Other segments from the episode on March 12, 2004
DATE March 12, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Tim LaHaye discusses his series of Christian books
dealing with the apocalypse
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" isn't the only current phenomenon in
popular culture inspired by the Bible. The "Left Behind" series of novels,
inspired by the book of Revelation, has sold about 58 million copies. The
12th and final novel in the series will be published at the end of the month.
Bookstores have already bought the complete initial print run of 1.9 million
copies. The "Left Behind" series is named after the title of the first book,
which told the story of the rapture, where millions of born-again Christians
are instantly raised into heaven. The non-believers are left behind on Earth
to face seven years of tribulation, wars, plagues and other catastrophes until
the final battle between Jesus and the Antichrist.
The authors are Jerry Jenkins and my guest, Tim LaHaye. LaHaye is a longtime
activist in the Christian right. He was a co-founder of the Moral Majority.
In 1987, he briefly served as co-chair of Republican Jack Kemp's presidential
campaign. LaHaye also co-founded the Council for National Policy. I spoke
with LaHaye in 2002 after the publication of the 10th novel in the series and
the publication of his self-help book about preparing for the end of time. I
asked him what he thinks are the signs that the end of the world is near.
Mr. TIM LaHAYE (Author): First of all, Israel being brought back into the
land. All prophecy scholars teach that the phenomenon of our age is Israel
coming back into the land, when they didn't have a homeland for 1,700 years.
No nation in the history of the world has ever been able to succeed having
been disrupted from their homeland and maintained existence for over three or
500 years, except the Jews. And the interesting thing is God's Word many
times predicted that the Jews would be taken back into the land, and it always
means the Holy Land, and so that's one. That's the supersign.
Then another sign is people will run to and fro on the Earth and knowledge be
increased. And then after that there are a number of others, the decadence of
our society and the movement toward a one-world government. We hear so much
today from many kinds of people talking about the panacea to man's problems
being a one-world government. And it's true, there have been an enormous
number of wars in human history, particularly in the last century, and so man
naturally thinks if he's going to solve these problems by himself without aid
from God, then it makes sense to have a one-world government. What they
forget is that then you have a man running the government, and absolute power
corrupts absolutely. So it can be dangerous. But anyway, we're moving in
that direction just as the Bible said.
GROSS: Tim LaHaye, I'm gonna ask you to describe your understanding of the
end of days. What happens at the end?
Mr. LaHAYE: Well, the Bible is very clear. If you take it literally, it's
very clear about the events in the last days. The next major event on the
prophetic calendar is what we call the rapture of the church, when Christ
shouts from heaven and all the dead in Christ for 2,000 years--there'd be
billions of people who have called on the name of the Lord as their Lord and
savior--they'll be resurrected. And then which we are alive, all believers on
the Earth today, and only God knows how many--I hope it's maybe one or two
billion people that have received Christ while they're alive--and they will be
transformed, and we meet in the air. Then we meet in the clouds and then we
meet the Lord in the air, and then we'll ever be with the Lord. And so the
believers have one scenario when they go up to heaven to be with him in
fulfillment of Jesus' promise that, `I go to my father's house and I will come
again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there you may be also.'
So we have a certainty that we will go to the father's house.
But then--and this is what the book of Revelation covers and what we cover
mostly in our fiction series, "Left Behind," is the events that will happen
here on Earth. And they're detailed in the book of Revelation, and you'll
find the time of wrath, the wrath of God on those who reject him and follow
the forces of evil.
GROSS: And what are some scenarios we might expect during that period of the
wrath of God?
Mr. LaHAYE: Well, the first thing that will happen will be the seal
judgments. There are seven of those. And then after that there are trumpet
judgments and after that there are vile. So there are 21 judgments in all.
And the seal judgments start with the rider on the white horse. The
Antichrist comes in and with diplomacy and cunning and so on, he gains control
of the world. And then by offering peace, says we'll have world peace, and
everybody today wants world peace, but the Bible says the next horseman--and
this is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the first four seals--and
the second one is war and bloodshed. And then you have famine and so on.
Well, during that last seven years of tribulation, they have to make a
decision: Are they going to become believers or are they going to become
followers of Antichrist, who is really led by Satan himself?
GROSS: So first comes the rapture in which the believers rise to heaven, and
then comes the seven-year period of the tribulation, which is filled with war
and plague and famine and all that stuff. And the people experiencing that
are the non-believers, the people who have been left behind on Earth. And how
does that end?
Mr. LaHAYE: Well, that ends by Christ finishing his coming. See, the
rapture, he comes in the air, but in the seven years later, he comes to the
Earth, and he conquers the Antichrist's armies as they're gathered in
Armageddon, and then he sets up his kingdom, and then you have what everybody
craves for, peace on Earth, goodwill toward men, and you have the government
of Christ. It's a time of righteousness, a time of justice, and a time of
blessing, and it lasts for a thousand years.
GROSS: So the creation of Israel is, in your mind, a sign that the end is
near. Now what happens to the Jewish people in your vision of the end of
Mr. LaHAYE: Well, they're going to go back into the promised land, and
they're going to rebuild their temple and they're going to set up their temple
worship. You know, it's been 2,000 years almost that they've had no worship;
ever since 70 AD when the temple was destroyed, they've had no sacrifice. And
so they will return to that. But during that time, there will be an
outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the moving of many people's hearts to come
to God. And the people that reject God will be those who just rebel against
God. They're opposed to anything spiritual, and they deny the existence of
God. And people with that attitude are quick to follow something that's
spurious, and during the tribulation period, Antichrist will come along and
fill that vacuum and lead the people to follow him. And he really is
following Satan and doing Satan's work. It's a classic illustration of the
last days' battle between good and evil. The last days--actually I call it
the long war between God and Satan for the souls of men...
Mr. LaHAYE: ...and it will reach its vortex during that period.
GROSS: So let me see if I understand correctly. The re-establishment of
Israel is important in your understanding...
Mr. LaHAYE: Yes.
GROSS: ...of the end of days, but what about the Jewish people? Are they
considered believers when the rapture comes or non-believers?
Mr. LaHAYE: That's an individual experience. Anyone can become a believer
from any religion, any ethnic group, and the Jews are no exception. About a
third of them, according to Zechariah, will become believers...
GROSS: Believers in Christ, is what you mean.
Mr. LaHAYE: ...before the end--exactly. A massive number of them will
receive Christ as their Messiah.
GROSS: So although the establishment of Israel is important in your vision of
the second coming, Jews themselves will have to convert to Christianity in
order to be saved, and those who don't will be condemned to suffer here on
Earth during the tribulations and then basically to go to hell if they haven't
converted after that?
Mr. LaHAYE: That's a good summary of what's going to happen. Just because
you're a Jew does not mean that you don't have to make the same decision that
everyone else does. The Bible refers to men all encompassing in the words,
`Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved,' and so he
doesn't discriminate between Jews or Gentiles. It's God's will that all men
be saved and receive Jesus as their Messiah.
GROSS: Now what about Catholics? Do they have to--I mean, does everybody who
is of the Christian faith get saved or, I mean, do they have to follow a
certain type of Christian faith? Will Catholics be saved? Do they have to
convert to a more born-again type of faith?
Mr. LaHAYE: Well, we believe that when Jesus said twice in John 3, that
`Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven,' that that's
a mandatory requirement for salvation. You have to be born again. But
somewhere--and it's not defined exactly how you do it. I think sometimes
we're a little more specific because of our tradition. I'm convinced that
there are many people who have, from their ignorance, recognizing that Christ
died for their sins and that he rose again, they've called out to God in the
name of Christ for mercy. They don't know exactly how to pray, but you see,
God looks on the heart, and that's the neat thing about it, is that a man
looks on the outward appearance, the Bible says, but God looks on the heart.
And so when he looks into the heart and sees that person call on the name of
the Lord to be saved, then he's saved. Doesn't matter whether he's a Baptist
or a Catholic or a Presbyterian or whatever.
GROSS: Your series of novels, "Left Behind," that's based on biblical
prophecy of the apocalypse, the second coming of Christ, the rapture, the end
of days, these series of books has sold over 50 million copies. Would you
like your readers who aren't born-again Christians to convert?
Mr. LaHAYE: Well, I must say that that's the primary purpose of our writing
is to communicate the grace of God and the mercy of God to individuals and
extending them salvation and then show it in real-life characters, that people
that are born again or people that call on the name of the Lord are just
ordinary people, like an airlines pilot. The hero of our series, Rayford
Steele, after the rapture, he prays to receive Christ, and then his daughter
finally does, and then the journalist--so that people from all walks of life
are doing what we call having a believable conversion. And we try to write it
down to earth and have it reasonably believable. I think that the success
we've had is attributed to Jerry's personal writing and the incredible story
that God has outlined for the future.
GROSS: My guest is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the apocalyptic Christian novels
known as the "Left Behind" series. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, Tim LaHaye, is the co-author of the best-selling Christian
novels about the apocalypse and the second coming known as the "Left Behind"
series. He was on the board of the Moral Majority. The 12th and final novel
of the series will be published at the end of the month. Our interview was
recorded in 19--I'm sorry--in 2002.
In imagining what the second coming will be like, you have to imagine the
final battle between Christ and the Antichrist. Is there anyone now on Earth
who you suspect of being the Antichrist?
Mr. LaHAYE: No, I don't. I can't imagine who it would be, and I'll be
honest with you, I have looked. And among Bible scholars, though there's very
little disagreement about the fact that Christ is going to come to the Earth,
there are many people that have tried to pinpoint. I have not been that
speculative. I think that brings the whole cause of prophecy into disrepute
when someone turns out not to be the Antichrist, but I wouldn't be at all
surprised if he's in the world today.
GROSS: One of the chief villains in your "Left Behind" series is Nicolae
Jetty Carpathia, who's the former president of Romania, former
secretary-general of the United Nations and now the head of the Global
Community. What does his casting as the villain indicate about your views of
the United Nations?
Mr. LaHAYE: Well, the United Nations is just an easy fall guy for the fact
that the Bible has taught for many years that there would be a one-world
government set up, and it's not just the United Nations but the thinking of
mankind ever since World War I, when you have the devastation of all but seven
countries of the world involved in the conflagration, and millions of people
dying, both because of the war and then as an aftermath. They were back then
trying to get a one-world government established to solve the problems of man.
And it wasn't until 1945 that the United Nations was set up, and here we are,
50 years later and it's the closest thing that exists to world government.
And so it just happens to be the fall guy of what we have predicted in
this--or what we think the Bible predicts. There will be a one-world
government. It may not be the United Nations.
GROSS: We are living in an age of nuclear weapons. How does this come into
play in your vision of the end of days? Is this a sign, do you think, that
we're getting close?
Mr. LaHAYE: Well, yes, it certainly is an indication that we're living in
perilous, insecure times, and it is interesting that it focuses on the Middle
East. See, the Bible makes it clear that Jerusalem and Israel and the Middle
East will be the focal point of the world's interest factor, and in my
lifetime, that's--at least my professional lifetime, that's been a main focus,
because the Bible predicted that the end times would focus on the Middle East.
And the thing that's drawing them, of course, is oil. What we're seeing here
is a not-so-subtle attempt to control the world's oil, because who controls
the oil controls the world.
GROSS: You know, you were talking about how important the Middle East is in
preparing for the end of days. And I'm wondering, is that, for instance, why
Pat Robertson, on the newscasts on his show, has always devoted so much time
to coverage of the Middle East?
Mr. LaHAYE: Could very well be. The interesting thing is that the Bible
says that in the last days in Israel would be a troublesome stone, and that's
exactly what they are. They're a trouble to the whole world. I'm not saying
they shouldn't do what they're doing, but it's causing great trouble in the
GROSS: Tim LaHaye, your best-selling series of "Left Behind" novels, about
the rapture and the Antichrist, the second coming, the apocalypse--these have
really struck a chord--I mean, 50 million copies sold. In these books, a lot
of people convert and become born-again Christians and go to heaven. Are you
confident that you're going to heaven?
Mr. LaHAYE: Oh, yes. I have every confidence because the Bible says if we
would call on the name of the Lord, we would be saved, and I've called on the
name of the Lord. I had a very distinct experience when I was very young, and
I've never had any question, not based on any goodness in me. I know I have
not lived a perfect life, and I'm not perfect now. But I am a forgiven
believer, just like anyone who believes that Jesus died for their sins and
rose again can have forgiveness. So I have no question about being saved.
And I don't mind telling you, I think that there are probably a billion or
more of us in this world, that when Jesus shouts from heaven, we're all going.
GROSS: The rapture takes place during your series of novels, and that's when
people who are believers get just instantaneously lifted into heaven. And in
your novels, suddenly, their kind of personal effects are left behind, but the
people have disappeared, you know, leaving behind, like, earrings or clothing
or, you know, just other personal effects. Would you like to be alive during
the rapture? Do you think that it makes a difference to your soul whether you
die before the rapture or whether you're here for the actual rapture itself?
Mr. LaHAYE: No, it doesn't make any difference to your soul, but I'll be
honest with you, my wife and I have kiddingly said--you know, we've been
married for 55 years. We would love to be a part of the rapture, instead of
either one of us having to face the death of a person we love, to go together
in the rapture. And the neat thing about it is that every one of our
listeners today, if they would recognize that they need to receive Jesus, they
could have that same hope. The Bible makes this a blessed hope. And it's a
comfort to us to know that in the twinkling of an eye, in a moment, Jesus
could shout, and we could be translated into heaven forever and ever and ever
GROSS: You believe that the only true faith is born-again Christianity, and
Mr. LaHAYE: Yes, I do.
GROSS: ...and that only born-again Christians will be redeemed and go to
heaven. During this time on Earth, what is your feelings toward people of
other faiths or your feelings about people who are Christians but not
born-again Christians? Do you have respect for their faiths? Do you respect
them as Catholics or Jews or Muslims?
Mr. LaHAYE: Well, I respect them for what they believe. In fact, I try to
be respectful toward all people and yet disagree with what they believe. That
should be my right in a free society. But it's my responsibility before God
to confront other people with the truth as it is in Christ. You know, a lot
of people say that, `You should know the truth, and the truth will make you
free,' but what they don't--they take it out of context. The truth there is
Jesus. Jesus is the truth; he is the way that God has prescribed to come--and
he says, `No man comes to the father but by him.'
I'll tell you a little secret. I was in the Holy Land when they were having a
religious conclave, and who should be walking down the hall toward me with an
entourage but the Dalai Lama. And I didn't know--here I am, a minister from
America visiting, and I just stuck out my hand and shook hands with him and
said, `Sir, has anyone ever explained to you who Jesus Christ really is? If
they haven't, I'd be glad to spend an hour with you and just to share with you
the truth about him.' And his aide, of course, brushed me off and told me
that he was busy; he didn't have time. But that was just an involuntary
response to a man who is very religious and very pious and probably very
sincere, but he doesn't know the truth of the way to God, and I think we
Christians have to be ready at any moment to share that truth with them.
GROSS: Well, Tim LaHaye, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. LaHAYE: It's been my privilege. God bless you.
GROSS: Tim LaHaye is co-author of the "Left Behind" novels. The 12th and
final novel in the series, "The Glorious Appearing," will be published at the
end of the month.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Gershom Gorenberg discusses his book, "The End of
Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount," and
the "Left Behind" series
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Gershom Gorenberg, is an Israeli journalist who writes about the
intersection of politics and religion. He's the author of the book, "The End
of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount." One chapter
of the book is devoted to his analysis of the "Left Behind" series of novels
about the rapture and the Second Coming co-authored by Tim LaHaye, who we just
heard from. About 58 million copies of "Left Behind" books have already been
sold. The final novel in the series, "The Glorious Appearing," will be
published at the end of the month.
Gorenberg is an associate at the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston
University and has written for The Jerusalem Report and The New Republic. In
2002, after speaking with LaHaye, I asked Gorenberg how he interprets the
popularity of the "Left Behind" series.
Mr. GERSHOM GORENBERG (Author, "The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the
Struggle for the Temple Mount"): The first thing it says is that there's a
tremendous interest in Apocalypse, in the end of days, as portrayed by
fundamentalist Christianity. It's not restricted to a few nuts, somebody
standing on the street corner with a sign saying, `The end is nigh.' It's a
part of American culture shared by millions of people.
The second thing it says is that the books themselves are spreading that
belief, spreading that interest and, along with it, spreading a whole set of
religious and political ideas; religious ideas that are essentially
fundamentalist, largely intolerant and political ideas which belong to the
right fringe of American politics.
GROSS: What are some of your concerns about the ideas in the series?
Mr. GORENBERG: Well, the series presents a fantasy version of today's world.
In the books, the final seven years of history are taking place, but if you
read carefully, what's really going on is this is our world without the
dissonance felt by fundamentalist Christians. This is a world in which
miracles take place, in which all the bad things from a fundamentalist
perspective are openly being done by the Antichrist. And so it provides a
certain road map of a view of today's world. It promotes the idea that there
is a conspiracy of financiers behind world affairs. It promotes the idea that
that dark, satanic conspiracy has among its aims global disarmament. So the
moment you run into anything that's working for peace or international
cooperation, you're supposed to identify it as associated with the Antichrist,
There is a portrayal of Catholicism as being partner to the Antichrist, as
being a religion which is essentially the handmaiden of the devil, or in the
apocalyptic language that they would use, the whore of Babylon. So here you
have a rejection of an entire religious stream. You have a portrayal of
ecumenicalism and interreligious dialogue as being demonic. You also have a
portrayal of a situation in which the Jews are either converted or killed.
GROSS: The Jewish people in Israel have a central place in the vision of
Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Jesus as it's described in the "Left
Behind" series and as it's understood by the authors of this series. Let me
ask you to explain that place.
Mr. GORENBERG: Well, here, these books really provide a key to understanding
support by the Christian right for Israel and what's underlying it and how,
strangely enough, there's really a very anti-Jewish theology underlying the
ostensible support for Israel, because in the theology that they're
presenting, the Jews have to return to their land and create a state as the
prelude for the Second Coming. But once the apocalyptic events begin to take
place, the Jews will either have to convert or to die. When the scenario is
completed, when the Second Coming takes place, there will be no more Jews.
GROSS: Let me explain. That means that in order for them to get to heaven,
they have to convert to born-again Christianity, and if not, they'll be
condemned to hell. At least that's how it was described a little earlier on
our show by Tim LaHaye.
Mr. GORENBERG: Right. But if you read the books, you see something further
than that, because, again, the books are a playing out of the religious drama
in the real world. So by the latest of the books, by number 10, you have a
scene in which the Antichrist is ordering the slaughter of all Jews. And the
only ones who are going to get saved, clearly from what else is going on in
the book, are those who've already become Christians. So the scene that
leaders are reading is one in which Jews either convert or die. That's the
fantasy in the books. There won't be anymore Jews to refuse Jesus.
In a sense, what you have going on here, again, is this is the resolution of
all the forms of dissonance that the fundamentalist feels about this world.
And one of the prime places of dissonance is: How come the Jews didn't accept
the person that Christianity regards as the Messiah? After all, he was a Jew,
Christianity insists that he was the Jewish Messiah. How come the Jews don't
accept him? Christianity says that he was predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures.
How come the Jews, who have that book, don't accept that?
So what happens in this series of novels, they either accept it or they die.
The irony is that here you have a group of people who are emphatically
professing their love for Israel and for the Jewish people, and yet, they're
basing that on a variation of a theology which is incredibly intolerant to
GROSS: Now some of those scenarios are based on the Book of Revelations. How
much of this scenario is based on the Bible, and how much of it is based on
something more recent than that?
Mr. GORENBERG: They claim that this is all based on a literal reading of the
Bible, and that they're not putting any of their own interpretation into it.
And, of course, this claim is rather absurd because any construction of an
understanding of the Bible involves human interpretation. You're talking
about an ancient text, one that's poetic, one that's ambiguous, one that's
often allegorical. So when they construct this entire scenario out of the
Bible, it's a vast structure of interpretation in which key girders in that
structure are biblical verses. But the way that those verses are put
together, the way that the structure is built is the responsibility of the
people creating the structure. In fact, that's one of the great moral
problems, is that they don't take responsibility for the philosophy that
GROSS: You also, in your book "The End of Days," cite somebody named John
Darby for first expressing this type of rapture scenario.
Mr. GORENBERG: Right. Darby was a 19th century British preacher who came up
with a new theory of the end of days, and his ideas spread very quickly among
conservative Protestants in the United States and eventually became the main
theology among American fundamentalists and quite influential among the wider
community known as evangelicals. It's not universally accepted. The fact
that somebody is an evangelical doesn't mean that he or she accepts these
ideas, but they are very, very, very influential.
The thing that's interesting is that you'll find that the various prophesy
preachers and scholars with their books and their videos and their cassette
tapes and their radio shows rarely mention Darby, because the conceit is this
is the literal meaning of the text, so you shouldn't refer back to a earlier
interpreter. That would be admitting that this is an interpretation.
GROSS: How did you learn about Darby?
Mr. GORENBERG: Well, I first began to look into these groups because I became
interested in their connections with far right groups in Israel. And in the
course of reading about them, talking to scholars of Christian theology who
had studied these groups, I was pointed to various texts which explained the
history of this movement. But as I said, when you read the popular text,
there is almost never any mention of where these ideas started, where they
came from, because they're supposed to be the literal meaning of the Bible.
One thing that's very funny about it, actually, is that oftentimes, these
literal interpretations are being offered by people who actually can't read
the original text. They're literal interpretations of a translation and, of
course, every translation is, in itself, an interpretation. So they're taking
the English text of the Bible and building these theories upon it.
GROSS: Is there a scene from the "Left Behind" series that you could describe
to illustrate what you consider to be one of the more disturbing aspects of
this world view?
Mr. GORENBERG: Well, in the 10th book, which is called "The Remnant," there
is a scene in which the character known as Nicolae Carpathia, who is the
Antichrist, the world dictator, is sitting in his office, and he calls in his
top aide and he tells him to go out and order the death of all the Jews. He
says, `Imprison them, torture them, humiliate them, shame them, blaspheme
their God, plunder everything they own. Nothing is more important,' and the
aide rushes out to do this. Now this idea, which is basically the idea of a
coming holocaust, is one that you find often in the writings of fundamentalist
There's books that you can find on their Web sites with names like "Israel's
Final Holocaust." I've had other fundamentalist figures tell me that what
will happen during the last years of history will be worse than what happened
in Europe in the '40s. And when you question them on this, they say, `Well,
we don't want it to happen, but that's what the Bible says will happen.' But,
of course, this is their interpretation of the Bible. The Bible doesn't say
this; this is how they read the Bible.
GROSS: Well, Gershom Gorenberg, I want to thank you very much for talking
Mr. GORENBERG: It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Gershom Gorenberg is a journalist based in Israel. His essay about
the "Left Behind" series is in this book. "The End of Days." Our interview
was recorded in 2002. The 12th and final novel in the "Left Behind" series
will be published at the end of the month.
Coming up, we remember actor Paul Winfield, and listen back to a 1989
This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Paul Winfield discusses his acting career
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're going to remember the actor Paul Winfield. He died of a heart attack
Sunday at the age of 62. Winfield received an Academy Award nomination for
his role as a sharecropper in the 1972 film "Sounder." In the TV adaptation
presented last year, Winfield co-starred in a different role. His other films
include "The Greatest," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," "The Terminator"
and "Presumed Innocent." Some of his best roles were on television early in
his career from 1968 to '71. He played opposite Diahann Carroll on the sitcom
"Julia." He won an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. in the 1978 TV miniseries "King," and was nominated again for his
performance in "Roots: The Next Generation." He won an Emmy in 1995 for his
guest appearance as a judge on "Picket Fences."
I spoke with Paul Winfield in 1989, when he was co-starring on the TV series
"Wiseguy" as a record company head and compulsive gambler. I asked him about
his voice, which seemed like a voice that came out of classical theater.
Mr. PAUL WINFIELD (Actor): Oh, thank you. It's one of the major tools, but I
don't have--I'm very envious of other actors' voices. I think a voice like
James Earl Jones has that great resonance and ...(unintelligible).
GROSS: You don't think you have a great voice?
Mr. WINFIELD: Well, it never--I don't like listening to it, I'll tell you
that. It doesn't--I just feel that--well, one of the things I like working on
the stage is because they really do then train--where they're working on my
voice and the things you can get out of it. But I don't take lessons and do
all the things I should be doing if I was a better actor. But those are
the--I mean, it's truly--it's the words that you're dealing with in really
great plays of Chekhov or Shakespeare, and more demands are made upon you and
on your voice. But thank you very much. I'm glad somebody thinks so.
GROSS: One of your first big breaks was when you were cast in "The Dutchman"
by Leroi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, and his early plays were very radical, both
in politics and in sensibility. Did that radicalism suit you at the time?
Mr. WINFIELD: Well, yes, it did, although I had a lot of very white friends.
I think they didn't really understand me, and particularly when we were doing
that play. As you may or may not remember, the last scene of "The Dutchman,"
the young black man has this tremendously--like five-page harangue about
racial injustice and he's going to cut his throat. And don't push us too far
because there's always right under the surface all of this anger and rage and
Well, I mean, I thought I did that speech really well, and my white friends
were coming, I said, `Well, what did you think of the play?' They said, `Oh,
well,' dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. I said, `Yeah, but what did you think of
that last scene?' They said, `What? You mean--What last scene?' I said,
`You know, with that long speech?' They said, `Oh, gee, I don't remember very
much about it.' It sort of went over their heads, I guess. But I found
it--it got a lot of things off my chest anyway.
GROSS: Well, did that affect your ability to get cast in other roles at the
beginning? I'm just thinking that when you get the reputation as maybe being
radical, some people won't come near you.
Mr. WINFIELD: Well, no, I was--and actually I think it sort of helped because
I played an awful lot of angry black young men, which came right after that,
which was when Hollywood really sort of started paying attention when just the
outskirts of their town was being burned down. They said, `Who are these
people?' So, I mean, I played a lot of radicals and what have you, but that
was the--"The Dutchman" was very good training and preparation for that.
I think generally--I guess, actually, I really owe it all to Dr. King because
before the civil rights movement, I think, in the South, most of white
America, middle America really didn't have much contact or really care very
much about black people or really knew anything about them, as if we really
existed on the other side of the moon.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned Martin Luther King. You played the role of King
in a television miniseries.
Mr. WINFIELD: Yeah.
GROSS: It's like a big responsibility to play somebody like that?
Mr. WINFIELD: Scared me to death.
Mr. WINFIELD: I tell you. It was...
GROSS: Well, how did--yeah, go ahead.
Mr. WINFIELD: It was awesome, and the more--I was lucky enough to have about
four months' preparation and the chance to talk to people who knew him and to
travel around, and the more I found out about him, the scarier it got because,
for one thing, I don't know how you really play an intellectual, which I think
he truly was. I mean, the only time I saw him was at the Democratic
Convention in Los Angeles here in the '60s. And I'll have to admit that I was
not impressed by him. Adam Clayton Powell spoke; it was riveting. I mean, we
stood to our feet. Then this sort of very short and sort of unassuming black
man came up, spoke very quietly but also with a Southern accent. And being, I
guess, from the West and sort of, I though, sophisticated, I didn't--he just
didn't take people with Southern accents very seriously. I mean, I think if
Einstein had came in and said, `Well, I just discovered the theory of
relativity,' you know, that nobody would take him serious. So, I mean, it
was--but as I got older and certainly learned more about Dr. King and about
the--yes, it's certainly changed my life and also just the response of people
who had met him.
GROSS: You mentioned how there was a time when you didn't take people with
Southern accents that seriously. And I'm thinking about the movie "Sounder"
where you played a man from the rural South in 1933 during the Depression.
Mr. WINFIELD: Yeah.
GROSS: Was that a difficult role for you to take on since you were from the
city? You're from Washington--California.
Mr. WINFIELD: That was my first time in the South, and it was also quite an
awakening for me. Well, it's--the accents, I mean, you know, wasn't hard, and
we all sort of softened it up anyway, just wanted to make them basically human
beings. But the South at that time was truly a revelation for me, and you'd
go by these enormous beautiful plantations and some you could even get inside
and you'd see the wonderful craftsmen and the wonderful, truly stylist,
luxurious style of living that they, obviously, enjoyed, and you couldn't help
but appreciate it. I mean, beauty is beauty; craftsmanship is craftsmanship.
And then you'd go in the back where the slave quarters were who made all of
this possible; and as a young black man, it's sort of hard to describe, but it
stays with me quite a bit.
GROSS: Paul Winfield recorded in 1989. He died of a heart attack Sunday at
the age of 62.
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews David Mamet's new film "Spartan." This
is FRESH AIR.
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Review: David Mamet's "Spartan"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The playwright David Mamet's ninth feature film as a director is a
labyrinthian conspiracy thriller in which a special ops commander, played by
Val Kilmer, hunts for the kidnapped daughter of the president of the United
States. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new film "Spartan."
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
After September 11th, government officials reportedly sought out Hollywood
screenwriters to brainstorm about potential terrorist scenarios. I don't know
if David Mamet was among the writers consulted, but if he wasn't, it was an
oversight. Mamet not only has the most deeply imagined paranoid world view of
an American artist, he'd make one amazing interrogator at someplace like
Guantanamo. I mean, Mamet plays head games with people he loves. Can you
imagine what he'd do to the enemy?
Actually, you don't have to imagine. There's an interrogation scene in
Mamet's thriller "Spartan." It's not especially long or graphic, at least by
Mel Gibson's standards, but the combined veracity of a punch or a slap and
Mamet's stabbing and repetitive dialogue is almost unbearable. The hook of
"Spartan" is that the president's daughter is missing from her Harvard dorm,
and it's a measure of Mamet's perversity that at no time in the movie does
anyone use the word `president.' Someone, we never see who, because a lot of
linking expository scenes are pointedly left out, calls in special ops
commander Robert Scott, played by Val Kilmer. Scott is all manly stoicism,
another Mamet hero who speaks with icy deliberation and clear strategic intent
to obfuscate, to psych out, to gain the advantage. Training the novice played
by Derek Luke, he says it's all in the mind; that's where the battles are.
As a film director, Mamet has perfected his mind games. He proved in the
opening of his last film, "Heist," that he can do taut and intricate action
sequences, and he knows how to move the camera which no longer freezes for
every stilted exchange. Mamet has become a master of momentum, and the first
two-thirds of "Spartan" are classic. It's mostly men, which is good because
Mamet doesn't write that well for women, and mostly cold, hard men under
pressure to move quickly and with no human niceties, which is better because
Mamet doesn't write that well for humans.
These men are operating in secret, too, which requires constant scamming,
constant ruses. That's what Mamet does best and has the best time doing.
Listen to this early scene. It's almost incantatory. Ed O'Neill plays the
president's chief political operator--think Karl Rove--and he's quizzing an
agent on the whereabouts of the first daughter. The last voice you hear will
be Kilmer, who gives the scene its ominous punch line.
(Soundbite from "Spartan")
Mr. ED O'NEILL: (As the president) Where's the girl?
Unidentified Actor: Sir, we believe she was abducted from this club, that she
was taken to a bordello.
Mr. O'NEILL: (As the president) Here in Boston?
Unidentified Actor: Yes, sir, and that...
Mr. O'NEILL: (As the president) Come on, let's hear it.
Unidentified Actor: ...she may have been delivered for sale, that she may
have been sent down the pipeline and overseas.
Mr. O'NEILL: (As the president) To get to her father?
Unidentified Actor: No, sir. We believe they don't know who she is, that
they just took some girl.
Mr. O'NEILL: (As the president) She dyed her hair. They see that red hair,
what do they do? Her hair grows out. When they see that red hair, somebody
recognizes her. What do they do when they realize who they took?
Mr. VAL KILMER: (As Robert Scott) They kill her.
EDELSTEIN: Part of me thinks dialogue like that is so artificial I keep
waiting for the scenery to fall over. Another part finds it irresistible,
especially in an artificial genre like espionage. The first hour of "Spartan"
can make you sick with dread, like the first season of the TV series "24," and
Kilmer deepens it. He can jab with the best Mamet mouthpieces, but something
inside him sits moodily back, weighing his words with grim irony.
I should add that this is a conversion melodrama. The hero will lose his
robotic hardness and find his soul, but "Spartan" is hardly a Bogarty kind of
romance. You wait for the Mamet credo to kick in and, sure enough, it does
with a vengeance. It's a universe of twists and double-crosses and double,
double-crosses and triple double, half-gainer, back-flip with a twist crosses.
The winner would have to be a medalist in the Machiavellian Olympics with
compromising photos of the Russian judge to boot.
The last half-hour of "Spartan" is still entertaining, but it's laughable.
It's full of clunky plot turns, absurdly venal motivations and a jolt of
misogyny. Mamet regards the president's daughter with contempt for having
dyed her hair blonde, which seems to have brought the whole bloodbath on. His
is a sick and corrupt world finally in which few acts of decency go
unpunished, and I find that just as phony and simpleminded as a world in which
everyone lives happily ever after.
Sometimes I wonder how Mamet gets out of bed, he's so paranoid, let alone
cranks out two-thirds of a crackerjack thriller. Next time, he should leave
out the cynical booby prize.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Duke Ellington's sister, Ruth Ellington, died last Saturday at the age of 88.
She took care of his business affairs for many years. We'll close with a 1959
Duke Ellington recording.
(Soundbite of music)
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.