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'Lost' v. 'CSI'

The hit show 'Lost' began its third season Oct. 4 in a year that has, so far, been dominated by the 'CSI' franchise. The success of these crime shows isn't surprising, says critic at-large John Powers, who finds that the difference between the two kinds of shows says a lot about current TV.

05:43

Other segments from the episode on October 17, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 17, 2006: Interview with Forest Whitaker; Obituary for Freddy Fender; Commentary on crime procedural television programs.

Transcript

DATE October 17, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Actor Forest Whitaker discusses his career and new
movie, "The Last King of Scotland"

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Forest Whitaker has starred in such films as "Panic Room," Ghost
Dog," Smoke," "The Crying Game," "Bird," "Platoon" and "The Color of Money."
He's a great actor and this year's he's proven that on television and in the
movies. He was the guest star throughout the latest season of the FX cop
series "The Shield," playing an overzealous internal affairs officer. This
week he'll guest star on "ER." Now he's starring in the film "The Last King of
Scotland," as Idi Amin, who was the dictator of Uganda in the '70s and is
considered responsible for the deaths of about 300,000 people. The film is
about Amin's rise to power and a young naive Scottish doctor who's talked into
working for Amin as his personal physician. The doctor is initially impressed
by Amin, then watches him turn into a monster. In Entertainment Weekly,
Whitaker's performance was described as, `mesmerizing, capturing the mercurial
madness of Amin, charming one moment, homicidal the next.' Here's an example
of each side, starting with the charm. Early in the film, shortly after Amin
has seized power in a coup, he makes a speech that wins over his audience.

(Soundbite of "The Last King of Scotland")

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. FOREST WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) (Foreign language spoken)...and I want to
promise you this will be a government of action...

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) ...not of word.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) There will be new schools, new roads...

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) ...and new houses.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) I may wear the uniform of a general
but...(foreign language spoken)...in my heart I am a simple man, like you.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) I know who you are and everything that you are.
I am you.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Now for Amin's other side, the homicidal madness. Later in the film,
Amin's convoy is attacked by men he assumes represent former president Milton
Obote, who Amin overthrew. Amin speaks to the men before having them
executed.

(Soundbite of "The Last King of Scotland")

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) You work for him, Obote. Huh? That drunk silly
man! You want to kill me for that drunk silly man! Huh?

(Soundbite of drums and music)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) Uganda loves me because I am loyal and I am
fair.

(Soundbite of groan)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) I am your president.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Forest Whitaker read a lot about Amin and watched a lot of footage
before shooting "The Last King of Scotland." I asked him which of Amin's
actions he found most difficult to comprehend.

Mr. WHITAKER: Once I started to do the research for Idi Amin, his--the
choices that he made started to come into clarity for me. I started to really
understand him actually. I mean, he was a soldier initially. I mean, he
joined the army when he was very young and he started at the bottom, and he
was really embraced by the British army. He was in the King's Army, and he
was embraced by them and promoted by them for his battles against the Mau Maus
and many other things. And he was one of the only soldiers--there were two
soldiers that were chosen to go to Sandhurst to train, so they loved him. You
know, then he trained with the Israelis in paratrooping. And so I started to
just find the things about him that ended up motivating him to do that, and
through this understanding, through them putting him into power--the
British--I started to understand the paranoia that started to happen when he
started to feel deserted, not just by the British and the Israelis but by all
the countries around him, when he started to feel surrounded, because he was a
soldier first and foremost.

GROSS: Let's start with getting Idi Amin's style of speaking.

Mr. WHITAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did you do to learn his speech pattern?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, I mean, before I left, when I first got the role, I
started working on the accent, and then I started working on trying to
understand as much Kiswahili as I could, and by studying the tapes of him and
his interviews it was a key for me into like trying to understand a little bit
of--at least in my imagination, the way he was thinking. I started to analyze
just the way he emphasized certain things, not just in English but I would
listen to tapes of him speaking in many different sort of tribal languages or
many different dialects, because he spoke like, 11, and I would just try to
absorb that, because I think that was a key for me to understand how to play
him, was to trick myself in my mind to believe that Kiswahili, or the Kakwa
language was my first language, and that English was my second. And so in
that way, it influenced how I approached dealing with certain people and the
things I had to overcome, or Idi Amin had to overcome in order to be able to
communicate properly.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of what you mean?

Mr. WHITAKER: What I mean is, take for instance, I'm speaking to you, you
know, speaking to you now in English. And if I tell myself that I'm searching
for words in my mind to express the thoughts that I have, it starts to change
even now, just the demeanor and what it is I'm trying to say and how I
emphasize what I'm trying to say, because this language was a big deal to Idi
Amin. In fact, he like made them start to teach the native languages in the
schools. He started to return back to the tribal languages and dialects
because he felt it was important for national pride. And in fact when he went
to the UN, he actually spoke in Kiswahili there and had it translated, which
was very unusual actually for an African ruler. They would normally speak in
English, and it was a big statement about how he felt he should be able to be
represented and how he felt he should be respected.

GROSS: Actors always say that they draw on part of themselves no matter what
kind of character they're playing, so what part of you do you think you drew
on to play Idi Amin?

Mr. WHITAKER: That was the great thing about working on the character is,
you know, because I did have to try to go inside and explore the darker sides
of myself, you know, which helped me understand myself a little bit more, a
little better. And at the same time also, Idi Amin was the kind of person who
would come into a room and just like swallow it, you know? And that was
something I needed to like work on, too, you know, to try to understand how to
come in and own the space the way he did, and so I'd look--kept trying to
search for those things inside of myself and the confidence that he was able
to have, which, you know, I don't necessarily walk through life with that kind
of clarity and confidence.

GROSS: Yeah, confidence, right. The way you portray him he sure had plenty
of that.

Mr. WHITAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So were there physical attributes of him, too, that you found in
videos and news footage that you incorporated into your performance?

Mr. WHITAKER: There's a lot of things, I mean, that helped key me into try
to find his spirit, I think. One, you know, one was some of his gestures
helped me like find a definitive way of kind of dealing with people when he
would say his speeches, and something about the way he would move, his walk,
you know, with such a certain sense of certainty. Again, like timbre of his
voice because he spoke lower than I do, in a lower register than I do, which
gives you when you speak that way a stronger like sense of center. So there
was--and then, of course, there was the--I mean, we didn't do any prosthetics
or anything like that to look like him, but we definitely--I was a darker--we
darkened my skin, because he's from the Sudanese part in the north of Uganda.
And then I got larger, I gained even more weight to play the character.

GROSS: How did you feel about having to darken your skin to play the role?

Mr. WHITAKER: I was playing a very specific person and I think that people
don't really know a lot about Idi Amin. They just have this like generalized
concept of him. But the one thing I think people know is that he's from sort
of the Sudanese part, which is more of a blue-black undertone, and I think
people do know that and it would feel false for people if that weren't the
case.

GROSS: My guest is Forest Whitaker and he's now starring as Idi Amin in the
"The Last King of Scotland."

This year on the FX series "The Shield"...

Mr. WHITAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...you were like the guest star through the series, through the
season.

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah. I did like 13 episodes.

GROSS: Yeah. So there's a couple of more episodes left that you'll be
appearing in when "The Shield" starts up again. And...

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...for anyone who hasn't seen it, it's a really terrific series about
a kind of corrupt strike force in a police department just outside LA in a
very tough neighborhood with a lot of gangs and drugs. And you play someone
from--a detective from internal affairs, who's...

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...there to investigate this strike team.

Mr. WHITAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I want you to describe your character of Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh.

Mr. WHITAKER: Jon Kavanaugh, he's internal affairs. He is someone who has a
very clear definition of what he considers right and what he considers wrong.
In this case he follows the road of right as completely as he can, and he
thinks that Vic Mackey and the people that work with him are corrupt and they
need to be stopped and that they're the worst thing that could possibly
happen, a police officer who's meant to serve who actually murders, cheats,
steals. And so it's my job to get Vic Mackey off the street.

GROSS: I really love your performance in "The Shield," and there's something,
you know, you're somebody who's extreme in your pursuit of what you think is
right.

Mr. WHITAKER: Mm.

GROSS: And you will go to extremes in the same way that the corrupt cop, you
know, Vic Mackey goes to extremes.

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah.

GROSS: Except that you're doing it in the pursuit of justice so it doesn't
bother you at all that you're doing it.

Mr. WHITAKER: Right.

GROSS: And you really know--and this character really knows how to use his
presence to intimidate people.

Mr. WHITAKER: Hmm.

GROSS: And I guess--if you could talk a little bit about finding that part in
yourself as an actor so that you can intimidate people to tell you the things
that they don't want to tell you.

Mr. WHITAKER: I think that Kavanaugh is interesting because he really
watches and understands human behavior, and so he tests people. I think one
of the first things that happen is when I--you see me testing Benito's
character, Dave, with a pack of Juicy Fruit gum, and he doesn't take it. And
I say, `Well, if you take it then it's been an indication in a way that I
could break you.' And later you see me pretending to have children at the
school with Vic Mackey's wife, with Cathy.

GROSS: Yeah, you're trying...

Mr. WHITAKER: And I ask her...

GROSS: You're trying to get on her good side, and she has--you know that she
has a couple of kids and that they're developmentally disabled, so in order
to--you want information from her. So in order to get on her good side, you
pretend like you're a father, which you're not.

Mr. WHITAKER: Exactly.

GROSS: And she has no idea that you're playing her.

Mr. WHITAKER: Exactly. And I try to become friends with her, and I also do
the gum test and she takes the gum. And then ultimately, later, she does
crack, you know. So he's a student of human behavior and he knows how to push
and pull on people to get them to respond so he can get the information that
he needs. And sometimes it's being a friend actually.

GROSS: Let's hear that scene in which you're trying to get on the good side
of Vic Mackey's wife, actually his ex-wife, and Mackey is the head of the
strike team, and you're pretending to be a father.

(Soundbite of "The Shield")

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Jon Kavanaugh) Gum?

Ms. CATHY RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) Oh, no thanks.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) Come on. It's a fresh pack. Here you go.

(Soundbite of kids' voices)

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) Sure, thanks.

(Soundbite of steps)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) That's your boy?

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) Yeah, yeah. And our daughter.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) Two? Wow, that must be tough. And I'm
struggling with just one autistic child. It's the challenges of single
parenthood.

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) Yeah, yeah. Doing it alone is hard.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) You too?

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) Yeah.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) The daddy's not in the picture?

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) He does what he can.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) My ex, she doesn't even acknowledge our child.

Ms. RYAN: (As Corinne Mackey) I'm sorry.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) Sometimes I wonder why I even married her, you
know. You ever feel like that?

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) I'll see you around.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) Could I call you sometimes? Sorry. It's just
that they told me I should try to get to know some of the other parents and
I'm out of my depth.

Ms. RYAN: (As Corinne Mackey) Ah...

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) I could talk to you or I could talk to your
husband, either one, if, you know, whatever you...

Ms. RYAN: (As Corinne Mackey) OK. Last name's Mackey and you can call me
about the kids or the school. My husband's not going to be much help.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) Thanks.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Forest Whitaker and Cathy Ryan in a scene from "The Shield."
Whitaker stars as Idi Amin in the new movie "The Last King of Scotland." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Forest Whitaker. He plays Idi Amin in the new film "The
Last King of Scotland." This season on the FX cop series "The Shield," he
plays an overzealous internal affairs investigator.

I want to contrast the characters that we've been talking about, your
character on "The Shield" and your portrayal of Idi Amin...

Mr. WHITAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...with a character that you played in a movie a few years ago
directed by Jim Jarmusch called "Ghost Dog."

Mr. WHITAKER: Ah.

GROSS: And in this movie you're an assassin but you obsessed with samurai
warriors and with the code of the samurai warrior, and you are this
philosophical almost mystical presence in the movie even though you're an
assassin, and you're also a very quiet presence in the movie, so it's a
completely different character. Let me just play a clip here. This is you
from the beginning of the film, reading out loud, you know reading to yourself
from the book of the samurai.

(Soundbite of "Ghost Dog")

Mr. WHITAKER: (As assassin) Meditation on inevitable death should be
performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should
meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being
carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire,
being struck by lightening, being shaken to death by a great earthquake,
falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease, or committing seppuku at
the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider
himself as dead. This is the substance of the way of the samurai.

(Soundbite of music)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Forest Whitaker, is the book that you are reading from in this scene
from "Ghost Dog" a real book?

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah. It's a book called "The Hagakure," which is "The Way of
the Samurai," and it has many teachings inside of it to help you understand
how to approach life as a Samurai, and I think it probably--many of the
teachings inside the book are a way of approaching just life in general, just
as like Sun Tzu's book "Art of War" and many other books reflect sort of
metaphors in life.

GROSS: And I read that you studied martial arts. Where does that fit in for
you?

Mr. WHITAKER: I've been studying martial arts since I was a kid, since I was
about 12 years old. I started studying Filipino Kali, which is like
Philippine marital arts. It's a lot of weaponry. And then as I got--later I
started studying kenpo. And then, I guess, recently I studied a lot of--that
was with Danny Inosanto. And then I studied, you know, wing chun, you know,
muay thai boxing. For me martial arts is one of the greatest teachers I've
had as a person. I think even in my acting, the things that I've learned from
my early martial arts instructors is probably more informative to me in how I
approach my work than even most of my acting classes.

GROSS: Why is that?

Mr. WHITAKER: Because it taught me how to understand how to approach a
situation, taught me to understand energy and the movement and the
transference of energy. It also taught me about going to try to get to a
point, meaning even if it's a strike, and understanding the different angels
and approaches that could be done and how--the infinite possibilities that can
occur in trying to get to your goal.

GROSS: You know, when you talk about a character having confidence in
himself, like Idi Amin, did studying martial arts give you confidence in
yourself physically and in your ability to go through difficult things with
confidence?

Mr. WHITAKER: I think that it's helped me to grow as a person and it's given
me some sense of center. In the case of Idi Amin, my training, like, was
stepped up, my instructor, Joe Jackson in Los Angeles, put me in an even
deeper combat zone because I pretty much practice combat arts. And so--but in
this case he was really, like, started to get really intense, and I learned
things about myself, because he would say as I'm going in and we're like
middle sparring, he'd say, `Why do I feel your energy moving back? You know,
your purpose, you need to go through me. You need to move through me. You
know, and that's why, when I hit you here or touch you here, you feel it so
strongly, because I'm not hitting you. I've already walked past you, you
know.' And so you start to understand, again, like I'm talking about acting
objective and you also start to understand the issue of karma, because in that
time when we were training, he was also saying to me, `Here in this zone that
you seem to be afraid of when we're so close and where everything hurts, this
is a place that you have to be able to embrace.' And it's from that
understanding of that combat zone that I helped to form the character of Idi
Amin.

GROSS: Forest Whitaker is now starring in the film "The Last King of
Scotland." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with actor Forest Whitaker.
His movies include "The Color of Money," "Platoon," "Bird," "The Crying Game,"
"Smoke," "Ghost Dog" and "Panic Room." He stars as the Ugandan dictator Idi
Amin in the new film "The Last King of Scotland." On TV, in the latest season
of "The Shield" he played an internal affairs investigator, and he begins a
recurring role on "ER" this week.

Now I know you grew up near Compton. Is that right?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, my parents moved to South Central Los Angeles when I was
six weeks old, and I was raised there till I was 11, and then they moved to
Carson, which is on the Carson-Compton line, until I was about 17, when I went
off to college.

GROSS: OK. And I read that, you know, while growing up in or near South
Central LA you actually went to school in a really wealthy neighborhood.

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah, when I was in Carson, I mean, I was supposed to go to
Compton High and my parents didn't want me to go there, because my mom was a
public school teacher and she knew the school at the time. She didn't think
it was right for me. So they sent me to Palisades, which was about two hours
away near the beach in Santa Monica.

GROSS: Two hours, did you commute?

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you commuted two hours in each direction?

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it was--I would go over to one side of
town and then catch the school bus when I got to the other part of town.

GROSS: Well, I mean, that just takes up so much of the day, just commuting
back and forth.

Mr. WHITAKER: I mean, yeah, I mean, I guess. You know, I mean, we're
talking about a person's whole future and their future and their life. You
know what I mean? So it's like, yeah, it means one hour more a day than
somebody else might have to go, or less or not. I don't know. You know, I
would study on the bus coming home. I played football and I would study, you
know, the stuff on the way home, but then as a result of that my view of the
world, like, shifted. I became more aware, so the amount of understanding
that happened from this choice that they did was like massive. So I'm sure I
would still be doing something in a productive way if I'd have went to Compton
High, maybe had a different set of choices. But I think people all kind of
still live into their sort of destiny and their archetypal destiny in
different ways. I mean, I would have, maybe, I would have been doing
something different but still experiencing the same things in a different way.

GROSS: Now when you went to high school, you were on the football team and
you also sang. Were you studying singing?

Mr. WHITAKER: In school, I mean, in Palisades, I was in the Madrigal Choir.
And so I was, yeah, I was studying, you know, madrigal singing and I did a
couple of musicals. I didn't act in high school but I sang in a couple of
musicals in high school.

GROSS: What--do you still sing?

Mr. WHITAKER: Not really. No, I mean, every once in a while in a movie, you
know, like in "The Last King of Scotland" I sang, but it was in character, so
it's different. It's not like me really singing, you know, as myself.

GROSS: Did singing help you in acting?

Mr. WHITAKER: I guess it did because I was doing an opera when I first got
my first agent so, you know, I mean, I was--well, I mean I went to--I was
about to go to USC Conservatory and I was doing this light opera called "The
Beggar's Opera," which is kind of a precursor to the "Threepenny Opera." And
an agent saw me and asked if they could represent me as an actor, and that was
before I'd taken an acting class. I'd done one play. And then, it also
helped me go through school because I had a vocal scholarship up at USC Music
Conservatory and so I couldn't have went to college unless I had scholarships
so I moved from a football scholarship to a music scholarship, and finally to
an acting scholarship to go to school.

GROSS: Now when you started to act, were there roles that you were offered
that you didn't want to take because they were stereotypical?

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah, I mean, when I started to act I wasn't sure, you know,
what I wanted to do. I thought I was going to do theater. And so I was lucky
because I was extremely idealistic, which I didn't really care about money,
you know. I didn't mind living on a couch, or whatever. And so--and the
process of acting for me was me trying to become a better actor to decide
whether this was something for me to do. It took me a long time into my
career, almost 10 years, before I decided this is what I'm going to do. So if
the part wasn't interesting for me, or wasn't going to help me grow on a
whole, I wouldn't do it, because I didn't care. I didn't care if I was on TV.
I didn't care if I was in the movies, and I didn't care about the money. I
didn't mind like doing phone sales or whatever, you know, working whatever it
meant to do. You know, but I started working really while I was in college,
so it was different, you know.

GROSS: So what was your foot in the door? What were the first little roles
you got?

Mr. WHITAKER: First little roles? I mean, I think I was like on, you know,
TV stuff like "Cagney & Lacey." And I did like this big thing on "Hill Street
Blues" once called "Blues for Mr. Green," where I was like this kind of
straight-up gangster, you know, who got on a bus and shoots the bus driver
because he wouldn't take my transfer, you know. But the thing about
stereotypic roles, as you say, I mean, I don't mind playing roles that people
say are stereotypic as long as I'm able to bring to them like a fullness, a
clarity, where I'm able to express the motivations of a person and characters,
because I think that's the point of why I went into acting in the first place
was to find a human connection between myself and others and between my
characters. And so those characters, like these figures that people think are
dark and stuff, or they think are horrible, many times were people that I knew
in my neighborhood and stuff like that. So I beg to differ sometimes on the
way people perceive them and the reasons why they made the choices that they
did. So it's important for me to sometimes to play those characters.

GROSS: Your big breakthrough, I think, was in "The Color of Money," in which
you played a pool hustler who outhustles Paul Newman. What was your audition
with Scorsese like for that? I'm assuming Scorsese was there for the
audition.

Mr. WHITAKER: Actually the first time I auditioned for it, they just put me
on tape and I didn't get the job. They hired someone else. And then I got a
call later saying that they were letting this person go and would I be willing
to fly myself--to pay for myself to fly to Chicago and audition for Martin
Scorsese. And I was like, `Oh, wow, it's Martin Scorsese.' So I paid for the
ticket and I flew. Then I found out that the reason he had been fired was
because he couldn't play pool well enough. And luckily, because of my
obsessiveness, as soon as they told me about the audition, I had two weeks and
all I did was play pool for like, I don't know, 12, 14 hours a day. So by the
time I got there, I met Mr. Scorsese, the first thing he said before I even
got to read the lines for him, was, you know, `I want to see you play pool.'
And so I went and I was playing a nine-ball champion. And luckily for me, he
was trying to convince him that he should use a little eight-ball in the
movie, which was like--so we got to play eight-ball, which was like, `Oh, this
is easy.' This is like a gift from God, you know, because there were so many
possibilities of what I could shoot. And so I was just cocky about it, and it
was like, you know, I had been playing it so often. So that was--after
that--shortly after that, because I was like, you know, playing so well, and
like being so arrogant about it, they gave me the job.

GROSS: Were you being arrogant because you knew your character would be
arrogant?

Mr. WHITAKER: I was playing the character, yeah, yeah. It wasn't Forest
Whitaker being arrogant. I mean, I was like walking away from shots. You
know when you're playing the nine-ball champion of the world, and you're like
hitting the ball and walking away and making sounds, that's extremely, you
know, like you walking away and not looking at the shot, you're like, `Pow!'
And it hits the pocket. You know what I mean? That's, you know, it's a
little much but it was in telling the character.

When I first got to Chicago, that's where I auditioned, it was like freezing.
I remember, I walked up to the hotel desk and I was like, `Excuse me, where's
the pool hall?' You know? And he's like, `OK.' And I just, `Yeah, yeah.' And
I just went around the corner and started playing pool till, you know--I was
in that space-knit zone. Sometimes you can--I can't really play pool at all
now, but for some reason I have this savant way of like while I'm doing
something, I just believe it. I believe that's what I'm doing. I believe it
and it starts to happen, you know, like, I believe that I can do this thing,
you know, and it starts to happen.

GROSS: Forest Whitaker, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WHITAKER: Sure. My pleasure. Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Forest Whitaker is starring in the new film "The Last King of
Scotland." He begins his recurring role on "ER" this week.

Coming up, we remember the singer Freddy Fender. He died of lung cancer
Saturday. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Interview: Freddy Fender, who recently died of lung cancer,
discusses his life and career

TERRY GROSS, host:

The great Mexican-American singer Freddy Fender died of lung cancer on
Saturday at the age of 69. He was born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito, Texas.
As a child and teenager, they called him "El Bebop Kid," and he made a name
for himself playing on local radio stations. But his career really took off
in the '50s when he began doing Spanish language versions of popular American
songs, like Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel." Fender became a star in 1975
with his hit "Before the Next Teardrop Falls," which we'll hear in a moment.
More recently, he played with the Tex-Mex bands the Texas Tornadoes and Los
Super Seven. He won Grammys with both. I spoke with Freddy Fender in 1990.
Before we hear that conversation, let's listen to his first hit.

(Soundbite of "Before the Next Teardrop Falls")

Mr. FREDDY FENDER: (Singing)
If he brings you happiness
Then I wish you all the best
It's your happiness that matters most of all
But if he ever breaks your heart
If a teardrop ever starts
I'll be there before the next teardrop falls

(Singing in Spanish)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Freddy Fender, you grew up near the Rio Grande, and you did migrant
work as a child. How old were you when you had to start working?

Mr. FENDER: Well, let's see, my father died January of '45. They did not
even have the welfare program back then, and my mother was in very dire
poverty. And that first--beginning the very first year, it was kind of rough
because the war was still going on and so that we suffered a lot from lack of
food, and shelter was not that well, that good. About a year later she found
a man that she could get along with, that she liked, and he took us all up
north to following the harvest, sort of "The Grapes of Wrath" thing. And
that's how we made our living through the--hell, in 1958 I was still--I had
records out and still picking onions in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

GROSS: How did you start performing?

Mr. FENDER: I started performing in radio stations. We had a little station
called KGBS in Harlingen, in San Benito, Texas, and we happened to know the
deejay. This was 1946, '47. I was nine or 10 years old. And I would go over
there with a guitar, and it was a big kick for him to see a little kid, with a
guitar, singing.

GROSS: I know that one of the records you made in the 1950s was a cover
recording in Spanish of Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel." Who's idea was it to
do that in Spanish? Was it your idea to do that?

Mr. FENDER: In a way. I think that I gave the idea to the producer of the
session that I did, it was "Don't Be Cruel" in Spanish and some other songs
that were Elvis Presley hits, because at that time we did not have Elvis
Presley imitators. Everybody wanted to imitate Elvis Presley whether you sang
or not and I had long sideburns, so the producer said, `Hey, let's do some
Elvis Presley songs.'

GROSS: Was your image the Hispanic Elvis at the time?

Mr. FENDER: Very much so. I was called The Bebop Kid and the Mexican Elvis
Presley, believe it or not.

GROSS: When did you change your name from Baldemar Huerta to Freddy Fender?
Why did you change it?

Mr. FENDER: Well, Wayne Duncan, who became my first manager, had a jukebox
route. That's about as close as he was to the record business. And he said,
`I'm going to record you and I'm going to put--you're going to have to get a
name where you can look at the jukebox. You can--you'll put a nickel in it.'
In other words, not Baldemar Huerta, you know? So, I said, `Well, let me pick
a name.' So I picked Fender from the guitar and the amplifier and Freddy just
out of the air. Luckily, if you put a "y" on Freddy instead of an "ie" you
will have the same amount of letters on it. Which helps a lot when you print
it on an album or something, you know, it comes out just right.

GROSS: Let's go back to 1959 and your recording of "Wasted Days and Wasted
Nights." Now you later recorded this in the mid-'70s and it was a big hit, but
this was your first recording of it back in 1959.

(Soundbite of "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights")

Mr. FENDER: (Singing)
Wasted days and wasted nights
I have left for you behind
For you don't belong to me
Your heart belongs to someone else
Why should I keep loving you
when I know that you're not true
And why should I...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Freddy Fender, recorded in 1959. Not too long after this record was
made, you were busted at a club for--what?--holding three joints?

Mr. FENDER: I wasn't holding anything, no.

GROSS: Oh, OK. What was the story?

Mr. FENDER: They found it in the apartment where I lived. They found some
maybe a couple of joints or something like that, and that was the end of that
one. You know?

GROSS: How long did you spend in prison for that?

Mr. FENDER: Two and a half years.

GROSS: Is it right that you were paroled under the condition that you didn't
get back into music?

Mr. FENDER: Not really. I was paroled on the condition that I wouldn't be
anywhere where they served liquor. And anywhere they play music, except for
church, even in church they serve wine. So I might as well, you know, just
seal it up.

GROSS: I just--so it wasn't that the judge--it wasn't so much that you
weren't supposed to play music. It was that you weren't supposed to be around
alcohol.

Mr. FENDER: Yeah.

GROSS: But what effect did that have on your music career?

Mr. FENDER: I still went ahead and played and got away pretty good. You
know?

GROSS: Where'd you play though if you couldn't play at places that served
alcohol?

Mr. FENDER: Well, usually beer joints that didn't advertise.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FENDER: Yeah. I wouldn't play any public places. I'd just go to beer
joints, little hellholes, you know, and nobody would know about it except the
people who went there everyday.

GROSS: Well, that's not the best way to get discovered, is it?

Mr. FENDER: No. You know, I was young. I wasn't really thinking that much
about discover. As a matter of fact, my whole life I have never expected
anything, you know. I've just played music, that's all. You know? And if it
happens, it happens. And if it don't happen, well, hell, I'm still playing,
you know? I was shooting for success and waiting for failure without being
afraid of failure.

Now I fear failure just tremendously. I've gone to the other side now. You
know? If I fail then I'm going to be real hurt because I know what success is
now and I want it, you know.

GROSS: Freddy Fender. He died Saturday of lung cancer. He was 69.

(Soundbite of "A Man Can Cry")

Mr. FENDER: (Singing)
A man could cry
A love can surely die
They're not here to stay
the sunshine and the rain
Let me, oh, oh let me
tell you, baby
I'm still in love with you

Blue skies above
the towering mountain high
Just to prove my love
I'll just...(unintelligible)...
but let me, oh, oh let me
tell you, baby
I'm still in love with you

The rules of the game
we both know
I know that you love me
love me so
(Unintelligible)...little darling
I know you're going to want me
I know you're going to want me
Want me so

A man can cry
A love can surely die
They're not here to stay
the sunshine and the rain
But let me, oh, oh let me
tell you baby
I'm still in love with you

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Freddy Fender, recorded in 1990 with the Texas Tornadoes,
singing his song "A Man Can Cry." This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Review: Vogue critic John Powers describes the appeal of
television shows "Lost," "CSI," "Heroes" and "The Wire"

TERRY GROSS, host:

The hit show "Lost" began its third season October 4th in a year that has so
far been dominated by the "CSI" franchise with three shows in the top 10. Our
critic at large John Powers says the success of these crime procedurals isn't
surprising. He thinks the difference between shows like "Lost" and "CSI" says
a lot about current TV.

Mr. JOHN POWERS: When I was a kid, my friends and I used to argue about who
was better, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. And though this was
silly--heck, we loved them both--the opposition did point to a truth, for the
sunny Fab Four and the Satanic Stones did embody two very different attitudes
towards music and life. And so we argued over who was greater, just as people
once debated the merits of deadpan Buster Keaton vs. sentimental Charlie
Chaplin, or terse Ernest Hemingway vs. windy William Faulkner.

These days, the most telling opposition can be found on TV, where audiences
have made megahits of two very different dramas, "CSI" and "Lost." Where the
"CSI" juggernaut is devoutly materialist, "Lost" deals in what we might call
metaphysical pop. If you've seen the original "CSI" even once, you know how
the whole franchise works. It's all about procedure. After a couple of
apparently baffling murders, William Petersen and his crime scene
investigators turn up to examine the physical evidence and interrogate
suspects. By the end of every episode, you can count on the portentous
Petersen to produce that telltale flake of DNA-rich dandruff that will send
the cocky murderers straight up the river. Case closed. Mystery solved, in
Las Vegas, Miami, or New York. And "CSI" is hardly alone. The same
procedural materialism lies at the heart of the "Law & Order" franchise and
the medical hit "House," where each week the most flabbergasting diseases wind
up receiving a reassuringly scientific explanation and cure.

The pleasure of such shows lies in their neatness, their rationality, their
sense of order being restored. What was mysterious at the beginning will be
neatly explained by the facts, just like on Jack Webb's old show "Dragnet."

This is almost the opposite of why people enjoy "Lost" whose appeal is, well,
trippy. Its fun comes in wading through a series of vast, ever expanding
mysteries. The show's plane crash survivors don't merely confront weird
things on their island, like a strange hatch with its ticking clock. The
island forces each character to work out a personal destiny foreshadowed in
the show's many flashbacks. Far from solving a mystery every week, each new
episode suggests the presence of cosmic forces so vast that, beginning the
third season, one is still struggling to understand the big picture.

Something similar happens in the new hit show "Heroes," which clearly follows
in "Lost"'s wake. It's about a collection of people with extraordinary powers
who must discover their role in some grand scheme. If metaphysical pop is
your thing, this show's opening words are sheer catnip.

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Man: Where does it come from, this quest, this need to solve
life's mysteries when the simplest of questions can never be answered? Why
are we here? What is the soul? Why do we dream? Perhaps we'd be better off
not looking at all, not delving, not yearning. That's not human nature, not
the human heart. That is not why we are here.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. POWERS: While the pleasure of "CSI" materialism lies in its rational
order, the joy of shows like "Lost" and "Heroes" lies in the elusive sense
that the meaning of things transcends workaday, materialistic reason. This is
an idea that's grown increasingly popular in recent years. It's there in "Six
Feet Under"'s ghostly visitations and sense of people working out ineffable
destinies. It's there in new shows like "Six Degrees" and "The Nine," which
are all about uncovering hidden relationships. And it's there in the
Oscar-winning "Crash," whose meaning lay in the pattern of its stories, not
the individual stories themselves.

Which brings us to HBO's police drama "The Wire." It's the best show on TV
precisely because it brings together what's enjoyable about "CSI" and "Lost."
Now at one level, "The Wire" is the TV show most grounded in the material
reality of daily life. Its procedure in all its humanity. We see what
happens on Baltimore street corners, in its schools and squad rooms and
political campaigns. The characters do their jobs but they also get drunk,
take bribes, shirk their duty. You see, that's procedure too. But unlike
"CSI" or "Law & Order," "The Wire"'s materialism does not lead to a satisfying
sense of order or resolution. Far from it. Watching these cops and drug
dealers and politicians and kids, we see individuals caught up in a crazy
social system that defines their behavior. It is so big and complex that
nobody's really in charge. As it focuses on the material reality of what's
happening in Baltimore, the show paradoxically leaves us with a sense of
mystery every bit as spookily confounding as anything you'll find on "Lost."
Week after week, "The Wire" suggests that nothing can be more difficult than
to create life-affirming order in the modern city. In a very real sense, this
show's badge-carrying heroes, however good their intentions, really are lost
at the crime scene.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer:
When you walk through the garden
you gotta watch your back
Well, I beg your pardon
walk the straight and narrow track...

(End of soundbite)
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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