July 7, 2014
Guests: Paul Mazursky - Meshach Taylor
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The screenwriter, director and actor Paul Mazursky died one week ago at the age of 84. Today we remember him by listening back to excerpts of two interviews we recorded. The New York Times obituary described Mazursky as having satirized and sympathized with America's panorama of social upheavals in the late '60s and '70s in films that included "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Blume In Love" and "An Unmarried Woman." Mazursky's other films include "Harry and Tonto," which starred Art Carney, "Moscow On The Hudson," which starred Robin Williams as a Russian musician who defects, "Enemies, A Love Story," which was adapted from Isaac Bashevis Singer novel and "Down And Out In Beverly Hills," which starred Nick Nolte as a homeless man and Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss as the Beverly Hills couple who take him in.
Paul Mazursky had planned on becoming an actor. Perhaps the most autobiographical movie he wrote and directed was 1976 film "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" about a young actor and his friends. I first interviewed Mazursky in 1991 after his film "Scenes From A Mall" came out. Woody Allen and Bette Midler play a couple about to celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary with a big dinner party in their Beverly Hills home. They're spending the day in the mall shopping for the party. In this scene, Woody Allen confesses he's been involved with another woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCENES FROM A MALL")
WOODY ALLEN: (As Nick Fifer) I had an affair.
BETTE MIDLER: (As Deborah Fifer) I see. When?
ALLEN: (As Nick Fifer) Recently. It's over now. You know - I'm sorry.
MIDLER: (As Deborah Fifer) When did you meet her? Where did you find the time?
ALLEN: (As Nick Fifer) I did. I found time. You know, after work mostly, when I was supposed to going to the health club. I had two others, but they were one nighters and this was years ago and that's it.
MIDLER: (As Deborah Fifer) That's it, two?
ALLEN: (As Nick Fifer) That's it, two. They were one-nighters both - three actually, if you count the hooker in Dallas. But that - that was business. That was totally business. They sent her to my room, I couldn't refuse. It was a gift. I love you. I really, really love you.
MIDLER: (As Deborah Fifer) Oh, honey (punches husband). You are the most callous, selfish, shortsighted son of a bitch who has ever lived. I hope you rot in hell.
GROSS: In 1991, I asked Paul Mazursky why he thought of casting Woody Allen, who always played introspective cerebral roles opposite the physical and brassy Bette Midler.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PAUL MAZURSKY: It's a fair question and many people ask me. But I have have a variety of answers. One is that most marriages I've known, and I've been married a long time and I've known a lot of married people - you wonder how they got together. Often they seem to be opposites, you know? The guy's a baseball fan and watches football and this and that - the woman has no interest in it. I've rarely met couples who - they both love to do everything together, you know.
MAZURSKY: That kind of thing. So that I felt perfectly normal. Secondly, it seemed at the time, and I still think it's a good idea, to try to match these two, you know, famous people who you would not think would be together just to see what would happen.
GROSS: This is Woody Allen's first role in another director's film since "The Front." Was he initially enthusiastic about this?
GROSS: Did you have to sell him on it?
MAZURSKY: No. I called Sam Cohn, who's my agent and his agent, and I said I have a script. He said well, I know the script. I said you think Woody might be interested? He says he might, he's looking for a job. He wants to work in another person's movie to make money. Sent him the script on Saturday. On Monday, he called and said he wants to do it. That's how easy it was.
GROSS: So what did you tell Woody Allen about how you wanted him to act compared to the kind of character he usually plays in his own movies?
MAZURSKY: Well, I didn't tell him I wanted him to act. I told him I wanted a ponytail and at first he was resistant then...
GROSS: I could see why (laughing).
MAZURSKY: Well, why do you say that? Tell me.
GROSS: There's something so trendy about that kind of ponytail right now.
MAZURSKY: Right. I wanted him to be trendy - I wanted him to be someone other than the Woody Allen you see in Woody Allen movies.
GROSS: Yeah, he was very stylish and he was very clothes conscious.
MAZURSKY: I wanted him to be trendy. I wanted him to be, you know, someone who - while he's from New York, you can't pretend he's not, has been in LA long time and has picked up some of the - the moon walker and silly, crazy, trendy things, which - that's a whole topic you and I could talk about because as trendy as LA is, and I think it is, I think New York is trendy - I see ponytails all over the joint here. I mean...
GROSS: Oh, New York? Absolutely. Absolutely.
MAZURSKY: Oh, yeah, it's ponytail city. I mean...
GROSS: I thought - you don't know if it's horses or people. Woody will say to you I'm not really an actor, I just this person. I can't cry and I can't do this. But he is an actor. The person he played in "Crimes And Misdemeanors" is not the same person he played in "Broadway Danny Rose." And that's not the same person he played in "Annie Hall."
GROSS: Would you have considered casting yourself in the lead in the part that Woody Allen plays? I really enjoy you as an actor...
GROSS: ...And as a director - now, you wouldn't have probably gotten the same amount of money to purchase the movie, I realize (laughing) but...
MAZURSKY: Well, I'm always kind of like a little screwed up in the head about playing the lead in my own movies. That didn't appeal to Disney. And I didn't think much about myself playing that particular part. I have thought about myself playing parts in some other movies. I ended up playing other parts but not the lead.
GROSS: You gave yourself a nice cameo in this - a small one.
MAZURSKY: It's a small cameo. I mean, I had a good part in Enemies. Yeah, I like to act, you know. And Woody said to me when we finished making the movie - he said you're funnier than me, why don't you star in your next picture? So maybe I'll do it.
GROSS: You started on doing standup comedy, right?
MAZURSKY: I was a nightclub comic in New York. I worked clubs that some of which you'll know - the Village Vanguard, the Bon Soir, Le Ruban Bleu, One Fifth Avenue, upstairs and the downstairs. That was the time of Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters. And I had a partner named Herb Hartig. We were called Igor and H.
MAZURSKY: Well, he - I was Igor, and he was H. Who knows, you know, we had a funny name. We didn't want to say Hartig and Mazursky - although maybe we should've. And then I broke up with Herb and I did the act myself for about three years and ended up in Los Angeles.
GROSS: What kind of comics were you exposed to when you were growing up? Dig you go to the Borscht Belt a lot - see the Jewish comics like Myron Cohen?
MAZURSKY: I did go to the Borscht Belt a lot. And as a matter fact, I played Storyville, a place in Boston, that's mostly jazz as a comic myself. And I was on the bill with Roberta Sherwood and Myron Cohen.
MAZURSKY: I followed Myron Cohen. In other words, he was finishing his four weeks and then I followed. And he was a great racket who told us those long stories, you know - Schwartz came up to his best friend and said, you know, what is a good Shabbos to you? And those jokes, you know. You know, Schwartz meets Cohen in the garment district, he says I heard about the fire, shhh tomorrow.
MAZURSKY: That was not my joke. That was - I used to tell that joke to - whenever I'd get into trouble. So I - and I worked the Catskills for five years as a waiter. And on the weekends at some of the places they were so broke that I was the social director and did a combination of comedy and Shakespeare. I swear.
GROSS: (Laughing) Like what?
MAZURSKY: Well, I would do - I would make up funny things. I would imitate famous people but give them names of customers who I knew were at the hotel. For example, I would do like Clark Gable - now look here Mr. Schwartz, I know your flock is well done but I'm going to tell you right now that I've got no control over our head waiter. Edward G. Roberts is like - now, listen here Mr. Schwartz that flock is not well done. I would mention the names of the people in the hotel - you just say the name, they would plotz, which in Yiddish means die, fall on the floor, kick each other. And then when I would finish about 40 minutes of that, I would do a soliloquy from Hamlet.
MAZURSKY: To give them, you know, culture and they loved it. They would cry. Such a nice boy, they would say. I should make a movie about all that. It was funny as hell.
GROSS: That sounds great.
MAZURSKY: And it worked. I would to Peter Laurie as the angry bus boy, you know?
MAZURSKY: You got dirt all over my tray, you know? It was a joke but it was funny. That was probably funnier than my nightclub act.
GROSS: We're listening back to my 1991 interview with director, screenwriter and actor Paul Mazursky, who died last Monday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Let's get back to my 1991 interview with director, screenwriter, and actor Paul Mazursky. He died last Monday at the age of 84. Here's a scene from his 1976 film "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" which was set in 1953. It starred Lenny Baker as a young Jewish man aspiring to be an actor. He moves out of his parent's Brooklyn apartment and into Greenwich Village where he hopes to launch his acting career. In this scene, he's arguing with his mother who's overreacting to his plan to move out. She's played by Shelley Winters.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE")
LENNY BAKER: (As Larry Lapinsky) I don't want to argue, mom. Let me help you with the car.
MIKE KELLIN: (As Ben Lapinsky) I can do it. I can do it.
JONATHAN WINTERS: (As Faye Lapinsky) Did you hear? Did you hear? Mr. Greenwich Village is going to honor us with his presence. He's going to come back. When? When are you going to come back?
BAKER: (As Larry Lapinsky) I'm not arguing with you, mom.
WINTERS: (As Faye Lapinsky) Well, don't argue.
BAKER: (As Larry Lapinsky) Well, I'm going to be going now. Thanks, pop. See you later.
KELLIN: (As Ben Lapinsky) Bye.
WINTERS: (As Faye Lapinsky) (Crying).
BAKER: (As Larry Lapinsky) Mom, you said you wouldn't do it. Mom, what you are doing is called hysteria. You're trying to make me feel guilty about going. Mom, I am going. I have to go. I have to live my own life. I'm 22 years old. Mom, you're going to give yourself a heart attack. Jesus Christ, will you stop it? Nothing you do is going to stop me from going. You are not going to make me feel guilty.
GROSS: In 1991 I asked Paul Mazursky if "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" was autobiographical.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MAZURSKY: Yes, you know, everything that I do has some autobiographical stuff and it - even the ones they don't know. But that was more, that was definitely more. That was sort of a memoir of my last year in Brooklyn and my first year in Greenwich Village. And it sort of, you know - I took many events that happened and some event didn't happen and fooled around them. It's not literal at all times, it really isn't.
GROSS: Did you have a Shelley Winters kind of mother, a domineering mother?
MAZURSKY: I did, I did, I did. I was thinking this morning, as a matter-of-fact, when I was sitting in a steam room in a hotel - out of a book that I might write someday because maybe the time is coming close. And I was thinking of chapters and they would all be names of the people that were influential in my life. And the first one of course would be Gene, who was my mother.
GROSS: I don't know if you mother still alive but...
MAZURSKY: No, she's not.
GROSS: Did she live to see any of your movies?
MAZURSKY: She saw "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." She was at the opening in New York at the New York Film Festival.
GROSS: Oh, great. The one about sex, perfect.
MAZURSKY: The one about sex. She sat there with me and Natalie Wood, and my wife, and Bob Culp, and Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon, and Mayor Lindsay. When it was over she said to me, don't be such a big shot. That was my mother's, you know what I mean?
GROSS: I sure do, yeah.
MAZURSKY: She was powerful and funny and I had a lot of trouble with it. But she's definitely I would guess, you know, the source of my pain and inspiration at the same time with the movies. But I, you know, now that it's all so many years ago I think about it with great affection. At the time I was afraid of her. I really was.
GROSS: Was it hard to leave her and to go to the West Coast?
MAZURSKY: That was a relief. The West Coast was, oh boy I did it, I'm free. But she still found a way out there.
GROSS: Oh, really?
MAZURSKY: And then she said to me. I don't like it. It's a lot of palm trees. And she went back. She didn't want to stay there.
GROSS: Director Paul Mazursky is my guest. Did you co-create "The Monkees" the TV show?
MAZURSKY: Yes. With Larry Tucker.
GROSS: What was your contribution?
MAZURSKY: Well, Larry and I were writing for "Danny Kaye", which was on in the early 6 - '63, 4, 5, 6. And we were approached by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson who knew we were very funny - or heard we were funny - and, quote, "hip," unquote. And they said, look we want to do show, a half-hour TV show that's in the style of The Beatles, of "Help," of those movies. So we went and looked at a couple of movies and we wrote this one episode and called it "The Monkees" and our names are on it. And then we had a lot of lawsuits later because that was before The Writers Guild gave you separation of rights in a protected way. And when the thing started selling a lot of socks and toys and "Monkee" T-shirts they said that they created it. They gave us the name "Monkees." We said, no you didn't. A lot of arguing - in any case, we're in the pilot, the first show.
GROSS: You have a part?
MAZURSKY: Oh, yeah. Both of us. We're in it. Sorry. I'm a man on the street, interviewer. And Larry's a man I'm interviewing about violence in the streets and how terrible it is that people don't stop and help other people while they're being mugged. And while I'm doing the interview the Beatles - I mean the Monkees - are being mugged by some guy right behind us. He runs away. It was funny.
GROSS: Do you look back at "The Monkees" shows and say, hey that was really pretty good? Or do you look back and laugh and go, what a knockoff?
MAZURSKY: No. I look back and say we would not have written it if hadn't come to us. We didn't invent the style because the Beatles did but, all things considered, it was a pretty far out thing for television. And it had a lot of crazy style and it had energy and we saw something. I'm sort of proud of it, you know. Of course it's an odd feeling when people come up to me and say, are you Paul Mazursky? I say, yes. They say, we love, love your work. And I say, well thank you. And I'm positive this is something about "The Holocaust" or "Moon Over Parador" - or they say hey, hey, we're "The Monkees" - so, you know.
GROSS: You changed your name from Irwin to Paul?
MAZURSKY: Wouldn't you?
GROSS: (Laughing). You didn't like the name Irwin? It smacked of an older generation to you?
MAZURSKY: No. Irwin was my name, Irwin Mazursky. And there was a play called "Three Men On A Horse" and the main character was Irwin. And he was a nerd, you know, Irwin and my mother used to come out in Brooklyn always like Jerry Lewis it sounds to me now. And called for me I was playing punch bowl in the street or something. Irwin, Irwin - I hated, hated it. Had she called me Israel or something, Israel, Son of God. I probably would have liked it. So in 1951 when I was graduating from college I got into Stanley Kubrick's first film. He didn't know he was Stanley Kubrick. I didn't know who I was. I was Irwin Mazursky. It was called "Fear And Desire." And a year or so later the woman who later became my wife, Betsy, called me and said you've got to come up with the name - they're putting the titles on "Fear And Desire." And Kubrick called her to call me, you want to use Irwin Mazursky? And I was in a phone booth in the Catskills, you know. And I said, well I hate Irwin but I don't want to give up Mazursky. I like Mazursky. What about Bart Mazursky? Clark Mazursky? What about Humphrey Mazursky? This is true - this is funnier than my movies. I should do all of this. Anyway, finally the operator said, you know, your the three minutes is up and she said, what about my father's name, Purdy? I said what about Paul Purdy? And the operator said, and your time - and I said Paul Mazursky and I hung up. And that was it.
GROSS: That's great.
MAZURSKY: That's a true story.
GROSS: Which is on your credit cards and everything. Are you Paul?
MAZURSKY: Paul Mazursky. But on my passport it says Irwin L. Mazursky A.K.A. Paul Mazursky. So when I go to strange places, they don't know the difference. It says Paul. I'm Paul Mazursky.
GROSS: I want to ask you little bit about your approach to casting. I think you've come up with a lot of really interesting actors over the years in your movies. Are you in on that yourself the casting?
MAZURSKY: Cast all movies. I cast extras.
GROSS: Oh, really?
MAZURSKY: I'm compulsive. I have help. I have wonderful casting directors but I am the person who casts every part - every part. From the top to the bottom, from beginning to the end.
GROSS: Well, you know, you hear stories about, like, Robert Altman - an act who just walks into his office and Altman just talks within a few minutes and knows if they want to use the actor or not. That's not your approach, is it?
MAZURSKY: Sometimes. Sometimes it is. I've had different approaches and I'll tell you what they are real quickly. Sometimes I've just seen an actor in a film and I know from that film that they can do what I want but I just want to meet them in the flesh. And often with big parts. Lena Olin I saw in "The Unbearable Lightness Of Being." I flew to London to meet her. I met her with her clothes on. And I still gave her the part. Ron Silver I saw in "Speed The Plow." I had dinner with him, I talked to him - I never talk to him about "Enemies." I then sent him the script and offered him the part. Margaret Stein, the Polish actress who played Yadwiga, I read her someone told me about her and she read for me for about 20-30 minutes. I gave her the part. Sometimes - "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" - I read every kid living for that part and finally ended up with Lenny Baker. So I do different things. Once in a while - once I was with a - I was taking a cab to Merion Dowry's office office, the casting director's office, and the cab driver was a woman. And she talked so much and was so amusing that I said to her, do you think you could act? She says, why not? I'm driving this piece of junk. So we parked the cab, let the meter run, and she came in read for me. And I gave her the part as the cabdriver in "Harry and Tonto."
GROSS: We're just about out of time. I have one more question for you though. Do you end up doing a lot of stand-up on the set when you're directing?
MAZURSKY: Yeah. I do a lot of it. I, really it's the only time I do it. I lose all of my, you know, my inhibitions and I have a lot of fun and I really enjoy it. I like to be funny. You know, to cover the deep, powerful pain.
GROSS: (Laughing) The miserable insecurity.
MAZURSKY: The miserable insecurity. I do it for a lot of reasons but I didn't think I would do it in the Woody Allen, Bette Midler movie.
GROSS: Oh, sure because you have, like, two people who are still doing comedy.
MAZURSKY: Well, yeah. Woody. I said, I'm not doing it with Woody. He used to laugh, he used to put his hand over his mouth. He could not stop laughing at me. So we had a lot of fun. And I've enjoyed myself. I have, you know, quite a thrilling career - meeting wonderful Natalie Wood, and Fellini, and John Murro, and Donald Sutherland and Isaac Singer - and, you know, these are icons - Marvin Icon, I meant - I tell you, is a man if you ever met him - just such a great man.
GROSS: Paul Mazursky recorded in 1991. He died last Monday. We'll hear an excerpt of our 1999 interview in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering director screenwriter and actor Paul Mazursky. He died last Monday at the age of 84. The films he directed include "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Next Stop Greenwich Village," "Moscow On The Hudson" "An Unmarried Woman" and "Harry And Tonto." Earlier we heard the 1991 interview we recorded. I spoke with him again in 1999 after the publication of his memoir "Show Me The Magic." I asked him about his mother and if she was like mother Shelley Winters portrayed in "Next Stop Greenwich Village."
MAZURSKY: In the book I call her gypsy Jean and amazingly when Shelley Winters portrayed this mother in "Next Stop Greenwich Village" she had an uncanny insight into my mother, who had already died. Shelley asked me for example did your mother type? Was she a great typist? I said, well how did you know that? She said, I just did. Did she take you to the movies all the time? How did you know? I just did. So Shelley had some great instincts about her and I loved Shelley and still do. I thought she did a great job. My mother was a very unique woman. I describe her as I said, a Gypsy Jean. She was lower middle-class Jewish lady from Brownsville and she was not whatever cliche you might think that is. She loved opera, she loved great literature, she loved black jazz music and she loved foreign films. And she took her son, this little boy - me, to all of those things. She also was very possessive, I was the only child. So I had a very up-and-down relationship with her, gypsy Jean.
GROSS: So, she took you to the movies a lot, did you - and she, respond to different things in the movies?
MAZURSKY: Well, when I say she took me to the movies, I mean she took me when I was like 7, 8, 9-years-old, I would cut school. She said it's OK, I'll write him a note. You have a cold and she'd load us up with candy, she loved to eat candy and so did I and so do I. And we'd go to see, let's say, "Les Enfants Du Paradis" up at the Thalia theater, and other great French films, you know, Gerard Philippe and Louis Jouvet, directed by Jean Renoir and all the greats. And I liked it, but I really didn't know that, oh boy am I seeing fine art. I was just seeing movies. So, our tastes - maybe they were kind of a like, you know, but later, when she was alive to see my first two films, the first was "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and they pleaded at the New York Film Festival and i took my mother and of course my wife too. And my mother's first lines to me were, don't let it go to your head bigshot. That's the first thing she said, and then when she saw "Alex in Wonderland" with Donald Sutherland, Jeanne Moreau, Fellini and an actress named Viola Spolin played the equivalent of my mother. My mother called me, she said I saw your picture, it stinks and I'm suing and I'm going to picket the theater. Why couldn't you get Bette Davis to play me?
GROSS: What impact did it have on you when, she said things like, don't let it go to your head bigshot?
MAZURSKY: Well part of me kind of liked it because it was so lacking in sentimentality. But I knew she had a great deal of love for me and, you know, the overriding emotion I had with my mother and I am very frank about this, I was afraid of her.
GROSS: I know you said that she was depressive and you think that her life could've been change with Prozac. Did her depression affect you?
MAZURSKY: Yeah. She'd get very dark, real, real dark and then she'd get paranoid. And paranoia often in my humble opinion, paranoids suspect the truth. You don't want me out here do you, she would say. I really didn't. So she would know the truth. I'd be ambivalent at least.
GROSS: But then you'd have to lie and say, of course I want you here, right?
MAZURSKY: Well, I would say yeah, yeah. But she was - It's very hard to totally explain it, I think you're getting the point. She was not an easy woman to live with, to be around, but she had a life force and a love for art and beauty that made her very strange and very different.
GROSS: One of your early films "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" is about two suburban couples who decide to try switching partners and they're kind of ambivalent about the whole thing. You say in your book that this was based on - this was inspired in part by your encounter group sessions at the salon Esalen. Tell me about that connection between the encounter group and the movie.
MAZURSKY: Well first let me tell you that I was reading Time magazine in 1968 and it was a picture in Time of a psychologist named Fritz Perls, P-E-R-L-S, and he was sitting in a hot tub with six naked people. And it said, the new kind of therapy. So I told my wife we got to go up and experience this new kind of therapy. Maybe there's a movie in it and we went up and had a 48 hour encounter. We took the nude hot tube. It was all, you know, very trendy but felt good, a lot of fun for a while. And then in the actual encounters, we were the only couple and they started to pick on - I felt they started to pick on me, Paul Mazursky. I control my wife, I didn't let her breathe, she started to cry and it got very intense. And out of that I wrote the opening 20 or 30 pages of "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and then it's all fiction after that.
GROSS: You write that you've tested the waters many of the new age trips and the psychedelics and gurus and participated in marathon weekends with Sufis. But you still basically distrusted it all. Why have you tried so much of that if you basically distrust it?
MAZURSKY: What a brilliant question, if only I could give you a brilliant Sufi answer. I believe that even if I scoff at stuff, you know, I want to know more about it, what attracts people to it. I've been with a Hopi Indian medicine man. I've taken ayahuasca in the Peruvian jungles, fantastic. I've had LSD, I have been to synagogues. I've been to Catholic churches. I've had therapy. I had decaf coffee today which is almost stronger than anything.
GROSS: You're on a little decaf high?
MAZURSKY: Yeah, I mean I've listened to - I've been whirling dervish Sufi things. And I've even gone to a few things with the Deepak Chopra type guys, all of that stuff. I want to hear it. I haven't found an answer yet. Nor do I expect to.
GROSS: You were born with the name Erwin and you remained Irwin until you made your first film with Stanley Kubrick, The film "Fear and Desire." in which you were an actor. It's funny 'cause I think that a lot of people would have change the Mazursky, 'cause that's the really ethnic sounding part.
MAZURSKY: Well, that's the joke, you know, it's a great Joke. I don't know what I can say on television - I'll say it and if you don't like, we'll wipe it out. The guy goes up he says, judge my name is Peter Smock and I want to change my name. He said yes, what do you want to call yourself? Since Jack Smock.
GROSS: All right. Well, did everyone call you Paul after that?
MAZURSKY: Everyone but my mother. Irwin.
GROSS: Yet another reason to keep her offset right?
MAZURSKY: Well, love-hate. Irwin, that's my son the bigshot. You know his real name is Irwin, Ms. Moreau. She met Jeanne Moreau, I love your movies - love them. I loved you in "Jules And Jim." I loved you in "Fire Down Below" - what every they were called and this is my son, he calls himself Paul. (Laughing) Bigshot.
GROSS: Paul Mazursky recorded in 1999. He died last Monday at the age of 84. Coming up, we listen back to an interview with actor Meshach Taylor, who died June 28. He was best known for playing Anthony Bouvier on the sitcom, "Designing Women." That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The actor Meshach Taylor died on June 28 at the age of 67. We're going to remember him by listening back to our 1990 interview. Taylor was best known for his role on the TV sitcom "Designing Women" playing Anthony Bouvier, an ex-convict who's a deliveryman for a company of women interior designers in Atlanta. He eventually became their partner in the company.
Meshach Taylor was on the show from 1986 to 1993. As his New York Times obit described - Taylor, the only main cast member who was African-American, often addressed the issue of race in the modern South. Taylor's other TV series included "Buffalo Bill" and "Dave's World." Earlier in his career, he performed with the Goodman Theater and the Organic Theater Company in Chicago. And he was in a national touring production of "Hair." Let's start with a scene from "Designing Women." Anthony has returned from a trip to the mall where he was detained by mall police.
(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "DESIGNING WOMEN")
DIXIE CARTER: (As Julia) Anthony, what triggered this?
MESHACH TAYLOR: (As Anthony) Well, she's all keyed-up because we had this little altercation at the mall. I promised her that I would take her down so she could buy her some new dainties. I felt a little uncomfortable being there with all of those private wear-things, you know, so I chose to go out and wait outside and window shop next door.
ALICE GHOSTLEY: (As Bernice) You see, when I was coming out with my new tummy control panty girdle, I saw these two hunky looking guys standing over Anthony's prostate on the ground.
TAYLOR: (As Anthony) Bernice, I was prostrate. Well now, she thought that it was the new "Candid Camera" and wanted to meet Dom DeLuise but the mall cops assured her that they were very serious and that they were detaining a possible jewelry thief - me.
CARTER: (As Julia) Jewelry thief?
GHOSTLEY: (As Bernice) And that's when I hit him.
ANNIE POTTS: (As Mary Jo) You hit a mall cop?
GHOSTLEY: (As Bernice) Just a couple of times in the face with my purse.
CARTER: (As Julia) Anthony, now let's just back up a little bit here. Why did they suspect that you were a jewelry thief?
TAYLOR: (As Anthony) Well, as I said, Julia, I was window shopping next door, and the owner of the store saw me standing there thought I was casing the joint, so he called security.
CARTER: (As Julia) Well, why did he jump to that conclusion?
TAYLOR: (As Anthony) Well, I think maybe it was because I was tall, handsome and dark.
JULIA DUFFY: (As Allison) Now, Anthony, are you sure you're telling the whole story? I mean, there must be extenuating circumstances.
TAYLOR: (As Anthony) Oh, yes, Allison, and in this case extenuating is spelled B-L-A-C-K.
CARTER: (As Julia) I think this whole incident is spelled S-T-U-P-I-D.
GHOSTLEY: (As Bernice) You people can stop spelling, I know every dirty word there is.
GROSS: In 1990, I asked Meshach Taylor how he got the part in "Designing Women."
TAYLOR: Well, I went through the ordinary audition process, I guess you could say. I was called in to read for it. I got there and there was no script. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband Harry Thomason were there and the producer and the head writer show. And they asked me what I would do in a certain situation as a specific character - the character that they had in mind. And I did an improv, I guess. I was in good form that day. I went on for about five minutes, I had to be stopped. So they hired me on the spot.
GROSS: (Laughing) Did they drag you off?
TAYLOR: Yeah, they did. They said, well, this is great, we like what you're doing, we'll hire you on the spot. And they told me then that I would do like five episodes. They said, you know, you'll be a recurring character this season and you'll come back five times. Well, after I did the first show I never left, I was there from then on.
GROSS: Do you know if the character is written specifically for a black actor?
TAYLOR: It wasn't. I was the only black guy who audition for it. As a matter of fact, I was called in because the lady who cast the show is a friend of mine and told them that she thought I could do the job, but it definitely was not written for a black guy.
GROSS: What reactions do you usually get when you go in for a role that doesn't specify black character?
TAYLOR: Well, ordinarily you don't get the opportunity to do that. That's one of the problems with Hollywood. It'll say policeman, and an unless it says black policeman, a lot of times you won't even get the opportunity to read for it, which is kind of crazy but that's the way it is. It's something that we deal with in Hollywood all the time. It's something that we're fighting all the time, but it's still something that exists.
GROSS: Now, I understand that you got criticisms from some civil rights groups for taking the role because it was an ex-con delivery person.
GROSS: What was your - maybe you can elaborate on what the criticisms were, but what was your response?
TAYLOR: You know, people were sensitive because the character was an ex-convict. First of all, like I said, I was the only black guy that read for the part so, I mean, it would have been a white ex-convict if it hadn't been a black ex-convict. I certainly wanted the job. And I saw nothing wrong with being an ex-convict. I mean, somebody who had been involved in a situation where he went to jail and now he was out and he was trying to do something with his life, I think that's positive as opposed to negative. So I didn't feel intimidated by that, you know, I just felt like here's a man who's was an ordinary guy who's going to do something special with his life. He's going to try to salvage what's left of it. So I thought that was good. As far as being a deliveryman is concerned, I see nothing wrong with being a delivery man. You know, black or white or Hispanic or Chinese or whatever, you know? It's a job. It's not brain surgery, he's not the president of the United States, but he's working every day and there's nothing wrong with that.
GROSS: Is that the first time you had to defend taking a role?
TAYLOR: No, it wasn't because I did the role of Jim, this runaway slave in "Huckleberry Finn," I did at the Goodman Theatre a few years ago and I was very, very surprised because the theater was picketed because of the use of the word nigger in the script. We had no illusions about the word being offensive. We knew the word was offensive, slavery was also very offensive. So we felt like to reflect that time, to be authentic, we had to use the word. And people were upset by that. But so, you know, once again, I didn't agree with that. I felt that it was correct to do it that way. I thought it was correct to show that in this period of time that Mark Twain was writing about, black people, African-Americans, were dehumanized to the point that they were not even considered people, they referred to, even by nice white folks, as niggers. And so I thought that was poignant. I thought that was something that young African-Americans, as well as young white Americans and Hispanic Americans should know about.
GROSS: You got your start in theater.
GROSS: And you actually got your start in Chicago at the Organic Theater and the Goodman Theater.
GROSS: When you decided to settle in Chicago for a while, did you have any sense of what was happening in theater? Is that what kept you there or what got you there?
TAYLOR: Yes. That's what got me there. I was doing a national touring company of "Hair" and the last stop was a theater called the Mill Run Theater in Chicago.
GROSS: I have to ask you, since the national touring production of "Hair" pretty well launched your acting career, do you actually like "Hair?"
TAYLOR: Did I like to show?
TAYLOR: Yes, it was great fun. I had a ball, are you kidding me? Because, you know, now it's old hat because, you know, there's so many other things that came afterward that were not structured tightly like it wasn't structured tightly. There was a lot of freedom - bits that I had in the show I could change every night if I wanted to and no one minded. And so that was fun.
GROSS: What songs did you get?
TAYLOR: I played Hud. When I first started out, I start out singing the "Aquarius" solo, but about two months on the road, I went from a first tenor to a baritone because your voice can't take that kind of strain every night, you know, that's a lot of singing and my voice dropped. And so then it turned out great because I got a chance to play the male black lead in the show, Hud, and I did that for a long time. So I got to sing "Colored Spade" and a bunch of, you know, "Abie Baby" and a whole bunch of the kind of comedic tunes and it was great.
GROSS: Your parents were both professors, you know, you come from this really educated family. So many of the roles for black actors in movies and TV are for streetwise, uneducated characters - did you have to learn that kind of language in order to get the part?
TAYLOR: Well, I had to learn that kind of language to survive because, like I said, I was raised on a college campus from the time I went to high school then I wasn't there anymore. So when you come in talking like - they used to call me the professor, you know, you talking like that you're going to have some problems, it's a peer group thing. You know, you're going to have to learn how to - so now I am bilingual, you know?
TAYLOR: I learned that lesson very well and so I didn't have to learn it for Hollywood, I had to learn it for life and for survival. And I think I learned it pretty well because I could move in and out of those types of situations with a lot of facility I think. You know, so it's been very interesting to have that duality my life.
GROSS: Meshach Taylor, recorded in 1990. He died June 28 at the age of 67. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the debut album of the brass quartet The Westerlies, featuring music composed by Wayne Horvitz. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The Westerlies is a quartet of young New York brass players, who know each other from school days in Seattle. Their debut album is a set of pieces by Seattle-based composer and improviser Wayne Horvitz. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Horvitz and The Westerlies are a perfect fit.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Since Wayne Horvitz left New York for Seattle in 1989, he's burrowed deep into the city's musical life. He composes for the theater, for classical ensembles and his own improvising bands, and he runs his own club. He's taught and mentored and hired lots of younger musicians, including the future members of the two trumpet, two trombone quartet The Westerlies. During that band's second year together, Horvitz asked if they might be interested in recording some of his music, though none of it was written for brass. They were interested.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES SONG, "HOME")
WHITEHEAD: Trumpeter Riley Mulherkar on "Home" from The Westerlies' album "Wish The Children Would Come On Home: The Music Of Wayne Horvitz." His pieces may carry a strong whiff of folksy Americana, sometimes in a subdued minor key. Some short tunes are built on just a shapely phrase or two. Horvitz calls them miniatures with places for improvisations.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES)
WHITEHEAD: The Westerlies play this music clean as a whistle, with attention to detail born of long rehearsals. And they infuse the lyrical passages with deep feeling. Wayne Horvitz's "The Band With Muddy" was written for strings and woodwinds. But it has more punch transferred to brass.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES SONG, "BAND OF MUDDY)
WHITEHEAD: Back in the 1980s, Wayne Horvitz had a rare knack for making digital synthesizer sound warm and human. The Westerlies had the good sense to have him sit in on one of those miniatures "I Wish The Children Would Come On Home." Horvitz's synthesizer wails like a spaghetti Western harmonica on an older version.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES SONG, "I WISH THE CHILDREN WOULD COME ON HOME")
WHITEHEAD: Wayne Horvitz also plays synthesizer on three brief interludes. You might almost wish the composer had joined in more often, but The Westerlies can sound like they're using electronics even though they don't.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES)
WHITEHEAD: There are a few such echoes here of riffing minimalism, another music built on the cumulative power of simple riffs. It's part of the mix alongside jazz, chamber music, small-town brass bands and garage rock. The Westerlies represent a breed of musicians rare when Wayne Horvitz was coming up, skilled interpreters who are also adept improvisers. With such versatile and well-equipped performers around, composers can expand their reach and they may all wind up in places they might not have found on their own.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and Wondering Sound and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed The Westerlies' "Wish The children Would Come On Home: The Music Of Wayne Horvitz," on the Songlines label.
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