DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Richard Belzer, the sharp-witted, sharp-tongued stand-up comic who ended up portraying one of the most durable detectives on television, died Sunday at his home in France. He was 78 years old. Belzer started his stand-up career in comedy clubs in the early 1970s. He was one of the comics featured on the "National Lampoon Radio Hour," a breeding ground for a virtual who's who of counterculture comedy. Belzer eventually went on to "Saturday Night Live," but he worked mostly as the show's warmup comic.
As an actor, Belzer broke out in the video and film versions of "The Groove Tube" and landed one-shot guest roles on such hit '80s shows as "Miami Vice" and "Moonlighting." In 1985, he hosted a short-lived TV series, "Hot Properties," with a guest list so eclectic it included not only Mr. T and Hulk Hogan but Little Richard and Leonard Cohen. But Richard Belzer hit pay dirt when he originated the role of Detective John Munch, a TV role he ended up portraying in 10 different series over more than 20 years, ending in a long co-starring role on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT")
DANN FLOREK: (As Donald Don Cragen) You had one hell of a run, Sergeant Munch.
RICHARD BELZER: (As John Munch) Did I? I don't know where it all went.
BIANCULLI: Belzer first played Detective John Munch in a superb NBC cop series called "Homicide: Life On The Street," which premiered in 1993. In his introductory scene, Belzer, as Munch, visits a local hospital to interview a patient who's a murder witness and a possible suspect who claims to have cut his hand on a fence. Munch has a quick mind, a quicker mouth and a clear inferiority complex.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET")
BELZER: (As John Munch) What fence, Bernard?
STEVE HARRIS: (As Bernard) Corner of Denmore and Ghass (ph).
BELZER: (As John Munch) That's a schoolyard over there, right? Let's go and see.
HARRIS: (As Bernard) See what?
BELZER: (As John Munch) Well, there better be some blood around the fence, right? The Billard (ph) brothers are in the morgue with more holes than in Augusta National. I'm thinking in some place, in the middle of all that action, the knife got slippery.
HARRIS: (As Bernard) OK. I was there, but I didn't kill them.
BELZER: (As John Munch) Who killed them?
HARRIS: (As Bernard) A Jamaican killed them.
BELZER: (As John Munch) A Jamaican. What's his name?
HARRIS: (As Bernard) I don't know. But he's the one that cut me, said he'd kill me, too, if I said anything.
BELZER: (As John Munch) When did he tell you that?
HARRIS: (As Bernard) Well, when he drove me to the hospital.
BELZER: (As John Munch) So this unnamed mystery Jake (ph) kills both Billard brothers, cuts your hand, drives you to Hopkins bleeding all over his car and swears you to secrecy along the way.
HARRIS: (As Bernard) That's why I lied about the fence.
BELZER: (As John Munch) OK, now I get it. You're saving your really good lies for some smarter cop. Is that it? I'm just a doughnut in the on-deck circle. Wait till the real guy gets here. Wait for that...
BIANCULLI: Richard Belzer played John Munch for seven years on "Homicide," then played the same role on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" for another 15 years until 2014. He also played Detective Munch in guest-star appearances on an absurdly varied list of other TV shows from "30 Rock" and "The X-Files" to "Arrested Development" and "The Wire." Terry Gross spoke with Richard Belzer early in his career. In 1987, she asked him about dealing with hecklers in his stand-up.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: You must be used to handling absolutely everything and anything. For five years in the mid '70s, you were the emcee at Catch a Rising Star, a comedy club.
GROSS: So you must have learned how to handle everything including the craziest hecklers.
BELZER: Yeah, well, when I first started, I didn't talk to the audience at all. I just introduced the acts. And then, as time went on, I realized that I had to address the audience and - asking people where they're from, what they're - about what they're wearing, about who they're with. And it just kind of evolves. And sometimes you discover - sometimes I initiate it, and sometimes there are hecklers. So there are all different kinds of hecklers. Some people are very innocent. They just want to be a part of the show, and they think they're helping the comedian. Some people are mean-spirited drunks who want to disrupt the show. Some people are disruptive without even knowing it. I mean, it's just everything you could possibly imagine - like relatives, I guess.
BELZER: It's a good analogy.
GROSS: You said sometimes you would initiate it. How so?
BELZER: Well, if I saw - if I come out on stage, I don't usually like to start with prepared remarks. I usually just come out and say hello to the audience. And then, if I see someone who looks interesting in the front row, a couple or a person, I'll ask them where they're from, and then, I'll ask them what they do, and then, I'll ask them all different kinds of questions to elicit responses and then ad-lib and improvise off of the information they give me.
GROSS: You've seen a lot of bad comics perform?
GROSS: What are some of the mistakes you've seen them made that you've learned from?
BELZER: Well, a lot of them make the mistake that I made when I first started, and that's to rush your material when you're not getting a laugh, to speed it up. And that's the death knell. That's the worst thing you can do, is to speed up the material. What I used to do, my fatal flaw, was I would get mad at the audience for not laughing, not thinking it was me. So I would get hostile towards the audience for not laughing. And you're just kind of built into this trap that I would put myself in and had to kind of verbally dance my way out of. But I soon realized that the thing to do is to take your time and not rush the material. I'd say that's the No. 1 rule.
GROSS: Richard, can I ask you to move about an inch back from the microphone?
GROSS: Great. Thanks a lot. The P's are just popping a little bit.
GROSS: No (laughter).
BELZER: (Imitating George H.W. Bush) Well, I didn't realize it.
BELZER: (Imitating George H.W. Bush) But I thought the mic was in back of me. Mommy, could you move that mic for me? Thank you.
GROSS: You've done a lot of television, and I'm going to ask you about what was, I'm sure, the most dramatic moment for you, which is when you were hosting "Hot Properties" and your guests were Hulk Hogan and Mr. T...
GROSS: ...For WrestleMania.
BELZER: The fascist twins.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, you were nearly killed on that program.
BELZER: I was. I'm glad you found that humorous. But, no, it was one of the most bizarre events ever because I had them on the show. Someone on my staff said, we can get Mr. T and Hulk Hogan on the show. And I said, yeah, sure, right, great, 'cause I'm not really a big wrestling fan. I was when I was a kid, when it was Antonio Rocca (ph) and Ricki Starr and the Graham Brothers. I don't know if you remember those people.
GROSS: Yeah, and Haystacks Calhoun, I remember.
BELZER: Yeah, exactly. So then, it was more theatrical and taken for what it was. These guys, for some reason - I think it's steroids - they harden the arteries of the brain and fear of not being masculine because they pump themselves up. They become everything that they think they can do to become a man. And actually, they're antithetical to men because they have to go around beating people up to prove they're men.
So on my show, I saw - I met Hulk Hogan before the show. He was very nice to me. And during the show, for some reason, he got real crazy, and I asked him to demonstrate something on me. Now, I had had Mark Breland, who's an Olympic boxer, on my show. We did a demonstration. He didn't actually punch me. I did a lot of different things on the show where no one ever actually physically attacked me. So that was the last thing in my mind. And for some reason, he took upon himself to knock me out in his arm. He kind of crushed my head until I couldn't breathe.
GROSS: A stranglehold?
BELZER: Yeah. And then, he - it's called a front chinlock. And then, he dropped me to the floor while I was unconscious. And I hit the back of my head on the floor and woke up in a few seconds and jumped to my feet and went to a commercial. And then, I realized that there was - Niagara Falls was pouring out of the back of my head. And then, I went to the hospital, and I need stitches. So now I'm suing him for $5 million.
GROSS: When you were unconscious and you came to for a few seconds, did you really - I never saw this program. I never saw a tape of that particular show.
GROSS: But when you came to it, did you actually say, we'll be back after this?
BELZER: Yes, I did. And my lawyer - not my lawyer. My doctor was amazed because I was in shock at the time. And I just sprang to my - first of all, when I was unconscious, I had a dream. And I was only out for about eight or 10 seconds. I had a - I was dreaming that I was late for something like, you know, the show or something. And little did I know I was dying on the floor of the studio. So I sprung to my feet, and I said, we'll be back after you-know-what 'cause I never say the word commercial. I always say, we're back after this or message or - so I had the temerity to do that. I guess show business was in my blood, only I didn't know it was going to be all over my jacket and the back of my head.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did you think you were dying?
BELZER: Well, he knocked me out so fast. It was very - he started squeezing my head, and I tried to signal him, but I couldn't even lift my arms. And then my brain said, check, please, because there was no oxygen going to my brain. So my brain wanted out, so my brain turned off, as brains do when you're being strangled.
GROSS: I'm probably cynical enough so that if I was watching at home, I would have thought, oh, I bet that was staged.
BELZER: Well, the amazing thing is - one of the reasons I'm suing is because a lot of people thought it was staged. Many people could see that it was real, but a lot of people thought it was fake because wrestling, by definition, is fake. But I can assure you it was real. And I have the scar to prove it and the lawsuit to prove it. And it was just a grotesque anomaly in show business.
BIANCULLI: Richard Belzer speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "LAW AND ORDER")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1987 interview with actor and standup comic Richard Belzer, who died Sunday at age 78.
GROSS: Well, let me ask you about your life and how you got into comedy. Now, I know you grew up in a housing project.
GROSS: And I've read that you didn't have a lot of money when you were growing up.
GROSS: And I assume that you were one of the funny kids in the neighborhood.
GROSS: Was that a kind of protective shield for you - being funny? Did that mean that you weren't going to be picked on by the toughest kids around?
BELZER: Well, it's interesting. My wit has saved me more than once. And I found when I was a kid that the tough guys - a lot of the tough guys in the school liked my wit. So I would hang around with some tough guys, and we would come across some other people, and I would, like, put them down, and they'd go to beat me up, and my friends would beat them up. So I never really had to get in any fights, really, because I would, like, kind of instigate a fight, and then Vinny or Rocco or Vito would do the rest.
GROSS: Instigate through verbal abuse.
BELZER: Yeah. I sound like a little fascist, don't I?
GROSS: Yes, you do.
BELZER: That's when I was a little - you know, I was young. It was 30 years ago as a young, skinny kid.
GROSS: Now, you've said in one of your routines that when you were young, your mother used to beat you and that you would try to tell her jokes to get her to stop.
BELZER: Right. Right. Well, she was the toughest audience I ever had.
BELZER: And my kitchen was the toughest room I ever worked.
GROSS: Well, how true is that, though?
BELZER: Actually, it's quite literally true. I - it all - unfortunately, it didn't work as much as legend has it. But I - when I was a kid, I had a crew cut, or a zip, what they called then, very short hair. And I looked just like Jerry Lewis. And I used to do a Jerry Lewis impression. And sometimes my mother would get mad at me, and I'd do my Jerry Lewis shtick, and she'd laugh and forget to hit me. But I'd say that worked maybe two times out of 20. So she usually wound up hitting me anyway. So the material wasn't that strong.
GROSS: Now, you've also said in your routines that you were thrown out of every school that you went to. Does that include college? Were you thrown out of college?
BELZER: Yes, I was thrown out of college. It was funny because I - one of the reasons I was thrown out because I led a demonstration in 1964, before there were Vietnam War demonstrations. This was, like, the wimpiest demonstration. We wanted to have women be able to visit the boys' dorms or the boys visit the women's dorms, I forget. So I got all the guys in my dorm to, like, march over to the women's campus, you know, like, clapping our hands, you know? And the security guard - his name was Joe, and we all knew him - he came over to the crowd, the mob. And he said, all right, guys. Come on, let's go. Break it up. And we said, OK, Joe. And that was the demonstration.
BELZER: There was no bomb throwing. There was no Mario Savio. There was no...
GROSS: For this you got thrown out of college?
BELZER: Well, that was on my record, that, you know, I led a demonstration. I broke curfew. I, you know, had liquor in the dorm. You know, how bad can you be in 1964?
GROSS: Right. Right. Now, then you went into the Army.
BELZER: Yes. And I was thrown out of the army, too. Well, I was actually discharged under honorable conditions for being too funny to carry a gun.
BELZER: They said, wait a minute. This guy's too funny. He's too - which is almost true. Actually, I got out of the Army by feigning mental illness, if you will. I pretended that I was suicidal, and I staged this whole thing where I said I got beat up and my back was hurting, and they found out I was faking, and they sent me to the Jewish chaplain in the army. I didn't know there were Jewish - I thought Pat O'Brien was the - I didn't know Jews joined the army. I didn't know Jews were - let alone chaplains. And I went to this rabbi, and I said, Rabbi, because my sergeant said that you - you know, you got to go see your chaplain, Belzer, because you need help.
So I went to the chaplain. I said, Chaplain, with all due respect, I think I need to see a psychiatrist. And he said, you know, Freud was a Jew. And the reason he became a psychiatrist was to discover his Jewishness. You don't need a psychiatrist. You need to discover why you're a Jew. And he lectured me on kosher food and choirs and how I could sing in the Army Jewish choir and eat kosher food. And I said, really, Rabbi, I need to see a - he said, you have to - do you have a girlfriend? And I said, no. He said, did you ever have - I said, yeah. Was she Jewish? Good. Like, everything was revolved around Judaism, which was the farthest thing from my mind then. I just wanted to get out of the Army.
Finally, I was allowed to go to the psychiatrist, and I - having had a little college, I knew every freshman psychology phobia. So I said that I wet the bed, and I was suicidal. I hated my mother. I was afraid of women. I just did every cliche in psychology, and I got out.
GROSS: That's amazing.
BELZER: I hope no one's listening...
GROSS: That's probably one of your...
BELZER: ...From the Pentagon.
GROSS: ...One of your most convincing performances.
BELZER: Yeah. And I never do this on stage. Maybe I should.
GROSS: Did you ever think to yourself, what happens if I'm discovered, that this is just an act?
BELZER: What's that?
GROSS: When you were trying to get out of the Army and faking all this stuff.
BELZER: Well, I think that it's kind of, like, partially - you know, they knew that I was acting crazy, but I was crazy to do that in the first - it was kind of like that. You know, it was like...
GROSS: Right. If you could do this so well, who wants you around anyways?
BELZER: Exactly. It was like Kafka meets "Catch-22" or something.
GROSS: Now, you were talking about the chaplain in the Army who lectured you about...
BELZER: Charlie Chaplin.
GROSS: ...Lectured you about Judaism. I think the very first time I saw you perform was on "Saturday Night Live." And you were doing your impression of Bob Dylan in, like, a retirement center, singing in a Yiddish accent.
BELZER: Right, the 86-year-old Bob Dylan.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now, I hate to ask questions like how did that idea come to you, but really, how did that idea come to you?
BELZER: Well, when I was a kid - I hate to say that Bob is that much older than me. Well, when I was a kid, when I was a teenager, and we started first getting into Bob Dylan and we - then we found out his real name is Zimmerman. And he's a Jew from Minnesota. And this was, like, a revelation to have a hero that's a Jew. So I said, if his name is Zimmerman, he must have had a bar mitzvah. So I fantasized what Bob Dylan's bar mitzvah must have been like, you know? (Imitating Bob Dylan in Hebrew).
BELZER: And then he gets older, you know? Oy, oy.
BELZER: Once upon a time, you dressed so fine. You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
BELZER: People called, said, beware, doll. You're bound to fall. You thought they was all kidding you, and so on.
GROSS: Who spoke Yiddish in your family?
BELZER: Actually, I just got back into Yiddish music. I've discovered these things. My - everyone in my family spoke Yiddish. But I resent the fact that they didn't share. They didn't teach me. They didn't teach my brother or my cousins. My parents would talk in Yiddish. My grandparents would talk in Yiddish. And there's a comedian who does a routine. I can't think of who it is, but where - and it's true. If I may borrow the routine without crediting the person, and that is that Jewish families had the habit - the adults would tell a joke. They'd be telling a joke in English. And then a kid would walk in the room. And then they do the punchline in Yiddish. They'd say, so the guy walks up to the maid. He opens the door. He sees that she has no clothes on. And then a kid walks in the room. And he goes, (speaking Yiddish).
BELZER: And you don't know what the punch - it was the most frustrating thing I've ever - I still resent my uncles to this day for doing that to me. And I wish I could remember the comedian that did that. I guess, maybe, it was Robert Klein. But that's not my routine. But it's a true story.
GROSS: You know, since it was the older people in your family who spoke Yiddish, did you think that when you grew up, you'd automatically know the language?
BELZER: That's funny because I have a theory that everyone - when they get old, no matter what religion they are, they have a Jewish accent.
BELZER: Even Irish people, you know? They get to be past 65. I'm going to go to the store now because - I'm in the store? Good because I can - hello? You know, everyone - Italians - everybody, for some reason, they get a Jewish accent. Don't ask me why.
GROSS: Oh, gosh.
GROSS: Earlier in your career, you were the comic that used to warm up the audiences for "Saturday Night Live?"
BELZER: Yeah, I started doing that the first few shows, actually.
GROSS: I didn't realize they'd even have a warm-up comic there. What kind of stuff did you have to do?
BELZER: Well, it was kind of thrilling in those days to be a part of that because, you know, regardless of what anyone says, a lot of people didn't know how this was going to be accepted. This was like giving the kids the key to the store to have all these, in quotes, "anti-establishment people" have a TV show on a network. And so they asked me to do some sketches and do the warm-ups. I just kind of did what I did in nightclubs. I talked to the audience. You know, I did some of my material. But I tried to improvise and ad lib as much as I could, asking people where they're from. And it was fascinating doing that in a television studio, not a nightclub. So it was an interesting situation to be in.
GROSS: You know, one of the problems nowadays is that special interests are so fragmented. And there's only a fairly narrow number of things that everybody knows in common, like the records everybody knows or the books everybody's read. Do you ever want to say something in one of your routines that you know you can't say because only, like, three people are going to get the joke?
BELZER: Well, that's one of my jobs (laughter). I like to talk about esoteric things - I mean, not 90% of my act. But there are a lot of things in my act over the years that have been things that I've seen or read that is not open to the general public - or literary references or things about science, or things about all different kinds of subjects that I feel compelled to talk about. And without being patronizing, sometimes I think I can educate the audience. And if I mention something that they never heard of, a literary reference or a line from a play or a new scientific discovery, then maybe they'll go and find out about it. So I'm not inhibited. I know a lot of comedians try to be as broad based and as commercial and as accessible as possible, and as least offensive as they can be. And for good or ill, I never subscribed to that theory.
GROSS: Are you in stand-up for the long haul? Or would you eventually like to get out of it and just go into acting?
BELZER: You know, James Cagney - somebody once asked James Cagney what he would like to be remembered as, and he said a hoofer, because he was a dancer. And obviously, he's one of the greatest actors in the history of film. I'd like to be remembered as a stand-up comic or thought of as a stand-up comic, even though I'm very interested in acting in films and doing radio and records and some music things. But I'm basically a stand-up comedian and proud of it.
BIANCULLI: Richard Belzer speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. For more than 20 years, on a variety of TV shows, he played the same character, Detective John Munch. Belzer died Sunday at age 78 at his home in the south of France. It was the home he had bought with proceeds from his out-of-court settlement against wrestler Hulk Hogan, who had injured him during a wrestling demonstration on a TV show. Belzer referred to his home as the Hulk Hogan Estate and Chez Hogan. After a break, we remember pro baseball player and sportscaster Tim McCarver. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF BOB DYLAN")
BELZER: But there isn't one song to explain the mystery of Bob Dylan. And I would like to nominate this song for that very purpose, "The Ballad Of Bob Dylan."
(Singing) Well, I'm a skinny Jew, one of the few from Minnesota. They had a quota. Came to the big city, dreamed that I was Walter Mitty, wrote folk songs that I thought were witty. Someone said I'd be the next big thing until they heard me sing. But it was too late to change their minds because the contracts were already signed.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "THE BIG ONE")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. Tim McCarver, the All-Star pro baseball catcher and broadcaster, died last week of heart failure in Memphis, the city of his birth. He was 81 years old. McCarver joined the major leagues in 1959 and embarked on a career as a catcher that spanned four different decades for as many teams - the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox. He was the catcher of choice for some legendary pitchers, including Bob Gibson in the '60s and Steve Carlton in the '70s, and played on two winning World Series teams.
After his retirement as a player in 1980, Tim McCarver shifted the color commentary in the broadcast booth. Over the years working for various networks, he called games for the Phillies, the Cardinals, the New York Mets and Yankees and the San Francisco Giants. He covered 23 World Series, won two Emmys for his color commentary and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. He wrote several memoirs and books. And Terry Gross spoke to him in 1987, when one of them, titled "Baby, I Love It!" (ph), had just been published.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Welcome to FRESH AIR.
TIM MCCARVER: Thank you very much, Terry - nice being with you.
GROSS: Are there any permanent changes in your anatomy from having crouched and caught for so many years?
MCCARVER: I don't know whether there are permanent changes in my anatomy. I know that I can tell when it's raining outside without opening the shutters. I know when it's snowing and what the temperature is going to be like before I go outside. Obviously, from catching, I have arthritis in the knees even though I never had a major or serious knee injury. I was never cut on. The only time I was on the disabled list, as a matter of fact, was back in 1970, when Willie Mays fouled the ball back into my right hand and broke it. And I was out for four months. And I'm kind of proud - I think more proud of that fact than I am of anything in my career because of my durability. I'm glad I was durable.
GROSS: Can I see your hands?
MCCARVER: Sure. Sure.
GROSS: They look...
GROSS: Can you turn them over? Let me see the palms of your hands. They look normal. I wasn't - after seeing - after having the ball pound against your hand for so many years, I thought they might be more gnarled.
MCCARVER: Well, when - the particular mitts that I used, I think, aided and abetting a longer-living left hand because the pitchers that you catch are - throw awfully hard. And when you catch the ball away from the bone right below your index finger, it takes some of the cushion. It kind of cushions the blow and takes some of the sting and bite away. My left thumb is in pretty bad shape and overextended - hyperextended. But I feel fortunate in that I was able to plate without having a serious injury.
GROSS: What is so grueling about catching?
MCCARVER: Squatting, the foul tips, the mental strain - as much as anything, I mean, the feeling that you have to concern yourself with other people. A catcher really has to work with his pitcher. And when you work that closely with somebody, you can't help but feel for him when he gets tagged with the loss. If you lose a game 3-2 and you call the pitch that you know shouldn't have been thrown later on, then the pitcher may accept it and say, don't worry about it. We'll get him next time. But you know fully well that it was a bad call. Then you stay awake at night as much as he does. And you're staying awake every night for every pitcher that you catch, you see, because you're going to be back behind the plate again.
The mental strain can be as difficult as the physical strain, and there's a lot of physical strain. Balls bouncing - a baseball is hard, and it's thrown awfully hard. It's thrown 90-plus miles an hour, and it's spinning and twisting and everything. And a catcher in the big leagues cannot catch a full season or 130 to 140 games without half of the time going behind the plate and being hurt and feeling pain.
GROSS: When you say that the position is underestimated, do you mean by the fans, by the players or by the people in the front office?
MCCARVER: All of the above - the fans because they can only vicariously see what's going on and the front office because they often negotiate contracts. Like, the catcher was supposed to drive in 100 runs. I mean, when Johnny Bench drove in - he won two MVPs driving in over 100 runs, I believe, four times in his career - a remarkable achievement. Gary Carter, three or four times a hundred RBIs - remarkable achievements because to go back there day in and day out and then still be able to contribute offensively is just truly remarkable.
GROSS: Why is it so unlikely that a catcher would be a great batter?
MCCARVER: Well, primarily because of the fatigue. If I had a nickel for every third and fourth at bat of a game where I made an out, most of the time lazy fly balls the other way, it beats your arms down. The balls beat your arms down. The strain of - your emphasis is on something else. It's not necessarily on only your offense. It's on other things. It's helping your pitcher. It's manipulating a game. It's matching wits. It's - there are just so many things that are involved in that particular position other than the physical strain. I think the standards offensively for catchers going into the Hall of Fame should be lowered, as a matter of fact. I used to negotiate contracts back in the middle '60s, and the general managers used to tell me that my numbers were not as good as an outfielder's or an infielder's or a first baseman's. And I said, but I'm a catcher. They never understood it, or at least they used that to negotiate.
GROSS: From your catcher's perspective, who should the strategist be - the catcher or the pitcher?
MCCARVER: Well, the pitcher's the guy who has to throw the ball. And so he is the guy who ultimately throws the pitch. A catcher will suggest and suggest sometimes very strongly that a pitch should be called. And if the pitcher still disagrees, then it's time to talk. And then and then only should you go out to the mound. I hate conferences at the mound. I think they're - they don't serve any purpose. And a lot of the times on television, a lot of the announcers will talk about how - what's being said on the mound. And most of the time it's for show and not very thought-provoking things.
GROSS: What is the show? What's the show about?
MCCARVER: Well, it shows that a catcher is going out there to slow down his pitcher to speed him up or talk about things. And catchers seem to make their living doing this. I remember Johnny Keane, when I was catching for the Cardinals back in 1963, used to ask me to go out to slow down Bob Gibson. And I used to say, John, he doesn't want me to be out there slowing him down. He wants to work at his pace. And so John wanted me to go out there. Gibson wanted me away from there. I remember one time I went out to the mound, and Bob told me to go on back behind the plate. The only thing I knew about pitching was that it was hard to hit.
GROSS: Well, do some pitchers resent it if the catcher tries to tell them what kind of pitch to throw? Do they feel like they're handing over their game to the catcher?
MCCARVER: Oh, yes. And I don't think any catcher worth his salt really tries to enforce a particular type of game from a pitcher. I think a lot of catchers with experience will try to railroad a young pitcher into pitching the catcher's type of game instead of the pitcher's. And I think the pitchers - or the catchers worth their salt will work with the pitcher and not try to strong-arm him.
GROSS: What about the batter? The batter comes up to hit. You're catching right next to him. Is there tension between the two of you frequently? Would you try to psych each other out...
MCCARVER: No. No.
GROSS: ...Or knock off each other's equilibrium?
MCCARVER: No. A lot of catchers are often asked if they talk to the hitters. I never felt that it was professionally responsible to talk to hitters in particular situations like that. If you couldn't get them out the way the rules of the game were played, I thought it was a minor league attitude for a catcher to take and totally unprofessional to spend most of that time trying to distract the hitter by talking to him.
GROSS: The pitchers who you worked with the longest were Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. Did you have to act almost like a psychologist to both of those pitchers, just to psych out what they were doing in their game and to help them get more on track if they were losing it?
MCCARVER: I don't think - I think psychologist is probably too strong a word because guys who are intelligent like Carlton and Gibson - and I caught some pitchers who weren't intelligent. And I'm not trying to say that I am. But Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton were the two types of individuals who'd read through things like that. I mean, the one thing that I tried to do more than anything else is to be honest. I would try - a catcher as an expert on results of pitches. He's not an expert on how to throw a pitch, but he is on the result of a particular pitch. And I tried to put that more to use than anything else, the results of the pitches that not only Carlton and Gibson threw, but anybody that I caught.
GROSS: What were some of the things that you would tell Carlton or Gibson if they were in a slump? What could you tell them?
MCCARVER: I tried to stay away from things like that. Catchers are often put into awkward positions. As far as arm movement and arm location, I didn't tell him too many things at all about getting - you got to pitch your way out of it. You pitch your way into things like that, into little ruts, and you're a human being, and you're going to fall into little ruts like that occasionally. But guys like Carlton and Gibson, they didn't fall into to them too frequently.
GROSS: Are the balls that are the hardest to hit at bat also the balls that are hard to catch if you're a catcher?
MCCARVER: Yes. That's a good question, and that's true. Generally speaking, the balls that are toughest to hit are the toughest to catch. And because Bob Gibson was difficult to hit, it made him difficult to catch. Conversely, however, Carlton was easy to catch. You could catch him in a rocking chair. His ball - his slider in the dirt was tough, but it was a gaugeable (ph) ball that you knew how to block it. You knew the spin and the rotation and where to go when the ball went in the dirt. Most of the time it was not a problem, but his fastball was - you could catch him in your living room.
GROSS: Are there some fastballs that are so fast that you can't really see them that well?
MCCARVER: No, no. I mean, after all, a catcher has the advantage of knowing what's coming. And consequently, because he knows what's coming, he - and usually gets - major league pitchers can put the ball in an area about the width of two balls or so, which is about a six-inch area. And they can do that with a great deal of frequency. And because of that skill, it's - the act of catching the ball is an easy thing to do. However, squatting and getting down in that position, there's no telling how many times I did that.
BIANCULLI: Tim McCarver speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT WALTER, EDDIE ROBERTS AND ADAM DEITCH'S "CORNER POCKET")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1987 interview with pro baseball catcher and broadcaster Tim McCarver, who died last week. He was 81 years old. At the time Terry interviewed him, McCarver had just published his latest memoir, called "Baby, I Love It."
GROSS: Tim McCarver, you've been broadcasting since 1980. Was catching good preparation for the kind of sportscasting you're doing now. Was it a good position to play for sportscasting?
MCCARVER: It's the best preparation. A lot of people don't realize that catchers and the broadcasting booth are virtually doing - are facing the field, even though they're two stories higher, two or three stories higher - they're facing the field from the same position and viewing the game from the same position that they worked at it for such a long period of time in most cases. A lot of the things that you think about or that you thought about as a catcher, you have a chance to bring out into the open as a broadcaster. For instance, if a right-handed hitter is hitting and a pitcher is working the right-handed hitter to the outside part of the plate, making it more difficult to pull a pitch, and the outfield is playing the particular hitter around the pull, and you fully are aware that the hitter is more inclined to hit the ball the other way, these are some of the things that you thought about as a catcher, and you can relay and share with the audience some of those thoughts. It's such a complex position to play.
Another example - if the infield is shifted around and the pitcher is throwing a steady diet of breaking balls away to the hitter, well, then you should be able to talk about this and tell the audience why the pitcher may be thinking or why he's wrong in going against the way his defense is. Now, if you were a shortstop, to become a broadcaster, it would be difficult to do this because he doesn't have the same panoramic view that a catcher has.
GROSS: Anyone who's broadcast live knows that there are times when, because it's your turn to say something, you can say the stupidest thing, the most embarrassing thing that you ever imagined. Has that happened to you, that it's been, like, your turn, you open your mouth, and something all wrong and very embarrassing comes out?
MCCARVER: Oh, it's happened to everybody who has broadcast. As an example, during the 1986 season, a season in which the New York Mets were obviously very successful, there was a lot to talk about and a very exciting season for the people in New York City. Of course, the Mets went on to win the World Series. Well, I remember back in the middle of June, there was a ground ball hit to Howard Johnson, the third baseman for the Mets. And the ball took a bad hop, and it was - Ralph Kiner, my colleague, was doing the play-by-play. I was doing the analyst work at the time. Ball took a bad hop, and it hit Howard in the shoulder, and it kind of rolled down his arm into his glove, and he made a nice recovery and threw the runner out at first base by a step. So now our director, Bill Webb, comes right on the shot. And I said - this mental image of a mother holding her child flew into my mind, and I thought, well, I'll use it. And a lot of times, you just fire out with the first thing that comes to your mind. A lot of these things aren't planned.
And I said, sometimes - and I'm going over the replay. And I said, sometimes an infielder, because of the hop, has to handle the hop like a mother would handle her child. Now watch how Howard smothers this ball against his body. And the word smothers came out, and I said...
MCCARVER: ...I can't believe I said that. And I looked at Ralph, and Ralph looked at me as if to say, get yourself out of this one, pal. And Ralph said, I think you meant cradle. I said, cradle, cradle. That's the word.
MCCARVER: So certainly, you really do get in trouble there. But the one thing I do remember was from an old broadcast partner of mine who said that he had good advice as an ex-athlete - when he broke in. His name was Richie Ashburn. And Richie said that somebody told him once that if you don't have anything to say, don't say it. And on television, that's very, very important. Silence is as useful and is as important as something fruitfully chosen.
GROSS: You know a lot of the players' secrets because you've played with some of them.
GROSS: Secret weaknesses - I don't mean, like...
MCCARVER: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: I don't mean their private lives.
MCCARVER: Yes, right.
GROSS: But, like, little secret weaknesses that only other players would really know about or locker room talk that only other players would really have access to. Now you're a sportscaster, and you have to decide how much of that to inform your audience about. What are the ethics of that? Someone comes up to bat, and you know a lot about them.
MCCARVER: Well, often, teams will not allow broadcasters or the media in the training rooms for obvious reasons. If a runner, a guy like a Vince Coleman of the St. Louis Cardinals, for instance, has a minor leg pull or a hamstring pull and would not be able to run as well and you reported that, well, obviously, the other team could hear it. That's why announcers and the media are not allowed in the training room. I - from my playing days, some of the guys are still around that I played against. And, you know, I just say it on the air, if they have a weakness or a strength. And for the most part, most of these players know the weaknesses and strengths of the hitters. It's just execution. They hit it - the pitcher - I mean, hitters are not dumb, and neither are pitchers. Most of these things are known. If a guy's a low-ball hitter, it's pretty easy to find out that he's a low-ball hitter. But if you keep throwing him high fastball, then he adjusts. He's got to do that if he expects to play Major League Baseball.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
MCCARVER: I've loved it.
BIANCULLI: Tim McCarver speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. The World Series-winning catcher and Baseball Hall of Fame broadcaster died last week at age 81. Coming up, I review "Hello Tomorrow!", the odd yet appealing new series now streaming on Apple TV+. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GEOFF MULDAUR SONG, "BRAZIL")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Billy Crudup, who starred in the Cameron Crowe movie "Almost Famous" and on Apple TV+ in "The Morning Show," plays a traveling salesman in a new Apple TV+ series, "Hello Tomorrow!" It began streaming last week. He's selling timeshares and homes, but the properties he's pitching are situated in a very remote location - on the moon. This new fantasy series is part futuristic and part retro and, like its series star, is very likable.
"Hello Tomorrow!" takes place in a world that's equal parts "American Graffiti" and "The Jetsons." It looks and feels like the 1950s, with art deco diners and "Mad Men" fashions and sleek, giant vintage automobiles. Except the car hops are robots. The cars are hovercraft without tires. And yes, there are jetpacks. And in this exceedingly pristine and proper environment, there coexist, as in so many worlds real and imagined, the haves and the have-nots. Jack Billings, played by Billy Crudup, is a traveling salesman targeting the have-nots.
Crudup played the rock star who befriended the young Rolling Stone journalist in "Almost Famous." And his salesman Jack here has the same megawatt likeability factor. But he's also got a weariness to him that suggests a late-career Don Draper or a somewhat less desperate Willy Loman. That mixture of charm and frustration is what fuels both Jack's character and Crudup's performance. As Jack addresses a small gathering of potential customers, hoping to sell them newly constructed homes on the moon, you can hear equal measures of both.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HELLO TOMORROW!")
BILLY CRUDUP: (As Jack Billings) No one here is not a dreamer - am I right? - not in a world like this, where you can have it all. And that's what I want for you and your families. You wake up to the Earthrise out your bedroom window, your wife out on her lunar garden, your boy shagging flies on the zero-G diamond. That's the dream you all deserve. I mean, come on. Why should the rich and the famous get our moon all to themselves? No, sir. The Brightside - that's a place for real people to start fresh, unwind, retire, not to mention you own an asset your kids will be grateful for. So please take a minute - just a minute - and sit down with our top-notch sales associates and start living your brighter tomorrow today.
BIANCULLI: Those sales associates include Hank Azaria of "Brockmire" and "The Simpsons" as a fast-talking veteran closer with a gambling problem and Nicholas Podany as Joey, a rookie salesman Jack welcomes like a son for good reason. There are other associates, too, and also adversaries, investors and a collection of colorful characters, including Jacki Weaver as Jack's mom. Series creators Amit Bhalla and Lucas Jansen and director Jonathan Entwistle have created a colorful fantasy world here and populated it with people real enough to care about and relate to. That includes most of all Jack, whose sales pitches begin to spiral into what sound more like cries for help.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HELLO TOMORROW!")
CRUDUP: (As Jack Billings) You know what? Explain this to me. We live with miracles at our fingertips. We fly to the stars. We split atoms. We got robots taking out the trash. Why are we all still waiting to live our dreams? Well, there's a technical term for that in my business. That's called a [expletive] deal. Our best days are piling up in the rearview, and that hope keeps us going - it's wearing down to the bone. Some of us are losing people we love. And just like that, any day now, that turns into too late - gone forever - because every day that we're not living for now, right now, we're waiting around dying one empty promise at a time.
BIANCULLI: This first season of "Hello Tomorrow!" is tightly written. From the beginning, there's a question of whom to trust and what to believe. Some salespeople can play fast and loose with the truth, and that's definitely true of the ones in "Hello Tomorrow!" In pursuit of their own ambitions, these sales agents are not above lying to their clients, to one another or to themselves. Yet somehow they retain our sympathies. They all want to act better, even if it often ends up a hard sell. At first glance, it's the artistically stylized look of "Hello Tomorrow!" that grabs you. But ultimately, it's the story and the actors that seal the deal.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOON RIVER")
ANDY WILLIAMS: (Singing) Moon river, wider than a mile, I'm crossing you in style some day. Oh, dream maker, you heartbreaker, wherever you're going, I'm going your way.
BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, actor Ke Huy Quan. As a kid, he starred in the '80s films "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom" and "Goonies." When he stopped getting roles in his 20s, he quit acting and started working behind the camera. The first role he got in decades, in the film "Everything Everywhere All At Once," has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLTON SINGLETON'S "MAN IN MOTION")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLTON SINGLETON'S "MAN IN MOTION")
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