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The Insecurity Of America's Old And Underfunded Voting Systems

Cybersecurity reporter Kim Zetter warns that our election systems, including our voting machines, are vulnerable to hacking: "We can't rule out that elections haven't already been manipulated."

21:30

Other segments from the episode on July 20, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July, 20, 2017: Interview with Kim Zetter; Obit with Martin Landau; Review of "The Last Laugh" and "Who Is Rich?"

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want you to think back to the computer you had 10 years ago. It's a long time in computer years, right? That old computer would be pretty out-of-date now. Well, consider America's voting infrastructure. Most of the electronic touch screens and optical scan voting systems are more than 10 years old. They're too old to download the latest security patches. Our election system was already hacked by Russia.

My guest Kim Zetter has been writing about our voting system's vulnerabilities since 2003, in the aftermath of the contested Bush v. Gore election. Last month, before the special election in Georgia between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, Zetter wrote a long article in Politico about critical security problems in Georgia's election systems, which are representative of the larger problem. She's a former reporter for Wired and wrote the 2014 book "Countdown To Zero Day: Stuxnet And The Launch Of The World's First Digital Weapon."

Kim Zetter, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, there's so much news to keep straight. So help us out here, if you will, and just sum up what we know about what was hacked by Russia in our voting system - in our election system.

KIM ZETTER: All we have right now are, you know, a few published reports that have coming out of intelligence agencies and news outlets. And those focus right now, not on the voting systems where the votes are cast or tallied but on voter registration systems, or, essentially, the servers that store voter registration databases and also, in one case in Florida, with a company that creates voting registration software and interacts with election officials.

And so what we know is that - from reports - is that hackers somehow connected to Russian intelligence accessed or probed those kinds of systems in 39 states. Now when we say probe, what we mean is that they are looking for - and sometimes it can be simply an automated scan, and they're looking for any kind of vulnerability in the server to see if they actually can get into it.

And that doesn't mean that they actually breached those. We know from one of the hearings on Capitol Hill that there were actually only two states where they breached the networks and looked like they were making attempts to either delete data or change data.

GROSS: So this could be laying the groundwork for a future attack.

ZETTER: Sure. And it - and in some cases, it can be a jumping off point to getting further into more critical systems. I'll just address, first of all, what you can do by getting into the voter registration databases. You could delete voters' records, or you could alter them in some way that creates problems for voters when they go to the polls that disenfranchises them. Maybe it indicates that they should be voting at a different polling place, and so they end up running around in the morning, from polling place to polling place, trying to find their correct polling place. Or officials tell them you're not registered.

So a lot of things can cause delays and backups and chaos. But sometimes these voter registration systems are connected to systems that are used to program the voting machines. Now, this shouldn't be the case. And in many cases, election officials will assure us publicly that that's not the case.

But security is very difficult to get right. And security is not - is sort of the enemy of efficiency. If you want to do things efficient, security is sort of against that because it requires you to take all of these extra precautions. And so quite often, you'll find that systems that should be separated aren't always securely separated.

GROSS: Now, you've emphasized that we know what we know largely through reporters uncovering it and through leaks that the reporters receive. Do you think that American citizens should know exactly what's going on with our voting and election system?

ZETTER: Yes. And I think that - I mean, you know, not just the public but election officials right now are in the dark as well. Those 39 states that were probed, you know, not all of that information has been disclosed specifically to the ones who were targeted there.

And I think that in some cases, you know, election officials don't have security clearances. So if there is more significant information that the intelligence agencies have, election officials right now aren't - and even secretaries of states, who are considered the top election official in most states - they don't have the clearances to actually get more information.

GROSS: Let's talk about some of the things you've added to our knowledge of what's gone wrong with our election system. You reported on Georgia's election system before the special election last month. And it was discovered inadvertently by someone named Logan Lamb, a cybersecurity expert, that there were problems in the electronic election system. Can you explain what he uncovered and how he did it?

ZETTER: Yeah. So this was entirely random. Logan got curious about - when the news reports came out in August that there had been some probes against voter registration databases, Logan got curious about the voting systems themselves. And he decided to approach some election officials in Georgia to see if he could actually get his hands on a machine. And he was told that there was an election center at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta that oversaw elections and voting machines in state.

So before he contacted them, he just decided to check out their website and see what all, you know, what are all of their functions? And in doing that, he discovered some files that he felt he shouldn't be able to access. And that included what looked like county-level files that were related to elections in 2016.

So he decided to write a random script, a program, to basically scrape the website and see exactly what was on there and what was available to him. And he did that during his lunch hour. He wrote the script, set it operating and went out to lunch. And when he came back, he discovered that it had downloaded about 15 gigabytes of data, a humongous amount of data, for every county in the state.

And that included the entire voter registration - voter roll for the state - for all of the nearly 6 million voters in the state. It also included some files that looked like they were database files from the voting system that would essentially include the tallies. It included a file that gave - it was in clear text; it wasn't encrypted - that listed passwords and usernames that election officials should use to sign into a central server on Election Day.

So there was a lot there that clearly shouldn't have been there, and he discovered that it had been configured incorrectly so that he could actually - it was supposed to be password-protected, but he could actually bypass - or his script bypassed any kind of password protection.

And he also discovered that the software used on the server had a 2-year-old security vulnerability that had been uncovered in 2014. It's actually a pretty severe vulnerability in that software, and a patch had been released almost immediately. And there were warnings at the time, back in 2014, that anyone who was using this Drupal software should update with the patch immediately. Or they should be - they should assume that they had already been hacked.

GROSS: So hackers could have gotten in as easily as Logan Lamb did. And they could have done a lot of damage.

ZETTER: They could have gotten, essentially, into the center systems, yes. Whether or not they could have actually gone into the software that's used on the voting machines and manipulated votes in some way, there's still some questions about that. And I don't think that Georgia has been very transparent about exactly the entire setup of how that server is configured.

GROSS: Have any changes been made since this was discovered?

ZETTER: Well, Georgia officials announced last week that they will be discontinuing the contract with the Center for Election Systems. They're renewing the contract for another year. And over the course of this next year, the secretary of state's office is working on moving that functionality that the center previously managed - moving that into the secretary of state's office. That, of course, creates new concerns because the secretary of state in Georgia is running for governor next year.

And so if you have a single voting system used throughout the estate, and the secretary of state's office - that governor candidate - his office is responsible for programming all of those machines, you need special assurances for voters that, within that secretary of state's office, those voting machines can't be manipulated to favor the outcome of either this secretary of state or any other candidate or secretary of state that might run for office in the future.

GROSS: Wow. So do you think that what happened in Georgia and the problems Georgia has had with its election system is representative of larger problems in the U.S.?

ZETTER: It is. The - you know, the specific circumstances in Georgia don't necessarily replicate elsewhere. Georgia is, you know, the only state that is using, statewide, these paperless, touch-screen voting machines made by Diebold. And it is the only state that I'm aware of that actually has some kind of outside university like this programming all of the state's machines.

There are other states, of course, that have different setups that are equally concerning. Many states will use sort of third-party companies - not a university, like in this case but a third-party company - that helps them program the machines, helps them set up and maintain machines. And so that's a concern as well, when you have, you know, not election officials themselves managing the machines and managing the election and managing the programming of those machines, but you have a third-party company that itself could be vulnerable to hacking in the way that Kennesaw State University's was.

GROSS: So one of the problems that we're facing, in terms of voting, is that 42 states - I think I have that number right - now use systems that are at least a decade old. The software is outdated. Microsoft no longer supports the software with security updates. So that - I mean, that's a really long time. It's so - and it - those systems are really out of date.

ZETTER: Yeah, and most of us replace our machines, right? We - at least every five years or so, if not sooner. You know, your laptop gets out of date pretty quickly - desktop system, as well. And so if you can imagine hardware that dates back to 2002 or earlier, and software. In the case of Georgia, the software that is currently on those voting systems is - was last certified in 2005.

And, of course, a lot of vulnerabilities have been uncovered in that software since then, as well. And so you can assume that this is sort of the state in a lot of different counties and jurisdictions across the country.

GROSS: And in terms of the technology being outdated, it's not just the system's technology. It's the actual voting machines we're talking about too this time around, right?

ZETTER: Yes, and also, the - many of these machines were certified years ago. And they were tested and certified under a voting system standard that didn't have security requirements in it. Now, as I point out in Georgia, those systems, that software and that hardware was certified under standards the last time in 2005.

Well, those standards have since been updated in 2015. But those standards - the new standards that actually have more security in them - only apply to new machines that would be purchased. So that doesn't apply, as you point out, to those 42 states that have equipment that's 10 years old. Those are still certified under standards that never had security in them.

GROSS: You know, elections are considered a state issue, not a federal issue. So every state has its own system. They can buy their own machinery. It could be run by different kinds of officials. So if you look at the big picture, like, who runs the elections in America?

ZETTER: Oh, this is a great question. And I think it's a question that - I think the answer is something that most Americans aren't aware of, and that is, it really depends on the jurisdiction where you are. In some cases, it is an elected official that is running the election, and doing the election management and actually doing the programming of the voting machines.

In quite a lot of cases, though, and in quite a lot of states, it is some third party. It is either - when I first started covering this in 2003 and for many years after that, the people actually running the elections were the voting machine vendors, like Diebold and Election Systems & Software. The election staff didn't have the technical knowledge or skill to be programming the machines. And Diebold would come in, or they would hire a local third-party company to act as their consultants, and would program the machines for election officials.

That's still the case, in many cases, that can't afford their own technical staff. And this is one of the issues that we have nationwide with the U.S. is that elections are notoriously underfunded. And in most cases, it does come down to a couple of people in a local election office, maybe supplemented during, you know, the high election season with outside workers that they bring in - hopefully, in some cases, with IT people that have a security background. In most cases, that's not the circumstance, though.

And so elections in some places are run by the people you want them to be run by. But in many places, they're run by people we just - we don't even know who they are.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kim Zetter. She's an investigative journalist who's been covering cybersecurity, privacy and national security for more than a decade. She was a longtime reporter for Wired. She's also the author of the 2014 book, "Countdown To Zero Day: Stuxnet And The Launch Of The World's First Digital Weapon." We'll be back after this break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Kim Zetter, who has been covering cybersecurity, privacy and national security for more than a decade. She's a former reporter for Wired. We're talking about voting security and election systems security. She's been covering that extensively. She's been writing about that since around 2003.

After the Obama administration learned that Russia had hacked us, Jeh Johnson, who was then the Homeland Security director, wanted to help states protect their voting systems against cyberattack. What did he offer to do?

ZETTER: So he was offering to do both - basically, information sharing. And it's unclear to what extents, you know, the - at that late stage - the DHS could have helped states with because really, if you're going to assist states in securing their elections, that really involves doing some kind of risk assessment at a county level or at a state level. And that's not what DHS was doing.

I mean, you really need to come out and visit and see the setup and then advise about network operations and things like that. And so in that case, that wasn't what they were doing. But they were talking about information sharing and producing - distributing checklists of best practices, for instance, not connecting machines to the Internet and other things that they were advising states to do to secure their elections. But that's really not sufficient for what you would hope DHS or any other federal agency might do to help states secure elections.

GROSS: Nevertheless, some states objected to the help that Jeh Johnson was trying to give. What was the objection?

ZETTER: Right. So Georgia, in fact, was one of - there were only, I believe, two states that objected - Maine and Georgia - or Georgia primarily. And the objection there was an interference in states' rights. You know, in our country, elections are handled at the state and local level for, you know, states' rights reasons. We don't want the federal government interfering in elections.

And that's a legitimate concern in general, except that in this case, DHS wasn't asking to take over elections and wasn't looking to take over elections. But this is what Georgia was accusing them of doing - of somehow overstepping their authority and wanting to come in and seize the operations of the elections. And that really wasn't what DHS was doing.

There's a - it's a really misunderstanding of how DHS operates. And a better way to look at it is what DHS currently does with other critical infrastructure systems, known as industrial control systems. DHS has a special program for critical infrastructure and industrial control systems in particular, where they will come out, and they can do - help you do an assessment of the network.

And they will also - they have flyaway teams that will come out to you if you think that you've been hacked or breached. And they have these teams that will come out and help you do an assessment, forensic examination and consultation and things like that. So DHS really is in a much better position than most states - and certainly counties - to know what a secure setup should look like and to assess afterwards, as well, whether or not there has been a breach.

GROSS: So we know that Russia hacked our system. What are some of the concerns that cybersecurity experts have now about what Russia, or another malicious actor, might do in the 2018 midterms or the 2020 presidential election?

ZETTER: Well, I think that - you know, what we have is so far only evidence of them getting into voter registration databases - or at least targeting voter registration databases. And I think that - there has to be this caveat here - is that just because we don't see, or there - or no one has come out with evidence that the voting machines have been hacked doesn't mean that the more critical systems haven't been hacked. It's quite possible that there are adversaries - whether or not it's a nation state or simply other hackers - simple hackers, criminal hackers - in election systems.

We can't rule that out. And we also can't rule out that elections haven't already been manipulated in this way. We just don't have the capabilities, in many cases, to do forensic analysis of the machines. And we don't have the will, in many cases, to examine that. So when you see statements from election officials and from the federal government saying that there's no evidence that the votes were changed or that the voting systems were hacked, it has to be done with the caveat that, actually, no one really looked.

So there is concern then, if they haven't already done that in the past, that looking forward, in 2018 and beyond - that there is this great interest now in election systems. You know, once someone sets the example of what can be done, then that opens the gateway for a lot of other actors to explore further - to do the same kinds of things, either just going into voter registration databases, or to explore going further and trying to see if they can actually get into the voting machines and manipulate them.

GROSS: Well, Kim Zetter, thank you so much for talking with us.

ZETTER: You're welcome.

GROSS: Kim Zetter's article about Georgia's election system was published in Politico. She's also the author of the 2014 book "Countdown To Zero Day: Stuxnet And The Launch Of The World's First Digital Weapon." After we take a short break, we'll listen back to my 1990 interview with actor Martin Landau, who died Saturday. And Maureen Corrigan will review two comic novels. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TROPICAL DEL BRAVO'S "TAO TAO REMIX")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with actor Martin Landau. He died Saturday at the age of 89. For 20 years, Landau took many movie and TV roles that he didn't much like. When he finally got a challenging role as a businessman hustler in Francis Ford Coppola's 1988 film "Tucker," Landau that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The next year, Woody Allen gave him a part in "Crimes And Misdemeanors" as a philandering husband who has his mistress murdered when she threatens to tell his wife about their affair. Again, Landau was nominated for an Oscar. He won an Oscar for his 1994 portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's movie "Ed Wood." More recently, he received two Emmy nominations for his performance in the TV series "Without A Trace." Back in the '60s, Landau was best known for his role in the TV series "Mission: Impossible" as covert operations agent Rollin Hand.

Landau got his start in the Actor's Studio, which was founded in the late '40s in New York by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg and was the training ground for actors such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Geraldine Page, Robert De Niro and Steve McQueen. When I spoke with Landau in 1990, he told me about getting admitted to the Actors Studio in 1955.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARTIN LANDAU: That year, 2,000 people auditioned trying to get in, and two were accepted that year. Steve McQueen and I were the only two. And it was tough to get in. It's still tough to get in.

GROSS: What did you have to do to get in?

LANDAU: Well, I did a scene - a five-minute scene with a partner - not classical, contemporary, you know, give-and-take scene. You can't do a monologue. And it's still the case. And I did a scene from a play called "Clash by Night." Lee Strasberg actually directed it on Broadway with a cast consisting of Lee J. Cobb, Tallulah Bankhead and Joseph Schildkraut. At any rate, I chose a five-minute scene from that piece. Everyone told me I was crazy because Lee had directed it. And they said there's nothing - there would be no way that he would, you know, agree with what I chose because he - his closeness to that material.

At any rate, the final audition was being judged by Elia Kazan, you know, who directed "Streetcar Named Desire" and - on Broadway and in the movie and "On the Waterfront" and "East Of Eden," and Cheryl Crawford, who was a famous Broadway producer and one of the co-founders of the group theater and Lee Strasberg. And you had to get three one votes from all of them - one, two or three. Three meant no. Two meant not bad; come back another time. And one meant you were in. And I guess in retrospect it was a bit daring, but Strasberg did - gave me a one vote as well.

GROSS: So is you and Steve McQueen, who got in, of those 2,000 people who auditioned, were you and Steve McQueen competitive with each other at all as the two newcomers?

LANDAU: Not really, no. Steve was very different physically than I was. I was very lean and very dark and much more ethnic in feel. And Steve was - I think he was much more competitive with a very close friend of mine called Jimmy Dean, James Dean. I was in a different sort of category. Johnny Cassavetes and Sydney Pollack and those kinds of fellows were my competition.

GROSS: Now, you stuck with the Actors Studio as a teacher. You met a lot of actors before they had the screen personas that they're now famous for - for instance, Jack Nicholson who had been one of your students. Would you have guessed working with him early on that he would have become - I don't mean as famous as he is - that he would have had the kind of persona that we now know him for?

LANDAU: Yes. A lot of that was evident. I mean it's - you know, it's silly to, you know, to say that, but it's true. In choosing that particular group of people - there were 16 in all - I saw 200 people, and I spent my time not auditioning them but talking to them and trying to discourage them from coming into my class because what I did in the class demanded a certain kind of allegiance and diligence and tenacity and hard work.

But I looked for things in the people, and Jack did all the right things wrong and all the wrong things right, which is what I always looked for. Strange - it's hard to say. It's sort of a kinesthetic thing, but I saw a lot of stuff in Jack. And he looked like the boy next door in those days, but there was nothing about the boy next door and his persona.

GROSS: Knowing as many actors and directors as you did through the Actors Studio, how do you think that affected your early career getting roles?

LANDAU: Well, I was always considered very offbeat in those days. I was very...

GROSS: For what reason?

LANDAU: ...Very thin.

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry, yeah.

LANDAU: I was very thin, exceedingly thin. If you look at "North By Northwest," you'll get a clue. And...

GROSS: You were one of the spies in "North By Northwest."

LANDAU: Well, yeah. James Mason and I played the two spies - very, very lean and very kind of stark looking. And it was a period where, you know, plays like "Picnic" were being done on Broadway, and movie actors look more like Rock Hudson and Guy Madis and Tab Hunter. And I was, you know, intrinsically a character actor but not easy to cast because of a very, you know - it was a different time. I mean there were no - you know, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman and Bobby De Niro would also have had a great deal of problem in those days because they would have been considered offbeat. But times change. And I wound up playing many, many bad guys in movies as a result of my looks.

GROSS: Like what? Which kind of roles are you talking about? Which movies?

LANDAU: Well, all kinds, you know - I mean gangsters, "The Untouchables." I would always be some kind of deadly guy, you know, who talked like this, you know, very dangerous - and just, you know, Westerns. I mean if you look at a picture like "Nevada Smith," I - you know, I play a maniacal killer that Steve McQueen chases down because my character along with Arthur Kennedy and Karl Malden have killed his parents. That's the essence of that film that Henry Hathaway directed.

As - you know, Hitchcock cast me in "North By Northwest" even though he saw me in a play in which I didn't play a conventional bad guy, though I was the catalyst in the piece. It was Paddy Chayefsky's first play on Broadway called "Middle Of The Night." I toured with that, and that brought me to California. And Hitchcock saw me on opening night and had me in mind for "North By Northwest" as a result of that. Though the character was 180 degrees different than the role I played in "North By Northwest."

So the old guys - I mean the old, wonderful, imaginative fellows historically have always had imagination and broken conventional thinking. I mean even as recently as my being cast in "Tucker" - I mean I don't think there's anyone in the world who would have cast me in "Tucker" other than Fred Roos, who was Francis Coppola's producer, and Francis Coppola. It would not have been conventional thinking on anyone's part for, you know - in fact there were people who after they'd heard I'd been cast in that role who were involved were surprised at the casting. But the...

GROSS: What would have surprised them about it? I mean you fit the role so perfectly seeing the movie.

LANDAU: Well, but that's after the fact.

GROSS: Right. That's after the fact. How was it - was the role...

LANDAU: I mean everyone is very quick to jump on me...

GROSS: Right (laughter).

LANDAU: ...After the fact in this world, and on - you know? And I mean immediately after playing "Tucker," there were, you know, script after script after script with a lot of very ethnic, mostly Jewish, older men - were sent my way. It takes a Woody Allen to think of me as the character I played in "Crimes And Misdemeanors," again a departure from anything I'd ever done before and anything he'd seen me in before.

But it takes those kind - you know, I'm an actor who's got a very wide range, I mean much more so than almost anyone I know in deference to myself. I'm not speaking, you know, egocentrically at all, but I do have a very wide range. I could play a lot of things. And it's hard for people and logically hard and understandably hard for people to think of me for certain roles.

GROSS: Actor Martin Landau is my guest. You have received Academy Award nominations both for "Tucker" and for your role in Woody Allen's movie "Crimes And Misdemeanors."

LANDAU: "Crimes and Misdemeanors," yes.

GROSS: Now, you had told us that it was, like, 20 years since you'd gotten, like, a really good movie role.

LANDAU: That's right.

GROSS: How did you feel to you, like, in the mind of the public, you know, and some people in Hollywood to kind of go overnight from being the guy who played the heavy all the time in movies to suddenly being this, you know, venerated actor (laughter) you know?

LANDAU: Well, it's, you know - the interesting thing is - I mean among actors over the years, I've always had a great deal of respect from them as a director, as an actor, as a...

GROSS: As a teacher.

LANDAU: ...As a teacher. So I mean it's something that they've always said to me. What's wrong with the business? I mean I know a number of actors, for instance, personally who should be doing much more work than they are doing because they're awfully good. But I worked with a lot of great directors when I first came to Hollywood with a reputation as a good New York actor - theater actor, live-television actor. So that seemed to have been curtailed by my, quote, unquote, "success" on "Mission Impossible," where suddenly I became super spy and, you know...

GROSS: So you feel in a way that "Mission Impossible" hurt your career afterwards.

LANDAU: Well, it helped me in many ways, and it hurt me in other ways.

GROSS: Yeah.

LANDAU: But I think there are always - when somebody gives you something for a headache, there are sometimes side effects. You get an upset stomach.

GROSS: Right.

LANDAU: I got a chance to play almost a one-man rep company - everything from Adolf Hitler to Martin Bormann to myself blond and young - 10 years younger, to all kinds of different dialects and accents and the like, you know, and the middle-European people - and crazy, all kinds of things, if you know what I'm saying, my dear.

GROSS: You are the master of disguises on this show.

LANDAU: That's right, a man of a thousand face.

GROSS: (Laughter).

We're listening back to a 1990 interview with actor Martin Landau. He died Saturday at the age of 89. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1990 interview with Martin Landau. He died Saturday at the age of 89. One of his best-known performances is in the Woody Allen film "Crimes And Misdemeanors." He played Judah Rosenthal, a philandering husband whose mistress is threatening to tell his wife about their affair. She's also threatening to reveal information about Judah's questionable business deals. In this scene, Judah's brother, played by Jerry Orbach, tells Judah that he has friends who can take care of Judah's problems. Martin Landau as Judah speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS")

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) I'm fighting for my life. This woman's going to destroy everything I've built.

JERRY ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) That's what I'm saying, Judah. If the woman won't listen to reason, then you go on to the next step.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) What, threats, violence? What are we talking about here?

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) She can be gotten rid of. I mean I know a lot of people. Money will buy whatever's necessary.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) I'm not even going to comment on that. That's mind-boggling.

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) Well, what did you want me to do when you called me?

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Not to do dirty work despite what you think. I don't know what I expected from you, Jack, but...

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) You know, you're not aware of what goes on in this world. I mean you sit up here with your four acres...

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Don't give me any of that. I don't want to hear about my success.

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) ...and your country club and your rich friends. And out there in the real world, it's a whole different story.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Oh, come on.

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) I've met a lot of characters from when I had the restaurant...

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) I know you have. I've heard these stories before.

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) ...from Seventh Avenue, from Atlantic City. And I'm not so high-class that I can avoid looking at reality. I can't afford to be aloof. I mean you come to me with a hell of a problem, and then you get high-handed on me.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Jack, I don't mean to high-handed. I haven't been sleeping nights. I'm irritable, OK?

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) OK, OK, forget I said anything.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Let me just get something straight here. Am I understanding you right? I mean are you suggesting getting rid of her?

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) You won't be involved, but I'll need some cash.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) What will they do?

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) What'll they do? They'll handle it.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) I can't believe I'm talking about a human being, Jack. She's not an insect. You don't just step on her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let me ask you about "Crimes And Misdemeanors." Did Woody Allen or one of his people call you and say, we want you for the role, or did you have to audition for it?

LANDAU: No. What happened was, I got a call saying that Woody was interested in me for a role. And I said, well, is there a script? And then - which was greeted with laughter on the other side of the telephone because I mean Woody doesn't - you know, I mean most of the time the actors don't read the whole script. No one reads the whole script except Woody and maybe Mia and the casting director. So - but I was then told that it would be worth my while to fly into New York. So I did.

But prior to what I - I also went out and did a little homework because I - reading a script and seeing a movie are two different experiences. So I went out to Samuel French, which is a theatrical book store here in Los Angeles and in New York as well, and got eight of his screenplays. So when I met with Woody and we talked, he then gave me the script, which was unusual I found out afterwards, to read in the hotel room, which I did.

So it was the 9th screenplay of Woody's that I read in four days, and it was the best one. And it was one of those times when you - well, your heart starts beating faster, and adrenaline starts flowing. First of all, it was the biggest male role he'd ever written outside of the Woody Allen character because his protagonists generally have been women - Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, even recently Gena Rowlands, Geraldine Page in "Interiors." So he'd never really written a big male character that wasn't played by Woody.

GROSS: Why did he feel that you needed to read the whole script?

LANDAU: Well, because there was no way to play that character without knowing everything about that movie because of the delicacy of it. I mean there's no - I mean it's a terribly - an incredibly delicate, delicate thing. You're dealing with a man who's a rich brat of a man, who's a liar, who's a cheat, who's an embezzler, who's a murderer, who's - I mean there's not a redeeming thing he does. And yet, the audience has to, you know - from my point of view, and this is what I expressed to Woody - has to empathize and sympathize and join up with him as they're being horrified by what he does.

I felt it was essential that the audience see themselves in this character, and that the only way to do that - I mean, the character doesn't do one single thing of redemption in the entire movie. He's an awful person. And I - you know, you could - in this clicker mentality we're living in, where people click things off television in 15 or 20 minutes, it'd be very easy for the audience to say, hey, this guy's a jerk, I don't like him, in 20 - and you don't have a movie. So how to delicately deal with that and also, you know, the Claire Bloom character...

GROSS: ...Who plays your wife.

LANDAU: Yes, but she doesn't know what the - you know, I mean, that's a very delicate thing. I mean, she knows that I'm having some problems. But she doesn't know the degree to which the problems are - I mean, this is a man who's - has a - who's having a major, major breakdown, a nervous breakdown, on top of the fact that he does something that is among the most heinous things a, quote, unquote, "leading character" has ever done.

GROSS: So does Claire Bloom - when you were acting with Claire Bloom, had she not read the part of the script where...

LANDAU: No, she didn't read anything but her parts of the script.

GROSS: ...It's revealed that you're a murderer?

LANDAU: She just knew that we were a happy couple.

GROSS: So she had no idea what you were really guilty of. She knew something was up, she had no idea what, when she was acting that part.

LANDAU: Well, she just knew that I was, you know, having some business problems, possibly.

GROSS: Do you think this works? Do you think this is a good way to go about doing that?

LANDAU: Well, it depends. It works with Woody, doesn't it?

GROSS: Yeah.

LANDAU: I mean, he didn't want Anjelica to know what kind of life my home life was because I don't let her in on that. So Anjelica's character was not privy to that part of the story. You know, a lot of times, actors are bogged down by obligation. An actor knows much more about a character than the character knows about himself. And to know everything there is about a character consciously may not enable you to play the character, necessarily.

It's what motivates you unconsciously that drives you on. Characters reveal things inadvertently, very often, not purposefully. No one walks into a crowded room at a cocktail party filled with strangers and says, hello, everybody, I'm embarrassed.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LANDAU: You know, that's not something people do.

GROSS: Right.

LANDAU: Therefore, what you - what people in that condition are trying to do is trying to convince themselves they're relaxed and trying to appear relaxed to other people when, in fact, what's going on is contrary to that. So the actor has to create the degree of unrest and then try to cover it.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

LANDAU: Thank you very much.

GROSS: My interview with Martin Landau was recorded in 1990. He died Saturday at the age of 89. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review two comic novels. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARY BARILLEAU AND THE LATIN JAZZ COLLECTIVE'S "CARMEN'S MAMBO")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends two comic novels to help lighten your mood in these dog days of summer. Here's Maureen's review of "The Last Laugh" and "Who Is Rich?"

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: A year-long getaway to a Greek island, a week by the sea at an arts colony - fantasies of escape are the common premise of two new comic novels, both smart and sprightly in style and both informed by the sad wisdom, echoing Milton's lines in "Paradise Lost," that we carry troubled thoughts and hell within us wherever we go.

In Lynn Freed's sly novel called "The Last Laugh," three wealthy women who proudly describe themselves as mad, old bags, decide to share a house together on a sun-drenched island in the Aegean. Here's our narrator, Ruth, on the first page of the novel describing the motivation for their plan.

(Reading) We'd put passion behind us, we said. The blinders were gone, the sport, the spring and sway of the dance, the careless, unreasoning madness of it. Anyway, we said, passion had accomplished its chief work, at least from a biological point of view - children and grandchildren. What we wanted now was peace, ourselves to ourselves - no service, no duty, no motherly or grandmotherly obligations.

Of course this plan is doomed from the get-go. Even before the three women have a chance to knock back a glass of ouzo, the front door swings open, and in march resentful adult children, sponging old lovers and even a psychotic former client of the psychotherapist in the group. Soon, the women's retreat is seeing as much foot traffic as the boardwalk at Coney Island.

Geezer lit has become a booming publishing niche as we readers wrinkle. But "The Last Laugh" is so much more than a print version of "The Golden Girls." Freed's one-liners on subjects like sleep apnea machines are hilarious. So are the excerpts from Ruth's columns, which she writes for a senior publication called So Long Magazine. But Freed also gives more somber subjects their due, such as loneliness and the fear of looming dependence. "The Last Laugh" is a Campari spritzer of a novel, bubbly and colorful but with an underlying note of bitterness to add satisfying complexity.

In contrast to Freed's drowsy daydreams of lounging by the sea, Matthew Klam's superb debut novel, "Who Is Rich?" is all about the anxious networking, conversational one-upsmanship and drunken hookups that constitute those exclusive summer events known as arts conferences. Our 40-something anti-hero, Rich Fischer, is a cartoonist who made a name for himself with his first book, now out of print. These days, Rich erratically supports his family by freelance illustrating for a political magazine on the verge of folding and teaching every summer at an arts conference held at a crumbling college on the New England seacoast. Here's how Rich introduces us to this world.

(Reading) On the faculty were many friends I'd come to know over the years as intellects, historians, wordsmiths, addicts, drunkards, perverts, world-famous womanizers, sufferers of gout, maniacs, liars. This past winter, the conference director had asked me to name another cartoonist I could vouch for to teach a second comics workshop, but I didn't answer him. I worried because of the way my career had gone that I'd be hiring my replacement. I opened the info packet and read the bios of the other teachers and guest speakers. There were different levels of us, unknown nobodies and one-hit has-beens, midlist somebodies and legitimate stars.

Like all great humorists, Klam is a sharp observer. And he skewers his targets here with specificity and brio. "Who Is Rich?" is also cynically smart about the class politics crackling in the air at these kinds of gatherings, namely the smooth generosity of the uber-rich arts patrons colliding with the financial desperation of so many of the indentured talent who perform and teach.

There's a scene midway through this novel where Rich, guilty about an affair and itching to break free of his paycheck-to-paycheck existence, impulsively blows his entire honorarium on an expensive bracelet for his wife at home. I swear to you, the economic terror Klam conjures up in that scene is every bit as vivid as the physical terror of the opening scene of that quintessential New England beach movie, "Jaws." There may be no running away from the realities of life, but these two terrific comic novels will have you laughing in sorry recognition at the many ways we all try.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Last Laugh" by Lynn Freed and "Who Is Rich?" by Matthew Klam.

If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like our interview with Joshua Green, the author of a new book about Steve Bannon, or yesterday's interview with Billy Bragg, who also played some songs, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of recent FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX BROWN QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF PIXINGUINHA'S "LAMENTOS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX BROWN QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF PIXINGUINHA'S "LAMENTOS")

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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