DATE December 13, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his work as a
mediator, his life in the White House and his spiritual life
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, filling in for Terry Gross.
When I was a college senior at the University of Florida in 1975 taking an
applied journalism course at the local newspaper, the Gainesville Sun, this
weird guy walked into the newsroom one day. He was carrying a giant clear
trash bag full of unshelled peanuts and handing them out to anybody he met.
`I'm Jimmy Carter,' he said with each handful, `and I'm runnin' for president
of the United States.'
Former President Jimmy Carter achieved that goal a year later. And this week,
22 years after leaving the White House, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He
was cited for his role in the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt in
1978 and for his later humanitarian work with the Carter Center, a private
foundation dedicated to promoting peace.
On today's FRESH AIR, we'll listen back to excerpts of several of our
interviews with him.
Jimmy Carter has been one of the most sought-after mediators in the world,
though he also has been criticized for cutting favorable deals with dictators.
In Haiti, he negotiated an agreement with the military rulers which averted a
US invasion. Carter negotiated a cease-fire in Bosnia with the Bosnian Serbs.
In North Korea, Carter helped defuse a nuclear crisis by negotiating a
commitment with dictator Kim Il Sung to freeze their nuclear program.
Although, as recent relations between North Korea and the US have declined,
North Korea has just announced they are rolling back on some of the
restrictions that were negotiated in 1994.
In 1995, Jimmy Carter told Terry Gross that he gets calls almost every month
asking him to mediate conflicts. Terry asked him then what criteria he uses
to decide if he'll accept an invitation.
(Soundbite of 1995 broadcast)
Former President JIMMY CARTER: Well, the first thing is that we have to be
able to induce both sides to accept our presence. Usually we get a request on
importunity from one side, and then we go to the other side and say, `Are you
willing now for us to participate? Do you really want to solve this problem
in a peaceful way instead through continued war or the eruption of war?'
That's a first step.
The second step is to get permission or approval from my own government,
either from the State Department or the White House. And in most cases, we
are better able to get approval from the White House, because the State
Department is an enormous bureaucracy, and there is at least an insinuation in
their mind that if some outsider comes in to address a problem that it means
that they have failed in their duties. So in most cases that have been highly
publicized recently, we've had approval from President Clinton and some of
his subordinates, but some opposition from other places within the government.
GROSS: When you know that someone who you're about to negotiate with has
violated all the promises they made in the past, how does that affect the way
you handle the negotiations and the way you handle a promise that they are
ready to make or a treaty that they're ready to offer?
Mr. CARTER: Well, quite often, we find that both sides violate agreements
and that the media coverage in our country is quite bias. We tend to have
heroes and villains. And the heroes can do no wrong, and the villains can do
no right. What we do at the Carter Center is analyze all the world's
conflicts. There are about 32 major wars now, and we try to learn on a
sustained basis the causes of those conflicts, the people involved, the issues
that must be addressed and so forth. And almost invariably, these wars are
civil wars within a country. And except on rare occasions, where the United
Nations Security Council has actually acted, it's not proper at all for a UN
official even to talk to a revolutionary who's trying to overthrow a
government that's a member of the United Nations. So we go where others don't
want to go. And at the time we went to North Korea, there was actually a law
in effect that prevented any American from going to Pyongyang to talk to the
officials there. And as you know, we were on the verge of a mass invasion in
Haiti when we went down to Haiti.
So we try to keep an open mind, not condoning what has been done in the past,
but setting up the procedure so that at the end of the mediation process, both
sides win. If one side wins and the other side loses, then there's no way
that an agreement can be preserved.
GROSS: When you went to negotiate in Bosnia, Leon Panetta, the White House
Chief of Staff, put it like this. He said, `The Serb motives are suspect.'
And I'm certain many people agreed with him when he said that. You know, a
lot of skeptics say that tyrants ask you to come, because they think they'll
get a better deal out of you. So what do you say to that?
Mr. CARTER: Well, I don't have any deals to offer, and I never go without
the approval of my government. And I never deviate from the policies of my
government. And I'm not only very familiar with the reasons and background
and personalities involved in conflicts, but I'm also very careful that I'm
thoroughly familiar with my own nation's policy before I go into an arena of
this kind. I've never deviate from that. Also, I don't want any authority.
I have zero authority. I just go as a private citizen, as a professor at
Emory University, as a member of the Carter Center. And this is very
important to me. When I conclude any sort of agreement, it has to be approved
word-by-word with the authorities in charge of both sides to a dispute, or in
this particular case, by the United Nations representatives there and also by
For instance, when we negotiated at the last minute after an attack had
already been launched against Haiti, every word in the agreement that I worked
out there with Emile Jonassaint, the provisional president, was approved by a
group of people in the Oval Office, including the president and the vice
president, the secretary of state and a national security adviser.
So I don't need any authority. I don't want any authority. I don't have
anything to offer. I try to represent the Carter Center well and make sure
that everything I do is completely compatible with the policies of my
GROSS: Let me ask you a question that I'm sure a lot of people have wondered
about. You have such a strong human rights record. What is it like for you
to sit opposite someone, like Karadzic, knowing the war crimes that he's
guilty of? Is it more difficult for you to negotiate with somebody who you
think of as a tyrant?
Mr. CARTER: Well, there are two or three phases. One is the preparation for
it. And the second phase, after I get there, is an extensive listening
process. I have to listen to their position and understand them and then I
weigh in with basic demands. My rationality, if I need any of it, is that if
a war is going on, we terminate the war. If a war is imminent, as it was the
case in Haiti and North Korea, we try to prevent the war. If terrible human
rights violations have occurred in the past, we try to make an environment
possible within which the human rights violations will be totally eliminated
or dramatically reduced. And I think that's a standard that we fill. And
whether someone has been guilty in the past of starting a war or committing
human rights atrocities is obviously a very serious matter for us to consider,
but we try to end those practices and bring peace and the alleviation of human
GROSS: Do you have to enter negotiations with someone who is a tyrant in a
fairly non-judgmental way and be as cordial and open as you possibly can.
Mr. CARTER: Well, I'm cordial and open. The only thing I have to offer is my
own integrity and an element of objectivity. I don't have any ax to grind.
My ax to grind is to try to bring peace and an end to human rights abuses.
But it doesn't mean that I go in ignorant of past crimes, and I have to just
realize that these people have committed crimes. In most cases, crimes have
been committed on both sides. They may be much more onerous on one side than
the other. But quite often, it's the scorned person or the despised person or
the unsavory people in international judgement that will need someone to
listen to their position, as was the case with Kim Il Sung and with the
provisional government in Haiti and as was the Bosnian Serbs.
BIANCULLI: Jimmy Carter speaking in 1995 with Terry Gross. Carter accepted
the Nobel Peace Prize this week. We'll hear more from Jimmy Carter after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Jimmy Carter accepted the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this week.
In 1993, Terry asked him about becoming president.
(Soundbite of 1993 broadcast)
GROSS: What was the most disorienting part of your first day and night in the
Mr. CARTER: I had pretty well gotten my Cabinet firmed up quite early after
the election and what do you do the next day to deal with a multitude of
issues. I had a very find agenda. I couldn't get much support originally
from the Congress, although finally my batting average was about the same as
Lyndon Johnson's or John Kennedy.
You know, what do you when you get in the Oval Office? I hardly knew where it
was, though I had visited it once before. President Ford invited me in to see
the Oval Office after I had won the election. I would have to say, though, as
a bottom line that I was quite confident of myself. I wasn't plagued with
trepidation that I was inadequate for the job. That may be presumptuous, but
anybody who decides I want to be president of this great country has to be
So I wasn't plagued with an inferiority complex. I felt that no matter what
came up that I could handle it as well as anyone.
GROSS: And what about during the hostage crisis? Was there every a point
where you wished that you weren't president, or you wish that you didn't have
this terrible burden on your shoulders?
Mr. CARTER: Well, you know, about 2:00 in the morning in April when we tried
the rescue operation and we couldn't succeed, that was perhaps the high point
of despair in my presidency. And I knew that I had to get up early the next
morning about 6:00 and prepare to go on all the morning talk shows and explain
to the American people that the rescue operation had failed. That was a very
dismal point. Also, we knew that an accident had occurred and that one of the
helicopters had flown into an airplane and that eight people had died, and I
had to notify those families during the night that their loved ones had
perished in a secret operation. There's no way that anything else that
happened during the four years could equal that as a time of discouragement
GROSS: Yeah. You told us a little bit about what your inauguration day was
like. Let's skip ahead to the inauguration of your successor, Ronald Reagan.
What were you feeling that day as you realized that the hostages were going to
be released on his watch, not on yours?
Mr. CARTER: Well, I didn't realize that. I had not been to bed for three
days and had negotiated in the most meticulous detail the release of the
hostages. Everything was all agreed and the hostages were in the airplane
ready to take off at 10:00 that morning Washington time. So we were just
waiting to get word that they had cleared Iranian airspace. And when I went
to the reviewing stand when I relinquished the presidency to Reagan and he
made his inaugural speech--before I left the reviewing stand, I was informed
that the plane had, indeed, taken off and the hostages were all safe and free.
I have to say that I didn't even think about the fact that it happened a few
minutes after midnight--I mean, after noontime, I just knew that they were
free. And that was one of the most glorious and happy moments of my entire
GROSS: Even though it wasn't on your watch.
Mr. CARTER: Well, to me, I didn't even think about it, but obviously that
became the major story among the news media that it had happened about 20
minutes after I was no longer president. To me that was insignificant, but it
has still prevailed. Even your question indicates that it was a historically
important fact that it happened a few minutes after I left the White House as
a president rather than while I was, you know, still in office.
GROSS: My guest is former President Jimmy Carter.
Jimmy Carter, before we go any further, I'm going to ask you for a little
lesson in etiquette. Do I call you President Carter, Mr. President or former
President Jimmy Carter? What is the appropriate etiquette when you're talking
to a former president of the United States?
Mr. CARTER: You know, one of the nice things about our country is you can
call me anything you want to. Jimmy suits me OK. There is a custom in our
nation that if you have been a governor or ambassador or a judge or a
president, then you can still retain the title. So if you want to call me
president you can, if you want to call me Jimmy, that's fine.
You know, when I go through Georgia's small towns and somebody is an old
friend of mine, I know it immediately when they say, `Hi, Governor.' They
call me--that's one of the most intimate relationships. And the little kids
around Plains when I ride a bicycle or job by, if they are very devout or if
their families go to church every Sunday, they call me `Brother Jimmy.'
`Hello, Brother Jimmy.' And a lot of them just call me, `Hello, Jimmy
Carter.' But it doesn't matter to me. I never was much dependent on the pomp
and ceremony of the White House even when I was there, and so Jimmy suits me
BIANCULLI: Jimmy Carter speaking with Terry Gross in 1993.
Carter is a born-again Christian and his religious beliefs have always been an
important part of his life. In 1996, Terry spoke with him about his book
(Soundbite of 1996 broadcast)
GROSS: How did you approach your prayer life in the White House? You say in
your book that other presidents have brought in Billy Graham to organize, you
know, a worship for them, but you didn't want to do that in the White House.
You thought it was a--it violated your sense of separation of church and
state. So what did you do?
Mr. CARTER: Well, I worshiped as I would if I had not been in public life at
all. I went to Sunday services at the First Baptist Church in Washington,
which was the nearest Baptist church to the White House. Most of the weekends
we tried to go to Camp David. We had a chaplain from a nearby Army base come
and preach a sermon. We sang hymns together.
And as far as my personal prayer life was concerned, I would say it was much
more frequent, maybe on the average more heartfelt than any other time in my
life because I felt that the decisions I made were affecting the lives of
hundreds of millions of people. I never prayed for popularity, I never prayed
to be re-elected, things of that kind. I prayed that I could keep my nation
at peace, I prayed that I could extend the advantages of peace to other
people, say, between Egypt and Israel at Camp David. When the hostage crisis
came along, the prayer that I made was that all the hostages would come back
home safe and free, that I would not betray the principles of my nation or do
anything to embarrass it. And I think in all those cases my prayers were
I think God always answers our prayers. Quite often God's answer is, `No.'
We don't get what we ask for. And then the obligation, if we have faith, is
to find out within ourselves why. Are we asking for selfish things? Are we
asking for things that are unjustified? Are we asking for things that ought
to be granted in the future? Should we change the priorities in our lives?
Are our prayers in accordance with God's will? Those are the kind of things
that I've learned over a long lifetime, as you know, and those are the things
I try to describe in "Living Faith."
GROSS: What was your sense of prayer when you were a child, and how has your
sense of prayer changed as an adult?
Mr. CARTER: Well, when I was a child, say when I reached the age of 10 or
teen-age life, I had some very serious doubts about what I heard in church,
what I heard in Sunday school, what I heard my own father teaching. But I
wouldn't express my doubts to anybody. And I thought I was very sinful not to
have absolute and total faith. Now my faith is stronger. I can see the
various aspects of a deep Christian faith. I realize that as I was at the age
of 15, I'm still searching, I'm still trying to learn. I'm still trying to
stretch my heart, stretch my mind. I learned two or three times in my life
that my faith could sustain total doubt in God. I rejected God a few times.
I felt that God had betrayed me, that I could not depend on my faith at all.
And I had to go through a very difficult and unpleasant healing process.
I've learned over a period of a long lifetime, 50 years of marriage with
Rosalynn, how sadly mistaken I was in dealing with her. When we first got
married, I was an arrogant, young, Naval Academy graduate. Rosalynn was a
very shy, timid, younger person from Plains, Georgia. I totally dominated
her. I didn't show any sensitivity when she was distressed. I was just
impatient. When decisions were to be made about our family's life, I didn't
consult with her. I just made a decision and informed her about what we were
going to do. And that was in my formative stage as a mature human being.
I've learned to correct some of those mistakes. So prayer life for me has
paralleled in awareness and in growth and in significant in my evolution as a
human being. And I hope that I'll continue to improve in the remaining years
that I have.
BIANCULLI: Jimmy Carter, speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. Carter was
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this week.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Coming up, playwright and actor Sam Shepard talks about his fear
of flying, a surprising phobia for the actor who played fearless test pilot
Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff." Shepard has a new collection of short
stories. And John Powers reviews "About Schmidt," the new film starring Jack
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actor Sam Shepard discusses his career in theater and
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.
Playwright Sam Shepard was described in Esquire magazine as creating
quintessential American characters in the idioms of rock, sci-fi and the Wild
West. As an actor, Shepard starred in such films as "The Right Stuff,"
"Crimes of the Heart," "Steel Magnolias," "Country" and Terrence Malick's
"Days of Heaven." He wrote the screenplay for "Paris, Texas." His plays
include "Fool for Love," "True West," and "Buried Child," which won a Pulitzer
Prize in 1979. His new collection of short stories, "Great Dream of Heaven,"
has just been published. In the past, Shepard has written about his fear of
flying, which not only goes against his iconic image, it's a stark contrast to
his portrayal of test pilot Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff."
(Soundbite of "The Right Stuff")
Unidentified Man: Say there, Yeager.
Mr. SAM SHEPARD ("Chuck Yeager"): Sir.
Unidentified Man: We were just talking to Slick here about the sound barrier.
Mr. SHEPARD: Is that right?
Unidentified Man: And we feel that the X-1 is ready to have a go at it.
"SLICK": We think the X-1 has got the answer to go beyond Mach 1.
Mr. SHEPARD: If there is any beyond.
Unidentified Man: And so what do you think, Yeager?
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, I'll tell you what, half these engineers never been off
the ground, you know? I mean, they're liable to tell you that the sound
barrier's a brick wall in the sky, it'll rip your ears off if you try to go
through it. If you ask me, I don't believe the damn thing even exists.
"SLICK": Waitress, a drink for Mr. Yeager here.
Mr. SHEPARD: No, thanks. I got one.
"SLICK": So do you think you want to have a go at it?
Mr. SHEPARD: I might.
"SLICK": But since, as you say, this sound barrier doesn't really exist, how
Mr. SHEPARD: How much you got? I'm just joking. The Air Force is paying me
already, ain't that right, sir?
Unidentified Man: Why sure, Yeager. But...
Mr. SHEPARD: So when do we go?
BIANCULLI: Sam Shepard spoke with Terry Gross in 1998.
(Soundbite of 1998 interview)
Mr. SHEPARD: I got to meet Chuck Yeager, you know, when I was shooting "The
Right Stuff," and he's a man who's known for impeccable courage and all the
rest of it. And I got to talking to him about flying and all that, and he
says it's not true that you don't have fear. You know, fear is part and
parcel of the thing that you take on, is that you're able to face it, you
know? To me, that's the interesting part about courage, you know? It's not
that you don't have fear, it's that you look it in the eye, you know?
TERRY GROSS reporting:
But Chuck Yeager went on to be, you know, a famous test pilot. You played him
in "The Right Stuff." But you don't go up in planes yourself, right?
Mr. SHEPARD: I do occasionally. I'm getting better at it, actually. I go
to Mexico once a year, stuff like that. It's just that I'm not crazy about
it, you know? And it's a funny thing because I grew up in a kind of rural
situation, and most of the people that I've talked to from that kind of
background are terrified of flying, and I always thought that was curious, you
know, that people who had a background of being sort of stuck in the land
don't like to get up in airplanes. And I don't know if that's just a
coincidence or--you know what I mean?
Mr. SHEPARD: I have a farmer friend of mine who, once a year, flies to Las
Vegas to have a go at the one-armed bandits, and he can't stand airplanes; he
GROSS: Did you...
Mr. SHEPARD: But he goes, you know?
GROSS: Now did playing Chuck Yeager have any effect on you and flying?
Mr. SHEPARD: An effect on me and flying? No. I went up with him, actually,
once in a little Piper Cub over the desert because I thought, you know, if I'm
going to crash, I might as well go down with the world's greatest pilot. So
we went to this hangar, and he took this little hook that looked like an
umbrella handle and pulled this airplane out of the hangar by hand. And it
was a single-prop plane. We jumped into the damn thing and took off, and I
couldn't believe it, I felt great. It was a great feeling. We kind of
hovered over the desert and he showed me different stuff, you know, where he
hung out in his Air Force days. And that was fun.
GROSS: Now I know your father was a bomber pilot in World War II. I'm
Mr. SHEPARD: Right.
GROSS: ...if that had any impact on you and if you...
Mr. SHEPARD: Oh, I'm sure it did.
GROSS: Did you hear a lot of scary stories about nearly being shot down
during the war?
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, he--yeah, he had quite a few scrapes. He had a bunch of
shrapnel hit him and stuff, and one time they had a belly gunner--you know, in
those old big planes, they had these glass turrets underneath the fuselage
with the machine gun turret. And one of his buddies was in that while he was
flying the bomber, and the turret got shot off, and he saw his pal go down,
you know; stuff like that. I don't know. I guess it gives you little
nightmares when you're a kid and stuff. I suppose it has affected me, but I'm
not sure how.
GROSS: Well, what effect do you think it has on your career? You know, a lot
of people, especially those who don't live in LA...
Mr. SHEPARD: The fear of flying in my career?
GROSS: Yeah, yeah...
Mr. SHEPARD: Is that what you're asking me?
GROSS: Yeah, because, you know, if you're an actor and you don't live in LA,
well, you know, you can fly there when you get the part.
Mr. SHEPARD: Oh, I see.
GROSS: But if you don't like to fly...
Mr. SHEPARD: I see what you mean. I see.
GROSS: ...it's really a burden to get there...
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah.
GROSS: ...particularly on short notice or to go back...
Mr. SHEPARD: I thought you meant the...
GROSS: ...and forth. You know, a lot of people, like, bicoastal...
Mr. SHEPARD: Right.
GROSS: ...always flying back and forth between New York and LA. You've got
plays in New York and movie jobs in LA and...
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah, it slows things down, but I enjoy driving. In fact, I
just drove to British Columbia to do a film and got stuck in that big blizzard
in South Dakota coming back. But it was kind of neat, you know? I stayed two
days in Wyoming in Sheridan and Gillette, you know, while the winds were
blowing 50 miles an hour, and it was kind of interesting.
GROSS: Now some of your plays have dealt with family upheaval, family
violence. You left your family, as a teen-ager you left home. That...
Mr. SHEPARD: I did. I was driven out.
GROSS: Driven out by your parents?
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, that's unfair to say. I mean, I left in a kind of
holocaust of my old man, you know? He destroyed the house and I decided it
was time to go.
GROSS: What did your father do that destroyed the home?
Mr. SHEPARD: What did he do?
Mr. SHEPARD: Broke windows, tore the doors off, stuff like that.
GROSS: Oh, literally destroyed the house.
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah, physically.
GROSS: Huh. How'd your mother handle that? She didn't run away with you.
Mr. SHEPARD: She's a very brave soul.
GROSS: Was your father very strict when you were growing up? Were there a
lot of rules you were supposed to follow?
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah. He was. Uh-huh.
GROSS: What were the rules?
Mr. SHEPARD: He was an Air Force guy, you know?
Mr. SHEPARD: Crew cut and all that stuff.
GROSS: So what were the rules you were supposed to obey as a kid?
Mr. SHEPARD: What were the rules I was supposed to obey--never show any
feeling was one of the rules.
GROSS: Now I think there's a kind of hard-boiled quality about some of your
characters, so that even if they don't kind of openly express a lot of
emotion, they're also vulnerable, but in a hard-boiled way, as opposed to in a
way where they don't express emotion but, you know, behind closed doors they'd
be crying or something. Do you know what I mean?
Mr. SHEPARD: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: And I'm wondering if you thought of yourself as having that
hard-boiled quality when you were still in the house with your parents, kind
of in a house ruled by your father?
Mr. SHEPARD: No, I never as a kid thought of myself as hard boiled. That
came later. Under the influence of my old man and the family situation and
all that, I never for a second believed that I was that tough, you know? You
can't--as a child, you don't think of yourself as tough. I mean, you may be
able to bear certain things, but I just never had that kind of image of myself
as a tough kid.
GROSS: When your father was tearing doors off hinges and breaking windows,
was he beating you up, too?
Mr. SHEPARD: Now and then, you know? Yeah. But, I mean, I wouldn't say
that I had a particularly horrendous childhood compared to the modern kids,
you know? I think the modern kids probably have it worse, you know, having
sometimes no fatherly influence at all, you know?
BIANCULLI: Sam Shepard talking with Terry Gross in 1998. He has a new
collection of short stories. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry Gross' interview with Sam Shepard,
recorded in 1998.
(Soundbite of 1998 interview)
GROSS: When you were young, did you find any resonance in books or movies,
you know? With the situation that you were in, did you gravitate to books or
movies that seemed to describe families similar to yours? Or did you look for
something completely different in books and movies?
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, now I was--it was funny. When I was in high school, we
were out in the middle of the boondocks, you know, and there was a little
bitty art house theater, I remember, out in a place called Kookamonga.
GROSS: Oh, wow. You really lived near a place called Kookamonga?
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah.
GROSS: You remember on "The Jack Benny Show," it was always...
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah, right.
GROSS: ...the bus announcer was always saying, `And Kookamonga.'
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah. There really is a Kookamonga. It was surrounded by
vineyards, you know, and for some reason or another, there was this little
bitty art house there and they'd show foreign films, which was just
unbelievable in those days 'cause there wasn't anything around but "Ben-Hur"
and, you know, "Cleopatra" and all those kind of things. So me and a couple
of buddies of mine would go out there. And I saw a film called "Four Hundred
Blows" by Truffaut, black and white film, and that really stunned me, you
know? It was, like, whoa. You know, this kid--I saw a lot of similarities
in that between my situation and that, you know?
GROSS: He's sent to reform school in that.
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah. Yeah. He had a pretty rough deal.
GROSS: So you were seeing art films in Kookamonga. Wow.
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah, art films--you imagine that?
GROSS: So were you seeing plays or reading plays?
Mr. SHEPARD: No. Huh-uh. Yeah, I'd read some O'Neill.
GROSS: Talk about family drama.
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah. Some of his one-act stuff. And then I saw the film
based on "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which I thought was an amazing film,
you know, particularly since it was based on a play. I don't think most plays
make good movies, but in that case, it was incredible performances, you know?
GROSS: Now you started off acting in--I think it was a small repertory
company that basically toured churches.
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah. When I first left home, I got this paper route, and I
was delivering papers out of a '51 Chevy. And I was throwing papers along the
houses and stuff, and at the end of the day, I started going through the
paper, and at the end of it in the work section, there was this little ad that
said `actors wanted.' And I went in and auditioned for this company. It's
called the Bishops Company. And the great thing about it was it was a
traveling company. It was going to get the hell out of there, you know? And
so they hired me and the next day I was on a Greyhound bus to Bethlehem,
Pennsylvania, and joined up with the company there. And we toured all over
the place and did these one-night stands in churches, which was my first real
experience with theater.
GROSS: It's funny, 'cause you went, you know, from churches eventually to
off-Broadway at a time when off-Broadway was, you know, very avant garde for
its time, so it's an interesting contrast. Playing the church circuit must
have been an interesting way to see the country and get started acting.
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah, and also to see probably the last of that kind of '50s
culture, although it was the '60s, you know? It was still the '50s feel about
it, you know, that culture in small-town America. It was pretty amazing.
GROSS: So you went to New York. I think it was in 1963.
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah.
GROSS: What was it like to be--I think you were living or at least working in
Greenwich Village. Was this your first exposure to an avant garde and to a
bohemian life, to a life that was radically different from the kind of
military life that you grew up in and also radically different from the
churches that you were touring?
Mr. SHEPARD: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it was. I was suddenly on the Lower East Side on
Avenue C and 10th Street living with jazz musicians.
GROSS: Well, I think your roommate was Charles Mingus' son.
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah. Yeah, I'd gone to high school with him, and he was
working in a place called the Village Gate and got me a job there as a bus
boy. So that's how I got initiated into New York.
GROSS: Were you a good bus boy?
Mr. SHEPARD: Oh, yeah, excellent. I got fired because I'd knocked over a
candle on a guy's suit, and that was the end of that job.
GROSS: Right. Right.
Mr. SHEPARD: But in the course of that, I got to see probably the most
amazing musicians of their time, you know, like the Adderley brothers and
Mingus and Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan. It was just a free show, you
GROSS: Yeah, 'cause the Village Gate was a club.
Mr. SHEPARD: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: In the '60s, everybody wrote about you as like the new bright hope of
off-Broadway. What was off-Broadway like when you started writing plays for
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, obviously it was so poverty stricken that they had to
pick on me. No. I don't really know anything about off-Broadway at that time
because I didn't try to--you know, it was commercial in its own way as
Broadway was. You know, it was as forbidding as Broadway as far as opening
the door to it. And I just was lucky in the fact that all of these little
cafes and churches and stuff were starting to open up to, you know, a
brand-new way of theater.
GROSS: Did you want to act in your own plays? Did you see that as a
possibility for yourself?
Mr. SHEPARD: No.
GROSS: Why not?
Mr. SHEPARD: I don't know. It seems like the height of vanity to me, you
know? Acting and writing and directing--you know what I mean? I just--it's
GROSS: Hmm. And that's what kept you from doing it, thinking that it was
Mr. SHEPARD: Just--yeah, in some ways, I suppose. Of course, that's kind of
vain, too, to think that. But, you know, it was just--and the other side of
it, too, was I kind of liked seeing the writing from the outside. I liked
seeing an actor play it, where I don't think you can really see the writing if
you're inside it.
GROSS: When you're writing lines for a play, do you speak the lines out loud
to just hear how they sound spoken?
Mr. SHEPARD: Sometimes. Sometimes, yeah.
GROSS: Now when you're writing dialogue for plays, do you ever hear a certain
musicality in a line, like where you hear the accent, where you hear the
emphasis as being, and then the actor does it completely differently than
Mr. SHEPARD: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...maybe it works but maybe it doesn't work for you? Maybe you feel
like your intention was kind of lost. Will you say something to the actor
about that if you do feel that the music you're hearing is lost?
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, yeah, but I think more often, particularly if you have
good actors like, for instance, Malkovich and Ed Harris and Jim Gammon and
these great actors that I've had the good fortune to get, they often will land
things in an unexpected way that's not only surprising but right, you know, I
mean, much more right than you could have intended, you know? In other words,
they bring the intention of the writing into another domain. Malkovich has
the uncanny ability to do that.
GROSS: Any general impressions about most screenplays that you read now,
about how well they're written.
Mr. SHEPARD: Oh, boy. Well, my main problem with screenplays nowadays, you
know, most of the ones I've seen is that there are no characters whatsoever in
them. That's my main problem with them. You just don't find any characters.
You find these formulas. You find these sort of Hollywood rituals going on,
but you don't find characters. Every once in a while you do. I mean, I don't
want to be too harsh. But many, many of the characters don't even feel human.
They feel computerized or faxed or, you know, somebody's mailed it in. And
they all kind of sound like they come from the same person. I don't know if
it's a secretary out there who's doing it or what.
GROSS: That's the secret.
Mr. SHEPARD: The scripts are very weird, you know?
GROSS: You must be able to read screenplays with confidence because you write
plays. I mean, I know, like for me, for instance, it's very hard for me to
read a play or a screenplay and really be able to kind of stage in my mind how
it would look and sound together.
Mr. SHEPARD: Well, screenplays are easier to read because if you can't get
past the first five pages, you might as well throw it in the fire, you know?
That's it. Five pages.
GROSS: Well, I really want to thank you a lot for talking with us about your
life and your work. Appreciate it very much.
Mr. SHEPARD: OK. You bet.
BIANCULLI: Playwright, actor and director Sam Shepard. His new collection of
short stories is called "Great Dream of Heaven." Coming up, a review of the
new film "About Schmidt." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Jack Nicholson film "About Schmidt"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Jack Nicholson stars in the new movie "About Schmidt," loosely based on a
novel by Louis Begley. It's directed by Alexander Payne and written by Jim
Taylor. The two also collaborated on the films "Citizen Ruth" and "Election."
Film critic John Powers says it's been years since he's seen Jack Nicholson
JOHN POWERS reporting:
Whenever Hollywood makes a comedy about the so-called flyover states, I
usually wind up cringing. These movies nearly always turn locals into quaint
or disdainful cartoons, rather like the Southerners in the hit movie "Sweet
Home Alabama." That's one reason I'm so fond of Alexander Payne's "About
Schmidt," my favorite American movie this year. Although it isn't shy about
mocking the foibles of ordinary Midwesterners, this heartbreaking new film has
the emotional richness you found in the great Italian and Eastern European
comedies of the 1960s, in which comedy and tragedy walked arm in arm.
Jack Nicholson stars in what must surely be the least Nicholsonian role of his
career. He's Warren Schmidt, an Omaha actuary whose wife Helen dies shortly
after his retirement. After briefly falling apart, Schmidt clamors into his
huge Winnebago Adventurer and hits the road in search of something. He visits
his childhood home and his old college frat house and finally heads to Denver
for the wedding of his disaffected daughter Jeannie. That's the actress, Hope
Davis. Jeannie's marrying a dim bulb waterbed salesman named Randall, played
by Dermot Mulroney, who sports a genuinely terrifying mullet.
Once in Denver, Schmidt meets Randall's quasi-hippie-ish clan, headed by
his loud, gregarious mother Roberta, who's exuberantly played by Kathy Bates.
Schmidt would like to stop what he sees is a misguided marriage, but he
doesn't want to further alienate Jeannie, whose irritation with him is
apparent when they discuss her mother's funeral back in Omaha.
(Soundbite from "About Schmidt")
Ms. HOPE DAVIS ("Jeannie"): Dad?
Mr. JACK NICHOLSON ("Warren Schmidt"): Hmm?
Ms. DAVIS: Why did you get such a cheap casket?
Mr. NICHOLSON: What?
Ms. DAVIS: I could tell you got the cheapest casket. Everybody could.
Mr. NICHOLSON: Oh, that is not true. That is not true. I specifically did
not choose, as you say, the cheapest casket. There was one less expensive
which they showed me and I refused it.
Ms. DAVIS: You mean a pine box?
Mr. NICHOLSON: Well, I don't remember what it was.
Ms. DAVIS: She waited on you hand and foot. Couldn't you have splurged on
her just once? Once?
Mr. NICHOLSON: Hey, hey, hey! What are you talking about? What about the
Winnebago out there? What do you call that? That's an expensive vehicle. I
didn't want to get it, but I did. That was completely your mother's idea.
Ms. DAVIS: She told me she had to pay for, like, half of it. She said she
had to sell some of her stock or something to pay for it.
Mr. NICHOLSON: Well, that was her decision. I was willing to go as far as
the Mini-Wini, but no, she had to have the Adventurer. She wanted the whole
shebang. What was I supposed to do, tell her she couldn't? It was her money.
No, no, no. You can't call me to task on that one. Hmm-mm.
POWERS: The film's director, Alexander Payne, was born in Omaha, and all
three of his films have been set there. He's the cornhusker cineast laureate.
As one who came of age in that same city, I can attest to Payne's uncannily
accurate feel for the place--the drabness of the light, the deceptive visual
blandness of its neighborhoods and the constant workings of social class. Be
it the ambition of poor girl Tracy Flick in the great comedy "Election" or the
stolidly middle-class Schmidt being horrified that Randall's declasse family
would hold a wedding rehearsal dinner at Tony Roma's and frame Randall's
diploma for passing a two-week course in electronics.
Payne and his screenwriting partner Jim Taylor have a marvelous eye for social
comedy, and "About Schmidt" is bursting with terrific gags about Hummel
figurines, toilet etiquette in a Winnebago, and the surprises of middle-aged
randiness. Still, there's a profoundly bleak undercurrent to Schmidt's story,
especially in the letters he writes to a six-year-old Tanzanian foster child
he began supporting after seeing a TV commercial. Each time Schmidt begins
reading `Dear Ndugo,' the audience cracks up, not only because these words
sound intrinsically funny but because they promise revelation. Schmidt
actually shows more of his bottled-up anger, fear and loneliness to the
African child than he does to anyone he really knows.
The movie's core of melancholy is beautifully conveyed by Jack Nicholson, who
gives what's easily his best performance in at least two decades. It's always
been part of Nicholson's vanity that he's not vain like Warren Beatty or
Robert Redford. He's willing to appear fat, flat faced and ordinary. Here he
gives Schmidt the staring detachment found in so many fathers of that
generation, including my own. His gaze is at once observant, judgmental and
slightly perplexed, as if he's looking for a transcendence so inevitable that
he himself isn't really sure he's looking for it.
While on the road, Schmidt stops at a museum dedicated to the pioneers and
feels that compared to the courage of these men and women with their covered
wagons, he's nothing, a coward. But, in fact, this retired insurance man is a
kind of modern pioneer whose mini odyssey in his Winnebago bespeaks a quiet
heroism of its own. All alone, Schmidt is confronting the most daunting of
questions: How do we invest life with some sense of purpose? What keeps us
going in the shadow of death?
"About Schmidt" offers one answer in the exquisitely ironic final scene in
which everything comes together--the journey, the search for meaning, even the
letters to Ndugo. Payne builds the whole movie to a final close-up, a moment
of surpassing emotional brilliance by Nicholson. It makes us feel the
wrenching solitude of Schmidt's life, yet offers an unexpected glimpse of
hope, a brief intimation that there's more to his life than just himself. And
in this brief moment of release, we are meant to understand that this movie
isn't only about Schmidt.
BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic and columnist for LA Weekly.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.