DATE June 23, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Kris Kristofferson discusses his singing and acting
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR.
I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily News in for Terry Gross.
Our first guest, Kris Kristofferson just turned 70, but the summer of 2006 is
turning out to be a very busy period for him. Last week he was honored with
the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Next month he'll
get his hands in cement at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There's a new tribute
album, "The Pilgrim: A Celebration of Kris Kristofferson," with other artists
performing his songs. And Kristofferson himself has a new studio album out
called "This Old Road."
(Soundbite from "This Old Road")
Mr. KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) "Am I young enough to believe in
revolution? Am I strong enough to get down on my knees and pray? Am I high
enough on the chain of evolution to respect myself and my brother and my
sister and perfect myself in my own peculiar way. I get lazy and forget my
obligations. I'd go crazy if I paid attention all the time. And I want
justice but I'll settle for some mercy on this holy road through the universal
mind. Am I..."
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON and Unidentified Singer: (Singing) "...young enough to
believe in revolution?"
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) "Am I..."
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Kristofferson entered the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004 for
writing such songs, some of them crossover hits as "Me & Bobby McGee," "For
the Good Times," "From the Bottle to the Bottom" and "Help Me Make It Through
Kristofferson arrived in Nashville in the '60s after living in England as a
Rhodes scholar and serving in the military. His first job in the music
industry was working as a janitor at Columbia Records. It was there that he
met Johnny Cash, who became his good friend, recorded Kristofferson's songs
and convinced Kristofferson to start recording himself.
Kristofferson is as well known for his acting as his singing. His films
include "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," "A Star Is Born," "Lone Star,"
"Payback" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."
Terry spoke with Kris Kristofferson in 1999. Let's get started with his
best-known song, "Me and Bobby McGee."
(Soundbite from "Me and Bobby McGee")
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: If it sounds country, man, that's what it is. It's a
country song. OK. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.
(Singing) "Busted flat in Baton Rouge, heading for the train, feeling nearly
faded as my jeans. Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained, took us
all the way to New Orleans. I took my harp out of my dirty red bandana and
was blowin' sad while Bobby sang the blues. With them windshield wipers
slappin' time and Bobby clappin' hands, we finally sang up every song that
we ever knew. Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose. Nothing
ain't worth nothing but it's free. Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby
sang the blues. Feeling good was good enough for me, good enough for me and
(End of soundbite)
TERRY GROSS, host:
The most famous line from the song is "Freedom's just another word for nothin'
left to lose." What inspired that line?
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Well, that's what the song was really about to me--was
the double-edged sword, you know, that freedom is. And when I wrote that,
some of my songwriter friends in Nashville told me to take it out of the song,
said that it was--that it didn't fit; that it was--the rest of the imagery was
so real and concrete that it was out of place to put a little philosophical
line in there.
GROSS: Tell me if I remember correctly. Did you have a house that burned
down at about the time you wrote this song?
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: No. No, I had had a--I'll tell you what I had. I was
living in a condemned building at the time, and, you know, the thing cost me,
I think, $50 a month. And somebody had broken into it during the week that I
was down in the Gulf of Mexico and trashed the place and stole what little I
had to steal. I remember it was a very liberating feeling to me (laughs)
because everything was gone, and there was nowhere to go but up. I had also
alienated my family at the time; my wife had left me, and I was separated, you
know, from my kids, and I think I'd been disowned by my parents by that time.
And it was pretty liberating not having any expectations or anything to live
GROSS: How did Janis Joplin end up recording this song?
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Bobby Neuwirth taught Janis this song, I believe, and I
think he heard it when Roger Miller recorded it.
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: I first heard that she had sung this song when I came
back from--I'd been down in Peru making a movie with Dennis Hopper, singing
"Bobby McGee" as a matter of fact in the film, and somebody told me she had
sung it in a concert, I think it was Nashville, and then later, Bobby
introduced me to her. We lived out at her house for about a month or so, and
we became close friends, but I never did hear her sing it. I'd never heard
her tape of until the day after she died.
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Paul Rothchild played it for me.
GROSS: What year did you first get to Nashville, and what was it like when
you got there?
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: I first went there in June of 1965 and was on my way back
from a three-year tour in the army in Germany and was on my way to the career
course down at Fort Benning and from there to--supposedly to teach English
literature at West Point. And since my military obligation was already
fulfilled, I decided I was going to get out of the Army and be a songwriter.
I had spent a couple weeks there just on tour--I mean, just, you know, I was
on leave and got shown around to some of the songwriter sessions and got a
glimpse of the life--I've always felt like I was really lucky to have been
exposed to Nashville at that time because I'm sure it's different now.
GROSS: There must have been some kind of life-changing thought that happened
to you since you'd been on this military career track. Your father had been a
military career man. Was it a sudden change of heart or what that made you
think, `I'm not going to teach at West Point. I'm going to try writing songs
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Well, I had never intended to make the military a career
or academic life. I always thought that I would--I hoped that I would be a
writer and be able to have a creative life, you know, and then--well, after I
graduated from college, I went to Oxford for a couple of years and then I went
to the military for almost five years. And by that time I had a family and
you know, a wife and a daughter, and I think I sort of despaired of ever
making my living as an artist, until I went to Nashville. I went there
because in my last year in the Army when we were in Germany I'd formed a band
and started writing songs again. I'd been writing songs all my life, but
started really escaping into it during the last year I was over there in
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: And went to Nashville to try to peddle the songs, and
then when I got there, it was so different from any life that I'd been in
before--just hanging out with these people who stayed up for three or four
days at a time--oh, and nights--and were writing songs all the time. I think
I wrote four songs during the first week I was there.
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: And it was just so exciting to me. It was like a
lifeboat, you know. It was like my salvation.
BIANCULLI: Kris Kristofferson, speaking with Terry Gross in 1999. His new CD
is called "This Old Road." There's also a tribute CD featuring other country
artists doing the songs called "The Pilgrim." Here's Willie Nelson singing
Kristofferson's song, "The Legend."
(Soundbite from "The Legend")
Mr. WILLIE NELSON: (Singing)
"Was it better then with our backs against the wall?
Were we better men than we'd ever been before?
Say, if she came again today, would you still answer to the call?
Tell the truth, my friend, don't it matter any more?
We were simple men by her side when she was born.
And it was simple then, like the freedom when you fall.
We were smaller then, you see, but soon we gathered like..."
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: We'll continue our interview with Kris Kristofferson after this
break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1999 interview with Kris Kristofferson.
His new CD is called "This Old Road."
GROSS: How did you start making movies? Did you think one day, `I'm going to
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: When I started performing my own songs, my--the first
place I ever played was at Troubador Club in Los Angeles. It was kind of a
hangout like The Bitter End in New York. And I think at the time there
were--there was more people looking for new blood because I got a lot of
offers just off of performing there. And eventually Harry Dean Stanton gave
me a script. I didn't even know he was an actor at the time (laughs). I
thought he just sang in the bar there at The Troubador. But he helped me do a
screen test for a film that was called "Sisco Pike," and I got to putting my
music in it, and I was the lead in it, you know, a film with Gene Hackman and
Karen Black and Harry Dean and just went on from there.
GROSS: Compare the roles that you get now with what you got early on. You're
often playing the heavy now.
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah, I think that's thanks to John Sayles.
GROSS: And "Lone Star."
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: And "Lone Star," yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, where you played a sadistic sheriff.
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah. It was so different from most of the roles that
I'd played before that that I think people finally thought I was acting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: I'm not sure anybody thought I ever acted before that.
GROSS: Well, I thought I'd play a short scene from "Payback." And in this
movie, Mel Gibson is a con man who's getting revenge on the people who conned
him out of $70,000 and also shot him and left him for dead. You play somebody
who heads a crime syndicate. And Mel Gibson has kidnapped your son and is
holding him hostage until you deliver the $70,000. But now you've got Mel
Gibson tied up, and you're trying to get him to tell you where he's holding
your son. And here you are threatening him.
(Soundbite of "Payback")
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Here it is, 130,000.
(Soundbite of zipper)
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: That's as close as you're ever going to get to it. But
I'll make you a deal. Tell me where Jon is, and I'll finish you quick. I
promise you won't have to find out what your left ball tastes like. But if
there's even a bruise on him, I'll make this last three weeks. I'll give you
a blood transfusion to keep you alive if I have to. Where is he?
GROSS: That's Kris Kristofferson in a scene from "Payback."
How'd you get this part?
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Well, they had actually finished the film and apparently
weren't satisfied with the way it worked, and they created this character for
me to play. And I went in and shot a week, and I told Mel--I said, `Yeah,
there's not any pressure on me. The whole film doesn't work, and you're
expecting me to repair it in a week.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: But I think I got it because of playing Charley Wade, in
you know, in "Lone Star."
GROSS: Mm-hmm. I would imagine it's a lot of fun to be in a movie like in
which there's a lot of good, snappy hardboiled writing. It's a really well-
written and directed film.
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah.
GROSS: It also must be fun to be terrorizing Mel Gibson.
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah, well, I don't know. It was late at night when we
did that. I--my brain sort of locked up there for a while and I can remember
he was sitting--it was like 4:00 am and he was sitting there, painfully, in
the chair while the guy was smashing his toes with a hammer, you know, and I
sort of just--my brain was paralyzed for a moment there and I said, `You know,
this usually happens to me about once in every film. I get to a point where I
just can't imagine that I'll ever act in anything again. That I find myself
uniquely unequipped to be an actor,' I says, `but usually it takes longer to
get to it than this.'
(Soundbite of laughter, both Gross and Kristofferson)
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: This is my first night.
GROSS: Did people panic when you said that?
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Not really. I don't think anybody was afraid that I
couldn't do it.
GROSS: Well, I'd like to close with another song from "The Austin Sessions."
This is a song called "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33." Now this song is quoted in
"Taxi Driver." The Cybill Shepherd character, Betsy, buys the record for
Travis, the taxi driver played by Robert De Niro, and she says that he reminds
her of the character in the song. And she quotes the line, `He's a walking
contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.' How did the song end up in
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: I don't know. I always felt like that was the nicest
thing that Marty Scorsese (laughs) ever did to me.
GROSS: I guess you had already worked with him in "Alice Doesn't Live Here
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: I worked--yeah, yeah. But I didn't know it was going to
be in that one. And, God, he had--there's De Niro holding up my album and
there quoting me like Bob Dylan or something. It was--I still think that's
one of the sweetest things (laughs) I've ever seen anybody do for anybody in
GROSS: And who did you write the song about?
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Well, I wrote it about myself and about a lot of friends
of mine that I thought were, you know--Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Chris Gantry,
Johnny Cash and everybody I knew at the time. And a lot of us were 33 at the
time, and that's why it's called "Chapter 33." And Dennis Hopper--I remember
when we were down in Peru, every time that you would tell somebody you were 33
years old, they'd say, `Ah, the age of Christ.' So that sort of fit the
pattern of it.
GROSS: So were you referring at all to how you and a lot of people you knew
were kind of self-invented?
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: Oh, yes. Yes. Partly truth and partly fiction, you
know. I've always felt that I and many of the people I admire are figments of
our own imagination. I always felt that Willie Nelson, Muhammad Ali were
particularly successful at that, at imaging themselves and living up to what
they imagined themselves to be. When I first saw Muhammad Ali, he was Cassius
Clay. He was a little, skinny light heavyweight over in Rome, and he was
telling everybody he was going to be the biggest, the best. You know, he was
the next Joe Louis. And he imagined himself right up into that.
GROSS: Do you feel you did that, too?
Mr. KRISTOFFERSON: I think I did. When I think back to when I first was
writing my first songs, you know, like when I was 11 years old down in
Brownsville, Texas, I think that I imagined myself into a pretty full life
after that. I was certainly not equipped by God to be a football player, but
I got to be one. And I got to be a Ranger and a paratrooper and a helicopter
pilot, you know, and a boxer and a lot of things that I don't think I was
built to do. I just imagined them.
BIANCULLI: Kris Kristofferson and Terry Gross.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly")
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Christopher Frayling discusses Sergio Leone's Western
(Soundbite of music)
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.
"A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More," "The Good, the Bad and the
Ugly," "Once Upon a Time in the West"--the brutal west of the Italian director
Sergio Leone revived the genre, made a movie star of Clint Eastwood, created a
visual style that influenced many film directors around the world and
introduced many of us to the film music of Ennio Morricone.
Leone, who was born in 1929 and died in 1989, described himself as growing up
in the cinema. Both his parents had worked in the movies. Leone's films in
the '60s got little respect in their own time. They were disparagingly
referred to as "spaghetti Westerns."
In 2005, Terry spoke with Christopher Frayling, one of the world's leading
experts on Sergio Leone. He's the chair of the Arts Council of England and
rector at London's Royal College of Art. Last year, Frayling co-curated an
exhibit called "Once Upon A Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone" at
the Autry National Center's Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. He
also wrote a companion book of the same name.
In April, Frayling came out with a new book called "Spaghetti Westerns:
Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone." Let's start with a clip
from "A Fistful of Dollars," which features the tough guy character Clint
Eastwood developed in Leone's movies.
(Soundbite of "A Fistful of Dollars"; music)
Unidentified Man: Adios, amigo. Listen, stranger, didn't you get the idea?
We don't like to see bad boys like you in town. Go get your mule. You let
him get away from you (laughs)?
Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: See, that's what I want to talk to you about. He's
feeling real bad.
Mr. EASTWOOD: My mule. You see, he got all riled up when you went and fired
those shots at his feet.
Man: Hey, you making some kind of joke?
Mr. EASTWOOD: Mm. No. You see, I understand you men were just playing
around, but the mule--he just doesn't get it. Of course, if you were to all
(Soundbite of laughter; music)
Mr. EASTWOOD: I don't think it's nice, you laughing.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. EASTWOOD: See, my mule don't like people laughing. Gets the crazy idea
you're laughing at him. Now, if you'll apologize, like I know you're going
to, I might convince him that you really didn't mean it.
(Soundbite of music, explosion, horses)
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Why did Sergio Leone love Westerns? Why did he want to make them in
Mr. CHRISTOPHER FRAYLING (Author, "Once Upon A Time in Italy: The Westerns
of Sergio Leone"; chairman, Arts Council of England; Rector, London's Royal
College of Art): Well, you've got to imagine a child growing up in 1930s
Rome, at a time when Mussolini was the dictator and when most American movies
were banned, and those that were seen were dubbed into Italian. And the young
Leone first saw his--Hollywood Western movies in the 1930s at that time, and
his heroes were Gary Cooper and Clark Gable and films like "Stagecoach." And
to him, they represented an absolute model of freedom; that what--he lived in
suburban Rome in cramped conditions, and he saw these wide-open spaces, this
unimaginable desert that goes on forever. He saw these characters. He
couldn't understand what they were saying. He couldn't--he never heard--in
fact, he never learned to speak English, Sergio Leone. That's what's so
extraordinary. But they were dubbed into a different language, not very well.
But nevertheless they clicked in his mind.
Then in the 1950s, when he went into the film industry, he found that nobody
was really very interested in the Western; that a lot of Hollywood veterans
directors went over to Italy to make epics, films like "Ben-Hur" and "Helen of
Troy" and "Quo Vadis." And Leone hung around these films; sometimes he was the
assistant director. And he talked to directors like Fred Zinnemann, who'd
made "High Noon"; Robert Aldrich, who'd made "The Last Sunset" and "Apache"
and films like that. And they all said to him, `The Western's dead. It's
finished. We don't make Westerns anymore.'
So, basically, Leone made Westerns because Hollywood had stopped making them
and because in Europe and particularly in Italy there was this huge interest
in the Western and a huge knowledge of it as well. So the whole thing starts
in a kind of folk memory of American Westerns that went back to the 1930s, and
it's partly political. But the other thing was that Leone felt that Westerns
had got a bit talky; there was too much talking in them. He liked Westerns
where Rin Tin Tin did all the thinking.
(Soundbite of Gross laughing)
Mr. FRAYLING: You know, old-fashioned Westerns where--lots and lots of
action and not too much talk. He didn't like psychology. Freudian Westerns
got on his nerves, films like "The Left Handed Gun" with Paul Newman, where,
you know, you feel if there'd been a social worker around, Billy the Kid would
never have happened. Films like that he didn't like.
He liked films where--you know, a lot of shooting, a lot of riding, a lot of
action, a lot of landscape. So he wanted to bring back the kind of innocence
of the Western. It had become too sophisticated.
GROSS: Well, you know--but he knew he was making Westerns that were different
from American ones. Like he said--and I think this was to you that he said
this in your interview with him--that `John Ford, the great director of
Westerns, was full of optimism, whereas I, on the contrary, am full of
Mr. FRAYLING: Well, that's the thing. He loved the look of the Western and
the idea of the Western and the fairy tale of the Western. But he didn't like
some of the ideologies. He didn't like John Wayne very much and some of the
sort of crusading element of the Western that you got in the '50s and early
'60s Westerns. So loved the visuals; didn't like the ideology very much. So
he takes the concept of the Western and makes it much, much more cynical. I
mean, the hero, for example--when people ask him, `Why are you doing this for
us?' as someone actually asks in "A Fistful of Dollars," the first of his
Westerns--`Why are you doing this for us?'--instead of saying, you know,
`Because a man's got to do what a man's got to do,' or, `There's some things a
man can't just ride around,' things like that, that he says, `Five hundred
dollars?' He works strictly for ready cash.
So he has a very streetwise, 1960s, cash-only attitude to life. And this was
a very different kind of hero, much more grown-up kind of hero to the
old-fashioned crusading hero. And I think that the modern movie action hero
begins with the Clint Eastwood character in "A Fistful of Dollars," where you
identify with the hero, not because of what he believes in anymore because he
doesn't actually believe in anything. You identify with him because of his
style, you know: the way he wears his clothes, the way he walks, the personal
style of the man. And that, of course, is the basis of identification of all
modern action heroes. And I think it begins with Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful
GROSS: Well, you know, in American Westerns, the good guys were usually, you
know, relatively clean-looking and attractive in a movie star, you know, kind
of way. In Leone movies every--I mean, they're so violent, and everyone in
it--you know, the bad guys and the guys who were relatively good guys--but
nobody's exactly a good guy in the American movie Western way--they're all,
like, dirty, grizzled and mean (laughs).
Mr. FRAYLING: I know. It's true. And the production design, this sort
of--the towns looked very lived in. Leone couldn't bear those overlit towns
you get in TV Westerns. There were a lot--of course, in the 1950s and the
early '60s, there were lots and lots of TV Westerns. In England, you know,
every night on every channel, there was a different Western series. And they
were all very well-scrubbed and well-lit, and they looked as though they were
shot on a back lot in Hollywood. And Leone detested that look. He wanted to,
you know, dirty it up a bit, make it more grungy. So the towns look lived in,
and the hats--they're all gray hats. They're not black hats or white hats.
They're gray hats--lots of dust, lots of designer stubble. Everyone looks as
though they hadn't washed for three weeks.
And actually if you look at archive photos of the historical West, I think his
look was closer historically to what it was actually like to those Hollywood
movies of the '50s and '60s. You know, everyone looks very kind of dirty, and
they have bad teeth and they haven't shaved, and their skin isn't--well, as
you'd expect, isn't in very good condition. They didn't have access to health
care. So in a funny way he's doing quite a lot of historical research and
looking at lots of archive photos. He had a vast collection of archive
photos, and I've traced some of the visual influences and visual inspirations
for his films in archive photos.
So in a funny way he's doing a lot of research, but it's kind of a
well-researched dream, you could say. So he's creating a kind of dream world,
a fairy-tale world, but the surface of it looks very, very realistic.
GROSS: Another convention that Leone breaks is, you know, you don't shoot
children in cold blood in the great American Western. I think I'm right in
Mr. FRAYLING: Yeah, yeah, you certainly are.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRAYLING: Yeah.
GROSS: And at the beginning of "Once Upon A Time in the West," the bad
guys--and the lead bad guy is Henry Fonda, you know, Mr. American Icon--the
bad guys come into this little deserted cabin in the desert, shoot up the
whole family. One boy survives. And Henry Fonda looks at him, talks to him
and then shoots him in cold blood.
Mr. FRAYLING: Yeah.
GROSS: And I don't think you would have seen that in an American movie.
Mr. FRAYLING: No, that's true.
GROSS: And you certainly wouldn't have seen Henry Fonda doing that.
Mr. FRAYLING: That's absolutely right. And, in fact, in American TV
versions of "Once Upon A Time in the West," that moment was cut; that American
TV audiences weren't ready for Henry Fonda doing such a dreadful thing, it was
assumed at that time. I mean, the whole thing was that Leone loved casting
against type. You know, he imagined that the audience had a memory in their
heads of every performance that Henry Fonda had given. Here's the man who
played young Mr. Lincoln, Frank James. He'd played Wyatt Earp. He played
one of John Ford's heroes. This was the all-American hero. Who better to
cast as a psychopathic, child-killing gunslinger?
And Leone's great story was that he went--Henry Fonda arrived on the set with
brown contact lenses to cover his bright blue eyes and dark stubble because he
thought bad guys had stubble and brown eyes. And Leone said, `You're missing
the point'--or he said through his interpreter, `You're missing the point.
The whole point is you've got to have those translucent blue eyes, you've got
to be clean-shaven. And you make your first appearance and the camera's just
behind you at shoulder level. And it comes around to see you as you come out
of the bushes, and your cheek is puffed out with a wad of tobacco. And the
camera comes around to show your face. And I want everybody in the audience
to say, `Jesus Christ, it's Henry Fonda.' And that's exactly what happened.
Everyone--he's the last person in the world you'd expect in that situation.
So partly--a cinematic thing's going on--partly because in a Western universe,
where everyone's bad, there are some people who are very, very bad. And in
Leone's universe, if you do nasty things to children, you are very, very bad.
So the way to show the really bad guy, where everyone's wearing a gray hat, is
that something horrible, like the massacre of a family--actually there's quite
a traditional morality underneath that. It's just that he's racheted up the
odds a little bit more.
BIANCULLI: Christopher Frayling, speaking with Terry Gross last year. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Back to Terry's 2005 interview with Christopher Frayling, an
expert on the Western films of Sergio Leone.
GROSS: A lot of the Italian Westerns were--had international casts, so...
Mr. FRAYLING: Yeah.
GROSS: And you can almost see that in the faces. I mean, there's something
very, like, an ethnic variety of faces.
Mr. FRAYLING: That's true, and very often, it went with co-production. You
know, the "Fistful of Dollars" is a co-production between West Germany, Spain
and Italy, so you have Italian actors, Spanish actors, West German actors.
There were a whole series of West German Westerns made at the same time in the
mid-1960s, where the Native Americans are all played by Yugoslavians, if
you're following me.
Mr. FRAYLING: So you can tell the Native Americans, 'cause they're
GROSS: In America, they're all played by Jews probably.
Mr. FRAYLING: And, you know, you're quite right. There's this sort of
ethnic mix. But I think--and in fact, you know, in "Once Upon a Time in the
West," Claudia Cardinale, Italian; Charles Bronson, American; Henry Fonda,
America; Gabriele Ferzetti, the man who plays the railroad baron, Italian;
Frank Wolff, an American actor who'd moved over after the blacklist of the
early '50s to Rome and was making his living in the Italian film industry.
It's quite a mix of actors.
But I think it points to another thing, and that is that when these films came
out, they were treated as ersatz American movies, you know, carbon-copy
Westerns, Westerns which were trying to ape Hollywood. I don't believe that.
These are Italian movies. I think they're really best understood as part of
Italian culture and European culture. They were originally made--well,
"Fistful of Dollars" and "For a Few Dollars More" were originally made for the
home audience. In the 1960s, southern Italian audiences went to the cinema
more often than any other audiences in the world outside America. Southern
Italian audiences went to the cinema twice a week on average as adults. There
was no television in southern Italy in the mid-60s, so all the cultural
references are for that audience. There's lots of references to Italian
paintings, to Roman Catholicism. There are bells and churches and monks and
cemeteries and crosses and angels and the interiors of churches and the whole
iconography of Roman Catholicism.
I think one difference between the Italian Western and the American Western is
that in the end, the American Western is a Protestant genre based upon a
Protestant view of the world in the 19th century, whereas the Italian Western
is a Catholic genre, you know, at that fundamental level, not in an up-front
way, but that's just the visual references.
GROSS: Well, you know, because the casts were international, you know, we
hear Eastwood's real voice in America when we hear the American version, but a
lot of the actors are dubbed in the early Leone films. And you can tell
they're dubbed. They sound like the old "Hercules" movies, where everybody is
dubbed. So, like, that undercuts things a little bit, you know, because the
dubbing is just so bad.
Mr. FRAYLING: Well, it's interesting. You know, every Italian movie of the
'60s was dubbed. It partly arises from building their major studio on the
flight path of Fiumicino Airport, so planes go over all the time. They just
didn't have the convention of natural sound, and everything was
post-synchronized--Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, all these films, and so the
dubbing is not unusual. I think in the early Leones, yeah, because they
didn't have much of a budget, the dubbing isn't very good. But I think the
sound design of these films does have a quality of its own. The gunshots
sound like cannons, and the cannons sound like nuclear explosions.
Everything's pumped up on the soundtrack. And Leone once said to me that
sound is 40 percent, at least, of the experience of a film. And that was
quite new in the '60s, too, so there are pluses to the dubbing as well as
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the music in Sergio Leone's movies, and
the music was done by Ennio Morricone. And the music from the westerns is
so--it's just so good.
Mr. FRAYLING: Hm.
GROSS: How did he--Morricone and Leone had vaguely known each other in
elementary school. How did they hook up as adults?
Mr. FRAYLING: Yes, they'd known each other in the 1930s. And, in fact,
there's a famous school photo where they're standing almost next to each
other, taken in the mid-30s. But when Leone was making "A Fistful of
Dollars," he had to choose a composer, and he rejected the composer that the
producers had suggested and went to meet Morricone. He'd forgotten they were
at school together.
But they talked, and they concocted a kind of anti-Western score, you know,
that whereas the traditional Hollywood Western had a very symphonic, rich
score, school of Aaron Copland or Jaron Morass, you know, your folk tunes
reworked as symphonies, they wanted something that was much more hip, much
more related to pop. So you get a Fender Stratocaster guitar as used by The
Beach Boys or The Shadows. You get whistling, which is associated with kind
of solitude in the desert. You get a lot of Italian folk instruments, the
marranzanu or Jew's harp, you know, `doyng, doyng, doyng, doyng,' and a thing
called the argilophone, which is a ceramic instrument with holes in it where
you go, doo-oo-oo-oo-oo, and that sort of thing.
So it's Italian folk instruments plus rock music of the mid-1960s, and it was
an astonishingly raucous, noisy sound which became a huge best-seller as a
soundtrack album, "Fistful of Dollars." And it's nearer Tarantino than Aaron
Copland, you know. It's kind of like a pop music sampler. In fact, when I
went to see "Kill Bill," part one, Tarantino's movie, I thought he'd stolen my
record collection. The soundtrack was absolutely those kind of thing. But
it's raucous, it's ...(unintelligible), it's youthful, and it's not hooked
into the classical tradition at all.
Mr. FRAYLING: And it works great. It's also very--a lot of sense of humor.
It punctuates the action in a very amusing way sometimes.
GROSS: And on the soundtracks of the movies, in the actual movies, gunshots
are used as if they're part of the score.
Mr. FRAYLING: Yes. In fact, some concrete sounds. You know, it's very
trendy in the mid-1960s to experiment with music in the spirit of John Cage,
the composer. And John Cage famously wrote about a piece of music that
consisted of silence. And the idea was the pianist would come in, sit down at
his piano, and there'd be silence, and the sounds of the concert hall would
become the concert, so the coughing and the rustling and the sweets being
eaten in the bag and the shuffling of feet and the rustling of the program
become the music. So all sound is music. This was a very fashionable idea in
the mid-60s, and they picked up on this for the Italian westerns. Morricone
was very interested in it. In fact, he'd been to a seminar with John Cage in
the late '50s, so gunshots and whip cracks and bells and choirs singing
Mr. FRAYLING: I asked the choirmaster about the soundtrack of "Fistful of
Dollars." I said, `What are you actually singing? You know, what is it? Is
it "quick, get back" or "we must fight" or'--he said, `I can't remember. It
was just incomprehe--they're just sounds, you know, and the human voice is
used as another musical instrument rather than as a vocal line, so you get a
lot of humming in these films. And it's interesting. It's sort of
avant-garde music meets pop, and they're classic soundtracks, and they're a
very important element in these films.
GROSS: Christopher Frayling, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very
Mr. FRAYLING: Thank you. I've enjoyed it very much.
BIANCULLI: Christopher Frayling, speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. He
co-curated an exhibit on Sergio Leone last year.
Let's hear the music they were just discussing. Here's the theme from "A
Fistful of Dollars."
(Soundbite of music from "A Fistful of Dollars")
BIANCULLI: Coming up, I discuss two new TV shows, the kind that broadcast
networks used to make. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: TV shows "Broken Trail" and "Bill Moyers: On Faith and
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
At this point in the show, I'd like to take the time to talk about two new TV
offerings from genres that aren't represented that much on television these
days. One's a serious discussion show, the other is an old-fashioned,
large-scale Western. If the broadcast networks want to know why they're
losing audience and prestige, all they have to do is look around--to cable TV
and PBS which is doing what the networks used to do and doing it very well.
This coming season, there isn't a single movie night on any of the broadcast
networks. They've basically given up on movies and miniseries, two genres
they used to own. As for the serious discussion show, well, "Nightline"
hasn't been the same since Ted Koppel stepped down and the show went to
multiple hosts and topics. In prime time, the rare one-hour interviews tend
to go to tabloid-worthy celebrities, like Matt Lauer's recent "Dateline" NBC
chat with Britney Spears.
It didn't used to be that way. Less than two decades ago, the broadcast
networks made great miniseries. One of the very best of them was "Lonesome
Dove," a CBS Western starring Robert Duvall in one of his all-time greatest
performances. Duvall recently had an idea for a new Western miniseries, but
the result, a very engrossing drama called "Broken Trail," isn't ending up on
CBS. It's premiering Sunday and Monday night on American Movie Classics on
Duvall co-stars with Thomas Haden Church from "Sideways." They both play
cowboys but they start "Broken Trail" at very different places. Church plays
Harte, an itinerant cowhand. Duvall plays Harte's uncle, Print, who tracks
him down to deliver the bad news that Harte's mother has died and left the
ranch, not to her son, but to her brother, to him. Print has an idea, though,
one that requires Harte's help: a scheme to gather a lot of horses and run
them from Oregon to Wyoming, where they'll fetch much higher prices.
(Soundbite from "Broken Trail")
Mr. ROBERT DUVALL: (As Print) And I'm thinking tough high desert mustangs.
They can go unshod and ought to be fairly broke by the time we get to
Mr. THOMAS HADEN CHURCH: (As Harte) On shares.
Mr. DUVALL: (As Print) I figure 25-75 split on profits after expenses and
Mr. CHURCH: (As Harte) Loan repayment?
Mr. DUVALL: (As Print) To the bank. I'd have to put the ranch up as
Mr. CHURCH: (As Harte) Well, what the (censored) kind of deal is that? You
take the family ranch to borrow money to buy horses.
Mr. DUVALL: (As Print) Well, that's one way of looking at it.
Mr. CHURCH: (As Harte) What's the other?
Mr. DUVALL: (As Print) Well, you can stay here. Cutting the nuts of another
man's cows for chucking wages until you're all stove up and walking around
like a crab like all the other bachelor cowhands from here to the Dales. No
(Soundbite of mooing cow)
Mr. DUVALL: Truth is you're as loose as ashes in the wind.
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: The performances are wonderful and so are the scenery and
livestock captured in all their majesty by director Walter Hill. Hill, by the
way, directed the pilot of HBO's "Deadwood."
And there's a fascinating subplot, too, when the cowboys pick up some
unexpected companions. Five young Chinese girls who speak only Mandarin and
are being sold as slaves until Print and Harte rescue them.
"Broken Trail" isn't quite as gorgeous or as perfect as "Lonesome Dove," but
it's close. And that's high praise indeed.
And tonight over on public television, Bill Moyers returns to PBS with a new
series. It's called "Bill Moyers: On Faith and Reason" and is the first of
seven hours devoted to conversations with writers: conversations about
passion vs. intellect, religion vs. atheism, the clashes of international
cultures and so on.
Moyers corralled the writers, who include Margaret Atwood and Mary Gordon when
they visited New York in April to speak at the Penn World Voices Festival.
Some of the episodes will feature more than one author, but tonight's premier
is given over entirely to Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses" and
former target of a fatwah.
The topics covered are somewhat predictable, but the tone is not. Rushdie is
surprisingly entertaining and candid. Even when talking about such serious
subjects as the violent international reaction by some Muslims to the
publications of Danish political cartoons featuring the image of Muhammad,
Rushdie sees some humor and even makes Moyers laugh.
(Soundbite from "Faith and Reason")
Mr. SALMAN RUSHDIE: I've never seen a political cartoon that didn't insult
Mr. BILL MOYERS: Right.
Mr. RUSHDIE: Some of the Muslim critics said, `Well, how about if they were
being rude about the pope?' People are routinely rude about the pope, you
know. So everyone else has gotten used to the fact that this is how this
particular form works. Satirical political cartooning is what it is, and I
think, you know, my view is people just have to learn to deal with it.
Mr. MOYERS: The believers need to understand, don't they, that their belief
system is intact no matter what other people think about it.
Mr. RUSHDIE: What kind of God is it that's upset by a cartoon in Danish?
(Soundbite of Moyers laughing)
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Other topics include the First Amendment, atheism and the best
response to an act of terrorism. They do not, thank goodness, include such
Britney-worthy topics as car seats, pregnancies and music videos.
Robert Duvall and Bill Moyers are old dogs, still doing their old tricks, but
doing them very well. If the broadcast networks don't want them, that's their
loss. If cable and public TV do, that's our gain.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(Soundbite of music)
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.