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Remembering Alex Chilton: An Underground 'Big Star'

Chilton, who died Wednesday from a heart attack, was the lead singer of the '60s teenage band the Box Tops and the '70s power pop group Big Star. He joined Fresh Air for two interview, first in 1991 and again in 2000. Today, we remember the cult musician.

20:24

Other segments from the episode on March 19, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 19, 2010: Obituary for Alex Chilton; Review of the film "The Runaways"; Interview with Bryan Cranston; Review of the television shows "Life," "Breaking Bad," "Nurse…

Transcript

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Remembering Alex Chilton: An Underground 'Big Star'

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

Singer, guitarist and songwriter Alex Chilton died Wednesday of an apparent
heart attack. He was 59 years old. Alex Chilton first tasted fame as the lead
singer of a 1960s group called The Box Tops. Their hits included "Cry Like a
Baby" and "The Letter," for which he provided the growly vocal when he was only
16 years old.

(Soundbite of song, "The Letter")

THE BOX TOPS (Music Group): (Singing) Give me a ticket for an aeroplane. Ain't
got time to take a fast train. Lonely days are gone, I'm going home. My baby
just wrote me a letter.

I don't care how much money I gotta spend, got to get back to my baby again.
Lonely days are gone, I'm going home. My baby just wrote me a letter.

Well, she wrote me a letter, said she couldn't live without me no more. Listen,
mister, can't you see I got to get to my baby once more. Anyway, get me a
ticket for an aeroplane....

BIANCULLI: In the 1970s, Alex Chilton formed his own band, Big Star, which was
less successful commercially but regarded very warmly by critics and fellow
artists and was quite influential. At the time, Village Voice rock critic
Robert Cristgau described Chilton's Big Star music as breathtakingly original.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked all three Big Star albums on its list of
the 500 greatest albums of all time.

So revered was he by the next generation that The Replacements recorded a song
called simply "Alex Chilton." And Saturday night at the South by Southwest
Music Festival in Austin, Texas, an event at which Alex Chilton had been
scheduled to appear, original members of Big Star will join other musicians in
a tribute to Alex Chilton. Those other musicians include members of R.E.M., She
and Him and X.

In remembrance of Alex Chilton, today we'll replay a pair of vintage interviews
he recorded with Terry Gross, beginning with this one from 1991.

TERRY GROSS, host:

You started recording with The Box Top when you were 16. Can you tell me how
you got a chance like that at such a young age?

Mr. ALEX CHILTON (Musician): Well, Memphis was a hotbed of recording activity -
Memphis, where I grew up. And you know, I was asked to join a kind of
successful local band who made records at sort of a successful independent
producer's studio. And after I'd been with them about a month, we went in the
studio and recorded our first hit song. And so it was just something that was
easy to fall into. It was sort of like growing up in Hollywood, next door to
MGM's studio lot or something, you know.

GROSS: Right. Now on those early sessions with The Box Tops, you have this
real, you know, kind of rough, growly kind of voice, and your voice is
completely different on your subsequent work. Did you sing that way at the
time, or were you asked to sing that way?

Mr. CHILTON: Well, the producer of the band was a strong influence on how we
sounded, and he would sort of demonstrate to me how he wanted things sung, and
I would pretty much just imitate his singing. His name was Dan Penn, still is
Dan Penn.

GROSS: So did you feel like it wasn't really you on the records in that
respect?

Mr. CHILTON: In a way I do. I listen to it, and I go wow, Dan's really in voice
today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHILTON: It sounds more like Dan than it does myself to me.

GROSS: What was it like handling fame at the age of 16? Were you prepared for
it?

Mr. CHILTON: Oh, I mean, I don't know that anybody's prepared to handle fame.
But then again, I think it would've made a lot more difference if I'd been a
true believer in my own fame, too, but as it was, you know, we were kind of
doing the bidding of producers and recording songs that were not our own, and
it was sort of a job to me. I wasn't such a great fan of our group that I was
really caught up in thinking that I was a tremendous great artist or anything
at the time.

GROSS: When did you leave The Box Tops and start your own group?

Mr. CHILTON: In 1970, I left The Box Tops, and I guess the next year, I started
the group called Big Star.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you about one of the first records that you made on your
own after The Box Tops, and this is a song you wrote called "Free Again." Do
you want to say anything about what was going through your mind when you wrote
the song?

Mr. CHILTON: Sure, you know, I guess that it's some kind of tune of some kind
of liberation as far as the lyrics. But I was a big fan of The Flying Burrito
Brothers at the time, and you know, country rock was sort of something I was
getting interested in. So it sounds very country rocky, and you know, with the
petal steel guitar and all.

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Free Again")

Mr. CHILTON: (Singing) Well, I'm free again, to do what I want again, free
again to sing my song again, free again to end my longing to be out on my own
again. Well I had me a girl, but she couldn't understand me and my ways, and my
need to be a man. Left her today, put my life in my hands, and well, I'm free
again. Well I'm free again...

GROSS: When you formed the band Big Star, was there an intended irony behind
the name?

Mr. CHILTON: I guess so. We'd been together for some time without a name, and
somehow it just, there was a store across the street called The Big Star, and
while wondering what we should call ourselves, we looked across the street, and
somehow it seemed perfect.

So I guess yeah, there was an irony in calling our first album "#1 Record" by a
group called Big Star. I guess we thought it was funny at the time.

GROSS: Well, I guess it kind of stayed funny in the sense that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHILTON: We sure never sold any records, yeah.

GROSS: Was that a great disappointment to you?

Mr. CHILTON: I don't know. I was – I wasn't really counting on selling a whole
lot of records or anything, you know. I mean, I thought that someday, if we
ever sold any records, I might make some money out of it. That's been – that
myth has been exploded for me also. But you know, I didn't have any great
emotional investment in the success or failure of the record in commercial
terms.

GROSS: Now, choose one of the songs from the early sessions that really still
works for you, you know what I mean, that really sums up for you the kind of
sounds you wanted to get.

Mr. CHILTON: Well, my favorite song from the first Big Star record is called
"In the Street," you know, and I think that that's sort of the best song that I
wrote in that period, and somehow it just turned out great, you know. On tape
these things happen sometimes for no good reason.

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "In the Street")

Mr. CHILTON: (Singing) Hanging out, down the street, the same old thing we did
last week. Not a thing to do but talk to you.

GROSS: Your records ended up being very influential to a lot of bands who were
coming up at the time. The Replacements even have a song called "Alex Chilton."
When did you get a sense of the impact that your music was having on other
musicians, even if it wasn't having a big impact commercially?

Mr. CHILTON: I guess in the late '70s. I spent some time in New York, and it
seemed like everybody I ran into there, you know, claimed to be a fan of the
Big Star albums and that sort of stuff. And so, you know, I guess it was around
then that I began to see that even though we hadn't sold any records or made
any money out of the albums that there was still some kind of success in a way,
you know.

GROSS: What would they tell you? What kind of specific stories did people tell
you about the impact your music had on them?

Mr. CHILTON: Mostly what it is is young guys coming up who are, like, learning
to play guitar, you know. They seem to reach a certain stage where this record
shows them something, you know.

It's – I think that that's what people go for about it. That's what they all
seem to gravitate toward is this jangly guitar sound that's happening there.

GROSS: A lot of people call your music one of the first albums of power pop.
What does that expression mean to you?

Mr. CHILTON: I don’t know, really. I mean, to me we were more like, our band
was more like the mid-'60s British invasion music, you know. It was like three
minutes – three-minute pop songs that were kind of unpretentious and very
basically about love and just being a teenager and having a good time, you
know.

For me, music, once it entered the psychedelic era there in the '60s, I became
less interested in it. I like simple pop songs with no real message, you know,
just about feeling good and being happy.

BIANCULLI: Alex Chilton, speaking to Terry Gross in 1991. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're remembering singer, songwriter, guitarist Alex Chilton, who
died Wednesday at the age of 59. Chilton made a return visit to FRESH AIR in
2000 and brought his guitar with him. This was after his song "In the Street"
had been used as the theme song for TV's "That '70s Show," performed by Cheap
Trick. Terry asked Alex Chilton how that song came to be chosen.

Mr. CHILTON: A friend of mine from Philadelphia, or at least from right across
the river, named Ben Vaughn, has been working in Hollywood doing music for
various media productions – television, I guess, and movies – for the past few
years, and he somehow is working with the people who produce the show "That
'70s Show," and they were looking for a theme, and he suggested this tune to
them, and I guess that they liked it and thought it would work well. So that's
how it happened.

GROSS: Did you write it in the '70s?

Mr. CHILTON: I did, yeah.

GROSS: And does the song say '70s to you?

Mr. CHILTON: I never thought about it, actually, as having to do with a period
of time. I thought of it as having to do with sort of growing up suburban and
being a teenager, more or less.

GROSS: Would you play some of it for us?

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, I'll play some of it for you.

(Soundbite of song, "In the Street")

Mr. CHILTON: (Singing) Hanging out, down the street, the same old thing we did
last week. Not a thing to do but talk to you. Steal your car, and bring it
down, pick me up, we'll drive around. Wish we had a joint so bad.

GROSS: So how old were you when you wrote that?

Mr. CHILTON: I guess I was 20, 19 or 20.

GROSS: So you weren't far removed from the character in the song.

Mr. CHILTON: True, true.

GROSS: Smoking joints?

Mr. CHILTON: Of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The lyric is kind of rewritten for the TV show. I think there's nothing
about the joint on it, and instead, there are lyrics about Nixon's gone but
rock lives on.

Mr. CHILTON: Oh really? You know, I haven't – I've never watched the show. I've
never heard them do it.

GROSS: Well, at least that's on the CD version of the theme from the show. I'm
not sure that it's actually on the TV version.

Mr. CHILTON: Uh-huh.

GROSS: How did you feel about them changing your lyric?

Mr. CHILTON: Oh, I don't care what they do.

GROSS: I guess you never really know what's going to happen to one of your
songs.

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, people can twist it any kind of way they want, I guess.

GROSS: But I mean, you never know, like, what use it's going to have.

Mr. CHILTON: That's true.

GROSS: Yeah. Let me take...

Mr. CHILTON: I don't feel like it's a real desecration, though. You know, it's
not a sacred object.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Alex Chilton, speaking to Terry Gross in the year 2000. Let's
conclude our salute to Alex Chilton by hearing more from Terry's 1991 interview
with him, when she asked about whether he ever performed music from the
earliest part of his career.

GROSS: Are you ever on the oldies circuit, playing...?

Mr. CHILTON: Absolutely, year.

GROSS: You are?

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, I just, I played a gig with The Beach Boys a couple of weeks
ago. That was thrilling. I got to even sing "Surfin' USA" on stage with them.
It was the greatest thrill of my career.

GROSS: So what's it like for you on the oldies circuit? Tell me what you like
and dislike about it.

Mr. CHILTON: Well, I enjoy meeting all these bands that I've heard of for so
long, you know, like I've played some gigs lately with Question Mark from
Question Mark & the Mysterians.

GROSS: Oh no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHILTON: And he's a lot of fun. It's interesting to be, you know, hanging
around hotel lobbies with Question Mark and that sort of stuff. So, you know,
in the summertimes, it seems like people offer me some gigs, you know, with
'60s bands and things like that. And it's fun to do now and then.

GROSS: So what do you play?

Mr. CHILTON: Well, it's pretty strictly Box Tops material that's called for,
and usually it's a five-song set, you know. So it's kind of easy money. You
just get up and play five or six tunes at a county fair in Iowa or North Dakota
or something, and it's kicky. You know, what can I say?

GROSS: In the late '70s, you started becoming really part of the punk scene,
and you produced records by The Cramps. You produced their first records. What
attracted you to that? You'd already been around a while, and a lot of people
in it were just coming up.

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, I was – I don't know, everybody - since the '60s, it seems
like everybody who was still interested in playing rock 'n' roll kept looking
for, well, where is the new scene going to be, you know. We've got to have a
scene going here so that we can all get involved in it and do good things. And
I think that in New York in the mid-'70s was the nearest thing to a scene like
the London scene or the Los Angeles scene in the '60s, you know.

So I sort of gravitated to it because there was an anarchistic sort of edge to
it, and it wasn't some corporate showcase of "Stepford Wives" bands, you know,
playing up there. It was real, rebellious, good rock 'n' roll that was coming
from street level rather than corporate boardroom level.

GROSS: You've been so influential on so many people in rock, and yet, you know,
you're kind of functioning independently. You don't have a record contract.
There isn't a big company after you to record something now. What explanation
do you have for – I'm always interested when someone of your talents is kind of
not more sought after.

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, well, I don't know. It seems to me that the world is full of
great musicians who don't have any record companies interested in them. It
seems to me that the record companies are interested in bands of teenage guys,
you know, with long hair and playing heavy metal music or whatever the next
trend will be, you know.

And I'm not really so concerned about it. I mean, I've sort of got my scene
going and have carved out a little niche, however little it is, in the music
business, you know. And I manage to play as many gigs as I want every year and
make money doing that and make a little money here and there making records,
and it's okay with me.

GROSS: What is that scene?

Mr. CHILTON: What is the niche that I've carved out, you mean?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CHILTON: Well, you know, I can play in these college towns and get my
records played on college radio and that sort of stuff.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, well, thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Singer, songwriter, guitarist Alex Chilton, speaking to Terry Gross
in 1991. The singer for The Box Tops and founder of the group Big Star died
Wednesday of an apparent heart attack. He was 59 years old. He will be saluted
in concert Saturday at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

You can hear Alex Chilton's complete interview with Terry Gross on May 1st,
2000, on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. We'll close with a song Alex Chilton
wrote and performed with Big Star. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "September Gurls")

BIG STAR (Music Group): (Singing) September gurls do so much, I was your butch
and you were touched, I loved you well never mind, I've been crying all the
time. December boys got it bad. December boys got it bad. September gurls I
don't know why, how can I deny what's inside, even though I keep away, maybe
we'll love all our days. December boys got it bad. December boys got it bad.
When I get to bed late at night, that's the time, she makes things right, ooh
when she makes luv to me...
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Selling Girl Power, With A Man Counting The Cash

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

In the mid-'70s, the idea of a sultry, defiant all-girl rock band was
considered outlandish. That changed with The Runaways, whose members included
Joan Jett and Cherie Currie.

The new film, "The Runaways," based on Currie's memoir, tells the story of the
group's rise and fall. It stars Kristen Stewart as Jett and Dakota Fanning as
Currie.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: "The Runaways" is a curious mix. It's an exhilarating story of
female self-expression that's also a downbeat tale of female exploitation. So
as the '70s girl group The Runaways comes together and then slowly
disintegrates, there's a simultaneous rising and falling arc — which would be
thrilling if writer-director Floria Sigismondi had a structure that could hold
it all together.

What she does have is punkish audacity: Her first shot is a splotch of
menstrual blood on the pavement, as 15-year-old future Runaways vocalist Cherie
Currie gets her first period. What makes this even more outrageous is Cherie is
Dakota Fanning, now stretched out and filled out. It's as if the director is
saying, here's your adorable little child star. What do you make of her now?
What will she make of herself?

After she's teased by her more worldly sister, Cherie dolls herself up and
heads for well-known LA club Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, which is also
where Kristen Stewart's Joan Jett heads, after buying a black leather man's
motorcycle jacket. She wants to play guitar in a rock band, but in the mid-
'70s, sexist conventional wisdom said girls didn't play electric guitar. But
when Jett accosts the ghoulish impresario Kim Fowley, played by Michael
Shannon, the idea for The Runaways is born.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Runaways")

Ms. KRISTEN STEWART (Actress): (as Joan Jett) I'm Joan Jett. I play guitar,
electric guitar.

Mr. MICHAEL SHANNON (Actor): (as Kim Fowley) Oh, Joan Jett, that's a cool name.
You guys got a demo?

Ms. STEWART: (as Joan Jett) No. No. I don't - no guys. I want to start an all-
girl rock band.

Mr. SHANNON: (as Kim Fowley) Really? Hey, Sandy.

Ms. STELLA MAEVE (Actress): (as Sandy West) Hold on a second.

Mr. SHANNON: (as Kim Fowley) Sandy West is a drummer. Joan Jett claims to be
some sort of guitar goddess.

Ms. STEWART: (as Joan Jett) Well, I didn't say that.

EDELSTEIN: That's a juicy scene, but a couple of things knock it down a peg.
Kristen Stewart is overdoing the twitchy awkwardness. And then there's that
usual biopic hazard: writing too on the nose, so that you almost see the light
bulb over Fowley's head: Young girls. Guitars. Money. "The Runaways" is paced
so fast that you barely register the externals before you're hurtled along to
the next biopic marker.

Although Jett is the co-executive producer and Stewart the first-billed star,
the Jett character is mostly a bystander: She stands by as manager Fowley
drills his girl band, then stands by some more as Currie becomes the group's
blonde-bombshell mascot and begins to fall apart from all the drugs and sex and
Fowley abuse.

Fowley isn't thinking female empowerment. He's thinking jailbait: barely
pubescent girls acting dirty and available for an audience with as many people
leering as rocking out.

According to the documentary ”Edgeplay," made by one-time Runaways member Vicky
Tischler-Blue, the vibe among the bandmates was never very good — and director
Sigismondi gives scant time to other members. Late in the film, Currie and Jett
have a love scene, but it happens in a vacuum. You get no sense if it altered
the band's already volatile chemistry, or even what Jett and Currie made of it
after the fact. The last part of the film is unfocused, with connective tissue
missing. Maybe there's a three-hour cut of "The Runaways" down the line that
would be more compelling.

As Fowley, Michael Shannon looks scary and stops the show with his rants, but
have you ever seen the real Fowley interviewed? His creepiness is otherworldly.
Shannon, even with his formidable size and nonstop epithets, seems too lovably
damaged. This is Fanning's movie, and you can taste her relish in breaking out
of child stardom with a vengeance.

But as she parades around onstage half-naked, chanting she's a cherry bomb and
striking one sexual pose after another, you're uncomfortably aware that she's
15 years old and legally a minor. How we reconcile that fact — or can't — with
the thrill of her performance gives "The Runaways" at least some of the
present-tense electricity that the real group had onstage so long ago.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

Coming up, "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Actor Bryan Cranston, 'Breaking' With Type

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Before getting the starring role in the AMC drama "Breaking Bad," the actor
Bryan Cranston was best known as Hal, the childlike father on "Malcolm in the
Middle." You might also have known him as Jerry's dentist on "Seinfeld," as
agent Stan Grossman in "Little Miss Sunshine," or as a guy with a severe
headache problem on "The X-Files."

But as high school science teacher Walter White, Bryan Cranston has won back-
to-back Emmy Awards as outstanding lead actor in a drama series, so he's
definitely arrived. And season three of "Breaking Bad" arrives this Sunday,
picking up where last season's cliffhanger left off. In "Breaking Bad," created
by Vince Gilligan, we first met Cranston's Walter when his wife was pregnant
and he was diagnosed as having terminal lung cancer.

To provide for his family, Walter decided to utilize his knowledge of chemistry
to manufacture crystal meth and team up with a former student played by Aaron
Paul to sell it. Since Walter made that decision, almost nothing has gone
right. And while Walter thinks he's succeeded in keeping his dark secret from
his wife, maybe he hasn't.

In Sunday's new episode, she suddenly hands him some divorce papers.

Mr. BRYAN CRANSTON (Actor): (as Walter) Why are you doing this? Why are you
even thinking this way? Is it to punish me?

Ms. ANNA GUNN (Actress): (as Skyler) I am not punishing you, Walter. I...

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Walter) This is punitive is what this is. We are happily
married. I am happily married. I am happy. We're just - I love you Skyler, and
I would do anything for you. Would you even consider - I mean, Jesus. You come
in here and you wave these papers in my face when there's a whole other entire
side to this thing. There's your side and there's my side and you haven't heard
my side yet. You haven't heard any of it at all.

Ms. GUNN: (as Skyler) You’re a drug dealer.

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Walter) No. What? How? What?

Ms. GUNN: (as Skyler) Yeah. How else could you possibly make that kind of
money?

BIANCULLI: I spoke to Bryan Cranston in 2008, right after the premier of
"Breaking Bad."

Bryan Cranston, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. CRANSTON: Thank you, David. Good to be here.

BIANCULLI: I have to be honest Bryan, when I heard the premise for this series
I didn’t think I'd like the character or the show very much.

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Because we're talking about crystal meth. We're talking about
cancer. But you really pulled me in. I still wasn’t sure when the hour was over
what to think of this guy. And I'm wondering, is that the only script that you
saw when you had to decide whether to accept the part or not?

Mr. CRANSTON: Yes. The only thing I saw was the pilot script. And as an actor,
you know if it starts to seep into your soul and you start daydreaming about
the character and having nighttime dreams about the character, then it's
becoming you or you’re becoming it one way or the other.

And when I had my first meeting with Vince a year and a half ago, I couldn’t
help but start saying exactly what I felt about him. This is, I think he should
be a little pudgy. I think he should be pale. I think he should be colorless. I
think his clothes should be this way. I think he should have this silly
mustache that doesn’t convey anything...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: ...except that it conveys impotence to me. It was unnecessary.
And it sort of was a manifestation of what I thought his life was like at that
time, basically unnecessary, that he felt useless, invisible to the world, to
society, even to himself.

BIANCULLI: A question about a very dramatic scene, which is where you’re
deciding or confronted with the decision of whether or not to undergo
chemotherapy treatments, and your wife stages a sort of intervention, and
everyone's around and you take turns talking by holding a talking pillow which
gives you the right to speak. And it's a funny idea...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: ...in a very dramatic scene and you’re the last to speak. And
finally, you get the talking pillow and I thought this is the first time you
had the talking pillow in four or five episodes, and how hard a scene was that
for you to do because you are quite, quite strong in it?

Mr. CRANSTON: The thing about an actor approaching a scene like that is you
can't for a second think that what you’re doing is funny. Because if you do,
then there's a slight wink-wink, nod-nod to the audience, oh isn't this cute?
We're using this talking pillow, and all of us just took this idea that this
gave us the right to speak at that time and to speak uninterrupted. And it's
very respectful of the audience, I think.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: We don’t have a laugh track to it. And if the audience finds that
piece funny, as you did David, then I think you can smile or laugh if that
strikes you that way or not. And ultimately, that is just so juicy to play
because there's a whole wide range of reactions that an audience can have at
any particular time, and none is wrong.

BIANCULLI: Your resume fascinates me. You seemed to have been, in the '70s and
'80s, in one episode of almost everything.

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm.

BIANCULLI: Not several episodes, just one. But I mean...

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Great shows like "Chicago Hope" and "LA Law" and "thirtysomething"
and "Hill Street," and then you’re in "Walker Texas Ranger," "Touched By an
Angel," "Jake and the Fatman" and "Baywatch."

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm. A wide range of good programs and crappy ones.

BIANCULLI: That's sort of my question. But I mean...

Mr. CRANSTON: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...clearly a working actor...

Mr. CRANSTON: Oh don’t be embarrassed.

BIANCULLI: ...but how - and your first job is like on "Chips." Bless your soul.

Mr. CRANSTON: Uh-huh.

BIANCULLI: So first of all, how do you get started on "Chips" and then how do
you balance this career?

Mr. CRANSTON: Well, when an actor first starts out, you’re looking to work -
any work. You need money to pay your rent and money to pay for your eight by 10
pictures and your resumes and your acting classes. So you, and you need some
film on yourself and that's - you’re willing to take just about anything. Yeah.

BIANCULLI: But what do you remember about "Chips?"

Mr. CRANSTON: I remember I had this terrible Southern accent. I think I was
talking like this. I was talking like this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: And I had a wife on the show name Kathy Shower, who was
apparently, and I didn’t really know at the time. She was a very pretty woman.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: And she was a Playboy Playmate and it was like wow, Erik Estrada,
that's all he had to find out. A Playboy Playmate and, you know, he was after
her like nobody's business.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: And it's like, you know, it's interesting because I heard nothing
but bad things about Erik. Things - saying oh he does this. He's, you know, and
he was nice to me on the show, I must say.

BIANCULLI: Well, another bad TV show, I mean I've been a TV critic since '75,
so I can say this.

Mr. CRANSTON: Oh.

BIANCULLI: Another bad show you were on but it had a good result for you was
"Airwolf." Wasn’t that Jan-Michael Vincent in a helicopter? Is that the one I'm
thinking of or am I confusing that...

Mr. CRANSTON: No, that's the one, Jan-Michael Vincent on his descent into his
personal hell, which was horrible. This guy was, you know, had so much promise
and he was late every day and he had, you know, his drinking problem, his drug
problem. And there was a scene where we're in a helicopter and they're shooting
what's called a poor man's process, which is a helicopter is not actually in
the air, but if you shoot from a low angle up all you see is sky behind you and
there's a couple grips in the back moving the rotor and it's looks like the
whole thing is in the air.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: And there was our first AD - would say okay, roll sound. Sound
speed. Here we go slate it. And Bryan, and he would shake his fist to me. That
would be my cue to wake up Jan.

BIANCULLI: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: And to have - no seriously, to wake up Jan and have him, you
know, act in the scene. And it was such a shame and I was like God, this is so
horrible. Especially for a beginning actor when I was pretty new there and
wanting more than anything to be able to be a part of the acting community and
to have the gift that has eventually came to me to become a good working actor.
And I don’t take it lightly and I don’t have any expectations of what the
business owes me. I have no sense of entitlement. I just work.

BIANCULLI: We're talking to Bryan Cranston, star of the AMC drama series
"Breaking Bad."

One thing that I find in common between your part of Hal in Malcolm in the
Middle" and your new part as Walter in "Breaking Bad" and there isn't that much
that they have in common.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: But it's as an actor, a total lack of vanity when it comes to
attacking the characters as you see them. And I'd like to play the first scene
from "Malcolm in the Middle" where we meet your character.

Mr. CRANSTON: Hmm.

BIANCULLI: You’re the husband and you’re down, the kids are at the breakfast
table, they're trying to eat. You’re nude reading a newspaper that's
strategically opened to cover things while you’re reading it...

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: ...and your wife, Jane Kaczmarek is shaving your back hair with some
hair trimmers.

(Soundbite of TV series, "Malcolm in the Middle")

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Hal) Huh, look at this. They're sending an unmanned probe to
Venus and letting a bunch of school children name it. That's going to end
badly.

Ms. JANE KACZMAREK (Actress): (as Lois) These clippers are dull already.
Honestly, Hal, you’re like a monkey.

Mr. FRANKIE MUNIZ (Actor): (as Malcolm) They do this every month. He has
sensitive skin. His hair gets itchy under his clothes.

Ms. KACZMAREK: (as Lois) Yeah, I feel this is such a same to just this in the
trash. Maybe birds would like to make nuts with or I don’t know, maybe you boys
could use it for a school project. Arms up.

BIANCULLI: So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: What memories does that bring back to you and is it true that you
had to have for your first scene in a sitcom or the first scene, maybe they
were shot out of sequence, but you had to have Yak hair glued all over you to
make that scene work?

Mr. CRANSTON: Yes. I have nothing but fond memories of "Malcolm in the Middle."
It was a fantastic period of my life - brilliantly written by Linwood Boomer.
That was the first scene. The first scene I ever shot in the pilot was the
scene where I'm naked in front of all these children. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: ...the person who's in charge of kids, you know, in taking care
of them from the Coogan Law and they have all these rights, which is fantastic
now...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: ...insisted that in between scenes I stand behind this black
curtain. So apparently, while we're shooting it, my nudity was okay and didn’t
hurt the retinas of their little eyes, but in between I had to go stand behind
this curtain. But, yes, it's true. I was except for a modesty patch, and
believe me, it was very modest...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: ...I had nothing else on. It took three makeup artists four hours
to apply Yak hair to my body. And they said it was Yak hair and they told me
why. Yak hair most resembles human hair but it's longer, so they were able to
use part of it for the glue and still have part of it that is unmated and
standing out. But that meant I couldn’t sit down, so for the entire day that
we're shooting this I never sat down, and I had my arms out most of the time so
everything wouldn’t get matted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: But when it came time to actually shaving this hair off my body,
the glue would get stuck in the razor and it would start to pull my skin. So we
had to have a casting call for hairy back people. And they brought all kinds of
people. It looked like a carpeteria(ph) store where...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: ...there was shag and there was low pile and there was, you know,
Berber and they picked the body type that they felt was most like mine, which
is very unfortunate.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: And they had a body double and it turned out to be one of our
teamster guys.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Bryan Cranston, star of the AMC drama series
"Breaking Bad."

One of the things I learned reading about you for this is that your parents
were actors; Joe and Peggy Cranston. Would I know them from anything?

Mr. CRANSTON: You wouldn’t know my mom and my dad might be hard to remember. I
remember when my dad was, you know, he had the real actor's life. His life was
up and down and up and down. And I remember him mostly dying in everything that
I saw him do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: Whether he was a soldier on top of the roof in the day that - not
"The End of the World?" I forget what the movie was. The sci-fi movie with the
large grasshoppers that took over the city; he was in that saying, you know,
sector eight is flying here...

(Soundbite of scream)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: And we'd see him die, you know. Or else he was an infantry man or
he was, you know, in the cavalry and he got shot with an arrow. He was always
dying. Hey, dad's dying tonight, you know, so we’d watch him. But he met my
mother in the late 40s in an acting class in Hollywood and they were all in the
same class with Anne Bancroft and David Jansen at the time.

And it was kind of, you know, a good time for them and post-war and everything
was kind of on the upswing. And they married and decided to have children and
that's when my mom decided well, I’ll either have a career or be a mother and
those were the choices for women in those days and she always regretted that.
She always wished that had pursued both.

BIANCULLI: Bryan Cranston, it was a joy having you on FRESH AIR. Thanks very
much.

Mr. CRANSTON: Thank you, David. I appreciate it.

BIANCULLI: Actor Bryan Cranston interviewed in 2008. He's since won back-to-
back Emmy Awards for "Breaking Bad." The show's third season begins Sunday
night on AMC.

Coming up, a review of that and several other new or returning cable shows.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, the TV critic here.

It's an exciting season for cable TV, which at this moment, is a lot more
competitive — and interesting — than broadcast network television. The AMC
series "Breaking Bad" is back for its third season Sunday, and Showtime's
"Nurse Jackie" and "The United States of Tara" are back to start their
sophomore seasons on Monday.

I'll get to them in a minute — but first, a few words about "Life," the highly
promoted and eagerly anticipated nonfiction nature miniseries that begins
Sunday on the Discovery Channel. "Life" is being promoted as a follow-up to
"Planet Earth," the fabulous nature miniseries that also was co-produced by
Discovery Channel and the BBC. And visually, it's every bit as mesmerizing and
satisfying. You find yourself in awe of two things simultaneously: the events
taking place in the animal kingdom, and the manner in which the camera crews
were able to capture them.

Just as in "Planet Earth," "Life" contains some killer footage — sometimes
literally. You get to watch Komodo dragons team up to bring down a much larger
water buffalo; humpback whales jockey and fight to be in position to impress a
lone female. From the tiniest frogs to the largest mammals, "Life" captures one
fascinating creature and activity after another, and definitely qualifies as
must-see television.

But - there's a big but: "Life" is not produced and directed by the same people
who masterminded "Planet Earth," though some producers of separate segments are
involved. And the major difference between "Planet Earth" and "Life" is that
"Planet Earth" was written at a higher level, assuming more intelligence on the
part of the viewer. "Planet Earth" talked to us. "Life" tends to talk down to
us — and it's annoying.

So is Discovery Channel's decision, once again, to substitute the original
narration by Sir David Attenborough, the most reputable nature-TV expert on the
planet. With "Planet Earth," Sigourney Weaver replaced the original narration.
This time it's Oprah Winfrey. And while Oprah Winfrey may be the Queen of All
Media, one of her strengths is not being a captivating narrator. Add to it the
simplicity of the writing, and while "Life" looks great, parts of it sound like
this closing minute of Sunday's installment on amphibians and reptiles, sound
like the nature documentary equivalent of the closing narration to "Desperate
Housewives."

(Soundbite of Discovery Channel's "Life")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Talk show host): It isn't easy to love an amphibian or a
reptile. Most modern humans seem to have an innate aversion to them. They
inhabit places we would rather not go. There ways are alien to us. But in the
end, they are driven by the same forces to which all animal life must answer:
the need to eat, the need to pass on their genes, the need to defend
themselves. And in this, they are among the most brilliant of evolutionary
improvisers. Hard to kill, tenacious and supremely adaptable, improbable
geniuses of survival.

BIANCULLI: My advice regarding this new look at "Life," wait for the DVD with
Attenborough, or watch now with slightly lowered expectations. Either way, it
really is a TV show to behold.

The same goes for the three scripted cable series returning for new seasons.
All three have enhanced the reputations of their respective networks, and all
three are about deeply flawed yet almost hypnotically fascinating characters.

"Breaking Bad," which returns Sunday on AMC, picks up right where last season
ended, with a spectacular unexpected tragedy. All the characters are trying to
cope, but in different ways — and the only thing predictable about this series
is its unpredictability. After only two seasons, "Breaking Bad" has established
itself as one of TV's very best drama series. And I promise you: If you tune in
for the wordless opening scene, you'll be hooked for the duration.

"Breaking Bad" stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a high school science
teacher turned crystal meth manufacturer — not a character with whom you'd
normally empathize. The same goes for the lead roles in Showtime's "United
States of Tara" and "Nurse Jackie," which begin their new seasons Monday. Edie
Falco from "Sopranos" stars in "Nurse Jackie," playing a registered nurse with
a family, an ex-lover and a drug habit. Toni Collette, in "The United States of
Tara," plays several leading roles, all fractured parts of the same struggling
personality.

All three of these stars — Cranston, Falco and Collette — commit so highly to
their roles that they not only win our sympathy they disappear within the parts
they're playing. When an episode is over, I usually feel bad for Jackie or Tara
or Walter. Only afterward does it sink in just how wonderful a performance, and
a show, I've just witnessed.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at
npr.freshair. And you can download podcast of our show at freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Ben Stiller was an action star in "Tropic Thunder," which he wrote
and directed and played a self-involved male model in "Zoolander."

(Soundbite of movie, "Zoolander")

Mer. BEN STILLER (Actor): (as Derek Zoolander) I was thinking about
volunteering to help teach underprivileged children to learn how to read. And
just thinking about it was the most rewarding experience I've ever had.

BIANCULLI: He's now starring in the new film "Greenberg."

Ben Stiller, on the next FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
124833953

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.

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