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'Law & Order' Creator Dick Wolf

Law & Order is the longest running drama on network television. After more than 300 shows, and 13 years, the "ripped from the headlines" half cop/half law show is still going strong. It's also inspired two other series: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. There's a new photography book of the show's fictional crime scenes and a new DVD of the show's first season.

22:13

Other segments from the episode on October 22, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 22, 2003: Interview with Dick Wolf; Interview with Robert Downey Jr.

Transcript

DATE October 22, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Dick Wolf discusses his new book, "Law & Order: Crime
Scenes," and the TV show "Law & Order"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Law & Order")

Announcer: In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two
separate and equally important groups, the police who investigate crime and
the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

GROSS: And that's the opening of "Law & Order," the longest-running drama on
network television. My guest, Dick Wolf, is the creator and executive
producer of "Law & Order" and its two popular spinoffs, "Special Victims Unit"
and "Criminal Intent." He also created the series "Crime and Punishment" and
"The New Dragnet." Earlier in his career, he worked as a writer and/or
producer on such shows as "Hill Street Blues," "Miami Vice" and "New York
Undercover."

Now Dick Wolf has a new book called "Law & Order" that includes many crime
scene photos from the series, as well as essays by several of the key people
who work on the show. The first season of each of the "Law & Order" shows is
now on DVD. Here's a scene from the first episode of the original "Law &
Order." The detectives are George Dzundza and Chris Noth, who later became
the character Big on "Sex and the City." The guest star is John Spencer, who
now plays the chief of staff on "The West Wing."

(Soundbite of "Law & Order")

Unidentified Man #1: Where was she murdered?

Unidentified Man #2: I told you, Urban Medical Center.

Unidentified Man #1: I'm sorry, Mr. Warner. I'm a little confused. Your
daughter was killed at the hospital?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, in the emergency room and I want to swear out a
murder complaint against the resident in charge of it.

Unidentified Man #3: This resident was treating her?

Unidentified Man #2: No, killing her.

Unidentified Man #1: But she was at the hospital for treatment?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, a sore throat, muscle aches. She only went in to
get a prescription for some antibiotics.

Unidentified Man #3: Well, sometimes people are a lot sicker than they look.

Unidentified Man #2: Listen to me, I was a medic in Vietnam. I know who's
dying and who isn't. My daughter was not that sick. Somebody in that
emergency room did something that killed her.

GROSS: One of the things that's pretty consistent in the writing,
stylistically and contentwise, is that you don't 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 ("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, a middle and an
end, and it's quite efficient in terms of dealing with complicated issues,
dealing with moral issues that--you know, 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 distractions of their personal lives.

GROSS: And, you know, another thing the shows have in common, you've tried to
do away with, you know, 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 altogether...

Mr. WOLF: Well...

GROSS: ...and just keep the action going?

Mr. WOLF: You've annotated several of them already. I think that one of the
realities is that there's enough information in either side of the show to
make a completely satisfying hour cop show or a completely satisfying hour
legal show. The fact that you have to give what, in many cases, is twice as
much information in the same, you know, 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
scenes are structured on the shows.

GROSS: Now I know you worked in advertising before. You started working
television. You worked doing advertising mostly for Procter & Gamble
products, like Crest and Scope.

Mr. WOLF: Yep.

GROSS: Are there things you learned in advertising that you are able to apply
to television?

Mr. WOLF: Yeah. You learn the same thing that you learn in the military,
that, you know, you should really go through life with a KISS attitude, which
is `keep it simple, stupid.' You know, it's one of those things that you do
want direct and kind of unfiltered communication.

GROSS: 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.' There's one of the undying lines...

GROSS: Oh, medicine breath. That was yours.

Mr. WOLF: Yeah. And one of 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: That's great. No one can see you over that one.

Mr. WOLF: Nope. 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, but it outlays...

GROSS: Oh, 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: Oh. That was controversial for feminist reasons.

Mr. WOLF: Yes, it was. That was the beginning of feminism.

GROSS: Right. 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 all more innuendo than overt.

Mr. WOLF: It was very, very direct innuendo because they had a very specific
goal in mind. 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
sort of semi-curtsey when they were serving people. And National really
wanted a campaign directed at businessmen about the stewardesses. So it may
have lacked some subtlety, but it did get talked about.

GROSS: Oh, I just have to ask you, the medicine breath--with no disrespect to
Listerine, was it Listerine that you were thinking of there?

Mr. WOLF: Yes. Absolutely.

GROSS: OK.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Dick Wolf, and he's the creator and
executive producer of all the "Law & Order" TV shows. And, by the way,
there's a DVD of the first season of "Law & Order." And there's a new "Law &
Order" book that's a combination of crime-scene photographs and essays by
many of the people who work on "Law & Order," including, of course, Dick
Wolf.

Did you always like police procedurals?

Mr. WOLF: Oh, since I was about six years or seven years old and started
reading "The Hardy Boys." I mean, I grew up reading "The Hardy Boys" and
then "Sherlock Holmes." And I was always interested by crime, for some
reason. But, you know, it's one of those strange things that crime can
actually pay. But that's probably not the right message to send.

GROSS: No. You want to send the message, TV pays.

Mr. WOLF: Ah, well. TV is life. I think that's...

GROSS: One of the things you have to do every week is cast a dead body.

Mr. WOLF: Ah.

GROSS: You know, 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 that--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 extras.

GROSS: Yeah, but you don't get to emote or anything.

Mr. WOLF: No, but, you know, nobody can comment on your bad acting, either.

GROSS: I guess. So what is the audition process like for the body?

Mr. WOLF: Well, it's usually kind of direct. There is a description of the
body in the script, and then they try to find an extra who looks like that
description. And, in many instances, people who've wanted to be the dead
body will come in and something has changed to reflect that in terms of some
of the people who have played dead bodies over the years.

GROSS: Have you become--I don't know if there's a word for this--somebody
who hangs out at crime scenes and--I mean...

Mr. WOLF: No, I don't. That's a level of, I guess, buffdom that--no. 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, though? Did you have a police-band radio?

Mr. WOLF: No, I had a couple of homicide cops in LA and one of the aims was
to see one of every kind of crime or one of every kind of murder, you know.
There was an open call if there was a shooting, stabbing, garroting, something
that was a little unique. Stan Light(ph) or his partner would call and we'd
go out and see. 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(ph), which is one of the worst sections of LA. And I walked in
and it was this apartment that was in kind of a motel complex and there were
three uniformed cops sitting on the sofa in this apartment watching the Super
Bowl. And I think, `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: Did you go to these crime scenes with two different mind-sets, one
being `this is really horrible, this is tragic, this is the end of a life,'
and the other being, `this is really interesting, let me study what it looks
like so I can, you know, accurately render it in my series?'

Mr. WOLF: Unfortunately I wish I'd had the former thought occasionally. It
was always the latter, `this is kind of interesting.' There's no personal
involvement; it's how cops do it, you know, that it's almost like coming
in--you're almost seeing a movie when you go to these things because they can
be so horrific but there is--if you're a writer certainly and you're
interested, the attraction far outweighs any kind of moral quandaries that you
might find yourself in.

GROSS: So you didn't ask yourself, `What's wrong with me, I'm not having an
emotional reaction?'

Mr. WOLF: Not really. It was kind of like, `Wow! Look at that.' No, it's
not stuff you see ordinarily, I mean. And some of the stuff that happens in
police work is so bizarre that--I remember we went to a crime scene. There
had been a shoot-out between two drug dealers inside an apartment. They had
managed to kill each other but it looked like there had been a third person
there. And there'd been 96 rounds fired in this apartment in the middle of
West Hollywood, and it was about a 16-unit building and we went around and
started interrogating all the tenants because the shooting had taken place at
like four in the morning. And nobody had heard anything.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WOLF: Nope, didn't hear a thing. Ninety-six shots? That's, you know, a
lot of gunfire.

GROSS: Did the cops interpret that as the tenants didn't want to play ball
with the cops or the tenants were afraid? I mean were they afraid of
retribution or did they just hate the cops?

Mr. WOLF: No, I don't think they hated the cops. I think that there
is--especially in the middle of that neighborhood, there is a disinclination
to become involved.

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. WOLF: I think that it wasn't massive fear. It was just like, `Hey,
they're dead, who cares?' You know, they were drug dealers. And that
attitude does kind of permeate certain neighborhoods.

GROSS: My guest is Dick Wolf, the creator and executive producer of "Law &
Order" and its two spin-offs, "Special Victims Unit" and "Criminal Intent."
His new "Law & Order" book includes many still photographs of crime scenes
from the series. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Dick Wolf, the creator of "Law &
Order" and its two spin-offs. He has a new "Law & Order" book.

I'm sure you'd 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 then we show it on television. I mean,
that's one of the things that probably unfortunately most people will tell you
that have gone to a crime scene is it's surprising how much blood there is in
a human body. It's much worse then we've ever shown on the show.

GROSS: And why don't you show that much blood on the show?

Mr. WOLF: Because I think it's one of those things that--if my reaction
going to a crime scene is `Wow, that's a lot of blood!,' I think that if you
put that amount on television in a totally realistic way every week, it's kind
of upsetting. And I don't think you need to be that graphic to communicate
what we're trying to do. And if you look--one of the things that's
fascinating about the book is if you look at the book and you look at some of
the crime scenes in the book, they look much worse in--or much more realistic
in the photographs than they do even on the show because you're never
lingering on them, you're always--the camera's always sort of passing over the
stuff that's extremely disturbing. But in the book you get the feeling that,
`Oh, this really is a crime scene.' And that's part of the fascination.

GROSS: And when you actually saw these real murders, was there anything that
surprised you 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, you know, what lividity had to do with that.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WOLF: But there are--I would say that people kind of--if there's one
expression, it wasn't pain, it was kind of like, `what happened?' Surprise.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WOLF: I don't think people usually expect to get shot. It's also one of
the things--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.' `OK.' And the homicide cops will tell you
that the number of killers that they've arrested say, `Well, he told me to
shoot him.'

GROSS: That's really interesting.

Mr. WOLF: Yeah.

GROSS: 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.

Mr. WOLF: Yeah.

GROSS: 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 that it is the single, most
common line in homicides. `Go ahead and shoot.'

GROSS: Wow, 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: No, it's not a smart thing to do. You know, somebody--the best
solution to anybody 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're already dead.

GROSS: Yeah. But there's still other--you know, the 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, too.

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...

GROSS: Jerry Orbach?

Mr. WOLF: Jerry Orbach--is kind of like a Catholic high Mass. 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 set-up 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: "Law & Order," one of the things it's known for is that a lot of the
shows are, you know, kind of, quote, "ripped from the headlines" type of shows
where they're based on actual news stories.

Mr. WOLF: No, they're not based on that. We steal the headline but not the
body copy.

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. WOLF: Yeah. No, I mean, if you actually have knowledge of any of the
cases as they unroll, you go `Oh, that's that case.' It never is. The
headline, the top-of-mind awareness is what we're after and then, you know,
the reality is most real-life murders take a very predictable road to
fruition; that they--you know, most murders are solved within the first 48
hours and most people are convicted. That does not give you the twists and
turns that make for an entertaining hour of television.

GROSS: Well, we're out of time, regretfully. I want to thank you very much
for talking with us.

Mr. WOLF: My pleasure.

GROSS: And how can I get so many shows on television?

Mr. WOLF: Well, you're on radio.

GROSS: Oh, that's right.

Mr. WOLF: Thanks.

GROSS: Well, thank you and congratulations on your many shows and I thank you
very much.

Mr. WOLF: My pleasure.

GROSS: Dick Wolf is the executive producer of "Law & Order" and its two
spin-offs, "Special Victims Unit" and "Criminal Intent." He has a new "Law &
Order" book. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Robert Downey Jr. talks about his career, his struggle
with drugs and his latest movie "The Singing Detective"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

I am among the many people who think that Robert Downey Jr. is a terrific
actor. Unfortunately, for several years his talent was a hostage to his drug
addiction. After several comebacks that were cut short by drugs and after
spending time in prison and rehab, Downey says he's now sober. And for the
first time since 1996 he's clear of all legal constraints.

Downey's films include "Chaplin," "True Believer," "Less Than Zero," "The
Pick-up Artist," "Natural Born Killers," "Wonder Boys" and "Bowfinger." He
won a Golden Globe for his performance in "Ally McBeal." Now he's starring in
the film adaptation of the Dennis Potter mini-series "The Singing Detective,"
which is broadcast in America on public television. He plays a detective
novelist who has a crippling form of psoriasis which also afflicted Potter.
Flare-ups leave his entire body covered in scabs and peeling skin and bring on
high fevers and hallucinations. They also exaggerate his resentments and
despair. The movie cuts back and forth between the hospital room in which
he's being treated, flashbacks of his childhood and the hallucinations in
which he becomes the detective of his novels, a detective who also sings in a
rock 'n' roll band.

In this scene, Downey is in the hospital in a session with his psychiatrist
played by Mel Gibson.

(Soundbite of "The Singing Detective")

Mr. MEL GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Well, physically you're on the up...

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Detective Dan Dark) Now we have a firm grasp of the obvious.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) ...why do you still feel so disappointed in
things as they are?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Det. Dan Dark): Things as they are are no concern of mine.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) You object to the use of the word things?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Det. Dan Dark) There's a lot of words I don't like.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Such as?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Det. Dan Dark) Decaffeinated. Nother.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Oh, good, good, good.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Det. Dan Dark) Indoor games.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Det. Dan Dark) Word games?

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Yeah. I throw you a word, you...

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Det. Dan Dark) ...come back with another word...

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) ...that you associate with the word that I've,
you know...

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Det. Dan Dark) Yeah, wait, wait, wait. Well, we got to
agree in advance that it's meaningless. Oh, please, there's no diagnostic
value. I mean...

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Fine. Itch.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Det. Dan Dark) Oh, skin. Scales.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Wait.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Det. Dan Dark) Tables.

Mr. GIBSON: (As Dr. Gibbon) Restaurant.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Det. Dan Dark) Gastroenteritis.

GROSS: Robert Downey Jr., welcome to FRESH AIR. You have a dual role and the
patient part of your role is in the hospital the whole time, too sick to
really move much. And he's going crazy, both from the fever of the illness
but also from the confinement of the hospitalization.

Mr. DOWNEY: Exactly.

GROSS: And he's totally trapped in his head and in these fantasies in his
head and in the flashbacks that are also going through his mind. I'm
wondering, if it's not too personal to ask, if you related to this character
from your own confinements either in rehab or in prison?

Mr. DOWNEY: It's interesting because, again, I kind of got it more as we
went along. And, you know, I'm not an ignoramus or anything, but it's kind of
like if you took somebody out of like, Folsom, and then said, `now we're
shooting a prison movie.'

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. DOWNEY: You know what I mean? They'd be like, `Oh, I know what you're
talking about, I think.' And then pretty soon they'd be like, `Oh, let's see.
When he says chow time how should I react?' You know? I mean, it's like, for
me, I was focused mostly on what was right in front of me...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. DOWNEY: ...which was, you know, a big challenge, a high degree of
difficulty. And retrospectively I now have found it somewhat cathartic,
particularly when I see the audience watch the film and get it. And then I
can relax a little bit and then I watch it and I start to get it. Not just as
a film but as a parallel, you know, to my own life.

GROSS: I think that's interesting that you'd see that as a viewer, but you
didn't consciously try to work with it as an actor.

Mr. DOWNEY: Well, I did at certain points but, you know, for instance, I've
never been tarred and feathered, that I remember...

GROSS: That's good.

Mr. DOWNEY: ...yet that was the physical feeling of the makeup, the way
it was applied...

GROSS: Oh, right.

Mr. DOWNEY: ...the way you actually put it on the prosthesis. There was a
lot of paint and gooey substances on top and then over that there was a
gelatin shellac that was applied, dried at high heats and then cracked to
mirror the flaking effect of the dead skin. So, I mean, that was just
ridiculous. But I'm not used to being uncomfortable in that way so it was
kind of new somewhat.

GROSS: All I could think of while you were describing that was `I hope you
had a good dermatologist.' All I could think of was rashes from all that
stuff.

Mr. DOWNEY: You know, and the funny thing is we initially did a make-up test
and they were commencing, principle photography, out in the desert. And so we
did the test out there in a trailer and they were just going to town. They
really, really were a talented group of guys and gals and they wanted to do a
great job, so they just went right to town. `Oh, we'll do this leg like stage
five.' `Oh, let's do the face like stage one, you know.' I kind of--anyway,
it was excruciating and I'm certain they didn't mean to injure me in any way
but it dried so hard it was like someone had shellacked my forehead and then,
you know, hit it with a ball-peen hammer. And there was some scars and some
chemical burns and all that stuff. So after that test, things got a lot more
geared towards effective visual and effective for the longevity of the
subject. So, you know, they wised up pretty quick.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Downey Jr., and he stars
in the new movie of Dennis Potter's story, "The Singing Detective."

Now this is your first big film role since being clean for a while. And, you
know, stop me if this is too personal, but I figure for anybody who wants to
work with you now, they're probably asking themselves, `Am I taking a big risk
here. Is he going to be OK for the whole film.' Do you feel like you're in
the position that you have to, like, prove yourself to everybody if you accept
a job?

Mr. DOWNEY: I think proving oneself has to do with a deficit in confidence or
self-trust. And up until a couple years ago, even before I had any real
dependency on drugs, that might have been true. I've never missed a day of
work in my life; I've never been the reason that something couldn't continue.
That's not entirely true now that I think about it because there were
bleed-throughs from things. I mean, it's just miraculous really that
throughout everything I've been able to always continue working and not put
myself too much at the mercy of having to do something that I didn't believe
in.

Nowadays, the truth is, someone said this to me. They said I'm actually the
least risky person to work with if you know me and where I'm at. And there's
a lot of sleepers out there, you never know when they're going to show you
they got a little problem. Or, you know...

GROSS: Why are you least risky right now, do you think?

Mr. DOWNEY: Because I might as well have a urinalysis machine hooked up to
the Internet. You know, and I'm fortunate in that way. It takes what it
takes. And for me, nothing external has ever been enough. But now as one of
my mooring lines, and I'm, you know, not too proud to admit it, you know, I'm
not afforded the dubious luxury of deception. If I'm doing all right, it's
obvious. If I'm not doing all right, even a little bit, it's obvious.

GROSS: Right. Some people say that they think that being incarcerated
actually saved their lives because it forced them to be without drugs. Other
people say, `Well, you get drugs in prison,' but, you know, I've heard both
sides of that.

Mr. DOWNEY: You know, whatever floats your boat. Some people are so afraid
of being in the box that fear works for them. Some people are so afraid of
being in the box again that that works. I've never really had much of a fear
of either, you know, it didn't work for me at all. And it could never work
for me because, you know, I like a good box.

GROSS: You were OK, being, you know, alone and confined like that?

Mr. DOWNEY: Well, it was awful but, yeah, I wasn't, you know--it's not like
I was, `I can't take this any more. Oh, God, why me?' I was like, `Oh, I'm
in a box. This sucks. What am I going to read today?'

GROSS: My guest is Robert Downey Jr. He's starring in the new movie, "The
Singing Detective." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, if you're just joining us, is Robert Downey Jr., and he's
starring in the new film, "The Singing Detective" which has a screenplay by
Dennis Potter who also did "The Singing Detective" for BBC that was shown on
public television and he did "Pennies From Heaven," as well.

You always strike me as a really brave actor; someone really willing to take
risks. And a lot of the personalities that you've played in your films are
those really edgy personalities: people who are obsessive or they're liars or
they're just--you know, they're kind of over-the-top in some way or the other.
And the roles that I think of--the movies that I think of there, "Pick-up
Artist," "Two Girls and a Guy," "Wonder Boys." I just think it's so much fun
watching you on screen.

Mr. DOWNEY: Oh, thanks.

GROSS: There's a scene--oh, God, I forget what the song is--but there's a
scene in "Two Girls and a Guy," which is a James Toback film in which you're
basically lying to everybody in your life in that movie. And there's a scene
where you break out into song and I'm forgetting what the song is.

Mr. DOWNEY: Oh, Jackie Robinson's "You Don't Know Me?"

GROSS: That's it. That's it.

Mr. DOWNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Can you just talk about that scene a little bit?

Mr. DOWNEY: Oh, yeah, he's a--he goes into his apartment, the two gals...

GROSS: This is it. Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY: ...philandering or hiding in the loft closet. And he gets home
and he calls both of them on the telephone and tells them they're the only
one. And, you know, we know that's about to blow up. But he's still thinking
everything's cool and he goes over to his piano microphone and sings to
himself in kind of that less-than-serious way.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that part of the scene.

(Soundbite of "Two Girls and a Guy")

Mr. DOWNEY:. (As Blake Allen) (Singing) Ba da da, ba do. You give your hand
to me and then you say hello, and I can hardly speak my heart is beating so.
And anyone can tell, no, you don't know meeee-eeeee-eeeee. No, you don't know
the one who dreams of you at night, afraid and shy, honey! I let my chance go
by, the chance you might have loved me toooo-oooo-oooo. You give your hand to
me and then you say goodbye.

GROSS: It's a really fun scene I have to say. And you've been singing more
since then. You sang on "Ally McBeal." You sing the final song in "The
Singing Detective" even though your character is lip-syncing in the credit
sequence at the end, you're actually singing. Do you like to sing?

Mr. DOWNEY: I've always liked it. And I've always encouraged people who
say, `I can't really sing.' I go, `You know what? It's fundamentally
impossible for the human body not to be able to produce, hold, carry and
interact in complex ways with tones and music and all that stuff.' It's our
nature. Three-and-a-half billion years of DNA saying, `Sing.'

GROSS: So what do you most like to sing?

Mr. DOWNEY: I've composed stuff since I was 17.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. DOWNEY: I have a big stockpile of stuff. Again, you know, here's my
fear, you know, I'm confident about my work, I know it's good, I just wouldn't
want to release it as a lark. I would want to really, really--and I was with
Sting in Chicago just a day or two ago and went and saw him in Grant Park for
a big fund-raiser for Save the Music. And, you know, he will sell no wine
before its time. And so I kind of am cautioned against doing that, you know,
instant gratification--`Let me put out some of the stuff I've written,' you
know. I'm pretty--I'm told I'm kind of a perfectionist in my work as an actor
and it doesn't even hold a candle to how I feel about music.

GROSS: Robert Downey Jr. is my guest and he's starring in the new movie,
"The Singing Detective."

So how old were you when you got your first agent?

Mr. DOWNEY: I was doing a play at The Colonades(ph) across from the Public
Theater when I wasn't bussing tables at Central Falls right down the street on
West Broadway. And I was in a play called "Fraternity" about SMU and someone
came to see one of the other actors in it who wound up having an interesting
career himself, and they asked if they could talk to me and said they'd be
interested in signing me.

And the funny thing was I really was working as hard as I could when I did
that little play and I didn't expect much out of it. But I'd get there an
hour and a half before curtain and I'd do--I was, you know, like 16 or 17--I
would do yoga and I would run over the scenes and I would go out and touch the
lights. And, you know, all this kind of a really ethereal approach to doing
like a little `60-seat theater, who gives a damn' play. You know, but I
needed that and I ritualized it and it's funny, you know, it's almost like I
never have worked as hard since in a certain fashion as I did right at the
very, very, very beginning of theater.

GROSS: Who were you hoping to become? Was there an actor or a certain type
of actor that you think you were modeling yourself on?

Mr. DOWNEY: Let's see. Later on when I was already up and running, Sean
Penn was a big deal. Before that I was hugely affected by Matt Dillon, Ralph
Macchio, Scott Baio, you know, all the guys who seemed like, `Wow, look at
them go!' And then when I got out to California, the whole Brat Pack thing
was already sealed up and rolling and I thought they were all amazing.

GROSS: But what about older films? Did you watch a lot of older films when
you were getting started?

Mr. DOWNEY: Well, let me put it this way. I remember my dad bringing me to
see, like, "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "La Grande bouffe" and Truffant movies.
And, I mean, it's just amazing the things that I saw before I was 10 years
old. And now there's the rating wars.

GROSS: Wasn't "La Grande bouffe" the movie where they eat themselves to
death? Isn't that "La Grande bouffe?"

Mr. DOWNEY: Exactly. Wasn't that great?

GROSS: I hated that film.

Mr. DOWNEY: It was awful, wasn't it?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY: Yeah. I just remember the scene where the couple is making love
and someone's knocking at the door and the guy says, `I coming.' And I said,
`Why is that funny? God, I don't get anything.' And then as often as not
we'd be watching other movies and my dad would just stand up and say, `We're
gone.' I'd be like, `Why?' He goes, `Oh, this thing is ...(unintelligible).'
And we didn't even make it through the opening credits. He didn't like the
visual and we splitting.

GROSS: Well, that might have been helpful, though. Was he always pointing
out these things that you never would have noticed as a child if you didn't
have a filmmaker father to point them out?

Mr. DOWNEY: Sure. But aside from that, I was given a very, very specific
education. You know, I mean, Preston Sturges was, you know--we named our
Yorkshire terrier after him. Kubrick, as I said before, that was our cat.
You know, I mean it was like everything was about great directors in our
household, and writers.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Downey Jr. He's starring in the new movie, "The
Singing Detective." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with actor Robert Downey Jr. He's
starring in the new film, "The Singing Detective."

Your father was a filmmaker. What did you think of, like, moviemaking as a
life?

Mr. DOWNEY: I didn't think of anything else as a life. I mean, I knew I had
friends whose fathers were doctors or works down at the--you know, the
sporting goods store which was great because I wanted a BB gun. You know, I
mean it was like--it just seemed like--and I have to credit my folks with
this, you know. It was a very organic approach to something technical,
artistic and kind of otherworldly. You know, my mother is a very, very gifted
actress and singer and comedian. And my father was primarily a writer who
decided that he should direct what he wrote to kind of keep it true to his
original intent. And he's an amazing director, a very influential director.

But more importantly than that was I had this sense of if you wanted to do
something that seemed like only a small percentage of people on Earth were
chosen to do that you could do whatever you wanted. My dad always says this.
He goes, `Anybody can act, hardly anybody can direct and nobody can write.'
So in descending order I'm kind of, you know, I get the bronze medal, you
know, but...

GROSS: Well, your father, Robert Downey, is most famous for his film "Putney
Swope" which was a comedy about the advertising industry and about race. What
impact did it have on your life when that film became popular? How old were
you then?

Mr. DOWNEY: I was three or four when it came out. I think what it was is
there was a this huge reaction to it, particularly from, you know, the 10 or
12 guys you know that are my dad's age who've really kind of formed the
artistic element of maverick filmmaking since. So he was very much revered
and hailed this just, you know, superinnovated guy. And so the only impact it
really had on me was I knew that my dad was something really, really, really
special. And I remember this day that he was wearing a Superman shirt because
that was kind of like the kind of shirts you were getting down on Bleeker
Street instead of the NYPD shirts or whatever nowadays. And I just remember,
there's my dad, and he's wearing a Superman shirt. And he had a throne in his
bedroom.

GROSS: He had a throne in his bedroom?

Mr. DOWNEY: You know, imagine what year it was, too. We're talking--you
know, this was like 33 years ago, you know. Everyone had a throne in their
bedroom.

GROSS: Oh, of course. Of course.

Mr. DOWNEY: Of course. Come on, you know, or they had the glass beads going
into the kitchen and, you know, the kitchen had a big, like, smiley-face
hubcap on the wall. I mean it was great. Everyone's cat was named something
like George Washington or Kubrick or whatever.

GROSS: So I'm getting the picture that you're really like the child of hippie
parents, very successful, film world hippie parents.

Mr. DOWNEY: Isn't that funny because they were actually squares.

GROSS: Really.

Mr. DOWNEY: But the same way that, you know, I might be considered a square
by people who really know me and then before I go out to this premiere tonight
I'll put on, like, you know, a Helmut Lang shirt and a pair of cool glasses
and, you know, somebody else's jacket that I have to return in a week. And
it's like, `Whoa, look at him, he's mod.' And, you know, I'm not. I'm a
total nerd. I just clean up nice once in awhile.

GROSS: So was there a lot of structure in your life when you were growing up?

Mr. DOWNEY: Oh, sure. Yeah, there was a structure. There was a structure
all right. Kind of like--that's how complexes are created, out of structures.

GROSS: So, really, was there, like, discipline and structure or were you
pretty free to do whatever?

Mr. DOWNEY: Well, I went to school, you know. I went to school, I was in
judo, I was in chorus and drama. And that's all I got. Nothing else.

GROSS: You dropped out of school when you were just 17, right?

Mr. DOWNEY: Yes, gladly.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. DOWNEY: Things had gotten to the point where Mom and Dad split up, Dad's
going back East. He says, `you can stay or you can go.' And then he left and
I was, like, `Why am I staying with a buddy of mine from high school in a
garage in the Venice Canals? I've got to get out of here. I've got to go to
New York.' So I went back to New York where I was from and then I started
working in theater and kind of got a little career together. And I couldn't
have done both. I couldn't have finished out the school year, waited till
summertime and then gone back East, I wouldn't have made it. I didn't have
any dough. I had a job at Thrifty's but all of us got fired because two of us
were stealing and, you know, it was just time to move on.

GROSS: So did you go for, like, acting training or did you just go right into
auditions?

Mr. DOWNEY: Kind of both. I realized quickly that I was never going to get
a Casio commercial or a Dr Pepper spot because I just couldn't bring myself to
say, when the lady comes in and says, `You're the Pied Piper and everyone
wants to be like you. Now let's get the next group in.' And I was like, `Oh
my God. I've got to go.' `No, no, you don't have to go. Come in here we're
doing the auditions.' It was like, `No, swear to God, I don't know how to
sell a little keyboard.' Well, of course, now I would because I'm technically
proficient. But I learned, you know that little movie out--Todd Graff's
movie, "Camp"?

GROSS: Oh, I love that film.

Mr. DOWNEY: I went to ...(unintelligible).

GROSS: Did you really?

Mr. DOWNEY: Sure.

GROSS: This is a summer camp for the performing arts.

Mr. DOWNEY: Yes, and Loch Sheldrake it was initially, and Todd Graff and I
were in, you know, plays and learned stuff.

GROSS: Now wait. One of the funny things about "Camp," about the movie is
they do these, like, overly sophisticated, ambitious, like Sondheim musicals,
these, like, like 12 year olds. Were you a position like that?

Mr. DOWNEY: (Singing) Join us now we're on a marathon. "Jacques Brel is
Alive and Well and Living in Paris," Jules Pfeiffer presents.' I was like,
`Who are all these people?' It was like, `Shut up, let him report; come here
kid.' It was great. Never forget it. And then there was Regional Theater
and then there was off-Broadway and musicals and so, you know, in my own way,
you know, when I'm out West, you know, there's very few people who were
afforded the kind of training I was. Like, what did you do? Well, I surfed
and I went to Baja and went to Club Med and got some drink beads and then I,
like, did a movie. You know, it's like I had it a little different than that.

GROSS: Well, I really want to wish you good luck, you know, with your
movies...

Mr. DOWNEY: I'll take it.

GROSS: ...and with your life and with everything. And I really thank you for
doing the interview. Thank you very, very, very much.

Mr. DOWNEY: Yes, this was good.

GROSS: Robert Downey Jr. is starring in the new movie "The Singing
Detective." It opens on Friday.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. DOWNEY: (Singing) In my dreams, you had told me that you really, really
care. In my dreams, you had told me it's love that can't compare. So hold
me, hold me, hold me and never ever let me go. In my dreams, you told me it's
a love that can't compare. In my dreams you told me it's a love you want to
share. Hold me, hold me, hold me, and never ever let me go.
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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