DATE February 12, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Will Friedwald talks about the career of singer Mildred
Bailey, as well as the newly released 10-CD box set of her early
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Mildred Bailey was one of the great jazz singers of the '30s and '40s.
Although she was very popular in her time, she hasn't gotten her due in
subsequent years. A new 10-CD box set may help to change that. It features
her Columbia recordings from 1929 to '42, and has been released by Mosaic
Records. My guest, Will Friedwald, wrote the extensive liner notes for the
set. He's also the author of "Jazz Singing" and "Sinatra! The Song Is
Friedwald calls Bailey one of the essential missing links of American music.
As Gary Giddins describes in his new book about Bing Crosby, it was Mildred
Bailey who introduced Crosby to the recordings of Louis Armstrong. Bailey
Crosby are considered the first white singers to pick up on Armstrong's
rhythmic innovations. As you'll hear, Mildred Bailey had a great sense of
rhythm whether she was singing a swing song or a ballad. Let's start with
1935 recording of "When Day Is Done."
(Soundbite of "When Day Is Done")
Ms. MILDRED BAILEY: (Singing) When day is done and shadows fall, I dream of
you. When day of done, I think of all the joys we knew. That yearning,
returning to hold you in my arms. Won't go, love, I know, love, without you
night has lost its charms. When day is done, grass is wet with twilight's
dew, my lonely heart is sinking with the sun. I miss your tender kiss the
whole day through. I miss you most of all when day is done.
GROSS: Will Friedwald, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
So what do you personally love about Mildred Bailey's singing?
Mr. WILL FRIEDWALD (Jazz Historian): Well, the fact that she's--you know,
like I say, she was one of the first to listen to Louie Armstrong, and that
whole concept of spontaneity, of intimacy, which is, you know, a trademark
associate with Crosby. And, of course, you know, this is the defining
characteristic of American, you know, vernacular music in American singing.
The whole concept of intimacy, of having this kind of direct relationship
the audience that, you know, really comes out--you know, it's sort of based
electronic reproduction. I mean, it's the kind of thing that wasn't
before the invention of the microphone. But at the same time, you know,
though it's electronic, even though it, you know, relies on transistors and
things like that, it's incredibly personal. I mean, it establishes this
direct relationship between singer and audience, and Bailey is just about
first to do that.
And besides which, you know, she's got this amazingly appealing personality.
I mean, she's one of the first popular singers or, you know, vocal artists,
you know, to have what we consider now a personality, to have a distinct
of charm and charisma that's carried from record to record, and you can
really--you know, there's a Mildred Bailey kind of a song, and by extension
there's a Mildred Bailey kind of a sound. She works with all kinds of
different musicians from, you know, say, Duke Ellington musicians to Benny
Goodman musicians--and, you know, the sound of her records is amazingly
consistent. I mean, there really is a whole Mildred Bailey musical
GROSS: What would you describe as the qualities of her singing?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Well, she has a--it's not a particularly high voice, but it
sort of sounds deceptively high when you first hear it. But it is a
very--it's not a big, screaming voice or, you know--I mean, if you think of,
let's say, the major singer in the blues and jazz sphere before Bailey--say
that was Bessie Smith--I mean, that was a very big sound. When compared to,
you know, Bessie Smith, Mildred has a very, very small sound. It's a very
personal kind of a thing, and it's very--it has a kind of unique, sort of
humorous quality to it, a little girl kind of a quality to it. It's just
endearing. It's just--you know, once you've heard Bailey, it's hard not to
fall in love with her. It's hard not to, you know, go along with her.
And--and--and she's always imminently believable.
GROSS: Bill Miller, who is the pianist who worked with her and with
said that she never sang a song the same way twice. And she talks about
a little bit in a 1938 Down Beat interview that you quote in the liner
Would you paraphrase that for us?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Well, she--Bailey said that when she was a little kid, it
hard for her to afford to go and buy sheet music, even though she could play
the piano. And, you know, if she had the chance, she could really say--you
know, if she wanted, she could learn a song exactly the way it was written
perform it like that consistently. But she always said that, you know, she
didn't have any money and she couldn't afford to buy sheet music, she just
to hear a song and remember it. And, of course, you know, when she was
remembering it, there was an interpretive process going on because she
wouldn't remember it exactly the way it was written, but she would change a
note here and there. You know, she would change a rhythm, make one note
higher, another lower. In fact, you know, she would personalize it. She
would make it into something her own.
And as she put it in that interview, later on that process became known as
swinging--that's the way she put it--and people liked it. People liked to
hear what she would do with a song rather than just hear it strictly, you
know, the way it was written. Of course, this is the basis of jazz singing.
The whole concept of jazz singing is to personalize it and make it into--you
know, to interpret it in such a way that, you know, Mildred Bailey doing
"Lover Come Back To Me" is not the same piece of music as Frank Sinatra or
Tony Bennett of, of course, you know, Nelson Eddy doing "Lover Come Back To
Me." They're all, you know--that's the great thing about the American
song is that it's possible to be flexible with it so that each interpreter
does it makes it into, you know, the equivalent of a whole new piece of
And Mildred Bailey's a very, very early example of that taking place and,
know, in fact, she did it so early and so like naturally that there really
wasn't even a name for it at that point.
GROSS: Why don't we hear Mildred Bailey singing "Lover Come Back To Me."
This was recorded in 1938 with Mildred Bailey and her orchestra; Teddy
at the piano. Anything you want to say about this before we hear it, Will?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Oh, it's just extraordinary. Considering that the song was
only about 10 years old then and it came out of operetta--you know, it's
"The New Moon," by Sigmund Romberg, and it's meant to be, you know, sung by,
you know, what we would think of as a very kind of stiff baritone and a very
overtly classical, overtly theatrical way. And then to hear, you know,
Mildred Bailey come along and, you know, this is really, you know, quite
radically turning the song on its ear in those days. For her to come along
and swing it, and swing the hell out of it, you know, is just quite radical
at that point. And yet, you know, it doesn't sound radical. Today, it just
sounds perfectly natural. It just sounds like, you know, such an obvious
wonderful and, you know, inspired thing to do with the song.
GROSS: Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of "Lover Come Back To Me")
Ms. BAILEY: (Singing) The sky was blue and high above. The moon was new
so was love. This eager heart of mine was singing. Lover, where can you
You came at last. Love had its day. That day is past. You've gone away.
This aching heart of mine is singing, `Lover, come back to me.' I remember
every little thing you used to do. I'm so lonely. Every road I walk along,
I've walk along with you. No wonder I am lonely. The sky is blue, the
GROSS: That's Mildred Bailey recorded in 1938, one of the many recordings
her as featured on the new 10-CD box set "The Complete Columbia Recordings
Mildred Bailey." My guest, Will Friedwald, wrote the liner notes.
Will, tell us something about Mildred Bailey's childhood, where she grew up,
what her family was like.
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Mildred Bailey was very closely associated with Bing Crosby
from the early days. They both were born in 1903, of course. You know, for
many years she always put down her birth as being considerably later, but
we know, thanks to Gary Giddins, that it was indeed 1903. And they both
up in, you know, northern Washington and Mildred Bailey was believed to
be--she's known to have been part Indian. And the interesting thing is she
was attracted to music at a very early age and after her mother died--she
one of these horrible stepmothers that you read about in, like, Grimm's
fairytales. And the important thing about that is, you know, making--you
know, `sweet are the uses of adversity.' Her situation at home was so awful
that it was actually--amounted to a good thing because she left home very
young, and, you know, became a professional musician very, very, very young,
you know, like still in her teens. And she was, you know, singing
professionally up and down the West Coast, you know, while still a
And she managed to sort of set up a kind of camp in Los Angeles where her
younger brother, who was Bing Crosby's singing partner, where the two of
could sort of embark to when they were ready to start a professional music
GROSS: Bailey's brother, Al Rinker, was Bing Crosby's singing partner in
'20s. Bailey helped get them started when they visited her in Los Angeles,
where she was singing in a speakeasy. I asked Will Friedwald how she helped
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Well, she helped them both in terms of getting work and in
terms of the content of their music. She was the one who knew what all the
best songs were, she knew who the best musicians were, she knew what they
should be listening to, she knew what records they should be studying. And
also, in terms of getting work, she knew where the jobs were. She knew,
where they could finally get, you know, work as--as singers. And Crosby
always gave her credit for that, always said that she was really--as he
in the early '60s, she was the one who gave him his start.
GROSS: You know, one of the--the early recordings on this new Mildred
box set just really astonished me 'cause I'd never heard her sound that way.
This is a recording called, "I Like to Do Things for You," made in 1930, and
she sounds very Betty Boop on it. And although Mildred Bailey has a kind of
high, girlish-sounding voice, she's a very sophisticated singer. And this
so cute and so Betty Boop. What's the story behind this recording?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: It's kind of fascinating in that she, Mildred Bailey,
started--became a regular member of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1929.
And because, you know, I believe that Whiteman was feuding with his record
company, Columbia Records, at that point, he made very--he wasn't in the
studio that much and Mildred did not get to make a record with that band
until '31. But in the interim she, you know, does this record of the song,
Like to Do Things for You," with Frank Trumbauer's Orchestra, which is a
spinoff of the Whiteman band. And like I--you know, like you say, the Betty
Boop kind of a voice, which was, you know, introduced by Helen Kane, was
popular then and the woman who sings the song in the movie, "The King of
is a woman named Jeannie Lang, who's a very, very strict
And, you know, for years it was thought that it was Jeannie Lang on this
recording 'cause it does sound like her. But you know, this is her--just
about her first record, and it just happens to--you know, it's just--Mildred
Bailey was obviously asked to do a boop-boop-ba-doop kind of a voice and she
does it very well. You know, the singing is way more annoying than, you
her regular singing. But, you know, there you have it, you know?
She sings in a similar voice about 10 years later on the "Three Little
Fishies," which is also this kind of, you know, children's song, so it's
appropriate for that kind of a voice.
GROSS: Well, let's hear Mildred Bailey recorded in 1930 and this
is--What?--her second recording?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Her second recording.
(Soundbite of "I Like to Do Things for You")
Ms. BAILEY: (Singing) I'd like to fix your tie, smooth your hair, put
in order here and there. 'Cause I'd like to do things for you. I'd like to
pick the lint off your suit, I want to keep you nice and cute, 'cause I'd
to do things for you. There doesn't seem to be need for me to mention, that
I'm the party who can give you attention. I'd like to tuck your shirt, dust
your hat, poke all around you just like that, 'cause I'd like to do things
GROSS: Many of Mildred Bailey's recordings are with the vibraphonist and
xylophone player Red Norvo who was also, for some years, Mildred Bailey's
husband. How did they meet?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: They met in the Whiteman band. Norvo had, you know, been
playing around the Midwest and finally he wound up in Chicago, and that was
where Whiteman heard him and hired him and made him another, you know,
attraction within the band. And the two fell in love and got married. And
the time they left the band, they were a team. And they stayed a team even,
you know, after--for some time after their marriage fell apart. But they
married for about 10 years. And, you know, they led this band together and
became, you know, one of the great--and today, you know, unfortunately,
known, but it was really considered one of the great bands of the swing era
fans and critics and musicians at the time. And it was very, very, very
GROSS: And what do you think they brought out in each other, musically?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: It's interesting because people think of the swing era--you
know, even then there was this tendency to think of, you know, swing bands
loud and noisy. And what the Bailey-Norvo band was all about, they
called--they referred to it as soft, subtle swing, which is a fairly apropos
term. And it was a very musicianly band. It was about--you know, you could
swing and not necessary have to scream in people's ears. You know, there
ways of swinging that were, you know, much more subtle. And the two of them
both had this in common with each other. I mean, just the fact that Norvo
a virtuoso soloist on the xylophone, which is not--you know, I mean, he had
much rhythm as Harry James, but he didn't have to make, you know, a whole
of noise. And, of course, Bailey, you know, swung like crazy and at the
time, you know, she never screamed. You know, she had this very sort of
subtle swinging voice. And the two of them complemented each other
beautifully. It was really--and the whole band was structured around that.
Virtually every number has a very prominent xylophone solo. And, you know,
the two of them just really brought out the best in each other and they were
really one of the all-time great, you know, combinations of musician and
GROSS: Is there a recording that you think really illustrates that musical
relationship between Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: That musical relationship is really--it's the point of the
whole box. I mean, they--fortunately, they recorded very prolifically, and
most of the 10 CDs in this box are from, you know, kind of a two-year
concentrated period of the band from 1937 to 1939. I think "I've Got My
to Keep Me Warm" is a really perfect example of Bailey and Norvo together,
their best. I mean, her singing is so effervescent and so is, you know,
Norvo's solo. And the two of them, you can just see that they're on, you
know, the same plane, the same page, as it were, spiritually and musically
rhythmically or whatever.
GROSS: Here they are, Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo recorded in 1937.
(Soundbite of "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm")
Ms. BAILEY: (Singing) The snow is snowing, the wind is blowing. But I can
weather the storm. What do I care how much it may storm. I've got my love
keep me warm. I can't remember a worst December, just watch those icicles
form. What do I care if icicles form, I've got my love to keep me warm.
with my overcoat. Off with my gloves. I need no overcoat, I'm burning with
love. My heart's on fire, the flame grows higher so I will weather the
What do I care how much it may storm. I've got my love to keep me warm.
(Soundbite of instrumental music, including xylophone solo)
GROSS: That's Mildred Bailey with Red Norvo recorded in 1937, featured on
new box set "The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey." My guest,
Will Friedwald wrote the liner notes. He's also the author of (technical
difficulties) called "Sinatra! The Song Is You."
I'm interested in hearing about Mildred Bailey's relationship with some of
other great singers of her time, particularly Billie Holiday. She really
liked Billie Holiday's singing and, in fact, you say she helped launch
Mr. FRIEDWALD: It's an interesting thing in that John Hammond who was, of
course, you know, rightfully credited with discovering Holiday, always told
the story about hearing her for the first time in Harlem in 1933. And what
he left out or what, you know, seems to be the case that he left out is that
Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo were with him at that point. And I've
heard--Red told me that story several times, that the three of them were up
Harlem and they happened to hear this girl singing, and it was Mildred who
actually said, `Wow, that girl really has something,' you know, `You should,
you know, keep your eye on that one.' And, you know, it's kind of a mystery
why Hammond never mentioned that. But like I say, Norvo never took credit
it himself. He always said that it was Mildred.
And for a while, Mildred even tried to help out the Holiday family when they
were first getting started in that Sadie Fagan, Billie Holiday's mother,
worked as a maid, and the Norvos actually hired her for a while,
until--apparently she was a complete screw-up as a maid, and it was Red who
had to fire her even though, you know, Mildred was opposed to it, 'cause she
wanted to help out the Holidays or the Fagans. And Billie sort of got the
idea that it was like a professional jealousy kind of a thing and was, you
know, very resentful of Mildred Bailey for a long time after that. But
it was Mildred who, you know, pulled John Hammond's coattails to her to
with, and you know, really deserves a lot of credit for, you know, launching
the career of Billie Holiday, as it were.
And interestingly enough, six years later, the two of them heard Frank
before he was ever discovered, and at that point, they tried to hire him
you know, the Bailey-Norvo band and it turned out he was already set to go
with Harry James at that point. But Norvo always, you know, insisted that,
you know, hearing Sinatra before he was discovered was the same kind of
as hearing Billie Holiday, you know, at that sort of point of embryonic
GROSS: I want to take a pause here and play another Mildred Bailey
And this is a novelty song that she handles awfully well. It's a song
very associated with her. It's called "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a
Hurry." It's a Johnny Mercer lyric. She recorded it in 1942 with the Red
Norveau Orchestra. Would you talk a little bit about this song and where it
fits into her body of work?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Well, what's always been fascinating to me about this song
that is was not written for her. It was actually introduced by Jimmy
band and Helen O'Connell and it was just, you know, another funny Johnny
Mercer song. And Mildred Bailey recorded it very early and just took it
And now it seems like such a perfect marriage of singer and material. And,
you know, it's hard to imagine someone else doing it.
And what's also amazing is that it just shows how funny she was and what a
great sort of, you know, musical comedian she was, and that she's
know, deserves more credit in that area because not only did she influence,
you know, say, you know, Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday and lots of other,
know, great jazz and pop singers, but she's also a major musical comedian
sort of a forerunner to Martha Raye or Betty Hutton and people like that.
And it's just a very funny, very--Johnny Mercer's lyric is very clever and
very witty and she really--you know, she sings it for all it's worth.
GROSS: Here she is in 1942.
(Soundbite of "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry")
Ms. BAILEY: (Singing) Life was so peaceful at the laundry. Life was so
and serene. Life was tres gay till an unlucky day I happened to read that
magazine. Why did I read that advertisement where it said, `Since I rumba,
Red think's I'm sublime.' Why, oh, why did I ever try when I didn't have
talent, I didn't have the money and teacher did not have the time-a! Arthur
Murray taught me dancing in a hurry. I had a week to spare, he showed me
groundwork, the walking around work and told me to take it from there.
Murray then advised me not to worry. It'd come out all right. To my way of
thinking, it came out stinking. I don't know my left from my right. The
people around me can all sing. A one and a two and a three. But any
resemblance to waltzing is just coincidental with me. 'Cause Arthur Murray
got me dancing in a hurry.
GROSS: That's Mildred Bailey, one of the records featured on the new 10 CD
box set, "The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey." My guest,
Friedwald, wrote the liner notes. He's also the author of the book
The Song is You."
You describe Mildred Bailey as having had self-esteem problems and a weight
problem. She was quite heavy. How did that affect her life and her career?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Well, I think eventually, as she got heavier and
began to get into her 40s--you know, it kind of undermined her self-esteem
made her much more difficult to work with. And that's generally
to be one of the factors that broke up, you know, the marriage and broke up
the great, you know, Norveau-Bailey band(ph).
And, you know, as she got older--she never got all that old, but, you know,
just as it went on it got more and more severe and she had more and more of
weight problem and these things all became a kind of a vicious cycle. And
really didn't do that much in the '40s. You know, sort of after the war,
of faded and faded and, you know, musical tastes were changing at the same
time as well and she must have seemed, you know, sort of like something from
the past by the late '40s.
And, you know, that was gradually the end of it for her. She made some nice
things in the late '40s and recorded--you know, this is really the bulk--the
bulk of her career is in this box. And, you know, everything that comes
is much--you know there's much less of it. You know, she was much less
productive and prolific afterwards.
GROSS: You know, she was broke at the end of her life. How did she end up
broke after this very prolific output and after having achieved, you know,
Mr. FRIEDWALD: It just was a case of diminishing returns. You know, after
while she, you know, wasn't well enough to consistently work and she hadn't
kept up, you know, the recording career. And, you know, it was just--you
know, the career gradually diminished. At the end, both Bing Crosby and
know, making sure she wasn't--you know, making sure she could keep her farm
and things like that and making sure that her hospital bills were paid.
You know, at the end she really seems to have been, you know, undermined
by--it sounds trivial to put it this way, but, you know, a serious, you
lack of self-esteem. And that really seems to have been, you know, the
that must have psychologically motivated all these, you know, bad health
problems and things like that. They all were kind of supporting each other
undermining each other at that point.
GROSS: Let's close with one of the later recordings included on this new 10
CD box set and this was a song that I believe was written for her. It's
called "Don't Take Your Love From Me." Written for her, Will?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Yes. It was written by Henry Nemo, who was a character that
was always kind of hanging around Bailey. And it's funny, most people that
knew him, or were around at that point, just describe him as one of the
all-time great nut jobs of the era. Apparently, he was always, like,
some wacky stunt after another. Although, you know, people that didn't know
him personally and just know the quality of his music, you know, really
him as kind of one of the great obscure songwriters who came up with all
kind of interesting tunes that, you know, are all fairly substantial. And
sort of the two impressions of Henry Nemo seem very much in contrast to each
But it's a lovely song and it was obviously written with Bailey in mind.
this early version has a couple different lyrics than the ones we're used to
hearing, you know, when the song kind of became cemented later on. And it's
just, you know, an outstanding example of Mildred Bailey singing a ballad at
her very best.
GROSS: Now Alec Wilder is one of the directors of this session, and he's
best known for his book, you know, "An American Popular Song." And he also
wrote a lot of songs and was very much into art song. And how did Mildred
Bailey get hooked up with Alec Wilder?
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Mitch Miller told me about that. You know, they were just
great fans--when they were in college together, they were just great fans of
the Bailey-Norveau Band, because that--both that band and in Red's sort of
experimental music it was sort of like opening a door as to different ways
which pop music and jazz music can go. Not necessarily what--exclusively a
classical leaning or an attempt to merge jazz with classical, but in an
attempt to sort of open sort of the boundaries of where jazz and pop were
perhaps bring in some sort of classical techniques.
And this was something that appealed very much Mitch Miller and Alec Wilder
who were both, you know, classical music students who had a great--you know,
very strong love for popular music and jazz. And after they graduated and
were doing--you know, professionals, they, you know, approached Bailey and
Norveau about the idea of doing something together. And it turned out to be
something very similar to the octet music that Alec Wilder had been writing
at that point.
And there was a very interesting--it's another whole aspect of Bailey's
that's worthy of studying, are these really interesting sort of chamber jazz
sessions that, you know, she does around 1939, 1940.
GROSS: I think in this recording her voice is sounding more weathered than
the girlish voice of the earlier sessions.
Mr. FRIEDWALD: Well, she certainly sounds older than "I Like to Do Things
for You," right. Yeah, definitely. You know, she was about 36 or 37 at
point and, you know, had a lot of heartache and heartbreak behind her
by this point.
GROSS: Will Friedwald wrote the liner notes to the new 10 CD box set. "The
Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey." It's released by the mail
order company Mosaic Records. Here's Mildred Bailey, recorded in 1940.
(Soundbite of "Don't Take Your Love From Me")
Ms. BAILEY: (Singing) Tear a star from my opus sky and the sky feels blue.
Tear a flower from its stand and the stand weeps, too. Take your heart away
from mine and mine will surely break. My life is what you make so, darling,
please keep the spark awake. Would you take the wings from the birds so
they can't fly? Would you take the ocean's roar and leave but a sigh? I'll
guess your heart won't let you do and if it's all the same to you, don't
your love from me.
GROSS: Coming up, John Ritter. He's co-starring in the new film "Panic."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: John Ritter discusses his new movie and career
(Soundbite of "Three's Company" theme song)
Unidentified Man: Come and knock on our door...
Unidentified Woman: Come and knock on our door...
Unidentified Man: ...we've been waiting for you...
Unidentified Woman: ...we've been waiting for you...
Unidentified Man: ...where the kisses are...
Unidentified Man and Woman: ...hers and hers and his, three's company, too.
TERRY GROSS, host:
One guy sharing an apartment with two women, a premise that gave "Three's
Company" seven years of sexual innuendoes and double entendres. The show
premiered in 1977 and is back on Nick at Nite. John Ritter's starring role
"Three's Company" gave him a reputation as a fine comedic actor. He had two
subsequent sitcoms, "Hooperman" and "Hearts Afire." Ritter grew up in a
business family. His father was singing cowboy and country music star Tex
Ritter. John Ritter is now starring on Broadway in the Neil Simon comedy
Dinner Party." He co-starred in the independent film "Slingblade." He's
made guest appearances on shows like "Ally McBeal," "Buffy The Vampire
and "TV Funhouse."
He's currently co-starring in the independent film "Panic." He plays a
psychotherapist. Here's a scene from the opening of the film, in which W.H.
Macy, the film's star, comes for his first appointment with the therapist.
(Soundbite of "Panic")
Mr. JOHN RITTER: Come on in, Alex. Sit down.
Mr. W.H. MACY ("Alex"): There's nothing wrong with me.
Mr. RITTER: Excuse me?
Mr. MACY: I'm not sick or, you know, crazy.
Mr. RITTER: I'm a therapist, Alex. Therapy is as common as gasoline. It's
what we need to keep us going. It's not a mental ward. Please. So tell
Sam Grayley(ph) sent you my way?
Mr. MACY: Yes.
Mr. RITTER: Sam's a good doctor. How old are you, Alex?
Mr. MACY: What are you doing?
Mr. RITTER: Making notes.
Mr. MACY: No notes.
Mr. RITTER: OK, no notes. What do you do for a living?
Mr. MACY: I've got two jobs. I run a small mail-order business out of the
house--lawn ornaments and kitchen gee-gaws, sexual aids, things like that.
Mr. RITTER: And the rest of the time?
Mr. MACY: I work for my father.
Mr. RITTER: Doing what?
Mr. MACY: I kill people.
GROSS: John Ritter, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. RITTER: Thank you, Terry. I'm so happy to be here. Thanks for having
GROSS: Let me ask you to describe your role in "Panic."
Mr. RITTER: Well, I'm--it seems like every hit man or Mafia guy has a
therapist these days, so I'm one of the psychologists who happens to meet
guy who's very troubled, Bill Macy, and I find out he has a very unusual
occupation. And the movie is--even though you might think, `Oh, I've heard
that story before,' this is in new hands. This guy named Henry Bromell, who
wrote and directed this, is a completely original filmmaker. And I knew
Macy because he and I did a Steve Martin play together with Felicity Huffman
and some wonderful actors who went to the Aspen Comedy Festival a couple of
years ago and we actually won best ensemble, whatever that means. I guess
they liked our clothes.
GROSS: Now how did you get the part in "Panic"? Do you know what led the
filmmaker to think of you for the psychologist?
Mr. RITTER: Well, I don't--his wife, Trish Soodik, is a writer, and she was
one of the great actresses at USC in the drama department. She was
and just so touching. And she went off to act and be a professional writer,
and she married Henry. And I've sort of run into them here and there, but I
guess he really liked "Slingblade" and some other independent films he saw
do--one called "Montana," and another one called "A Gun, a Car and a
something like that--little known independent films that people--they're so
independent they refuse to be seen.
GROSS: Now I want to ask you about another film that you were in,
Mr. RITTER: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...which was written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who also
starred in the movie. And he plays a man who is mentally challenged. And
this scene, you've invited him over a talk at a local diner.
(Soundbite of "Slingblade")
Mr. RITTER: But you see, you and I are a lot alike, as strange as that may
seem. I don't mean physically or even mentally really, but well,
Actually, the hand that we've been dealt in life. We're different. People
see as as being different anyway. You're--well, you've got your affliction
whatever and I--well, mine's not at easy to see. I'm just going to say it.
I'm gay. Does that surprise you that I'm gay? You know what gay is don't
Mr. BILLY BOB THORTON: I don't reckon.
Mr. RITTER: Homosexual. I like men sexually.
Mr. THORTON: Not funny ha-ha, funny queer. Mm-hmm.
Mr. RITTER: Well, that's a very offensive way to put it.
GROSS: John Ritter, now this movie seems to me like it was a real change of
pace for you. How did this role affect your image?
Mr. RITTER: Well, Billy and I had known each other actually from network
We did a series called "Hearts Afire" together, where we played best
And we spent a lot of time together and really made each other laugh, doing
improvs and everything. And Billy's a wonderful writer. He wrote a couple
movies with Tom Epperson that were already produced, and the first thing he
wrote on his own was this little short film based on this character he used
do in his performance art. And they made a little 10-minute film, but he
didn't quite like it. It was in black and white and he thought that the
director--well, I don't want to say anything bad about the director, but he
wanted to direct it himself and make it, you know, his vision.
And he said, `I'm going to do a full-length movie, this time in color, and I
want to take this guy out of the mental institution into the town.' And I
said, `Billy, that sounds great,' you know, and he said, `Would you be in
And I thought, `Yeah, you know, it's sort of like a day of maybe a guy in a
gas station or something.' But he said, `No, it's a part.' He never told me
what it was, because he hadn't written it yet, but then when I read it and
told me what--he wanted me to look like his gym teacher, but I
the character was his music teacher, who was an extremely closeted gay man
the '50s in Arkansas--a little town in Arkansas--who had a wife and two
but was just so obviously gay and just sort of tortured about it. Because
in--in a little town in Arkansas in the '50s, if you were gay, you would
probably be dead by the end of the week, he said.
GROSS: And what did you do to get into character for this role.
Mr. RITTER: Actually, it's one of those wonderful things where the script
right there. All of us looked at the script and all the information you
is in the pages. And so he would tell his story about being in St. Louis
his father, he just--his father was a monster and I had some back story
that, you know. Some of it was mine, some of it was Billy's. We talked
what--he let me choose my name and I--I chose Vaughan because I was driving
a supermarket then--it could have just as well been Ralphs or Duanne Reed or
somebody like that, but it was Vaughan. And I chose Cunningham because I
always wondered what happened to Ron Howard's brother--Richie Cunningham's
brother on "Happy Days." And it was a little--he had a brother for one
then they killed him off or something. I thought, `Wouldn't it be funny if
was Richie's brother.'
GROSS: My guest is John Ritter. More, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is John Ritter. He's currently starring on Broadway in
Simon's "The Dinner Party," and he's co-starring in the independent film
"Panic." Ritter's father was singing cowboy and country music star Tex
Ritter. John's mother, Dorothy Faye, was Tex's leading lady in his B
westerns. Tex Ritter was friends with other singing cowboys like Gene Autry
and Roy Rogers. I asked John Ritter if he ever got to meet them.
Mr. RITTER: Roy Rogers is as nice as you--as nice as you please. I did an
interview with Gene and Roy and Rex Allen and Jimmy Wakeley, who were the
other singing cowboys. And my fa--I interviewed my mom, because my father
died. And that show won a local Emmy in Los Angeles for the best
and the best written documentary. Roy was just so sweet. He said, `Let's
have dinner on me.' And so the little thumbnail crew and I went out to this
restaurant, I think it was called The Velvet Turtle or something like that.
Roy came in, and, `Hi, Roy.' `Hi, Velma.' `The usual, honey?' `Yes, you
bet.' And I thought, I wonder what Roy Rogers' usual is, you know? I bet
it's a piece of ribeye raw and, you know, baked potato, no vegetables and a
shot of bourbon, Jack Daniel's. And she brings down a glass of milk and
strawberry pie with whipped cream. And he said, `Don't tell Dale now. She
doesn't want me eating this. But this is my--I love this.' I just saw him
eat pie and milk. It just was--I mean, he just--he was exactly that.
And that was the thing about those guys, they were, you know, really heroic
people, I thought, those singing cowboys. They just played themselves.
GROSS: Now your father actually ran for office. He ran as a Republican in
Tennessee for Senate, with...
Mr. RITTER: That's right.
GROSS: ...I think, Johnny Cash as the chairman of his finance committee?
Mr. RITTER: Well, Johnny Cash was so great because my father ran--the
Baker people in Tennessee wanted a more moderate Republican than this up and
comer named--oh, now I can't--Brock(ph), I think his name was--who was very,
very wealthy and very conservative. And so they asked my dad to run because
my dad and Howard Baker had, you know, views eye to eye. And my father was
very astute politically and a very smart guy. And he ran, but he lost. But
the thing that we all know now, didn't know then too much in 1970, was the
debt that can accrue when you run a campaign. And Dad was about $80,000 in
debt and all the people sort of said, `We'll see you around.' And then
Cash, who always loved my father--and my father stuck by Johnny Cash early
in Johnny Cash's career when he was having some hard times--he held a
for my father, you know, and had all these country music stars come and sing
in 1971, and they raised about $42,000, which in those days was huge.
Mr. RITTER: I mean, it was just huge. And that erased so much of the
problem, you know. And it was--I was--I've always loved Johnny Cash and his
family for that.
GROSS: 1970 was a year--was part of a period when there was quite a
generation gap politically between a lot of teen-agers and their parents.
one of the reasons for that was the war in Vietnam.
Mr. RITTER: Right.
GROSS: Another reason was just, you know, all the cultural changes and
marijuana and LSD that were part of youth culture. What were your politics
compared to your father's? Was this a source of friction in your family
it was in so many others?
Mr. RITTER: My father was a Goldwater Republican, and then he was a little
more moderate. But he supported all of the--he was a Reagan supporter and
of, you know, the Republicans. Didn't too much like Nixon that much, but,
know, voted for him. Whereas my brother and I were into the Kennedys. But
always argued--my father always wanted us to argue, you know, sort of
the--he'd sort of switch on the Socratic dialog where he'd ask a question
we'd say something, then he'd ask another question. And then we'd answer
and then he'd say, `Well, if you think that, how about this?' You know, he
put us on our toes. We had to really know what we were talking about. One
GROSS: So he wanted you--he wanted you to defend your point of view.
Mr. RITTER: Yeah. In other words, he wasn't gonna say, `Well, you might
disagree when you have a little money and property. You know, now it's very
easy since we're taking care of you to say all this stuff.' But, you know,
said--he said, `I was a Democrat, too, but I figured, you know, Franklin
Roosevelt, four times is enough, and I'--you know, so after Roosevelt he
Republican, he voted for Eisenhower and all that.
But I did love him for this. Eldridge Cleaver wanted to speak at the--you
know, he wanted to teach at Berkeley, and my brother and I were saying he
should be allowed to teach. And Dad said the regents, which were very
conservative, should say yes or no, and the students, which were very
liberal, wanted him. And I said, `But the regents don't know anything about
the black African-American experience and these kids should know what's
on.' And so I gave my father a copy of Eldridge Cleaver's best-seller
"Soul on Ice" and I inscribed it as if it were from Eldridge, `To my
Tex, listen, let me tell you what's happening.' You know, I did this whole
thing, `Up against the wall. You gonna be my friend or my foe?' Anyway,
`Signed, with respect, Eldridge Cleaver.'
Anyway, I gave it to Dad as sort of a joke, but God love him, he read the
whole thing. And he said, `Well, he did make some good points,' and I
thought, `That's very, very generous of my father,' you know?
Mr. RITTER: And then he went to Vietnam to entertain the troops with my
brother, my brother came back wide-eyed, and he said, `Well, it's Sodom and
Gomorrah over there. We've got to get our boys home. It's just the most
corrupt city I've ever seen in my life. So we've just got to just leave
country as soon as possible.' And I said, `Right on, Dad. Man, see?
into ending the war.' He said, `Yeah, just go in there, bomb Hanoi, and
bring our boys home.' I said, `Well, that's not exactly what I was thinking
about, bombing Hanoi and getting out of South Vietnam.' But, you know, he
great. We never had a dull moment.
GROSS: Well, John Ritter, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. RITTER: Oh, I had a great time talking to you.
GROSS: John Ritter is starring on Broadway in the Neil Simon comedy, "The
Dinner Party," and is co-starring in the independent film "Panic." You can
see his sitcom, "Three's Company," on Nick at Nite.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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