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Jo Sullivan Loesser On Her 'Guy', Frank Loesser

Jo Sullivan Loesser met Broadway composer Frank Loesser when she was cast in his show The Most Happy Fella. The two later married and Jo Sullivan Loesser left show business for 17 years to raise their two children and help her husband with his writing.


Other segments from the episode on March 6, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 6, 2009: Interview with Susan Loesser; Interview Joseph Weiss; Interview with Jo Sullivan Loesser; Interview with Horton Foote; Refiew of the new superhero film …


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Susan Loesser: My Father, 'A Most Remarkable Fella'


This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli of sitting in
for Terry Gross. The classical musical “Guys and Dolls,” which opened on
Broadway in 1950, has just been revived in New York - again.

Its music and lyrics were written almost 60 years ago by Frank Loesser.
On today’s FRESH AIR, we’ll listen back to Terry’s interviews with Frank
Loesser’s daughter, Susan, and with Frank’s widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser.
We’ll also hear some of Loesser’s original demo recordings from “Guys
and Dolls,” courtesy of Joseph Weiss.

The musical, based on several Damon Runyon short stories, is about two
gamblers, Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, and the women in their
lives, one a prim do-gooder, the other a tough dame nightclub singer.

The 1955 movie version starred Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando as the
gangsters. The current Broadway version stars Oliver Platt and Craig
Bierko. The original Broadway show, which won the Tony Award as Best
Musical, starred Robert Alda and Sam Levene.

Loesser also wrote the songs for the musicals “How to Succeed in
Business Without Really Trying” and “The Most Happy Fella.” Early in his
career he worked as a lyricist in Hollywood, where he was matched with
Hoagy Carmichael. They co-wrote “Heart and Soul” and “Two Sleepy
People.” Loesser was soon writing words and music for movies.

Today, we’ll start by revisiting Terry’s 1993 interview with his eldest
child, Susan Loesser. She was born during his first marriage, when he
was living in Hollywood. Let’s start with the title song from the
original cast recording of “Guys and Dolls.”

(Soundbite of song, “Guys and Dolls”)

Unidentified Men (Actors): (As characters) (Singing) Yes, sir. When you
see a guy reach for stars in the sky, you can bet that he's doing it for
some doll. When you spot a John waiting out in the rain, chances are
he's insane as only a John can be for a Jane.

When you meet a gent paying all kinds of rent for a flat that could
flatten the Taj Mahal, call it sad, call it funny, but it's better than
even money that the guy's only doing it for some doll. When you see a
Joe saving have of his dough, you can bet there'll be mink in it for
some doll. When a bum buys wine like a bum can't afford, it's a cinch
that the bum is under the thumb of some little broad. When you meet a
mug lately out of the jug, and he's still lifting platinum folderol,
call it hell, call it heaven, it's probable twelve to seven that the
guy's only doing it for some doll. When you see a sport and his cash has
run short…


I love some of the stories of Frank Loesser working with singers. Tell
us a little bit about the audition for “Guys and Dolls” and what he had
the singers do as they auditioned.

Ms. SUSAN LOESSER: Oh, he had them yell - yell for help, and they
wouldn’t understand what he meant, and he’d say, Yell help, that’s what
I mean. He wanted to hear how loud they were.

His motto was loud is good. He wanted – he wanted the audience to hear
every word and every note from every seat in the house, and he wanted no
embellishments. He wanted his music sung note for note and loud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In the movie version of “Guys and Dolls,” Frank Sinatra played
the role of Nathan Detroit, and your father, the composer Frank Loesser,
did not like what Sinatra was doing with Loesser’s songs.

Ms. LOESSER: No, he didn’t.

GROSS: Why didn’t he like it?

Ms. LOESSER: Well, Nathan Detroit is a very rough character, a Broadway
character, and the original Nathan, Sam Levene, couldn’t sing. He only
had one song, “Sue Me,” and he came in wrong all the time on the first

So my father had to write him a four-bar phrase - call a lawyer and -
and if you listen to it – I will not sing it – it slides up to the
correct note to come in on.

That was how bad Sam sang, but he was also brilliant and wonderful and
rough and tough and Runyonesque, whereas Frank Sinatra was very smooth
and crooned his songs, and in fact, Goldwyn had my father write three
more songs for Nathan in the movie, for Frank Sinatra.

And my father would listen to Sinatra rehearsing and would become
angrier and angrier, and finally they had it out, and my father kind of
met his match with Frank Sinatra, who exploded about the same way my
father did, both of them screaming words that I won’t say on the radio.

As it ended, Frank Sinatra, of course, performed the songs his way, and
they never spoke again.

GROSS: Did your father sing around the house a lot?

Ms. LOESSER: He sang when he was working on something. More often he
played the piano, working on songs. But yes, he sang too. He and my
mother worked out songs together.

There are some wonderful old recordings of them singing “Baby, It’s Cold
Outside” and “Make a Miracle” from “Where’s Charley?”

GROSS: Yeah, it’s interesting. You write about how “Baby, It’s Cold
Outside” used to be your parents’ song, and they would sing it at
parties together until it was actually used in a film.

Ms. LOESSER: Right. They – and my mother adored that because they would
go to parties, and after the first time they sang the song they were in
great demand because it was such a wonderful, fun song, and they had
such a good time singing it together and they were very good performers
of it.

And so my mother felt it was her claim to fame at that time to perform

this song at parties, and when he sold it to MGM for a movie called
“Neptune’s Daughter” with Esther Williams and Ricardo Mantalban, it
broke my mother’s heart. She was very upset about losing the song, but
then it won an Academy Award. So it made up for it.

GROSS: Your life must have really changed dramatically when you were 12
and 13. That’s when you moved to New York from Hollywood.


GROSS: Your father’s show, “Most Happy Fella,” opened on Broadway, and
it was during that show that he fell in love with his second wife, Jo
Sullivan, and left your mother, and your mother was actually involved in
introducing Jo Sullivan to Frank Loesser.

Ms. LOESSER: My mother did a lot of the casting for “The Most Happy
Fella.” She was co-producer with Kermit Bloomgarden, and when she heard
Jo sing, she said, Boy, this is a voice – this is a voice and a
personality Frank would just love.

So she sent Jo to audition for my father, sealing her fate. It was a
very hard time for everybody. I – my brother and I were uprooted from
our California suburban lifestyle and brought to New York City. We at
first stayed with friends and then moved to a small apartment.

My mother was not happy and was drinking more and more, and I had never
lived in such close quarters with her before, and that was when I began
to see that she was – she had big problems.

Everything changed for all of us. My father was living across Central
Park in an apartment of his own and having his affair with Jo, and
everybody was – he wasn’t real happy either. It was a very – a time full
of turmoil, although for him, I think, it was mitigated a great deal by
the great success of “The Most Happy Fella.”

I think, you know, for him that show was so important. He wrote not only
the music and the lyrics, but he wrote the book, and he was involved day
to day with every aspect of it, to Joe Anthony, the director’s great
consternation. My father attempted to direct it as well.

GROSS: When you were growing up and still living in the same house with
your father, did you ever eavesdrop on him while he was writing a song?

Ms. LOESSER: Well, I didn’t really have to eavesdrop. He would – he had
a little organ in his room, and I would stop there on my way down to
breakfast because he was a very early riser, and he would already be
deep at work, but I didn’t see it as work.

I didn’t know what he was doing. He would be playing a phrase over and
over again on the organ, and then he would get up and pace for a while,
and then he’d sit in his chair and smoke seven or eight cigarettes and
drink some more coffee and get up and play some more music. And I’d say
what are you doing? And he’d say, I’m working.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOESSER: You know, that was another one of those surreal mysteries
to me.

GROSS: Is there any song that you feel particularly a part of because
you were either with him while he was writing it, or you heard it
ringing through the house, or he told you about it?

Ms. LOESSER: I think the song that means to me is a very small, short
song in “Guys and Dolls,” and it’s called “My Time of Day,” and it’s a
poem. It’s an ode to New York at 4:00 in the morning, when the
streetlamps light the gutter with gold.

It was a song that Sky Masterson sings to Sarah Brown, and it really
characterizes my father, I think. I think that he liked that song best
in that show, and I – to me that song is my father.

GROSS: Well, Susan Loesser, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you.

Ms. LOESSER: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Thank you for talking with us.

(Soundbite of song, “My Time of Day”)

Mr. ROBERT ALDA (Actor): (As Sky Masterson) (Singing) My time of day is
the dark time, a couple of deals before dawn, when the street belongs to
the cop and a janitor with a mop, and the grocery clerks are all gone,
when the smell of the rain-washed pavement comes up clean and fresh and
cold, and the streetlamp light fills the gutter with gold. That’s my
time of day, my time of day, and you’re the only doll I’ve ever wanted
to share it with me.

BIANCULLI: That’s Robert Alda from the original cast recording of “Guys
and Dolls.” Terry’s interview with Susan Loesser was recorded in 1993.
Her memoir about her father is called “A Most Remarkable Fella.”

Coming up, the original demo recordings, sung by Frank Loesser as guide
recordings for the cast members of “Guys and Dolls.” This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
A 'Most Happy' Discovery: Loesser's Demo Tapes


Our salute to the musical “Guys and Dolls,” now being revived on
Broadway, continues.

When Frank Loesser wrote his shows, he made demo recordings to
demonstrate to the cast what the songs should sound like.

Those demos were discovered years later by Joseph Weiss, the copyright
manager of Paul McCartney’s publishing company, which acquired Loesser’s
publishing company in 1979.

Along with the acquisition came hundreds of un-indexed tapes. Weiss
listened to those tapes and discovered, to his delight, that some of
them featured Loesser himself.

Terry spoke with Joseph Weiss in 1992, when a CD of those demos was
released. We’ll start with a sample from the “Guys and Dolls” demos.
Loesser’s voice is the first one you’ll hear on this trio version of
“Fugue for Tinhorns.”

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. FRANK LOESSER (Composer): (Singing) I got the horse right here. The
name is Paul Revere, and here's a guy that says that the weather's
clear. Can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do. If he says the
horse can do, can do, can do.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Are you crazy? I'm pickin' Valentine,
'cause on the morning line, a guy has got him figured at five to nine.
Fat chance, fat chance, this guy says the horse has a chance…

Unidentified Man: (Singing) But look at Epitaph, he wins it by a half
according to this here in the Telegraph I tell ‘ya, Epitaph.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Valentine.

Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) Paul Revere.

ALL: (Singing) I got the horse right here.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I know it’s Valentine. Besides, the
jockey's brother's a friend of mine.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Now just a minute, boys, I’ve got the feed-
box noise. It says the great-grandfather was Equipoise.

Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) Well Paul Revere (unintelligible)…

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I tell ‘ya Epitaph.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Valentine.

Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) Paul Revere.

ALL: (Singing) I got the horse right here.


Tell me what the experience was like the first time you found one of
these Frank Loesser demo recordings and you put it on and heard it.

Mr. JOSEPH WEISS (Copyright Manager): That’s a very hard thing to
explain, not only because of how great the recordings themselves are but

because of how I feel about Frank Loesser. It was a very exciting
experience, and it was immediately satisfying.

The first time that I heard his voice, I wasn’t even sure it was his
voice. It was a guess because it was one of his songs – I honestly don’t
remember now which one it was – but it was clearly not a commercial
singer, and it was just that interesting voice with the piano.

There are, I’d say, five geniuses in musical theater whose names always
come up when we talk about the creation of American musical theater, and
they are George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin
and Cole Porter, and I always feel that there should be a sixth name in
there, that Frank Loesser’s name belongs in that group.

And there are a few reasons it probably doesn’t show up there. One of
them is that his output for Broadway was only five scores, and it only
spans 15 years, and that he’s actually a later writer than the rest of

He wasn’t there for the formative years, which all of the others were,
and he also wasn’t excessively self-promoting, which is not to say the
others were but that had he chosen to do so, I think his name could’ve
become a household word just like the others.

GROSS: Well, one of just the revelations of this record is listening to
Frank Loesser sing “Sue Me” from “Guys and Dolls,” and this is a
different version of it than you’d hear on any of the cast recordings or
in any of the shows. Do you want to describe what’s different about it?

Mr. WEISS: Yes, well, two things are different. One is that it’s not a
duet, which is the way the song is done in the show, and it also has a
verse which isn’t used in the show, and it’s a very sweet, low-key,
subtle – as far as the comedy is concerned – version of the song.

It’s not only done this way on this demonstration recording. It was
actually published this way at the time “Guys and Dolls” opened on
Broadway, and there were recordings by other artists in this style.

GROSS: Now, in the original cast recording, Sam Levene sang the part –
or played the part, I should say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEISS: Yes.

GROSS: Of Nathan Detroit. That’s the same part that was played by Frank
Sinatra in the movie. And Sam Levene couldn’t sing. So he just kind of
like brays this song. You know, he just kind of hollers the song,
whereas Frank Loesser sings it as a lovely ballad with really kind of
funny lyrics.

Mr. WEISS: Yes.

GROSS: Why don’t we hear Frank Loesser singing “Sue Me”?

(Soundbite of song, “Sue Me”)

Mr. LOESSER: (Singing) So you’re all the time right, and I’m all the
time wrong. So my character’s weak, and your character’s strong. So
you’re brow is so high, and my brow is so low.

Well, brow, schmow, I’m close to you now, and all I can tell you is, oh,
go sue me, sue me. What can you do me? I love you. Give a holler and
hate me, hate me. Go ahead, hate me. I love you.

All right, already, I’m just an no-goodnik. Alright, already, it's true,
so new, so sue me, sue me. What can you do me? I love you.

GROSS: You got these Frank Loesser demonstration disks just in a kind of
bundle, I guess. How come, do you think, they weren’t taken better care

Mr. WEISS: Well, I think the reason they weren’t taken better care of is
that to a large extent I don’t think the people who were handling the
catalogue realized that that’s what was there. The way disks and tapes
of this kind are often marked, be as simple as a label that says “Luck
Be a Lady,” and there would be hundreds of disks marked “Luck Be a Lady”
in a catalogue like that, and most of the time they’d identify the

On a demonstration disk, the artist is rarely identified, whether it’s a
commercial singer or the original composer. So I don’t think that anyone
neglected material because they didn’t care, but just because it wasn’t
obvious that it was there.

And that was one of the things that made it such a pleasure to play
through the material, was that if I picked up a disk that said “Luck Be
a Lady” and dropped the needle on it, I didn’t know if I was going to
hear just another reference dub of the cast album or if the voice that
came over the speakers was going to be the genius who wrote the song.

GROSS: What a thrill this all must have been.

Mr. WEISS: It was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEISS: It was. The period – it was about 10 years ago that all of
this took place, that my playing through the recordings took place, and
I was fairly new to the music business at the time, and it was an
incredible experience for me.

It was – now it occurs as a very sweet, romantic period for me to be new
to the business and yet have the privilege of listening, and listening
alone in, you know, the late hours of the day, to material that probably
hadn’t been heard by anyone for decades.

BIANCULLI: Joseph Weiss, speaking with Terry Gross in 1992, the year
Weiss produced a CD of Frank Loesser demo recordings. More on the music
and life of Frank Loesser in the second half of the show. I’m David
Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Jo Sullivan Loesser On Her 'Guy', Frank Loesser


This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

A revival of the 1950 Tony-winning musical “Guys and Dolls” has just
opened on Broadway. We are concluding our salute to its composer, Frank
Loesser, by revisiting Terry’s 2006 interview with his widow, Jo
Sullivan Loesser. She starred in Loesser’s 1956 production of “The Most
Happy Fella” and became his second wife. Jo Sullivan Loesser told Terry
what it was like to live with such a creative, driven husband.

Ms. JO SULLIVAN LOESSER (Widow): He was a handful. He used to go to bed
at 12:00 at night and - around 12:00 - and get up at 4:00 in the
morning. And from 4:00 in the morning till 8:00 in the morning he would
write, and on a silent piano, thankfully. That’s because a telephone
couldn’t bother him. He could write and compose and be completely clear
about that. He would also get in the car, and you would drive him
around, and he would write in the car because the telephone couldn’t get
to him too at the same time.

So then in the morning, when I would get up, 7:30, whatever he would be
having a Martini, and I would be having a cup of coffee, because he’d
been up for four hours. So he was having lunch and I was having
breakfast. It was a kind of a funny arrangement.

GROSS: Frank Loesser was a kind of interesting singer himself. He
recorded some demos that were a few years ago put together on CD. And I
really love that recording. So I thought we could pause here and listen
to one of them. I thought we’d hear him singing something he wrote for
“Guys and Dolls” - “I’ll Know.” But before we here it, what did you
think of these demos and did you have any of his demos when you were
preparing to perform in “Most Happy Fella”?

Ms. LOESSER: No, we did not. We did not. But I put that, we put that
album together to make sure that he sang. I thought he sang terrific. I
mean, let’s face it, he didn’t have a very beautiful voice. But he
certainly knew how to put a lyric over. You could see how important the
lyrics were to him. And I think it shows on this album. I think its
great fun to listen to.

GROSS: Me too. Let’s hear it. This is Frank Loesser singing one of his
songs from “Guys and Dolls” - “I’ll Know”.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. FRANK LOESSER (Composer): (Singing) I’ll know when my love comes
along, I’ll know then and there, I’ll know at the sight of her face how
I care, how I care, how I care and I’ll stop and I’ll stare, and I’ll

GROSS: That’s Frank Loesser on an album of demo records that was put
together called “An Evening with Frank Loesser.” My guest is his widow,
singer Jo Sullivan Loesser. We heard Frank Loesser singing one of his
songs. What was his attitude towards singers and musicians who took
liberties with either his lyrics or the music? And I’m talking about on
their own records. I’m not talking about when they were appearing in a
production of one of his shows.

Ms. LOESSER: I don’t think he cared when they were on a record. I know
that he used to say to me, oh, let him do that, that song is so famous
it doesn’t make any difference. That would happen often. But if you did
decide that you were going to do something and change the way you sang
or whatever, his rhythm or whatever he wrote in a show, then there was a
lot of trouble. And in “How to Succeed” he had such a fight with Rudy
Valli. You know, Rudy Valli had been singing for many, many years and
said, Listen, I don’t need anybody to tell me how to sing a song. Well,
Frank said, Well, you’re going to sing my song this way.

They almost came to blows. But the fact was that Frank quit the show.
Which I - when he came home I said to him, I think you’ve gone a little
far this time, Frank, for God sakes. But he quit the show and they had
to beg him and cajole him to come back, and of course he did. And then
when they were recording, when they made the movie of “Guys and Dolls,”
Frank Sinatra would not sing the song the way Frank wanted him to. And
Frank wrote him a great song called “Adelaide,” and Sinatra and he never
spoke after that. They had such a fight that they never spoke after that

GROSS: What exactly was the fight about?

Ms. LOESSER: Because Sinatra would not sing Frank’s songs the way he
wanted him to.

GROSS: Melodically or lyrically?

Ms. LOESSER: He was a crooner more than that, and Frank didn’t like it,
didn’t think it suited the part.


Ms. LOESSER: And I think he was right.

GROSS: So who won in the movie of “Guys and Dolls”? Was it Sinatra or
Frank Loesser?

Ms. LOESSER: I think that Sinatra sang it the way he wanted to.

GROSS: Now, your husband, Frank Loesser, died at – what was he, 59?

Ms. LOESSER: 59 years old, yes.

GROSS: Of lung cancer, after you were married about 10 years.

Ms. LOESSER: Yes, we were.

GROSS: And he left to you – what, his publishing company? Which was
publishing rights to all of his songs?

Ms. LOESSER: Yes, yes, he left to me his publishing company. He was a
superb businessman. And he built himself up a little empire and he left
me a company that leased shows to all the schools and stock and
everything, and his publishing company, and in that publishing company
he had many young composers that he had helped and sponsored their
careers; and one is Richard Adler and - who wrote “Pajama Game” with
Jerry Ross, and Meredith Wilson, Bob Wright and Chet Forrest, and
Charlie Strauss. And all of these young men he helped. And I really
admired that a great deal. Frank was always - Frank’s model for
composers was improve the breed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOESSER: And he tried too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOESSER: And I wish people would do that today. I wish somebody
would really help all these wonderful young composers that are coming up
and give them money so they can write and they can work. So I wish
somebody would do that.

GROSS: So what were some of the difficult decisions you had to make
about rights to his songs and rights to his musicals?

Ms. LOESSER: Well, I remember that he told me - first of all, we never
allowed anyone to sing “Adlai’s Lament” on television. And Frank told
me that don’t let them sing the big songs too much. Save them for big
moments because they’ll ruin it. So I keep “Luck Be a Lady” - every week
two or three times somebody calls and wants to do “Luck Be a Lady,” and
I don’t let them do it. Very, very seldom do I.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. LOESSER: And thank you so much for asking me. I really enjoyed it.
Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Jo Sullivan Loessar, speaking with Terry Gross in 2006.
Coming up, a salute to playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, who
died earlier this week.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Horton Foote, Scripting Across The Decades


Playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote died in his sleep earlier this
week. At age 92 he was still writing, fine tuning his nine-play classic
known as the “Orphans Home Cycle” for a new production scheduled to open
in New York next season. His most recent play, “Dividing the Estate,” is
a good bet for a Tony nomination this year. He wrote his first play, the
one-act “Wharton Dance,” in 1940.

In the intervening 69 years, Horton Foote won the Pulitzer Prize for
drama for his play “Atlanta.” He won Academy Awards for his adaptation
of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Gregory Peck, and for his original
screenplay for “Tender Mercies,” starring Robert Duvall. Both actors won
Oscars as well. Also, Geraldine Page won an Oscar for her performance in
Foote’s movie “A Trip to Bountiful.” Like much of his writing, “A Trip
to Bountiful” was based on Horton Foote’s memories of growing up in the
small town of the Horton, Texas.

“A Trip to Bountiful” is about an elderly woman who is forced to leave
such a town when her son gets a job in Houston. Her fantasy is to leave
Houston and return to her old home, but when she summons up the strength
to leave her son, she finds that Bountiful virtually no longer exists.
The houses are bordered up and the day before she arrives the last
resident of Bountiful has died. All she can do is take one last look at
her home. Before we hear Terry’s 1988 interview with Horton Foote,
here’s Geraldine Page in a scene from Foote’s 1985 screen adaptation of
his 1953 play.

Ms. GERALDINE PAGE (Actor): (As Mrs. Carrie Watts) That’s all I want,
just to see it, just to stand on the porch of my own house again.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Lady. I don’t have anything…

Ms. PAGE: (As Mrs. Carrie Watts) I thought last night that I had to
stay. I thought I’d just die if I couldn’t stay, but now I’ll settle for
less. An hour, half an hour.

TERRY GROSS: Horton Foote, I want to welcome you to FRESH AIR.

Mr. HORTON FOOTE (Playwright, Screenwriter): Thank you.

GROSS: And to start our interview, I would actually like to ask you to
read something from your new book of plays, something from the
introduction that you wrote about change in your life.

Mr. FOOTE: All right, be happy to.

Change was an early acquaintance in my life. My grandfather who seemed
impervious to all mortal ends died when I was nine, and the
reverberations and changes from that death continued for many years. It
was soon after that I was to see a quite serene street in front of my
grandparent’s house begin its slow but steady to set into a metaphor for
all the ugly trashy, highways that scar a great deal of small town
America. And these plays, I feel, are about change - unexpected, unasked
for, unwanted, but to be faced and dealt with or else we sink into
despair or a hopeless longing for a life that’s gone.

GROSS: Well, I think that theme of change is not only apparent in the
cycle of plays that has just been published but also it’s apparent in
several of your movies such as “A Trip To Bountiful,” and I’m wondering
what kind of changes you’ve had to deal with in your life that has made
the idea of coping with change such a potent one in your writing.

Mr. FOOTE: Well, I think anybody has to deal with change because life is
constantly changing, and this - the perception that you have that you
try to hold onto when you are young, so many things; I mean people move
away and houses are sold, and people die, and new life comes into focus,
and there are cycles of drought and cycles of too much rain. The
unexpected is always there. And I think you really have to kind of find
yourself not thrown by this and take life as it is, each moment as best
you can.

GROSS: “A Trip to Bountiful” is about trying to return to the past and
realizing that the past is always out of reach and that you can’t really
get back there. And you write in the introduction to your new plays that
your first memory was of stories about the past.

Mr. FOOTE: Yes.

GROSS: But that it didn’t take you long for you to learn that the past
was gone and nothing could be done about it. And I wonder if there was a
turning point in your realization of that just as there was for the
character in “A Trip to Bountiful.”

Mr. FOOTE: Well, I learned that lesson very early because I was raised
on stories of – I’m a Southerner and my family have been in the area
that I was born in for many, many years. And as I was growing up I was
told of all the things that the family had had and lost and never to be
gotten back. And so I soon learned that you had to give that up; I mean
so many of my family were - spent their lives in regretting that and
being defeated by it, but I still learned that that’s death.

GROSS: Do you ever feel that some of your plays are misunderstood and
that people think that your plays are about returning to the past
instead of learning to give it up?

Mr. FOOTE: They think they are nostalgic and they’re not at all. I don’t
- I mean I have a certain desire to be fair to the past and as exact as
I can be about the past, even a past that I’ve only heard about orally
and haven’t really lived through because so many of my plays are based
on stories that were passed down to me by other people. But – and I

certainly think there are certain values in the past that we would be
foolish to ignore and not to cherish and not to try to learn from. But I
have no desire. I was thinking this morning, every day you read what a
terrible age we live in. Well, I’ve heard that all my life.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. FOOTE: And I don’t think any age is really any worse – they’re just
new problems, is all, and different problems.

GROSS: Let’s talk about “Tender Mercies,” the screenplay that you won an
Academy Award for it a few years ago. Now, Robert Duvall starred as a
country and Western songwriter and singer whose career derails because
of alcoholism, and as he’s trying to get sober he falls in love with a
young, very humble widow and moves in with her and her son. Why don’t we
hear a clip from that movie.

(Soundbite of movie, “Tender Mercies”)

Mr. ROBERT DUVALL (Actor): (As Mac Sledge) I don’t know if I was what
you call rich, but I had a few dollars.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Ms. ALLAN HUBBARD (Actor): (As Sonny) How did you get it?

Mr. DUVALL: (As Mac Sledge) Writing songs.

Mr. HUBBARD: (As Sonny) How do you get money for that?

Mr. DUVALL: (As Mac Sledge) Well, if people are crazy enough to pay for
it, they do it.

Mr. HUBBARD: (As Sonny) What happened to your money?

Mr. DUVALL: (As Mac Sledge) I lost it.

Mr. HUBBARD: (As Sonny) How?

Mr. DUVALL: (As Mac Sledge) How? Too much Apple Jack.

Mr. HUBBARD: (As Sonny) Think you’ll ever be rich again?

Mr. DUVALL: (As Mac Sledge) I’ll tell you what, sonny, I don’t lay awake
nights worrying about it. Look, that’s a D, right? D as in dog. Now
watch me. I’ll call it out.

(Singing) I decided to – G – (unintelligible) not really. Let me know if
you’re staying behind (unintelligible)…

GROSS: What did you relate to about that character that you created for
“Tender Mercies”?

Mr. FOOTE: I merely took as my model people I’d known in the theater. I
didn’t really know a lot about country-western singing or singers. And –
but I had known many people in the theater who were stars and near stars
who have been defeated in some measure by alcoholism and once in a while
they defeated that and found a way to continue. So that really was kind
of in my mind all the time I was creating Mac Sledge.

GROSS: Well, you know, you won an Academy Award for “To Kill a
Mockingbird.” I want to play just a very short scene from it. The film
starred Gregory Peck, and here he is.

(Soundbite of movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird”)

Ms. MARY BADHAM (Actor): (As Scout) How old were you when you got your
first gun, Atticus?

Mr. GREGORY PECK (Actor): (As Atticus Finch) Thirteen or fourteen. I
remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never
point it at anything in the house, and that he'd rather I'd shoot at tin
cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the
temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot
all the blue jays I wanted - if I could hit 'em; but to remember, it was
a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Ms. BADHAM (Actor): (As Scout) Why?

Mr. PECK (Actor): (As Atticus Finch) Well, I reckon because mockingbirds
don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat
people's gardens, don't nest in the corncribs, they don't do one thing
but just sing their hearts out for us.

GROSS: The screenplay you wrote was an adaptation from a novel.

Mr. FOOTE: Uh-huh. By Harper Lee.

GROSS: You did a lot of adaptations. You adapted Faulkner for a
Playhouse 90.

Mr. FOOTE: I did a lot - not a lot. I’ve done – well, let me see. I did
Faulkner. I did Harper Lee. I did Flannery O’Connor. Which is not bad. I
mean if you’re going to adapt, that’s the kind of things you should

GROSS: Was it fulfilling work to do adaptations?

Mr. FOOTE: Well, it’s difficult work. It’s not work that I relish
because its painful, because, you know, it’s - first of all, there’s an
enormous responsibility to a fellow artist, and secondly, it’s painful
to try to get into somebody else’s psyche, you know, and to put on

somebody else’s skin, as it were, and try to understand emotionally what
the work is about.

GROSS: Another of your plays, called “1918” is about dealt by flu. It’s
during the flu epidemic…

Mr. FOOTE: Yeah.

GROSS: …of 1918, and death by war – World War I.

Mr. FOOTE: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you hear a lot of stories about both when you were…

Mr. FOOTE: Yes, more about the flu than about the war, really.

GROSS: Well, families lost a lot of people during…

Mr. FOOTE: Well, actually, the flu epidemic killed more people than the
First World War.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. FOOTE: And it was just, it knew no boundaries. I mean the people
that the war couldn’t get, I mean women and children and kings and
queens, the flu got, and it was a devastation. And I – in working on,
working on it, I thought it was interesting that actually I did the play
first of all down at the HB, and when Herbert saw it he said, do you
know what this play is about, and I often don’t know what my plays are
about, so I was happy to hear. And he said, This play is about expected
death and unexpected death.

And I thought about it for a moment and I said of course it is, because
the expected death was would happen if you go to France, or to the war,
and the unexpected death was the flu, which just quietly came into a
house and nobody was expecting it and it took people, killed them.

GROSS: Uh-huh. You know, and talking about death reminds me of a line
that’s very moving from “A Trip To Bountiful”; it’s one of Geraldine
Page’s lines, and in explaining why she wants to go back to the home she
grew up in and that she raised her children in, she says that two of her
babies are buried there.

Mr. FOOTE: Uh-huh.

GROSS: And it made me really think about the pull that the dead exert on

Mr. FOOTE: Uh-huh.

GROSS: From the place where, you know, where your loved ones are buried.

Mr. FOOTE: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that something you’ve thought about a lot?

Mr. FOOTE: Well, it was, as a matter of fact, what has always haunted
me, is when I was growing up and we often - because my grandfather’s
death, my grandmother often went out to the cemetery and she’d take me
with her, and there in the family plot were two graves of children of
hers that had died as infants. And I, you know, constantly thought about
them and it was never mentioned, never talked about; I never even saw a

picture of them. But there they were, and certainly some - the memory of
them must have lived on in all these people, you know? And it’s
something that is, you know, it does have it’s own reality for you.

GROSS: Okay, well, I thank you very much for taking with us.

Mr. FOOTE: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Horton Foote, speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. The Oscar,
Emmy and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer died in his sleep earlier this
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
From Page To Screen, 'Watchmen' Arrives D.O.A.


DC comics first published “Watchmen” – a grim, violent superhero comic
book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, in 12 issues, in 1986 and 1987.
It’s the story of a band of aging superheroes who come together to
thwart nuclear war. And it was an immediate sensation whose influence
has yet to wane. The new movie is among the year’s most anticipated.
It’s directed by Zack Snyder, who also adapted the graphic novel “300”
for the screen. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN (Film Critic): “Watchmen” is the most faithful film
adaptation of a comic book ever. And many of its fans will be thrilled
by every frame. They’ll say, wow, this is so much like the original. I
think they’ll be more thrilled by the fact of its fidelity than by the
movie itself. On the other hand, non-fans might wonder what the
hullabaloo is about.

Now, I’m a fan — of the comic, anyway, which is splashy and blood-
drenched, and induces a kind of delirium: the reader’s eyes race
forward, circle back, and dart around the panels while the brain labors
to synthesize the data. Writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons
give us every kind of superhero crusader, from Nite Owl, the old-
fashioned idealist in a cape; to the Comedian, a paramilitary sociopath;
to Silk Spectre, a curvy femme.

They try to solve a murder mystery and forestall nuclear Armageddon, but
the narrative is always jumping ahead and doubling back. There are
several narrators, among them Rorschach, the unkempt right-wing nihilist
in a stocking-cap mask; and Dr. Manhattan, an iridescent blue giant in a
cosmic funk who flees Earth for Mars, where he stews and sifts through
old memories. There are flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks.
There are fat chunks of prose. There are back-stories that are literally
that — they play out at the rear of the frame.

Moore and Gibbons used every tool they could invent to push the comics
medium to its limit to make their storytelling leap from the page. So
when I read that Zack Snyder, the director of the $125 million movie,
had vowed to stay true to the original’s spirit by moving the camera as
little as possible on the premise that comics are laid out a frame at a
time, I had a premonition of doom. Capturing the headlong spirit of
“Watchmen” would call for a director to push the film medium to its
limit, not cast off many of the medium’s best tools.

“Watchmen” is dead on the screen, but I got to admit, it’s some corpse:
huge, loud and gaseously distended by its own dystopia. The novel’s
narrative jumble has been meticulously preserved. In the movie’s
overture, a dark figure heaves aging superhero the Comedian, played by
Jeffrey Dean Morgan, out a skyscraper window, and members of the
vigilante collective the Watchmen — which had disbanded — dust off their
costumes and get back in touch.

One of the first flashbacks is of how they joined forces. The Comedian
was a cynic, but billionaire Adrian Veidt, whose superhero persona is
called Ozymandias and is played by Matthew Goode, thought they could
make a difference.

(Soundbite of movie, “Watchmen”)

Mr. MATTHEW GOODE (Actor): (as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias) Watchmen. That’s
the real joke.

Mr. JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN (Actor): (as Edward Blake) Rorschach and I had
made real headway on the gang problem by working together.

Mr. GOODE: (as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias) We can do so much more. We can
save this world - with the right leadership.

Mr. MORGAN: (as Edward Blake) That would be you, right, Ozy? You’re the
smartest man on the planet.

Mr. GOODE: (as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias) It doesn't take a genius to see
the world has problems.

Mr. MORGAN: (as Edward Blake) Yeah, but it takes a room full of morons
to think they're small enough for you to handle. You know, mankind has
been trying to kill each other off since the beginning of time. Now we
finally have the power to finish the job. Ain’t nothing going to matter
once those nukes start flying. We’ll all be dust.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: The prospect of annihilation looms large in “Watchmen.”
This is still the Cold War, the ‘80s, and Richard Nixon has somehow
managed to be re-elected. He watches the Soviets amass on the Afghan
border and orders his bombers armed. The comic book was conceived at the
height of the ‘80s disarmament movement, after Reagan’s election
inspired waves of fresh doomsday scenarios, and its resolution — which
the film reproduces — has dated badly. It was outlandish then; now on
film it seems both insanely pessimistic and insanely naïve, an anti-
climactic bummer.

Almost every character is weighed down by hopelessness, but some of the
actors come through amid the special effects. Jackie Earle Haley gives
Rorschach a great soulful rasp. And while Dr. Manhattan is a special
effect laid over actor Billy Crudup’s face, Crudup’s melancholy
registers; his scenes on Mars have a chill beauty. But numbness settles
over the movie. Director Snyder’s reverence isn't the kind that gives
life. It’s an embalmer's reverence. It preserves, but it drains out all
the blood.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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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