DATE January 2, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Vicki Wickham discusses her book "Dancing with Demons:
The Authorized Biography of Dusty Springfield" and Springfield's
life and career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of Dusty Springfield performing "Wishin' And Hopin'")
Ms. DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin',
plannin' and dreamin' each night of his charms. That won't get you into his
arms. So if you're looking to find love you can share, all you gotta do is
hold him and kiss him and love him and show him that you care. Show him that
GROSS: Some critics consider Dusty Springfield the best British female rock
singer of the '60s. She had many hits in England and America, including
"Wishin' And Hopin'," "I Only Want To Be With You," "I Just Don't Know What To
Do With Myself," "The Look Of Love" and "Son Of A Preacher Man." Springfield
died of cancer in 1999, just before her 60th birthday.
Now a new authorized biography called "Dancing with Demons" describes the
personal life that few of her fans knew about, including that she was a
lesbian. My guest is the book's co-author, Vicki Wickham. She was
Springfield's longtime friend and manager. Wickham also co-wrote one of
Springfield's hits, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me."
Here's a 1962 recording before Dusty Springfield was a solo artist, when she
sang folk music with her brother and his friend under the name The
(Soundbite of The Springfields performing "Silver Threads and Golden Needles")
THE SPRINGFIELDS: (Singing) I don't want your lonely mansion with a tear in
every room. All I want's the love you promise beneath the haloed moon. But
you think I should be happy with your money and your name and hide myself in
sorrow while you play your cheating game. Silver threads and golden
GROSS: The Springfields singing "Silver Threads and Golden Needles."
My guest Vicki Wickham first met Dusty Springfield when Springfield made a
guest appearance on "Ready, Steady, Go," the British pop music program which
Ms. VICKI WICKHAM (Co-author, "Dancing with Demons"): It was a chaotic show
which went out every week on Associated Redipution Television(ph), which was
the independent channel. And it was subtitled "The Weekend Starts Here."(ph)
And we were a mixture of music, fashion, the celebrities of the time, pop art.
And you have to remember, this was 1963. It was The Who, The Beatles, later
Jimi Hendrix, The Animals. And we started bringing in American artists: Ike
and Tina Turner, James Brown, Otis Redding.
And it was live. It started off as a mimed show, but within a year, went
live. And every single week, we never quite got it right. It was alive, in
studio, with an audience. And the cameras, I mean, literally would go between
dancers, between the audience, and it just caught people's imagination. And
kids would literally run home from school to see the show.
GROSS: Yeah, it was kind of like "American Bandstand," but with fashion and
more interviews and things like that.
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes, exactly. That's exactly what it was.
GROSS: I mean, it's amazing like in the early days of "Ready, Steady, Go,"
you know, The Beatles would come on and then Ringo would dance in the audience
with the other dancers.
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes, exactly, which, you know, was amazing because they were
huge at the time.
GROSS: Right. Dusty Springfield is really an extraordinary singer. And, you
know, I grew up listening to her records and, you know, I always liked her,
but it was as an adult that I could really appreciate what a truly good singer
she is. What struck you about her singing when you were auditioning people
for "Ready, Steady, Go"?
Ms. WICKHAM: She had a sound, and there are very few people that have a real
sound to their voice. And Dusty's just one of those lucky ones that--you
know, she's recognizable anywhere. But she had an impeccable choice of
material. She knew exactly what was right for her voice.
GROSS: Her first hit, "I Only Want To Be With You," came out in 1964 and
debuted on "Ready, Steady, Go," and this is while you were producing the
program. What did you think of the record then? Did you think that was the
right choice for her?
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes, absolutely. It was a wonderful song and a great way to
GROSS: Why don't we hear it?
(Soundbite of Dusty Springfield performing "I Only Want To Be With You")
Ms. SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) Don't know what it is that makes me love you so.
I only know I never want to let you go. 'Cause you started something, can't
you see? And ever since we met, you've had a hold on me. It happens to be
true, I only want to be with you. It doesn't matter where you go or what you
do. I want to spend each moment of this day with you. Now look what has
happened with just one kiss. I never knew that I could be in love like this.
It's crazy but it's true, I only want to be with you. You turned to smile at
me and asked if I cared to dance...
GROSS: That's Dusty Springfield's first hit, "I Only Want To Be With You."
My guest is Vicki Wickham, who co-wrote the new book, "Dancing with Demons:
The Authorized Biography of Dusty Springfield."
You actually co-wrote one of Dusty Springfield's songs, "You Don't Have to Say
You Love Me," which was released in 1966. How did you come to co-write the
song? And tell us if there's a story behind it.
Ms. WICKHAM: Well, there is. Dusty had been at the San Rainmo Song
Festival(ph) and came back with an Italian song that, each time she was going
to record, she'd say, `I must write lyrics to it.' She never did, so she never
recorded it. And it came to the time in '64 where she said, `I really need to
record this song.' And I, like a big-mouth, said, `Well, any fool can write
lyrics.' So she says, `Well, OK, any fool can write lyrics, go and write
And luckily, I was having dinner that night with a friend of mine--actually, I
was having dinner with him every night 'cause we used to see each other all
the time--Simon Napier-Bell, who was a musician. And I said to Simon, `Before
we go to dinner, we have to do these lyrics for Dusty, 'cause she's recording
So he said, `OK, you know, play me the song.' So we sat and we played, and,
of course, we sat and argued about what it should be and what it shouldn't.
But it really--in about 30 minutes, we'd got the basis of it and then finished
it off in the taxi.
And the next day, when I was typing them up for Dusty, I called Simon and I
said, `These are horrible. I cannot give these to Dusty.'
And he said, `Well, what are you going to do?'
So I said, `I suppose give them to Dusty 'cause there's no choice.'
So I sent them through or sent them over to Dusty or dropped them off or
something, and she said, `These are really bad.'
And I said, `I know. We know that.' Anyway, she recorded it and, of course,
it went to number one.
GROSS: Why did you think they were so bad, the lyrics?
Ms. WICKHAM: They're really inane. And if you look at the lyrics, I think
the word `left' is in there about six times, although, you know, when you
become familiar with them, you think, `OK, they're perhaps not so bad.'
GROSS: So--well, why don't we hear the song, and we'll let everybody judge
what they think of the lyrics.
Ms. WICKHAM: OK.
GROSS: It certainly did well for her and for you.
(Soundbite of Dusty Springfield performing "You Don't Have to Say You Love
Ms. SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) You don't have to say you love me; just be close
at hand. You don't have to stay forever; I will understand. Believe me,
believe me, I can't help but love you, but believe me, I'll never tie you
down. Left alone with just a memory, life seems dead and so unreal. All
that's left is loneliness. There's nothing left to feel. You don't have to
say you love me; just be close at hand. You don't have to stay forever; I
will understand. Believe me, believe me. You don't have to say you love me;
just be close at hand. You don't have to...
GROSS: That's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," a 1966 hit by Dusty
Springfield. My guest, Vicki Wickham, co-wrote the lyrics; she also co-wrote
Dusty Springfield's new biography, called "Dancing with Demons."
Now as you were getting to know Dusty Springfield, something that you learned
about her was that she was a lesbian, and this was at a time when virtually no
performers were really out of the closet, certainly not in pop music. How did
you find out about that?
Ms. WICKHAM: Well, 'cause we were friends, so we were hanging out together.
We, you know, had some of the same friends. We were beginning to have our own
friends. And you know, obviously, you know, you know what your friends are
GROSS: And are you gay, too?
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes, absolutely.
GROSS: Did you have to keep each other's secrets? Did it need to be as big a
secret for you as it was for her?--because you weren't a performer and could
maybe afford to be a little more open.
Ms. WICKHAM: Well, exactly. For, me it was never a problem because I wasn't
in the public eye. And, you know, I was always openly gay and it was
absolutely fine. But for somebody like Dusty, it did matter. It was
absolutely unheard of in '63, in the early '60s. And I really do think it
would have harmed her at the time had people really known.
You have to remember, too, the press in England--it's got worse over the
years, but they're very intrusive. I mean, there are a lot of tabloids; as
you know, we have about six or seven daily papers and then all the Sunday
papers. So they need something to write about. And the more sensational it
is, the better. The bigger name you are, obviously, the bigger story. And it
was a real worry that, you know, the papers would start splashing it across.
GROSS: And did people in the industry know and just keep it quiet, or were
they clueless about it?
Ms. WICKHAM: I think they mostly didn't know, and the few that did, you know,
they weren't really particularly interested, either. They were too busy with
their lives. You know, your contemporaries don't care; it's really only the
press and then the general public.
GROSS: Dusty Springfield was from a Catholic family. She went to convent
school. Did she feel guilty about her own sexual orientation?
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes, she did. She felt guilty about a lot of things, and I
think that, you know, the Catholic faith throughout her entire life always was
a burden to her. And that was a large part of what the big problem was.
GROSS: As a producer of "Ready, Steady, Go," were you ever concerned that if
she was outed, it would be a problem for the program?
Ms. WICKHAM: No, not remotely. And I don't think it would have been. The
only problem we ever had with "Ready, Steady" was when Donovan was busted for
pot, and there was a whole discussion about whether we should have him on. I
mean, how inane that sounds now, but that was the biggest problem we ever had.
GROSS: My guest is Vicki Wickham, co-author of "Dancing with Demons," the new
biography of Dusty Springfield. We'll talk more after our break. This is
(Soundbite of Dusty Springfield performing song)
Ms. SPRINGFIELD: I had a talk with my man last night...
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Vicki Wickham, and she co-wrote
the new Dusty Springfield biography "Dancing with Demons." She also used to
produce "Ready, Steady, Go," which Dusty Springfield co-hosted early in her
career, and she used to sing on it often as well.
Dusty Springfield really had a look in the '60s when she became a star. Why
don't you describe the kind of fashions she wore, how she did her eyes, her
Ms. WICKHAM: Dusty had this huge bouffant hairdo which required a lot of
back-combing and a lot of spray, which we would sometimes laugh and say she
was responsible alone for the ozone layer. She also wore a lot of makeup.
She looked at the fashion magazines and the film magazines of the time and
would look at people like Monica Viedee(ph), I suppose like a Bardot, that
type of thing. And she followed their eye makeup, which was a lot of black,
like a panda makeup, with a lot of heavy eyeliner above the lid as well as
And dresswise, she was what in those days was called a mod; you had mods and
rockers, and Dusty was a mod with short skirts and skimpy little tops. I
mean, she was very fashionable. You know, kids would emulate her.
GROSS: Dusty Springfield recorded several Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs,
such as "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," "Wishin' And Hopin'," "The
Look Of Love." How did she start to do Bacharach?
Ms. WICKHAM: Dusty used to listen to a lot of demos from America.
Publishers would send her demos. And, of course, she was going backwards and
forwards to America to appear on shows, package shows like the ones at the
Brooklyn Fox where she would be on with Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas,
The Searchers, The Animals, Dusty. So she was very conscious of American
music. And she and I and Vic Billings, her manager at the time, went to
Paris, and at The Olympia in Paris, went to see Dionne Warwick, The Shirelles,
little Stevie Wonder, who was singing "Fingertips" at the time. And she met
Dionne Warwick, and we came back with heaps of records. So inevitably a lot
of those, of course, were Bacharach and David. In fact, all of them were
Bacharach and David.
GROSS: And she liked the songs and wanted to start recording them herself?
Ms. WICKHAM: Loved the songs, yes.
GROSS: So did she get in touch with Bacharach?
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes. And I think that Burt, I mean, feels that her version of
"Look Of Love" is still the ultimate.
GROSS: What do you think of her recording of that?
Ms. WICKHAM: I think it's wonderful. I think it captures the every essence
of the song. It's beautiful.
GROSS: Then why don't we hear it.
(Soundbite of Dusty Springfield performing "The Look Of Love")
Ms. SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) The look of love is in your eyes. The look your
heart can't disguise. The look of love is saying so much more than just words
could ever say. The look the heart has heard, well, it takes my breath away.
I can hardly wait to hold you, feel my arms around you. How long I have
waited, waited just to love you. Now that I have found you, you've got the
look of love it's on your face, a look that time can't erase. Be mine
tonight, let this be just the start of so many nights like this. Let's take a
lovers' vow and then seal it with a kiss. I can hardly wait to hold you, feel
my arms around you. How long I have waited, waited just to love you. Now
that I have found you, don't have to go.
GROSS: That's Dusty Springfield singing "The Look Of Love," which was from
the film "Casino Royale" and was another big hit for her. The song was by
Bacharach and David.
Dusty Springfield did at least one of the songs that Dionne Warwick did as
well. Dionne Warwick also did "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself."
Did Dusty Springfield feel competitive with Dionne Warwick when it came to
doing Burt Bacharach songs?
Ms. WICKHAM: No. I think she loved Dionne's voice; she respected Dionne.
She actually became friends with Dionne. I think she could have been slightly
jealous that Dionne got the songs first from Burt and Hal because, of course,
Dionne was doing their demos and had first, you know, crack at the songs.
But, no, I don't think there was actually competitiveness because Dusty would
only do a song if she could do it her way, which she always did.
GROSS: And do you know if Dionne Warwick felt competitive with Dusty
Ms. WICKHAM: Again, I don't think `competitive' is the right word. I would
think `pissed' was the right word. I mean, if I were an American and had a
great record and had success in the charts in America, and then some English
bird was copping it and having success in England, I wouldn't be too happy.
GROSS: Do you think Dionne Warwick saw it as copying her record?
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes, I'm sure she did.
GROSS: In the new authorized biography of Dusty Springfield, you write about
her depressions. You say she was diagnosed as manic depressive and her
depressions were sometimes very severe. What was she like on either end of
her mood swings?
Ms. WICKHAM: She could go into the blackest moods ever, and very irrational
in terms of nothing was right, nothing was good enough, including herself.
Just really deep depressions which would last sometimes for minutes and it
usually resulted in damaging some innate object of some sort, never a danger
to anybody else or, at that point, herself.
And then on the other end, you know, when she'd come out of them, she was the
most intelligent, wonderful, funny, interesting, up person imaginable. I
mean, it's hard--when she was her normal self, it was hard to imagine that she
could possibly be any other way.
GROSS: She also mutilated herself. She cut on her arms and legs. I think
much more is known about that kind of self-mutilation now than was known then.
It seems either more common or at least more publicly discussed. How did she
and her doctors deal with it? And I don't know whether this was mostly in the
1960s or '70s.
Ms. WICKHAM: It was both. At the time, you're right, not that much was known
about it. And the biggest thing that I think was a mistake--and I mean, she
felt the same way--she never found any help for it, meaning a shrink, a
therapist. You know, the British are very anti that type of thing, especially
in the '60s and '70s. I mean, we all felt that a good cup of tea would solve
everything rather than going to talk to somebody. And, of course, now we know
better that, you know, it does help to have some professional advice, some
professional help. And at the time, nobody was really doing that.
Even in terms of medication, none of the doctors were really prescribing
anything, which nowadays, I don't know if it's Prozac or what they would give
you, but they would give you something to help you get through it. At the
time, nobody was doing that, so it became an occurrence which would happen far
too frequently. And, you know, like with anything like that, it's a cry for
help, and nobody was helping.
GROSS: How did you find out about the cutting?
Ms. WICKHAM: Various phone calls from emergency rooms or, you know, calls in
the night from somebody or from Dusty herself. And, you know, again, you
know, none of us were qualified to help. You can offer support, you can, you
know, help on that level. But it wasn't obviously enough.
GROSS: Would the scars or the cuts show when she wore the kind of clothes she
liked to wear?
Ms. WICKHAM: She was always wea...
GROSS: You know, in other words, was she at risk of performing with cuts and
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes, absolutely. And if you notice, she almost always--in fact,
always would wear long sleeves.
GROSS: And that's why?
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes.
GROSS: Vicki Wickham is the co-author of "Dancing with Demons: The
Authorized Biography of Dusty Springfield." She'll be back in the second half
of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of Dusty Springfield performing)
Ms. SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) I just don't know what to do with myself. Don't
know just what to do with myself. I'm so used to doing everything...
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up, actor Bob Balaban. He's appeared in dozens of movies, and on
"Seinfeld," he played the network head who bought Jerry and George's sitcom
idea. Balaban produced and co-stars in the new Robert Altman film "Gosford
Park." Also, more on the life of Dusty Springfield.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Vicki Wickham,
co-author of "Dancing with Demons: The Authorized Biography of Dusty
Springfield," the British singer who became popular in the '60s and had such
hits as "Wishin' And Hopin'," "The Look Of Love," "I Only Want To Be With You"
and the "Son Of A Preacher Man." Springfield died of cancer in 1999. Vicki
Wickham was her friend and manager.
When we left off, we were talking about Springfield's problems with
Would the depression go away when she was on stage?
Ms. WICKHAM: It's interesting you should say that. Absolutely. Dusty, as
much as she hated getting on stage, was scared stiff about it, once she got
on stage was, A, the true professional, was absolutely wonderful and
thoroughly enjoyed herself.
GROSS: Did you ever have to convince her to get on stage?
Ms. WICKHAM: Constantly. It was always an uphill battle. I mean, as a
manager, it really was very depressing sometimes that you'd have these
wonderful offers and I'd call her up and I'd say, `OK, you know, this is what
somebody wants you to do. Here are the pros, here are the cons. This is what
the money is. This is what it, you know, should be. Let's talk about it.'
And it would always be, `No.' Then I would get a call 15 minutes later or 20
minutes later, `OK, tell me more. What about? What if?' And she would
always--she was wonderful, actually. She would come up with a huge list of,
`We should ask them this, that and the other,' which is, you know, absolutely
the right thing to do. And we would ask them this, that and the other and
we'd go backwards and forwards. And then it would always be, `I don't think
I'm ready to do it at the moment. Let's think about it next time.' And so
during the time I was managing her, she did very, very few performances, a
few, you know, televisions, recording, but not live performances.
GROSS: Do you think that she would forget how much she enjoyed being on
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes, I do. I think the effort to get on stage outweighed the
pleasures or the remembrance of the pleasures when she was on. Having to put
on the makeup, having to put on, you know, the clothes, the hair, having to be
scrutinized. It just became too much effort. And I actually do understand
it. I think that she should have overcome it, and we all tried to help her
overcome it and make it as pleasurable as possible. And when she was doing a
television, there would be a team, you know, Debbie Dannell, who did her
makeup, whoever was doing her hair, Pat, myself and a whole group of us would,
you know, be around so that we could have some fun, we could have a giggle, we
could make it, you know, as light and easy as possible. But at the end of the
day it was still Dusty that had to get herself together.
GROSS: When did Dusty Springfield find out that she had cancer?
Ms. WICKHAM: She called me up one day and said, at the end of the
conversation--sort of very casually said, `Did I tell you that I found a lump
in my breast?' which I said, `No. And what did your doctor say?' to which she
said, `You know, I don't really have a doctor. I haven't been to see
anybody.' I said, `Dusty, get off the phone. Let me make you an appointment
with mine. I'll call you right back.' So I called my doctor, called her
right back. Two days later we were in my doctor's office and the doctor said,
basically to all of us, `Yes, there is a lump. I want you to go and see Ian
Smith at the Marsden.' And we came out. And, of course, it was the usual
crowd of us and went and had our usual cup of tea and said, `Well, it could be
worse. At least, you know, they know the lump's there. Perhaps they can do
something. They're sending you to a great specialist.' And we were all
trying to be, you know, incredibly optimistic.
But, of course, when she went to the Marsden they said, `Yes, it is cancer.
We need to shrink the lump,' which they did. And then they do what they call
a lumpectomy, which they take the actual lump out. And at that stage it
hadn't spread into the glands or anything. Did chemo, did some radiation.
And we thought she was clear, which was magnificent. So the record came out,
did all the promotion, which must have been grueling for her, but, you know,
thinking that she was absolutely OK. And then she went for a holiday in
Ireland and started--strange--having some sort of cough. And when she came
back, went back to check and they said, `Yup. You know, it's come back and we
need to be more aggressive this time around.'
GROSS: And so she took more aggressive chemo after that?
Ms. WICKHAM: She did. And also Dusty was a very well-informed person. And
what she didn't know she certainly would find out. She went to every possible
source on the Internet, friends, etc., etc., to find out what treatment was
effective, what could be done, what America was doing, called several people
in American hospitals and stuff and said, `This is what, you know, I'm doing
in Marsden. Is there anything you would recommend?' Just was really
well-informed. And to their credit, the Marsden were wonderful and tried a
couple of things that hadn't been approved in England. They actually went to
the association and got approval to use the drugs on Dusty, which was, you
know, very brave and good of them because I do think it's your choice what you
want. But unfortunately none of them did the trick.
GROSS: How did she handle the news that the cancer had come back?
Ms. WICKHAM: Scared as hell, as we all would be, but absolutely determined
that she would beat it. I mean, she felt that she'd beaten it before. She
felt that she'd basically, in life, had many close brushes with her life, that
she'd always beaten it. She felt she was in great shape emotionally, just in
her life in general, and that she would beat it.
GROSS: Did she ever, by the way, come out as a lesbian?
Ms. WICKHAM: No.
GROSS: Even when she knew she was dying?
Ms. WICKHAM: No. There was no--you know, in a way there was sort of no
interest in her from that point of view at that stage. The papers were
interested in the cancer, and it never really cropped up.
GROSS: Did she wish, do you think, that she could have been more honest about
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes, because she was a very outgoing person. I mean, she wasn't
a secretive person at all. I'm quite sure that she wished she could have
GROSS: You were at her funeral when she died?
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes.
GROSS: What was the funeral like, and was there any of her music that was
Ms. WICKHAM: Yes. I put it together with Simon Bell, the two of us, and I
just said to Simon, `You know, Dust was such a star and artist. We have to
just have a very grand funeral.' And, as you know, the body was put in an
open horse-drawn carriage, which stopped the traffic in Henley. And yes, it
was all her music. We played "Goin' Back," which is very apt, the Goffen King
song. And the coffin actually went out to "You Don't Have To Say You Love
Me." And as it came out of the church, the crowd outside--I'm only laughing
because she would have loved it--broke into applause. And Elton said it's the
only funeral I've ever heard of that the coffin gets the applause. She would
have definitely been chuffed and had a giggle.
GROSS: It must have been odd for you to produce her funeral after having
worked with her for so many years.
Ms. WICKHAM: It was bizarre, but it kind of completed the cycle for me. I
mean, in a way I just didn't believe that she was dead. And by doing the
funeral and going through that, it actually closed the book, which was
GROSS: Vicki Wickham is co-author of "Dancing with Demons: The Authorized
Biography of Dusty Springfield."
(Soundbite of "Son Of A Preacher Man")
Ms. SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) Billy Ray was a preacher's son. son. When his
daddy would visit he'd come along. When they'd gather 'round and started
talking, that's when Billy would take me walkin'. Up through the back, oh,
we'd go walkin'. Then he'd look into my eyes. Lord knows to my surprise, the
only one who could ever reach me...
Ms. SPRINGFIELD and Group of Women: (Singing in unison) ...was the son of a
Ms. SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) The only boy who could ever teach me...
Ms. SPRINGFIELD and Group of Women: (Singing in unison) ...was the son of a
Ms. SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) Yes, he was, he was, ooh, yes, he was.
GROSS: Coming up, Bob Balaban, one of the producers and stars of the new
Robert Altman film "Gosford Park." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actor/producer Bob Balaban discusses the film "Gosford
Park," along with other productions he's been in
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Bob Balaban, is one of the producers and co-stars of the new Robert
Altman film "Gosford Park." The filmmakers describe it as part Agatha
Christie murder mystery and part "Upstairs, Downstairs." It's set in 1932 on
a British country estate where friends and family have gathered for a shooting
party. The guests have brought their servants. Of course, there's a murder
in the house. The family, friends and servants are all suspects. Bob Balaban
is part of the star-studded ensemble cast. He plays an American movie
producer who's in England making the film "Charlie Chan in London."
Balaban has appeared in many films, including "Prince of the City,"
"Deconstructing Harry," "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show," "Ghost World"
and "The Majestic." In "Seinfeld" he had a recurring role as the network
executive who bought Jerry and George's sitcom idea.
I asked Bob Balaban about Altman's approach to recording overlapping dialogue.
He described a scene in which all the guests are gathered in one room, and
many conversations are under way.
Mr. BOB BALABAN (Producer/Actor): To shoot scenes and record the dialogue
with this many people, Bob does something very radical, which is he has 19
microphones. Every single person out there on that huge set had their own
individual body mic and their own individual track on which their dialogue was
recorded. So at any point in the proceedings, Bob could listen to 19
different things going on in the group scenes, when we were at the table and
we were in the dining room and the living room. He could select anybody's
dialogue and bring it up and remove anybody else's dialogue who wasn't on
their microphone. This is a nightmare.
Now you could be neurotic and indecisive and you could spend 30 years cutting
a movie that's got dialogue like that 'cause you have so many choices. Bob
very quickly listens to everything and he goes, `That's funny. That's not
funny. OK. This is good. This is what I want.' It's really one of the
reasons why Bob must operate in a situation that's not a bureaucracy, you
know, that isn't directing by committee with a lot of executives telling him
what to do because he operates so instinctively. And also it would take so
long. I mean, the reason that his movies have that Robert stamp to them is
he's in complete control of everything, and he needs to be.
GROSS: Now as an actor, when you're working in a situation like that, you say
there's a lot of people in the living room...
Mr. BALABAN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...everybody's engaged in a conversation. You have your lines.
They're being recorded. But you don't know if they're going to actually be
used in the movie or not.
Mr. BALABAN: Oh, yeah. That's true. I think it's a great thing for a movie.
I found that the first scene I shot in the movie was my character was
introduced. We all got into the house. There were 23 people in the scene.
And I went around going, `Hello, I'm Morris Weissman.' And then Maggie Smith
would go, `Hmm,' you know. She wouldn't exactly say hello. And we did the
lines we were supposed to say. But then, because I was off in the corner with
somebody and the camera was constantly moving, all the scripted lines were
spoken during the course of a three-page scene, and yet whenever you weren't
on camera you had to maintain a conversation with whoever you were with.
Well, that's like rehearsing a play. It's like fabulous background. `Oh,
this is how my character talks to that person. This is what it feels like to
be in the house. This is what my character is noticing right now.' You
literally get to live and breathe in your costume, on the set, while you're
shooting, a great improvisation, that is great background for yourself. And
after a few days of this, you really do learn a tremendous amount about the
world that you're inhabiting. It was a great learning experience.
GROSS: So you're improvising conversations that Altman is recording...
Mr. BALABAN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...during the making of the movie.
Mr. BALABAN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Were any of your improvised lines actually used in the film?
Mr. BALABAN: Oh, many of them, but many of all of ours.
Mr. BALABAN: But the movie, I must stress--this is not an improvised movie in
any way. I was in "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show," and that is only
an improvised movie. That's a basic outline and then you just say whatever
you want. We only did this when we were in large group scenes that needed
this to fill in. Otherwise, if you notice other people's movies, usually that
have a lot of people in them, everybody's kind of going, `Blah, blah, blah,'
and they're kind of fake doing whatever it is they're doing. And then they
say a real line and the camera must get to them at that point. In our case if
the camera lingered on you--there's a wide shot when we're leaving going for
our pheasant hunt and I was just chatting with Jeremy Northam and with,
literally--there are probably 32 characters in this very wide shot. And I
come out there and I started saying to Jeremy, `We're going to shoot
pheasants.' And both me and my character are not exactly woodsmen. And so I
said to Jeremy, `Gee, you know, are pheasants ever dangerous?' And then I
went on this whole long thing...
Mr. BALABAN: ...about, you know, how frightened I was of pheasants, which is
true, actually. With the idea that a pheasant would rush at you and claw your
eyes out. I don't know. It could be frightening. Yeah. And he put that in
the movie and it actually gets a rather nice laugh. But I really, at that
point--it was such a wide shot I had no idea what was happening. And working
with Robert, and it's not that you always have to be tricked into this because
you really don't, but there is such a feeling of at ease with what you're
doing with him, whether it's long shots where they're recording everything and
you're just getting used to it and you stop noticing when you're rolling or
not, or small little intimate scenes. He just creates an atmosphere along
with this all that lets you know you can be very relaxed. You're very
trusting of him. And you know that if it's not working, he just won't put it
in the movie 'cause he has consummate taste. He's not just warm and fuzzy.
He's got great taste. If something's not working, he doesn't put it in.
GROSS: Now you actually come from quite an interesting movie family. Your
uncle was the president of Paramount Pictures. Your grandfather headed
production at MGM. And your father was one of the co-owners of the Balaban
and Katz theaters. These were movie theaters or vaudeville theaters turned
into movie theaters?
Mr. BALABAN: Well, actually my father, who I'll talk about in a second, was a
little baby when this was all happening. My dad was the youngest of seven
brothers in Chicago, and my grandparents had a little grocery store where they
all slept, like, in one room in the back. In 1908, my grandmother walked into
a movie theater and said to my uncles, `Kids, this is the business'--my
grandmother went to a movie theater in 1908. She went to a nickelodeon. And
when she went in, she was amazed by the way the thing was run. And she went
to her children and she said, `This is the business that we're going to go in.
Where else do you pay your money before you see what you're going to get?
This is the wave of the future. We have to do this. And also it's not like
lettuce. The lettuce gets stale and old, you throw it away. The movie gets
old, they've seen it, you send it back to them and they send you a new movie.'
It was, like, perfect.
So they went heavily into the movie business, hocking everything they had,
starting in this tiny little theater, which I think opened in 1908 or '9, the
year my father was born. And within seven or eight years, they had about 150
movie theaters in the Midwest, pleasure palaces, these giant, beautiful works
of art designed, many of them, by the firm of Rapp & Rapp that sort of
specialized in this sort of quasi-Egyptian stuff, but very ornate, very
beautiful. And it was just an amazing time.
The oldest brother, Barney, then left Balaban and Katz, took over Paramount
from Adolph Zucher, eventually, and then was in partnership with Balaban and
Katz 'cause at that time in history movie studios owned movie theaters, and it
was like a perfect combination to control the Midwest and have, you know, the
older brother be at Paramount--was like an amazing thing. And then, of
course, antitrust legislation knocked this out. I'm not sure exactly when
that happened, but a lot of my relatives became Republicans at that point
because Democrats were responsible for this.
But where they were born in Chicago is this street called Maxwell Street,
which was essentially the Lower East Side of Chicago. It was like Orchard
Street in New York. And on this one little stretch of pushcarts and
cobblestones and very, very poor immigrants, Benny Goodman was on the left,
William Paley's family was on the right. Jack Ruby, oddly enough, lived down
the block from all of them. And Rickover lived...
GROSS: The admiral?
Mr. BALABAN: ...I think, across the street. Admiral Rickover, Hyman
Rickover. So it was this little melting pot that sent roots out that affected
everything everywhere. It must have something in the water, I think. I'm not
GROSS: Did you spend time in the projection booth as a kid?
Mr. BALABAN: I loved movies, you know? I was always sitting in theaters. My
favorite thing was in my dad's office they had to screen movies to see what
they would be buying and playing. I don't know if they really had to, but
they loved seeing the movies and I did, too. And when I was a kid, every once
in a while they would drag me on a Tuesday night, 'cause that's when they saw
the new movies, to the office where I got to see--I mean, it was a screening
room. I just couldn't believe it. I was eight or nine or whatever. And they
would show me these things.
I remember I went to see my first X-rated movie. I was a kid and my parents
were very liberal about stuff like that. And they said, `Well, don't be
shocked, but you're seeing an X-rated movie.' It was "I am a Camera." It
starred Julie Harris, Christopher Isherwood. It's what became "Cabaret," you
know, basically. And the movie was over and I was so disappointed. I was a
little kid. I told my friends I was seeing an X-rated movie and my parents
approved. I couldn't figure out the dirty part of the movie because
eventually what they did was many times you'd see them and they'd say, `Yes,
we made love last night,' or `We're going to make love.' And they would say
things like that. And, of course, in 1954 in Chicago, or wherever, you
couldn't say you were going to make love to somebody. You could say, `I would
kiss you.' I thought making love meant kissing somebody and being very nice
to them. I had no idea they were actually sleeping together. So that was my
first X-rated movie experience. And then I was in an X-rated movie.
GROSS: Oh, "Midnight Cowboy."
Mr. BALABAN: I was the X rating.
GROSS: Describe the scene.
Mr. BALABAN: I'm a kid who picks up a hustler in Times Square, Jon Voight,
the midnight cowboy, and we have an experience in the balcony of a movie
theater, which was very discreet but you knew exactly what I was doing. And
then I threw up in the men's room afterwards, and that was the next little
scene in the movie. And when the movie came out I was the reason for the
hard--well, I guess you'd call it a hard R, I don't know--but it was X-rated.
If you were under 17, you were not allowed to see the movie because of that
little moment which was very modest, I promise. And then after it got the
best picture award, mysteriously the rating changed. And now it was an R.
Now you could see the movie. I guess it was artistic enough that you could
stand what was happening.
GROSS: Although you're directing and producing now, as well as acting...
Mr. BALABAN: Yes.
GROSS: ...and you started your career as an actor...
Mr. BALABAN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...did your family hold actors in high regard?
Mr. BALABAN: No. They were kind about me because I was their family, you
know? And also I was not horrendously successful. I was just working. I
mean, the fact that in my generation a lot of my relatives, you know, didn't
do all that much, and they certainly weren't in the movie business
necessarily. They had comfortable lives and they inherited things from their
parents and they didn't--I think the fact that I was out there sort of
struggling and actually making a living was very--my father was proud of that
fact because, in a way, I didn't exactly have to be, you know, peddling myself
the way I was and pushing myself. I didn't exactly have to, although that's
sort of debatable.
GROSS: My guest is actor, producer and director Bob Balaban. We'll talk more
after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Bob Balaban. He's one of the producers and co-stars of
the new Robert Altman film "Gosford Park."
Bob Balaban, I want to read you what Leonard Maltin's encyclopedia of films
says about you in the Bob Balaban entry.
Mr. BALABAN: Oh.
GROSS: He writes, `During the late '70s and '80s, producers looking for
physically unprepossessing soft-spoken intellectual types rarely got past the
letter B in their casting directories.'
Mr. BALABAN: Aw.
GROSS: `No one surpassed Balaban in those roles. And the more dispassionate
or loathsome the character, the better he was.'
Now from your point of view, how did your unprepossessing intellectual type
look affect your casting?
Mr. BALABAN: When I was 17 years old, and I was in "Summer Stock" in Chicago,
an actress who was terribly old--she was 38 or something--came up to me and
she said, `You know, it's very interesting, Bob. You're going to do very
well, I think, in New York, and maybe you'll even get into movies. As long as
they have parts where you're supposed to look intelligent, you're going to get
work.' I had no idea what she was talking about because, you know, I'm smart
enough, you know, but I'm hardly a great genius or intellectual exactly. But
I guess I must seem that way because I've always been cast that way. Now
there are times when I wasn't. In "Jacob the Liar," a movie that I liked a
lot that Robin Williams starred in and I was the barber, I was actually a
barber. I actually talked loud. I was emotional. I did stuff. I can do
those things. But, you know, I'm not cast that way that much. Do I mind it?
In a way I might, but in a way I'm also lucky I get work. You know, I'm happy
when I get a job. So I'm glad they know what to make of me in some way.
GROSS: Now our engineer for FRESH AIR has done a lot of sound work in
theater, and he, Bob Purdick was telling me about a time when he worked in a
production that you were starring in in which you had to grab somebody by
Mr. BALABAN: I remember that one.
GROSS: ...and you were grabbing so tight that when they pulled away...
Mr. BALABAN: I broke my fingers.
GROSS: ...you broke your finger. Fingers? More than one?
Mr. BALABAN: Well, two of them actually.
Mr. BALABAN: He knew that? He remembered that?
GROSS: Yes, he did.
Mr. BALABAN: Oh, my God. That was "Speed-the-Plow," David Mamet on Broadway.
I replaced Ron Silver, who won a Tony Award. It was foolish of me to do that,
but I had a great time and I loved the play. And my finger's still sort of
bent because I did it two years later again and I broke my finger.
GROSS: You did it again and you broke your finger?
Mr. BALABAN: Mm-hmm. Different play. I grabbed a guy--a Jules Pfeiffer
play. I grabbed him by the lapels too hard. Don't grab people by the lapels.
It's my advice to you.
GROSS: It was the Jules Pfeiffer play that our engineer worked on.
Mr. BALABAN: Oh, was it?
Mr. BALABAN: Well, I had done it in "Speed-the-Plow" two years before and
broken the same finger.
GROSS: So what went wrong? You were just holding on too tight when they
Mr. BALABAN: I did the play for a year or nine months or whatever and, you
know, we had a very well-choreographed fight. It was beautifully done by a
very famous person who does all the fights on Broadway. And I'm, you know,
two feet tall, and I had to grab somebody who was 6'9" or something and shake
him by the lapels, throw him to the ground and then stand over him and scream
at him. I mean, it was a fun, exciting moment for me to have and I thought I
eventually pulled it off perfectly well. But you do the same thing like that
for months and months and months, at some point something's bound to happen
usually. And it was my finger. I'm glad it wasn't my head.
GROSS: Did you continue with the rest of the show?
Mr. BALABAN: I did. I did. And then I rushed off to the emergency room and
I had to wait for 10 hours and I couldn't wait and I came back and did the
next show. And, yeah, it was just my finger. But it hurt.
GROSS: So you had to do the next show before they actually, you know, put it
in a cast or whatever?
Mr. BALABAN: The show must go on, they say.
GROSS: How did it heal?
Mr. BALABAN: Badly. It's still sore. You know, fingers are kind of tricky.
You know, we could have a whole finger show, actually. They put it in a cast
and they fiddled around with it, and they don't do that much. You know, have
you ever broke your toe? Mostly they just say, `Wear tight shoes,' you know.
It hasn't progressed a lot from the Neanderthal days.
GROSS: One last question.
Mr. BALABAN: Mm-hmm
GROSS: Jeremy Northam plays Ivor Novello in "Gosford Park," your new movie.
Mr. BALABAN: Yeah.
GROSS: And Ivor Novello was a real singer and performer, songwriter.
Mr. BALABAN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And Jeremy Northam sings some Ivor Novello songs. Whose idea was it
to make him a character, to make that real person a character...
Mr. BALABAN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...in the film?
Mr. BALABAN: That character came in late in the drafts, and probably only a
few months--well, maybe five months before we started shooting because Robert
Altman wanted there to be source music. You know, he's sort of famous for
that. A lot of his movies have found ways to include real performances of
music during the movies. In "Kansas City" there was a lot of that. And Bob
is very musical. You know, he really is. He's like a jazz musician himself,
at least internally. I don't know if he can really play anything. He's very
musical. And he wanted there to be this character. He came in one day. He
says, `Perfect. Ivor Novello. I love his music. It'll be the centerpiece of
the movie. It can be the end credits.' I mean, he exactly knew what he was
going to do at that point. And the fact that Ivor was not that famous--I
mean, he was then, but to you and to me you probably don't know what he looked
like. We got to have a historical person in the movie but who was not so
famous that you would be worried that Jeremy should look like him or really
sound like him. Then it turned out that Jeremy Northam has a beautiful
singing voice and did just a fantastic job. And he played the piano even. We
didn't even know that, you know, when we cast him. It was just lucky.
GROSS: Well, Bob Balaban, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. BALABAN: Thank you. Nice to be here, Terry. I love your show. I think
GROSS: Bob Balaban is one of the producers and stars of the new Robert Altman
film "Gosford Park."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.