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Fresh Air: Celebrating Law & Order's 20 Years
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of television program, "Law & Order")
Unidentified Man (Announcer): In the criminal justice system, the people are
represented by two separate and equally important groups: the police who
investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.
These are their stories.
BIANCULLI: After 20 years on NBC, "Law & Order" ends its run this month, but
spinoffs continue, including a new one next season set in Los Angeles. Here's a
scene from the first episode of the original "Law & Order." The detectives are
George Dzundza and Chris Noth. The guest star is John Spencer.
(Soundbite of song, "Law & Order")
Mr. GEORGE DZUNDZA (Actor): (As Sergeant Max Greevey) Where was she murdered?
Mr. JOHN SPENCER (Actor): (As Howard Morton) I told you, Urban Medical Center.
M. DZUNDZA: (As Greevey) I'm sorry, Mr. Morton, I'm a little confused. Your
daughter was killed at the hospital?
Mr. SPENCER: (As Morton) Yeah, in the emergency room, and I want to swear out a
murder complaint against the resident in charge of it.
Mr. CHRIS NOTH (Actor): (As Detective Mike Logan) This resident was treating
Mr. SPENCER: (As Morton) No, killing her.
M. DZUNDZA: (As Greevey) But she was at the hospital for treatment?
Mr. SPENCER: (As Morton) Yeah, a sore throat, muscle aches. She only went in to
get a prescription for some antibiotics.
Mr. NOTH: (As Logan) Well, sometimes people are a lot sicker than they look.
Mr. SPENCER: (As Morton) Listen to me. I was a medic in Vietnam. I know who's
dying and who isn't. My daughter was not that sick. Somebody in that emergency
room did something that killed her.
BIANCULLI: Executive producer Dick Wolf created "Law & Order" two decades ago,
after working on "Miami Vice" and other TV crime shows. In 2003, he spoke with
TERRY GROSS, host:
One of the things that's pretty consistent in the writing, stylistically and
content-wise, is that you don't find out much about the private lives of the
detectives or the prosecutors. It's really driven by the story. Why did you
make that decision?
Mr. DICK WOLF (Executive Producer, "Law & Order"): The wonderful thing about
procedurals is that it does away with the necessity for soap opera. In other
words, when you're not dealing with the personal lives of the characters, you
can concentrate on the story.
You can tell a complete story, with a beginning, middle and an end, and it's
quite efficient in terms of dealing with complicated issues, dealing with moral
issues that - you know, we've been saying the same thing for years, that the
first half is a murder mystery, and the second half is a moral mystery.
So it's how do you keep those elements unpolluted by the sex lives of the
characters or going home with them. They're workplace shows, and I think that
there is a fascination of just watching people at work without those sideline
distractions of their personal lives.
GROSS: And, you know, another thing the shows have in common, you've tried to
do away with, you know, the establishing shots. You say you don't really want
to spend a lot of time with the characters kind of getting from one scene to
another, getting in and out of rooms. What are some of those things that you
wanted to kind of streamline or just take out altogether and just keep the
Mr. WOLF: That's - you've annotated several of them already, that I think that
one of the realities is that there is enough information in either side of the
show to make a completely satisfying hour cop show or a completely satisfying
hour legal show.
The fact that you have to give what in many cases is twice as much information
in the same 43, 20, you know, 43 minutes that you have in a character-driven
show, to tell this much story, you don't have time to go home with the
I mean, the pace of the show, the average hour show has about 26 scenes per
episode. "Law & Order" usually has between 40 and 42. So that's a huge
differential in terms of the pacing and in terms of the way scenes are
structured on the shows.
GROSS: One of the things you have to do every week is cast a dead body.
Mr. WOLF: Ah.
GROSS: You know, actors like to come in and show you their stuff. How do you
audition to be dead?
Mr. WOLF: It's a very, very complex process because everybody wants to be the
dead body. It's the only thing that I'm constantly getting requests to be from
people that, you know, can I be the dead body? And it's highly sought after
because you can't be cut out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WOLF: So it's a great gig for extras.
GROSS: Have you become - I don't know if there's a word for this, somebody who
hangs out at crime scenes?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I mean...
Mr. WOLF: No, I don't. I mean, that's a level of - I guess buffdom - that, no,
I've spent an inordinate amount of time with cops but not really at that many
crime scenes in the last 15 or 18 years. I used to go to them a lot when I was
starting out writing this stuff.
GROSS: How would you go? Did you have a police band radio?
Mr. WOLF: No, I had a couple of homicide cops in L.A., and one of the aims was
to see one of every kind of crime or one every kind of murder. You know, there
was - it was open call if there was a shooting, stabbing, garroting, something
that was a little unique. Stan White or his partner would call, and we'd go out
and see it.
And I think the strangest crime scene I ever went to was on Super Bowl Sunday
about 15 years ago, and I got a call from Stanley to meet him in Bell(ph),
which is one of the worst sections of L.A. And I walked in, and it was this
apartment that was in kind of a motel complex.
And there were three uniform cops sitting on the sofa in this apartment
watching the Super Bowl. And I was saying, God, this doesn't look like a crime
scene, and then I walked two feet further in, and there was a body inside the
closet, upside down, wrapped up in telephone cord with his eyes open, watching
the game along with the cops.
It was - these three cops sitting there, absolutely no interest in this body
two feet away from them, but they were into the game.
GROSS: Did you go to these crime scenes with two different mindsets, one being
this is really horrible, this is tragic, this is the end of a life, and the
other being this is really interesting, let me study what it looks like so I
can, you know, accurately render it in my series?
Mr. WOLF: Unfortunately, I wish I'd had the former thought occasionally. It was
always the latter: This is kind of interesting. There's no personal
involvement. It's how cops do it. You know, it's almost like coming in - you're
almost seeing a movie when you go to these things because they can be so
horrific, but there is - if you're a writer, certainly, and you're interested,
the attraction far outweighs any kind of moral quandaries that you might find
GROSS: I'm sure you'd seen a lot of crime in movies and television and read a
lot of books with crime. Were there some things that just really astonished you
about how real murder looks?
Mr. WOLF: Yeah, it's a lot bloodier than we show it on television. I mean,
that's - one of the things that probably unfortunately most people will tell
you that have gone to a crime scene is it's surprising how much blood there is
in a human body. It's much worse than we've ever shown on the show.
GROSS: And when you actually saw these real murders, was there anything that
surprised you about the faces, the expressions on the victims' faces?
Mr. WOLF: Well, the guy in the closet looked quite surprised, but he was
upside-down. So I don't know, you know, what lividity has to do with that. But
there are - I would say that people - if there was one expression, it wasn't
pain. It was kind of like what happened. You know, it's surprise. I don't think
people usually expect to get shot.
It's also one of the things that most cops will tell you, that the most common
thing is never ask to be shot because a lot of drunken altercations and a lot
of street confrontations, somebody pulls a gun, and somebody else says oh yeah,
you're so tough, go ahead and shoot. Okay. And homicide cops will tell you the
number of people, the number of killers that they've arrested that say, well,
he told me to shoot him.
GROSS: That's really interesting, because in a lot of crime movies and TV shows
somebody who is kind of tough and challenging, and sometimes the hero himself
or herself will say, yeah, go ahead and shoot me. And then the person gets
really weak, because the hero is wise enough to know that the person doesn't
have the courage to do it, and...
Mr. WOLF: Yeah, one homicide detective told me it is the single most common
line in homicide: Go ahead and shoot.
GROSS: That's really, really interesting, and that makes me think too about the
kind of wise-guy language that a lot of people use in TV shows and in movies,
smart-aleck stuff, where somebody's got a gun on you, and you're quipping. Bad
idea in real life?
Mr. WOLF: Not a smart thing to do. You know, somebody - the best solution to
anybody having a - if you ever have a gun pointed at you, give them whatever
they ask for immediately.
GROSS: Including some respect?
Mr. WOLF: I'd be polite.
GROSS: Right, right. How does this affect the dialogue that you write and the
dialogue that you edit for "Law & Order"?
Mr. WOLF: Well, you see, it's not really much of a problem because by the time
the show starts, they're already dead.
GROSS: Yeah, but there's still other â you know, the cops, the detectives are
hunting for the killer, and they sometimes get in tough situations, and friends
of the victim sometimes get in tough situations too.
Mr. WOLF: Yeah, I think it's much more - I mean, the hallmark of - and Jerry is
the one who said this, that "Law & Order" is kind of like...
GROSS: Jerry Orbach?
Mr. WOLF: Jerry Orbach â it's kind of like a Catholic high mass, that it's a
rite, that the audience knows what's going to happen not in terms of the
storytelling but that there is a rhythm to the show, and I'd say one of the
rhythms that is now part and parcel of it is Jerry's kind of mordantly kind of
acerbic comment at the end of the teaser, which has become part of, you know,
just sort of the "Law & Order" mantra, that there is a setup line, and then
Jerry gets to get the last line in the teaser, which invariably is kind of a -
either acerbic, sarcastic or insightful comment about the stupidity of murder.
GROSS: "Law & Order," one of the things it's known for is that a lot of the
shows are, you know, the kind of, quote ripped-from-the-headlines type of
shows, where they're based on actual news stories.
Mr. WOLF: No, they're not based on there. We steal the headline but not the
GROSS: Oh, really?
Mr. WOLF: Yeah. No, I mean, if you actually have knowledge of any of the cases
that, as they unroll, you go oh, that's that case, it never is. That's - the
headline, the top-of-mind awareness is what we're after, and then, you know,
the reality is most real-life murders take a very predictable road to fruition,
that they, you know, most murders are solved within the first 48 hours, and
most people are convicted. That does not give you the twists and turns that
make for an entertaining hour of television.
GROSS: Now, I know you worked in advertising before you started working
television. You worked doing advertising, mostly for Procter & Gamble products
like Crest and Scope.
Mr. WOLF: Uh-huh. Yup.
GROSS: Would we know any of the campaigns you did for Crest or Scope? Did you
write any of the jingles or slogans?
Mr. WOLF: Oh sure: Scope fights bad breath without giving you medicine breath.
There's one of the undying lines...
GROSS: Oh, medicine breath, that was yours.
Mr. WOLF: Yeah, and then National Airlines, which was probably the most
controversial campaign that I was ever involved with, and I'm sure you're too
young to remember, but it...
GROSS: Oh, try me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WOLF: Try me? Fly me. I'm Cheryl, fly me. Remember National Airlines?
GROSS: Well, that was - fly me was yours?
Mr. WOLF: Yeah, that's a lot time ago. That's over 30 years ago now.
GROSS: Oh, that was controversial because of - for feminist reasons.
Mr. WOLF: Yes, it was. That was the beginning of feminist.
GROSS: It sounded like a sexual innuendo.
Mr. WOLF: Well, it was.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So much of advertising was then. I mean, a lot of advertising still is,
but it was all more innuendo than overt, yeah.
Mr. WOLF: It was very, very direct innuendo because they had a very specific
goal in mind, that National Airlines had by far the highest percentage of
business travelers in the early '70s going to Florida, and the reason was the
stewardesses. That was the age of miniskirts that were so short that the
stewardesses were not allowed to bend over in the cabin. They had to sort of do
a semi-curtsy when they were serving people.
And National really wanted a campaign directed at businessmen about the
stewardesses. So it may have lacked some subtlety, but it did get talked about.
BIANCULLI: "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003.
We'll hear from one of the show's stars after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're saluting "Law & Order," which has
been canceled after 20 years. For many of those years, the most popular actor
on the show was Jerry Orbach, playing quintessential New York detective Lennie
(Soundbite of television program, "Law & Order")
Mr. JERRY ORBACH (Actor): (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) What is it, a drive-by,
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible) right through the
neck, hit the carotid artery. No line, no waiting, gone.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Briscoe) Let's get him up. Got it?
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Fourteen years old.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Briscoe) Pretty soon we'll be passing out vests in
BIANCULLI: Terry spoke with Jerry Orbach in 1989, asking about one of his other
memorable cop roles.
TERRY GROSS, host:
You co-starred in the film "Prince of the City." I really consider that movie
to be your movie. You play a corrupt cop who won't cooperate with a commission
investigating members of a narcotics squad on the take.
Mr. ORBACH: Right.
GROSS: Let me play a scene from it.
(Soundbite of film, "Prince of the City")
Mr. ORBACH: (As Gus Levy) You indict me on the squawk of a dope dealer who
tried to buy me out of a (bleep) bust? You want to break up another federal
operation that'll put away more quality mob guys in a year than you'll touch in
your whole piss-ant career?
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Detective Levy, you're hardly in
Mr. ORBACH: (As Levy) I'll tell you what I'm in a position to do, and that's
throw you out the (bleep) window. It's only the fifth floor, but I'll try to
aim you so you land on your pointed little head.
Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Levy, you can easily avoid trial. All you
have to do is cooperate.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Levy) (Bleep) You've got your mind made up to try me, go ahead
and try me, but not for a lousy $400. At least get me for assault.
(Soundbite of scream)
GROSS: Now, in this scene, where you've just overturned the investigator's
desk, it's very menacing...
Mr. ORBACH: Yes.
GROSS: ...in that scene. Did you feel well-suited to that kind of menacing
Mr. ORBACH: Oh, I love it because, you know, in real life you can't go around
throwing people's desks over and hitting them or kneeing them in the groin.
You'll get sued. So to play that kind of a scene is a wonderful release for
anybody because we have so many frustrations. There are people we'd like to
hit, but we can't really do that.
Also, it was a great release for the audience because in "Prince of the City"
the prosecutors are very dry and very nasty and, you know, they just don't give
an inch to anybody, and it was sort of the audience got its revenge on those
guys for a minute there when I did that. It was a release for the audience.
GROSS: You actually got your start in musicals. As a matter of fact, why don't
I play something here from "42nd Street."
(Soundbite of play, "42nd Street")
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) I'm sorry. Show business isn't
for me. I'm going back to Allentown.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Julian Marsh) What was that word you just said, Allentown? I'm
offering you a chance to star in the biggest musical Broadway's seen in 20
years, and you say Allentown?
(Soundbite of song, "Lullaby of Broadway")
Mr. ORBACH: (Singing) Come along and listen to the lullaby of Broadway, the
hip-hooray and ballyhoo, the lullaby of Broadway. The rumble of a subway train,
the rattle of the taxis, the daffy-dills who entertain at Angelo's and Maxie's.
When a Broadway baby...
GROSS: Now, I've read about you that your heroes when you were getting started
were James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift. They didn't do musicals, with
the exception of Brando's "Guys and Dolls." Was it your ambition to do musicals
when you were starting out?
Mr. ORBACH: It's funny. I always sang and came to New York after I got out of
Northwestern, and I was a very serious young actor and did study with Lee
Strasberg, Herbert Berghof, Mira Rostova, worked at the Actors Studio. But the
first job I got in New York was to replace the street singer in "Threepenny
Opera." I actually then replaced Macheath, Mack the Knife, for about six
months, worked with Lenya and everything.
I went from three years, three and a half years in "Threepenny Opera" to
originate El Gallo in "The Fantasticks," and I just kept going from one show to
another, from one musical to another, and it was a terrific life.
My kids were being born, and I was raising a family in New York, and all my
friends who couldn't sing, who were desperate and out of work, couldn't a job
off-Broadway or anything, all went to Hollywood. And some of them became big
stars out there, and that's sort of what I had wanted to do. You know, in the
background, I'd always wanted to do that, work in film. And it just didn't seem
to work out that way. I kept working, and it was all right.
GROSS: What kinds of roles did you think you were heading for when you were
getting started? What did you think that your specialty was going to be?
Mr. ORBACH: I really didn't know. I didn't have any kind of a specialty. I
thought I'd be a leading man, you know, and - I was never a juvenile, even when
I was 19 or 20. I mean, at 20 I was playing Mack the Knife opposite Lenya,
which is outrageous. You know, I had no business being there. But I never
looked like a kid.
So it took me until I was into my mid-20s to start to really get the roles that
I was - that I looked like. You know, I should've been 30, 35 playing them.
GROSS: Did that seem like a hardship at the time, that you didn't look like a
kid when you were a kid?
Mr. ORBACH: I don't know. Not really, but sometimes I'd think, you know, the
sort of Tab Hunter, Tony Curtis types, you know, I said, well, I can never
compete with them, you know, back in the late '50s because I was a little off-
GROSS: Of course then their careers sometimes end early because...
Mr. ORBACH: Yes, I found that out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ORBACH: Longevity is in being a character man. Somebody said, are you ever
going to retire? I said no, I want to be like Melvyn Douglas, playing the
grandpa on my deathbed when I'm about 85. That would be a pleasure.
Mr. ORBACH: Okay.
GROSS: ...a lot for doing the interview.
Mr. ORBACH: It's a pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Jerry Orbach, speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. Orbach died in 2004
at the age of 69.
We'll continue our "Law & Order" salute in the second half of the show. You can
find links to interviews with actors who have starred in other "Law & Order"
programs, including Richard Belzer and Ice-T, at our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's Jerry Orbach singing from
the original Broadway cast recording of "Promises, Promises" back in 1968.
(Soundbite of song, "Promises, Promises")
Mr. ORBACH (Actor): (As Chuck Baxter) (Singing) Promises, promises, I'm all
through with promises, promises now. I don't know how I got the nerve to walk
out. If I shout, remember I feel free. Now I can look at myself and be proud.
I'm laughing out loud.
Oh, promises, promises, this is where those promises, promises end. I won't
pretend that what was wrong can be right. Every night I'll sleep now, no more
lies. Things that I promised myself fell apart, but I found my heart.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm David Bianculli of TVWorthWatching.com,
sitting in for Terry Gross.
We're saluting NBC's original "Law and Order," which is leaving TV after 20
years on the air. Our next guest is S. Epatha Merkerson who plays Lieutenant
Anita Van Buren. Terry spoke with her in 2006.
Here's a clip from an episode in which she recognizes a dead body as the
daughter of a close friend. The initial suspicion is suicide, but Van Buren
suspects something else and visits the girl's mother.
(Soundbite of "Law and Order")
Unidentified Woman: Maybe it's for the better if this just went away.
Ms. S. EPATHA MERKERSON (Actress): (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) Christine,
Iâm going to tell you, Iâm having trouble understanding your reaction.
Unidentified Woman: It didnât happen to you, Anita.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) No doubt, but I think you know
something and you're afraid to tell me.
Unidentified Woman: I understand police procedure. I understand you need to ask
me these questions...
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) Iâm not here as a police
officer. Iâm here as your friend.
Unidentified Woman: Then as my friend, please leave this alone and let us heal.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) He's a serial abuser, Christine.
He's going to do it again.
Unidentified Woman: Not here he won't. And you donât understand because it's
not your child at risk.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) And Emily doesnât deserve more?
Or are we not just talking about Emily here?
Unidentified Woman: Please, just let this go.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) Christine, has he made threats
against Callie(ph), too?
Unidentified Woman: I can't do this.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) Did he call here?
Unidentified Woman: Anita, I can't lose another child.
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) And you won't if you let me put
this man away. But, girl, you got to come clean.
Unidentified Woman: Why are you all over me?
Ms. MERKERSON: (As Lieutenant Anita Van Buren) You remember when I was a rookie
and I wanted to quit because all the crap I was taking on the job? Well, you
said to me, don't let them beat you. And the reason I hung in was because you
wouldnât let me give up and Iâm not going to let you give up now.
TERRY GROSS, host:
What did you know about your character when you first got the part?
Ms. MERKERSON: You know, the interesting thing is I knew nothing and it
happened quickly. I mean, literally, I got the job on a Friday and I started
working on a Monday. Because that whole thing about NBC asking Dick to bring
women on happened, I believe, at the last minute. So I literally had to...
GROSS: Wait. Wait. What whole thing about asking him to bring women on?
Ms. MERKERSON: Well, they were going to cancel "Law and Order" and I think in
its third season because NBC wanted women on the show. So Dick let two of the
guys go and he brought on two women. Thatâs how Jill Hennessey and I ended up
on the show, because NBC was going to cancel it if he didnât bring skirts in.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MERKERSON: And it was really that...
Ms. MERKERSON: ...simple. They didnât believe that the show could last without
women on it. I donât think it was any, you know, really heavy thought other
than the skirt. But what happened was when the show went to syndication thatâs
when our demographic changed, because there are a lot of women who are at home.
And then we started getting more women viewers.
So with the change in bringing women and going to syndication, it really did
change the demographic of the show.
But when I first started, I literally just hit the ground running. I wasnât
able to even talk to any lieutenants until after my first episode, because we
were so busy, you know, shooting the show.
I really donât think anyone other than Dick was very clear about who this
person was, and he did give me a biography of who he thought Van Buren. And she
came from a small family. There was no one in her family who was in law
enforcement. It was something that she wanted to do. She's the kind of woman
who shoots straight from the shoulder. And that was sort of a basic hit the
And then I had the opportunity to meet a couple of female lieutenants. And the
interesting thing is when I started, I believe there were only five in
Manhattan. There was one lieutenant who was so cool. When you saw her, she
literally looked like, you know, someone's aunt or, you know, sweet mother. But
the minute she walked into the precinct, you knew she garnered serious respect
from the guys that worked for her.
And it was so cool watching this change from meeting her outside, walking
through the precinct, and then going to her office. And when the door closed,
we were giggling like a couple of girls. Someone would knock on the door, her
whole demeanor would change. It was really interesting having the opportunity
to do that.
BIANCULLI: S. Epatha Merkerson speaking to Terry Gross in 2006.
"Law and Order" lasted 20 years on NBC, tying "Gunsmoke" as the longest-running
primetime drama series.
Coming up, clarinetist Artie Shaw, as we mark the hundredth anniversary of his
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
100 Years of Jazz Clarinetist Artie Shaw
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This weekend marks the hundredth birthday of bandleader and clarinet player
Artie Shaw, one of the true jazz greats. In the 1930s and '40s, his band ranked
in popularity with the Goodman, Dorsey and Miller bands.
(Soundbite of song, "Begin the Beguine")
BIANCULLI: The Shaw band made one of its most popular records at its first
recording sessions in 1938. It was a song by Cole Porter called "Begin the
Beguine." Artie Shaw began his career playing with dance bands. He grew
contemptuous of the bands' crowd-pleasing antics and their trite music. When he
organized his own big band in 1938, he rejected many of the pop tunes that had
become dance-band staples. He instead created a repertoire of original
compositions, while also performing song from composers like Cole Porter,
George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.
His huge popular success brought unexpected torments, including a reluctance to
pander to audiences. And he quit the music business several times, sometimes
for decades at a stretch.
No matter how many times I hear "Begin the Beguine," it makes me smile. But it
turns out that wasnât Artie Shaw's reaction. When Terry Gross spoke with him in
1985, and played him a recording of his most famous song, he winced. Terry
asked him why.
Mr. ARTIE SHAW (Jazz Clarinetist/Big Band Leader): Well, because I've played
that thing probably - I donât know how thousands of times by now. And it's got
to the point where â it's fine to have a hit record, it pays rent, but it can
drive you crazy, like an actor playing the same part. You know, a lot of actors
don't mind that, but it can drive you nuts. I mean Bogart became a caricature
of Bogart after a while. And I get tired of that. I don't like being
So I made maybe 500 records â why "Begin the Beguine?" All right, it's a good
piece, a good arrangement. But my God, I don't want to be characterized as only
"Begin the Beguine." Thatâs what people seem to think, is he alive or dead?
TERRY GROSS, host:
It became the song that you were probably most associated with. How did you
choose it? How did you choose to record? It wasnât a popular song till you made
Mr. SHAW: No it was a flop. It was one of Cole Porter's few flop tunes and from
one of his very few flop shows, "Jubilee." I happened to get to the theater on
Friday, the show closed Saturday. And I just heard that tune and it was done in
a kind of a Latin beat. And I liked the melody. It was a hell of a good song,
it still is. And very big departure from most popular songs of those days,
which are eight-eight-bridge and eight, or eight-eight and then eight-eight; I
mean one-two, one-two.
So I heard the tune and I came back and I was looking for an identity for the
band. I told you we were looking for good songs from sophisticated songwriters.
So I said to Jerry Gray, let's do "Begin the Beguine." He didnât know what the
tune was. We got a copy and we sat down and we worked out the arrangement that
everybody now knows. And I had no idea it was going to zoom. The other side of
a record that we thought was going to be the big one.
It's always been true. "Fantasy" was the other side of a record we thought was
going to be the big one. Nobody knows whatâs going to be the hit.
GROSS: The early bands that you played with were bands that you called
entertaining bands, like...
Mr. SHAW: That's all there was. There were no jazz bands then that you could
make a living in. I mean if you were lucky enough to be black you could play
jazz, âcause thatâs the only music they had in the ghettos. But I was playing
in the white world. And in the white world there was no room play to jazz and
make a living.
So I ended up at the best jobs there were - studio work. And there it got be
utterly incredible. You were playing things like "Manhattan Merry-Go-Round,"
the "Lucky Strike Hit Parade." It was scary. You're playing "Is It True What
They Say About Dixie" for 13 weeks in a row. That can be enough to drive any
halfway decent musician clear out of his head.
GROSS: You had said that when you were playing for the entertaining bands that
you started to really hate the whole concept of showmanship.
Mr. SHAW: I still do.
GROSS: What were the kinds of showmanship antics that people in the band were
called in on to perform?
Mr. SHAW: Glen Miller's band waving the trombones around from side-to-side as
they played, saxophonists holding their instruments up in the air and doing,
you know, doing everything but playing serious music.
The guys in my band - one night I came back to the band. I'd left them for
about three weeks. They were out on the road and they were playing a tune that
I wrote for the band called - and arrangement I made called "Lady Be Good." At
the end of the last chorus - the last chorus, the band does something; the
saxophonists do a fast kind of whinny trill. And the guys for kicks were
holding their horns up and holding their horns up, and the trombones are doing
it. And I looked at them and I was appalled.
I said what are you guys doing? They said, oh, it's for fun. I said the
audience doesnât know its fun. They think you're doing showmanship. And if we
have to do showmanship that means we're very insecure about the music. Sit down
and respect what you do. If you donât, they won't. And they heard that.
GROSS: When you finally assembled a big band of your own - and Iâm referring
now to the second big band, after the one with the string quartet in it - what
did you do with that band to differentiate yourself from the kinds of pop bands
that you were bored and disenchanted with?
Mr. SHAW: Yeah, thatâs a reasonable question. It's got a reasonable answer. All
right, we had a big band. Most of the then-big bands that were playing what
they thought was jazz were playing pretty much "Ida," "Avalon," whatever those
tunes - "Thatâs A Plenty," "King Porter Stomp," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah - all the so-called jazz literature.
I decided that there were some great compositions being written by American
popular composers, like Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Rogers - name it, these were
the great composers in America. And they had written at a level of
sophistication for the musical comedy, which wasnât, quote, "dance music," but
it repertory. You know, music that had to do with advancing the cause of a book
or a story.
So I found songs like "Beguine," songs like, well, I donât know, "Yesterdays"
Mr. SHAW: ..."What is This Thing Called Love," all of that repertory. I decided
to play the best music written by the best American composers, and instead of
imposing a, quote, "style," end quote, on it, play the piece in the manner that
best enhanced that particular piece in the way that the composer might not have
realized he had written.
I tell my audiences now: We play "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise." That was a
piece written for an operetta called "New Moon," Sigmund Romberg. I knew Rommy.
He was a nice guy and he was a big, lusty Viennese guy who wrote American
music. He came over here when he was young man. He learned to write the
American popular idiom, but he was writing operetta. And we wrote the piece. We
played it in a quite different manner. And when Rommy heard it, he called me
up. He said, Artie, I think I like it almost better than the way I wrote it.
Which I considered a high compliment from him because he was a scrupulous
GROSS: My guest is Artie Shaw.
When you were leading a jazz band, the bands were still pretty segregated.
There were black bands and white bands.
Mr. SHAW: Oh, yeah. They even had in New York City there was a local Union 802,
white. Then there was a Harlem union for blacks. There was no way if you could
mix, the only thing you could do on records now and then you'd play with a
black guy. I'd get on a record, there would be Coleman Hawkins there or Lester,
or whoever - Cozy Cole playing drums. Rarely was there a white - well, there
were no black band - black playing with white musicians.
Matter of fact, when I hired Billie Holiday, boy, was that not a scandal. It
was amazing. I must have been very naÃ¯ve or else I had my head buried in what I
was doing. I had tunnel vision.
When I hired her, I hired her because she was sincerely, for me, a sincere
attempt to get the best singer I could get. But she joined the band and it was
a very, very strange experience.
Iâll tell you another story you won't believe. This is in a documentary film
that some woman did about me, a woman named Bridget Berman. It's a film called
"Artie Shaw: Cole and Time Is All You've Got(ph)," which is a quote from one of
our interviews. At the time I heard Lips Page - Hot Lips Page for the band.
That was 1941 or something like that; just before World War II, before Pearl
Harbor, we were supposed to do a very lucrative tour of the South.
My agent gave me the figures and times and so on. It sounded okay so I signed
contracts. He came back a couple of weeks later, very, very pale. He said I
donât know what we're going to be about this. Artie, we're in trouble. I donât
think they're going to accept what you're doing.
I said what are you talking? He said, well, they want to cancel the tour. I
said why? He said, well, you got Lips Page in there. They want you to put a
white guy in there. I said forget it, then they can tell me what kind of a band
Iâll have. This is my band. They want to hire us, they take what I got.
So he went away very - he's chagrined because there was a lot of money in it.
Came back about three or four days later, he said I think I got it solved. He
said I talked to someone. One guy came up with a suggestion that could solve
it. I said whatâs that?
He says you can play the tour, use Lips Page, but he can't sit nearer than 15
feet from the nearest man in the band.
I said you mean, I'm going to have three trumpet players over in one place with
the band, and he's going to sit in a little chair all by himself way over
there, 20 feet away? Yeah. I said forget the whole tour. We canceled the tour.
You believe that? That's only, what, 40 years ago, 40-few years ago. We made
GROSS: Well, when you hired Billie Holiday, she was, I believe, the first black
singer to perform with a white band.
Mr. SHAW: Well, to work in a white band, certainly, sure, as a member of the
band. I didn't â she didn't come out a specialty act. I mean, when Benny
Goodman had, say, Lionel and Teddy Wilson, they came out as a separate thing.
They weren't in the band. When I had Lips Page, he sat in the band. Roy
Eldridge was in the band. I had Zutty Singleton in my band in 1937. Why, that
was unheard of. We played the Million Dollar Pier. People said isn't he a black
man? I said, well, he's hardly that tan. But it was very, very nip and tuck.
People used to be very angry at it.
GROSS: Were there places you couldn't play with Billie Holiday?
Mr. SHAW: No, no. We went to the South. That was difficult because Billie had a
short fuse, and people would say things about it, and she would blow. So I
always had a guy ready to spirit her away, put her in a bus and get her out
because she would blow. She'd call a guy every kind of MF you could think of,
and they didn't take that too well.
See, they would refer to her as â they would say have the nigger wench since
another song. I couldn't believe my ears. I said, you mean Billie sing you
another song? No, the nigger wench. That's what they thought of her as.
GROSS: You enlisted during World War II and ended up playing with your band.
Mr. SHAW: To the Pacific.
GROSS: On the Pacific front, yeah. Did you know when you enlisted that you'd be
mostly performing? Was that the arrangement that was made?
Mr. SHAW: No, I had no idea what I was going to be doing. I was on the stage in
Providence, Rhode Island, when I went back in the wings while a dance act went
on. We were doing an hour show, as they call it.
And the stagehands' radio was on, and we were hearing an hysterical announcer
talking about the Japs having bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, Pearl Harbor, it
sounded like some sleepy little atoll out there in the South Pacific. I didn't
know that Pearl Harbor was our principal naval base in the Pacific.
But he sounded hysterical, and World War II had begun. I had to go back out on
stage. Just before I went out, I got a note from the manager: Please announce
that all military personnel is to report to its bases immediately.
This was right near Newport, where there was a sub base, a naval base, an Air
Force base, all that. So I went out onstage and did that, and about three-
quarters of the house got empty. And as the band started playing, I turned to
Les Robinson(ph), who was in the first row of saxophone players, he was the
lead. And I said, Les, pass the word, two weeks' notice. Total impulse.
And three weeks later, I was down on Church Street enlisting in the Navy. I
just felt that there was no place for me as a civilian. This was the big
experience of my life. Had to be part of it. I joined the Navy, and I went in
as an apprentice seaman, as low as you could get.
I could have become a commander if I had wanted to. I didn't know that. I knew
Forrestal, who was the undersecretary, and when I joined up, I had seen him,
and he said if you get in trouble, come see me.
Well, after about six or eight weeks of minesweeper duty off Staten Island,
this, that and the other, I found myself doing what an apprentice seaman does.
I thought the Navy would have enough rationality to put me into the job I could
do best for them and then give me whatever rate or rank I needed for that.
I was very naive, you know. I didn't realize that the military service doesn't
operate rationally. They looked at one stripe or no stripe, and they gave me a
swab, swab the deck, sailor. Well, that's kind of stupid. I was building
shelves under a stairway to put mops and buckets on.
So I went to see Forrestal, I went AWL(ph), went down there and saw him in his
office, and he laughed, and he said all right, I'll put you in touch with
somebody. And I got in touch with the head of enlisted men, a man named Admiral
Bledsoe(ph). And he gave me carte blanche to get a band together. He said what
do you want to do? I said what do you want me to do? He said get a band
together. That's the best you can do for us.
Where? I said where's the Navy? He said in the Pacific. I said okay. So he gave
me total carte blanche, and I enlisted a bunch of guys who were 1-A and got the
best band that ever was. That band was a tremendous band. We won the Esquire
poll and all that.
We traveled all over the Pacific, in places where the Bob Hopes couldn't go. We
went to forward areas. We were on battleships. We were on aircraft carriers. We
were all over the place.
GROSS: In the '30s and early '40s, a common question that people would ask was:
Who do you think is really the king? Is it Artie or Benny? Were you aware of
that whole public competition between you and Benny?
Mr. SHAW: How could I not be? I was part of that controversy. It makes no
bloody sense. We weren't doing the same things. The fact is we played a
clarinet. We each played a clarinet. But the music was different.
As a matter of fact, I'll tell you an interesting little anecdote. I had
occasion to talk to Benny about something once that I wanted to do, and I
needed him, and I needed the Dorsey people and I needed the Stan Kenton and Guy
Lombardo and all of the big-band leaders. And I got the okay from everybody.
Goodman didn't want to do it, and he kept asking me questions about clarinet
players. What do you think about so-and-so? What do you think about this guy,
that guy? I said this guy is too schmaltzy, that guy is too rigid, knowing what
he expected me to say, and I was zinging him a little bit.
And so I said finally, Benny, you're too hung up on the clarinet. And he looked
at me, and he says, that's what we do, isn't it? I said no, I'm trying to play
music. I'm not interested in clarinets. It's a means. It's an instrument. You
use an instrument to do something with.
And I saw a tiny light bulb go on in his eyes. I don't think he ever seriously
considered the idea that the clarinet was a means, not an end.
BIANCULLI: Artie Shaw, speaking to Terry Gross in 1985. This weekend marks the
100th anniversary of his birth. The current edition of the PRI show, "Riverwalk
Jazz," also is devoted to Artie Shaw. You can find a link to that program on
our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also hear some more Artie Shaw
performances, including the song "Any Old Time," featuring Billie Holiday.
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on a new documentary called "The Oath."
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
A Different Man Emerges After An 'Oath' Of Jihad
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
"The Oath" is a new documentary by filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose documentary
"My Country, My Country," about the U.S. occupation in Iraq, was nominated for
an Academy Award. "The Oath" tells the intertwined stories of two men. One was
Osama bin Laden's bodyguard and is now driving a taxi in Yemen. The other was
bin Laden's driver and became the first prisoner detained at Gitmo to face
trial by a military commission. David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: To understand the depth, the fullness and the haunting
ambiguities of "The Oath," it's useful to know that the director, Laura
Poitras, set out to tell a simpler story of someone, anyone, released from the
U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
A likely candidate was Salim Hamdan, one of that first wave of prisoners after
9/11 whom Bush administration officials described as the worst of the worst.
For a short time, Hamdan had been Osama bin Laden's driver, but after five
years of largely solitary confinement and periods of so-called extreme
interrogation, the worst of the worst had given them little intelligence of
value. He was, it seemed, a low-level employee, the lackeyest of the lackeyest.
Hamdan's story could fill a movie, and Poitras does justice to the legal
maneuvers that landed Hamdan v. Rumsfeld before the Supreme Court. But the
center of "The Oath" turns out to be a man whom Poitras met in Yemen and whose
case is less clear-cut: Hamdan's brother-in-law, the man who recruited him for
al-Qaida, Abu Jandal.
Jandal is a taxi driver now, as well as a father and an informal teacher. Young
men sit in his living room to discuss the role of Islam in social justice. He's
seen in interviews on Yemen television and on "60 Minutes" with Bob Simon. He's
a celebrity of sorts. He's also, there's no getting around it, a mess, a man so
cautious, so broken down, so riven by contradictions that it's hard to
reconcile what he says from scene to scene.
For four years, Poitras tells us, Jandal had been Osama's bodyguard, and beyond
that al-Qaida's, quote, "emir of hospitality," welcoming new members and
gauging their level of commitment.
A jihadist from the age of 19, when he'd gone to Bosnia, Jandal found bin Laden
a warm father figure to young men who'd grown up without love. He took an oath
to follow orders without question. But after spending two years in a Yemen
prison, where he was when planes struck the World Trade Center, he emerged a
different man. Why he was different is a knotty question. You have to watch and
Watch him shift and shake on Yemen TV when asked about his oath. Watch him
maintain to Poitras that he could never have taken part in attacks on civilians
no matter what he'd swore, even if that means being declared by al-Qaida an
infidel. Yet watch him later tell his young students it was good to hit the
towers, important to humiliate America in the eyes of the world.
For an hour, Poitras moves back and forth between Jandal and the driver Hamdan,
whose U.S. attorneys win their Supreme Court case and who is then re-charged
under Congress's 2006 Military Commissions Act.
As Poitras' camera roams the eerie, nearly empty Guantanamo grounds, we hear
excerpts from Hamdan's letters to his wife and children, which are not so much
angry as anguished and bewildered.
And Jandal, in Yemen, is anguished, too: He feels guilt for having recruited
Hamdan, guilt when he sees Hamdan's wife and children. But there is another
kind of regret. When he was with al-Qaida, he had dignity and strength. Now, he
can barely feed his family.
This great documentary comes down to a revelation I don't want to spoil, but
I'll say it involves an FBI agent named Ali Soufan, who interrogated Abu Jandal
after 9/11 while he was in that Yemen prison. It was a long, nonviolent
interrogation, 15 days, and it changed the course of the war in Afghanistan.
We see Soufan, or rather hear him, since his face isn't shown, testifying later
before Congress, speaking out against the torture of prisoners like the driver
Salim Hamdan. Look, he says, at how much we learned from Abu Jandal without a
drop of blood. And there is also the matter of the U.S. Constitution, to which,
Soufan says, he swore an oath.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can join
us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and you can download
podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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.