DATE January 16, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Profile: Look back at Uta Hagen's life and career
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
Today we remember award-winning actress and drama teacher Uta Hagen, who died
Wednesday at the age of 84. Uta Hagen was celebrated for a host of stage
roles. She played Blanche opposite Marlon Brando's Stanley in the 1948
Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." And she won a Tony for her
performance as Martha, in the 1962 Broadway production of Edward Albee's
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But within the action profession, she was
known and revered just as much as a teacher. For years, she ran the HB Studio
in New York, which was founded by her late husband, Herbert Berghof in 1945.
Some of the actors who studied there include Jack Lemmon, Stockard Channing,
Matthew Broderick, Maureen Stapleton and Lily Tomlin. Many actors have
studied her books, "Respect For Acting," and "A Challenge For The Actor."
Uta Hagen continued teaching after a stroke in 2001 until several months
before her death. Terry Gross spoke to Uta Hagen in 1998.
TERRY GROSS, host:
You're known as a great teacher as well as a great actor and you've written a
couple of books about acting. You write that there are hundreds of different
people within you who surface through the day--within anyone who surface
through the day. Do you recommend that actors find the person within them
that's closest to the role that they're playing?
Ms. UTA HAGEN (Actress; Acting Teacher): Well, it isn't one person in you.
In other words, when you create a role, you're selecting from various aspects
of your life and putting it together to create that new character. But all of
that has to spring from your understanding of yourself. And that's what takes
GROSS: You say, then, an experience that has served you many times, including
when you played Blanche in "Streetcar named Desire," is an experience from
your childhood when you were, like, pelted with hard snowballs by kids in the
neighborhood and you were called an atheist. What is it from that scene that
stayed with you so much, from that experience? And...
Ms. HAGEN: Well, it was a bitter-cold winter night. I was hounded through
the streets with snowballs by children. That's terrifying. I never forgot
it. It was like being in hell.
GROSS: What is it from that experience that you summon up when you need to
for a role?
Ms. HAGEN: I don't know.
GROSS: OK. I'm wondering if there is a kind of experience that is so
frightening or rich for you, if you've used it to draw on several times for
roles, does the experience dry up...
Ms. HAGEN: No.
GROSS: ...does it lose its power to have that energy for you?
Ms. HAGEN: No. As a matter of fact, that experience might wear out because
I've talked about it a lot. If you don't talk about it a lot, it stays
useful. When you explain to somebody--a friend or--no, not a friend, a
colleague who's working with you, what sources you're using, if you tell them
that, your secret is gone. Now they look at you with that knowledge of what
you're using and judging it and you can't use it anymore.
GROSS: That's interesting. So you won't talk about these experiences...
Ms. HAGEN: No, no.
GROSS: ...with people you're performing with.
Ms. HAGEN: No, no.
GROSS: But you'll talk about it with your students.
Ms. HAGEN: Not--no, not when I'm using it in an immediate role. I give them
examples, like the snowball.
Ms. HAGEN: Now that's used up for me because I've talked about it a lot.
GROSS: In one of your books about acting, you talk about how you can't be
inert on stage and you have to find out what it is that you actually do while
you think you're doing nothing so that you could do that kind of thing on
stage. Have you thought about that a lot, what it is you're doing when you're
not really doing anything?
Ms. HAGEN: I'm going to interrupt you right now.
GROSS: Go ahead.
Ms. HAGEN: Because, again, everything you're discussing, you have read, it
interests you. Are you an actor?
GROSS: No, I'm not.
Ms. HAGEN: Then it's none of your business. Now let me explain to you why.
It may interest you; it may fascinate you. But if--you see, I feel that in
the theater, everybody thinks they can act, everybody is fascinated about
another human being on stage. If it's very convincing, they usually are sure
that they could do it too, which is not true at all. The--if you would go to
a violinist, you would not ask him about his bowing arm, about his elbow
position, about his phrasing. And if he told you, you wouldn't know what he
was talking about and you would be bored. If you went to a painting class or
a watercolor class and you saw a teacher showing somebody how to put--how to
wash a piece of paper that is going to have watercolor put on it in a minute,
you'd say, `What do they teach here? How--they're watering down a page?'
These are not the secrets but the craft itself.
You wouldn't ask a scientist because you wouldn't know what he was talking
about and you must--I feel an audience should learn to respect acting as a
craft in the same way that you--if I do explain it, it might titillate you,
you might understand a little of it. But the real impact or import of it for
a fellow artist you would not get.
GROSS: Well, I want to...
Ms. HAGEN: And I don't say that to offend you; I just believe that with all
GROSS: I want to say I totally respect what you're saying, but I just beg to
differ on a couple of things. For example, I would be asking a violinist
about their phrasing and about the bend of their arm and all that.
Ms. HAGEN: Why?
GROSS: Well, because I think...
Ms. HAGEN: Do you play violin?
GROSS: No. But...
Ms. HAGEN: Then I think you're--you might ask him, but I think the violinist
would look at you like you were nuts, and I think you are.
GROSS: No, see, what I have found as someone very interested in these things
is that, for instance, if the violinist talks to me about his or her phrasing,
it might help me hear music, hear things in music that I didn't hear before.
I find that actually understanding more about craft is not only interesting in
its own right but helps me perceive things that I didn't perceive before,
which I like.
Ms. HAGEN: That's a very valid point and maybe I'm just in reaction to so
many people who ask these questions and misun--the misunderstanding of the
laymen in terms of an acting technique are so profound that I think I've
pretty much had it in my life with that. I think that's probably part of my
GROSS: I tell you another reason why I'd be interested in hearing your
thoughts about acting, though I respect you for not wanting to talk about
this, is that I think really good actors have great insights into the body and
how the body is used, how the body communicates, how the voice communicates,
and also that great actors are great observers of other people. And they just
have great insights into...
Ms. HAGEN: That's true. And I think...
GROSS: ...how people move and...
Ms. HAGEN: But, you see, the body again--which I'm gung ho about, talking
about it all the time, and I believe that the body as an instrument of
communication is all-powerful, and the biggest influence in my life for that
training came from modern dance without being balletic or dancerish but it
very strongly influenced me. However, very fine actors very often cannot
define themselves what it is they are doing. Laurette Taylor could not tell
you what she was doing. She had no--she was intuitive, instinctive, great
GROSS: I've certainly noticed that as an interviewer that some of the really
great artists I've interviewed...
Ms. HAGEN: Oh, my God. Some of the best ones are--can't...
Ms. HAGEN: And I happen to have--because I've been teaching, and I've found
in my own work that very often when I couldn't explain something it was
because I didn't understand it myself. When I couldn't articulate it, it was
because it was fuzzy in my own head. Now I do know that I can do it,
nevertheless, but I may not be able to communicate it to someone else.
GROSS: I know that you've recommended singing lessons for people who aren't
necessarily going to be singing on stage but are just going to be speaking.
What do you feel you've learned about your voice from studying singing? I'm
assuming you've studied it.
Ms. HAGEN: I did. Well, you see, it's the same with, when I say
dance--modern dance for the body of the actor, which does not make them
self-conscious about stage movement, but gives them a sense of alignment, a
sense of an awareness of their body in space, in the same way, singing rather
than voice for the theater, makes them not listen to themselves. It prepares
the vocal instrument, the diaphragm, the whole tone of the voice in the head,
without making you now listen to yourself when you talk. Do you understand
what I mean? Self-consciousness--when it makes you listen how it sounds,
you're going to be a bad actor. The voice has to be there for you, to serve
you when the time comes.
GROSS: Right. So you're not worrying about how you're doing your lines,
Ms. HAGEN: Exactly.
GROSS: ...learning about the sound and physicality of your voice.
Ms. HAGEN: Exactly. It's there from the singing. It serves--the instrument
is ready. It's primed.
GROSS: Your acting career was launched by what I perceive to be a very bold
gesture. When you were, I think, 17, you wrote a letter to Eva Le Galliene
asking if you could work with her.
Ms. HAGEN: Yeah.
GROSS: And I think that's a very brave thing to do.
Ms. HAGEN: I didn't even think it was brave. I just--I was also very
stupid. I thought she still had the Civic Repertory which I knew--had read a
great deal about and heard about. And it was the only repertory company in
America at the time, and there hasn't been one since, I don't think, a real
repertory company. And she was doing great plays and contemporary, new
playwrights and Ibsen and Chekhov and Shakespeare, and that's what I wanted to
do and I wanted to be a part of that. And based on that, I wrote her and I
said, `This is what I want and could I audition for you and I want to be a
part of your theater.' And didn't realize that the Civic had already folded
and she was still functioning but not in that capacity. And then she was
working on a production of "Hamlet," which I didn't know, and I went home
after my audition with her and in spring of '36--no, '37. And then my father
wanted me to go to college and--because at that time you could get a job at
Macy's if you didn't have a degree. It was during the Depression.
And I was itching to just go into the theater. I didn't want to do college.
So I thought I'll do it in a three-year plan and take summer school. And I
went to enroll in summer school and came home and there was a letter from Ms.
Le Galliene asking if I would be interested in coming East and working with
her on "Hamlet" and that was my debut in the theater, Ophelia.
GROSS: Now was that letter based on her having seen you or just based on your
Ms. HAGEN: No, based on my letter.
Ms. HAGEN: My letter to her.
GROSS: What did you say in that letter that led to that invitation?
Ms. HAGEN: I don't know. I really don't know how--I used to persuade people
that I was fabulous because I guess I believed it. And I don't know how I
interested--my agent said to me, who was my agent at the time, she said, `I
don't know, when you walked in, you knew you were great so we believed it.'
And I don't think I had egomania at all, I just believed I had a big talent
and I was going to be a great actress.
GROSS: So what was it like for you playing Ophelia so early in your career?
Ms. HAGEN: I don't remember. You see, it's all like a haze and blur. It
was a wonderful experience, and then in essence I studied with her because I
worked with her on the play and that whole company with fencing lessons and we
had all sorts of extracurricular things we were asked to do. And we wove our
own costumes at her looms and it was a phenomenal experience for me.
And then when that was finished, which went very well at Dennis--we played it
at Dennis, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod and got wonderful reviews from Elliot
Norton and all the fine Boston critics. And then we were going--she was going
to do eight plays in repertory and work on it for three years. She had a huge
grant for that, and I was going to be part of that and then I rehearsed with
her for three months and she abandoned the whole thing because she felt that
the company wasn't good enough, which I don't think it was. And so I worked
with her on "The Seagull"; I worked with her on other roles in the fall, and
then at Christmas the whole thing was collapsed and then I went on to do "The
Seagull" with the Lunts. I don't believe it; when I laugh it's because it's
like some fairy tale.
DAVIES: Actress and drama teacher Uta Hagen, speaking with Terry Gross in
1998. Hagen died Wednesday at the age of 84.
We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 1998 interview with award-winning actress
and drama teacher Uta Hagen, who died on Wednesday.
GROSS: Did you ever study, you know, `the method'?
Ms. HAGEN: No, never. I mean, I've read all of Stanislavski's books avidly
when I was young, and I still have my old copies that are all underlined with
`so true' on the side, you know, I didn't really know why. And I also
remembered thinking, `Why can't I do what he's telling me when I get on
stage?' As a matter of fact, when I was asked to write my book--I was
actually commissioned to write the first one by Macmillan--I said, `It can't
be done,' and it drove me crazy because I said I can demonstrate something in
one second that it takes me 30 pages to write and got so bored with it.
But there--my books are actually based on things that gave me problems as an
actor. Every exercise, every thing I came up with was based on my own
problems, sharing those with other actors which I think most of those problems
every actor has had himself. When people say, `Oh, how do you know that?' I
say, `Because there isn't a mistake I haven't made.' There isn't a mistake in
the book that I have made 10 times, a hundred times. So then I see it in
someone else; then I can help them get rid of that problem.
GROSS: In 1943 you played Desdemona to Paul Robeson's Othello. What was it
like to work opposite Robeson?
Ms. HAGEN: Well, it was wonderful. He was an unbelievably--overused
term--but charismatic man with a great presence and enormous intelligence,
sense of humor. He was a great, great man.
GROSS: Was there anything that was considered controversial about the
Ms. HAGEN: Everything was considered controversial. That's why they...
GROSS: Because so often Othello is played by a white actor in black face.
Ms. HAGEN: That was the first time in this country. No, maybe not, maybe in
some--I just was trying to think who else had played it and I want to have
history cockeyed here, but it was for a Broadway production, way ahead of its
time in that sense and that made it very controversial and very exciting. And
no trouble at all. Everybody was thrilled with that idea that this was
GROSS: Now am I right in saying that you were later blacklisted?
Ms. HAGEN: Oh, yes. I was blacklisted for 10 years.
Ms. HAGEN: As a matter of fact, I'm--was graylisted. In 1970, I did a
production for CBS and I said--there was a woman producer called Barbara
Schultz(ph) and I said, `Did you have any trouble getting me on?' She said,
`Oh, God, yes.' That was still in 1970.
GROSS: And do you think that that related at all to your work with Robeson?
Ms. HAGEN: It did, no question.
GROSS: And your friendship with Robeson?
Ms. HAGEN: It did, no question about it. I also was a progressive and a
political--I still call myself a left-liberal Democrat. I always was and I
always will be. And it was that one time in my life when I would say I was
very proud to be an American citizen because I felt I was very active as such.
And the blacklisting and what happened to me as a result, I say the government
still owes me an apology.
GROSS: So you lost a lot of roles that you think you would have had.
Ms. HAGEN: Well, of course.
Ms. HAGEN: Oh, I know. It was at kind of the most fruitful part of my
career. I had just done Blanche for two years, I had done "The Country Girl,"
I had done "St. Joan." And suddenly I was beginning to get big television
offers. I never got another television, I never got another film offer. "St.
Joan" was supposed to go on the road; I couldn't go on the road because they
were writing the guild protest letters from Indianapolis--from all over the
country, and they--and the worse thing they did--I don't really care, I say
about that, because I think in a way maybe it prevented me from being tempted
by movies and stuff that I would have been sorry I did afterwards. But what
they did to me spiritually was that--it's the only time in my life that I was
ever frightened. I've never been frightened of anything in my life, and that
scared me and that's what I resent most.
GROSS: Did you have to testify?
Ms. HAGEN: Twice. I mean, I had--I was called twice. I only testified
once, eventually, in private session. But those were horrible days. Those
were days when you sat in a restaurant and if you started to talk politics,
you looked over your shoulder to see if a waiter was listening and was going
to report you. My phone was tapped. I was followed by the FBI. And nobody
ever even asked me to be a Communist. That's what so ironic about that whole
GROSS: You met your late husband, Herbert Berghof, in the theater. He was an
actor and teacher and you run the studio that he founded. Did you meet him in
a play? Were you on stage together?
Ms. HAGEN: Yes. We were in a play with Clurman, as a matter of fact, it was
the same play called "The Whole World Over" by Konstantine Simonov. Not a
very good play. And he was a replacement, and I had heard about him
and--through many of my acting colleagues, many of them studied with him. I
thought he was a phony and was a guru. At the few meetings I had with him, I
thought, `What a strange man.' And then we started working together and it
was--were love scenes and a couple of kisses and a couple of hugs, and a week
later we hit the sack and we never left.
GROSS: Now I...
Ms. HAGEN: Forty-four years later.
GROSS: I imagine that it's a very kind of intensified experience to be in
love with somebody on and off stage, to enact this dramatic love on stage and
to also feel it off stage. It...
Ms. HAGEN: I don't think it's that so much. It's working together; I think
it needn't have been a love scene for us to fall in love with each other. But
what was extraordinary about our relationship from then on was that we truly
did everything together. I mean, he got me into teaching. He's the one who
started me teaching. And I said, `I don't know how to teach. What am--why do
you want me to teach?' And he said, `You know how to act. Can't you learn to
pass on what you've learned?' And when he put it that way, I thought that'll
be fun. And then from then on I loved it. And we had the studio together and
we played together for many, many years, and he directed me in many plays.
And it was a unique, fabulous life that I still can't believe is gone.
DAVIES: Actress and drama teacher Uta Hagen speaking with Terry Gross in
1998. Uta Hagen died Wednesday. She was 84.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Coming up, playwright Neil Simon. He wrote "Barefoot in the Park,"
"Lost in Yonkers" and "The Odd Couple." A remake of his film "The Goodbye
Girl" airs this weekend on TNT. And David Edelstein reviews the new comedy
"Along Came Polly," starring Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Neil Simon discusses his life and his work
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon has made a lot of people laugh. He
started his career in the early days of television, writing for Sid Caesar's
show, Phil Silvers' Sergeant Bilko and "The Garry Moore Show." But his real
ambition was to write plays, and he lit up Broadway with a string of hits,
including "Come Blow Your Horn," "Barefoot in the Park," "Plaza Suite,"
"Prisoner of Second Avenue," "The Sunshine Boys," "The Goodbye Girl,"
"California Suite," "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Laughter on
the 23rd Floor." He also wrote the book for the musicals "Sweet Charity" and
Simon adapted many of his plays into successful films. "The Odd Couple"
became a popular movie and TV series, and his stage hit, "The Goodbye Girl,"
is now in its second film incarnation, this one a made-for-TV movie starring
Jeff Daniels and Patricia Heaton. It premieres this weekend on the cable
channel, TNT. Here's a clip from the 1977 film adaptation of "The Goodbye
Girl," starring Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason. Dreyfuss plays an actor
who's arrived in New York thinking he's sublet an apartment. When he arrives,
he's surprised to find it's occupied by Mason and her daughter.
(Soundbite of "The Goodbye Girl")
Mr. RICHARD DREYFUSS: So what's the deal, huh? I mean, I got a lease here
in my pocket. You going to honor it, or what?
Ms. MARSHA MASON: I got a daughter in my bed. That tops a lease in your
Mr. DREYFUSS: Look, I don't want to get legal, you know? Legal happens to
be on my side. Now I happen to have a lawyer acquaintance downtown. Now all
I got to do is call this lawyer acquaintance of mine...
Ms. MASON: Oh!
Mr. DREYFUSS: Whoa! Whoa! What?
Ms. MASON: An actor, another damn actor. `I happen to have a lawyer
acquaintance'? Right out of "A Streetcar Named Desire." Stanley Kowalski in
summer stock, right?
Mr. DREYFUSS: Wrong. Chicago in the dead of winter, three and a half months
at the Drury Lane Theatre.
Ms. MASON: Ask an actor a question, he gives you his credits.
Mr. DREYFUSS: You want to hear the reviews? `Elliot Garfield brings to
Kowalski dimensions that even Brando had not investigated.'
Mr. MASON: Terrific! You write beautifully. Aren't you a little short to
Mr. DREYFUSS: Nobody noticed. I stood on the poker table. What are you, a
DAVIES: Terry Gross spoke to Neil Simon in 1996, after he'd published his
memoir, titled "Rewrites." She asked how he developed his ear for writing
Mr. NEIL SIMON (Playwright): I never thought about it much, but the only
thing that came to me is that when I was a young boy, five and six and seven
years old, my parents would take me to visit their relatives, and for some
reason, I think they thought that I was invisible because they never talked
TERRY GROSS, host:
Right, or they'd talk about you even though you could hear.
Mr. SIMON: I could hear, but they were talking family matters or gossip or
whatever, and I just sat there. And once in a while, they'd give me a cookie
or something, and I just listened. I wasn't terribly interested, but it stuck
in my head, and what I managed to learn was the way they talked, the choice of
words they made, what it was that they were interested in. And years later,
without knowing it, when I started to write about these people, I was able to
draw on my own memory from what happened in those days.
GROSS: Early on in your career, your brother, Danny, was your writing
partner. He's--What?--about eight years older than you?
Mr. SIMON: Eight and a half years older, yes.
Mr. SIMON: Yeah. And you write in your book that he was somewhere between
your brother and your father. He was your mentor as well as your brother, and
your father, actually, was in and out of the family. He left the family and
came back, I think, about eight times.
Mr. SIMON: Exactly, yes.
GROSS: Was it strange to have him coming and going like that, not knowing
exactly what his relationship to you was?
Mr. SIMON: It was awful because I felt my life was sort of on a yo-yo, to
give my kind of example. My mother never knew when he was coming back, and
the whole world lit up when he came back because it meant not only that we'd
not have to fear for the rent--because he didn't leave any money for us--we
didn't have to worry about food. But I felt a solidity there with the family,
and I felt happy for my mother. When he was gone, it was the most awful time,
and I thought he was never coming back. And I'm sure a lot of my personality
has been formed by that relationship, and it makes me somewhat insecure at
times, and it's why I think I fell back on writing, possibly, as a way of
being able to support and survive for myself.
GROSS: I imagine your mother, when your father was gone, ended up very busy
with earning money to take care...
Mr. SIMON: Well, she...
GROSS: ...of the family.
Mr. SIMON: Yes. She was uneducated, she did not have a job and she would do
whatever she could to provide for us, plus she borrowed from her family. But
what she eventually did, which was the hardest thing for us, was that she took
in two men to live in our house, two boarders, who took her bedroom, and she
slept on the sofa in the living room--my brother and I had our own
bedroom--and they were butchers, and they paid us mostly in meat, in lamb
Mr. SIMON: And it was no fun sitting at the room, in the kitchen, eating with
GROSS: Why not?
Mr. SIMON: They were like strangers. They didn't talk to us. They were
mostly foreigners and--I don't mean mostly foreign; they were foreign and
spoke some English, but it was difficult, and it was not my father, and I felt
I was living in not my house, but their house.
GROSS: You know, the stereotype of the Jewish mother of your mother's
Mr. SIMON: Yeah.
GROSS: ...was of the overly possessive, overly neurotic Jewish mother, right?
I imagine your mother was much too busy...
Mr. SIMON: She was, yes.
GROSS: ...to fit that stereotype at all.
Mr. SIMON: No, I don't think she did fit that stereotype. She was very
different. She was very loving and very encouraging in terms of my brother
and I doing the writing. My brother, foolishly, I think, would read the
monologues that we would write at first to my mother, and she would just laugh
all the way through. And my brother said, `Do you understand what they mean?'
And she said, `No, I don't.' He said, `Well, why are you laughing?' She
says, `Well, it pleases me to please you.' I mean, it was such a wonderful
thing for her to do. It didn't encourage us as writers, but it encouraged us
that we had a terrific mother.
GROSS: You write that your brother got you a whore shortly after your 21st
birthday, and that was your sexual initiation.
Mr. SIMON: Yes, it was.
GROSS: Looking back, was that a good way to become initiated?
Mr. SIMON: I don't know if it was a good way. It was the only way. I mean,
if he left it to me, I'd be 54 before it happened. I'm sure glad it did
happen, but it did change me. I mean, you have to get through that moment
because it was the most fearful moment in my life, and I don't know why it is,
looking back. I mean, that you don't expect this woman to think that you
should be expert at what you're doing, or that this is going to be a very
personal affair and that we should like each other. It's really a
cash-and-carry business, and you just do it. But I felt so much better,
having done it, and then I would never have to do it that way again, which I
GROSS: There's a similar but different scene in "Biloxi Blues" where the
character there also has his first experience with a prostitute, but that's on
an Army base, so it's...
Mr. SIMON: Yeah, but that--the origin of that scene in that film was exactly
what happened to me. I mean, it was with a prostitute.
Mr. SIMON: It was his fellow friends bringing him there, but he was--there
was a line in it that summed it up, because I felt the same way when it
happened to me. He said, `I'm not expecting this to be a pleasurable
experience. I just want to get through it.'
DAVIES: Neil Simon speaking with Terry Gross in 1996.
Here's that scene they were talking about from the 1988 film, "Biloxi Blues."
(Soundbite of "Biloxi Blues")
Unidentified Man #1: A half an hour he's been in there. If he doesn't hurry
up, I'm going to pass my peak.
Unidentified Man #2: Hey, what if she's ugly? I mean, really ugly?
Unidentified Man #1: Then you close your eyes and you think of some
Unidentified Man #2: I don't want to close my eyes. That's the same as doing
it to yourself.
Unidentified Man #1: Not if you're feeling someone underneath you, or on top
Unidentified Man #2: On top of me? Who would be on top of me?
Unidentified Man #1: She would. She could be anywhere--under a table, on a
chair or an ironing board.
Unidentified Man #2: On an ironing board? What kind of a girl is this? I
thought we were going to a regular place.
Unidentified Man #1: Don't you know anything?
Unidentified Man #2: Maybe not in actual experience, but I have all the
information I need.
Unidentified Man #1: Do you know how many positions there are?
Unidentified Man #2: American or worldwide?
Unidentified Man #1: This guy is a riot.
DAVIES: We'll hear more from Neil Simon after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with playwright and
screenwriter Neil Simon.
GROSS: What was Broadway like when you first got there?
Mr. SIMON: It was great. There were, I would say, a minimum of 20 plays on
Broadway. I think today, you'd be lucky to find five plays on Broadway. When
I say minimum, I think maybe there'd be 30, and if you would count the amount
of plays that were there during the entire season, the plays that failed and
moved on or had run its run from the year before, so there could be 40 plays
on Broadway. Actors were always acting. Once a play closed, they auditioned
for another play. And so it was not a place that I felt I was not going to be
able to break into.
There was a long road to do it because I had to write a play and get it past
the producers. I showed the first play, "Come Blow Your Horn," to many
producers, about 10 or 12 of the best of them--David Merrick and Garson Kanin
and some of the best-known people in the theater. They gave me wonderful tips
about writing the plays, but they didn't want to put on "Come Blow Your Horn."
They didn't think it was experienced enough, and so the only way I could save
it was by going to summer stock, to the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope,
Pennsylvania. We put it on there. It was sort of a success, but it wasn't
there all the way through, and so the producers there said if I took six
months and rewrote it and they liked the rewrite, they would put it on
Broadway. But it was a glorious time on Broadway then, and I'm sorry to see
it not the same way.
GROSS: Well, what's changed? What was once there that you miss now?
Mr. SIMON: The accessibility of seeing the best actors in the business.
There was Henry Fonda and any other number of wonderful actors who would come
from Hollywood each year to do it, when the difference in salaries didn't seem
to mean anything. But now an actor in one television series could make enough
in that one series , if it ran three years, five years, eight years, to last
him his life and never have to work again. We've lost all of those actors,
lost them from the theater. Very hard to get somebody who would come back and
do a play. You do occasionally, but it's few and far between.
GROSS: Let me ask you about creating two of your most famous characters,
Felix and Oscar, "The Odd Couple."
Mr. SIMON: Yeah.
GROSS: How did you come up with those characters?
Mr. SIMON: Well, I just watched it in real life. It was my brother, Danny,
and a friend of his named Roy Gerber, both of whom moved in together in the
same apartment because they recently were divorced, and they wanted to cut
down on their expenses so they could help pay their alimony. And in their
social life, rather than going out on a double date somewhere and spending a
lot of money on the dinner, my brother Danny decided to cook, and Roy was kind
of a--you know, things came and go very easily for him, so he would just say
to the girls, `Come up for dinner. Come, you know, 6:30, 7, 7:30, whenever
you're ready.' Well, to Danny that was anathema. He was--he cooked the pot
roast that night, he wanted them there at 7:30. And I watched this one night.
I came up to Danny's apartment and Roy's apartment. I saw this taking place
as they were getting prepared for this dinner--I was going to leave before the
dinner happened--and it was hilarious to me. And I said, `Danny, this is a
great movie, a great play, something. You must write it,' because Danny was a
But he never wrote by himself, and he started to write the play, but he took
three months or so to write 10 pages, and finally called me, and he said, `I
can't do it.' He says, `I'm not a writer, and I'm certainly not a
playwright.' He is a writer, of course, but he was not a playwright and he
didn't know how to construct it. And he said, `You take the play and you do
it.' And so I made a financial arrangement with him because it was his
basic--it wasn't his idea to do it as a play, but it was his life, so I was
taking a part of it.
When I wrote the play, in the beginning, I thought I was writing a very dark
comedy. I didn't think it was going to be as funny as it was dark because
here was a man who has broken up with his wife that he loved dearly, and he
had to leave his two children at home, and he was almost suicidal; whereas Roy
was another kind of character who was--I mean the character that Roy was based
on, the Oscar character, was a man who couldn't really keep his life going
together, didn't know how to take care of his children's goldfish when they
left. And so I thought I was writing, as I said, this grim comedy until I
gave it to Bob Fosse, a good friend of mine who lived in the same building, to
read, and he says, `This is the funniest play I've ever read.' And I said,
`You don't find it dark?' And he said, `No, not at all.' So the author is
not always sure about what impression he's going to leave when he writes this
GROSS: Now how'd you feel about "The Odd Couple" when it became a TV series?
Instead of like a constructed play every week, there was another little
adventure or mishap...
Mr. SIMON: Well...
GROSS: ...to write about.
Mr. SIMON: I have to preface that by telling you the story, which you may
have read in the book, that I had a business agent who thought he was doing me
a favor by getting a deal made with Paramount Pictures, whereby they would buy
this little company from me for $125,000, which seemed like an enormous amount
of money, in which they got all of the TV and television rights to "The Odd
Couple." So I never saw a penny of any of "The Odd Couple" television series,
so I could not watch that. I didn't watch that for two years because when I
saw that it was a hit, I saw that's my money going down their drain.
Mr. SIMON: And I also lost all of the stage rights of "Barefoot in the
Park." I never made a penny on that play from the day it opened. And so I
looked at that as a very bad experience, and it was hard for me to watch the
show, until I finally did see it about two years after it was running, and I
saw how good it was. It was really good. It didn't do me any good, but it
was OK for them.
GROSS: Oh, boy, what heartburn it must cause to feel that you almost don't
want to see the success of your own work because you're not getting anything
out of it.
Mr. SIMON: I know. It was hard, but maybe just pushed me on to do other
things. And I said, `I've got to get on with this. I'm not going to sit and
just gripe about it for the rest of my life.' And I just went on to write
GROSS: You write a little bit in your book about being in analysis, and you
say that your first year of analysis was, in a sense, an attempt to introduce
you to yourself, the two sides of you, one the writer and the other, the
person who doesn't write. Are these two sides of you at odds?
Mr. SIMON: Well, they have been for years. They weren't always at odds; they
were just different people. They were not the person that I was with my
family, with my friends. The writer is a very solitary person who is, I guess
in the worst sense, willing to pick the bones of somebody else's character and
put it up there on the stage, even though I don't think I've ever hurt anybody
by doing it because no one ever came up to me and said, `How dare you put this
up there on the stage?' As a matter of fact, when I put my father up on the
stage in "Come Blow Your Horn," he came to see it, and I was very fearful of
what he was going to say. And I said, `What'd you think, Dad?' And he says,
`Oh, I know men just like that.' He never saw himself in it at all, which is
what most people do. Sometimes people come up to me and they say, `That was
me you were writing about, wasn't it?' and it wasn't at all anything that I
was writing about.
So about the two Neil Simons, yes. The writer was persistent. He just always
wanted to write. The other person wanted to have more fun, more leisure time,
more time with his family; and so they were at odds. But I find as time goes
on, right about now, maybe, as we're talking, that the two characters are
becoming more wed to each other. I don't see the disparity in the two
personalities anymore. It sounds like I'm a little psychotic, but I'm not,
GROSS: Well, maybe that's because the two have lived together for so long
they've become more acclimated to each other.
Mr. SIMON: I know. I'm my own "Odd Couple."
GROSS: That's a nice way of looking at it.
Mr. SIMON: Yeah.
GROSS: Did analysis help?
Mr. SIMON: Well, analysis, I think, helps in the long run. I never went for
like long, long periods at a time. I would go from time to time when there
was great trouble in my life, when my first wife died, when I had other
personal problems. But after a while, I started to go because it was a way of
learning about myself and about learning about other people because the
conversations were not only about this Neil Simon character, it was about how
they are affected by other people in the world; and once you get into that
subject, you start to talk about the other people in the world, and you
realize that you do not live alone in this world. So it was very educational
for me. I graduated, got a diploma, it was very nice.
GROSS: Was it helpful for you as a writer to introspect out loud, like...
Mr. SIMON: I think so. The one thing it helped me to do was open myself up
to a complete stranger, because I went to different analysts during my life,
and I never had any trouble doing it. I know people who would say, `Oh, I
would never tell that to my analyst.' And I said, `What are you going for?'
I was never afraid that they were going to betray my privacy or that they were
going to dig too deep. I was sometimes afraid that I was going to go
someplace that was so dark and deep in myself that it might throw me. But it
never did. I never found that place that was so awful. I just realized that
I was human and I was subject to human experiences and troubles and travails
and a lot of happiness.
If anything, the analysts may have taught me to try to enjoy my life so much.
One of them said, `Neil, you don't enjoy your successes long enough.' And I
said, `Well, how--you mean, a play?' And she says, `Yes. I mean, you go
around for about three or four days and say "This is great," and then you just
go back to work and you forget about it.' And I said, `Well, you have to tell
me how long I'm supposed to enjoy myself.' It's work to me, and I enjoy the
work, so I'm enjoying the work more than I am the success.
GROSS: You also had claustrophobia, right?
Mr. SIMON: I did, yes. Strangely, it just went away. I don't know. I
couldn't get on planes, I couldn't get on elevators, and I...
GROSS: But didn't you live in an apartment building? Didn't you live in an
apartment--like a high-rise?
Mr. SIMON: In New York?
Mr. SIMON: Yes, but not while I had claustrophobia. I mean, when I was
GROSS: Yeah, otherwise you'd be taking the stairs a lot.
Mr. SIMON: Yes. When I was growing up in New York, we lived on the third
floor, so I walked up there. When I did live in a building that had an
elevator, if it had an elevator man, then I was all right. Once the
push-buttons came in, I was getting kind of scared. But it just disappeared
one day. I couldn't get on a plane without a drink or something like that, or
a pill. That went away as well. I sometimes can get it. I don't like
driving in a car where I have to--that's a two-door car and I have to sit in
the back. And that--it all has to do with control. It means I am at the whim
of the person driving the car. If I say, `Stop the car. I want to get out,'
and he says `No,' I'm stuck back there. So I need control over my life, which
is why I think one of the reasons I became a writer, because while I'm in that
room, nobody can say, `No, that's not good. You can't do that.'
GROSS: Well, Neil Simon, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SIMON: It was a pleasure.
DAVIES: Playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon speaking with Terry Gross in
1996. His play, "The Goodbye Girl," has been adapted to film for a second
time. This one is a made-for-TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Patricia
Heaton, which airs this weekend on TNT.
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new romantic comedy, "Along
Came Polly." This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New romantic comedy "Along Came Polly"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston star in the new romantic comedy, "Along Came
Polly." In the film, Stiller and Aniston play an unlikely pair--he's uptight,
and she's a free spirit. Film critic David Edelstein says that if the
filmmakers were trying to model the classic screwball comedies of the past,
they haven't done their homework.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
Ben Stiller has a great comic shtick. It always makes me laugh, even when I'm
watching it for the third or fourth or fiftieth time in the same movie, even
when the movie, like "Along Came Polly," could be the basis of a course called
Ben Stiller 101: Screwball Romance in the Age of Pandering, Gross-Out
Stiller plays little guys who are perpetually humiliated. But he's no Charlie
Chaplin or Stan Laurel. He isn't serene, and he doesn't take injustice in
stride. Stiller burns with outrage. He also--and here's his real
problem--burns with shame. And, of course, he's surrounded by shameless
extroverts, not unlike his dad, Jerry Stiller, come to think of it, who exhort
him to throw away his inhibitions and act, a scenario that always ends in
Stiller following their advice and ending up even more pathetically exposed.
The writer and director of "Along Came Polly" is John Hamburg, who has become
a specialist in Stilleresque humiliation gags. He wrote "Meet the Parents"
and "Zoolander," and for his directorial debut, he's come up with a textbook
screwball scenario: A repressed insurance risk analyst is forced to loosen up
when he becomes involved with a flake who runs from scheduling and commitment.
I'd like to say there are one or two more nuances here, but that's essentially
Here's what I think of as the thesis scene, between Stiller's Reuben Feffer,
whose wife left him on the first day of their honeymoon for a muscle-bound
French scuba diver, and Jennifer Aniston as Polly, the movie's resident free
(Soundbite from "Along Came Polly")
Mr. BEN STILLER: (As Reuben) I'm just really, truthfully, not the kind of
guy who's ever going to be into these kind of clubs or any...
Ms. JENNIFER ANISTON: (As Polly) OK, Reuben, you know, then, tell me, what
kind of guy are you?
Mr. STILLER: (As Reuben) What kind of guy am I?
Ms. ANISTON: (As Polly) Yes.
Mr. STILLER: (As Reuben) What do you mean?
Ms. ANISTON: (As Polly) Well, you know, up until now, you haven't exactly
been a portrait of honesty, so just come clean, OK? Just tell me who you are.
Mr. STILLER: (As Reuben) I hate spicy food.
Ms. ANISTON: (As Polly) I knew it!
Mr. STILLER: (As Reuben) Yeah. I don't like it at all. I have a mild case
of IBS, and it...
Ms. ANISTON: (As Polly) What is that?
Mr. STILLER: (As Reuben) Irritable bowel syndrome.
Ms. ANISTON: (As Polly) What?
Mr. STILLER: (As Reuben) Irritable bowel syndrome?
Ms. ANISTON: (As Polly) Oh, God.
Mr. STILLER: (As Reuben) Oh.
Ms. ANISTON: (As Polly) That's terrible. What else?
Mr. STILLER: (As Reuben) Well, the thing is, I assess risk for a living, so
I know that I have a .013 percent chance of being hit by a car on my way home,
or a one in 46,000 chance of falling through a subway grate.
Ms. ANISTON: (As Polly) Really?
Mr. STILLER: (As Reuben) So I try to manage that risk by avoiding danger and
having a plan and knowing what my next move is, and I guess you don't exactly
live your life that way.
Ms. ANISTON: (As Polly) No, I do it--I do it a little differently.
Mr. STILLER: (As Reuben) Yeah, which is great, but I'm not going to ever be a
dirty dancer, and I don't eat food with my hands, and I really like you, but I
just don't think this is going to work out.
(Soundbite of door slamming)
EDELSTEIN: That last sound, by the way, is the two of them crashing through
the door of her apartment on their way to bed. Their first coupling is pretty
funny, and there's a good monologue by Stiller about how a bowl of mixed nuts
in a bar is like a hot zone of Ebola. But the modern screwball comedy has a
cheaper and easier source of gags than its classic predecessors, like
"Bringing Up Baby" and "The Lady Eve," which were almost mythic in the way
they showed people afraid of their own sexuality being shocked into going with
the flow. The 21st century repressed screwball hero has a more basic
struggle. He tries to hide his sexual urges, which means he's always getting
caught ejaculating. He tries to hide his bowels, which means he has expulsive
diarrhea. Now learning to adjust to your own and other people's bodily
excretions isn't a minor issue in life, but it's not exactly the breakthrough
that leads to mature love, which was the subject of those classic screwball
On the level of storytelling, the movie is cruder yet. "Along Came Polly" is
one of those films that celebrates spontaneity and risk-taking, yet are so
formulaic and unrisky that they strangle their own message. It's so generic
that half an hour after it's over, the only thing you'll remember are the
actors, Stiller doing his angry, squirmy thing, and Philip Seymour Hoffman
channeling Chris Farley, which is demeaning for an actor of his stature, but
more subtle than the original, God rest his soul. Jennifer Aniston is
surprisingly good here, throaty and soft and slightly detached. She resists
the impulse to be a zany, and hits a couple of authentically weird notes.
The best thing in the movie, though, is Alec Baldwin as Reuben's boss, the
kind of guy who slaps Reuben's bottom for emphasis when Reuben is standing at
the urinal. Baldwin's enormous here, with a voice that sounds an octave lower
than usual, and his comic spirit is outsized, too. From the wreckage of his
career as a leading man, he's fast becoming one of the premier character
actors of his generation, a man whose comfort in his own expanding flesh is a
lesson to screwball comedy heroes everywhere.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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.