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Studs Terkel: 'Hard Times' and Other Histories
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli of Broadcasting & Cable Magazine and tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. For many of us in public radio, Studs Terkel was a model and inspiration and a pioneer. He died last week at the age of 96. The books of oral histories for which Terkel became famous - "Division Street America," "Hard Times," "Working" and "The Good War," his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about World War II - all of those books came about because Terkel was interested enough in the story of America to sit people down with a microphone and tape recorder and press record. Often, those people were ordinary Americans Terkel called the uncelebrated.
An energetic and colorful presence, Terkel had been a radio soap actor, sportscaster and a host of a jazz show in Chicago called The Wax Museum.' He went on to host a TV show called "Studs' Place," but it was canceled after only two years. An outspoken liberal in the McCarthy era, Terkel was blacklisted from radio and television. Eventually, he made his way back onto the air as the host of a daily radio show at Chicago station WFMT. Over a 45-year career at WFMT, Terkel interviewed authors, activist, musicians, filmmakers and comedians. We're going to remember Terkel today by listening back to our 1985 interview with him. But let's start with an excerpt of one of his WFMT interviews. Here he is talking to playwright Tennessee Williams in 1961.
(Soundbite of WFMT's The Studs Terkel Program, 1961)
Mr. LOUIS "STUDS" TERKEL (Oral Historian; Author; Radio Personality): Any discussion of Tennessee Williams must - we must keep one factor in mind that any discussion of Tennessee Williams evokes discussion even, I found out, in bars, thank God. And if ever a time when discussion involving the human spirit or the dispirited human is needed it is now - and we're delighted to be guests of Mr. Williams at this moment in his suite, at the Blackstone Hotel. And Mr. Williams, how would you describe - was it kind of, kind of, your love for what we call the incomplete people? That is, he was not denigrating them. He merely meant a society makes them incomplete, I believe.
Mr. TENNESSEE WILLIAMS (Playwright): I've always regarded myself as an incomplete person, and consequently, I've always been more interested in my own kind of people, you know, people that have problems, people that have to fight for their reason, you know, the people that - to whom, you know, the impact of life and experience from day to day and night to night. It's difficult and people have come close to cracking and all that. Those are my - that's my world. Those are my people. And I must write about the people I know.
BIANCULLI: Tennessee Williams speaking with Studs Terkel in 1961. When Terry Gross spoke with Terkel in 1985, she started by asking if he approached interviews with famous people differently than interviews he conducted with the uncelebrated.
(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, 1985)
Mr. TERKEL: No, it's the same. Naturally, if someone wrote a book, I've got to read the book. And that takes time. Now, interview a person - the non-celebrated persons, so-called, it's to find out what that person is thinking, but you're exploring new territory. I sound like Columbus discovering a new land, and that this person has never been asked about his higher life before and that person opens up and a marvelous thing happens sometimes. These are rare occasions, when a person - in the days when the tape recorder was not as ubiquitous as it is now, that person, hey, can I - could you play that back? I want to hear my voice. And the kids are around her and you play it back and that person says, you know, I never knew I felt that way before. Not I never knew I thought - I never knew I felt that way before. It's a tremendous moment of revelation for that person and, of course, for me, too. I'm kind of like a fellow passenger on a trip, in a way
GROSS: How far will you push, though, when you're doing a personal interview? Because some people really want to get someone to confide all their secrets and to, like, break down and cry and reveal these deep emotional things.
Mr. TERKEL: Mine's exactly the opposite. No, mine's exactly the opposite. I never trespass on what I think is private domain of a person. Not gossip, I've no time for that. I'll tell you a story, OK? I was interviewing Diana Barrymore. Diana Barrymore was the daughter of the play actor John Barrymore and she died a number of years ago. Diana Barrymore, at that time, was the subject of scandal magazines. It was a horrible magazine called Confidential. And they go into her sex life, bizarre, her drunkenness, her drinking. Then she acts in a Tennessee Williams play suddenly last summer in Chicago. And she's wonderful. She was a marvelous actress in this play, the girl who's lobotomized. Later on she did Maggie in (unintelligible).
So after seeing her in the Tennessee Williams' play, I interviewed her. We're talking about Tennessee Williams, the heroines, what they mean to her. And when we finished the interview, it was rather good, I thought. She says, haven't you to forgotten something? I said, well, I've forgotten a lot of things. What? You haven't asked me those questions. I said, what questions? Well, those questions about my life, you know, that everybody else asks. I said, none of my business. I - just not know the businesses of - I wanted to find out about you through your artistry, through your craft. If I had Frank Lloyd Wright on, the architect, would I ask about his wives - whom he left- no, left him, or I'd ask about his architecture?
And then she busts out crying. She said no one has ever said that to me before. She came to accept that as the normal way of things, to accept humiliation. It serves no purpose. I don't do - none of my business. That's like peaking through a keyhole or peaking through a transom. And of course, I resent that very much. So, the person tells me of his life with it's something involving - that makes it universal. That's it. It's when somebody reads this, that happened to me. I thought the same thing. That's what I look for, a certain universality in a specific.
GROSS: Do you think your interviewing has gone through different stages? Is the way you interview now the way you started when you began?
Mr. TERKEL: I don't know. Gee, I can't - I think it's different. I think I've gotten older. I think you learn as you go along, but you still have to go around and round and round the mulberry bush. And you still - it's a conversation and then - rather, an interview. Because I'd say something about myself maybe, too, if it helps, you know. Very often, you know, - here's a tale out of school. I'm not very good mechanically. And I use the tape recorder, right? The tape recorder's my right arm. And I don't know how it works. You know, I can't drive a car. So, I goof up a lot, unintentionally. That person helps me, the person I'm interviewing. And when that person helps me, something happens, that person feels needed by me. And to feel needed is terribly important. Many people don't feel needed. So, there's no one way, I clown around, horse around.
GROSS: So, it's important for you to not be the star when you're interviewing somebody, not to be the famous Studs Terkel interviewing someone...
Mr. TERKEL: No, well, you see, that becomes - I've got to watch that. You see, it's not funny. You said the famous Studs Terkel is the guy who is in a half-ass way sort of celebrated for interviewing non-celebrated people, which is ironic, is it not? You know, if I took it that seriously, I'd be a real oaf, wouldn't I, and a clad . Maybe I am, but I don't take it seriously.
GROSS: When you interview someone for one of your books, I'm sure you can spend hours or days talking with them as much as you need. But for the radio show, you have, say, an hour? When that hour is over, even if you feel like you've really gotten to hear a lot about that person, do you ever walk out feeling, well, how much do I really know, you know? And like, is the way they presented themselves in the hour really the essence of who they are?
Mr. TERKEL: That always comes up. The author of a book, you're try to get whatever the essence of the book is, the theme of the book, the - maybe read from it, too, he and I - or she and I - both read together. You notice I say she and I or he and I read together because I'm a hambone, too. And I used to be a Chicago gangster, you know, in radio soap operas, you know. I was a gangster in the days when radio soap opera, a lot of them came out of Chicago, Mob Perkins, you know. And then, she was a good little American fan. I was always a guy who says, get in there, you guys. That was me. And then there was Mary Marlon (ph). I gave her a very hard time. You know, she suffered more than Saint Theresa ever did, Monday through Fridays, courtesy of Axedo (ph).
BIANCULLI: Studs Terkel, speaking to Terry Gross in 1985. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: We're remembering oral historian and radio pioneer, Studs Terkel. He died last week at age 96. Let's hear another excerpt from Terkel's WFMT radio show. Here he is, talking to a young Woody Allen in 1965.
(Soundbite of WFMT's The Studs Terkel Show, 1965)
Mr. TERKEL: He has the appearance of a graduate student at Berkeley campus. He was quiet, but very sympathetic. His fantasy - his fantasy world is marvelous. Some of it might autobiographical or not. I know that many listeners have seen him on television, heard his records, and I think he's one of the most comical in the genuine sense guys I've ever seen. So, Woody, who are you? You're like a lot of college students I know, graduate students who are kind of shy and awkward and yet, terribly outgoing, who spoke his paradox.
Mr. WOODY ALLEN (American Film Director, Writer, Actor, Comedian, and Playwright): Hm, yes. I am a shy and awkward on stage and off stage, and I'm just fortunate that I can be heard when I speak on stage so that the jokes get across. But I'm uncomfortable off stage and I'm uncomfortable on stage.
Mr. TERKEL: There's always one fall guy and that's you. I mean, the patsy is you, but as the patsy, tells that story about himself.
Mr. ALLEN: That happens to be my - an expression of my personality. You don't find that in - in every comedian, you find - I find there two general types, broadly speaking. One type is my type, wherein I'm acted upon consistently. That is, Robert Benchley was like that. Chaplain, to a degree, was like that. And then the other kind of comedian was the aggressive comedian like Jonathan Winters or W.C. Fields or (unintelligible) who come in and aggress on a situation. And you know, of the two, I would rather - my personality, naturally, was their type. I would rather go around insulting everybody and just decimating people with wit all the time. But you know, that's not my kind of thing. What generally happens is I come in and try one of those. Nobody laughs, someone socks me and, you know, that's my thing. You know, I can't help it. It just - I can't seem to maintain a certain level of cool.
BIANCULLI: Woody Allen, speaking to Studs Terkel on WFMT in 1965. Terkel hosted his show on the Chicago station for 45 years. Here he is, speaking with Terry Gross on our show in 1985.
(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, 1985)
GROSS: You've been in Chicago all your life except for the times when you've been traveling. Why are you that committed to that city? What makes that city real special for you?
Mr. TERKEL: Chicago is my home, and I've been there, and it's got a kind of - even though a romanticized, a kind of muscularity to it and its reputation, thanks to Jimmy Cagney and Warner Brothers and Bojangles Robinson. Still boom-boom, you know, Chicago was always a corrupt city, but no more corrupt than other cities. But I called it the big daddy of corrupt cities and this is the respectable, secretly proud. Once you're in Chicago, boom-boom, they're secretly proud of it in a way.
GROSS: Did you ever want to move to, like, the West Coast or the East Coast and go to New York or Los Angeles to work on one of the networks?
Mr. TERKEL: Never. Never in a billion years. There was a time in the - early 1950, '51, I was a part of a program called "Studs' Place." It was early TV. At that time, I got a call to come to New York, and I got so scared to direct Billy Rose - of all things, a Billy Rose program. And I said no, I couldn't. I don't want to go there, you know, the old cliche, good to visit, but that's it. I'd have died. It's like being without water, you know. My roots are Chicago. And there, it's freewheeling as far as I'm concerned. If I could do it in another city, I don't know.
GROSS: If you ever lost any radio sponsors because of your politics?
Mr. TERKEL: Oh, way in the back. Oh, there was a one in the '50s, before I came to the station, FMT, before there was an FMT, I was blacklisted. Oh, sure. "Studs' Place" was knocked off for that reason. I was considered - forgive the phrase - a valuable property. Property is interesting, because the show was quite popular. It was a kind of program that an audience cut through. It had an audience of main-line-type ladies who ride in the bus station or a (unintelligible) woman like a scrub lady signing with the next. Her daughter writes the letter, truck driver, college professor. It was one of those programs - but anyway, the show was - finally, it was the McCarthy time and I signed petitions. Anything, you know, anti - Jim Crow was considered as aversive back then. I'm talking about the '50s, before the '60s.
And so I get - I'm called to this office in Chicago. And they told me, gee, I'm a valuable guy. Why am I doing this? You know, I said, well, all I've got to say is I've been duped. Say you've been a fool, fool. Even a - but I wasn't, I said. It's my own ego. It's not my heroism. It's my ego. How dare you say I was - it was one of the few good things I did. I, of course, I signed it. We know some reds signed it, too. I don't give a damn if they did. I'm reading what it says and I like that and I signed it. You weren't duped. (unintelligible). No, I don't want be looking like a fool. It's my ego, you see. So - and they said, you know, you've got to - in America, you've got to stand up and be counted. So, I'm sitting in a chair. So, I stood up at attention and they said, we don't think that's very funny. I said, well, I think it's kind of funny. Anyway, you're out, you know. I said, yeah, I guess so.
So, I was out, you know, for quite awhile off and on. But I'd have to pick up half a bill here and there, lecturing on jazz or something or get in and finally got back on. And one day, I was listening to this small station called WFMT and they're playing a Woody Guthrie record when no one ever played Woody Guthrie on the radio except me on a disc jockey show I did in years of 1945 called the Wax Museum. And they played Woody ,and I called up and said you're playing Woody Guthrie. And I told my name, which is - they knew me. I said listened. I want to work for you. She said, we have no money. I said, I don't have any either (unintelligible). So, I started working at that station.
GROSS: Did you grow up in a liberal family? Was your mother (unintelligible)?
Mr. TERKEL: She was hardworking. My mother - my father was a liberal. My mother was out for the brass ring, you know, and she missed. She ran the hotel. My father did, too, but was ill. And she was pretty shrewd, pretty bright, in money matters, but she - nobody could take her except the guy named Samuel Ensolo (ph), who was a big utilities tycoon, who took a lot of people in Chicago then. But she would miss the brass ring. But in the hotel where I was raised - I was raised in this hotel. It was a men's hotel. But in those days, when you say men's hotel, you don't mean flap house. Although a flap this was not. This was skilled craftsmen living there - talking about the '20s now - transient guys, boomer firemen, carpenters, guys skilled, and lot of more self-educated autodidacts, you know, and self-taught and they would argue in the lobby and that was a big factor in my life, I'd say.
GROSS: Would you talk to people, when you're a kid, who are rooming there?
Mr. TERKEL: When I was there, I was kind of the pet. I was a happy child. I was kind of the pet, you know, of the guys and of the people, of my family, too. And I'd go to see plays when I was 13 years old because we lived right near downtown, the Loop, the hotel. So, one thing that I do another, really.
GROSS: You went to law school and then left that in favor of acting.
Mr. TERKEL: Oh, boy.
GROSS: And then radio performance...
Mr. TERKEL: Law school.
GROSS: Yeah. Why did you go to law school?
Mr. TERKEL: I went to law school - the dream of Clarence Darrell, you know, attorney of the damned. That was the dream. But then I had torts, and then I had contracts, then I had real property and then I - this is incredible. I can't have these legalisms. It was three unhappy years for me, and people say you'll never lose - you'll never forget law school, which is good, but lonely. It was three wasted years. I might as well say it.
GROSS: In your memoir, "Talking to Myself," you talk about a scene in the movie, "Five Easy Pieces."
Mr. TERKEL: Oh, boy.
GROSS: Why don't you share your impressions on that? Because that's just a classic scene.
Mr. TERKEL: Yeah. Let me - it was...
GROSS: I really love what you're (unintelligible)...
Mr. TERKEL: "Five Easy Pieces," I know young listeners love this movie and it was a good, slick movie. It just happened before seeing (unintelligible) waitress for the book, "Working." I remember her name. She's now dead. She's a wonderful woman. Yolanda Leaf (ph). I called her Dolores Dante in the book. Now and then I change a name. But in almost every case, they say we should use my real name. I do it maybe because they might be embarrassed, but they weren't. Anyway, so, she's describing her daily work, a waitress, her work. And then I see the movie. And the key scene in that movie, the one they use all the time in the Academy Awards, is it this virago. He's Jack Nicholson. I'm not playing on him. I'm done with the character. This guy is going to go to Alaska. He's a great piano (unintelligible).
And my feeling is, go ahead, I'm not stopping you. You want to go to Alaska, go ahead. You're a pretty dull guy, you know. I mean, this is the self-indulgence. I'm talking about the character. And he is there with these companions in this restaurant, and here comes the villain, a waitress, the virago. And she - and as soon as she comes on, you know, she's a rango (ph). She just throws the menu down. He's going to have a change. I forgot the exact scene, but they want a substitute. There's no substation, and she's behaving so bad that he throws out the stuff on the floor, and the kids in the audience seeing them stood up and they cheered. I'm saying, you little so and so, you don't even know this waitress is. This is set up. Is she tired? How are her varicose veins? Waitresses get a lot of varicose veins, so do stewardesses on planes.
And so how many bufferins did she take? Why is she a waitress? The husband left her. He's dead. He's sick. Kids in trouble. How tired is she? Did she have a fight with the chef just then behind the doors? They know nothing about her. They cheered when he was showing her up. I was so furious about that because it tells those kids these people who work aren't much. These are the same yuppies today on the campuses. They know nothing, nothing about history and the nature of life, you know. And so, I was so furious. What "Working" taught me - yeah, it taught me. I'm impatient a lot when the telephone operator - now, I know what a telephone operator's life is like through it.
But the great reward comes when I get a letter now and then from somebody. This was a young priest, walking along the Michigan Avenue Bridge, teaching at a school, the seminary. And he says, you know, my kids said to me, in reading "Working" - he had "Working" assigned - they'll never again talk to a waitress the way they did before or not again talk to a truck driver the way they did. That's good stuff. That's rewarding, yeah. If it can alter a person's attitude - a book - oh, you got some.
BIANCULLI: Studs Terkel, speaking with Terry Gross in 1985. He died last week at the age of 96. Later, a salute to another literary talent we lost this week, critic and novelist John Leonard. This is Fresh Air.
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'Law & Order' Moves Back to Wednesdays
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is Fresh Air. This is David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. "Law & Order," one of the longest-running series on TV, returned to TV this week on NBC, back to the timeslot where it first premiered in 1990. Our next guest today is Dick Wolf, creator of "Law & Order" and all of its various franchises, including the still-running "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Earlier in his career, Wolf worked as a writer and/or producer on such shows as "Hill Street Blues," "Miami Vice" and "New York Undercover." Terry spoke with Dick Wolf in 2003, but before we get to the interview, here's a sample clip taken from Season Five of the original "Law & Order." The stars that season were Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth. They'd just come upon a man who had collapsed in a lobby of a posh Manhattan hotel of what they presumed at first were natural causes.
(Soundbite of TV show "Law & Order")
Unidentified Man: I thought he was drunk. You get all kinds wandering in here at this hour of the morning.
Mr. JERRY ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Maybe this one wandered in from your bar.
Unidentified Man: No, the bar is over there. He was coming in from upstairs. Detective, how much longer is this going to take? Our guests are quite sensitive to this kind of thing.
Mr. CHRIS NOTH: (As Detective Mike Logan) Yes, especially this guest. In his pocket, no ID, no wallet.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Any way to find out what room this belongs to?
Unidentified Man: No, they're untraceable. It's a security precaution.
Mr. NOTH: (As Detective Mike Logan) I'm sure he appreciated it.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Hey, next time there's a heart attack at three in the morning, why don't you call it in to the 20?
Mr. NOTH: (As Detective Mike Logan) I don't know why we got here.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Before he keeled over, did you notice if he was holding his left arm?
Unidentified Man: I don't know. He just looked drunk.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Was he slurring his words?
Unidentified Man: No, he was trying to speak.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Could be a stroke.
Mr. NOTH: (As Detective Mike Logan) Yeah, how about a stroke of lead? Look at that.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Geez. Blink once and you'd miss it. Must be a small caliber. There's no exit wound. Maybe a .22.
Mr. NOTH: (As Detective Mike Logan) That would do it. Ping-pongs off his vitals. All the bleedings are internal.
Mr. ORBACH: (As Detective Lennie Briscoe) Great. I liked him better when he had a heart attack.
(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, October 22, 2003)
TERRY GROSS, host:
One of the things that's pretty consistent in the writing, stylistically and content-wise, is that you don't out find out much about the private lives of the detectives or the prosecutors. It's really driven by the story. Why did you make that decision?
Mr. DICK WOLF (Writer/Producer, "Law & Order"): The wonderful thing about procedurals is that it does away with the necessity for soap opera. In other words, when you're not dealing with the personal lives of the characters, you can concentrate on the story, you can tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end. And it's quite efficient in terms of dealing with complicated issues, dealing with moral issues, that we've been saying the same thing for years, that the first half is a murder mystery and the second half is a moral mystery. So, it's, how do you keep those elements unpolluted by the sex lives of the characters or going home with them? They're workplace shows, and I think that there is a fascination of just watching people at work without those sideline destructions of their personal lives.
GROSS: And another thing these shows have in common, you've tried to do away with the establishing shots. You say you don't really want to spend a lot of time with the characters, kind of, getting from one scene to another, getting in and out of rooms. What are some of those things that you wanted to kind of streamline or just take out all together and just keep the action going?
Mr. WOLF: You've annotated several of them already, but I think that one of the realities is that there is enough information in the other side of the show to make a completely satisfying hour of cop show or a completely satisfying hour of legal show. The fact that you have to give what in many cases is twice as much information in the same 43, 20, 43 minutes that you have in a character-driven show, to tell this much story, you don't have time to go home with the characters. I mean, the pace of the show, the average hour show has about 26 scenes per episode. "Law & Order" usually has between 40 and 42. So, that's a huge differential in terms of the pacing and in terms of the way things are structured on the shows.
GROSS: One of the things you have to do every week is cast a dead body. Actors like to come in and show you their stuff. How do you audition to be dead?
Mr. WOLF: It's a very, very complex process because everybody wants to be the dead body. It's the only thing that I'm constantly getting requests to be from people. You know, can I be the dead body? And it's highly sought after because you can't be cut out. So, it's a great gig for actors.
GROSS: Yeah, but you don't get to emote or anything.
Mr. WOLF: No. But then nobody can comment on your bad acting, neither.
GROSS: "Law & Order," one of the things it's known for is that a lot of the shows are the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines type of shows where they're based on actual news stories.
Mr. WOLF: No. They're not based on them. We steal the headline, but not the body copy.
GROSS: Oh, really?
Mr. WOLF: Yeah. I mean, if you actually have knowledge of any of the cases as they unroll, that's that case, it never is. The headline, the top-of-mind awareness, is what we're after, and then the reality is most real-life murders take a very predictable road to fruition, that most murders are solved within the first 48 hours, and most people are convicted. That does not give you the twist and turns that make for an entertaining hour of television.
GROSS: Now, I know you worked in advertising before you started working in television. You worked doing advertising mostly for Proctor & Gamble products like Crest and Scope. Would we know any of the campaigns you did for Crest or Scope? Did you write any of the jingles or slogans?
Mr. WOLF: Oh, sure. "Scope fights bad breath without giving you medicine breath." That's one of the undying lines.
GROSS: Oh, medicine breath, that was yours.
Mr. WOLF: Yeah. And one my favorites was, "You can't beat Crest for fighting cavities," which is a wonderfully neutral statement that it's a parity statement as opposed to a competitive advantage, that there can be 400 other toothpastes that are as good, but nothing's better than Crest. And that lasted a long time.
GROSS: No one can sue you over that one.
Mr. WOLF: Nobody. Yes, sir, you can use whatever toothpaste you want, but none of them are any better. And then National Airlines, which was probably the most controversial campaign that I was ever involved with, and I'm sure you're too young to remember the outrage...
GROSS: Try me.
Mr. WOLF: Try me? Fly me. I'm Cheryl, fly me. Remember National Airlines?
GROSS: Well, that was - "Fly me" was yours?
Mr. WOLF: Yeah. That's a long time ago. That's over 30 years ago now.
GROSS: That was controversial for feminist reasons.
Mr. WOLF: Yes, it was. That was the beginning of...
GROSS: It sounded like a sexual innuendo.
Mr. WOLF: Well, it was.
GROSS: So much of advertising was then. I mean, a lot of advertising still is, but it was more innuendo than overt.
Mr. WOLF: It was very, very direct innuendo, because they had a very specific goal in mind, that National Airlines had by far the highest percentage of business travelers in the early '70s going to Florida, and the reason was the stewardesses. That was the age of miniskirts that were so short that the stewardesses were not allowed to bend over in the cabin. They had to do a semi-curtsy when they were serving people. And National really wanted a campaign directed at business men about the stewardesses. So, it may have lacked some subtlety, but it did get talked about.
BIANCULLI: Dick Wolf speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf. The long-running crime series returned this week to the NBC lineup.
(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, October 22, 2003)
GROSS: Have you become, I don't know if there's a word for this, somebody who hangs out at crimes scenes?
Mr. WOLF: No, I don't. That's a level of buffdom (ph) - I've spent an inordinate amount of time with cops, but not really at that many crime scenes in the last 15 or 18 years. I used to go to them a lot when I was starting out writing this stuff.
GROSS: How would you go? Did you have a police band radio?
Mr. WOLF: No. I had a couple of homicide cops in L.A., and one of the aims was to see one of every kind of crime or one of every kind of murder, that it was an open call, if there was a shooting, stabbing, robbing, something that was a little unique. Stan Lighter (ph) has partnered with Karl and we'd go out and see it. And I think the strangest crime scene I ever went to was on Super Bowl Sunday about 15 years ago, and I got a call from Stanley to meet him in Bell, which is one of the worst sections of L.A. And I walked in and it was this apartment that was kind of a motel complex, and there were three uniformed cops sitting on the sofa in this apartment watching the Super Bowl and I said, God, this doesn't look like a crime scene.'\ And then I walked two feet further in, and there was a body inside the closet upside down, wrapped up in telephone cord with his eyes open watching the game along with the cops. It was these three cops sitting there, absolutely no interest in this body two feet away from them, but they were into the game.
GROSS: I'm sure you've seen a lot of crime in movies and television and read a lot of books with crime. Were there some things that just really astonished you about how real murder looks?
Mr. WOLF: Yeah. It's a lot bloodier than we show it on television. I mean, one of the things that, probably, unfortunately most people would tell you that have gone to a crime scene is it's surprising how much blood there is in a human body. That's much worse than we've ever shown on the show.
GROSS: And when you actually saw these real murders, was there anything that surprised about the faces, the expressions on the victims' faces?
Mr. WOLF: Well, the guy in the closet looked quite surprised. But he was upside down, so I don't know what lividity (ph) had to do with it, but I would say that if there was one expression that wasn't pain, it was kind of like, what happened? Surprise. I don't think people usually expect to get shot. It's also one of the things that most cops will tell you that the most common thing is never ask to be shot, because a lot of drunken altercations and a lot of street confrontations, somebody pulls a gun and somebody else says, oh, yeah, you're so tough, go ahead and shoot. And homicide cops will tell you the number of people, the number of killers that they've arrested that said, well, he told me to shoot him.
GROSS: That's really interesting, because in a lot of crime movies and TV shows, somebody who is kind of tough and challenging and, sometimes, the hero himself or herself will say, yeah, go ahead and shoot me. And then the person gets really weak - and because the hero is wise enough to know that the person doesn't have the courage to do it.
Mr. WOLF: Yeah. One homicide detective told me it is the single most common line in homicides, go ahead and shoot.
GROSS: That's really, really interesting. And that makes me think, too, about the kind of wise-guy language that a lot of people use in TV shows and in movies, smart-aleck stuff or somebody's got a gun on you and you're quipping. Bad idea in real life?
Mr. WOLF: Not a smart thing to do. The best solution if you ever have a gun pointed at you? Give them whatever they ask for immediately.
GROSS: Including some respect.
Mr. WOLF: I'd be polite.
GROSS: Right. How does this affect the dialogue that you write and the dialogue that you edit for "Law & Order"?
Mr. WOLF: Well, you see, it's not really much of a problem, because by the time the show starts, they are already dead.
GROSS: Yeah, but there's still other - cops, the detectives are hunting for the killer, and they sometimes get in tough situations and friends of the victims sometimes get in tough situations.
Mr. WOLF: Yeah. I think it's much more -I mean, the hallmark of - and Jerry is the one who said this - that "Law & Order is kind of like...
GROSS: Jerry Orbach?
Mr. WOLF: Jerry Orbach - is kind of like a Catholic high Mass, that it's a rite that the audience knows what's going to happen, not in terms of the storytelling, but that there is a rhythm to the show. And I'd say one of the rhythms that is now part and parcel of it is Jerry's kind of mordantly acerbic comment at the end of the teaser which has become part of the, you know, just sort of the "Law & Order" mantra. There is a setup line, and then Jerry gets to get the last line in the teaser, which invariably is kind of either acerbic, sarcastic or insightful comment about the stupidity of murder.
GROSS: We're out of time regretfully. I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. WOLF: My pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Dick Wolf, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. "Law & Order" returned this week to the NBC lineup. Coming up, a salute to critic and author John Leonard, our show's first book critic who died this week. This is Fresh Air.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
John Leonard, Author and Culture Critic, Dies At 69
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
For decades, John Leonard, one of our founding critics here at Fresh Air, reviewed books, TV and popular culture for us, for "CBS Sunday Morning," for the New York Times and for New York Magazine. He died Wednesday of complications from lung cancer at age 69. In 1997, after being hospitalized for alcoholism and releasing a book called "Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television and Other American Cultures," John Leonard told Terry that TV in particular was a surprising part of his recovery.
(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, September 14, 1988)
Mr. JOHN LEONARD (Author and American Cultural Critic): I started watching late at night anything that was on because you can only read so many books and so many magazines and you can only do so much writing, and there are these hours still stretched out before you. So, I started watching the stuff and I started watching it. I thought as an archaeologist - well, this is before "Nick at Nite" and at 3:30 in the morning, you go back to back reruns of "Mary Tyler Moore." And quite frankly, in that stage I suddenly found myself both a civilian and somebody who was quite needy at that stage was what I needed and what I was getting. When she threw her hat in the air, I was thrilled and I felt younger and I felt better about myself and I felt better about her. And I got a satisfaction that I hadn't expected, and I had to remind myself that these satisfactions, as well as some alarms, are available to everybody depending on the appetite we bring. I brought that at three o'clock in the morning because I couldn't sleep, and I got back something like a gift of grace.
BIANCULLI: John Leonard speaking to Terry Gross in 1997. John Leonard was a terrific critic whose enthusiasm for good writers and for good writing was evident. In the 1970s, he was the editor of the New York Times Book Review. And when Fresh Air launched its national daily show in 1987, John was on board as our first book critic. He was with us for six years. More recently, John Leonard was a cultural critic on "CBS Sunday Morning" and, until his death, TV critic for New York Magazine, where he displayed more knowledge, flair and enthusiasm than almost anyone on the beat, especially knowledge where every review was loaded with dizzyingly diverse lists of references and comparisons from literature, film, TV and life itself. His old employer, the New York Times, got it exactly right in today's obituary when it said, "the comma seemed to be invented expressly for him."
Our current book critic, Maureen Corrigan, wanted to say something about what he meant to her. She says, quote, "There is a word I associate with John Leonard - I heard him once use it about a piece of writing he liked - acrobatic. It's such a perfect word to describe flexible language that tumble-saults across boundaries. And of course, it's the perfect word to apply to Leonard's own writing and, indeed, his own agile and erudite mind." In 1988, the year after Fresh Air premiered nationally, we featured interviews with all the critics on staff at the time. Here's some of Terry's conversation with John Leonard when he was reviewing books for us and television for New York Magazine.
(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air)
TERRY GROSS: You write TV criticism for New York Magazine. Now, I once had a listener say to me - someone who didn't know of your other work and who didn't know of your former affiliation with the Times and all of these reviewed books - someone said to me, you let a TV critic review books on your show?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And I thought that was really funny, because in this person's mind, television and books were so totally incompatible and someone who had something to say about television couldn't possibly have any interest or anything to say about books.
Mr. LEONARD: Well, I don't understand it. Television for me is a central fact of the American cultural environment. It's unavoidable not to think about. It seems to me to be irresponsible intellectually. Now to write about it, I'm not quite that heavy-handed, because I watch television at least half the time for the same reasons other people do. You know, I want something that isn't going to demand an enormous amount out of me, and I don't want to leave the house. But because I am that much of a perfectly standard, average, conventional American in my approach to the talking furniture, it also helps me to pick and choose among new programs and say if you like this kind of thing, you like that kind of thing.
GROSS: For any of our listeners who think that Fresh Air was the first time you were on radio, I will point out that back in 1961 to '63, you were the program director of KPFA Pacifica Radio in California, and that Pacifica is a small network of public radio stations that precedes National Public Radio. Two years isn't that long of a time. What got you out of radio?
Mr. LEONARD: Well, it's more of a question of what gets you into it. I was out at Berkeley and Pacifica Radio, which was founded by conscientious objectors after World War II, was there. It was a kind of crash pad for bright, middle-class dropouts, and it was wonderful because you were allowed to play - you were playing with the airwaves. You were playing with ideas. I got the chance to learn all these machinery and to mix sounds and to have a lot of fun. But it was still that - it was a vacation from whatever the reality would be. And I sold my first novel, and I thought, that's reality. Now that's what I am. I was mistaken, but I took that money, I quit my job and I went off to the woods in New Hampshire to behave as a novelist (unintelligible) is supposed to behave, starving.
GROSS: How long did that last?
Mr. LEONARD: About six months.
Mr. LEONARD: I ran out of the money.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEONARD: I had a year-old kid, and you can't live in the woods in New Hampshire on advances on first novels for very long.
GROSS: Now I just want to ask you briefly how you got from writing novels to criticism.
Mr. LEONARD: Well, the American public proved to be quite hard to please so far as my novels were concerned. You know, I published a couple in the '60s, I guess three - at least one in 1969 and another in 1973. And the New York Times came along and offered me a job at the Times Book Review, which seemed pretty close or as close as I was likely to get to a writer's life, and that proved to be something that I could feed the kids on and not something I at all regret. I'm working on another novel, but it will not stun the world either. It's something that I do because I like that kind of writing and something I know I cannot do as well as the writers that I recommend here on Fresh Air.
GROSS: In the recent review that you did for Fresh Air, you were reviewing a book on the history of Alcoholics Anonymous and you revealed more or less in that review that you are a recovering alcoholic yourself.
Mr. LEONARD: Yes.
GROSS: And I was wondering if you got into the kind of problem that I know a lot of writers get into in the solitary life of writing and the difficulty of facing a blank page everyday - if that had been a serious problem.
Mr. LEONARD: Well, you know, all alcoholics rationalize their reasons for drinking or having gotten to wherever it was that we got, and writers are better at rationalizing than most other people because they use the language so that we have embroidered a myth. But basically, you're just a drunk like everybody else, and after a certain point, you have poisoned yourself and it doesn't matter why you're drinking or where you find the time or where you find the money. Then, if you are fortunate enough to sober up, you discover your writing doesn't get better. It certainly doesn't get worse. It just gets a little quicker. But then the rest of your life tends to become more interesting so that your writing then ceases to be just words and reflects something of the texture of a life that you've reclaimed.
GROSS: When you were coming back to work again after being ill for awhile, was everybody ready to receive you? Was there an understanding that you were...
Mr. LEONARD: Well, I said - one of the signs of alcoholic behaviors is I worked right through this, essentially.
GROSS: I see.
Mr. LEONARD: I worked right through it until I was hospitalized because I could no longer walk. So, a whole lot of people didn't know about it. Now, I didn't work as much as I work now, but I was meeting two weekly deadlines at a magazine and a newspaper. But you have to think how sick this is. My wife had left me. My telephone had been cut off. I couldn't put the checks that they were mailing me into the bank because I never left the house. But one thing I did was get my copy in on time. I've talked to a number of alcoholics who the one thing they managed to do in the last stages of what they call their bottoming out - what we call our bottoming out - is they were getting straight As at graduate school (unintelligible). So, you hold onto one thing, which may be the last shred of pride you have, and say, at least I'm doing that, therefore, I'm not really as sick as they say I am. Look, I'm getting my copy in on time. It's insane. But yeah, there's a bit of alas - given the nature of our society, there are very few newspapers and magazines, very few businesses, period, who haven't had a lot of experience with some form of chemical dependency or another, and people are getting a lot more understanding about it, and I was quite eagerly and affectionately helped by people with whom I had professional relations. They were very good.
GROSS: Another book question for you. Have you've always been the kind of person who took a book with you when you left the house no matter where you were going?
Mr. LEONARD: Yeah.
GROSS: When you were young, you did that?
Mr. LEONARD: Oh, always. Always. It was embarrassing when I was a kid first starting that kind of maniacal reading. It's that I could only afford paperback books.
GROSS: They fit in pockets better.
Mr. LEONARD: They fit in pockets better, but they had such lurid covers.
GROSS: Right, right.
Mr. LEONARD: And I was such a serious little man...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEONARD: That I didn't want anybody thinking that I was reading something that was lurid. I mean, remember the paperback copy of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"? You've got this half-naked woman on the cover walking in the waves, and I knew that wasn't what the book was about. So, I would rip off the covers of the paperback books, but then they fall apart in my pockets. Oh, then, it's panic. It's awful. You have to have a book wherever you go, not just because you want to read all the time, but because this is a world in which - this is a world of lines. It's a world of traffic jams.
GROSS: That's right.
Mr. LEONARD: This is a world of everybody else missing their appointment and you're being stuck and I won't go anywhere without a book.
GROSS: OK. I thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. LEONARD: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
BIANCULLI: John Leonard speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. He died this week at age 69.
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.