asleep through this entire thing.
GROSS: My God, what was it like for your father to actually have the rock broken on his chest?
TALBOT: Well, you know, he was very game, and he would always say, you know, well, you know, it's a matter of science. You know - I think this is what the hypnotist must have told him, you know, it's the principle of the thing. If I were lying flat on the floor, you know, then of course it would have been terrible, but, you know, because I was suspended between these two chairs, you know, my body would give, and it as resilient, and I was all right.
But actually when I did research on this book and on this kind of hypnotism craze that was sweeping the country at that time, I found that that was a pretty common trick, but that people, you know, not surprisingly were injured and even killed doing it. So it wasn't quite the, you know, lighthearted party trick that my father made it out to be.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Margaret Talbot. She's a staff writer for the New Yorker. Now she has a new memoir about her father, Lyle Talbot, the actor, and the book is called "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's 20th Century." And it's about the world of show business as seen through her father's eyes. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Margaret Talbot. She's a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of a new memoir about her father, the actor Lyle Talbot. The book is called "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's 20th Century." And early in his career, Lyle Talbot worked in a carnival. He was a hypnotist's assistant. He was in theater. Then he was in the movies, and toward the end of his career worked on "Ozzie and Harriet" as Ozzie's next-door neighbor.
Your father started his own theater company after a while, and this was a time when movies were starting to overtake theater. And then an agent suggested he should come to Hollywood and audition. And by this time it's the Depression, it's hard to work. So he goes to Hollywood in 1932. What was Hollywood like when he arrived?
TALBOT: Well, he used to describe it to me as being like a small town, and I really didn't understand this growing up in Los Angeles, but, you know, it is true. It was really isolated. You know, at a time before commercial jet travel, when you were - would have to take a train to the East Coast and a journey of at least five days. And, you know, there was also just a feeling - it had always been called the movie colony, you know, when actors in the silent era first started coming out there.
And there was a small, actually rather, you know, religious agricultural community in Hollywood that had been founded by a couple called the Wilcox's, and again, a lot of disapproval of actors when they first came to Hollywood. And they would be referred to as the colony. So it had this feeling of being, kind of, unto itself, kind of isolated.
And so he remembers it as being - you know, Hollywood Boulevard was like the main street. You know, you went to the same barbershop, you went to the same tailor, you ran into everyone you knew. You know, you waited for Greta Garbo to leave the men's tailor shop where she was getting her pantsuit, you know, fitted before you went in.
And, you know, but it was a kind of an atmosphere that he, I think, loved and felt nostalgic for.
GROSS: So one of your favorite films that your father was in from that period is the 1932 movie "Three on a Match," and this featured Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak. And they played, like, three young women who light their cigarettes using the same match, three on a match, and they discuss the superstition that this is going to bring them bad luck, which it does.
And Dvorak ends up leaving her husband for the character played by your father, Lyle Talbot, and then she becomes addicted to coke and throws herself out the window.
GROSS: So here's the scene where Ann Dvorak and your father meet.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THREE ON A MATCH")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TALBOT: (As Michael Loftus) You're a funny one. I can't figure you out.
ANN DVORAK: (As Vivian Revere) Why not? What's so funny?
TALBOT: (As Michael) I can tell you're a real woman, not one of those stuffed brassieres you see on Park Avenue. You've got all the works that make a woman want to go, and live and love, but you're only making passes that'll never get you anywhere.
DVORAK: (As Vivian) How do you know what I do?
TALBOT: (As Michael) I can tell. Say, you don't know what life is.
DVORAK: (As Vivian) But I suppose you could show me. I never met a man yet who didn't ask to try.
TALBOT: (As Michael) Yeah, well listen, you keep on stalling and backing away, and then someday they'll quit asking you.
DVORAK: (As Vivian) Oh, I'm getting too old, is that it?
TALBOT: (As Michael) Oh darling, I didn't say that. Why, to me you're the most marvelous girl in the world.
DVORAK: (As Vivian) But you don't know me. We've only met tonight.
TALBOT: (As Michael) Oh tonight, in an hour, 10 years, what's the difference? It's now that matters. Vivian, don't turn your back on life. Take it. Take it while you can.
GROSS: So that's Lyle Talbot and Ann Dvorak in the film "Three on a Match" from 1932. My guest Margaret Talbot has written a new memoir about her father and his era in show business, it's called "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's 20th Century."
So why is this one of your favorites that your father's in?
TALBOT: Well for one thing, it's just got everything in it. It's got that Warner Brothers, you know, timely, topical, torn-from-the-headlines kind of energy and verve to it. And, you know, it's got - it's got gangsters, it's got sex, it's got, you know, drugs. And the performances are really good.
I love Ann Dvorak. And I think for me it was - you know, I guess it was the height of my father's own attractions in a certain way. So it was kind of interesting to see it. He's a very seductive character in this movie, although he's also kind of a - he turns to crime, and he's a weak-willed kind of playboy character who has a conscience but is sucked into a life of crime.
And he did that kind of character quite well, I think, so I really enjoy him in this movie.
GROSS: Was your father weak-willed as a man?
TALBOT: I think he had certain weaknesses, yes. I mean, he had a long-term, major alcohol problem that he eventually resolved quite resoundingly and successfully when he started a family with my mother. But that was a long time coming. And, I don't know, I guess was it a weakness for women? He certainly loved women. He had many, many girlfriends.
And in the course of writing this book, I discovered he'd had four wives before my mother. We'd always been a little vague in my family about the number of times that he had been married.
TALBOT: So I was able to nail that down and was a little surprised by the number. So I think yeah, for a long time - he particularly liked really live-wire women, I think, some of whom were, you know, sort of tough, stubborn, mouthy types. That got him into a certain amount of trouble.
He finally found one in my mother who was also incredibly sweet and decent. So that worked, but before then, I think he had some - I guess we would call them hot messes today, but, sort of, very high-maintenance girlfriends and wives.
GROSS: So we heard your father in a scene from the 1932 film "Three On A Match," a film that, you know, had, you know, drugs and adultery and crime and so on; a pre-code film. Let's compare that to a 1935 film that your father made with Shirley Temple.
TALBOT: OK. Sure.
GROSS: The child star. And this is called "Our Little Girl." And what's the premise of this film, Margaret?
TALBOT: Well, in this movie actually there is a threatened affair because her - Shirley Temple's parents - her father is played by Joel McCrea, and Joel McCrea is a hardworking doctor, who's working on, of course, you know, a cure for something - we don't know what exactly - and spending a lot of time at the office. And so his wife is getting a little restless, and she has a flirtation with a character played by my father, who is, you know, that he's a sort of a European playboy type because his name is Rolfe...
TALBOT: ...and he seems to have a lot of time to go horseback riding during the day. So he is kind of a ne'er-do-well. So there's a flirtation and it's really, the whole movie is about a threatened flirtation, or threatening flirtation, and Shirley Temple, their little girl, kind of thwarting it. So nothing really happens, unlike, very much unlike "Three On A Match." Yeah.
GROSS: OK. So this is a scene where your father in the role of Rolfe.
GROSS: Drives up in his car, opens the gate and says hello to Shirley Temple, who is on the front lawn there. And her name is Molly.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OUR LITTLE GIRL")
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Hello, Molly.
SHIRLEY TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) Hello.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Well, what's wrong?
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) I don't like (unintelligible) stuff, except for my dad.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) But he's not here just now, Molly. Won't I'd do?
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) You don't know how a daddy does.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Well, maybe I could learn.
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) It's very hard to learn, sir.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Well, look here. Let's have a try. Let's pretend that I'm the daddy and you're the little girl.
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) I am the little girl.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Well, all right. We're just pretending. Now here I come. Now there, young lady, you give me an account of yourself. Any cuts, pains, bumps?
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) That's not like a daddy.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) No? Well, why not?
TEMPLE: As Molly Middleton) You were laughing. You're supposed to laugh inside. But if you laugh outside that spoils it.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Oh, Molly. Why don't you like me, Molly? I like you. I like you and your mother and your daddy.
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) I don't care. We don't like you. We wish you'd go away and never come back.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Who is we, Molly? Your mother? Are you sure?
GROSS: That's Shirley Temple with Lyle Talbot, the late father of my guest, Margaret Talbot, who has just written a memoir about him and his show business career called, "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century." How did your father like opposite, acting opposite Shirley Temple?
TALBOT: He actually really enjoyed it because he liked kids, and he thought she was - as people always say about her - that she was a total pro. And she made one of her first, her first autographs that she wrote in cursive - she had just learned cursive - to him, to Uncle Lyle, which is a picture I have at home.
I hated that particular scene when I was a little girl because I, I used to watch Shirley Temple movies and loved them, kind of at an age when you still don't quite get the difference between, you know, your father in acting in a movie and your father. So the idea that she would tell him that he didn't know how a daddy does it was very offensive to me.
And I - because actually, my dad was quite a doting dad. So the idea that, you know, his daddiness was being questioned was bothersome to me at that age.
GROSS: I like it when Shirley Temple says, I am the little girl.
TALBOT: Yeah, she's very good at it. She's very, she's quite believable.
BIANCULLI: Margaret Talbot, speaking last year with Terry Gross. Her book about her late father, the actor Lyle Talbot, is called "The Entertainer." It's just come out in paperback. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. Let's return to Terry's conversation with Margaret Talbot, a staff writer for the New Yorker. Her book, "The Entertainer" is just out in paperback. It uses the life of her father - the actor Lyle Talbot - to tell the story of 20th-century show biz. He never became a star, but he made dozens of films starting in the early '30s. He worked with Humphrey Bogart before Bogart was a star. He played Lex Luther in Superman serials. On "Ozzie and Harriet" he was Ozzie's neighbor Joe Randolph, and he co-starred in the Ed Wood cult films "Plan Nine from Outer Space," "Glen or Glenda?" and "Jailbait."
GROSS: So we have to talk about your father's work with Ed Wood.
MARGARET TALBOT: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Ed Wood was considered maybe like the most inept filmmaker in Hollywood history. But, you know, it's a fascinating story. So fascinating that a movie was made based on his life.
GROSS: ...with Johnny Depp playing Ed Wood.
TALBOT: Right. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Who directed that?
TALBOT: Right. By Tim Burton. Tim Burton. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Tim Burton. Right. Yeah. Of course. So he did "Plan 9 from Outer Space," a science-fiction film, considered to be among the worst science-fiction films. Because it's, the acting always is very stiff, everything about it is incredibly cheap, the writing and the stories are very, like kind of over-the-top. So your father was a...
TALBOT: And they don't make a lot of internal sense either. That's it.
GROSS: Yes. Thank you. Yes.
GROSS: So your father was in three of Ed Wood's films, "Plan 9 from Outer Space"...
TALBOT: Mm-hmm. "Glen or Glenda."
GROSS: "Glen or Glenda," yes. And what was the third one? "Jailbait."
TALBOT: "Jailbait." Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So let's hear a clip from "Glen or Glenda." But first, I want you to set up the plot, which is a very surprising plot for the year the film was made, which was 1953.
TALBOT: Yes. Well, Ed Wood wanted to make a movie about the transsexual Christine Jorgensen, who had just, you know, had her sex change operation. Christine Jorgensen didn't give him permission to tell her story, so he made a movie "Glen or Glenda," that's kind of - well, it's about a cross-dresser. And it's kind of a plea for understanding of cross-dressers and people who have maybe different, you know, gender identities. So in that sense there is a consistent sympathy for her gender nonconforming people, I would say.
GROSS: So this is a scene in which her father, Lyle Talbot, is playing Inspector Warren. He's just handled the suicide of a transvestite, who has taken his life because he's been persecuted by society. So your father, Inspector Warren, goes to a psychiatrist to see if he can learn more about the mind of a transvestite. And the psychiatrist, Dr. Alton, is played by Timothy Farrell.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GLEN OR GLENDA")
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) Doctor? I'm hoping to learn something from you, and with that knowledge, maybe save some human from a fate which I just witnessed a few days ago - a four-time loser. This type of case comes to me as well, as yourself, many times during the course of one month.
TIMOTHY FARRELL: (as Dr. Alton) The suicide?
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) The suicide.
FARRELL: (as Dr. Alton) Most of us have our idiosyncrasies.
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) This fellow's was quite pronounced.
FARRELL: (as Dr. Alton) Yes. But I wonder if it rated the death warrant it received.
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) Well, that's why I'm here today, doctor. What do we do about it?
FARRELL: (as Dr. Alton) I've always heard you to be a hardhearted policeman, Inspector.
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) Isn't that was thought up most policeman? The laws are written. A policeman is hired to see that those laws are enforced. We have a job to do. As in most jobs, there's always somebody who doesn't want that job to be done. In most factories today, the employer has put up suggestion boxes. Even the employer needs advice once in a while. I think in the case that we're referring to, I need advice. Maybe it shouldn't have happened as it did, but it did. Perhaps the next time we can prevent it.
FARRELL: (as Dr. Alton) Get our story straight. You're referring to the suicide of the transvestite?
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) If that's the word you men of medical science use for a man who wears women's clothing, yes.
GROSS: So Margaret Talbot, how did your father, Lyle Talbot, end up in "Glen or Glenda?"
TALBOT: Well, so this was kind of a low period in his career and was having a lot of problems with drinking, was not under contract anywhere at the time. Had met Ed Wood when Ed Wood was sort of a gopher on a Universal picture that my father had made some years before, and Ed Wood hade said to him at the time, you know, you're my favorite actor and someday I'm going to make movies and I'm going to put you in them. So he called him up out of the blue, invited him to be in a couple of movies. My father decided to take him up on it. Ed Wood would pay him at the end of the day in crumpled up bills that he would draw out of his pocket, but he paid him everyday. They would film all over town, but never with any permission, so they were always being chased off of, you know, alleys in Hollywood. And...
But my father always just described him as kind of a sweet, peppy guy - much as he's portrayed by Johnny Depp in the Tim Burton movie; a guy who really, really believed in what he was doing, had no sense of irony about it himself. Was quite sincere.
GROSS: You have a great story in your memoir about the night that Ed Wood stayed at your parent's home.
TALBOT: Yes. So, my father, you know, was really a very tolerant guy in many ways, but didn't kind of know a whole lot about cross-dressing and transvestism or transgender, I would say, and one night after a premiere of an Ed Wood movie - and you can imagine what kind of event that might have been. But he came home with my dad. They were driving together, but Ed Wood was drunk and couldn't remember where he lived, or couldn't tell my dad. So my dad said, well, you can sleep it off in the car outside. Went inside to the apartment and my mother was there, who was, you know, 26 years younger, and a somewhat innocent person, I would say, at that point, and they had the two little boys, my two brothers. And my mother, who is very soft-hearted, said, oh don't leave him out there on the street; have him come in and he can sleep in here. He can take our room, and we'll sleep in the boys' room.
So in the morning, the family was sitting around having pancakes with the little boys, and out comes Ed Wood, and he's wearing my mother's negligee and a bra that he had found evidently, hanging on the back of the bathroom door. And that actually, that was it for my dad. He did order him to leave at that point. My mother I think was shocked, but knowing her, probably laughed a little, too. I mean, you know, so he actually never saw Ed Wood again after that.
GROSS: So the outre of "Glen and Glenda" was into cross-dressing himself?
TALBOT: Yes. I guess my father had not realized that the movie was quite so autobiographical.
GROSS: Your father is such a, was such an interesting mix of famous and not famous. He's in, like, lots of movies. Many are those movies are movies most people have never heard of. He was sometimes a leading man, but often one of the, you know, character actors, secondary actors. And then, after the war, he's in serials. He's in "Batman and Robin" serials, playing Commissioner Gordon. In "Superman" serials, he's Lex Luther. So everybody seeing these serials, but they're not kind of walking out talking about Lyle Talbot.
TALBOT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: So can you talk about that a little bit about that - his placed in Hollywood, you know, of having a lot of work, being kind of well known, I mean I grew up knowing that name but I wouldn't have been able to recognize him.
TALBOT: Right. Right. Yeah. I mean that was the kind of actor he was. And there are, you know, that's a group of people. And, you know, he, I think took actually a lot of pride in having been somebody who never had to take another kind of job, you know, never had to sell real estate or work as a waiter or whatever, you know, people do in Hollywood to make - teach yoga, they would do today, but whatever people do on the side to make it work. He was able to act, you know, to work in his chosen field which he loved all of his life.
He took the attitude, I am so lucky to be able to work in this field, in this creative field that I love, and do it and raise a family and have this kind of middle-class life as a working actor. So he, I think, came to feel that.
And I think he, you know, there are a certain number of points you get in acting or in Hollywood, in many fields, I think for just sticking around and he did. You know, he acted until he was in his 90s.
GROSS: Margaret Talbot, thank you so much for talking with us.
TALBOT: Thank you. My pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Margaret Talbot, speaking to Terry Gross last year. Her new book about her father Lyle Talbot is called "The Entertainer." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Stephen Colbert, one of the stars of tonight's great performances concert productions of Stephen Sondheim's "Company" on PBS. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Tonight on PBS, Great Performances presents Stephen Sondheim's "Company" with the New York Philharmonic. The musical, written by George Firth - with music and lyrics by Sondheim - premiered on Broadway in 1970. More than 40 years later, this concert revival was mounted and it's a terrific production. Neil Patrick Harris stars as Bobby. His co-stars include, Patti LuPone and several players more associated with TV than Broadway - like Jon Cryer, Christina Hendricks, and our next guest, Stephen Colbert, who plays Harry, one of Bobby's married friends.
Terry spoke with Stephen Colbert in 2011, when the film production of the New York concert - the one shown tonight on PBS - was presented as a four-day special event in select movie theaters nationwide.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Stephen Colbert, to see you singing Sondheim and to see you dancing in a little chorus line with a hat and a cane. I mean, it doesn't get better.
STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, thank you very much. It was - and it was an amazing amount of fun.
GROSS: Now, there's a song in "Company" that you sing called "Sorry-Grateful," and it's, it's a song about the ambivalence this character has about being married. And Neil Patrick Harris' character is the single guy in this, and all of his friends are, like, married couples, and they're actually all miserable, but they're trying to convince him he needs to get married.
So he's been visiting you and your wife in this, and you've just been bickering and fighting the whole time, even had a karate match together. And then he says to you - and we'll hear what he says to you as you sing this song about the ambivalence of marriage, "Sorry-Grateful." So here is Stephen Colbert. The first line you're going to hear is Neil Patrick Harris.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COMPANY")
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY-GRATEFUL")
NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (as Robert) You ever sorry you got married?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
COLBERT: (as Harry) (Singing) You're always sorry. You're always grateful. You're always wondering what might have been. Then she walks in and still you're sorry, and still you're grateful, and still you wonder, and still you doubt, and she goes out.
(as Harry) (Singing) Everything's different; nothing's changed, only maybe slightly rearranged. You're sorry-grateful, regretful-happy. Why look for answers when none occur? You always are what you always were, which has nothing to do with, all to do with her.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Harry, darling. Come to bed.
COLBERT: (as Harry) Coming, darling.
GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert, in Stephen Sondheim's "Company." You sing with emotion and vulnerability in that song, things that you can never show on your own program, "The Colbert Report." It's such a different side of you.
COLBERT: It is. It is at that. It's what I imagined I would be doing when I went to theater school.
GROSS: Really, musicals in particular?
COLBERT: Well, just anything in theater and musicals as part of it, I supposed. And it was such a - it was such a Bungee into an old dream to go do something like that. Because I went to Northwestern University and went to the theater program there, and I worked very hard, and my intention was to spend my life doing theater.
that's what I thought my life would be. And it has not been, and I love what I do, but to be asked to do this and then to accept the challenge of it, I had to start taking voice lessons again because I -that - I can la-di-da my way through a lot of music, and I've done so on my show and for other people, but to sing Sondheim is a completely different beast.
GROSS: So what did you learn from the singing lessons that you didn't know before?
COLBERT: Well, it was like a rediscovery when I did the singing lessons because it was - I was doing all the stuff that I was doing when I was doing when I was an undergrad at Northwestern. And what I discovered, or rediscovered, was the therapeutic nature of singing lessons.
They - they're like doing yoga but for the inside of your body, and they're...
GROSS: Nicely put.
COLBERT: Thank you very much. They are. You open up and use muscles that you don't think of as malleable, and we don't - you spend a lot of time thinking about your soft palate and opening up your sinuses, and it is almost impossible for someone to explain why that's important, how you can turn your head into a bell. But that's what - at least for me, that's what we kept on working on is trying to get the things like resonance and projection and relaxation and just breathing.
And then you have to forget all of it and sing, or as - my voice coach is Liz Caplan, and Liz would say - we would work and work and work. We worked for months. And then she said: Oh, just sing stupid. It was just a few days before we went. She goes: Just sing stupid. Just sing like we've never discussed any of this and just make every mistake you can think of but just sing the song with all your heart, which was really just to sing with feeling and don't think about everything you're doing, a little less thinking, a little more feeling, I'm just quoting Momma.
GROSS: So how did you get the part? Who said get Stephen Colbert? Because it's not like you went and auditioned, right?
COLBERT: No, well, you know, I do the show 161 days a year. And sometimes I don't know who the guest is coming up. And I looked up from my desk one day, and I saw on the grid a few days ahead of me, it said Stephen Sondheim. And I was with my booker. And I said: Stephen Sondheim! And she said: Do you not want Stephen Sondheim? I didn't know. A lot of people here weren't sure whether you'd want Stephen Sondheim. I said: God, do I want Stephen Sondheim.
COLBERT: I can't - because people don't know this about me, that I really like musical theater. And I think of myself - I think of myself as an actor and a theater person, even though I've done no theater in 20 years. And people don't perceive what I do as acting, but I still do.
And I - and the canon of Stephen Sondheim is devastatingly beautiful to me, and I was so thrilled to have him on the show. So I did something I never do with my guests: I did research.
COLBERT: I actually put effort into Stephen Sondheim because I knew it wouldn't be an easy interview, because you never see him being interviewed. And I assumed he doesn't like it or something.
And one of my writers and I worked on a little parody of "Send in the Clowns," and one of the things - I have to stay in character. Even though I like him, I have to try to stay in character, and it was very hard for me because I didn't want to go in attacking Stephen Sondheim or really even be that ignorant about Stephen Sondheim, which is another sort of tactic on the show. I can either sort of be hostile toward my guests, or I can be ignorant of what they know and care about, and it was hard for me to do that with him because I care so much about him and - or his work, that is. And so...
GROSS: You know what? Before you go any further, we have that clip right here.
COLBERT: Oh, you do?
GROSS: Yeah, we have it right here. So before you describe it more, why don't we actually hear it, and then we can talk more about how you got the part in Stephen Sondheim's "Company." So...
COLBERT: OK. Great.
GROSS: So here's Stephen Sondheim, interviewed on "The Colbert Report," and you wrote a new ending to his most famous song in this, and let's hear how that played out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")
COLBERT: Maybe your biggest toe-tapper out there, the one that people know the best, is "Send in the Clowns."
STEPHEN SONDHEIM: Very slow tap.
COLBERT: Very slow tap.
SONDHEIM: It's from "A Little Night Music."
COLBERT: Yeah, it's from "A Little Night Music"?
SONDHEIM: Yeah, uh-huh.
COLBERT: It what - where were the clowns? Because you say where are the clowns, and we never find out where the clowns were, and it really leaves the audience hanging.
SONDHEIM: Well, she's a lost lady. She doesn't know where they are either.
COLBERT: Well, I found where they are. I've got some lyrics, if you'd like to perhaps finish your song.
COLBERT: (Singing) Where are the clowns? I booked them for eight. Hold on, that's them on the phone, saying they're late.
COLBERT: (Singing) Traffic was bad. The tunnel's a mess. All 12 of them came in one car; they lost my address. You just can't trust clowns. That's why they're called clowns.
COLBERT: So much more satisfying, isn't it? Isn't that satisfying to know where the clowns are?
SONDHEIM: Well, listen. We have three weeks left of the show on Broadway a long before it closes in January. I don't see any reason why Bernadette Peters can't sing that.
COLBERT: I'm totally ready to pitch it.
SONDHEIM: No, we need some laughs in the second act.
COLBERT: I hope - is there more? Are you going to have another book out in (unintelligible)?
Yeah, the second one is going to be called "Look, I Made a Hat."
Well, come on and talk about that.
SONDHEIM: I'd love to.
COLBERT: I rarely fawn because I like to seem more important than my...
SONDHEIM: Fawn, fawn.
COLBERT: ...than my guests. I would just say I'm so happy you came here. You and me, bud, we're the loonies. Did you know that? I bet you didn't know that. Stephen Sondheim, thank you so much.
SONDHEIM: Thank you.
COLBERT: The book is "Finishing the Hat."
GROSS: I love that because, like, at the end you really genuinely tell him how much you like him. And like you say, you know, you don't usually do that on your show because you have to look superior to your guests.
COLBERT: Exactly, or feel superior at least.
GROSS: Yeah. That's right. And that's a Sondheim lyric you're quoting at the end, right?
COLBERT: It is. It's - I'm imperfectly quoting it, but that's from "Sunday in the Park with George." That's the boatman, who says to George: You and me, pal, we're the loonies. Did you know that? Bet you didn't know that.
And I love "Sunday in the Park with George." I saw that when I was just, just starting theater school, and I remember singing "Finishing the Hat" or at least reading the lyrics to "Finishing the Hat" and other songs from "Sunday in the Park with George" to my mom to try to explain why I wanted to be an artist.
BIANCULLI: Stephen Colbert speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Stephen Colbert, one of the cast members of the New York Philharmonic's concert revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Company." That production receives its TV premier tonight on Great Performances on PBS.
GROSS: OK, well, look. I've interviewed Stephen Sondheim I think four times, and he never asked me to be in one of his musicals. So what did you do...
COLBERT: Well, here's - I don't - I did nothing.
GROSS: What did I do wrong?
COLBERT: And I did not realize that I was auditioning at that point. I was just - one of my writers, Peter Gwinn, worked on that song, and I was so happy that he had a good time at the interview, and I was so happy that it ended well with that parody of the song and that he took it as the valentine it was meant to be. And I thought that was it.
Well, great, I did a good interview with Stephen Sondheim. You know, that's a little notch on the belt. And then I got - we got a call that Lincoln Center was going to do "Company," and would I want to play a part in it.
And my agent so wisely said: No, he doesn't have any time. And he told me later that he'd already turned it down. And I said: Ah, geez, James, you know what? That was the right call. That's the right call, absolutely. Wow, that's hard to say no to, but yeah, absolutely the right call. There's no way. It's insane. I can't do it.
And then a couple days later, I got a letter from - a hand-typed letter from Stephen Sondheim saying that he, against his instincts, he had a good time on my show and would I consider playing Harry in "Company," and he ended the letter with the sentence: You have a perfect voice for musical theater.
And I read it to my wife, and she said: Boy, you have to do this. No one, let alone Stephen Sondheim, is going to ask you to do Sondheim. And I said: You're right, I have to do it.
And that sentence - you have a perfect voice for musical theater - I throw around willy-nilly now. Like my wife and I will be having an argument, like who takes out the trash or who needs to pick up the kid from, you know, from soccer practice. And I'll just turn and go: I have a perfect voice for musical theater. And it generally wins the argument.
GROSS: So was Sondheim on the set at all? And did he work with the people in the show?
COLBERT: He was there. He was there once we got into Lincoln Center, which is to say the day that we opened, because we never ran it until we did it for the opening-night crowd.
GROSS: Yeah, because you were all rehearsing long-distance, right? I read you were rehearsing via Skype.
COLBERT: We were rehearsing long-distance. It was all put together -yeah, it was rehearsing via Skype, or people were just sending you an MP3 of your harmonies, and then you'd be working on it alone with, you know, a pair of cans on, trying to sing along, your Bobbys - Bobby, Bobby, baby. I think my last words on this Earth, I'll go: Bobby, baby. And people will go: What does that mean? We'll never know. Who's Bobby?
And all of us, all of us were under the impression that this was going to be a stage reading, that there'd be like music stands and, you know, the music in front of you and perhaps we'd wear tuxedos, but we would basically be standing there with the orchestra behind us. We didn't know this was going to be fully staged.
And this slowly, it slowly dawned on us as we had to show up for fight choreography and, you know, dance choreography and, you know: Well, everybody, let's be off-book tomorrow. It slowly dawned on us: No, we're doing "Company" in two weeks. We're doing "Company."
GROSS: Stephen Colbert, I always love talking with you. Thank you so much for coming on FRESH AIR today.
COLBERT: Well, thanks for having me on. It's always fun.
BIANCULLI: Stephen Colbert, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. He appears in Stephen Sondheim's "Company," with the New York Philharmonic, which premiers tonight on Great Performances on PBS.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "COMPANY")
JENNIFER LAURA THOMPSON: (as Jenny) (Singing) Bobby.
CRAIG BIERKO: (as Peter) (Singing) Bobby.
THOMPSON: (as Jenny) (Singing) Bobby, baby.
BIERKO: (as Peter) (Singing) Bobby, bubi.
PATTI LUPONE: (as Joanne) (Singing) Robby. Robert, darling...
JON CRYER: (as David) (Singing) Bobby we've been trying to call you.
THOMPSON: (as Jenny) (Singing) Bobby, baby.
JIM WALTON: (as Larry) (Singing) Bobby bubi.
JILL PAICE: (as Susan) (Singing) Angel, I've got something to tell you.
COLBERT: (as Harry) (Singing) Bob.
WALTON: (as Larry) (Singing) Rob-o...
LUPONE: (as Joanne) (Singing) Bobby, love
PAICE: (as Susan) (Singing) Bobby, honey...
KATIE FINNERAN AND AARON LAZAR: (as Amy and Paul) (Singing) Bobby, we've been trying to reach you all day
WALTON: (as Larry) (Singing) Bobby...
COLBERT: (as Harry) (Singing) Bobby...
BIERKO: (as Peter) (Singing) Bobby baby...
MARTHA PLIMPTON: (as Sarah) (Singing) Angel..
LUPONE: (as Joanne) (Singing) Bobby, honey...
JON CRYER AND JENNIFER LAURA THOMPSON: (as David and Jenny) (Singing) Bobby, we've been trying to reach you all day.
PATTI LUPONE AND JIM WALTON: (as Joanne and Larry) (Singing) The kids were asking, Bobby...
LAZAR: (Amy and Paul) (Singing) Bobby, there was something we wanted to say.
JON CRYER AND JENNIFER LAURA HOMPSON: (David and Jenny) (Singing) Your line was busy.
CRAIG BIERKO AND JILL PAICE: (as Peter and Susan) (Singing) Bobby?
STEPHEN COLBERT AND MARTHA PLIMPTON: (as Harry and Sarah) (Singing) Bobby. Sweetie. How have you been??
WALTON: (as Joanne and Larry) (Singing) Stop by on your way home.
JENNIFER LAURA HOMPSON: (as Jenny) (Singing) Seems like weeks since we talked to you.
HOMPSON: (as David and Jenny) (Singing) Drop by anytime.
COLBERT: (as Harry) (Singing) Bobby, there's a concert on Tuesday. Hank and Mary get into town.
THOMPSON: (as Sarah) (Singing) How about some Scrabble on Sunday?
LAZAR: (Amy and Paul) (Singing) Why don't we all go to the beach next weekend?
WALTON: (as Joanne and Larry) Bob, we're having people in Saturday night.
PLIMPTON: (as Sarah) (Singing) Angel...
LUPONE: (as David) Whatcha doing Thursday?
MARTHA PLIMPTON AND STEPHEN COLBERT: (as Sarah and Harry Time we got together, is Wednesday alright?
KATIE FINNERAN: (as Amy) (Singing) Bobby...
WALTON: (as Larry) (Singing) Rob-o..
PAICE: (as Susan) (Singing) Bobby, honey...
LAZAR: (as Amy and Paul) (Singing) Eight o'clock on Monday.
LUPONE: (as Joanne) (Singing) Robby, darling...
BIERKO: (as Peter) (Singing) Bobby fella...
PATTI LUPONE AND CRAIG BIERKO: (as Joanne and Peter) (Singing) Bobby, baby...
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. And here's Neil Patrick Harris.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "COMPANY")
HARRIS: (as Robert) (Singing) Phone rings, door chimes. In comes company. No strings, good times, room hums, company. Late nights, quick bites, party games. Deep talks, long walks, telephone calls. Thoughts shared, souls bared, private names. All those photos up on the walls, with love. With love filling the days. With love" seventy ways. To Bobby with love...
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.