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'Fresh Air' Remembers Bollywood Icon Irrfan Khan

One of India's most beloved film stars, Khan, who died April 29, became internationally known for his work in films like Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi. Originally broadcast in 2012.

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Other segments from the episode on May 1, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 1, 2020: Obituary for Irrfan Khan; Obituary for Michael Cogswell; Review of the television series Upload.

Transcript

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.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Irrfan Khan, the Indian actor who became a star in Bollywood and a success in Hollywood, died Wednesday in Mumbai after being admitted to a hospital for a colon infection. He was 54. Khan was raised in a middle-class family in northern India. He was admitted to the National School of Drama in New Delhi, began acting in Indian television in the '80s and went on to become one of the country's most beloved film stars. He was honored with four Filmfare awards - that's the Bollywood equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Khan's best-known American films include "The Namesake," "The Lunchbox," "Life Of Pi" and "Slumdog Millionaire," which won the Academy Award for best picture. He also appeared in HBO's "In Treatment" as Sunil, a man from India who'd lost his wife and was living with his son and daughter-in-law, Julia. In this scene, they've taken him to a therapist despite his protests because he's grown depressed and uncommunicative. Gabriel Byrne plays the therapist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IN TREATMENT")

GABRIEL BYRNE: (As Paul Weston) Julia implied that your grieving for your wife hadn't eased in the past six months. Would you agree with that?

IRRFAN KHAN: (As Sunil) Dr. Weston, my wife and I were married for 30 years. From the age of 23 until the day she died, I spent practically every day of my life with her. I do not understand the need to quantify the process of grieving, this need to count the years and months. I was a math professor, but this is not math. This is the furthest thing from math. This is only a feeling, and sometimes it is only a blankness.

DAVIES: Irrfan Khan in a scene from the HBO show "In Treatment." Terry interviewed Khan in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Irrfan Khan, welcome to FRESH AIR.

KHAN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: So let me play a scene from the film that I think you're best known for in the United States, and that's "Slumdog Millionaire." And you're a detective, a police detective, and in this scene, you're interrogating the main character, who's just won lots of money on the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." And no one believes that this young man who's from the slums of Mumbai could actually know the answers to the questions...

KHAN: Right.

GROSS: ...And have made that much money. So you're assuming that he's cheated. And he's - you have him hanging by his arms (laughter). And with electrodes attached to his feet, you're actually administering shocks to him.

KHAN: Right.

GROSS: So here you are with Dev Patel as the "Slumdog Millionaire."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE")

KHAN: (As Police Inspector) It's hot, and my wife is giving me a hell, and I've got a desk full of murderers, rapists, extortionists, bomb bandits and you. So why don't you save us both a lot of time and tell me how you cheated.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRUGGLE)

SAURABH SHUKLA: (As Sergeant Srinivas) I'm done, sir.

KHAN: (As Police Inspector) Now, listen. Hello. He's unconscious, (non-English language spoken). What good is that? How many times have I told you, Srinivas?

SHUKLA: (As Srinivas) I'm sorry, sir.

KHAN: (As Police Inspector) Why? Why, Srinivas? Now we'll have Amnesty International in here next, peeing in their pants about human rights.

SHUKLA: (As Srinivas) Sir, I was thinking...

KHAN: (As Police Inspector) Get him down. Tidy him up - please, for God's sake.

GROSS: That's my guest Irrfan Khan as the police detective in "Slumdog Millionaire." How did the popularity of "Slumdog Millionaire" - international popularity of it, Academy Award popularity of it - change your life?

KHAN: It didn't have any direct effect as far as Indian viewership or Indian exposure is concerned. But definitely here in America, you know, people have seen it, and it was a real opportunity for me to be in the ceremony of, you know, Oscar awards. That was something, you know, which was - I experienced for the first time. And it gave me a visibility in America. But there were films which I did which were close to me, with "Namesake," and, you know, I'm still very fond of that film, and that's my dear film (ph) - which really made a difference in my life as far as American market is concerned.

GROSS: And this was a film in which you played an Indian American who's, you know, moved to the U.S. with your wife. And your son is - has become very, you know, Americanized and is trying to kind of make sense of his Indian American identity. And his name is Gogol, which he's always hated. And toward the end of the movie, you tell him the story of how he was named that, and it's a very moving story. You play a college professor in it. But you're a very smart, very quiet, subdued man who obviously has a lot of very powerful feelings inside, but you don't express it with a lot of drama. You're a very kind of subdued personality in it.

KHAN: That was something new. At that point of career, I was doing films which had a lot more to do with my presence on the screen. And when this opportunity came to me, I never knew that it's going to challenge me in that way, that I need to work on my presence, that it shouldn't - it should become, like, unobtrusive. It shouldn't just jump out from the screen. I had to work on being unnoticeable. That was something - you know, something new for me to exercise in this part. And that made, you know, a hell of a lot of difference in my career. You know, it just gave me - sometimes as an actor, you get challenges which you think that - you know, how am I going to do that? And that's where the fun begins, you know, when you really, you know, fulfill the demand of the part and you can, you know, achieve what you were supposed to achieve. And that's what "Namesake" did to me.

GROSS: It's interesting that it was such a challenge for you to be unobtrusive, you know? (Laughter).

KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: I've seen posters for some of your Indian films and seen a couple of scenes, you know, on websites from them, and their scenes of you with guns and scenes of you - you know, there's love scenes, and you're working with a warlord in the mountains, and so...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Those are roles that we haven't seen you in in American films.

KHAN: Yes. What you're talking about, warlord - yeah, that's the film which take me out of my slumber, you know. That was a film which really gave me birth. I was losing my interest in acting, and I was doing a lot of television, and television was making me bored of this profession, of this job of being an actor. Television was more of a verbal medium. It was more of a radio play, you know, at that time, when I was doing television, you know. So I was not having a good time as an actor. And there was nothing to discover.

And so I was losing interest as an actor, and I was contemplating to leave this job. At that time, I got this film called "The Warrior" by - it was produced by Channel 4 and directed by Asif Kapadia. And that film really changed my life. The experience of doing that film and being with the director, it's - you know, it's something - you know, it really, completely put my life into a different path. And that's some - that is a film which is, again, very dear to me. And that's the first time I went out of India, when they had the premiere of "Warrior" in London. And that's the first time I saw foreign land. I was never out of India before that. So...

GROSS: And what year is this?

KHAN: It was 2000, I think. 2000, yeah.

GROSS: You've done a lot of films in India. We associate Bollywood movies with a lot of like singing and dancing and...

KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You know, big production numbers. Have you been in that type of Indian film?

KHAN: Oh, yes. I did try those films. And there were a few. I did those films. And - but I was never ever comfortable with things like just breaking into a dance without any rhyme and reason. I think my training in theater stopped me from doing these unbelievable situations. And I think it's a kind of challenge for an actor to believe in these situations which are completely fantastic. Like, you know, suddenly you are sitting here. And you just break into a dance. And, you know, you start singing. But I think, you know, it's a great way of entertaining people. And, you know, just trying to create a world to make believe in, you know, I like that. But I couldn't do that.

DAVIES: Indian actor Irrfan Khan speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. Khan died Wednesday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "SONG FOR YOU")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the interview Terry recorded in 2012 with Indian actor Irrfan Khan who died Wednesday at the age of 54.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So how did your parents feel about you becoming an actor?

KHAN: My mother still feels that I could be - she would be much more happier if I come back to my hometown and I take up some job, decent job, and so that I don't have to be away from her. She still feels that. Sometimes when my film comes and I forces her to go with everybody, that's the only time she says, OK, this was good. This was - you know, she's pleased with that. But within her heart, she is still - you know, she still yearns for me to be there with her. So that's a kind of, you know, a pain I carry with me, you know? I don't know what to do with it. That's why...

GROSS: So does your mother take any solace in knowing that even though you're not living very close to her geographically, that you're so successful and so well-known and popular in India?

KHAN: It does do something to her, but not enough for her to really feel, you know - she still wants to see me.

GROSS: She still wants to see you anyways, huh (laughter)?

KHAN: All the time. Yeah. Yeah. She has this feeling that all - we brothers should be together. We should be living in the same house. And we should be, you know, sharing everything. You know, she's like a - she just wants to put all of us under her wings. And, you know, she wants to feel good about it.

GROSS: So I assume you grew up seeing some American movies as well as Indian movies.

KHAN: Right.

GROSS: Were there American movies and American actors that influenced you and made you interested in performing?

KHAN: Oh, yes. They played a major role in my education as an actor. I was in drama school. There's not many drama schools in India. There's one which is authentic. It's the National School of Drama in Delhi. It was a three-year degree course. So I was doing that. And I had so many questions about how to learn acting and what acting is all about and things like that. And I started watching films at that time because, earlier, we were not permitted to watch films.

GROSS: We, meaning your family?

KHAN: We meaning, like, my family didn't allow us to watch films.

GROSS: Why not?

KHAN: Because they were coming from this feudal background. And, you know, they had this attitude of looking down upon films. Like, these are not a good influence (laughter). They used to think like that. So we were not allowed to watch films. And when I went to drama school, there was a theater where all these interesting films used to play on a very discount rate.

And that's where I watched Scorsese or Costa-Gavras or Fellini. And that was something eye-opener to me. And I had never seen Brando before that. I never knew who Robert De Niro was. I never knew Al Pacino. I never knew anybody. And that suddenly opened my doors and windows. And that's where my real training started. And that's what gave me a kind of drive, perpetual drive, as an actor.

GROSS: Were those movies dubbed or subtitled?

KHAN: No, no, no. They were subtitled. Like Costa-Gavras, subtitled. Like, Fellini's films were subtitled.

GROSS: So you got to hear Brando's voice. You got to hear Pacino's voice.

KHAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

GROSS: Because that's something you lose when they're dubbed. Yeah.

KHAN: They were not commercial release.

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.

KHAN: No, they were not commercial release. Yeah. They were, like, patronized by government. And these theaters were not commercial theaters. They were there - there was a kind of cultural center in Delhi. And they used to run these films just for, you know - just to popularize art.

GROSS: Did your parents let you watch television when you were growing up even though you couldn't see movies?

KHAN: So television came a little late, I think. In our house, television came in '84. Yeah. Yeah. Just - year back, year back. Yeah, '83, it came in our house. And at that time, it was just two channels used to come, which were government channels. They were not private. Private channel started coming in India around 2000. Before that, there was just two channels, you know? And it used to start around 6 in the evening and used to end around 10:30 or 11 at night. Just those two, three hours.

GROSS: When you were doing a lot of television, were they government-controlled programs, too?

KHAN: Yeah, they were. There were two channels that - there were two channels which is owned by government. But then, you know, they opened up for private channels. And then, now, there are more than a hundred channels.

GROSS: You studied at the National School of Drama...

KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In India. And I don't know if there's a specific approach to acting, a specific school of acting that's taught there. But I'm wondering if there's any comparisons you could make between acting as you learned it and acting as you think you may have learned it if you went to, you know, one of the theater schools in England or if you'd studied, you know, the Method in the United States.

KHAN: Yeah. It's very interesting question. See, we don't have a culture of realistic acting in India. Our films still are influenced by Parsi theater. Parsi theater was known for melodrama. So it still carried - even today's time, it still carry that melodramatic, you know, aspect of - it's still there in our cinema. We don't have this...

GROSS: And when you say melodramatic, you mean everything's, like, a little overstated, a little big?

KHAN: Overstated. And it's all about emotions. And, you know, you just have to project your emotions. You don't have to behave in a realistic way. You don't have to be believable. You just have to, you know, mesmerize the audience with your histrionics. So that was a kind of, you know - cinema was inspired or, you know, it adapted that element. And we don't have any school like, you know, you have here.

You have teachers who have studied Stanislavski and developed their own techniques. And they have their own way of teaching people how to go about doing a role or performing a role realistically. So we have no techniques. So it's like trial-and-error, you know? You find your own method. Although, we had a kind of drama training in - maybe in early ages. But it's really ancient, when a theater used to play a very important role in society. But that's not practiced in today's time. That's, like, 2,000 years old.

GROSS: In an interview on Al-Jazeera, you told a story that I thought was really funny. And the story is that, you know, when you wanted to, like, act on television, you went to - you must've been pretty young when you did this. You climbed up, like, this little...

KHAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Mountain or hill where the TV transmission tower was. And you figured, when you got there, that's where the offices would be and the people. And you could see if you could do something there. And then you got there. And you realize it's just a tower.

(LAUGHTER)

KHAN: Yeah.

GROSS: How old were you when you did that?

KHAN: I think I was 14. You know, it sounds strange. In today's time, 14-year-old boys is, you know, much more smart and, you know, they know. But I think that we were very naive. We were very naive. And this was somebody - my cousin told me that, you know, if you want to work in television - you see that, you know, tower on the mountain? You know, there, they have office. And we can go there. And we can ask them, you know, if we can work in television. And that's what we did. We climbed the whole mountain, you know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KHAN: There was nobody, not even a dog (laughter).

GROSS: So what was your reaction when you realized there's nothing there but a tower?

KHAN: So no tower. Then we started roaming around on the mountain. So we forgot about getting work on television. You know, we just having a great time on mountain.

GROSS: Did you go to a real TV studio after that, eventually?

KHAN: No. No. I thought, you know, this not going to work out.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KHAN: And, you know, it's - (laughter).

GROSS: Irrfan Khan, thank you so much for talking with us.

KHAN: Thank you, Terry. Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Indian actor Irrfan Khan speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. Khan died Wednesday. He was 54. After a break, we'll listen to Terry's interview with Michael Cogswell, whose life's work was preserving the legacy of Louis Armstrong. Cogswell died last week. And David Bianculli reviews "Upload," a new comedy series on Amazon from Greg Daniels.

I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETROS KLAMPANIS' "EASY COME EASY GO")

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "WEST END BLUES")

DAVIES: Michael Cogswell, whose life's work was devoted to preserving the legacy of Louis Armstrong, died last week at the age of 66 from complications of bladder cancer. Cogswell was a musician with a master's in jazz studies, when in 1991 he responded to an advertisement for an archivist to handle the Louis Armstrong collection. It began Cogswell's 27-year association with and dedication to the musician.

Cogswell became the executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, New York, which Cogswell helped renovate and preserve. It's the house Louis Armstrong lived in for the last 30 years of his life with his wife Lucille. The collection includes 650 reel-to-reel tape recordings of songs and conversations, 5,000 photographs, 350 pages of autobiographical manuscripts, 86 scrapbooks, 240 acetate discs of live recordings Armstrong made at home, five trumpets and more. Cogswell was also the author of the book "Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story Of Satchmo."

Terry Gross spoke with Michael Cogswell in 2001. She asked him about the Armstrong House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Why don't you describe the house and the neighborhood that it's in?

MICHAEL COGSWELL: In 1943, Louis and his wife Lucille purchased a simple frame house in the working-class neighborhood of Corona, Queens, and they lived there for the rest of their lives.

GROSS: Describe the interior of the house and what Armstrong was proudest of.

COGSWELL: Well, although it's a very simple frame house - sort of an Archie Bunker house, if you will - they did many remarkable things with the inside. For example, they enclosed the front porch and removed some interior walls to make this gigantic living room, this 70-foot-long living room, which they filled with paintings and upholstered furniture. The downstairs bathroom is covered with mirrors. Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with mirrors, and all the fixtures are gold-plated and imported from Italy - many fabulous things with the interior of the house.

GROSS: Why did the Armstrongs live in a working-class neighborhood for the latter part of Armstrong's life when they could have afforded, probably, to live anywhere?

COGSWELL: Well, it's an interesting issue because Louis, when they bought the house, was already a superstar, and they could have lived almost anywhere - perhaps in Beverly Hills, certainly a big estate on the north shore of Long Island. Lucille found the house and purchased it and decorated it without Louis ever having seen it. They were married in '42, and she bought the house in '43. Louis came in off the road. We know this from his own manuscripts. He gave a cab driver an address - take me to this house in Queens. They pulled up front. Louis said, oh, go on, man; take me to the address I gave you. The driver said, no, this is it. So he got out, came up, rang the doorbell. Lucille opened the door - welcome home, honey. She had a home-cooked meal on the table. She had the whole place decorated. And he fell in love with it.

In later years, Lucille tried to convince him to look at an estate on Long Island and a townhouse in Upper Manhattan, and he refused to even consider them. He was very comfortable there in the neighborhood. He knew the neighbors. They knew him. He would hang out on the front steps of the house and talk to neighbors. He would walk up the street to 106th Street and Northern Boulevard - Joe's Artistic Barbershop (ph) - get his hair cut, chew the fat with the guys in the barbershop. He had a very comfortable life there, and he cherished it. It was a real refuge for him when he was off the road.

GROSS: An important part of the Louis Armstrong archives is this huge collection of tapes that he recorded on an old reel-to-reel machine. What kind of things did he record on his reel-to-reel tape machine?

COGSWELL: There are more than 650 tapes in the Armstrong collection at the archives. About half of those are simply dubs of LPs and 78s. Louis would copy his favorite records onto audio tapes so that he could listen to them when he was in the hotel room or the dressing room. He had a steamer trunk custom modified to hold his tape decks and turntables. But he also recorded - the other half of the tapes are spoken word tapes. He would turn his tape recorder onto record when he was hanging out in the dressing room or backstage or wherever. And as a result, we literally have hundreds and hundreds of hours of tape of Louis and the guys sitting around swapping dirty jokes and band stories and Louis and Lucille at home and - you name it.

GROSS: He also recorded many memories about his life. Who was he speaking to when he did that? Was he doing that for posterity?

COGSWELL: That's a good question. Sometimes he would make tapes as spoken word letters. We know from the tape that he was making the tape for an individual - for example, Max Jones, one of his biographers in England. But other tapes, we have to ask ourselves that question - for whom was he making this? And on one level, he's just playing with his tape recorder. He's having fun with his audio equipment. But on another, more profound level, he was making it for us. He was leaving an audio legacy for us.

GROSS: Well, you've brought some tape excerpts with you. Why don't we listen to one of them. And this is a memory of Louis Armstrong's from his childhood in New Orleans, when he came out of the orphans home. Why don't you summarize what's in this? Because it's just a little bit hard to hear, so I think it would be easier to listen to if we already know what we're listening for.

COGSWELL: On New Year's Eve, New Year's of 1912, Louis fired off a pistol in the streets of New Orleans and - to celebrate New Year's Eve, and his little buddies were with him. And there was a policeman nearby who saw this. Louis had been in some minor scrapes with the law before, and he was sentenced to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys in New Orleans. And he spent roughly 18 months there. When he got out, he was released to the custody of his father. Louis' father had abandoned the family when Louis was an infant. And he continued to live in New Orleans, but Louis had had very little contact with him. So the story Louis is telling is that he's released from the Waifs Home, and he goes to live with his father and his father's new wife and their children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: When I came out of the Waifs Home, I stayed a while with my father, Willie, and his other wife and family. He had another wife name Gertrude - a nice woman. She thought quite a bit about me. She liked me pretty good, and I thought she was nice, you know. And kind of - I really kind of liked him. She and my father had two boys and a girl. So I stayed with them for a while when I first got out of the Waifs Home. But I commenced to getting a lonesome - ooh, boy - a lonesome - you know what I mean. Well, I mean, I got lonesome for my mother, Mary Ann. And Mary Ann, you know, that's her nickname. And my sister Beatrice, who they called Mama Lucy for a nickname. And before I realized it, I was back living with them again and happy as could be in that great big room where the three of us were so happy, and we lived so happily, so very long.

GROSS: Louis' mother was a teenage prostitute when she gave birth to him. Did he ever hold that against her, that she had been a prostitute?

COGSWELL: Louis always spoke of his mother with the deepest and most sincere respect and affection. He dearly loved her, and she was a huge influence on his life. It's funny. Louis occasionally speaks badly of his father. If you stand back a couple of steps, though, and look at the big picture, what is more likely is that his mother was on the street and was hustling, as Louis would say, and his father left her. And he was - had a very responsible job. He was superintendent in a turpentine factory, which for a black man in turn of the century New Orleans was a good job, and he held that job for many years. And he remarried and raised children with his second wife. So his father, apparently, was quite stable. But Louis worshipped his mother, and he did not have strong feelings for his father.

GROSS: And he writes in his manuscripts that he always felt very comfortable around prostitutes, and in fact, his first wife was a prostitute, too.

COGSWELL: Well, Louis grew up in a neighborhood of New Orleans that was so rough it was nicknamed the battlefield. And that's the environment Louis grew up in, is pimps and prostitutes and street people and nightlife people and gamblers. And he loved them all. He always speaks of his childhood in the most glowing terms of what a wonderful childhood he had. He and his mother and sister lived in a little two-room house with a dirt floor, and there was a privy out back. And they were so poor that, occasionally, Louis and his sister would go through garbage to find vegetables and - so they could cut out the rotten parts and eat what was remaining. But in spite of that type of childhood, Louis always refers to his childhood with great affection.

DAVIES: Michael Cogswell, whose life work was preserving the legacy of Louis Armstrong. Cogswell died last week. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND EARL HINES' "WEATHER BIRD")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 2001 interview with Michael Cogswell, executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York. He died last week at the age of 66.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Armstrong did have some pretty powerful things to say during the civil rights movement. What are some of the statements he made?

COGSWELL: Perhaps the most famous one is - when the Little Rock crisis was unfolding, Louis was out in the boondocks - I think North Dakota - and a local reporter knocked on his door to interview the famous Mr. Armstrong who's in town. Louis, at that time, was watching the television news broadcast about Little Rock, and he let loose with both barrels. He said that President Eisenhower was two-faced and had no guts. He called Governor Orval Faubus an uneducated plowboy. He said the way they're treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell. The reporter wrote this up, took it back to his editor. The editor knew exactly what he had and showed it to Louis, and Louis approved it - wrote solid at the bottom of the sheet. It got published. It got picked up by The Associated Press and went out all over the world. That's the most famous statement Louis made about civil rights.

But in his dressing room tapes and in his manuscripts, you can tell that Louis, as a rule, felt that he could do more for the civil rights struggle by being Louis Armstrong, by performing, by knowing his fans, by traveling around the world. And that's the tact he took.

GROSS: He also wrote about, you know, his pleasures in his journals, and one of the pleasures that he wrote about was smoking marijuana, which he did from the age of 26 on. And when he started smoking, there weren't any laws against it. He wrote, it puzzles me to see marijuana connected with narcotics, dope and all that kind of crap. It's actually a shame.

COGSWELL: Well, it's true. He was a lifelong pot smoker. And having said that, Louis was also the consummate professional. He was always on time and ready to play and one of the most creative people of this century or any other century. He would speak about his pot smoking in his writings and in the tapes, you know, just in casual references. It was no secret that he smoked marijuana.

I think one of the most amusing things that comes to mind - there was a biography of Armstrong published that mentioned in passing that Mezz Mezzrow did arrangements for the Louis Armstrong orchestra in the '30s. And I and other people read that and said, gee, that doesn't sound right. I mean, Mezz Mezzrow was a part-time clarinet player, but he didn't have the technical facility to do arrangements for a big band. Where on Earth did that come from? Well, a couple of years ago, we acquired a copy of an Armstrong letter from the Library of Congress, a letter that Louis wrote to Mezz Mezzrow in the 1930s, and he says, in essence, dear Mezz, we're doing a tour of Europe, and I need some arrangements. Now, you have to understand that Mezz Mezzrow was Louis Armstrong's pot dealer. He says, Mezz, I need some arrangements. I need enough arrangements to last six weeks.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COGSWELL: And I need some really good arrangements, and I'm wiring the money to the American Express office in Paris. And you dig, Daddy? I know you'll understand. So apparently, the biographer had seen this letter and not really understood what Louis was saying.

GROSS: One of Armstrong's big hits in the mid-'50s was "Mack The Knife," which is, you know, the Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht song from "The Threepenny Opera." And with Armstrong, it became this big pop hit. There's a recording that he made with Lotte Lenya of the song. And Lenya, by this time, was the widow of Kurt Weill. And she, of course, was in the original production of "Threepenny Opera." Her style of singing is much more of a theater music style, not the kind of behind-the-beat jazz style of Armstrong. And on this recording, it seems to be Armstrong's session, and he's coaching her in the kind of rhythm that he wants. And I think it's really fascinating to listen to him control the session and coach Lenya. So I thought we could give this a listen. Anything you want to say about this track?

COGSWELL: Well, we have tapes of this in the Armstrong archives. It is fascinating. Lotte Lenya has come by this recording session, and Louis is coaching her on the coda, on the tag to "Mack The Knife." And she just can't get that final syncopation, and Louis is so gracious and so patient with her. It's really a great example of these two together.

GROSS: Well, Michael Cogswell, good luck with your work with the Armstrong House and archives. Thank you so much for talking with us.

COGSWELL: Oh, thanks for your interest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MACK THE KNIFE")

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Sukey Tawdry.

LOTTE LENYA: (Singing) Jenny Diver.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Look at you, Lotte Lenya.

LENYA: (Singing) Sweet Lucy Brown.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, the line forms on the right, yes.

LENYA: (Singing) Now that Macky's back in town.

ARMSTRONG: That's all right. No, you got to do - we're going to straighten that. (Singing) Now that Macky's - boom - back in town.

LENYA: (Singing) Back in town.

ARMSTRONG: Then we'll pick up from there.

LENYA: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: Nah, we'll straighten it out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good.

ARMSTRONG: See - like this. (Singing) Dah-dah-dah (ph). See? Macky's...

LENYA: That's easy for you (laughter).

ARMSTRONG: It's like a phrase (laughter).

LENYA: (Singing) Now that Macky's back in...

ARMSTRONG: No, no - make it eight note. (Singing) Now that Macky's - boom - back in town.

LENYA: Good.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Back in town. One, two, three. Like this.

LENYA: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: As long as you're speeding this up, you know, you don't...

LENYA: (Singing) Now that Macky's...

ARMSTRONG: Boom.

LENYA: (Singing) Back in - no?

ARMSTRONG: That's right. If you sing it fast, it's still...

LENYA: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: See - 'cause I'm going to start blowing right over you.

LENYA: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Now that Macky's - boom - back in town.

LENYA: (Singing) Back in town.

ARMSTRONG: One, two, three.

LENYA: Yeah. (Singing) Back in town.

ARMSTRONG: That's it. That's it. Now we can go right from the vocal. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

ARMSTRONG: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Where you starting from?

COGSWELL: From the clarinet. Great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Tell me when it's ready.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, vocal only - take one.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, the shark has... Well, no, let them (inaudible). (Singing) Now, that Macky's - boom...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, Tawdry, take two.

ARMSTRONG: All the way in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, just the Sukey Tawdry.

ARMSTRONG: Oh, the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MACK THE KNIFE")

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Sukey Tawdry.

LENYA: (Singing) Jenny Diver.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Lotte Lenya.

LENYA: (Singing) Oh, sweet Lucy Brown.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, the line forms on the right, yeah.

LENYA: (Singing) Now that Macky's back in town.

DAVIES: That's Louis Armstrong coaching singer Lotte Lenya from a recording archived at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Michael Cogswell was the executive director of the museum. He died last week. Cogswell spoke with Terry Gross in 2001. His final project is a $23 million education center across the street from the Armstrong House to hold the archives, an exhibition gallery and a jazz club, though construction has been halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Coming up, David Bianculli reviews "Upload," the new comedy series by Greg Daniels, who brought us the American version of "The Office." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED KATZ'S "OLD PAINT")

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Former "Saturday Night Live" writer Greg Daniels, who went on to create the American adaptation of the British sitcom "The Office," has two new series premiering in May. Later this month, he and his NBC "Office" star Steve Carell reteam for a new Netflix comedy called "Space Force." And starting today, Amazon presents another new Greg Daniels comedy. It's called "Upload." And our TV critic David Bianculli has a review of that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UPLOAD")

ANDY ALLO: (As Nora) Welcome to Upload, Nathan. You made it to Lakeview, you lucky duck.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In the new Greg Daniels sci-fi comedy "Upload," Nathan Brown - played by Robbie Amell - is the lead character, but he's not so lucky. First of all, we hardly get to know Nathan and the world of the near-future in which he lives when he stops living. The handsome young man dies in a freak accident involving his self-driving car, and his wealthy girlfriend puts up the money to have his memories and personality uploaded into a look-alike avatar. And that avatar resides in what now passes for his eternal afterlife in a world not of his own making.

Actually, it's a world made by a giant corporation, one of several competing to offer people an alternative to dying in the natural way and dealing with whatever does or doesn't come next. One of the many brilliant concepts in this new "Upload" show is that series creator Greg Daniels envisions his imaginary world as a place where this transition from bio to Upload, as they call it, is a predominantly financial transaction. The more you can afford, the better your computerized afterlife. And Nathan, because his girlfriend's family literally owns the place, gets to live with the 1 percenters, whether he wants to or not.

Here he is waking up for the first time to his new reality, guided by a computer tech back in the real world, an Upload client support staffer named Nora, who serves as his personal Siri or Alexa. She's played by Andy Allo, and she's instantly likeable, as is her co-star.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UPLOAD")

ALLO: (As Nora) Do you see anything?

ROBBIE AMELL: (As Nathan Brown) I'm in some kind of old-fashioned room looking over a lake. Beautiful trees. Whoa, a shark's swimming right towards me.

ALLO: (As Nora) What? OK, that's not supposed to happen.

AMELL: (As Nathan) Kidding. Kidding.

ALLO: (As Nora, laughter) Sense of humor - nice. So welcome to Lakeview, the only digital afterlife environment modeled on the grand Victorian hotels of the United States and Canada. Hope it's not too Ralph Lauren for you.

AMELL: (As Nathan) I mean, it was never really my thing, but it's kind of cool.

ALLO: (As Nora) Yeah. Uplifting views, healthy pursuits, timeless Americana.

AMELL: (As Nathan) Are there slaves?

ALLO: (As Nora) What? Are you serious? One - this is just a design scheme. And two, that's not even the right period. Lakeview is open to all races, religions, genders - absolutely anybody.

BIANCULLI: In "Upload," we get to explore both worlds - the computer-generated Lakeview and the real world of 2033, which is when this series begins and Nathan dies. In both places, the details - comic and otherwise - are crammed into each frame like panels from a drawing in Mad magazine. The closer you look, the more you'll find.

In the real world, Nora has a vintage political poster on her wall supporting the 2024 political ticket of Oprah and Kamala. In the afterlife of the avatars, residents can adjust the seasons of the gorgeous view outside their window just by turning the dial on a sort of landscape thermostat, kind of like changing the background on your Zoom meeting. Breakfast buffets are loaded with endless treats, but like most of the things in these for-profit virtual realities, you have to pay extra to get what you want. In Nathan's case, his girlfriend Ingrid, played by Allegra Edwards, controls his budget and decides, as each purchase request comes to her account, whether or not to indulge him.

There even are ways for the virtual and real worlds to interact. Nora, as a client support technician, can visit his world as her own temporary avatar. And Ingrid and Nathan can see each other by visual computer links, watching and talking on monitors. That's an accidental extra-creepy touch because watching them reach out to each other, trying to connect only through TV screens suddenly, feels much too familiar.

But "Upload," this new TV comedy without a laugh track, does more than just create inventive new worlds. Like "The Good Place," it's full of thoughtful questions and challenging ideas, even about the meaning of life itself - and of death itself. "Upload" also holds up to comparisons with episodes of "Black Mirror," covering the worlds within worlds of avatars and computerized identity, and to similar themes in "Westworld" and the movie "Her." And very quickly, "Upload" reveals itself to have even more layers. It's a love story, with Nathan and Nora extremely attracted to one another but fighting seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

And before long, Nathan begins to suspect that the freak accident that killed him was no accident at all. That turns this sitcom into a mystery series, too, as Nathan and others set out to solve a murder - his. I love "Upload" because it's so smart, so funny and so imaginatively complicated. It may sound like a paradox, but watching a TV show right now about a character who feels confined and helpless and trapped in these troubled days when many of us share those same feelings turns out to be a wonderful way to escape.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and professor of TV studies at Rowan University.

On Monday's show, we welcome back fashion mentor Tim Gunn. His new fashion competition show "Making The Cut" features eco-conscious designs that fit all body types and are gender neutral. We'll hear more about his life, how he came to love teaching despite a difficult start, his struggles as a teenager and his father, who worked closely with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "C'EST SI BON")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Challoner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "C'EST SI BON")

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