DATE December 21, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Alfred Molina discusses his career and his role in the
new film "Chocolat"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Alfred Molina, is one of the stars of the new film "Chocolat." It's
a comic fable set in the past in a small French town, where the people are
very repressed, until a beautiful, young woman, played by Juliette Binoche,
arrives with her daughter and rents a pastry shop, a patisserie, and
transforms it into a chocolate shop. Her delicious chocolates release the
customers' inhibitions and passions and slowly transform the whole town.
The mayor, who is a nobleman, played by Alfred Molina, is one of the most
repressive forces in town. In an early scene, he goes to meet the exotic, new
stranger after she's rented the shop, but hasn't yet told anyone what it will
(Soundbite from "Chocolat")
Ms. JULIETTE BINOCHE: To what do we owe the honor of your visit?
Mr. ALFRED MOLINA: Well, as mayor of Gascony, I want to welcome you to the
community and to invite you to worship with us at Mass on Sunday.
Ms. BINOCHE: That's very kind of you, but, actually, we don't attend. We're
glad to be so near the church, though. One enjoys singing with the bells.
Won't we, Nano(ph)?
Mr. MOLINA: The bells are not intended as an entertainment, madame. They
are a solemn call to worship...
Ms. BINOCHE: Mademoiselle.
Mr. MOLINA: I beg your pardon?
Ms. BINOCHE: Mademoiselle. I've never been married. But feel free to call
me Vianne. I do hope you'll stop by when I open for business next week.
Mr. MOLINA: Yes. Yes. Opening a patisserie during the holy Lenten fast,
I could imagine better timing.
Ms. BINOCHE: Oh, but it's not going to be a patisserie.
Mr. MOLINA: Then what do you intend to...
Ms. BINOCHE: It's a surprise.
Mr. MOLINA: It was sweet of you to drop by.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Alfred Molina's other films include "Boogie Nights," "Prick Up Your
Ears" and "Enchanted April." He starred in the Broadway show "Art" and
co-stars in the sitcom "Ladies Man."
Alfred Molina, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MOLINA: Thank you.
GROSS: In "Chocolat," this movie's world view is that, you know, people are
very repressed, or at least the people in this town are very repressed. And
they need this outsider to come in and give them the liberty of,
metaphorically, eating chocolate and freeing up their ability to experience
pleasure. This world view...
Mr. MOLINA: Hmm. Sounds great, doesn't it?
GROSS: Yeah. Well, this world view only really applies to people who were
brought up in a very repressed atmosphere and need to learn to loosen up.
Were you? I mean, is this something you understand?
Mr. MOLINA: Yeah. I don't think--I mean, thankfully, I wasn't brought up in
quite the same kind of repressed atmosphere as our characters experience in
the film, although my parents were immigrants to England. My father came
from Spain, my mother from Italy. And they were both sort of left-wing
liberals, although they still couldn't quite cut the umbilical cord to the
church. So I was still brought up in a Catholic school. I think my father's
attitude was, `Well, you know, just in case.' But, you know, there was
that--certainly growing up in the late '50s, early '60s, there was that sense
of all the exciting stuff was happening somewhere else to someone else. I
think one reason why I was so desperate to go to college away from home was to
kind of get away from that, you know. So I kind of have--I understood that
sense of one's immediate environment closing in and sort of stopping you from
experiencing the wider world.
GROSS: So when you were going to Catholic school, which almost always means a
strict upbringing in school, was what you were learning in school, the kind of
values that you were learning in school, different from the kind of lives that
your parents and their left-wing friends were leading?
Mr. MOLINA: Yeah, very much so. I mean, you know, there was a kind of--it
was an odd sort of contradiction, although it wasn't really, at the time,
taken terribly seriously. I mean, it manifested itself in the--for instance,
at my Catholic school, Thursday morning Mass was obligatory. And if you
skipped it and got caught skipping it, you kind of got into trouble. But I
skipped it, and my parents always gave me an alibi. So...
GROSS: Like what?
Mr. MOLINA: Well, they would say, `Oh, yeah, yeah. He wasn't well this
morning,' you know, or, `Yes, he had to stay home and help his father,' you
know, or things like that. I mean, the only reason they sent me to the
Catholic school was because it was the best school in the district.
GROSS: The first role that I really noticed you in was in "Prick Up Your
Ears" in, I think it was, 1988?
Mr. MOLINA: I think before that.
GROSS: It was '87. '87. Yeah, it was '87.
Mr. MOLINA: Yeah, it was '87. That's right.
GROSS: This is the film version of the story of British playwright Joe Orton,
who was gay before it was OK to be out. And you play his older boyfriend,
Kenneth Halliwell. And you start as sort of a mentor to Orton, but he
outpaces you. He becomes famous.
Mr. MOLINA: That's right.
GROSS: And you feel overshadowed and increasingly resentful and angry,
particularly because he's always out cruising, leaving you behind. And at
the end of the movie, as in real life, Halliwell kills Orton by smashing his
head in with a hammer. Let me just play a clip from this movie, and this is
toward the very end of the movie when Halliwell has been talking to Orton, and
Orton is becoming very dismissive of him. Halliwell has pointed out that he
was his mentor, and Orton has said, `You know, if it wasn't you, it would have
been someone else.' And this is just, like, really pushing you over the edge.
And Joe Orton goes to sleep, basically ignoring you for the rest of the night,
and you look at yourself in the mirror and say these words.
(Soundbite from "Prick Up Your Ears")
Mr. MOLINA: I don't understand my life. I was an only child. I lost both my
parents. By the time I was 20, I was going bald. I'm a homosexual. In the
way of circumstances and background, I had everything an artist could possibly
want. It was practically a blueprint. I was programmed to be a novelist or a
playwright, but I'm not and you are. So you do everything better than me!
You even sleep better than me.
(Soundbite of music and hammering noise)
GROSS: That's my guest, Alfred Molina, in the film "Prick Up Your Ears."
And this scene ends with him picking up a hammer and bashing in the head of
his lover, the playwright Joe Orton.
Did you know the story of Halliwell and Orton before taking on this role?
Mr. MOLINA: Oh, yeah, very much so. It was a great scandal at the time, you
know, when it happened. You know, Joe Orton was this, as you know, this
hugely successful, young playwright. He had such great promise, you know;
already a handful of successful, very provocative plays. He'd just won a
couple of major writing awards on the London theater scene, and he was a star.
He was a bonafide, literary star and, also, not only that, a very popular one.
His plays had done very, very well, box officewise, critically, and there was
talk of him doing screenplays for--I think at one point he was even approached
by The Beatles' management to write a screenplay for them. I think he even
delivered a screenplay, which was turned down.
GROSS: What was your interpretation of Kenneth Halliwell and why he killed
his lover, Joe Orton? And what did you do to find out more about him?
Mr. MOLINA: Well, Gary Oldman, who played Joe Orton, and I were already
friends before that. We'd done a Mike Lee film together a couple of years
before, so we knew each other well. And we just went off and did some
detective work. We got in touch with Joe Lahr, who wrote the almost
definitive biography on Joe Orton, and we just sort of rifled through his
files. And he gave us complete access to all his archival material and all
the material that he'd accrued over the years while he was researching for the
book. And we just did a lot of--spent a lot of time pouring through all this
material, trying to make sense of this relationship and why--you know, what is
it that drives someone who starts off as a teacher, as a mentor--what happens
when that relationship shifts, when the student overtakes the teacher, when
the student actually becomes more knowing, more knowledgeable, more powerful,
more successful than the teacher?
And if that relationship is confused and complicated by this personal element,
the fact that they were lovers, somehow how does that, you know--we realize
that it was in there that was the dramatic potential, the--you know, it wasn't
so much--I think just going through a factual appraisal of what happened and
why was far less interesting to us than, really, finding out what happened in
that moment, that moment of fire, that moment when those two worlds clash and
they find themselves suddenly not getting what they need from each other, when
their relationship ceased to be symbiotic, when it became kind of dependent
And I think Ken's problem was that he couldn't function socially without Joe.
Joe was the social one. Joe was the gregarious one. Ken, in fact, became for
Joe increasingly an embarrassment socially. There's lots of evidence from
Joe's diaries, from diaries of other people who were friends of theirs, that
Joe's friends would dread Ken arriving. They would often invite Joe and pray
that he would come on his own because Ken became like a liability.
GROSS: When you made this movie in 1987, there was still--actors still, I
think, were afraid, for the most part, to play a gay character out of fear
that they'd never be able to play a straight man again. Was there any
aftereffects of playing a gay character in this movie?
Mr. MOLINA: Not for me, except that I got some terrible beard rash from
kissing Gary first every morning. Gary would often forget to shave. But it
was--I'm being facetious. But, no, I think when the film came along, I
was--you know, I didn't think twice. I suddenly thought, `This is a fantastic
role. This is a great film. These are wonderful actors. This is a great
director. You know, I'd be foolish.' Their homosexuality was obviously an
important ingredient, but it wasn't a film about being gay. It was a film
about being in love and being destroyed by it.
GROSS: Was the reaction you got from casting directors, for instance, any
different in England than it was in the US?
Mr. MOLINA: No. In England, it was kind of accepted as just another part;
another actor just accepting another role. You know, there wasn't--where I
found the most surprise was when I came to the States. After the film was
successful in England and it did well here, you know, like every English
actor, you know, you kind of come and do what John Borman calls the inevitable
pilgrimage. You know, you come to Hollywood to see if you can make some
And I remember walking into a casting session, and by that time my hair had
grown back, I'd lost the weight I'd put on for the film, and I walked in this
casting session, and this casting director said, `Oh, my God, you're not bald.
I guess you're not gay either, right?' And I said--and then trying to
brighten the moment, I said, `Yes, and I'm not a murderer either,' which went
completely over his head. And I realized that all I could see in his eyes was
deep disappointment. You know, he was expecting to see, you know, `Alfred
Molina, you know, that bald, gay guy,' you know, but he didn't get that. And
so I think, you know, I was off the list.
GROSS: My guest is actor Alfred Molina. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Alfred Molina is my guest, and he's starring in the new movie
Let me ask you about your role in "Boogie Nights," and this was a film from a
few years ago that was made by Paul Thomas Anderson. It's a movie about the
porn industry in the 1970s.
Mr. MOLINA: I sure know how to pick them, don't I?
GROSS: You're terrific in this movie. This is a real favorite scene of mine.
In this scene, two of the porn stars from the story, played by Mark Wahlberg
and John C. Reilly, are taken by a friend, who they don't really trust, to
your place. And you're a drug dealer, and they're intending on selling you
some drugs. And you're there wearing this silver robe that's untied,
revealing you in these red bikini briefs and nothing else, and you're...
Mr. MOLINA: Well, I'm glad you noticed.
GROSS: Yeah. You're smoking--I don't know whether it's marijuana or crack or
something, but you're smoking...
Mr. MOLINA: Oh, it was supposed to be a crack pipe, yeah.
GROSS: OK, so you're smoking crack with a blowtorch and listening to this mix
tape that you made. And you're absolutely out of your mind, and you have
a--there's a friend or assistant in your house that's setting off these
firecrackers, which is really driving the other characters crazy because it
sounds like gunshots. And it's this really mad scene where two of the
characters are absolutely insane, you and the friend who's brought the other
two porn stars over. And so you're listening to this mix tape, and it starts
to play "Jesse's Girl," and you're singing along with the tape.
(Soundbite of "Boogie Nights")
Mr. MOLINA: Yeah, I love this thing. I make these little--mix tapes
together. You know, I put all my favorite songs together. Hey
(unintelligible) which one is this? Number--number 11, yeah. I love it.
You know--you know--you know, when you buy a tape or something or--or an
album, you know, you put it on and it--and the songs are in fast, put them in
some ...(unintelligible) order, like they want you to listen to them in that
order. You know, I hate that. I hate that. I don't like to be told what to
listen to, when to listen to it or--or anything.
(Soundbite of tape being put in machine)
Mr. RICK SPRINGFIELD: (Singing, on tape) Jesse is a friend. Yeah, I know
he's been a good friend of mine. But lately something's changed. It ain't
hard to define. Jesse's got himself a girl and...
Mr. SPRINGFIELD and Mr. MOLINA: (Singing) ...I want to make her mine. But
she's watching him with those eyes, and she's loving him with that body, I
just know it. Yeah, he's holding her in his arms late, late at night. You
know, I wish that I had Jesse's girl. I wish I had Jesse's girl. Why can't I
have a woman like that? I play along with the charade.
GROSS: You are really so magnetic in this movie. And I'm wondering how you
worked out this scene with the director, Paul Thomas Anderson--how big to
make the character.
Mr. MOLINA: Well, what is it you...
GROSS: What kind of tips did he give you about what he wanted to see from you
in this scene?
Mr. MOLINA: Well, he just kept saying, `Have fun, go crazy. We can always
reduce it. You know, go wherever you want to go and, you know, I'll bring it
down. It's going to be easier for me to tone it down than it is to kind of
build it up. Just go--go for it.' He was very sort of--it was like--I felt
like an athlete being kind of given a pep talk before a big game or something.
And he was very, very free. You know, Paul is one of those directors a bit
like Lasse Hallstrom, who clearly loves what actors can do. He enjoys
watching actors. He enjoys their contribution to a film, and he allows them a
lot of room, a lot of freedom. And I find--in my experience, I've always that
the best work comes out of those situations rather than situations that are
adversarial or, you know, conflicted; you know, people sort of having huge
rows about something. And he just said, `Have fun. You know, go crazy.'
GROSS: In the part where you're singing along with your mix tape, we've all
seen people play air guitar. You're playing air piano in this...
Mr. MOLINA: That's right.
GROSS: ...and lip syncing--singing out loud with the song actually.
Mr. MOLINA: That's right.
GROSS: And you're doing it in such a broad way because you're incredibly
high. Tell me about capturing that kind of, you know, air guitar, lip
Mr. MOLINA: Well this is the moment where I probably blow my cover as far as
all your audience is concerned. I am afraid I am the great sort of--you know,
in the privacy of your own front room, I am a great rock star. I think if I
had a dollar for every hour I've spent miming to records in my life, I think
I'd be independently rich. It's something I've always love--something I've
always--I can't even believe I'm admitting this. It's something I've always
done, ever since I was a kid. I used to love--I used to put the record on and
just mime to it, learn all the words, you know, work out dance routines and,
you know, mime playing guitar and drums and stuff. I've always done it, and I
still do, much to my wife's consternation and confusion, I mean, because, you
know, she says my favorite instrument is the dashboard. I am the
archetypal--I'm the guy at the traffic lights tapping on the steering wheel
who thinks he's, you know, Ringo Starr or something.
GROSS: Now you're physically really different in this scene than you are in
"Prick Up Your Ears," and these movies were made about 10 years apart.
You're much bigger in "Prick Up Your Ears." You're much slimmer in "Boogie
Nights," and we see your whole body because all you're wearing is this open
robe and the red bikini briefs. So what are the physical differences between
what you did for each role? You put on weight for "Prick Up Your Ears"?
Mr. MOLINA: Yeah. In fact, I'm one of nature's fat boys. You know, inside,
there's a big fat man bursting out of me, and so I'm always--I've always had
one of those--my weight goes up and down, and what I often try and do is try
and lose weight or put on weight depending on what the requirements are. But,
fortunately, with "Boogie Nights," I'd just come back from shooting a movie in
Russia, and, consequently, I came back slightly somewhat slimmer than I was
when I left. So I came back and went stupid. You know, I said,
(unintelligible). So, fortunately, I was able to--I wish I could say, yes, I
went on a diet. I worked really hard. I just happened to be thinner at that
point. But I've done that--you know, I blame Robert De Niro. It all started
when Robert De Niro put on and lost 50 pounds for "Raging Bull." He
completely rewrote the rule book as far as what was expected from actors.
GROSS: Oh, I know what you mean, and I think in some ways it was a bad thing.
Mr. MOLINA: I can never forgive him for that.
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, I'm not sure that actors should have to physically
alter their body like that for a role.
Mr. MOLINA: Well, I think there's a certain responsibility, particularly if
you're playing a character who actually exists or existed in history and is
well-known enough that people know what he or she looks like. I think there's
a certain obligation to at least try and approximate the way they look. I
think it's just not really fair on the audience to expect them to suspend
their disbelief to that extent. But certainly when you're dealing with
fictitious characters, characters that are purely, you know, invented for that
movie or for that play, then I think, in a way, however you look is right.
But I've played a lot of real characters, people that really existed, and I
quite enjoy that challenge of, you know, trying to change yourself physically
a little bit. I love messing about with, you know, hair and stuff like that,
you know. And it's an element of acting and I've always enjoyed that part;
that part that's part sort of pretend and make-believe and, you know,
dressy-up. You know, I quite like all that.
GROSS: Alfred Molina co-stars in a new film "Chocolat." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Back with actor Alfred Molina.
He's co-starring in the new movie "Chocolat." His other movies include
"Boogie Nights," "Prick Up Your Ears," "Enchanted April" and "The Imposters."
His sitcom "Ladies' Man" will return to CBS as a midseason replacement.
You're half-Spanish and half-Italian.
Mr. MOLINA: That's right.
GROSS: How do you think that's affected your casting?
Mr. MOLINA: Well, I think it's given me a certain look, a certain kind of,
you know, sort of dark look, you know. I remember one of the reasons why I
decided to come and live in the States was that the great thing about living
in America is that everybody here, at some point or another, came from
somewhere else. And there's a--you know, being--the fact that I was
half-Spanish and half-Italian meant that I was just one part of a much, much
wider ethnic spectrum in terms of the actors that were out there. In England,
I was always kind of slightly viewed as being just a little bit foreign, you
Mr. MOLINA: You know, you'll never see me in a Merchant-Ivory movie simply
because I'm just not English enough, you know. But here in the States, I can
be English, I can be Greek, I can be Iranian and Russian, you know, Israeli.
You know, it's fantastic.
GROSS: You were Iranian in the movie--What was it called?--"Not without My
Daughter," where Sally Field...
Mr. MOLINA: Yeah. Or "Not without My Per Diem," as we referred to it, you
know. It was a nice big studio picture, so there was lots of nice per diem.
GROSS: That's funny. So you must have had to learn a lot of accents over the
Mr. MOLINA: Yeah, I have. And again, you know, as I was saying earlier
about this whole thing about, you know, the make-believe, pretend part of
acting, the bit where you--as Anthony Hopkins often says, you know--he was
asked once how to be prepared for the part of Hannibal Lecter. He looked the
journalist very cooly in the eye and said, `I made it up.' And I think that's
part of the joy, making up, it all up, you know. And the accent thing is a
lot of fun, I find. I enjoy that process. I always have done...
GROSS: Do you have coaches for that?
Mr. MOLINA: No. No, I've always--for some accents, I've had to have a
coach, yeah. Especially if there's something that I have no connection with.
But you know, I grew up with immigrant parents. We lived in a part of London
that was full of other immigrant families. So I grew up and I went to school.
At my school, all the kids in my school were essentially first generation in
England. And there were Irish kids, Polish, West Indian, Italian, Spanish,
Portuguese. And there was an incredible mix of sounds and rhythms that I grew
up with. And I think sort of, even without trying, I think I kind of
developed an ear for accents, or at least for the different rhythms. And so,
you know, I've always enjoyed doing it. I've always had a--you know, I've
never been frightened by it.
GROSS: Your next movie, I think, is "Texas Rangers"?
Mr. MOLINA: That's right, a western, would you believe.
GROSS: Is that a good thing, that's it's a western?
Mr. MOLINA: Oh, yeah. I'm very--no, no, no, I'm only saying that because
I'm very proud of the fact that I've done some westerns, I lo--because, again,
GROSS: Did you grow up with westerns?
Mr. MOLINA: Yeah. This is-- I mean, you have to remember that in England,
particularly in the late '50s, early '60s, popular American culture was very,
very pervasive, and you know, something like 40 percent or 50 percent of
television output in England in those days came from America, all those
western shows, you know, "Have Gun, Will Travel," "Gunsmoke," "Gun Law." "The
Virginian," "Bonanza," all those--they were all--we saw all those shows, and I
remember playing in the street, playing cowboys and Indians, and cops and
robbers in the street. And we would play with American accents. We'd borrow
all the dialogue from shows that we were watching on TV, so you'd have all
these English kids running around saying, you know, `Head 'em off at the
pass!' `I got you covered,' you know, all those cliche--that cliched dialogue.
And it was--yeah, we kind of grew up with that stuff, and the idea of being in
a western, getting to, you know, shoot, spit and smoke and get paid for it,
you know, was fantastic.
GROSS: So when you watching westerns in England, did you assume that America
was like that?
Mr. MOLINA: I think I must have done, at some point. I think when I was
very young, my image of America was huge, huge, endless prairies full of these
very, very handsome people, kind of, you know, lean, slim...
GROSS: All wearing leather.
Mr. MOLINA: Yeah. All wearing leather. Says a lot about me, doesn't it?
Or, the other image I had was New York, you know, tenements and steam coming
out of, you know, the pavements and sort of guns and molls and gangsters, you
know. And when I first came to America, the very first time we came here, I
remember my wife and I were--we were in the back of a taxi from Kennedy Airport
heading across the bridge into Manhattan, and we saw that--suddenly you see
that amazing skyline, and we both burst into tears, because we'd never been
there before, but it was instantly recognizable, you know, New York being
probably the most photogenic city in the world, and certainly one of the most
You know, every corner we turned--well, we were there for about 10 days, and
every--and we walked everywhere--and every corner you turned, you saw
something that you recognized from a movie or a--you know, or a TV show, and
it was the most extraordinary experience. And then of course, you learn how
New York and LA are so unrepresentative of the rest of the country. There's
this whole other America in between the two cities that is well worth as much
of your time as anything else. You know, I've actually driven across country
now three times, absolutely love it, you know, it's fantastic.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. MOLINA: Oh, it's been my pleasure.
GROSS: Alfred Molina co-stars in the new movie, "Chocolat."
Coming up, comic Richard Lewis on overcoming his addictions and a couple of
dysfunctions. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Richard Lewis talks about his career and his recovery
from alcoholism and other problems
TERRY GROSS, host:
Just in time for the holiday season, comic Richard Lewis has a memoir about
depression and how he gave up drinking and other addictions, and overcame at
least a couple of his many dysfunctions. The memoir is called "The Other
Great Depression." Lewis has built a stand-up career on talking about his
problems, but in his memoir, he's more interested in trying to be honest than
in going for laughs.
Lewis has been featured in several films, including "Robin Hood: Men in
Tights," and "Drunks." He starred opposite Jamie Lee Curtis in the sitcom,
"Anything But Love," and he plays himself on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the new
HBO series created--and starring Larry David, the co-creator of "Seinfeld."
Now you know, in your comedy act, some of the things you've always traded on
are your neurosis, your hypochondria, the rashes you'd get, how depressed you
Mr. RICHARD LEWIS (Author, "The Other Great Depression"): It's a little cold
in this studio, too, I might add.
Mr. LEWIS: Getting a little bit of a chill.
GROSS: So what was it like, you know, talking about your neurosis and your
hypochondria, knowing that you had a really serious problem that wasn't
imagined, that wasn't hypochondria--it was your drinking?
Mr. LEWIS: Well, I'll tell you--here's the thing. First of all, you know,
for the vast majority of my career, I wasn't an alcoholic, and when I was an
alcoholic, I quit stand-up, because I didn't--you know, I loved the craft so
much that I didn't want to, like, you know--didn't want to be found out, and
then when I went back on stage, like I said, I made--I tried my best to be as
sober as I possibly could be when I was, you know, doing my craft. But it
was, you know, after hours. You know, I did most of the damage alone or, you
know, socializing, and of course, you know, toward the end, you know, when you
really can't control how many drinks you have if you're an alcoholic, you
know, you'll do it in places where you certainly don't want to look like a
fool, like, you know, at screenings, and you know, when there's, like, you
know, 120 power brokers from town, and I--you know, that's happened from time
GROSS: Did you ever incorporate drinking into your stand-up routine? I don't
mean drinking during the routine, I mean talking about it.
Mr. LEWIS: Oh, absolu--yes, I--most certainly, ever since I got sober, it
was--you know, I slowly but surely talked about the disease of alcoholism. I
remember I did a special back '96 called "The Magical Misery Tour." That was
the tour, but the special was The Magical Misery Concert and I--as a
throwaway, because I was still a little nervous about it, I said that I took
some time off and I watched the Recovery Channel. Ironically, there is a
Recovery Channel now.
But certainly in the last two or three years, you know, I--you know, I ad-lib
a lot on stage. I carry around in my head about six or seven or eight hours
of new material, and a lot of that is about recovery. It is about alcoholism
and drug abuse. And with great pride now I say it, as happy as I am writing
about it in my book I am also on stage. And it gives me great pleasure when I
notice an audience member perhaps sort of elbow their significant other and
go, `You see, he can talk about it and he's healthy now and--you know, what
about you?' I mean, I really see that sometimes in audiences' eyes, you know,
and it brings me a lot of pleasure.
GROSS: Richard Lewis is my guest. He's a comic and actor who's just written
a memoir about overcoming alcoholism and several other...
Mr. LEWIS: Thousand.
GROSS: ...problems and dysfunctions, yes. Addictions, dysfunctions, etc.
It's called "The Other Great Depression."
You know, unfortunately, the language of recovery has become, in some circles,
such a cliched language...
Mr. LEWIS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...the way a lot of things become when they're used and overused a
lot. So what's it been like for you as somebody who uses language really well
as a comic to try to find a language to try to discuss something that has
become--as important as it is--something of a cliche? It's, in a way,
particularly cliched for people who are performers and in show business.
There are so many people in show business who've had problems with drugs and
alcohol. We've heard many of their stories. And so you must have had this
fear of speaking, really, from your heart and having it be heard as a cliche.
Mr. LEWIS: Well, you know, that's a very good point. That's why I don't
really talk--you know, try to use the jargon too much because, you know,
here--like, for example, this is something that I've, you know, heard a lot
early on, and this is precisely what you're talking about, that alcoholism is
a very selfish disease. But that's a very important thing for people to
realize because when you are drunk and not--and in recovery, all you really do
care about is chasing that high and that rush. And consequently, you forget
about people. You forget about a quality life.
But when you do decide that life is precious enough and you have to just give
up drinking or drugs, then you have to then again become selfish and only
think of yourself and realize that nothing is more important than not
drinking, assuming you're an alcoholic. And that's how I live my life now. I
let nothing else take precedent over not drinking. You know, then I let
everything else, you know, just, you know, fall into place because I'll never
forget, you know, the dark days.
GROSS: You know, you write a little bit about your parents in your new book.
And you say that when you told your mother that you knew you were an
Mr. LEWIS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...which is a really good sign that you could accept the fact that you
were and therefore make a change...
Mr. LEWIS: Right.
GROSS: ...she--her reaction was not the reaction you wanted her to have.
What was her reaction?
Mr. LEWIS: Well, you know, my mom passed away this year and my dad passed
away when I was, you know, even--back--way early, back in the sev--1971, and
so it was very difficult to write about them. But my mom's reaction was
unfortunately one of embarrassment and, you know, I understand that. But you
know, I think that I was, unfortunately, to her--you know, she was stuck in
time where, you know, a child is more of a reflection of who she is than who,
you know, my authentic self was. And, you know, I was authentically, you
know, a successful comedian and also, authentically, a successful drunk, you
know. But at that point when I told her, a successful recovering alcoholic.
So I just think she was embarrassed, you know. You know, I think there was a
part of her way down deep buried that she was proud that I wasn't drinking
anymore, but I think she couldn't, you know, shout to the rafters, `My son's
proudly a recovering alcoholic.' I just think it's something that, you know,
is so ingrained in her that it was--you know, that it was a little too late in
her life to change.
GROSS: Was she able to accept it when you did comedy about your parents?
Mr. LEWIS: Yeah. I mean, I think that--you know, my mother had a great
sense of humor. And I'm not mean-spirited. I can really say that. In my
comedy, when I talk about other people, it's--you know, the craft of comedy
is--you know, hyperbole certainly is a big part of it. And I would
exaggerate, but always the truth. And she would be the first to admit, at
least privately, that she would do that, you know.
I mean, I remember a joke I wrote like 30 years ago, and I use this because
it was very economical and I'm sort of proud of the joke because it was a good
joke. It was about how bored I would be driving across country with my
family, and how unspontaneous they would be and how it would drive me crazy.
And, of course, I embellished it. We never did drive across country, but I
had us backing out of our driveway from our hometown in Englewood, New Jersey,
driving to San Francisco and her jiggling something in her hand. I said,
`Mother, what is that? What are you doing? You're making me crazy.' And she
says, `I have the tolls ready for the Golden Gate Bridge.' And that to me
was, you know, would have basically--and audiences always screamed at that
because--you know, I had to set it up properly, but that was like, `You drive
with this family for 3,300 miles,' you know. That's where it was at.
And when I would say something that would really hit home, she would
sometimes--she would never get angry. In fact, she would sometimes call me at
the hotel in New York and say, `Don't forget to mock me tonight on
"Letterman."' You know what I mean? So I think she had a love-hate thing
with it, you know. But she was fine with it, you know.
GROSS: Yeah. But when you talk about your neurosis, I can relate to some of
that and say, `Yeah, I know. That's really funny,' and maybe I'll feel a
little bit better about myself. So are you going to feel better about
yourself if I laugh at your jokes about your neuroses?
Mr. LEWIS: Absolutely. I really do feel validated, you know, that I'm not
alone. There's no question I feel less alone. I mean, there's nothing worse
when I try to, you know, tell a--have a riff on stage about a problem that's
making me depressed and I'm looking at an audience--be it 300 or 3,000--and
there's silence. I'm saying, `Wow.' I mean, there's a thin line between
narcissism and entertainment, and that's pure narcissism, you know, and you
really try to--you know, my goal is to entertain people. But if I can
entertain them and get laughs to boot and applause about problems that I'm
having, it only means--like what you just said that, you know, they can
relate, and that's my goal.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, the last thing you want to do is to share your problems
on stage in a way that you think is really funny, and instead of people
laughing, they feel sorry for you.
Mr. LEWIS: Yeah. Well, that--I mean, I...
GROSS: Has that ever happened to you?
Mr. LEWIS: Yes. Once I said, `You know, I'm not complainer,' and 3,000
people moaned. And I almost--I mean, if there was a trapdoor in that concert
hall, I would have gone down it. And I really had to explain to them--they
really didn't understand. It became, like, a lecture for about 10 minutes.
You know, I used this metaphor back in the early '70s, and I didn't
intentionally mean it as a hook, but it became one and I had to stop it. It
was a third-person thing, things from hell. Like a date from hell or, you
know, my mother from hell, boss from hell. You name it. And it was basically
to say that I'm a survivor and that these people or these things were driving
me crazy. And, you know, I ultimately had to stop saying, `Boy, did I have an
evening from hell,' because, you know, first, it was used all the time. It
was used in advertisements. It was used in movie promos, and other comics
were using it. And I sort of felt like I was ripping myself off at that
GROSS: Your comedy has always been about, well, yourself...
Mr. LEWIS: Right
GROSS: ...and neurosis and hypochondria, etc. How did you know when you
started in comedy that you were going to be your subject matter, and that your
insecurities were going to be what your comedy was about?
Mr. LEWIS: Well, you know, when I started out in, like, '71, you know, a lot
of comedy was, you know, observational comedy. And, you know, one of the
reasons I went on stage is because I felt, you know, very alienated. You
know, I didn't feel--I didn't get the kind of nurturing that I felt--I just
didn't feel nurtured and appreciated as much as, probably, I wanted to. So I
needed the adulation from strangers, really, from audiences.
And when I was starting--I started writing jokes before I went on stage for,
as they say, these Catskill comedians and borscht belt comedians, and they
were rejecting most of the good stuff. And most of the good stuff was my real
feelings about myself, and that was a real sign that, you know, I had to go on
stage and do these jokes rather than throw them out. And they were about me.
And plus, I didn't really like--I felt so judged growing up that I didn't
really like to get on stage and tell audiences, you know, `Did you ever notice
this? Did you notice when you do that that you feel this way?' That was the
last thing I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was talk about how I was
feeling and pray to God that it was relatable and that people laughed. And,
you know, three decades later, they--you know, they still are, mostly. So I
guess I--you know, I struck a nerve.
GROSS: One last question: Have you had any new rashes lately?
Mr. LEWIS: I will probably get one when I leave this studio worrying about
how I did with you.
GROSS: Fair enough.
Mr. LEWIS: But it'll--I'll break out in `NPR,' I promise you that, on my
GROSS: OK. Richard Lewis, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. LEWIS: It was my pleasure.
GROSS: Richard Lewis has a new memoir called "The Other Great Depression."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan recommends political thrillers for holiday reading
and gift giving. This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Political thrillers for readers on your gift list
TERRY GROSS, host:
Are you still seeing visions of dangling chads instead of sugarplums? Book
critic Maureen Corrigan has some holiday reading recommendations that blend
politics and escape.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
For those political obsessives on your holiday shopping list who feel bereft
now that the presidential race has been decided and CNN is no longer in its
emergency alert mode, how about a fictional substitute? How about a stocking
full of political thrillers? Truth may still be stranger than fiction, as our
recent electoral realities demonstrate. But in fiction, or at least in these
novels, readers get the satisfaction of learning the real down-and-dirty
political maneuverings behind the public cover-ups and conciliatory speeches.
"The First Counsel," by Washington lawyer turned Grishamite thriller writer
Brad Meltzer, exudes the same kind of insider appeal as do most episodes of
"The West Wing." The hapless hero here is a young White House lawyer named
Michael Garrick, who finds himself dating the president's daughter, Nora
Hartson, a wildcat who just can't say no to drugs or danger. On their first
date, Michael and Nora witness the White House counsel making a money drop in
a secluded park. Soon, bodies are bleeding all over the city's plush
corridors of power, and Michael fears that the last line on his resume will
read `fall guy.'
Meltzer's plot is satisfyingly intricate and swift, and his characters are
fleshed out in unexpected ways. But like I said, the most entertaining aspect
of "The First Counsel" is its aura of being in the know about the inner life
of the White House. I was hooked before page one when I read this juicy
epigraph by former first daughter Lucy Johnson. `I resented a lot about the
White House,' Johnson said. `Then I realized I could adjust or I could
adjust.' LBJ's daughter's delightfully impolitic peevishness is followed by
pages of hush-hush detail, like what's featured on the daily White House mess
menu and why the White House heating and cooling systems keep the air pressure
higher than normal, to suck poison-filled air away from the president in case
of gas attack.
Meltzer also mentions something called `the toaster' that keeps track of the
whereabouts of every member of the first family. Is any of this information
true, and why did I relish it so? Beats me. But that's one of the marks of a
good writer. He or she makes you care about a world you didn't even know
Ken Follett's latest, "Code to Zero," is primarily set in Cold War Washington.
And much as I like Follett, if you put me under oath, I'd have to testify that
this is one of those lightweight literary efforts that leaves you feeling
guilty about precious hours of your life dribbling by. My excuse for reading
this novel is that the first third or so is really ingenious, and so I was
"Code to Zero" opens in a men's rooms in Union Station in Washington where a
drunk awakens with a terrific hangover and without any memory. Within the
space of a frantic, bullet-ridden day, this ersatz drunk--who's really, among
other things, a former OSS agent--solves the mystery of his missing identity.
The process through which he puts the pieces together really makes for
One more caveat, though. If you do decide to read "Code to Zero," just know
that it contains one of the silliest descriptions of the female orgasm I've
ever come across. Hard to believe this is the same guy who wrote those
smoldering sex scenes in "Eye of the Needle."
For sheer suspense and unsentimental, sucker-punch plot twists, my top pick of
these holiday thrillers would be Daniel Silva's "The Kill Artist," a spy vs.
spy, fatal game of wits. In his previous books, Silva convincingly mined the
espionage field of World War II. Here, he's written a contemporary story
about Mideast tensions going global.
Gabriel Allon was a crackerjack operative in the Mossad, the Israeli
intelligence agency. But he retired to the controlled world of art
restoration after his wife and son were blown up by a car bomb. When the
novel opens, Allon has been seduced back into service to do battle with the
Palestinian assassin who destroyed his family, and who now plans to murder
Yasser Arafat. I know the plot sounds cardboard, but Silva is a scrupulous
writer who really brings to life a secret world within a world; a place where
death by nail file seems a plausible end and violence is politics by other
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Singer: Holidays mess up my brain. Telephone poles look like
candy canes. I'm in a hurry and I'm telling you why. Excuse me, I got gifts
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Singer: Purple reindeer, flying around. Santa brings some
groovy stuff to town. Tinsel melted on my Christmas tree. Whatever was in
that eggnog put a spell on me.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Singer: Ooh, help me. Help me out with these bags. Oh, I'm
shopping for something, shopping. I'm going ...(unintelligible). You ain't
gettin' no presents ...(unintelligible).
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Singer: Yeah! Holidays and twinkling lights. If it snows, I'll
be up all night. My future's blowing, and it's blowing my mind. Christmas
tomorrow! I've still got gifts to buy.
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