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Remembering Bandleader And Producer Johnny Otis

Bandleader and producer Johnny Otis, who launched and then nurtured the careers of many of R&B's greatest singers, died Tuesday at his home near Los Angeles. He was 90. Fresh Air remembers Otis with excerpts from a 1989 interview.

20:51

Other segments from the episode on January 20, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 20, 2012: Obituary for Johnny Otis; Interview with Brad Pitt; Review of the film "Coriolanus."

Transcript

Friday, January 20, 2012

Guests: Johnny Otis- Brad Pitt

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUND DOG")

BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snooping 'round my door. You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snooping 'round my door. You can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna feed you no more. You told me you was high class, but I can see through that.

BIANCULLI: Today, we salute Johnny Otis, the jazz and R&B musician, songwriter and bandleader who died this week at age 90. On Big Mama Thornton's original recording of "Hound Dog," Otis not only produced the record, but played the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUND DOG")

THORNTON: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snooping 'round my door. You're just an old hound dog, been snooping 'round my door. You can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna' feed you no more. Oh, (unintelligible). Ah, (unintelligible) more hound dog.

BIANCULLI: Johnny Otis started out in the 1940s, leading a big band that scored a hit with its 1945 jazz recording "Harlem Nocturne." That band, like many big bands, soon broke up for financial reasons. After that, Otis organized a smaller unit to play the hybrid of swing and blues that became known as rhythm and blues.

Otis' Rhythm and Blues Caravan became the first R&B touring road show. Through his nightclub, his talent shows and his road show, Otis discovered such singers as Etta James, Little Esther, Jackie Wilson, Big Mama Thornton and Hank Ballard.

He had many R&B hits in the early '50s and, in 1958, his record "Willie and the Hand Jive" made it on the Top 10 Rock and Roll chart. Although Johnny Otis is a pioneer of R&B and played almost exclusively with black performers, he is a white, Greek-American. Genetically, I'm pure Greek, he said in 1994. Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I'm a member of the black community.

Before we listen to Terry Gross interviewing Johnny Otis in 1989, let's listen to his first hit recording, the 1945 song titled, "Harlem Nocturne."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARLEM NOCTURNE")

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

There's a great story behind recording this record. Would you tell us?

JOHNNY OTIS: Well, this goes back to the mid-'40s, and it was my first record date with my own band, as I recall, and we did three things. I went to the producer after we'd completed the third one, and I said, well, Mr. Rene, that's it. Three songs in four hours, and we got plenty of time left. He said, no. You've got that wrong. It's four songs in three hours. Now, get out there and get another song together.

So we were the house band at the club, Alabama, on Central Avenue here in L.A. at the time, and I remember when we would play this particular song, the chorus girls and the show girls would come out of their dressing rooms and dance on the balcony. And they would always ask us to play it, and I thought it must have some charm if the ladies liked it that well.

So I said, let's play that. And it was the stock arrangement that had been recorded once before by Ray Noble and an Earl Hagen tune. But I slowed it down, and I was a drummer then. I then went, boom, boom, boom on the tom-toms, and we recorded it. And the songs that we had done previously with Jimmy Rushing, the great Count Basie singer, and some wonderful arrangements, they didn't do it, but "Harlem Nocturne" became an instant hit.

GROSS: And when "Harlem Nocturne" became an instant hit and you started touring with Louis Jordan and with the Ink Spots, they were some of the biggest black acts of the time. Can you describe a little bit what the atmosphere was like at the concerts in which you shared the bill?

OTIS: Well, both of these people were so popular at the time, having had all these big hit records, that there was that same feeling you feel today before the curtain opens, that great anticipation. They're going to see Bill Kenny and the Ink Spots. They're going to see Louis Jordan. And we were lucky enough to be the band, and of course that gave us a lot of help.

GROSS: Did the audiences assume that you were black?

OTIS: Of course. In those days, many of the places we played - had they suspected I was white, we would have been arrested.

GROSS: Well, I remember when I interviewed Solomon Burke, he told a story about how, when one of his records crossed over to the country charts, he started getting invitations to play certain places in the South with white crowds who would have never asked him to play if they knew he was black. And he showed up to one of these places, and it was quite a scene.

Did anything similar ever happen to you?

OTIS: No. We're talking now - I assume we're back in the '40s. If we are, it was much different than the Solomon Burke days of the '50s or the '60s with Solomon Burke. You see, your life was on the line in those days. When our bus would cross the Mason-Dixon Line and the driver would say, well, we just crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, a pall would fall over the entire show. We'd all get quiet, because we knew we were down there where we had problems.

And many times, we came close to being hurt. One time, we stopped a bus to go to get some gas and my little singer, Little Esther, who was only 13, jumped off and went to the rest room. And I looked up, and there's a guy with a gun in my belly. And he's shaking and he's all excited because the little black girl went to the white women's bathroom. And I thought to myself, any death but this. So she came out and we went on down the road, but those things happened to us all the time.

That was the open version of white racism, as against the very subtle, pervasive and institutionalized version that we have today.

GROSS: In segregated places, were you treated as white or as black when you were traveling with black groups?

OTIS: In black - as black. There's nothing so unique about a light black person. That's always been the case. And if I'm sitting in the black side having dinner, nobody questioned it. He wouldn't be over there if he wasn't black and crazy, because we'd kill him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you do anything to look more black?

OTIS: No.

GROSS: Let me play one of the rhythm and blues records from the period that you made, and this is with the singer Little Esther, who we now know as Esther Phillips. And this is "Double Crossing Blues." Do you want to say anything about this? You write this song?

OTIS: Well, I can give you a little anecdote about it.

GROSS: Yeah.

OTIS: I was leaving my little chicken ranch in Watts back in the '40s, and with me were a group of guys I found at the Barrel House, where - I had a nightclub there called the Barrel House. And we were going to do their first record, and they became known as The Robins, and later The Coasters.

But Little Esther was the neighborhood little girl who used to help me with the other children catch my chickens when people would pick out the chicken they wanted. And then we would have refreshments later. And she ran up. She says, Johnny, let me go. Let me go. So I said, oh, get in. So she got in. We went to Hollywood, to the studio. And when we got there, we did the four sides by The Robins, and we had a few minutes left. So I told - I asked the producer, Ralph Bass. I said, Bass, we got some time. Let me get these kids together. I got a song I think would make sense.

He said, well, hurry up. You've only got a couple of minutes. So I taught it to them and we did it, and it was called "Double Crossing Blues." And he said - I said, can I do it one more time? Because she kind of giggled. He said, no, that's it. But, anyhow, that became the number one song of 1950, and it brought Little Esther to stardom, and it did an awful lot for us, too.

And, by the way, the bass singer that you will hear on this record is the voice later who became Charlie Brown. How come everybody's always messing with - the same guy. He was just a worker at my club, and I noticed he could sing and put him into this group and he wound up singing on this big hit record with Esther Phillips. Bobby Nunn is his name.

GROSS: And you're playing vibes?

OTIS: Yeah. And I'm playing vibes.

GROSS: OK. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOUBLE CROSSING BLUES")

ESTHER PHILLIPS: (Singing) Been looking for you, Daddy. I just found you in time. You're with some other woman, and it's quarter to nine. What's the matter, Daddy? Don't my kisses satisfy? If I don't thrill you, baby, goodness knows how hard I try. Folks say that you've been cheating, and how I see it's true. But I can't quit you, baby, 'cause I'm so in love with you. What's the matter, Daddy? If you would only tell me why. If I don't thrill you, baby, goodness knows how hard I try.

BOBBY NUNN: (Singing) You stayed out last night, said you were playing cards. Can't understand it, baby, what make your big fat head so hard. I'm going to leave you.

GROSS: You discovered a lot of talent, not just Little Esther, Esther Phillips. What was your way of scouting for people?

OTIS: Actually, my first singer was Ernestine Anderson, when she was just a little girl.

GROSS: Really?

OTIS: Then - yeah. And then came Esther Phillips, but after Esther Phillips' amazing success and became the big child star of the African-American community nationally, then everywhere we played, people - they would bring me their sons and their daughters backstage. I guess they figured I was an expert who knew how to make stars out of kids, and that's how it started.

One day in Detroit, at the Paradise Theater, I asked the manager - I said, during this week that we'll be here, how about me doing a talent show to avoid having to have all these people coming around with their kids? He said, great. And we did. It was to have been one hour, but it stretched into two hours, and we found so many wonderful singers and players that day.

I found Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters on that particular show. And there were probably others, but the record company I was scouting for, King, only wanted to deal with three at the moment. And I thought, years later, when Barry Gordy formed his great Motown story, I said, no wonder. Look at the reservoir of talent here in Detroit.

BIANCULLI: Johnny Otis, speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1989 interview with musician, songwriter, bandleader and talent scout Johnny Otis. He died Tuesday at age 90.

GROSS: We've been talking about rhythm and blues. When there was a transition between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, did you have to - did you find yourself changing the music, or were, maybe, the audiences changing that you were playing your music to?

OTIS: Yeah, that's true. When I was dealing with the classic rhythm and blues that we developed back in the '40s, we did a lot of bluesy material because the black audience demanded it. As the transition occurred and as it developed, we then had to play more animated jump blues, boogie styles and put on an act for white folks, because they wanted it to be - they wanted to see us, you know, work and sweat. And that's what they liked.

The early black audiences wanted a more musical, bluesy, jazz thing. The white audiences wanted that jump tune, boogie-woogie kind of thing.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a song that you had that was a hit on the rock and roll charts in 1958, and this is "Willie and the Hand Jive." Let's play it, and then we'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLIE AND THE HAND JIVE")

OTIS: (Singing) I know a cat named Way Out Willie. He got a cool little chick named Rockin' Millie. He can walk and stroll and Susie Q and do that crazy hand jive, too. Papa told Willie, you'll ruin my home. You and that hand jive have got to go. Willie said, Papa, don't put me down. They're doing that hand jive all over town. Hand jive, hand jive, hand jive, doing that crazy hand jive. Mama, mama, look at Uncle Joe.

GROSS: That's "Hand Jive," which was a big hit for my guest, Johnny Otis, back in 1958. Tell me about writing this song.

OTIS: My manager, the late Hal Zeiger, and partner back at that time, we had a hit in '57 called "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me" with the great Marie Adams singing. And it became a hit, not here in the States, but in Europe and England, it was number one. So he went over to set up the tour. And when he got back, he said, listen. I saw something interesting. I saw the young people around the London area in the venues where they couldn't dance, at the concerts and the theaters.

As they sat there, they would do a thing that you guys in the big black bands used to do with their hands, you know, while the band was playing, and they call it hand jive. Why don't you write a song called "Hand Jive," and maybe we'll do some good over in Europe. Well, I did and, luckily, it became a hit everywhere.

GROSS: So the hand jive was, basically, kind of clapping and moving your hands.

OTIS: Yeah. While you're sitting.

GROSS: While you're sitting. And the dance, like, wasn't...

OTIS: Well, it became a whole dance later. Yeah.

GROSS: I want to play something that you're featured on from this new reissue called "The Capitol Years," and this is "Can't You Hear Me Calling."

OTIS: OK.

GROSS: And you're singing on this.

OTIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And what are you playing?

OTIS: After a fashion.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, you sound really good on it.

OTIS: Oh, well. OK. You and my mother think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. Well, let's give it a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T YOU HEAR ME CALLING")

OTIS: (Singing) Can't you hear me calling, babe, babe, babe. Baby, please don't go. Baby, please don't go. Baby, don't you know I love, I love, I love, I love you so? And now you got me all alone, alone and blue, and I'm sitting here crying over you. Can't you hear me calling, baby, baby, please, don't go. Can't you hear me calling? I can't go on. And now you know you got me crying...

GROSS: Ben Vaughan wrote the liner notes for this record, and in it, he mentions that in one of your - I guess it's a publicity shot - that your goatee was airbrushed out so that you would look less ethnic. What was the story behind that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OTIS: Oh, Hal Zeiger, the late Hal Zeiger, God rest his soul. He was my partner at the time, and he did these things without even asking me. And while he - you know, he wanted me to look less black. He wanted me to look less like a Greek. He wanted me to look like a nice, Anglo-Saxon WASP, which is hard to do, but he tried.

GROSS: So he airbrushed out the goatee?

OTIS: Yeah. I don't think that sold any records.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, your family is Greek - was Greek?

OTIS: Yeah.

GROSS: Your parents?

OTIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Were and are. Yes.

GROSS: And your last name was Veliotes?

OTIS: Veliotes.

GROSS: And when did you change it to Otis?

OTIS: The kids at school kind of made that decision for me. They decided not to deal with trying to remember how to pronounce that. They would say, Johnny Otis, and that's the way it stuck.

GROSS: So I know that your father had a grocery store. Was that in the same neighborhood that you lived in?

OTIS: Oh, yes. The grocery store was downstairs, and we lived upstairs.

GROSS: And this was in a black neighborhood?

OTIS: Yes, in the heart of the black neighborhood.

GROSS: So that, I guess, helps explain why you grew up with such a black identification.

OTIS: And that's also the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.

GROSS: Uh-huh. So...

OTIS: He might, in fact, had put it in a WASP neighborhood. Then what would have happened to me?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you not think of yourself as being white when you were growing up?

OTIS: I didn't think about that at all. I had no concept about that. Luckily, my father was absolutely wonderful in that respect, and my playmates were - I didn't know it then, but they were black, African-American. I thought we were all the same thing. And I don't think it's so unique in America for white kids to grow up with black youngsters and come up together as brothers and sisters.

What might be unique is not to veer away. I could not veer away, because that's where I wanted to be. Those were my friends. That's what I loved. It wasn't the music that brought me to the black community. It was the way of life. I felt I was black. The characteristics of the African-American community became my own, and I just wasn't willing to give that up to go become part of the mainstream community, where people felt superior to black people and they practiced democracy and preached racism. I didn't want to be part of that. I wanted to stay in that sweet, beautiful black place in the black community.

BIANCULLI: Songwriter, bandleader, musician and talent scout Johnny Otis, speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. He died Tuesday at age 90. Johnny Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Among the many talents he discovered was Etta James, who died today of leukemia at age 73.

We'll feature Terry's interview with Etta James sometime next week. For now, let's hear the signature hit by one of Johnny Otis' biggest discoveries, Etta James, singing "At Last."

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT LAST")

ETTA JAMES: (Singing) At last, my love has come along. My lonely days are over, and life is like a song. Oh, yeah, yeah. At last, the skies above are blue. My heart was wrapped up in clover the night I looked at you.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, in for Terry Gross.

In this half of the show, we're listening back to Terry's 2011 interview with Brad Pitt, whose movie "Moneyball" is now out on DVD. Pitt was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actor for his starring role in "Moneyball," and is a good bet to snag an Oscar nomination as well.

"Moneyball" is adapted from the bestselling non-fiction book by Michael Lewis about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's baseball team.

Pitt's many other movies include "Tree of Life," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Inglourious Basterds," "Burn after Reading," "Ocean's Eleven," "Seven," "Fight Club," "Legends of the Fall" and "Thelma and Louise." When "Moneyball" begins, Billy Beane recognizes that his team doesn't have the money the big teams like the Yankees do, and therefore, he can't compete in bidding wars for star players.

Beane decides to use statistical analysis to figure which players have the assets his team needs, and he ends up going after players that other managers consider too old, too injured or too mediocre.

But Beane believes he understands their unique talents and knows how to put them to use. Let's start with a scene from "Moneyball." Beane, played by Brad Pitt, has recruited a numbers-crunching economist from Yale, played by Jonah Hill, to conduct statistical analyses of players. Based on that, they've started trading players and changing the lineup but without informing the field manager, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Here, the three of them meet before a game.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")

BRAD PITT: (As Billy Beane) Art, you got a minute?

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Art Howe) Yeah. Take a seat.

PITT: (As Billy) You can't start Pena at first tonight. You'll have to start Hatteberg.

HOFFMAN: (As Art) I don't want to go 15 rounds, Billy. The lineup card is mine, and that's all.

PITT: (As Billy) That lineup card is definitely yours. I'm just saying you can't start Pena at first.

HOFFMAN: (As Art) Well, I am starting him at first.

PITT: (As Billy) I don't think so. He plays for Detroit now.

HOFFMAN: (As Art) You traded Pena?

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Brad Pitt, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to make...

PITT: Thank you.

GROSS: Why did you want to make this movie, "Moneyball"?

PITT: Several reasons. I first picked up the book by Michael Lewis and was taken with these guys who out of necessity had to challenge conventional wisdom of their industry. They - I never looked at sports from the economic standpoint, and they are a team - we deal with the Oakland A's in 2002, and they are a team who had a payroll of $38 million to platoon a team, and they're playing against teams that have $120 million with another $100 million in reserves.

And there is - there was no way to have an equal fight. And so what these guys had to do was re-question baseball, baseball knowledge. They had to take everything apart and start over again.

GROSS: It's a very, like, dialogue-driven film, even though there's a lot of, like, baseball scenes in it. But your performance, even though you're basically sitting in a chair talking and making phone calls, your performance is very kinetic. You always seem to be moving, you know, chewing ice, eating, moving your hands, throwing something.

Is it challenging to do a kinetic performance in what is basically, you know, a managerial position kind of role?

PITT: You know, Billy's that way. Watching Billy, as soon as the phone rings, he becomes a very myopic and laser-guided, and he himself is - becomes very intense. And when you approach a scene, I guess you're coming from the inside, and the need to accomplish something, and that manifests itself in certain movements and eating and the need to, you know, keep clawing until you get the answer you're looking for.

GROSS: Let's talk about some of your other films. Let's start with "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino's recent film. It's set during World War II, and you play Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who's charged with putting together a team of, like, real killers to kill the Nazis.

So here you are explaining the mission to your team.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS")

PITT: (As Lieutenant Aldo Raine) My name is Lieutenant Aldo Raine, and I'm putting together a special team, and I need me eight soldiers, eight Jewish-American soldiers. Now, you all might have heard rumors about the armada happening soon. Well, we'll be leaving a little earlier.

(As Raine) We're going to be dropped into France dressed as civilians, and once we're in enemy territory, as a bushwhacking guerrilla army, we're going to be doing one thing and one thing only: killing Nazis. Now, I don't know about you all, but I sure as hell didn't come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains across 5,000 mile of water, fighting my way through half of Sicily and jump out of (beep) airplane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity.

(As Raine) Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hating, mass-murdering maniac, and they need to be destroyed. That's why any every som'bitch we find wearing a Nazi uniform, they're going to die.

GROSS: That's Brad Pitt in a scene from "Inglourious Basterds." I like the way you say Nazis.

PITT: That's tasty stuff, only from the mind of Quentin Tarantino.

GROSS: Did the script say to pronounce Nazis, Nazis?

PITT: No, it didn't say that, but we're from the same general neck of the woods. So we both understood.

GROSS: Who, you and Lieutenant Aldo Raine, or you and Quentin Tarantino because he's...

PITT: No, Quentin.

GROSS: He's from L.A., isn't he?

PITT: Yeah, but he's originally from Kentucky and has a lot of roots.

GROSS: Oh, OK. OK.

PITT: Kentucky roots.

GROSS: You have a scar on your neck in the film, and it looks like either you were strangled with a wire and survived, or your throat was slashed and you survived. Do you know what happened to your throat?

PITT: Yes, and he said it would never be explained in this film, and if he's ever to do a - what he called a prequel/sequel, then we'll reveal it then.

GROSS: Oh. And is that a possibility?

PITT: He talks about it. You know, he's got several things percolating at once.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in Oklahoma and in Missouri. And your family was Southern Baptist evangelicals?

PITT: Mm-hmm. Yeah, we grew up Southern Baptist, and then somewhere in my high school years, my family moved more towards the charismatic movement.

GROSS: So what was your Christian background like? What was the emphasis like in church? How was that reflected in your upbringing?

PITT: Well, it was - you know, it was Sunday school and do good and Bible study and daily prayer. But it was always something I wrestled with personally. I didn't - I was very curious about the world even at a young age, and I don't know at what point I became aware that other nations and other cultures didn't believe the same, and they believed in different religions, and my question is: Well, why don't they get to go to heaven then?

And the answer was always, well, everyone gets a chance, meaning at the word of God as it was described to me then. And that didn't sit right with me. But it - you know, at the same time, in times of trouble or discourse, it's a great comfort. And it wasn't until I left home that I really came to the conclusion that it didn't make sense to me for many other reasons than that.

GROSS: Now, you studied journalism in college. What did you expect to become?

PITT: I wasn't really sure. I was just investigating it for myself. They have one of the best J-schools in the country.

GROSS: This is where?

PITT: University of Missouri.

GROSS: OK.

PITT: And it just came to the time of graduation and everyone was - all my friends were committing to jobs and I just realized I was not ready for that yet. And it just occurred to me that, having always lamented that there wasn't the possibility or career choice of being in films, that I could go to it. And once I struck that little bit of discovery, I packed up my car, I didn't graduate. I had two weeks left, and I moved up to - moved out to L.A. like the...

GROSS: Two weeks is such a - it's the blink of an eye.

PITT: I just felt I was done, I was done with it.

GROSS: So you knew your mind.

PITT: Well, I knew where I wanted to go. I had a direction. I always liked those moments of epiphany, when you have the next destination.

GROSS: So you go to L.A. and then what? You get there, then what?

PITT: I get there with - you know, like the cliche goes, with my beat-up Datsun, and I had $275 to my savings, and I landed in Burbank. And I got the paper, and I found some extra agencies. And by, you know, the end of that week, I was - I paid my 25 bucks to join up, and I was an extra.

GROSS: In what?

PITT: It started out industrial films and commercials, and then, you know, you work your way up. And I guess the biggest film I had was - I had, that's really, that's a funny way to put it - but was "Less Than Zero."

GROSS: You were an extra in "Less Than Zero"?

PITT: Mm-hmm. And I enjoyed it.

GROSS: That must have been fun. I mean...

PITT: Oh, it was so much fun. I just wanted to be around film. Suddenly, I was on film, and I was on a set and watching how the guys - you know, how they do it.

BIANCULLI: Brad Pitt, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Brad Pitt. His movie "Moneyball," is now out on DVD.

GROSS: So you start getting in films and you get very famous. What was the strangest thing early on about actually - not only being successful, but being famous?

PITT: The strangest thing is suddenly being looked at and watched and judged, in a way. I mean, I don't know what I was expecting. You know, you're putting yourself in that ring. I just didn't think that far ahead. And I found it very discombobulating. I was very uncomfortable with the focus.

GROSS: So did that make you want to be in the limelight any more or less?

PITT: No, I still wanted to crack this film thing I was in, but I was committed. You know, I think one of the lovely things about where I grew up is it's considered great hubris to talk about yourself, and yet, you know, as we sit here now, it's part of the business, and I find it actually interesting and cathartic in some way.

But at that time, I was - I mean, a good 10 years I wrestled with it.

GROSS: About how much to share about yourself and...

HOFFMAN: Yeah, I was very, very protective.

GROSS: So you live in a world where money is so weird. I mean like you were able to sell the first pictures of the first child that Angelina Jolie gave birth to for $4.1 million to People magazine. And then you, you know, you donated the money to charity, put the money to good use. But that's just like so weird, to get that amount of money for a photograph.

PITT: It's bizarre.

GROSS: It's crazy. It's like values gone nuts. So...

PITT: It's bizarre.

GROSS: Yeah. Especially what you're trying to do is like at least try to take the values gone nuts and put it to good use, put the money to good use.

PITT: Well, that was my feeling. I mean, I know some of these guys who are in that stalkerazzi world, and you really have to separate them from the paparazzi in our industry. This is another breed. And they have their heroes who got the big scandalous shot, and which just promotes more of that. So going into this we knew - listen, it's a very strange thing to be selling photos of something that's very intimate and personal and those in which you want to protect. We knew from, you know, we had to plan an escape every day to get out of the house - kind of a "Mission Impossible" with decoys, and that's the life we live in, and that's the one we asked for. So - but we knew there was a bounty on our head and a huge bounty. And we understand the lengths they go to - I don't think people do - to get that shot. So we figured, let's cut it off from the beginning, and instead of that money going to people I do not respect, that we would make some good out of it. And there's the nice thing about our situation.

GROSS: So did it work? Did it head people off at the pass? Did it prevent you from being stalked in the way that you feared you would?

PITT: Yeah. It took that initial - the initial hit. Absolutely.

GROSS: So at least nobody else could claim that they had the first photo.

PITT: Right. And that's where the big bounty is.

GROSS: That's where the big bucks are. Right.

PITT: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, I interview people for a living, that's how I spend my time, you know, and I care what my guests have to say, I'm really interested in hearing how the choices people make when they're living their lives, why they do what they do, how they do what they do. At the same time I don't really understand why everybody needs to know the intimate details of your personal life or your children's lives. And I imagine you don't really understand that either. But it's something you probably have to think about a whole lot more than I do. Do you have any answers to that? Like why do people feel that they need to know or that they're entitled to know personal details like that?

PITT: Well, we - I actually - we, you know, I divorce myself of it. I don't think about it, and as I say, enjoy life much more.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PITT: I recall - you know, there's a - I do know there's a positive side to it. Let me put it this way and let's see if it relates.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PITT: I know when I had seen people I respected when I was first starting, just that brush with them meant something to me, like my day felt special.

GROSS: Are there actors you felt that way about when you first met them?

PITT: Absolutely. You know, again, just being around it. And like being on the set of "Less Than Zero," I watched Robert Downey, Jr. go by - I thought, yeah, that's all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So can I squeeze in one more film clip before we have to end?

PITT: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: Great. OK. So this is "Fight Club." This became a real, like, cult favorite. And you star in this with Edward Norton. And he plays somebody who's been traveling on business, meets your character on a plane and comes home to find his house has been destroyed. He calls you up and then you meet in a bar, and then you basically make a strange request to him. You say, hit me. Here's the clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FIGHT CLUB")

EDWARD NORTON: (as The Narrator) What do you want me to do? You just want me to hit you?

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) Come on. Do me this one favor.

NORTON: (as The Narrator) Why?

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) Why? I don't know why. I don't know. I've never been in a fight. Have you?

NORTON: (as The Narrator) No. But that's a good thing.

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) No, it is not. How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight? I don't want to die without any scars. So come on. Hit me, before I lose my nerve.

NORTON: (as The Narrator) God. This is crazy. I...

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) So go crazy. Let 'er rip.

NORTON: (as The Narrator) I don't know about this.

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) I don't either but who gives a (bleep). No one's watching. What do you care?

NORTON: (as The Narrator) This is crazy. You want me to hit you?

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) That's right.

NORTON: (as The Narrator) What, like in the face?

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) Surprise me.

NORTON: (as The Narrator) This is so (bleep) stupid.

GROSS: That's my guest, Brad Pitt, with Edward Norton in a scene from "Fight Club." So the character says how much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight. Have you been in fights? I mean you've had to be in fights for movies. What about real life?

PITT: Not really.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PITT: Not really. Not for a long time, which I'm grateful to say.

GROSS: But even when you were young, did you?

PITT: Oh, certainly in my younger days. And they were always messy and scrappy and somewhat stupid.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So did you and Ed Norton end up hurting each other at all during the making of this film?

PITT: No. I don't think so. I mean, we mainly just had a laugh.

GROSS: So how many people walk up to you and say the first rule of fight club is not to talk about fight club?

PITT: Um. No one.

GROSS: Really?

PITT: No.

GROSS: It's one of those like famous lines, which I think I just got a couple of words wrong in, but nevertheless.

PITT: Sometimes like I'll get Tyler Durden. Heh, heh, heh, heh.

But nothing much more than that.

GROSS: What do people say when they meet you?

PITT: I'm just afraid, you know, people are doing things to my soup or, you know, at the restaurant or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do you have to worry about that?

PITT: I try not to.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

PITT: Terry, I thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: Brad Pitt, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. His movie "Moneyball" is now out on DVD. Next week, jazz singer Catherine Russell will be taping a performance and interview with Terry Gross which will broadcast in a couple of weeks. Catherine Russell has a terrific new record called "Strictly Romancin'." Here's a tune from the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CATHERINE RUSSELL: (Singing) Hello? Hello? Is this call on 77-711? Hello, John. Is this you? I tried to phone you but I hope you ain't sick. But I'm checking out. Good bye. Nice to have known you. You were my big kick. But I'm checking out. Good-bye. You tried your tricks. You found a new chick. But I was too slick. I meant to know you, you got the gold, (unintelligible).

(Singing) It's too bad our bliss had to miss out like this. I'm checking out. Good bye. Hey, John? Huh? Oh, no, no, no. You breaking up, baby. I tried to phone you. I hope you ain't sick. But I'm checking out. Good-bye. Nice to have known you. You were my big kick. But I'm checking out. Good-bye. You tried no tricks. You found a new chick.

(Singing) But I was so slick. I meant to know you, you got the gold, (unintelligible). It's too bad our bliss had to miss out like this. I'm checking out. Good-bye.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Coriolanus," a new film adaptation of a Shakespearian drama. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: There have been many "Hamlets", "Othellos," "MacBeths," "Romeos and Juliets" on the big screen, but never before has there been Shakespeare's tragic hero Coriolanus. In the new film adaptation of "Coriolanus," Ralph Fiennes both makes his directorial debut and plays the famously unaccommodating Roman general. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Ralph Fiennes showed up for a frenzied cameo near the end of Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," and her hand-held, adrenaline-charged approach clearly inspired his film of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus," which he both acts and directs the bloody hell out of.

He plays the Roman commander Caius Martius, awarded the name "Coriolanus" after vanquishing Rome's enemies, the Volscians, at their capital, Corioli, in 494 B.C. In the film, however, he does it with tanks and rifles in a war-torn city-state called "Rome" that evokes nowhere in particular, but 20th-century Northern Ireland and Bosnia generally.

I admit I have a prejudice against Shakespeare on screen in modern settings, but it's one I'll happily discard when the adaptors know what they're doing. My old friend Michael Almereyda made a wonderful "Hamlet" with Ethan Hawke, set in the Big Apple, and this "Coriolanus" is in the same league. Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have the pulse of the story, its mixture of firm martial beats and messy political clatter. As cinema, it's thrilling.

I've been lucky to see two tremendous productions of "Coriolanus" onstage, one in London starring Alan Howard, the other in New York with Christopher Walken. Of the three, Fiennes' hero is, by design, the least likable. His Coriolanus is a hardened soldier, a glassy-eyed killing machine rendered unfit, by his battle experiences, for peacetime life.

In our modern parlance, he either has post-traumatic stress disorder or — as "The Hurt Locker" framed its hero — an addiction to the rush of war. The source of the tragedy is that his formidable mother, Volumnia, played by Vanessa Redgrave, has mapped out a career for Coriolanus in politics.

She wants him to lead the republic, which means he has to slap the backs of senators and flatter the public. Even his soliloquies, his private resolutions to become a politician, suggest he's the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CORIOLANUS")

RALPH FIENNES: (As Coriolanus) Must I, with base tongue, give my noble heart a lie that it must bear? Well, I'll do it. Away, my disposition and possess me some hallowed spirit. A beggar's tongue. Make motion through my lips. I will not do it, lest I cease to honor mine own truth and by my body's action teach my mind the most inherent baseness.

EDELSTEIN: Fiennes' Coriolanus is so viscerally ill-at-ease, that the notion of putting him up for public office seems demented. He's aggressively unpleasant. But thanks to the medium of cinema, we at least understand where he's coming from. Most of the carnage in Shakespeare is offstage, but Fiennes can show his hero in grueling hand-to-hand combat, once being drenched with arterial spray.

"Hurt Locker" cinematographer Barry Ackroyd puts his camera in the warriors' faces, chief among them, Fiennes' - a scowling mask with a map of ugly scars. Those scars have dramatic weight. His mother says to use them to win the peoples' hearts, but Coriolanus tells the Senate, I had rather have my wounds to heal again, than hear say how I got them.

Fiennes and Logan don't go in for political nuance. There's a good case to be made that a man with such atrocious people skills and a possible penchant for martial law would make a lousy leader, but here, Coriolanus' political rivals are portrayed as more self-serving than principled.

All the sympathy here goes to the warrior class. Coriolanus is much more at home in the presence of his bitterest Volscian enemy, played with surprising tenderness by Gerard Butler, than with anyone else, including his wife, the phenomenally versatile Jessica Chastain.

Vanessa Redgrave is not one of the world's greatest verse speakers, but being one of its greatest actresses compensates for much. What comes through in her Volumnia, even on the eve of Redgrave's 75th birthday, is a kind of shining-eyed girlish certainty that would impel many a dubious man to do her bidding. Brian Cox is superb as her most dogged supporter, an urgent, yet gentle man who proves that not all politicians are, as Coriolanus maintains, founts of phoniness.

There isn't a bum note in the whole movie - but there are oddities. The Romans who debate Coriolanus' election are seen on TV screens. They're TV pundits who talk in iambic pentameter. But after sitting through the last few months of Sunday talk-show election blather, I wasn't thinking, how unrealistic, I was thinking, if only they sounded like this.

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

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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