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'In The Heights' Is A Spirited, Socially Undistanced, Summer Crowd Pleaser

Justin Chang reviews the long-awaited film adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda's Tony-award winning musical 'In the Heights.'



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Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 11, 2021: Obituary for Clarence Williams; Interview with Stephen Colbert; review of film 'In the Heights.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to our interview with Clarence Williams III, best known for playing Linc Hayes, one of three hippie-delinquents-turned-undercover-cops in the ABC series "The Mod Squad." Williams died June 4 at the age of 81. The cause was colon cancer.

Williams got his start on Broadway, but his big break was being cast on "The Mod Squad," which ran from 1968 to 1973. It was one of the first shows to focus on the counterculture generation and one of the first to feature an interracial cast. In the 1980s, Clarence Williams became known for specializing in quirky, sometimes brutal characters. He played a killer in "52 Pick-Up," an abusive father in Prince's film "Purple Rain" and a heroin addict in "Sugar Hill." He also had comedic roles in Dave Chappelle's film "Half Baked" and in Keenen Ivory Wayans blaxploitation parody "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka." And he had guest appearances in nearly 40 TV series, including "Hill Street Blues" and "Empire."

When Terry spoke to him in 1995, he was in the comic horror film "Tales From The Hood," about three young dealers looking for a lost drug shipment at an address that turns out to be a funeral home. The mortician, who seems to come from the world of the dead, is played by Clarence Williams. He opens up a series of coffins and terrifies the dealers with supernatural stories behind the death of each of the corpses.


CLARENCE WILLIAMS III: (As Mr. Simms) Hell, this is all new to me. I'm not a drug dealer. I'm a mortician. The only drugs I know about are those that have to do with the deceased.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yo, man, what kind of drug do their people be needing?

WILLIAMS: (As Mr. Simms) All kinds. We shoot them real good with embalming fluid mainly. You know, it keeps them from smelling and decomposing before the service.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Cool. Hey, so what happened to him?

WILLIAMS: (As Mr. Simms) Oh, they say he went crazy. Death - it comes in many strange packages.


TERRY GROSS: Now, I read that you grew up over a funeral parlor, yes?

WILLIAMS: That's true. And while - I lived over one - 135th St. & 7th Ave. in New York City, in Harlem, there was a Griffin-Peters Funeral Home, which a lot of people may have seen because it was like four doors down from the world-famous Smalls Paradise nightclub, where a lot of the magnificent jazz musicians all through the years have played back in the heyday of the '40s, '50s and part of the '60s. And my grandmother, she was an organist. And she used to play for funerals. And we lived - my sister and I lived with her for a part of the time, and we lived above the funeral parlor. And when you took the trash out, you'd have to go through the embalming room to the back alley to put it away.


WILLIAMS: And so it was it was my first encounter with Gray's anatomy without having "Gray's Anatomy."

GROSS: Were you impressionable and superstitious?

WILLIAMS: Not at all. Not at all. And I don't know why. You know, it's true - it's an interesting question. I never really thought about it. I mean, it's sort of like that's where I lived, and so it was normal. And plus, with my grandmother, obviously, you know, working at funeral parlors - 'cause I used to - when I used to come home from school sometimes - because unfortunately, a lot of times, I mean, she was booked like four or five, you know, a day, and and so she would go from one to the other. And sometimes I'd have to bring her lunch when I came home from school or early dinner. And I would bring it to the funeral parlor. And then I would wait.

And she would play because a lot of times - I remember this one particular funeral. Well, it wasn't a funeral. It was called the viewing of the body. And it was a man whose name I don't know. But evidently, he was a big-time underworld-type figure. And his lady had passed away. And he had hired my grandmother to play music all day long. If persons were there or if they were not there, he wanted music playing while she was laying in repose and had this big glass coffin of sort of - Cinderella-ish. And so she was playing there. And that's stuck in my mind, but that's the only time I really think about it. I never really thought about it that much.

GROSS: So when you were young, though, you were constantly exposed to other people's tragedies.

WILLIAMS: Well, no, not really, because, I mean, I didn't spend my time around it. And also, interestingly, my grandmother played the organ for church services at the prison on Rikers Island in New York City - prison in the harbor. She played there for many, many years prior to her passing. But no, I mean, she didn't bring that stuff home. I mean, we'd never talked about it at home at all. And the only reason why I did see a bit of it from time to time because we lived over the funeral parlor. But no, it wasn't a major thing in our lives at all.

GROSS: Did you ever go with her to Rikers Island?

WILLIAMS: No. No. I was in school. And I was a child. I doubt seriously they'll let children go over there. And so, no, I never did. I do remember one thing was she was a - her name was Helen (ph). And she was very, very kind woman. And so she was out at Rikers Island one time at the church service. And she's playing the organ. And some of the guys were all sniffling and coughing and sniffling and coughing. And they were saying, oh, Mrs. Williams, you know, we have colds. And we can't get, you know, cough syrup and so on, so on. And she was an impressionable lady, totally, totally devoid of any knowledge of underworld and nefarious activity. So the next week, when she was going back out to the island to play for church services, she had stopped by the drugstore and bought inhalers and codeine cough syrup and all these things.


WILLIAMS: And she's going to distribute this stuff to these people. And obviously, she was a fixture going in and out of the place, so she's never searched or anything like that. But she presents the stuff to the guard. She says, you must give this to the boys because they have colds.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: And the guard looks at this bag, and he says, Mrs. Williams, these are narcotics. We don't allow that stuff in here. And that's the kind of lady she was. I mean, one of the grand things that she did for my sister and I - and I guess this - we're going back in, oh, so many, many years. My sister and I, we had a charge account, believe it or not, at a local candy store. And we could go in and charge like $2 or $3 worth of comic books and a half a pint of - and back in those days, ice cream, they used to freshly dip it. You know, the guy would pack it right behind the counter. That's not like now. You just buy the carton already packed at the factory. But - and they were dipping it. It was a really great thing. And she was a wonderful lady.

GROSS: Clarence Williams is my guest. So how old were you when you started to think about acting, and what made you start to think about it?

WILLIAMS: It started quite accidentally. I was out of - I was way out of high school. I was maybe two years - not way out of, but about two years out of high school. And I was working here in New York at Grey advertising agency when they were at 430 Park Ave. And I was working basically, you know, in the daytime. They had two guys who were just not quite maintenance men, but sort of jack-of-all-trades kind of guys. And I was one of those. And I also served on the executive dining room for Mr. Fat (ph), who was the president of the company at the time. And he had a private dining room. And he had, you know, count people and prospective clients to come in and talk business, whatever. And so I would serve the dinner and the cocktails and all that sort of stuff. But they paid every two weeks. And being at that age, you know, money was not a serious thing to me. So I was always broke the second week, you know. Budgeting was not a part of my vocabulary. And so I had a date to take a girl to a dance.

And so I called my sister up, who was married at the time and living in Brooklyn. But she had a job working at the Harlem YMCA at night as a switchboard operator. And during the day, she worked for the hospital union, Local 1199. And so I called her. I said, I got to borrow $20 because I was going to this dance. And she said, sure, but you have to get here before, you know, 5:30 before I get off work. And, of course, she's going home to Brooklyn. And I said, sure, no problem. And so I went by. And she gave me the $20. And obviously, that's all I had. And I had the date that evening so, I couldn't spend it or do anything.

So she says they're rehearsing a play downstairs. Why don't you go down there and watch some of that? I said, sure, and then I did. So I went downstairs, and I opened the door. And the play was in - and the theater was in blackout. And they were having a run-through. So when I opened the door, this shaft of light shot across the auditorium. And the director was Vinnette Carroll. And this voice boomed out, shut that G-D door. And I shut the door. But I was on the inside and literally was too embarrassed to open the door and have the shaft of light shoot across the auditorium and disturb these people further to leave. So I crouched down in the back. And the run-through was houselights came up. And she turned around and she said, come here.

And so I went over to apologize for having disturbed what was going on in this theater. And she says, are you an actor? And I said, no. And she said, would you like to be? And I said, yes. And basically what I was saying was - I just wanted to placate her and just say, please forgive me for disturbing what you were doing. And so she says, well, go on stage, and read these lines, which I did, and obviously read them not particularly well. And then she came back and she's, OK, you have the part. Come to rehearsals tomorrow night at 7 o'clock. And that's how it started. And I came in - and interestingly, in that production, was all - either doing their very first or maybe second roles was Cicely Tyson, was Roscoe Lee Browne, was Isabel Sanford from "The Jeffersons" - all totally unknown people. And they were down there doing this play, "Dark Of The Moon."

GROSS: So you started studying theater.


GROSS: As a young African American actor, did you think that you would end up building your career in the Black theater?

WILLIAMS: Well, I'd never really worked in the Black theater, and I was never a member of the Negro Ensemble Company and all that, so maybe I should fast-forward then. So I started - and so I went, and I auditioned for this play called "Doubletalk." It was written by Lewis John Carlino, and it was produced by Cheryl Crawford. And Miss Crawford was one of the founders of the Group Theatre and one of the co-founders of the Actors Studio. And so I walked in. I said, could I - my name is Clarence Williams. May I see Ms. Crawford, please? And the person says, just sign your name down here. When Miss Crawford's ready to cast, you will get a notice that she's casting. So - and I said, OK, so I signed it down there. And a card came. I had an appointment at 4, whatever it was, in the afternoon many weeks later. And I went down there thinking I had this appointment. I show up, and there's, like, 400 people there. It's - cattle calls is what they call it. And my - and I was just included. And so everybody sort of like had two minutes or a minute or 30 seconds or whatever it was - in, next person, in, next person, in, next person.

And so when I walked inside, Ms. Crawford was behind her desk. She says, OK, what have you done? And I said, I played two leads at the Harlem Y. This made her laugh because everybody else is coming and blowing smoke about, well, I played Hamlet at Northwestern University, and I did "King Lear" over here. And I did this over there. And I was just totally straight and honest. I played two leads at the Harlem Y. And this lady leaned back in her chair and smiled. And she said, sit down. And she talked to me for about a good 15 minutes, which is an awful lot of time out of her day. And so - make a long story short, they cast the play, and she tells me to come to the Martin Beck Theatre. And I walk into Martin Beck Theatre, and the play is all cast and everything. There's no jobs at all. And she just says, make Clarence the general understudy.


WILLIAMS: And that was my first job - professional job on Broadway.

DAVIES: Clarence Williams III speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's interview with actor Clarence Williams III. He died June 4 at the age of 81. He's best known for his role as Linc, a hippie undercover cop on the TV series "The Mod Squad."


GROSS: How did you get from theater to television in your role as Linc on "The Mod Squad"?

WILLIAMS: That came out of "Slow Dance On The Killing Ground." Bill Cosby and his wife happened to be in New York, and he had - he was on a break from doing "I Spy." And they were in New York. And as anybody who knows anything about Bill, they know he's a big, big jazz fan. And so he was in New York, and they were seeing all the people who were playing in New York. And his wife said, I want to see a play tonight as opposed to going to listen to some music. And so he said, OK, you pick one, and that's the one we're going to go. Camille Cosby happened to pick "Slow Dance On The Killing Ground" to come to see. And then they saw the play, did not come backstage and left.

And - I don't know - about two, three months went by, and I get a phone call from Aaron Spelling, who was partnered at the time with Danny Thomas at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, saying that they're sending me some airline tickets, and they want me to fly out to do a guest shot on "The Danny Thomas Hour," which was an anthology series that Danny Thomas had at that time. And what it was, unbeknownst to me until after I got out to Hollywood, they said, this is a screen test for a series we're going to do call "The Mod Squad." And you were recommended to us by Bill Cosby, and that's how that happened.

GROSS: How do they first describe "The Mod Squad" to you?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know something? It was called "The Young Detectives." (Laughter) So it was called "The Young Detectives." And these guys had - in the script, these guys were running around with all kinds of guns and machine pistols and this, that and the other the thing and dada-dada-dada (ph). And all praises to Aaron, he was the one who wrote all of that stuff out. And he says, no, there's no guns, and there's not all of this sort of stuff. And - which is interesting - I was somewhere. Somebody was telling me how much they love this show and they used to love the shootouts we had. And Michael Cole, who was in the show, and Peggy Lipton and Tige Andrews and myself, we never once carry guns - with the exception of Tige, who was really a policeman. In fact, the three of us were never really a part - officially a part of the police department. We were sort of like these sort of juvenile delinquents who were being smoothed out to be better persons. And - but we never carried guns or had any shootouts or anything like that. But...

GROSS: But you were undercover.

WILLIAMS: We definitely were undercover. We were definitely undercover, sort of like troubleshooters. And every now and then when - I can always tell when the writers were having difficulty coming up with a different show for us is because they would always do - we'd break out the old chestnut. Well, there's two chestnuts you bring out when the writers have a little trouble. The one is that the police commissioner is complaining to Captain Greer that these young kids are running around. And so you do that show about two times a season, and then toward the end of the year, when we're running low on funds because a few of the shows would go over budget, there'd always be some kind of murder at the theatrical studio. So we could shoot one on the lot without going on location.


WILLIAMS: And so - always some movie star who got knocked off or some makeup person who got knocked off and and the Mod Squad was brought in undercover. And so we'd wind up being a grip or a makeup person or something or other or a script supervisor, and we'd solve the case. But that means - because that meant we could not go off the lot for that particular episode because we used to shoot four days out and three days in.

GROSS: Now, you always used to say - Linc always used to say solid.

WILLIAMS: That came out of that - that I ad-libbed in the show because that came out of - a lot - I used to hear a lot of jazz musicians would say to an individual who was just on such, you know, terrific solo or made some really creative move with his or her instrument. And someone with a solid. You know? And so I used that a couple of times. Then all of a sudden, it started appearing in a lot of scripts, and then I stopped using it because I didn't want to make it my hook or whatever they call it when you have a line that you're noted for. But nonetheless, it still stuck.

GROSS: Were you able to tell - like, do you think one could tell, looking back at the reruns, what year it was in by your hair?


WILLIAMS: Of course they can. They knew it was that in the late '60s. And that - you know, it's interesting talking about that hair. I wore my hair long like that long before I was even an actor. My grandfather, after he came out of the Navy, for some reason, he rarely cut his hair. And his hair was always long. And I always just liked the look of his hair. So I stopped getting haircuts, just totally stopped, wasn't making any kind of political statement, I just stopped..

GROSS: So this is before the Afro. You were wearing your hair...

WILLIAMS: Long before - long, long, long before. Ask anybody who knew me of the period and they will all tell you and - that my hair was always that long. But I used to shave it all off in the summertime. And that was the only time during the year I would have a haircut. In the summertime, I would shave it all off. And then by the time it was coming to go to school again or whatever, when September would roll around, it would begin to grow back in and look, you know, have a semblance of normalcy as opposed to a shaved head. And - but no, it had nothing to do with any of that. But anyway, so I started - you know, the term - so all of a sudden, they put this term Afro to it. So it's called this Afro.

And I used to - I used to say to myself, well, the term is basically a misnomer because if you had your hair, in fact, that long and you were living in the jungle, I mean, everything would be collecting in your hair. You would have bugs in your hair. I mean, as you ran through the jungle chasing your equivalent of Jane, it would get snagged on trees, and all kinds of things like that would happen to it. But that's how that really happened.

But - and interestingly, when I first got out to California - and so - and they decided that they were going to use me in the pilot for this - for the television show. And so I was in Mr. Spelling's office, and he was sitting behind his desk, and he was puffing on his pipe. And you can tell when Aaron is really thinking hard because the puffs on the pipe get more puffier. And so these puffs were puffing and then all of a sudden he finally said, we've got to do something about your hair. And so I said, well, what do you mean do something about my hair? He says, we got to do something about your hair.

So what he did was - this is truly funny. And he says to - I think it's Shelley Hull, who was his assistant. And he said, Shelley, where's Bill Cosby? And so Shelley says, I don't know, boss, but I'll find out. So he goes and he grabs a phone and he calls Sheldon Leonard's office, who was the executive producer of "I Spy," and say, where is "I Spy" shooting? And he said, well, they're down in Acapulco. They're shooting down there. He says, OK, so he's down in Acapulco. So Aaron says, give me the phone number of where this thing in Acapulco, gets the phone number. Aaron Spelling calls Bill Cosby in Acapulco and say, hey, Bill, who cut your hair (laughter)? - what's the name of your barber? - to get Bill's barber to come up to the studio to cut my hair. So, I mean, they got a big brouhaha about this hair.

So this guy comes to the studio to cut my hair. And I really, truly didn't want this haircut. So I said, OK, I'll get this haircut. So he and I go into one of the dressing rooms alone, which was perfect. And I said, now here's what I want you to do. Just trim it. Just trim it, trim it, trim it, that's all. Make it trim, not a lot. And then I went into the bathroom, and I just soaked it all the way, wet totally through. Then I came back and he had some kind of pomade. And I said, now put some of that stuff on it. And then we packed it and combed it down, really packed it down tight, then went back into Mr. Spelling's office and he said, that's better. We should - I said, no, I don't want to take anymore off. He says, OK, we'll stay with that. So now when we start shooting the shows, each time I would tease it out just a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more until it became what it became, which was the way I used to wear it.

GROSS: This is a very important story in American culture I think.


GROSS: So, listen, of all the people who you went undercover as, what was your favorite?

WILLIAMS: I don't have a favorite. But there were some favorite people who were doing the show at that time, and I got...

GROSS: Oh, Sammy Davis.

WILLIAMS: Sammy Davis was a joy. But I was thinking about another thing because with Sammy, basically we played ourselves.

GROSS: Right.

WILLIAMS: But I always liked Maurice Evans. I was - he played an admiral, a retired admiral. And my undercover thing was to be this admiral's aide. And that was a lot of fun because here's Maurice Evans, who represents a great deal of the English theater and the Shakespeare and all of that. And it was a joy to work with him for the seven days that he was there.

GROSS: So were you glad or sorry when "The Mod Squad" came to an end?

WILLIAMS: Well, I wasn't glad and/or sorry, and it didn't come to an end in the kind of way that normally shows come to an end. My contract was up, and I would not renew. The show was never really cancelled in the sense that, guys, the ratings are no good, so it's over. I'd done my five years, and I decided I'd done that long enough. And so I said, that's it for me. And I went back to New York and then they decided not to continue with it.

GROSS: I see. Now, you know, correct me if I'm wrong here, but you were this really good role model - right? - in "Mod Squad."

WILLIAMS: That was the perception.

GROSS: (Laughter) But then after that, most of the roles of yours that I know, you've been killers, abusers (laughter), people who were really nuts. I mean, that was kind of it for your good role model era (laughter).

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it's interesting. You know, those were the kinds of parts that put me in feature films. And the one..

GROSS: The crazy parts.

WILLIAMS: Well, the guys were not so crazy. They had a different point of view. And...


WILLIAMS: And so, I mean, the one that turned it for me was John Frankenheimer.

GROSS: Oh, "52 Pick-Up."

WILLIAMS: Yeah. And Mr. Frankenheimer, I think, probably is - all credit is due to him for my, quote, "resurgence," end quote.

GROSS: Are you glad to be getting roles that aren't those kinds of...

WILLIAMS: No, only because - I don't mind playing those, but obviously you want to, you know, to have a variety of work...

GROSS: Right.

WILLIAMS: ...And different characters to attempt to play. And - but yes - but I think it becomes important for me to try to do that, to be brutally honest, just from a business point of view, is that - you know, so people think of you in other terms. I mean, people see me in real life, a lot of times don't even recognize me because most of the time, I have a suit and tie on.

DAVIES: Clarence Williams III speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. He died June 4 at the age of 81. After a break, Stephen Colbert talks about doing his show during the pandemic. He begins taping "The Late Show" in front of a live audience next week. And Justin Chang reviews the new film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical "In The Heights." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Next week, for the first time in over a year, Stephen Colbert will be taping "The Late Show" in front of a live audience again. We thought we'd listen back to Terry's conversation with him in April about producing the show from home. Here's how she introduced their interview.


TERRY GROSS: One of the things that's kept me sane this past year is ending nearly every weekday by watching "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." The most troubling things related to COVID and politics are typically what he focuses on in his monologues. Not only are they hilarious, but he nails just what makes the day's news disturbing or absurd. Those monologues are well researched, too. It's one of the ways I keep up with the news. I've been a fan of Colbert since he was a correspondent on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," where, among other things, he did a recurring segment called This Week In God in which he typically satirized the news related to religious extremism. He left "The Daily Show" to do his own show, "The Colbert Report," in which he satirized the news in persona as a right-wing blowhard TV cable news host, modeled in part on Bill O'Reilly.

He's been hosting "The Late Show" since September 2015, just a few months after Trump announced he was running for office. Colbert has joined us several times on FRESH AIR. The last time was the week before Trump won the election back in 2016. So you work so hard. You keep such crazy hours. And I always wondered, like, how do you find time to spend with your wife and children? But for several months, you were spending all your time at home, where your wife and two of your sons were. And your family became part of the show. And I want to play an example of that. And this is from last Mother's Day.

One of the bits that you do for certain holidays is that it's first draft. Like, you read a kind of corny greeting card for the holiday, and then you read a really funny version of what the first draft might have sounded like, which is always kind of nasty (laughter) and more honest. So you're asking - you know, you're at home, and you're asking for an assistant to help you read the first draft - to hand you the cards. And here's how that bit went.


STEPHEN COLBERT: As always, when doing the first drafts for Mother's Day, I need a mom volunteer from the audience to come up and help me out. Oh, let's see. Yes, you, miss. Could you come join me up here?


COLBERT: Thank you very much.


COLBERT: There you go. Watch the tangle there. This is my wife, Evie (ph). Say hello.


COLBERT: Hello. Hi. Now, happy Mother's Day...


COLBERT: ...First of all. Thank you. Normally, we would take you out for a Mother's Day brunch or something like that.

MCGEE-COLBERT: Not really. We never do that.

COLBERT: We've never done that. OK. I don't know why I said that. OK. What do we normally do?

MCGEE-COLBERT: Coffee in bed. That's all I ask for.

COLBERT: Coffee - breakfast in bed. Coffee, breakfast in bed. Yeah, exactly. For many years, I made you scones.

MCGEE-COLBERT: You did - and granola and fruit.

COLBERT: Exactly. Exactly. The girls and - the girls.

MCGEE-COLBERT: The girl - we have one girl, two boys.

COLBERT: The kids would bring you breakfast in bed. Yeah.

MCGEE-COLBERT: You're nervous.

COLBERT: I am a little nervous to have you on here. I'm a little nervous to have you on here. I want this to be a good experience for you.

MCGEE-COLBERT: I'll come back.

COLBERT: You'll come back? OK. Good. OK.

MCGEE-COLBERT: I live here.

COLBERT: Have you seen first drafts before...

GROSS: I thought that was so delightful. Evie's funny. Did she ever do comedy?

COLBERT: She was an actress. She was an actress. I mean, she wasn't a comedian. Like, that wasn't her specific calling. But she was an actress.

GROSS: So how do it change your family life to work at home and to work with your family?

COLBERT: Well, it's been great. It's been one of the few positive aspects of this whole thing. And I think this is a common experience for a lot of people. As hard as the COVID restrictions have been and the anxiety and the shock about how much it's spread in the United States, we've got to spend a lot of time with the people we love - with our family. Our youngest was about to go off to college, and he deferred for a year because of this. And we've got another year with him. He's actually still here with us. That's been an extraordinary thing.

But having them work on the show, we were all living together for that. My daughter was there, too. She's grown with a job, but she was doing her job, like, a couple of rooms over. I remember her coming over and going - because - is there any way you could be a little quieter? I'm like, no. I'm doing a television show.


COLBERT: I'm - I can't whisper "The Late Show" tonight. And it's been great. Like, I've really kept - I mean, everybody in the family's done, like, bits on the shows over the years. But to have them intimately involved, like my eldest of my two boys - my elder of my two boys, he was there, like, every day running everything, like, the sound, the cameras, the lights, the satellite connection, the switching, all of the switching that we needed to do for the virtual control room. And he was just there for two weeks. And then my young - then he said, Dad, I'm not going to graduate from college if I keep helping you. I can't do this job. So then my younger son took over, and then he's like, I'm not going to graduate from high school if I keep helping you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: So then Evie took over. And it's been intimate and wonderful and something I would never experienced in another way, and in a very valuable way, erased my public life from - erased the line between my public life and my private life in a way that I think is - I don't know - maybe made them understand more what my life is like and made me appreciate that I don't have to live such an insular public life separated from my private life, which is actually kind of helpful to the kind of show that I do.

GROSS: What's it like having Evie when she sits right across from you...

COLBERT: The best.

GROSS: ...As the audience? Because, like, my husband's a critic. He's a tough crowd. So if he was sitting across from me while I was doing the show, it would really make me nervous.

COLBERT: Well, it does, as you saw in that clip. Like, I want this to be a good experience for her. And it's certainly - having somebody in the room with you while you're creating a show, especially a show under these conditions, where - it's not a natural way to do one of these shows. So it's very stop and start. The people at home have no idea how many takes it took me to do that monologue.

GROSS: Oh, really?

COLBERT: Because it's much harder without an audience.

GROSS: Yeah. Sure.

COLBERT: I'm much more likely to mess up and have to retake something, lose the rhythm of a joke, or even just misread the prompter without an audience there because there's some vital performance adrenaline spark that's missing that the audience provides. And so my wife and my kids have seen me absolutely shank monologues over and over again. And it's very humbling for them to realize that I'm not that good at this...


COLBERT: ...And that there's an editing process that really makes it look like I know what the hell I'm doing. And I remember thinking, God, if - I wish I could just find a way to do material that Evie would laugh at or that if I could make an audience laugh the way I can make Evie laugh, it gives me enormous joy when I hear her laugh. And I swear to God, if it was a good show that night, listen, you'll hear her laughing because I'd say I'm 75% better as a host of the show if she's sitting in her little red chair across the room.

GROSS: How have all the changes of the pandemic and the constant concerns about protecting yourself and your family from getting the virus - how has that affected your mood? I know you're vaccinated now, so I'm hoping Evie is, too and that, you know, the concern about that has hopefully diminished a little bit. But it's been a year of high anxiety. How has that affected your mood, your spirits?

COLBERT: I miss people. I really like the company of people. I miss going to dinner. I miss hugging people - I'm a hugger. I like hugging people randomly. I feel lonely a lot. When I'm in - I go to the theater to actually produce the show. We write everything from home. Everybody's at home. And myself and a very small group of people - matter of fact, I only see about four or five of them. They - others come in at staggered intervals throughout the day - come in to this little storage closet where we do the show. And I do the show. And I leave as quickly as I can. So we're all together for the shortest possible period of time, maybe a couple hours. And then we all go home and get ready to write the show from home again the next day. And it's lonely. I got into show business in a way to not be alone. Like a lot of comedians, I'm a bit of a broken toy.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Colbert. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Stephen Colbert, the host of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" on CBS.

I want to play a clip from the night of the insurrection, January 6. And I think you - basically threw out the show and did it live. And so this is the opening of your show that night.


COLBERT: Hey, everybody. Welcome to an unexpectedly live "Late Show." I'm your host, Stephen Colbert. You know how you know it's live? If it wasn't live, they'd edit out all this dead space I'm giving you right now. But I - you know, I really want to do the show we're about to do, and I also really don't want to do the show we want to do because Lord have mercy. There are some dark subjects that we talk about on the show occasionally. But I've rarely been as upset as I am tonight, and I'm sure you are, too.

Hey, Republicans who supported this president, especially the ones in the joint session of Congress today, have you had enough? After five years of coddling this president's fascist rhetoric, guess whose followers want to burn down the Reichstag? Because today, the U.S. Capitol was overrun for the first time since 1814, and a woman died. Who could have seen this coming? Everyone, even dummies like me. This is the most shocking, most tragic, least surprising thing I've ever seen. For years now, people have been telling you cowards that if you let the president lie about our democracy over and over and then join him in that lie and say he's right when you know for a fact that he is not, there will be a terrible price to pay. But you just never thought you'd have to pay it, too. I really do hope you're enjoying those tax cuts.

GROSS: So what was it like that day, figuring out, what are you going to do on the show? How are you going to address this?

COLBERT: I was sitting at home. It was - when we start the rewrite of the show - it's a long process to how the monologue comes together. But we start the rewrite of the show around 1:30. And I'm sitting in my chair here. I had the TV on in the background just to keep track of what was happening after that rally they'd had that morning in The Ellipse there. And we'd gotten about 10 or 15 minutes into the rewrite, which usually takes about an hour and a half. And I looked up. And I said, hey, let's pause. We should all just watch TV for a minute. So we watched the news about five or 10 minutes, just watched what was happening of the storming of the Capitol.

They broke through the barricades. They were up on the steps. And I said I - this is all we should talk about. It hadn't even gotten that crazy yet. I mean, it was crazy, but not compared to where it went. And by the time I got into the city, and we saw the enormity of it, my showrunner, Chris Licht said, I think this is a live show. And I said, I agree.

It was funny. It was hard to hear it now for me. And I think that's, you know, I think it's really important that we stay upset about that. It's really important. I mean, one of the challenges with a kind of a low-key, competent administration is it makes you think that things are normal - and I guess they've always been normal - when, in fact, it's so easy to forget how much relief we are experiencing just to have a non-poisonous stream of information or lies coming at us constantly. And we mustn't ever forget what that leads to. You know, there's a desperate attempt to make us forget what all this leads to.

GROSS: So Joe Biden is the president now. You spoke with him in 2015, when he was vice president. So I think at the time, he was maybe still considering a possible run in 2016 when you interviewed him, but if he was considering it, he hadn't announced yet.

COLBERT: You know, he had actually considered it and come to the conclusion that he couldn't do it. And that's one of the things he talked about on the show.

GROSS: I want to play just a short clip from that interview. And just to set it up, you know, you were talking to him about the losses in his life, his son Beau, who had recently died, earlier in his life when his wife and his daughter were killed in a car crash, and his sons were hospitalized, and his whole life was turned upside down. And you were approaching too from the fact that you know loss because your father - when you were 10, your father and two of your brothers were killed in a plane crash. So Biden is talking here about how much advice his parents had given him over the years, about how you have to keep getting up and moving forward and how he admires people who, you know, with less means than he has are able to kind of get up and keep going after loss. So let's pick it up over there.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Who are going through horrible things, and they get up every morning and they put one foot in front of the other. And they don't have, like I said, anything like the support I have. I marvel - I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up. And most of them do it with an incredible sense of empathy to other people. I mean, it's interesting. The people I find who I'm most drawn to are people who have been hurt and yet - I'm not going to embarrass you. But you're one of them, old buddy. No, no, no, no, no, no. Your mom, your family, losing your dad when you were a kid and three brothers, I mean, you know, it's just - it's like asking what made your mother do it every day? How did she get up every single day with, you know, 11 kids and stuff? I mean, it's just...

COLBERT: Well, she had to take care of me, you know.


COLBERT: Well, she did. You know, that's it. We were there for each other.

BIDEN: By the way, that must have been a hell of a job.


COLBERT: And I had to take care of her. I had to take care of her.


BIDEN: That's the point.

COLBERT: You know? Yeah. Can I ask you something?

GROSS: So listening to that, you know, I'm thinking then Biden becomes president. You had - you shared this, like, really - you seemed to, like, really connect in that moment, both talking about your losses and how you admired each other for being able to carry on. And now you've shared that emotional moment. But now you're in the position of satirizing him. After that interview, did you say to Biden, like, and, you know, I'm going to have to keep doing jokes about you?

COLBERT: I did get a call from Biden. And I feel OK saying this because I - it was already in an - I told the story to Evan Osnos, who was doing an article about Biden. When he looked like he might be running for president, Jon Stewart, this past time - Jon Stewart came on and we do this things where we flip every so often and have the guests interview me. And we do it for, like, just for a special. And Jon Stewart said, well, when did you think you got a sense of how to interview people as yourself? And I said, oh, when I was talking to Joe Biden the first time in 2015.

Pretty early on, the interviews were the first thing that changed before I sort of learned how to do material as myself. And I said, and after Joe Biden came on, I - he walked off stage and I said to my executive producer, Tom Purcell, I said, I think that nice old man just gave me my show. And what I meant was how you actually talk to someone as myself. Because what he was sharing with me in that moment was so intimate and speaking so specifically to my own experience that the only way to receive it was really as the real me. And it cracked something open for me when he was talking to me. And as soon as I said that nice old man, I went, oh, dammit, he's going to see this, and he's not going to like that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: And sure enough, the next day, I got a call and I knew it was him because somebody said he's going to be calling you. And my assistant goes, what is he calling you about? I said, he's calling me about the nice old man thing. And she goes, no, he's not going to care. I'm like, if he's running for president, he's really going to care. That's when I'll know if he's running for president. And so he - I got the call and I put him on speaker and he goes, listen, buddy, if you ever call me a nice old man again, I'm going to come down there and personally kick your ass. And I said, I promise you, I won't, sir. You're clearly not that nice.

GROSS: Yes (laughter) because you make fun of his age all the time (laughter).

COLBERT: Right, and that's - you know, that's the sorbet for the jokes to come, I assume.

DAVIES: Stephen Colbert speaking with Terry Gross in April. He begins taping "The Late Show" in front of a live audience on Monday after over a year of COVID-restricted broadcasts from home. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "In The Heights," the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning musical. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Years before the phenomenal success of "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda had a big hit with "In The Heights," which premiered on Broadway in 2008 and won four Tony Awards, including best musical. Now, after a one-year delay due to the pandemic, the long-awaited film adaptation of "In The Heights" is being released in theaters and on HBO Max. Our film critic Justin Chang says it's an invigorating experience and an ideal way to ring in the summer

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "In The Heights" couldn't be more perfectly timed. For one thing, summer movies don't get much more summery than this one, which takes place during a record-breaking New York heat wave. For another, this vibrant screen adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda stage musical captures something we've largely gone without over the past year - a joyous sense of togetherness. This is the most socially undistanced movie I've seen in months. The action unfolds in a crowded store aisles and gossip-filled beauty salons where everyone knows everyone. Musical numbers, which blend hip-hop, Latin pop, salsa and other styles, frequently spill out into the surrounding neighborhood. The actors become dancers in an electrifying street ballet.

A lot of this is packed into the movie's transporting opening sequence, which brings us into this pan-Latino barrio in Washington Heights. Miranda pops up in a small role as a vendor selling shaved ice out of a pushcart. But our real guide to this Upper Manhattan neighborhood is Usnavi de la Vega, played by a terrific Anthony Ramos. Usnavi owns a popular corner bodega that's especially prized for its cafe con leche. As he raps about the challenges of running his scrappy little business in a place that's rapidly being gentrified, he's joined by a chorus of voices from the neighborhood singing about their own struggles to get by.


ANTHONY RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) I hope you're writing this down. I'm going to test you later. I'm getting tested. Times are tough on this bodega. Two months ago, somebody bought Ortega's. Our neighbors started packing up and picking up. And ever since the rents went up, it's gotten mad expensive, but we live with just enough.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) In the Heights, I flip the lights and start my day. There are fights, endless debts and bills to pay. In the Heights, I can't survive without cafe.

RAMOS: (As Usnavi) I serve cafe.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) 'Cause tonight seems like a million years away in Washington...

RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) Next up - ding - Kevin...

CHANG: As much as he loves Washington Heights and the people who live there, Usnavi longs to return to the beaches of the Dominican Republic, where he grew up. He hopes his teenage cousin, Sonny, played by Gregory Diaz IV, might come with him. But Sonny, an undocumented immigrant, dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen in a subplot that ties into recent headlines. One of the more poignant insights of "In The Heights" is that everyone has a different concept of home.

Usnavi has a longstanding crush on Vanessa, played by an excellent Melissa Barrera, who's hoping to move downtown and become a fashion designer. Leslie Grace plays their friend Nina, an academic superstar who's just had a rough year at Stanford, where she feels she doesn't belong. But her father, Kevin, a nice turn by Jimmy Smits, wants Nina to stick with it. If she can't get out of the Heights and succeed, he thinks, what hope is there for anyone else?

Kevin, who immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico decades ago, runs a cab company that's one of the few remaining Latino-owned businesses in the area. As rents go up and people and businesses are forced out, the community gets a shot of excitement when Usnavi finds out that someone bought a winning lottery ticket from his bodega. In this number, he and his friends, including Nina's boyfriend, Benny, played by Corey Hawkins, fantasize about what they would do with a $96,000 jackpot.


RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Ninety-six thousand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Damn.

RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Ninety-six thousand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Dollars. Holla (ph).

RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Ninety-six thousand.

NOAH CATALA: (As Graffiti Pete) That's a lot of spray cans.

RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Ninety-six thousand.

COREY HAWKINS: (As Benny, rapping) Yo, if I won the lotto tomorrow, well, I know I wouldn't bother going on no spending spree. I'll pick a business school and pay the entrance fee. And maybe if you're lucky, you'll stay friends with me. I'll be your businessman, richer than Nina's daddy. Tiger Woods and I on the links, and he's my caddy. My money's making money. I'm going from po' (ph) to moto. Keep the bling. I want the brass ring like Frodo.

CHANG: I saw "In The Heights" on stage in Los Angeles back in 2010. And while the screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes has made some smart tweaks and trims to her original book for the musical, some of the material's basic weaknesses persist here. The various romantic and aspirational subplots are engrossing enough but feel thinly stretched at more than two hours. Washington Heights looks more vivid and immediate on screen than it did on stage, but in some ways, the simplistic, relentlessly upbeat nature of the story seems all the more glaring.

Still, there's nothing wrong with staying upbeat right now, and the director, Jon M. Chu, is very much up to the task. Chu previously directed "Crazy Rich Asians," and he's good at squeezing resonant ideas about generational conflict and cultural confusion into a deft, crowd-pleasing package. It's worth noting that Chu also made two entries in the "Step Up" dance movie franchise. And while I sometimes wish he would slow down the editing and let the musical numbers breathe more, the sheer dynamism of his filmmaking is pretty hard to resist.

"In The Heights" may not be a great movie, but it's a pretty great moviegoing experience. There are lovely moments here, like when Benny and Nina do a surreal, gravity-defying dance along the side of an apartment building. There are also exhilarating ones, like when the neighborhood, reeling from a heat-wave-triggered blackout, pulls together to throw the mother of all block parties. And there's a knock-out solo from Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood's adopted grandmother, played by Olga Merediz, wonderfully reprising her Tony-nominated role. Claudia's big number is called "Paciencia y Fe" - or "Patience And Faith" - values she's clung to since she moved from Cuba back in the '40s. She's the living embodiment of this movie's loving and enduring spirit.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "In The Heights," opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.


OLGA MEREDIZ: (As Abuela Claudia, singing) I remember nights, anger in the streets, hunger at the windows, women folding clothes, playing with my friends in the summer rain. Mama needs a job. Mama says we're poor. One day you say, vamos a Nueva York. And Nueva York was far, but Nueva York had work, and so we came. And now I'm...

DAVIES: On Monday, we'll hear from the star of the film, Anthony Ramos, who's also one of the stars of the current HBO series "In Treatment" and was in the original cast of "Hamilton." I hope you can join us.


RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) Damn, this is nice. I really like what they done with the lights. Sold the hot club in Washington Heights. You might be right. This music's tight. Yo, did I mention that you look great...

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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.

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