DATE September 6, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Kristina Ford discusses the rebuilding of New Orleans
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
As rescue operations continue in New Orleans and other areas affected by
Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers reports it has repaired
breaches in two levees that protected the city from floodwaters. The Corps
has begun pumping water out of the city, but it's expected to take many weeks
before it's dry. Soon officials will turn to the task of rebuilding. To
discuss the future of New Orleans, I spoke this morning with Kristina Ford.
From 1992 to 2000 she was director of city planning for the city of New
Orleans. She's currently a professor of environmental studies at Bowdoin
College in Brunswick, Maine.
Tell us what happens to buildings and homes that have stood in, let's say, two
to 10 feet of water for a period of weeks or months. Give us an idea of which
of these structures can be saved. Let's start with frame houses--wooden frame
Professor KRISTINA FORD (Bowdoin College): Well, I think that the wooden
frame houses will be--will all probably have to be torn down. I mean, unless
they have been built on piers that are stone. And the architecture in New
Orleans has some--aside from the beauty that everyone in America probably is
aware of or at least has seen pictures of--they also have a function. The
raised cottages, one of their functions has been to keep the level of the
first floor up above floods. And some of my friends, for instance, live in
very high raised cottages. They're 12 or 15 feet above the level of the
street. So houses that are like that and that have got stones as their
foundation will probably survive. The ones--and there are some houses--I knew
of one in the French Quarter where I used to live, that was built right on the
ground. And that house probably there's--I can't imagine that it could
DAVIES: Now what about bigger structures, office buildings, shopping centers?
Prof. FORD: Well, I think that the office buildings--you can see them--I've
watched the helicopters go over the city and the--many of those office
buildings are relatively new and they were built when the building codes took
into account flooding and hurricane and so forth. And so I think that there
may be horrible, unimaginable water damage in the first floor, the first two
floors of some of those buildings, but I think that the buildings are
DAVIES: And can be reinhabited, you think, with some work.
Prof. FORD: Yes, I believe so.
Prof. FORD: I'm a city planner, which I think one of the things you have to
be to be a city planner is an optimist. And so I am optimistic that
some--that a lot of the buildings, once we clear away all the debris and the
horrible things that are left in that water, that what we'll find is that
buildings--those buildings downtown will be all right.
You asked me earlier, Dave, about shopping centers. My sense of many shopping
centers there is that they're built on a slab. And I would think that the
damage to those structures would be horrible. I can tell you also I had a
friend who lived in a building in the Faubourg Marigny, which is just
downstream of the French Quarter, who lived in an old house that was about a
block away from the levee. And the building was stone. And he showed me once
that there--you could see the waterline in his house from when Hurricane Betsy
came through. And it was--I would say it was 12 feet high. And that building
stood. I mean, it was a fine building and he had left that old stain from the
water just as a historical memory. But I...
DAVIES: So there's hope for some of these places, yeah, yeah.
Prof. FORD: Oh, I think so. And I think one of the things that will happen,
once all the horrible part is over, that the city will start to really assess
what they have and what can be salvaged and what needs to be rebuilt and in an
orderly way bring the city back.
DAVIES: Planning is, by its nature, deliberative, the notion being that we
make good decisions when we really think about it, when we hear from all of
the interested parties and have a good airing of the issues. I mean, there
will be enormous pressure with, as you say, hundreds of thousands of people
beyond those, of course, in big places like the Astrodome, but just folks who
have been evacuated from their homes. What will that pressure do to the
Prof. FORD: Well, I think that there has--in my opinion, there has to be a
very strong centralizing authority that makes sure that nothing is done in
haste because in all of this I think that there are parts of the city that one
might think, as a planner, `Oh, if only we could start over. We wouldn't have
the poorest people in town living so vulnerably, so far below sea level.' And
yet, at the time--and I was director of city planning for eight years in New
Orleans--at the time it was unimaginable to say what we should do, say, to the
Lower 9th Ward is to move the people who live there into some other facility,
maybe a barracks, something, and then move their houses onto safe ground and
then go back in and fill that land so that it comes up as high as, say, the
French Quarter is. And then move the houses back and then move the people
back. It's unimaginable how much money that would have cost and no one, I
think, would have thought that it was a good idea to spend the money that way.
They probably thought it was better to spend it on education, which is a
rational choice, it seems to me.
So my point to all of that is that in all of this nature has wiped the slate
clean in some areas and we shouldn't be in a hurry to rebuild something the
way that it was. What we should do is to figure out how we can rebuild it so
that we don't have people again so poor and so vulnerable.
DAVIES: I've got to ask the question that Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the
House, asked and then drew a lot of criticism for. I mean, this is a city,
you know, established in 1718 and has been sinking ever since or losing some
elevation and much of it is below sea level. Some will ask the question:
Does it make sense to rebuild the city on that site where it is so vulnerable
to this kind of catastrophe?
Prof. FORD: As a professor of land use planning, I try to take what the
speaker said in stride. I thought it was a bad time for him to have said such
a thing. It seemed mean-spirited when there are so many people out of the
city who are homeless. But what he's talking about I think one can deal with
rationally. There has been a great deal of work in the past that--and these
are by people who are engineers and who know something about geography--that
the Mississippi River seems to want to join the Atchafalaya River, which is to
the west of New Orleans, and that the banks--the rivers kind of seem to want
to join together. And there has been talk in the past that we should go ahead
and let it and let--that would be a straighter route to the Gulf of Mexico.
Well, we let it and we let it go down straight to the Gulf of Mexico, which
may make some rational sense, and what? There isn't a city there. And so
we'd have to spend several billion dollars to build a new city there where we
have a new outlet to the port or--to the Gulf--or we can say spend the same
amount of money, because there is plenty that will be salvageable in New
Orleans, and keep it the way that it was. And so the choice that he offers,
not rebuild New Orleans, is--he's creating a false choice, in my mind.
DAVIES: Just to--one more thought on this subject. I read that one expert, a
professor from Texas A&M, said that some are going to say if you want to
rebuild New Orleans in such a vulnerable place, if citizens really want to do
that, they should do it on their own tab and not with federal tax dollars. I
mean, don't spend my money to once again leave yourselves vulnerable to this
kind of catastrophe. Do you expect that kind of debate to be a factor?
Prof. FORD: The question that I think many people have is whether or not it
makes sense to rebuild New Orleans or to build something that is so vulnerable
to hurricanes. And I think that when one looks at the economic importance of
the Port of New Orleans, it derives mostly from the fact that it's at the foot
of the Mississippi River and that it drains out this whole central part of
the country. What moves through that port is a huge part of our national
So the issue is: Do we build--do we rebuild New Orleans or do we maybe make
another port on the Gulf of Mexico that is--maybe you'd have the Mississippi
River rejoin the Atchafalaya. However, no matter what we do, where the river
goes is to a place that is by definition vulnerable. The Gulf of Mexico is
where many hurricanes go. And so I think that that's an interesting way to
think about this. And, Dave, what I really think is when people ask questions
like that, it is that their mind needs a break from how big this problem is.
I don't think that we can build any port at the foot of the Mississippi River
or the Atchafalaya that isn't vulnerable at some point with some degree of
probability to another hurricane. We can do better and we can make sure we
don't have such human suffering the next time around, but I think that the
odds are that no matter where we build a port on the Gulf of Mexico--and that
we have to--that this is a risk.
DAVIES: Let's talk about some of the practical issues when you're talking
about residential communities of poor and working people. And I want to just
briefly evoke an experience that Philadelphia had 20 years ago where there was
a police confrontation with a rad--with an armed radical group, which was
mishandled--you may know of this. A lot of the audience...
Prof. FORD: I remember.
DAVIES: A lot of the audience won't recall, though, that what happened was
that there was a fire developed as a part of the police confrontation, which
raged out of control and destroyed a block and a half of row homes. Sixty
families were homeless overnight. And there was an enormous desire,
naturally, to make these people whole--who were put out of their houses
through no fault of their own. And the interesting question that arises in
such a situation, which I think--and a similar one will arise in New
Orleans--is one way to do that is to simply compensate people and let them
relocate where they can or rebuild their lives where they can. But people
also then will say, wait, this isn't just houses. This was a community. I
have kinfolk here. I have neighbors. I want that community back. And in--I
could imagine that in many, many communities in New Orleans people will say,
`I don't want a check. I want my house back where it stood with my neighbors
where they stood.' As a planner, how do you deal with that issue?
Prof. FORD: Well, Dave, I think you're exactly right about how people feel in
New Orleans. I was watching on the news today that there are people
whose--who won't leave yet. They say that they want to stay in their house.
New Orleans is a town, it's often said, of families. There are so--it can
seem like everybody is related to everybody else in that town. And I think
that their desire will be to stay together. I think they need to feel like
there is something left in their life. Imagine what their houses are like.
The possessions that they had--which are priceless to them, old pictures and
so forth--it's all gone.
And I just think in terms of--in human terms that it's important that if
people want to stay together that we figure out a way to let them stay
together. I think that maybe we don't have to do anything so Draconian as to
say, `We're going to get everybody a check and then they can go find their way
in Texas or Missouri or wherever.' That instead what we do is give people
some options and then let them choose. But my sense is that, you know, New
Orleans wasn't a stage set. New Orleans was a city in which people lived and
a lot of its--a lot of what's so appealing about it was precisely the people
who lived there, and they should be able to stay together.
I was reading something in The Times yesterday by Mark Childress, who's a
writer, who wrote a thing about the 22 things that you would--he would miss
about New Orleans. And one of them, for me, was a sort of source of hope. He
said it's the only city in America where you can count on within the first 15
minutes of your arrival somebody will either call you baby or darlin'. Well,
that wasn't the script for somebody who lived in New Orleans. That was the
culture, and I'm sure if you went into the Astrodome now they'd call you baby.
And that--my point there is that we--that that culture, if the people want to
re-create it then this country should allow them to.
DAVIES: My guest is Kristina Ford. She was for eight years the chief city
planner for New Orleans. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kristina Ford. She was for
eight years the chief city planner for the city of New Orleans.
All right, well, clearly saving lives and then addressing the rebuilding tasks
are urgent, but I want to take advantage of our access to you and all of your
experience as a New Orleans city planner to look back for just a moment. In
the eight years that you were there, I'm--you know, one of the things that I
know that you do as a city planner is you develop a capital budget. And there
are competing demands upon limited dollars for tourist infrastructure, for
neighborhood redevelopment and I'm sure in New Orleans for, you know, the
system of levees and canals which protected the city. I mean, as you were
participating in, or at least witness to discussion of the levee system and
whether it could or should, you know, withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane,
I'm wondering what was your sense of how vulnerable the city was?
Prof. FORD: Well, my sense was that the city was very vulnerable. The city--I
mean, that's something that you know probably the first week you decide to
live in New Orleans. Someone tells you, you know, someday the hurricane is
going to come that moves up the Mississippi River at the exact time that it's
high tide and that the city will be flooded.
I will tell you--however, you have touched on something else, which is why I
think there needs to be the central redevelopment authority, and that is the
city of New Orleans didn't have many discussions about the levee system
because that's a different jurisdiction. It's the levee district, which is,
you know, statewide. In fact, it goes through several states. There's the
Orleans Parish Levee District. There is the Port of New Orleans, which is a
state agency. And coordinating all of them was always difficult. The voters
of New Orleans weren't asked to pass a bond issue for--to restore the levees.
I did hear former Mayor Barthelemy the other day who said that at the time
they made the choice of how to build the levee system they said, `OK, what
we're going to do is build a levee system that can withstand a Category 3
hurricane.' And the person interviewing him said, `Well, why would you do
that? Why didn't you say Category 5?' And he said, `Well, I wasn't in those
discussions, but I rather imagined that the cost difference between being
prepared for a Category 3 and a Category 5 was so huge that taxpayers would
have been unwilling to pay for it.' Well, with the benefit of hindsight, we
see that we'll pay many multiples of what it would have cost to prepare for a
Category 5 and we may make a better decision in the future. But that's why I
say, Dave, that...
DAVIES: But if I get your point, what you're saying is that because of
the--kind of the jurisdictional lines and the bureaucratic funding streams,
taxpayers were never really asked whether they wanted to do that.
Prof. FORD: Well, the local ones weren't. That's right, and I think that's a
national decision to decide how much money to spend on levees. And I think
that's why with all these factors now we have a chance to look at them again
and make some better decisions in the future.
DAVIES: You know, in this moment of crisis we're all pulling together and we
stand as one. But once people are safe from immediate harm and our
reconstruction process gets under way, various powerful economic interests
will want to assert themselves. And you, of course, coped with this as a city
planner for many years. I'm interested in things like, for example, the
tourism and hospitality interests. I wonder, what do you--what role will they
play, and will their ideas for reconstruction and using what will inevitably
be somewhat limited dollars--will their ideas be different from those, for
example, who want to preserve the neighborhoods with the working poor?
Prof. FORD: Well, I think, Dave, that's an interesting question and I think
it's why we need some of the best minds in America to come deal with it. You
know, we could rebuild the French Quarter. We could rebuild the Garden
District, which are two of the favorite tourist destinations. And there will
be a great urgency felt by people in the tourism industry to put that back on
its feet. I mean, that will be secondary to the Port of New Orleans, but then
that'll be right up there.
However, I have heard people say what we don't want when we rebuild New
Orleans is for it to look ersatz, that it looks like this is Disneyland's
version of what used to be New Orleans. And in that statement, which I
understand--in that statement is contained the real beauty of New Orleans.
When you went to the French Quarter, it wasn't that each and every building
that you saw was beautiful or beautifully maintained. There were plenty of
poor people who lived in the French Quarter or in the surrounding, in the
Faubourg Marigny or in Treme. And I think that the flavor that people feel
like they are enjoying--not feel like they're enjoying--that they enjoyed when
they came to New Orleans was partly we are diverse and right next door to rich
people live very poor people. And it's that flavor of the city, which to my
mind, we must re-create or else it won't be a very interesting tourist
destination anymore. It will be like going to Disneyland. So I think that
there is a way that that can be expressed by economists that will make sense
to somebody who's deciding how to rebuild the city and not just simply clean
DAVIES: I'm wondering how you felt about the hedonistic New Orleans, the,
you know, the "Girls Gone Wild" kind of--part of the city's image?
Prof. FORD: Well, I should tell you, Dave, that we lived on Bourbon Street for
11 years. And so...
DAVIES: On Bourbon Street?
Prof. FORD: Yes, way down Bourbon Street so we were two blocks from the
closest bar. So it isn't the wild part of Bourbon Street, but Bourbon Street
nonetheless. And the hedonism you just--you kind of watch it and sometimes
you'd leave for the sake of Mardi Gras and then come back and other times just
enjoy it. It's a city of license. It's a city that lets what you think of
yourself, all of your illusions, be true. And that's--I think that's one of
its charms. And so I may not like something that someone does or--all I think
is `I wouldn't do that.' I don't think `You shouldn't do that.'
And I do think, realistically speaking, that part of the tolerance that New
Orleanians have is that they know how provisional their life is. It's
completely provisional reliant on the levee system and on the hurricane not
hitting them and that that sense of how provisional they are, first of all,
allows them to really seize moments and to enjoy life while they have it on
the theory that it may not last long. And I think probably the thing I admire
most about New Orleanians is their tolerance for other people, sort of live
and let live attitude.
DAVIES: Well, Kristina Ford, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Prof. FORD: Of course, I enjoyed it.
DAVIES: Kristina Ford. From 1992 to 2000 she was director of city planning
for the city of New Orleans. She's now professor of environmental studies at
Bowdoin College in Maine.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Basin Street Blues")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Basin Street is the street where all them
characters from the 1st Precinct meet in New Orleans, city of a million
dreams. And you never know how nice and clean when you're way down South in
New Orleans. And you'll be huggin' and a-kissin'. That's what I've been
missin'. Hear all that good music, Lord, if you just listen. Yeah, New
Orleans, it's true, and that's why I got these Basin Street blues.
DAVIES: Coming up, actor Eugene Levy. His films include "Splash," "Best in
Show," "A Mighty Wind" and the "American Pie" films. He now stars in the new
movie "The Man." And Ken Tucker reviews two new takes on the country music
mainstay, the drinking song.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Eugene Levy on his career and his latest movie, "The
DAVE DAVIES, host:
My guest, actor Eugene Levy, has appeared in more than 60 films. In the late
'70s and early '80s, he was a cast member of "SCTV," along with Rick Moranis,
Catherine O'Hara and John Candy. Since then, he's had memorable roles in
films including "Best in Show," "A Mighty Wind," "Waiting for Guffman" and the
"American Pie" films.
Levy has usually played supporting roles, but now he's starring with Samuel L.
Jackson in the new film, "The Man." Levy plays Andy Fidler, a dental supply
salesman in Detroit for a convention who stumbles into a drug investigation
led by Derrick Vann, a tough cynical detective played by Jackson. In this
scene, the detective grills Levy's character about a drug suspect he's just
(Soundbite of "The Man"; traffic noise)
Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (As Derrick Vann) So what's this guy look like?
Mr. EUGENE LEVY: (As Andy Fidler) Well, he had very good teeth.
Mr. JACKSON: (As Vann) What does he look like?
Mr. LEVY: (As Fidler) He looks good. He looks good. He had a very nice
face, very handsome face. He was a very attractive man. Not to me. I mean,
I am married to a woman. Even if I wasn't married, I don't mean that kind of
attractive. Personally, he was not attractive to me.
Mr. JACKSON: (As Vann) Describe him to me!
Mr. LEVY: (As Fidler) Short hair. Short hair, which made his head look
smaller than it actually is. And I only mention that because I've been told
my head is somewhat large, and when I looked over at his, it's like--you know,
when you look through binoculars the wrong way it looks...
(Soundbite of cell phone ringing)
Mr. JACKSON: (As Vann) That's you. Answer it!
DAVIES: Well, Eugene Levy, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. LEVY: My pleasure, and I'm glad to be here.
DAVIES: Good to have you.
You're starring in this new film with Samuel Jackson, "The Man."
Mr. LEVY: "The Man."
DAVIES: "The Man," yes.
Mr. LEVY: Yes.
DAVIES: You've made a career of sometimes stealing the show with relatively
smaller roles--I mean, putting on a great character. Here, you star with
Samuel Jackson, but you're the one who really carries it. I mean, you...
Mr. LEVY: Wow! Thanks.
DAVIES: ...he's your straight man.
Mr. LEVY: He is my straight man. He's a damned good straight man, too. He
is--you know, the only difference is, you know, that the straight man used to
slap the funny guy.
Mr. LEVY: Yeah. I get to slap the straight man in this thing. So, you know,
it's a bit--it's kind of--you know, I don't know if you call it, you know, a
step up, but it's a bigger role, more of a challenge and I loved it.
DAVIES: And you actually get chased and shot in the rear end at one point.
You are in a--you get thrown onto the hood of a car. And you did some of
these stunts yourself. Is that right, a spry young fellow like you?
Mr. LEVY: Ah, yes, I did. I'm just--I'm such a professional. I did
running--you know, I did a lot of the stuff. This is not something I would
maybe want to do again real soon. Physical comedy's not my forte, I don't
think. But I did do running, I did do falling, I got shot in the rear, I
was--got hit by a car--I mean, you know, kind of not hit by a car, but close,
jumping up on the hood. I get tossed out of a car, I--you know, there's a lot
of stuff in here that I think will last me for the rest of my life.
DAVIES: If you're just joining me, my guest is actor Eugene Levy. He's done
more than 60 films. His most recent, in which he starts with Samuel L.
Jackson, is "The Man."
Well, let's talk about "SCTV" a little bit.
Mr. LEVY: OK.
DAVIES: And we have a few clips of some characters of yours. And I thought
we would start with you as Stan Schmenge, who, with John Candy playing his
brother Yosh Schmenge, were the Schmenge brothers who hosted "The Happy
Wanderer" polka show.
Mr. LEVY: That's right.
DAVIES: And in this clip, you, as Stan Schmenge, are doing something which
you often do in the show, which is to speak with some of the old folks who
come to dance the polka and enjoy some of--some cabbage rolls and coffee
supplied by your good friend Mrs. Yatschke(ph). Let's take a listen.
(Soundbite of "SCTV")
Mr. LEVY: (As Stan Schmenge) Mrs. Yatschke really outdid herself tonight with
her delicious homemade cabbage rolls and coffee. Can't be beat. Are you
folks having a good time? Oh, (laughs). I just asked him the question, but
he couldn't answer, 'cause his mouth was full with Mrs. Yatschke's cabbage
rolls. (Laughs) Oh, well, that's live television for you.
Mr. JOHN CANDY: (As Yosh Schmenge) Maybe he should wash it down with some
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CANDY: (As Yosh Schmenge) Oh, well.
Mr. LEVY: How about that?
DAVIES: Brings a smile to you still, doesn't it?
Mr. LEVY: Oh, yeah. I honestly had the greatest time doing it. I think the
most fun I had on the show was working with John in some of those situations,
you know, the...
DAVIES: Well, tell us a little bit about where the Schmenge brothers came
Mr. LEVY: Well, you know, we were doing our show in Edmonton at that time,
and there wasn't a lot to do in Edmonton when you weren't working. So on our
off days--I mean, if Sunday was our off day, we would just go up to, you know,
somebody's--we were staying in a hotel, and I would--we would visit. So I
would go up to John's room, and were sitting around one day, watching
television, and there were a couple of--we switched on the remote control, and
we come upon this polka show, and there's a couple of guys up there. And
we--and schmenge was a word that we would kind of toss around on the show,
like, `Well, there's a couple of schmenges.' It was just one of those words.
And we kind of wrote these guys. And it's not--you know, it's a little
Mr. LEVY: ...you know, in a way. But the idea that, you know, again, you
have two guys, lovely guys, sweet guys, good guys, they know their stuff, they
know their polka stuff, but, you know, how in the world they have their own
show is just beyond comprehension.
DAVIES: Well, one way is that they have their own travel agency, the Schmenge
Brothers Travel Agency, and they do commercials. And those were fun, too.
Mr. LEVY: This is true, yeah. They were very shrewd businessmen.
DAVIES: And Lithuanian, was that the idea, or was it some general East
Mr. LEVY: Well, Leutonian...
DAVIES: Is that what it was, Leutonian? Right.
Mr. LEVY: ...yes, was where they were from, and it was located somewhere on
the dark side of the Balkans.
DAVIES: Well, let's hear another character of yours, and this is Bobby
Bittman, who is, I don't know, a hack comedian, let's say.
Mr. LEVY: Well, let's say he's a Vegas comic. Hack comedian would be
complimentary, you know, in the kind of '60s Vegas style of, say, you know, a
DAVIES: Right. Right. And here we are, and he's fawning over another
celebrity here perhaps loosely modeled after Joey Heatherton, and this is on
one of his many appearances on "The Sammy Maudlin Show."
(Soundbite of "SCTV")
Mr. LEVY: (As Bobby Bittman) Let me just say Lola Heatherton represents
everything that's good in this town. As a person, she's marvelous, and as a
performer, she's absolutely marvelous and I love her. I really do.
Unidentified Man #1: She's the best. She's the best.
Unidentified Woman: Bobby, you're so sincere it's scary.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SAMMY: Bobby, look I read that you were in Washington testifying before a
congressional committee on the drug problem here in Hollywood.
Mr. LEVY: That's right, Sammy, and funny you should bring that up because I
didn't think you could read.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEVY: Wow. That bit went on to say, you know, `I just want to tell
everybody out there, Sammy, that I don't get paid with the white stuff. I get
paid with the green stuff.'
DAVIES: Right. And, of course, radio really doesn't do justice to Bobby
Bittman. I mean, we're looking at a guy with a bright red coat...
Mr. LEVY: Bright red coat.
DAVIES: ...five gold chains.
Mr. LEVY: He's got the chains. He's got the rings. He had a ring on every
finger except one and you know why he did not wear a ring on that one finger?
DAVIES: Why is that?
Mr. LEVY: Overkill.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: It would have been just too much, right?
Mr. LEVY: Yeah.
DAVIES: Right. Right. Right. And always the cigarette, right?
Mr. LEVY: Always the cigarette. Yes, I know. Well, that was--those were the
DAVIES: Was there any comedian that Bobby Bittman was sort of modeled on?
Mr. LEVY: His personality I borrowed from Jerry Lewis, you know, as who he is
as a person, not necessarily as his act, but when he was speaking seriously,
you know, as a comic in all seriousness, that was kind of a Lewis-ism.
Mr. LEVY: And that's what I kind of borrowed from for the character of
DAVIES: Let's hear one more character that we've got on tape here and this is
the estimable Sid Dithers who--what would we call him? A Jewish grandfather,
private detective and...
Mr. LEVY: He is--well, "Private Detective"(ph) was just one of the shows that
he had on SCTV.
Mr. LEVY: He was a guy--he was an old Jewish man...
Mr. LEVY: ...not that tall and, you know, there's kind of an image and you
don't have to just be in Florida but you will sometimes see--now remember as a
kid just seeing images sometimes of these little guys with white hair driving
these, you know, big kind of, you know, Buicks going back to the '50s and
'60s, those big cars...
Mr. LEVY: ...and all you see is, like, the little head behind the wheel.
That's how short they were and that was the...
DAVIES: Right. Right. And a pair of white shoes down there at the bottom if
you ever get that far.
Mr. LEVY: That's was the character and a white belt.
DAVIES: All right. Well, let's hear Sid Dithers. And in this scene, he is a
private detective and a distraught father comes to him for help.
(Excerpt from "SCTV")
Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Dithers, I came a long way to see you. I could have
contacted the police in San Francisco, but I have a feeling my daughter's
right here in Beverly Hills.
Mr. LEVY: (As Sid Dithers) San Francisco. South that you came. You
(unintelligible) didn't you, fool?
Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Dithers, the only thing that's important is whether
or not you'll take the case.
Mr. LEVY: (As Dithers) Yes! And I'll tell you why. Because I'm a man who
loves children. Now you've got a little girl who was kidnapped. I myself
have a son who's now a successful lawyer and has two gorgeous little girls of
his own. Cigar?
DAVIES: That was Sid Dithers played...
Mr. LEVY: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...played by my guest Eugene Levy all those years ago. What does
that bring to mind.
Mr. LEVY: (As Dithers) So how did you came? You drove or did you flew?
DAVIES: You know, so many of these characters are so over the top, I mean,
all these ethnic accents and overdone stuff. And there was a lot of physical
elements to it and you had nose putty and beards and mustaches...
Mr. LEVY: Absolutely.
DAVIES: ...and a lot of the stuff.
Mr. LEVY: Are you kidding? It's my craft.
DAVIES: Well, then you get into movies and then we just see Eugene Levy. I
mean, was it different to kind of...
Mr. LEVY: Well, you see Eugene Levy with maybe a set of buckteeth in "Best in
Show." You see him with a couple of left feet. You see him...
Mr. LEVY: ...you know, I still like to don a wig or two. I still like
to--you know, I mean, it's true you see me, but in "Waiting for Guffman," the
most exciting thing about that movie for me was finding those glasses because,
you know, it brought new meaning to the '80s. You know what I mean?
Mr. LEVY: They were big, big and magnified and, you know, I still like a good
DAVIES: Right. So you look for just that touch.
Mr. LEVY: But, you know, it's true in movies. You are more yourself and
this, you know, kind of--this has to come out. I remember doing the
television show years ago--I mean, "SCTV" and there was John Candy for the
most part who appeared in everything as himself. All the characters he did,
you know, we would say, `John, you're not putting on a mustache for this?
You're not putting on glasses?' `No, no, no, no. It's fine. It's fine.
It's fine.' And people, you know, identified with his face. I mean, you
know, he was the only guy in the company that--where you could kind of tell
who it was...
DAVIES: Right. That's right.
Mr. LEVY: ...kind of, you know? So there was some method behind his madness.
DAVIES: Well, you've been acting for a long time, but in 1999, this role that
you had in "American Pie" got you a lot of attention particularly maybe with
the younger movie-going set.
Mr. LEVY: Oh, yeah.
DAVIES: Why don't we hear a clip of you. Now you're playing Jason Biggs'
father here--Right?--whose name I believe was Jim, a young man who's
exploring--an adolescent man exploring his, you know, sexual identity and we
have a scene where you as his dad come in for a little heart to heart.
(Soundbite from "American Pie")
Mr. LEVY: (As Jim's Dad) Oh, Jim, you're here. I was just walking by your
room and, you know, I was thinking of, `Boy, it's been a long time since we've
had a little father-son chat.' Oh, I almost forgot. I bought some magazines.
You want to just flip through the center section? Well, this is the female
form, and they have focused on the breasts which are used to primarily feed
young infants and also in foreplay.
Mr. JASON BIGGS: (As Jim) Right.
Mr. LEVY: (As Jim's Dad) Right. This is Hustler and this is a much more
exotic magazine. Now they have decided to focus more on the pubic region...
Mr. BIGGS: (As Jim) Right. Uh-huh.
Mr. LEVY: (As Jim's Dad) ...the whole groin area. Look at the expression on
her face. You see that? See what she's doing? She's kind of looking right
into your eyes saying, `Hey, big boy, hey, how you doing?'
DAVIES: My guest Eugene Levy...
Mr. LEVY: Wow.
DAVIES: ...playing Jim's father in that breakthrough role in "American Pie."
You know, it's interesting. The role was a little different when you played
it than it was as written, right? You looked at this and decided it need a
Mr. LEVY: Yeah. You know, when I--first of all, getting the script and
reading the script, it's not something I kind of jumped to do right away. It
really was a raunchy little script and I thought, `Boy, you know what?
They're really out there. I don't think this is necessarily for me,' but I
went in to meet with the brilliant young guys who putting it together, Paul
and Chris Weitz. And, you know, I didn't like the role. The role of the dad
was written kind of in a slightly crass way. It was a smaller role and nudge,
nudge, wink, wink kind of thing with his son. And I just--and I said, `Boy, I
want to change the part,' and they said, `What do you want to do?' I said, `I
want to change everything. Let's'--so we kind of went in and improvised in a
rehearsal all the scenes. And I kind of played the kind of guy I wanted to
play which was a father who was a--so well-intentioned, you know, that he
could deal with something like walking in and seeing his son humping a pastry
and take it on himself like it's his fault, like it's something he didn't do,
that he's got--it's up to him to try and steer his son in the right direction.
DAVIES: Did you feel comfortable with the kids seeing "American Pie"? They
would have been--What?--adolescents at the time?
Mr. LEVY: My kids were--my daughter was about 14 when that movie came out.
My son was, I think, 16. My daughter, I said, `You can't come to the premiere
because you're--first of all, it's illegal. You can't. It's an R-rated
movie, so, you know, you can't see it.' I said, `However, you know,' I said,
`if you can find a theater somewhere that somehow allows you and your fake ID,
you know, to get in and see the movie, I don't have a problem with it. It's
not the movie that--you know, I will never be able to watch it with you...'
Mr. LEVY: `...you know? That will never happen with this movie.
Unfortunately, it's not something we can do together, but if you want to go
with your girlfriends and see it, I think you're going to find it very funny.'
DAVIES: Are there any "SCTV" roles or movie characters that you're
particularly fond of?
Mr. LEVY: You know, I have a soft spot for a lot of characters on "SCTV" and
some of them are not, you know, kind of the major characters that I do. I did
have a soft spot for Bittman, but there are other characters, little tiny
roles that I played here and there like, you know, a game show contestant in a
Russian game show.
DAVIES: Can you conjure a little of that for us?
Mr. LEVY: No, it was a show called "Uple Scrabblenook."(ph) And it was a
show when we lost the feed on "SCTV" and we somehow got hooked into CCCP1,
the Russian television network and we picked up this Russian programming. And
it was just a character with a great kind of Eastern European look reminiscent
of a Schmenge, but he was just terribly intense and he had a little buzzer the
size of a football, you know, that he would have to hit when they asked him a
question and his eyes were just so intense and his eyes were riveted on the
moderator as he was asking the question and then he would hit his buzzer with
such intensity. Tiny little role, but I never tire of, you know, watching
that when it comes up in reruns.
DAVIES: If we were to hang around the Levy household, would we hear these
characters coming out as you speak to your wife and kids from time to time?
Mr. LEVY: I do have the ability sometimes to get to my kids and get them
laughing through characters and, you know, I could go into Stan Schmenge, you
know, in the kitchen, you know, with my kids and really pour it on to the
point where they actually start laughing, but Stan...
DAVIES: I'm so glad he's still around.
Mr. LEVY: Stan is still here and it is a terribly sad thing
DAVIES: Well, Eugene Levy, thanks so much for stopping by, spending some time
Mr. LEVY: Boy, it was an absolute pleasure. Thanks.
DAVIES: Actor Eugene Levy. He stars with Samuel L. Jackson in the new film
"The Man." You can also see him in episodes of "SCTV" which are now available
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New country albums with drinking as the theme in some of
DAVE DAVIES, host:
One of the standbys of country music is the drinking song in which the singer
seeks comfort amid life's disappointments at the bottom of a bottle. Rock
critic Ken Tucker points out that two songs on new albums by Brad Paisley
and the duo Brooks & Dunn approach the time-honored subject from distinctly
different points of view.
(Soundbite from "Whiskey Do My Talking")
BROOKS & DUNN: (Singing) I'm not some come on strong Romeo cowboy. No, I'm
not that type. Without a little help, I'll probably have two left feet, but
you ain't going to let that happen tonight. Turn up that jukebox, set me at
the bar. I promised her the moon; you throw in the stars. Whiskey, do my
talking, say all the things I can't. Yes, to you my honey true friend, oh, go
on and do your thing. She's just a line away from falling, going wild and
honky-tonking. Whiskey, do my talking.
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Where rock 'n' roll has expended most of its substance abuse energy, creating
hymns to or cautionary tales of marijuana, LSD, cocaine and heroin use,
country music's drug of choice is definitely alcohol for a number of reasons.
Foremost, it's comparatively cheap and legal, at least post-Prohibition. The
genre has a sizeable number of tunes about homemade moonshine, most notably
George Jones' "White Lightning," and it's cheap and legal for adults.
If rock 'n' roll started out as teen music looking for the thrill of a high,
whether romantic or chemical, country has always found its biggest audience
among grownups seeking liquid respite from bad jobs, bad marriages and bad
inner demons. The twist that the country due Brooks & Dunn apply in their new
song "Whiskey Do My Talking" is to directly address alcohol as a companion,
the enabler that will enable the singer after a few swallows to overcome his
shyness, speak more eloquently and snag that attractive woman down the other
end of the bar. Personification they call it in literary terms. For Brooks &
Dunn, whiskey is a man's best friend.
(Soundbite from "Whiskey Do My Talking")
BROOKS & DUNN: (Singing) I tell her all the things I can. Here's to you my
honey true friend. Go on and do your thing. Yes, she's just a line away from
falling, going wild and honky-tonking. Hey, whiskey, do my talking, say all
TUCKER: Not long ago, the cable music channel CMT, Country Music Television,
did a show called "The 40 Greatest Drinking Songs." They repeat it
occasionally, but I don't recommend any production that makes the all-time
number-one drinking song Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places." Oh, that's
a perfectly catchy bit of rowdiness, but if we're talking rowdy, you have to
listen to Jerry Lee Lewis' "What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out
Of Me)", a mere number 28 on CMT's list and nowhere near the greatness of Webb
Pierce's 1953 masterpiece "There Stands the Glass," shamefully placed at
number 11, not even in the CMT's top 10. Or Gary Stewart's magnificently
baroque 1975 melodrama "She's Acting Single (I'm Drinking Doubles)" which
never even made Country Music Television's list at all, but when CMT updates
its show, you can bet that young, handsome Brad Paisley's admirably blunt new
song called "Alcohol" will probably figure prominently.
(Soundbite from "Alcohol")
Mr. BRAD PAISLEY: (Singing) I can make anybody pretty. I can make you
believe any lie. I can make you pick a fight with somebody twice your size.
Well, I've been known to cause a few breakups and I've been known to cause a
few births. I can make you new friends or get you fired from work. And since
the day I left Milwaukee, Lynchburg and Bordeaux, France, been making the
bars lots of big money and helping white people dance. I've got you...
TUCKER: "Alcohol" is the only country song I know which is sung from the
point of view of alcohol itself. The first-person singular in the song is
booze. I especially like the verse that invokes both Ernest Hemingway and
lamp shade wearing.
(Soundbite from "Alcohol")
Mr. PAISLEY: (Singing) I got blamed at your wedding reception, your best
man's embarrassing speech and also for those naked pictures of you at the
beach. I've influenced kings and world leaders. I helped Hemingway write
like he did. And I'll bet you a drink or two that I can make you put that
lamp shade on your head. Oh, since the day I left Milwaukee...
TUCKER: Brad Paisley's "Alcohol," in which the substance feels alternately
proud and faintly ashamed of its own powers of influence, is an example of the
poetic device known as the pathetic fallacy, attributing human feelings to
inanimate objects. It's an extremely clever piece of songwriting that avoids
one of the things that non-country music fans find off-putting about the
genre, the fact that it's so often such a downer.
By settling for clever, Paisley will certainly score a big hit. Love that
line about alcohol helping white people dance. But his song won't enter the
pantheon of mature despair that can make drink-drenched country music so
DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed Brad Paisley's new album "Time Well Wasted" and
"Hillbilly Deluxe" by Brooks & Dunn.
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.