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Lena Horne's Story, As Told By Her Daughter
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
Singer and actress Lena Horne died Sunday in New York at the age of 92.
She blazed a trail in Hollywood in the 1940s as the first black
performer to sign with a major studio, but despite her talents, she was
relegated mostly to nonspeaking, singing roles that could be cut out of
films for Southern audiences.
Horne became a popular performer for U.S. troops during World War II and
had a successful career recording and performing in night clubs. Here's
a Cole Porter song from her first MGM movie, "Panama Hattie."
(Soundbite of movie, "Panama Hattie")
(Soundbite of song, "Just One of Those Things")
Ms. LENA HORNE (Singer): (Singing) It was just one of those things, just
one of those crazy things, one of those bells that now and then ring,
just one of those things.
It was just one of those nights, just one of those fabulous flights, a
trip to the moon on gossamer wings, just one of those things.
If we'd thought a bit of the end of it before we started painting the
town, we'd have been aware that our love affair was too hot not to cool
So goodbye, dear, and amen...
DAVIES: That's Lena Horne, from the 1942 film, "Panama Hattie." Today,
we'll listen back to a 1986 interview Terry recorded with Lena Horne's
daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. They spoke when Buckley had written her
book "The Hornes: An American Family," which was the basis for an
"American Masters" documentary on PBS.
The book traces her family history from slavery to the move north, where
they become one of the most prosperous and influential black families of
Harlem and Brooklyn. They worked on behalf of civil rights and women's
rights and advocated education for the advancement of blacks. Those
intellectual and social family traditions were broken by Lena's father,
who made his money gambling and running numbers.
Terry began by asking Lumet about Lena Horne's parents, who were
regarded as the black sheep of the family.
TERRY GROSS, host:
What did your grandparents do to earn the reputation of black sheep?
Ms. GAIL LUMET BUCKLEY (Author, "The Hornes: An American Family"): Well,
my grandfather, theoretically â this is family history. We hope it's
true. At least I hope it's true, because it's fun â made a killing in
the Black Sox scandal of 1921, the baseball fix.
He certainly suddenly had a lot of money in 1921 and had run off â he
ran off to Seattle that year, ran away from his wife and his three-year-
old daughter Lena, and he was away out of her life for a long time.
Shortly thereafter, her mother left her to go on the stage, and this was
unheard of, because her mother had also been brought up in the bosom of
the bourgeoisie. The only career that a black bourgeois woman could
accept honorably was teaching. When they did work, they taught or social
work, and to go on stage was tantamount to prostitution.
GROSS: So your mother ended up getting shuttled back and forth between
relatives in the South and in the North.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, she did. She lived â she was initially brought up by
her grandmother in Brooklyn, the wonderful Cora Calhoun, feminist and
suffragette, and then her mother decided I want this child back. And she
didn't really want the child. She just wanted to make her mother-in-law
mad, it turns out, because she would be touring in these tent shows in
the South and would leave little Lena with whoever happened to be around
while she'd go off.
And so my mother created a sort of dual personality for herself, her
Southern personality, when she'd go to one-room schoolhouses, and the
kids made fun of her accent and her skin color. And then the other
personality that she'd have to â which was her real personality when
she'd go back to her grandmother into Brooklyn and her friends in
GROSS: So in a way, she was really a perpetual outsider as a child.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, she was. She was the outsider both in the middle
class, in a way - even though those were her roots - and certainly with
poorer blacks, among whom she lived, but was not â did not really
GROSS: How did your mother start in show business?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, she'd done amateur theatrics in clubs, in her various
little clubs in Brooklyn - the Junior Debs, they were called. She wanted
to sing and dance. Her mother, she'd always had dancing and singing
lessons, and she'd done amateur theatrics. And when her grandmother
died, her mother decided I'm going to put this girl on the stage. She's
pretty, and she's talented. Let's see what happens. So at 16, she was
put into The Cotton Club.
GROSS: Your grandfather provided protection, so to speak, for her when
she was playing in these clubs that were frequently run by the mob.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, absolutely. Dutch Schultz's mob protected her in The
Cotton Club because he was very close to Dutch Schultz's black numbers
GROSS: You wrote that when she was 19, she had no boyfriends because her
mother really wanted her to focus on the stage and not to be distracted.
What happened to her when she married young? What happened to her
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, she assumed that she was going to retire, and then
shortly after I was born, a call came from Hollywood: A quickie, all-
black musical film was being produced in Hollywood, and some people who
had seen her in The Cotton Club said come and do this show, this movie,
without auditioning or anything.
And she was not the same slim creature she'd been in The Cotton Club.
She'd just had a baby, and she arrived, and they were sort of
disappointed. But nevertheless, she made the movie. It was called "The
Duke is Tops," and when she became a star, they renamed it to "Bronze
Venus" and made her the star. It was still the same movie. It was a sort
of backstage romance, very innocuous story.
And so that was sort of a dip into show business. Then she got another
call after she finished that movie to be in a Blackbirds show,
"Blackbirds of 1939," which was a flop, but when it opened on Broadway â
it only lasted about seven performances â she got wonderful reviews from
the New York Times, and all the columnists noticed her.
GROSS: Your mother spent some time touring with the Charlie Barnet Band,
and they'd tour through the South and run into all kinds of segregation
problems. Did she ever consider trying to pass for white during that
Ms. BUCKLEY: She never did, though people earlier in her career and
later in her career and all through her career in the early stages,
people had suggested it, and she always refused.
GROSS: Since she was the granddaughter of people who had been very
important in the black bourgeoisie in New York, did she feel that it was
okay for her to be in show business or music? Did she feel like she was
violating the family tradition in any way? Now, we'd spoken about how
her father ended up being â your grandfather ended up being a numbers-
runner and gambler, and your grandmother, her mother, wanted to be on
the stage. So for her parents, show business would have been fine.
Ms. BUCKLEY: It was great. It was fine. But for her â her grandmother
would have been horrified if she'd been alive. She wanted her to be a
teacher. She was going to be a teacher. That was all set, even though
she'd encouraged the music lessons, because this was all right.
Bourgeois children had â were exposed to culture, as it were.
GROSS: Was she guilty about that?
Ms. BUCKLEY: I don't think so. I think she was very interested in her
career. I think she was serious about it. She had to make money, and
this was the middle of the Depression, when she was starting all this,
and I think she had ambition. She really wanted to make it.
GROSS: After some of the performances that you mentioned, like Lew
Leslie's "Blackbirds of 1939," she for a while sang at Cafe Society.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes. That was her favorite job she ever had, so she says.
GROSS: Describe what was so special about the club.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, it was a special place. It was very much â well, I
called it a seminar with drinks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BUCKLEY: Barney Josephson was an old-line socialist, pacifist, who
wanted to start a nightclub. It was the first integrated nightclub in
New York outside of Harlem, where both the patrons and the â I mean, a
few jazz spots would allow black customers in, but this, the policy was
The policy was no fancy, no fake palm trees, no cigarette girls. It was
all very much â it was very left-wing, very intellectually stimulating,
and everybody important who was black went there, and everybody
important who was white went there.
So it was a fabulous meeting ground, and this is where my mother met
friends of her uncles and friends of her parents - not her parents,
particularly, but her grandparents, people who knew them, and especially
of her Uncle Frank, who were people who had become very important in her
life, like Paul Robeson.
GROSS: And a lot of intellectuals and writers hung out there. So I
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yeah, and great performers - I mean, Billie Holiday, Teddy
Wilson, Comden and Green.
GROSS: So it was one of the places in her life where her entertaining
career and her family background came together.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Came together, absolutely - probably the only place where
it really came together so neatly. And she was very happy there, and she
got wonderful reviews. And it was where her career really began, because
it was from there that she was asked to come to Hollywood to open a new
nightclub. And then when she did that, that was the beginning of her
GROSS: I thought it was interesting the way Barney Josephson suggested
changes in her repertoire when she was singing at Cafe Society. Would
you explain that?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, and she auditioned for Barney. She first started
singing "Sleepy Time Down South," and he said no, no, you can't sing
that song. Don't you know what they do to black people in the South? So
she said oh, I'm sorry. And then she started singing a song called "Down
Argentina Way." He said no, no, you can't sing all that. There are all
these girls in Brooklyn who are changing their name and make - and
pretending to be Latin. You've got to be yourself. You've got to be
real. Who are you?
And she said gosh, I don't, you know, I don't know. So he, Barney, is a
wonderful guy, maintains that he sort of taught her what to sing and how
to sing it, in a way.
GROSS: And he suggested she just sing standards.
Ms. BUCKLEY: He said sing standards and sing the blues. Sing one blues.
And she said I can't sing the blues. She'd never sang the blues. The
black bourgeoisie did not approve of the blues. And he said nonsense.
Sing "Billie's Blues," which is a Billie Holiday song, and she just was
so nervous about it and felt she couldn't do it. So she went to talk to
Billie Holiday, who said: Do you have two children to take care of? Do
you â you know - just sing it, and don't worry about anything else. She
was a wonderful woman - sad, wonderful woman. But she was very good to
DAVIES: Gail Lumet Buckley speaking with Terry Gross about her mother,
Lena Horne, who died Sunday. We'll hear more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1986 interview with Gail Lumet
Buckley. Her mother, Lena Horne, died Sunday.
GROSS: When your mother, Lena Horne, signed her MGM contract, she was,
as you describe her, the first glamorous black star in Hollywood. So, I
mean, before her, what could blacks...
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, you played domestics or you played jungle extras. She
was also the first long-term contract ever given a black player in
Hollywood. And she was Walter White and Paul Robeson's test case. She
was the test case of the NAACP, which had decided they were going to
change the image of Hollywood.
It was World War II, okay, you know, we're supposed to fighting for
democracy. Let's do it at home. And this was part of this program, and
she was it. She was the test case. And that made her the enemy of a lot
of black actors in Hollywood who were very upset. And they said you're
trying to take work away from us. There'll be no more jungle movies.
There'll be no more old plantation movies. What are you trying to do?
And Paul Robeson said to her: These people aren't important. The people
who matter are out there, the Pullman Porters, those people, and they
want to see a new image, and you've got to do it. And she said okay.
GROSS: So what did Paul Robeson want your mother to do?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Wanted her to refuse to play a domestic, to refuse to play
any role that was demeaning to blacks and to stick by that and not be
swayed from it.
GROSS: Did she have any doubts about taking on this work?
Ms. BUCKLEY: She did. She did. And she went back to New York kind of
very upset. I mean, it had all been so fast.
GROSS: It's quite a responsibility.
Ms. BUCKLEY: It was an incredible responsibility. And she'd been this
sort of overnight, huge success in the Hollywood nightclub. She'd
auditioned for Louis B. Mayer, who said, yes. Sign her up instantly.
And, of course, the first role that they screen-tested her for was for a
maid part. So they were really kind of trying to get out of it. They
weren't taking it very seriously. But Robeson and Walter White were
taking it seriously, and she was taking it seriously. And her father,
Teddy Horne, the gambler, came out to Hollywood - flew out very dapper
and demanded an interview very politely with Louis B. Mayer and said I
can afford to hire a maid for my daughter. She doesn't need to play a
And they were bowled over by this. They'd never seen anything like Teddy
Horne or heard anything like that from a black man, who was not
GROSS: Did they know about his affiliation with gangsters?
Ms. BUCKLEY: They knew nothing about him except that he was incredibly â
he wore hand-made shoes and silk ties, and he walked in, and â so very
coolly and quietly and said he wasn't going to let his daughter do
anything that was undignified.
So they had this - the family coming at them from one end and Paul
Robeson and Walter White of the NAACP from the other end, and they were
stuck with doing the right thing.
GROSS: So that she'd get roles? Were there roles for her?
Ms. BUCKLEY: There were no roles. There were never roles. And my mother
always just had - was sort of in a part, because all her parts - scenes
were cut out of the South, in the South her scenes were cut out. So she
had to be filmed separately. So she never had roles. She just had
moments in movies.
GROSS: Why don't you explain how that worked? When they cut out parts
that she was in, in the South, like in "Words and Music," which was a
movie biography of Rodgers and Hart.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, they would cut out "The Lady is a Tramp," which she
sang in it. They would just snip it out, take scissors and snip-snip
when it got past the Mason-Dixon Line.
GROSS: So she couldn't be in anything that furthered the plot.
Ms. BUCKLEY: No. She could never be in anything that furthered the plot
or was crucial to â no â that was a crucial moment in the movie. Never.
GROSS: She must have been very frustrated.
Ms. BUCKLEY: She must have been.
GROSS: Does she ever talk to you about that?
Ms. BUCKLEY: She only talked about it when she did her show, funnily
enough, finally. She compensated by making a very hugely successful
nightclub career and a very successful career in Europe. And that was
what she did.
GROSS: Did MGM want to keep your mother under contract? Since they
weren't giving her, well, the roles...
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, yeah, you know why they did? Yeah, they did, because
she was very key to the Lowes Vaudeville chains. They owned a lot of
theaters, and she would play those theaters, the Capital in New York, I
mean, whatever they were. They don't exist anymore.
So she was a good â and also she was good for their image. We're not
racist. We have Lena Horne. She was there, so they could never be
accused of racism.
GROSS: She really got it from all sides.
Ms. BUCKLEY: She did. She did. But I think the forerunners always do.
Look at Paul. Look at Jackie Robinson.
GROSS: Why did she leave Hollywood? Did the contract run out?
Ms. BUCKLEY: I think she just sort of got fed up and wanted to sort of -
wanted to get away. And also, she wanted to get married, and they
couldn't marry in Hollywood. It was illegal for blacks and whites to
marry in 1946.
And she had a big fight with MGM in 1946, because they wanted her to be
in a musical called "St. Louis Woman," which had a wonderful score by
Harold Arlen. And she sort of really wanted to do it, and MGM was
backing it. But once again, she listened to the NAACP and Walter White
who said don't do it. It's a demeaning role - which I think in this case
was a mistake.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, because it was a great score. It was because she
would have played a prostitute. I mean, you know, so what? It was on the
stage, and it was, you know, it was â I think it would've been a great
career opportunity for her to have been earlier on Broadway than she
GROSS: Did she feel as strongly about the politics of the roles as the
people who were advising her did?
Ms. BUCKLEY: I think she felt so strongly, but I think her respect for
them was probably as great as her feelings. I think she was very torn in
the "St. Louis Woman" incident, but I think she probably â she was very
politicized, and Paul was very much a mentor, and Walter White. So I
think she probably felt nearly as strongly.
GROSS: When your mother married Lennie Hayton - he white, she black - it
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes.
GROSS: ...at the time. Did they explain that to you?
Ms. BUCKLEY: They didn't say it was illegal. They said they were getting
married, and it was a secret. That was all they said to me.
GROSS: Did they tell you why you couldn't tell anybody?
Ms. BUCKLEY: No, they just said don't tell anybody. And then, like, I
was about 10 years old. So by three years later, when it was no longer
secret, I totally understood why.
GROSS: Did that mean that you were moving more into the white world once
that marriage happened?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, yes, it did. We were out of the black world. We were
out of the ordinary white world. We were into that world, and it was
white. It was the international celebrity world.
GROSS: Your family spent a lot of time in Europe.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yeah.
GROSS: Was that for political and racial reasons?
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yes, it was to avoid the blacklisting. My mother was
blacklisted from TV for a while, and so we'd be - we were in Europe most
of the '50s. I mean, every summer, we'd be in Europe.
GROSS: During this period, she became very popular in nightclubs.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yeah.
GROSS: But you say that she really hated nightclubs.
Ms. BUCKLEY: She hated nightclubs.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Well, because usually they were run by the mob, and she
considered most of them, her bosses, to be very unsavory characters. She
hated the audiences in Las Vegas. She hated everything about Las Vegas,
but she made a lot of money. And in those days, Las Vegas, a Mecca for
And you didn't get little old ladies getting off of buses. You got more
sort of serious gambling people, and she did hate it. She always said: I
hate show business.
GROSS: She was doing some TV then, too.
Ms. BUCKLEY: Yeah. She was doing a bit, but not a lot. No blacks had
their own show when she wanted to have her show.
GROSS: Were there things that she couldn't do when performing with white
people on TV?
Ms. BUCKLEY: You weren't meant to touch a white performer. A white
performer wasn't meant to touch a black performer on television in the
'50s, and Perry Como, there were certain people who always - Perry Como
always took her arm or always put his arm around her. There were certain
people who consciously flaunted the unwritten rule of no blacks and
whites touching on television.
DAVIES: Gail Lumet Buckley, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1986.
Buckley's written for the Los Angeles Times, Vogue and the New York
Times. Buckley's mother, Lena Horne, died Sunday in New York at the age
of 92. Here's Lena Horne singing her signature song, recorded in 1941.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Woody Harrelson: From 'Cheers' To 'The Messenger'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
Our next guest is actor Woody Harrelson. He first became known for his
role in the long-running TV series "Cheers." After "Cheers," Harrelson
concentrated on films, including "Natural Born Killers," "The People vs.
Larry Flynt" and "No Country for Old Men."
Last year, Harrelson earned an Oscar nomination for his role in "The
Messenger." It's out on DVD next week. In "The Messenger," Harrelson and
Ben Foster co-star as Army casualty notification officers, those
assigned to visit family members and tell them their loved one has died
I spoke to Harrelson last year when "The Messenger" was released. In
this clip from the film, Harrelson is Captain Tony Stone, a veteran of
casualty notification. He's instructing Foster's character, Staff
Sergeant Will Montgomery, who's new to the assignment, explaining what
is and isn't done when delivering the tragic news of a combat death.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Messenger")
Mr. WOODY HARRELSON (Actor): (as Captain Tony Stone) You do not speak
with anybody other than the next of kin - no friend, no neighbor, no co-
worker or mistress. Hours of operation are 0600 to 2200 hours and we
don't want to wake anybody up in the middle of the night. Though if you
ask me, hitting them with the news at the crack of dawn is not exactly a
great way to start their day, breakfast-wise.
Mr. BEN FOSTER (Actor): (as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery) What do we
do if the next of kin isn't around?
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Captain Tony Stone) We leave. We don't wait. We don't
lurk. We come back later. This is a zero-defect mission, a pure hit-and-
Mr. FOSTER: (as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery) Is that it, sir?
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Captain Tony Stone) One more thing: You do not touch
the N.O.K. Avoid physical contact with the next of kin, unless it's a
medical emergency, like if they're having a heart attack or something.
You are representing the secretary of the Army, not Will Montgomery. So
in case you feel like offering a hug or something - don't. It will only
get you in trouble.
DAVIES: Woody Harrelson, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I don't
remember you playing a soldier a lot in the past. Talk a little about
getting into that character of Captain Tony Stone - I mean, the physical
transformation, the way you carry yourself as an Army captain.
Mr. HARRELSON: A lot of it has to do with Oren Moverman, the director.
He really helped me because, well, for one thing, he was in the Israeli
military for a while and he has a familiarity with the military. And
honestly, as I told Oren, there's really two particular occupations I
thought I could never play: one being a soldier and the other being a
policeman, just because I just don't feel like - I don't know what it
is, maybe it's something to do with authority or something, but - so
this one I was really nervous about and I only had a few days prep.
Part of what helped me was Oren sent, you know, some back story to the
character because, you know, otherwise I didn't feel like I had enough
time to just use my imagination to try to figure it out. So luckily he
sent me some pages of back story to help me think in terms of Tony
Stone. He sent me with my class A's and my fatigues, so I'm marching
around Bucharest in my boots and, you know, probably an odd sight,
DAVIES: And you shaved your head for this role, right?
Mr. HARRELSON: And yeah, he asked me to shave my head. So, yeah, I did
that. And, I mean, just did the most - and reading a book, Tim O'Brien's
"The Things They Carry," really helped. And, you know, there were a lot
of things, but nothing really helped as much as just spending time with
the soldiers. I felt like that really helped me humanize them in such a
way that I felt like, oh, you know, they're not that much different from
me, you know, so...
DAVIES: And this character of yours is also carrying some personal
baggage. He's a, what, a reformed alcoholic, kind of hiding from the
pain in his life and maybe that which he is bringing to these loved
Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah, I think that's true. He's got a lot of pain and
rage inside of him and, you know, kind of keeps it all under wraps when
he goes and does his notifications. But during the course of the film,
we get to know him a little better through Ben Foster's character, Will
Montgomery. And - who's also kind of a stoic guy who, it takes a lot to
get underneath his emotions. And that's one of the beauties of the way
this movie was made because you really come to know both of these
characters in a slow, but very effective way. And they really come to
love each other. It's an unlikely friendship that develops.
DAVIES: Right. And there's sort of a hard-bitten exterior that they both
put on. And then they have to go into some of the most emotionally
wrenching circumstances any of us will ever have to in notifying these
loved ones of the death of a serviceman. And you know, as I thought
about this, it occurred to me that all of us know what it's like to have
a phone call that we dread, you know, to break up with a boyfriend or
girlfriend or deliver uncomfortable news to somebody we know. These
people who do this job have to walk up and deliver this life-shattering
news to a total stranger. And I'm wondering, as you played that, where
you get out of the car with Ben Foster and you're walking up to these
people, are you thinking about how you steel yourself for that kind of
Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah. Everything on the set was kind of perfectly laid
out to make it the best or the realest possible experience, you know? It
was shot with one camera, one take. We didn't meet the people ahead of
time who we were doing the scene with. We didn't arrange it or block it
or rehearse it. So we did all have the, you know, the dialogue, but
inside of that there was still a lot of unpredictable things. And
emotionally it was very charged and even if sometimes I didn't feel
connected emotionally, Ben Foster would show me, you know, pictures of
some of the young men and women who had served and been killed in the
action and it would just - immediately the emotion of it would come
flooding back. And the actors we were with were phenomenal. So they
really made it an emotional experience.
DAVIES: So these - if I understand this correctly, there was no
rehearsal. You were going up to people you had literally never seen
before as if you were carrying this news and then you encountered their
Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah. I mean, there were six notifications. Two of them
were, you know, Samantha Morton and Steve Buscemi. So we had seen them
before, but we didn't see them before doing this and we didn't - I'd
never met Samantha Morton. So yeah, I think it was a good way to do it,
but it was, you know, intense.
DAVIES: Actor Woody Harrelson. His film "The Messenger" is out on DVD
More after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Our guest is actor Woody Harrelson. He earned an Oscar
nomination for his film "The Messenger." It's out on DVD next week.
Here's his first appearance on the TV series "Cheers."
(Soundbite of TV show, "Cheers")
Mr. TED DANSON (Actor): (as Sam Malone) Woody, did you say youâre
looking for work?
Mr. WOODY HARRELSON: (as Woody Boyd) Well, actually I came to Boston on
a fact-finding tour. See, I tend bar back home in Indiana. Well, itâs
not a bar exactly. It's more like a pigsty with a jukebox.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Woody Boyd) If we had a jukebox.
Mr. DANSON: (as Sam Malone) Carla...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DANSON: (as Sam Malone) ...I'd like you to meet Woody Boyd. Woody,
this is Carla Tortelli.
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Woody Boyd) Hi, ma'am.
Ms. RHEA PERLMAN (Actress): (as Carla Tortelli) Ma'am? What's that
supposed to mean?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Woody Boyd) I believe it's a term of respect.
Ms. PERLMAN: (as Carla Tortelli) No wonder it sounded so weird.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: The character that you played, Woody Boyd, was sort of this
lovable, naÃ¯ve hayseed from Indiana, and you know, it occurred to me
that you got this huge role at a pretty early time in your acting
career. Not like you didnât pay some dues. I know that you did, you
know, plays in New York, but you had a lot more success in your 20s than
a lot of people did, and I'm wondering if being in Hollywood then â now,
you grew up in Ohio, I guess, and playing...
Mr. HARRELSON: Texas and Ohio.
DAVIES: Texas and Ohio. Right. And that being in Hollywood then and
having that role, were you a little wide-eyed like Woody Boyd?
Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah. I suppose I was. I was a, you know, I'd just turned
24 when they started. I was 23 when I auditioned for it but it was right
just before my birthday and then, I donât know, doing it I got to say, I
didnât have the full realization of, well, I'm replacing this beloved
character. I mean I kind of knew that but I hadn't watched the show so I
didnât really know, you know, that much.
I think it would've been a lot more of a daunting task had I been
watching the show. But certainly, I remember standing back off-stage
waiting for that red light to go on and, you know, I could hear the
dialogue and I could tell it was getting closer and then, boom, the red
light goes on and I'm entering into the bar in front of a live audience
and obviously a show that's going to be seen by a lot of people. So it
was pretty - I was nervous, I got to say. But thankfully, you know, I'd
done enough theater in college that I think it really helped me get
DAVIES: After "Cheers" you made a transition to movies in a way that not
that many TV actors do as successfully. And one of your early films was
"White Men Can't Jump." And I thought we'd listen to that. I think it
really put you on the map as a movie actor and I thought we would listen
to a clip from that. And this is you and your co-star, Wesley Snipes. I
mean those who know the film know that you guys are basketball hustlers.
You go on the playground and provoke games and fool people and take
And in this scene, youâre about to compete with Wesley as a partner in a
two-on-two basketball tournament and you suddenly start talking trash to
a couple of guys on the court whom you might have to play later. Let's
(Soundbite of movie, "White Boys Can't Jump")
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle): Hey, chump. Yeah. You. Tater head. You
know who I'm talking about. Yeah. Is that the best game you got 'cause
if it is, you better just grab that free T-shirt and head home.
Mr. WESLEY SNIPES (Actor): (as Sydney Dean) Yo man, what the hell are
you doing, man?
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) You hear? Who'd you bring over here,
Mighty Mouse? You know something, youâre too pretty to play basketball,
you know that? You got that big Z in your for, man.
Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) Come on. Won't you stop already?
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) Hey man, what are you, the black Zorro?
Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) Oh man. Look. That's enough.
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) Hey no. Seriously. You get your hair
done at the Braille Institute?
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): What the (bleep) is Opie Taylor talking
about anyway, huh?
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) Opie Taylor? Opie? Hey, I got your Opie.
You big bad Gomer Pyle goofy-eyed son of a bitch.
Unidentified Man: You and your Cream of Wheat, man, take your ass back
to Mayberry. And tell Aunt Bee she better have my bean pies or Iâm going
to kick her ass. Hey.
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) Hey, Lurch and Morticia.
Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) What the (bleep) are you doing?
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) Hey, I'm doing two things.
Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) What? What are you doing?
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) I'm making them mad. Most guys donât
play good when they're mad.
Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) Look, you know, youâre embarrassing me,
that's what youâre doing.
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) Yeah. Well, that's the other thing I'm
Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) You know, youâre not embarrassing me.
Youâre pissing me off, that's what youâre doing.
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) Well, good, 'cause unlike those guys, I
assume you play better when youâre mad. Am I right?
Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) I'm not listening to you.
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) Yeah, but you are hearing me.
DAVIES: And that is my guest, Woody Harrelson, with Wesley Snipes from
the movie "White Men Can't Jump." A lot of fun macho trash talk there.
But you know, a character really different from Woody Boyd on "Cheers."
And, you know, I have say, when I think of a Woody Harrelson role, what
I think of is a guy who brings enormous self-confidence, just not a
moment of self doubt. I mean the kind of guy that could start trash
talking on the basketball court. Is that closer to you than this naÃ¯ve
kid from "Cheers"?
Mr. HARRELSON: You know, maybe somewhere right in the middle. I don't
feel as confident as that. I donât remember. Well, I guess I do some
trash talking but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARRELSON: You know, I guess I feel a lot like that character, Billy
Hoyle. Yeah. I guess so.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk a little bit about "The People vs. Larry
Flynt." This was a role that got you an Oscar nomination. I mean, Larry
Flynt was, of course, the publisher of Hustler magazine, who was shot
and paralyzed from the waist down - I believe the assailant was never
actually caught. And you played him in this film about his battles
against censorship as well as, it's, you know, a profile of his - his
very interesting life. I thought we should listen to a cut here. In a
way, you kind of had two - there were sort of two roles here. I mean,
you had to play the Larry Flynt before he was injured and the one after.
And the one after, the gunshot wounds affected his speech. And in this
cut from the film, you've just come back to Hustler magazine, after
being either in jail for contempt in one of the court cases or in the
hospital - I'm not sure which. But you've come back to the magazine and
sort of taken charge. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of movie, "The People vs. Larry Flynt")
Unidentified Woman: The pervert is back. The pervert is back.
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Larry Flynt) Circulation is down by a third. Color
reproduction is horrible. The models look like they're three-dollar
whores. The writing is by some moronic idiot.
Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Flynt? I don't want to step on your toes, but
things have changed since you were actively running the company. I mean,
I look back at the stuff you did in the '70s, and it was sort of racy
and crazy, but the country's different now. Reagan has rebuilt America,
and the Moral Majority is gaining power.
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Larry Flynt) You're fired.
Unidentified Man #2: Excuse me?
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Larry Flynt) You get the (bleep) out of my building.
Doug, get him out of here. He's a blow dried jerk (bleep).
Unidentified Woman: Bye-bye.
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Larry Flynt) Take him out of here and throw him in
the incinerator, cut him to little pieces and feed him to the animals
out there. Get out of here.
Mr. BRETT HARRELSON (Actor): (as Jimmy Flynt) Larry. Larry. Larry, you
can't do that. I mean, he's our vice president. He's the VP of
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Larry Flynt) Hey, Jimbo, are you trying to challenge
my authority? You see that on the wall? LFP: that's Larry Flynt
Publications. Not JFP. Okay? I'm the big kahuna here. Do you have a
problem with that?
Mr. BRETT HARRELSON: (as Jimmy Flynt) No, Larry. You're the boss. So,
Larry, what's the plan?
Mr. HARRELSON: (as Larry Flynt) Plan. The plan is simple. The
establishment took my manhood from me, but they left half of me. They
left the half with a brain, and I'm going to use it to get back.
DAVIES: And that's my guest Woody Harrelson, making his mark as Larry
Flynt, the porn publisher, in the film "The People vs. Larry Flynt."
Tell us what interested you about doing this film.
Mr. HARRELSON: Well, you know, when they offered it to me, I was - I
kind of had a similar opinion most people had, which - when they heard,
they said, well, why would you want to do a movie about this guy? And
yet, you know, they were, and Milos Forman was going to direct it. So it
really seemed like something you got to pay attention to. So I went and
met with Larry. And my feeling was, if I didn't like him, I just wasn't
going to play the part. But I was kind of amazed by him, you know. He's
a brilliantly funny, interesting guy who likes to stir things up and
yet, you know, whether or not agree with what he does, he's a kind of a
So I was glad to get time with him. And then, when we started to make
it, there was a lot of work to be done, because the script just needed a
lot of work, and there ended up being a lot of improv in it. And that
was fun, listening to that scene, because there was my brother in that
scene. He played Jimmy Flynt.
DAVIES: Do you identify with Larry Flynt in any way? I mean, you're both
people who sort of aren't afraid of stirring things up and setting your
Mr. HARRELSON: Well, I think probably during the course of it, he kind
of activated me more. Just for having played him, it made me, you know,
it was after that that I did things where I had brushes with the law and
so forth that, you know, probably I never would have done that.
DAVIES: May be you should explain what you mean by brushes with the law.
Mr. HARRELSON: Well, for example, I was upset by the fact that there was
no distinction made between hemp and marijuana, where - I think, in a
free country, you should be free to grow whatever. But I'm not going to
pretend this is a free country. But, however, I went to Kentucky, and
along with my buddy, Joe Hickey, there, we kind of set up this thing
where I planted hemp seeds and got arrested. And then the concept of it
was to go to trial, which we ultimately did, and hopefully the jury
would see the distinction between the two, and, you know, farmers would
be free to grow hemp, which you can use for paper or clothing, or, you
know, it's a sustainable material.
So that's what ended up happening. And doing things like that or
climbing the Golden Gate Bridge, I don't know if I ever would have done
that kind of thing had I not played Larry, just because it made me look
at things differently. I - before, the thought of getting arrested was
just an impossible thought, and I would never intentionally do that. And
after playing the part, I looked at it as a way to kind of get my point
across, you know.
DAVIES: I read, too, that there was a time when you were having a rough
time with your - with Laura Louie, your wife - although, then, I guess
you weren't married - and you spoke to Larry about it. And I think he
even might have spoken to her?
Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah. Larry took it upon himself, unbeknownst to me, and
called up Laura and got together with her and actually was giving
relationship advice, because I guess he considered her, you know, being
my wife, comparable to what it would be like to be Larry's wife.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARRELSON: I'm not sure why. But it was really - it was one of those
incredible, you know, things that a true friend does, you know, that you
just - I was really grateful for that. And I think it did help.
DAVIES: We're about out of time, but Woody Harrelson, I want to thank
you so much for talking with us.
Mr. HARRELSON: Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure being on your show.
DAVIES: Woody Harrelson, recorded last year when his film "The
Messenger" was released. It's out on DVD next week.
Coming up: David Edelstein on the new film "Mother and Child."
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
A 'Mother' Lode Of Up-Close Psychological Realism
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The new film "Mother and Child" stars Annette Bening as a woman who gave
birth to a daughter at age 14 and gave her up for adoption. Naomi Watts
plays that daughter 37 years later, and Kerry Washington is a young
woman who can't conceive and longs to adopt a child of her own. Written
and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, the film is about how their paths
unexpectedly cross, or don't.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Director and screenwriter Rodrigo Garcia has few peers
when it comes to direct, up-close, psychological realism. You study the
faces of his characters and see their defenses at work, layer under
layer of them, shifting this and that way, like tectonic plates.
That Garcia is the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez interests me largely
because of how clearly he's staked out his own territory, at the other
end from his father's overflowing historical novels full of magical
realism. Garcia goes for the microscopic instead of the macroscopic. His
2005 film "Nine Lives" consists of nine single shots, each a long and
sinuous portrait of a different woman's epiphany in real time. A segment
with Robin Wright Penn is the most remarkable. She's hugely pregnant and
pushing a shopping cart when she meets an old boyfriend - her true love
- and there's no cutaway as she moves through the aisles as her inner
"Mother and Child" is Garcia's latest triumph, and his most formally
daring. It's not a fully unified piece of storytelling. It's three short
stories that finally intersect, although not in any way we can predict.
But among them are echoes, crosscurrents, profound variations on the
theme of mothers and children - largely mothers and daughters.
The movie is so painful, so quickly. A 14-year-old girl is seen
smooching with a boy and taking off her shirt, then caressing her big,
round belly, then screaming as her baby is born and carried off. In the
next shot, that teenage girl is a brittle, haggard Annette Bening,
unmarried and childless in her early 50s, living with her elderly
She'll be 37, she says aloud of the daughter she has never known. In the
next scene, a chillingly poised 37-year-old lawyer played by Naomi Watts
tells her prospective employer, Samuel L. Jackson, about herself.
(Soundbite of movie, "Mother and Child")
Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON (Actor): (as Paul) If you wouldn't mind, could you
give me some of your personal background?
Ms. NAOMI WATTS (Actress): (as Elizabeth) I was born here in Los
Angeles. And I was given up for adoption on the day of my birth. My
mother was 14 when she had me, and that's all I know about her. My
adoptive father died when I was 10. My adoptive mother and I are not
close. My name - Elizabeth Joyce - is one I picked out for myself in
junior high. It's my legal name now. I don't go by any other. I live
alone. I have since I turned 17. I've never been married, and I have no
plans to marry. I value my independence above all things. That way I
don't have any expectations to fulfill other than my own, which are
EDELSTEIN: Less than 10 minutes into "Mother and Child," we feel in our
bones how the adoption of this baby girl was brutally consequential for
everyone. The entire film is suffused with that loss. It's also suffused
with compassion, insight, empathy and, from time to time, hilarity.
That's because Annette Bening creates a tapestry of tics and tremors and
false declarations of strength followed by utter collapse that's both
clownish and emotionally true. A cup of coffee with a coworker who wants
to get to know her - a teddy-bear widower played by Jimmy Smits - is a
psycho-comic hoot that builds to a bad end.
(Soundbite of movie, "Mother and Child")
Mr. JIMMY SMITS (Actor): (as Paco) What else would you like to know?
Ms. ANNETTE BENING (Actress): (as Karen) We don't have to interrogate
each other. This is not a date.
Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) Interrogate's a harsh word. You live by yourself?
Ms. BENING: (as Karen) No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BENING: (as Karen) What's so funny?
Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) No, nothing. I just can't seem to say the right
things around you, and I'm trying, believe me.
Ms. BENING: (as Karen) What do you mean?
Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) I just feel like I keep putting my foot in my mouth
every time I talk to you, and I just don't know why. Look, I'm sorry.
Let's forget I said that, all right? I don't know what I'm talking
Ms. BENING: (as Karen) I'm not a difficult person.
Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) I don't mean that.
Ms. BENING: (as Karen) No, you're not comfortable with me.
Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) No. I am.
Ms. BENING: (as Karen) My words are too harsh.
Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) No, no, no, no, no. I...
EDELSTEIN: The third protagonist of "Mother and Child," after Bening and
Watts, is a young, African-American woman played with a wonderful Mary
Tyler Moore-ish giddiness by Kerry Washington. She can't have children
and undergoes a grueling grilling by a pregnant teenager played by
Shareeka Epps to see if she's worthy of adopting the girl's child.
There are more characters, more subplots, each adding something new to
Garcia's structure. Characters wrestle with either the overbearing
presence or the overbearing absence of a mother. The strands come
together at an adoption agency run by a beatific nun played by Cherry
Jones, her persistent faith a counterpoint to the grim world outside her
"Mother and Child" is - there's no getting around it - devastating. But
it's the best, the fullest, the most life-affirming pain I've felt at a
movie in years.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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