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Remembering Groundbreaking Television Producer Steven Bochco

Bochco, who died Sunday, created numerous series, including Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. TV Critic David Bianculli looks back on Bochco's impact, then we listen to his 1989 Fresh Air interview.

22:29

Other segments from the episode on April 2, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 2, 2018: Obituary for Steven Bochco; Interview with Steven Bochco; Review of the new book Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins & Their Rendezvous with American…

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the most important TV producers of our time has died. Steven Bochco, the creator of "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "Doogie Howser, M.D." and "NYPD Blue," died yesterday of complications from cancer. He was 74. Our TV critic David Bianculli has an appreciation. After that, we'll hear the interview I recorded with Bochco in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "HILL STREET BLUES")

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Steven Bochco was one of American TV's first celebrity writer-producers. And he deserved all the fame he achieved because he made some of the very best TV of the '70s, '80s and '90s. He was a story editor on "Columbo," writing the pilot script that was directed by another young talent named Steven Spielberg. And when Bochco started making his own shows, he and his co-creators presented a lot of TV series that made TV a lot better - "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "NYPD Blue," "Murder One." Even his rare flops, like "Cop Rock," were oddly fascinating.

"Hill Street," which premiered in 1981, was Bochco's first groundbreaking series. And it broke most of the rules for U.S. dramatic television at the time. It had continuing storylines, like soap operas, rather than stand-alone episodes. It was shot more like a documentary than a TV show with frenetic action filling the frame and with dialogue interrupting, overlapping and competing, as in a Robert Altman film. It mixed moments of intense drama with touches of dark and even light comedy. It had a maturity to its stories and a complexity to its characters. The good guys weren't always good, and characters tended to change and deepen over time. Or sometimes they didn't because they were unexpectedly killed off without warning even if they were regular, popular characters.

And "Hill Street," rather than relying on one or two stars, featured an entire ensemble. And every character each week and each season got more and more interesting and surprising. But even in the very first episode, there were shocks to spare. A couple cops were gunned down though not killed while on routine patrol. The police captain, Frank Furillo, ended up having a secret affair with one of the public defenders, Joyce Davenport. And when Furillo's ex-wife Fay, played by Bochco's real-life wife Barbara Bosson, visited the precinct, she had a very tender but awkward moment with the station's sergeant, played by Michael Conrad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HILL STREET BLUES")

MICHAEL CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) Hey, how you been, Fay?

BARBARA BOSSON: (Fay Furillo) Good. How are you, Phil? How's Margaret?

CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) What? Didn't Frank tell you? We split up.

BOSSON: (As Fay Furillo) I'm sorry. You guys were married forever.

CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) Twenty-three years.

BOSSON: (As Fay Furillo) I'm really sorry, Phil.

CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) Well, don't be. To tell you the truth, I'd never been happier. Now granted, I hit the skids real hard for a ten-month period. I mean, I came close to ending it. But then I met Cindy. Over night, my life turned around.

BOSSON: (As Fay Furillo) Oh, yeah? Oh, that's terrific. I'm glad to hear that. Are you thinking of getting remarried?

CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) As soon as she graduates.

BOSSON: (As Fay Furillo) She's a college student?

CONRAD: (As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) High school - she's a graduating senior.

BIANCULLI: That wasn't a throwaway punchline either. The rest of that first season of "Hill Street" followed, among many other storylines, that sergeant's angst as he was torn between his high school sweetheart and a much more mature woman who excited him both intellectually and sexually. Sex and unpredictability were even bigger elements of "NYPD Blue," another of Bochco's immeasurably influential TV series. In that show, Dennis Franz played Andy Sipowicz, a bigoted, loose-cannon cop who ended up being the soul of the show and and going from lost cause to precinct hero - a sort of "Breaking Bad" in reverse.

But when "NYPD Blue" began, Bochco's stated intention was to beat cable TV at its own game. Cable back in the early '90s was still scoring biggest by showing unedited and uncensored theatrical films. Bochco convinced ABC to give him a 10 pm slot for "NYPD Blue" and to loosen up the censorship restrictions, so he could feature more sex, violence and language than broadcast TV had ever permitted before.

Advertisers shied away for a bit, but viewers didn't. They made "NYPD Blue" Bochco's biggest hit and were there from the start. And it was a start that in the pre-credit scene of the opening episode had Andy Sipowicz confront the district attorney, played by Sharon Lawrence. They insult each other, and Sipowicz ends the discussion by quoting a little Latin while grabbing his own genitals - "Dragnet" this wasn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NYPD BLUE")

DENNIS FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Hey, Miss District Attorney, you really prosecuted the crap out of that one.

SHARON LAWRENCE: (As Sylvia Costas) I went with the crap I had, detective.

FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Woah, you think that was a hummer bust, huh? You're saying I queered that guy's hire?

LAWRENCE: (As Sylvia Costas) I'd say res ipsa loquitur if I thought you knew what it meant.

FRANZ: (As Andy Sipowicz) Hey, ipsa this, you pissy little bitch.

BIANCULLI: Taken together, "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" completely changed the TV landscape. Very quickly, we got "St. Elsewhere" from Bruce Paltrow, who worked alongside Bochco at MTM Productions. And Bochco himself, between "Hill Street" and "NYPD Blue," gave us "L.A. Law," another big hit with a large ensemble cast. Bochco also was a major mentor to other TV talents, including David Milch, David E. Kelley and Dick Wolf. And while Steven Bochco tried to combat cable with "NYPD Blue," what he really ended up doing was showing cable the way. If not for Andy Sipowicz, there's no Tony Soprano, no Dexter, no Walter White. And if not for Steven Bochco, quality television would have been a longer time coming.

GROSS: David Bianculli is the editor of the website TV Worth Watching. His latest book is "The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." Steven Bochco died yesterday. After we take a short break, we'll hear the interview I recorded with Bochco in 1989. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SIMON SONG, "HOW CAN YOU LIVE IN THE NORTHEAST?")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We are remembering Steven Bochco, the groundbreaking TV producer who created "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "Doogie Howser, M.D." and "NYPD Blue." I spoke with Bochco in 1989. "Hill Street Blues" was still on the air although he'd left the show. "L.A. Law" was going strong, and Bochco was about to premiere "Doogie Howser, M.D."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You started in television at Universal when you were in your - what? - early 20s?

STEVEN BOCHCO: Yeah, I was 22. I went there right out of Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh.

GROSS: In your early writing days, you ended up writing and doing rewrites on a lot of crime shows, including "Colombo," "Delvecchio," "Name Of The Game," "McMillan & Wife." How did you end up doing so many crime shows?

BOCHCO: Well, that's about the only thing that was on TV in those days. And in fact, if you look at what's on television now in the dramatic form, you have very few shows that are outside the action-adventure, police, private detective genre. And in the '60s and '70s, that was the overwhelming kind of programming that we had. And so as a young guy just coming up and basically working on assignment, you did what you were told to do. And those were the shows they put me on.

GROSS: When NBC approached you to write a crime series - the series that ended up as "Hill Street Blues" - were you anxious to do yet another crime show?

BOCHCO: No, not really. I had worked on so many cop shows over the years - as had Michael Kozoll, who I created "Hill Street" with. And between us, gosh, I guess we'd worked on a dozen or more of those shows. And NBC wanted a cop drama And we had other ideas that we wanted to develop. But when we talked to them about it, their interest in doing something that had a focus more on the personal lives of cops struck a nerve with us both. And we simply asked them to leave us alone if we were going to do something like that. And I guess their need was so great that they said, gee, OK. And they did.

GROSS: As a veteran of cop shows, what did you know right off the bat that you wanted to do differently on Hill Street? What were some of the frustrations you faced in the formulas you had to work before?

BOCHCO: Well, I think we approached Hill Street more from the things we knew we didn't want to do. We didn't have a clear idea of how we wanted to change the form. But we were very tired of the kind of standard cop show format where a crime is committed. You - your cops track down the bad guys. You go - you find suspects. You question witnesses. You or you have a little chase at the end. You have a shootout. And you arrest the guy - and that the personal lives of these cops is something that exists on those other six nights of the week when nobody is watching them. The kind of closure, the kind of simple, neat closure that you would get in these in these shows was always kind of annoying to us both. I think, as well, when you're telling stories about violence, which that world is filled with, it always bothered us that none of those stories ever dealt with the consequence of violence the, you know - the terrible emotional toll on cops from from doing the work they do day in and day out. There's a very high rate of divorce amongst cops. There's a very high rate of alcoholism amongst cops. And these are all things that we wanted to explore in some depth, which - when you are doing a show about the personal lives of cops - you can do.

We started out with this sort of checklist of things we didn't want to be. And a lot of what we wound up with on Hill Street is kind of - it was a little bit like form following function. We had a large group of characters that we had developed. And what we discovered pretty quickly as we wrote the pilot was that there's no way on a weekly basis that we were going to be able to dramatically honor the needs of what had quickly become a dozen regular characters - 10 or 11, whatever the exact number was. And so we developed a story flow that would span two, three, four episodes at a time because it was the only way that you could involve your characters in complex stories without devoting a lot of screen time per episode to those characters. And so in that way, we began to develop what really didn't seem all that new to us. It was sort of a police soap opera. That we sort of kiddingly always referred to as cop soap.

GROSS: You have the reputation for being the kind of producer who will put his job on the line if there's something you really want to fight about with the network or standards and practices. What's an example something you put your job on the line for in Hill Street?

BOCHCO: Oh gosh. I seem to quit my job once or twice a year no matter what. And I get - it was is usually over something which in retrospect didn't really seem to have all that much importance but, at the time, seemed seem to be insanely passionate, you know? It was often something that would start with a broadcast standards note about something you couldn't do or say in a script. And, you know, you'd worked so hard on these things. And writers are so passionate about what they're doing on a show like that. And then somebody says, well, gee, you know, this is offensive. So you get into a discussion about it. And the discussion escalates into an argument. And, of course, what those people and broadcast standards don't realize that oftentimes you change something - it's like pulling a thread on a sweater and very often the fabric of something tends to unravel - so every once in a while.

GROSS: Can you think of a specific?

BOCHCO: Oh, gosh. There were so many of them. Gosh, I remember one time we had an episode where some elderly woman was having an affair. And her husband came home and caught them. And he chased the guy through the house. And the guy was trying to get out the bathroom window. And he got his head lodged in between the side of the toilet and the bathtub where he was stuck. So they call the police. And Hill and Renko arrive on the scene. And there puzzling as to how to free this guy. And, of course, they finally free him with a - they shatter the toilet with a sledgehammer. But in the course of it, the husband, who by now has sort of reconciled with his wife, turns to his wife. And it really was like a background piece of dialogue and said, what really upsets me is that you took your teeth out for her. They went nuts. They simply went berserk over that piece of dialogue, which was a background of dialogue.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOCHCO: They never objected to it on the page. So what happened was that we shot the scene. We didn't have close-ups, coverage of the various elements in the scene. So there it was. It was not exercisable from the scene. And they said, you have to take it out. So I guess that's about as angry as I ever got. Because, you know, the deal that I always had with them was if you give me time I think I can pretty much accommodate any of the notes you have that I can't sway you on. But when you give me a note like that after we've shot the film, I'm trapped. And then, of course, to fix it, you have to butcher the film. You know, one of the interesting things we've discovered over the years is that you'd have all these terrible fights in a vacuum. Then finally - and you'd scream and you'd yell and you'd rattle your saber. And you'd threaten to quit. And they'd back down. And you shoot the film. And it goes on the air. Nobody says boo. Nobody writes you a letter. And what you begin to realize, A, is that you've got a far more sophisticated audience watching what you do. The networks are willing to admit. And, B, the republic doesn't fall. That audience comes to you Thursdays at 10 o'clock looking for a degree of sophistication and complexity and humor. And they're very happy with the product they get, by and large.

GROSS: When you started "L.A. Law" after your experiences with "Hill Street Blues" - "L.A. Law" being another show in which there was an ensemble approach in terms of character and storyline - what were some of the experiences that you learned from "Hill Street" that you were able to apply there, experiences pertaining to how many storylines you could balance in the air at the same time, how many actors you can - you could make regulars without it becoming too cluttered or too confusing?

BOCHCO: Well, "L.A. Law" has roughly the same number of regulars. I think there's a dozen regulars on "L.A. Law." The tricky part with "L.A. Law" is that you can't fragment the storytelling quite the way you could on "Hill Street." You do wind up telling fewer stories because the law really requires a more orderly progression of events. And your scenes tend to play longer. I think it is an easier show to track.

The show physically was designed to look different, to be more upscale. "Hill Street" was a show that I always felt was fundamentally about despair and people's desperate attempt to keep that despair at arm's length and I - as a opposed to "L.A. Law," which I always felt was basically about people who are competitive and liked to win and need to win and do win more often than not and are successful because of it. It was also a much more interior show than "Hill Street," easier to produce for that reason, more controllable. So, you know, in many ways, it - they're apples and pears.

GROSS: Gosh, you know, I like your description about "Hill Street" being a show about keeping despair at arm's length. I bet that's not the way you pitched it to the network (laughter). I mean, it's usually the last thing they'd want on TV (laughter).

BOCHCO: Well, I tell you, we never pitched - we never pitched one - we never pitched "Hill Street" to the network at all. They sort of pitched us to do a cop show. I think what they thought they were going to be getting was some version of "Fort Apache, the Bronx," which had recently been released as a film, and it was getting some play, which I'd never...

GROSS: Now, there was more action - more emphasis on action.

BOCHCO: Well, inner-city action. There was some attempt in that movie to deal with the personal lives of some of those cops. I think that's what they were looking for. I hope we didn't disappoint them.

GROSS: Steven Bochco is my guest, the creator of "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "Hooperman" and a new series called "Doogie Howser, M.D." This is the first show in your new contract with ABC which calls, I think, for the creation of 10 programs...

BOCHCO: Right.

GROSS: ...Over the next decade. How are you going to be testing your ideas before you actually make an investment in them?

BOCHCO: Well, I never do. I don't know. I don't believe in testing. I resist always looking at any of the research that networks do on my shows either before they go on or even after they go on because I think the moment you begin to really pay attention to research in television, you stop being creative. And you start trying to design products for a marketplace. And that's not what what I'm interested in doing. I accept the risks inherent in television.

I accept the fact that it is a failure-oriented medium, that you are going to succeed far less often than you fail and that that comes with the territory. And if you're not comfortable with that reality, then you should be doing something else. All the research in the world doesn't seem to prevent the vast majority of television shows from failing miserably. So, you know, here we are. When I get an idea, I like to live with the idea for a long time so that I know personally that it has longevity. And if I feel that, then I'm prepared to fight as hard as I can for it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about television and your work. Thank you for your time.

BOCHCO: You're welcome.

GROSS: Steven Bochco, recorded in 1989. He died yesterday of complications from cancer. He was 74. After we take a short break, we'll hear from the author of a new book about the original so-called Siamese twins - conjoined twins from Siam, which is now Thailand, who were taken to the U.S. to perform in freak shows. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "MAPLE LEAF RAG (WITH MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS")

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest has written a new book that raises fascinating historical, cultural and existential questions. It's about two people who you could also describe as one person. You've probably heard of them but also probably don't know much about them. They are Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, two conjoined twins born in 1811 who grew up in a Chinese community in Siam, which is now known as Thailand.

The new book "Inseparable" tells the story of how they were taken to the U.S. at the age of 17 by two men who sensed they could make money by marketing the twins as freaks and charging admission to see them. The twins were treated as slaves but eventually negotiated their independence, kept their subsequent profits, bought land in Mount Airy, N.C., the town Mayberry was modeled on, married two sisters - and here's the really disturbing twist - they became slave owners. After they died, an autopsy was performed to understand more about their unique anatomy. The autopsy revealed that their liver was connected. That liver remains on exhibit at the Mutter Museum, a medical history museum in Philadelphia.

Author Yunte Huang grew up in China and was one of the students in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. He's now a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Yunte Huang, welcome to FRESH AIR. Describe for us how Chang and Eng were physically joined.

YUNTE HUANG: Well, there was a band of flesh, which was about 4 inches long, that tied them at the bases of their chests. So it's the - where the livers are. And so it was, you know - it was 4 inches long, but over the years, you know, through wear and tear, it was stretched to about 5 1/2 inches in length.

GROSS: So they were called Siamese twins because they were from Siam, which is now Thailand.

HUANG: Right.

GROSS: But they were part of the Chinese community in Siam. They were 17 when they were taken to America. Who took them, and why?

HUANG: Well, they were born of a Chinese father and a Siamese and Chinese mother. To their neighbors in Thailand at the time, they were actually called Chinese twins, not Siamese twins. So Siamese twins was a more kind of American brand when they came to the United States. So they were growing up in Siam in this kind of fishing village. And one day, they were swimming in the river in the canal, and they were discovered by this traveling Scottish businessman by the name of Robert Hunter. And he thought he saw something kind of mysterious, kind of creature literally walking out of Greek mythology, almost. And when he got closer, he realized it was actually two boys joined together. And so he immediately realized it was a business opportunity. And so he tried to talk to the boys, but also to the mother - and trying to convince them that he would take them back to England or United States, you know, for a touring exhibition.

But the Siamese king, actually, did not approve. Everything in the kingdom at the time belonged to the king. A few years later, Robert Hunter got help from an American ship captain by the name of Abel Coffin. So he eventually basically bribed the king and also kind of convinced the king that if you let these boys of their - you know, your kingdom, you can show the world how wonderful your kingdom is that is able to produce such wonder boys. So eventually, they were let go, and that's when Abel Coffin brought the boys to the United States in 1829.

GROSS: So Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins, were a kind of self-contained act. They weren't part of a circus or a carnival. They weren't part of a larger sideshow. They toured as the Siamese twins. Like, what did you see when you went to see them? Did they perform? Did you just get to look at them? Were the viewers encouraged to touch them?

HUANG: Uh-huh. They were just displayed as freaks of nature. And in the beginning, they were just basically, you know, being viewed, and they also take some Q&A. But they also, very quickly, develop some repertoire, such as, like, they can do, like, backflips together and do somersaults. And they will also, say, take some questions from the audience and Q&A. And they were actually, you know, remarkably talented entertainers. They have this kind of good nature and, you know, country boy's shrewd and simple wit. And so one time, there's a one-eyed man in the audience. And when the twins saw the man, he decided to refund, you know, half of his admission fee because they said, you know, he cannot see as much as others.

GROSS: So when Chang and Eng were touring, who made the money? Was it the people who brought them from Siam, now Thailand, to the U.S.?

HUANG: So they arrived in 1829, and they were basically exploited like slaves. And, of course, Coffins, you know, pocketed all the money. And so they felt very resentful. But because they were tricked into signing a contract with Coffin and Hunter - Hunter eventually sold his share. But over the years, they became resentful at exploitation, and they tried to break free from them. And they eventually succeeded. It was a long negotiation. When they turned 21, actually, while Coffin was traveling overseas on business, they wrote a letter to Mrs. Coffin, Susan Coffin, saying, you know, we are now turning 21; we are going to be on our own. And she, of course, panicked and calling them, you know, ungrateful and how well, you know, you've been treated by us and everything. And they wrote back saying, you know, well, you pocketed all the money and everything.

Eventually, actually, it was in Buffalo, N.Y., they wrote the last, sort of, kind of long letter to the Coffins - and this is sort of their declaration of independence listing all the grievances against the exploitation and the maltreatment by the Coffins and everything - and ended up with the line, we are on our own. They hire a manager who will work for them, not the other way around, and they continue to do the show for another seven or eight years until 1839. So in the beginning, the first two or three years, they basically, you know, were exploited by their owners. And then they turned around, and freed themselves and were very successful in making money for themselves.

GROSS: So one of the fascinating things about Chang and Eng is that after being exploited by the people who basically owned them, they negotiated their way out of the contract. They insisted on their own independence. They toured on their own, made money, settled in North Carolina and eventually, like, married. They married two sisters (laughter).

HUANG: Right (laughter).

GROSS: And they had slaves because they're living in the South. It was before the Civil War. And it's just a remarkable turn in the story, that these two conjoined twins who were basically treated as slaves, who were treated as - basically as property of the people who discovered them and, you know, acted as if they owned them, they eventually become prosperous enough to buy slaves themselves and apparently see nothing wrong with that. Apparently, they don't identify at all with the people who they are treating as possessions, as less than human.

HUANG: They are not just, you know, owning slaves. They're also very - I should say very shrewd in terms of what kind of slaves they want to own. So they bought - they got their first slave as a wedding gift from their father-in-law - this Afro-American woman by the name of Grace Gates. But within two years after their marriage, when they moved to next town to bigger land, they started buying more slaves. So they bought two girls, age seven and five, and another black boy, age three.

And within a few years - actually according to our 1850 census - they owned 18 slaves at least - and half of whom actually were less than 8 years old. So they were actually buying, you know, this much younger slaves not to, of course, work in the field. I think they're buying for them for two reasons - first of all, that the future prospect of selling them when they, you know, grow older. And the other thing is that, you know, the younger slaves will be less likely to run away. And so they are kind of shrewd in that regard.

GROSS: So let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more.

HUANG: OK, sure.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Yunte Huang, the author of the new book "Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins And Their Rendezvous With American History." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAXTER DURY SONG, "LEN PARROT'S MEMORIAL LIFT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Yunte Huang, the author of the new book "Inseparable" about the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng who came here from Siam - now Thailand - in 1829 and basically became like a traveling freak show - ended up making a lot of money on it and settling in the South. And Yunte Huang now teaches American literature at the University of California in Santa Barbara. And his previous book was about the history of Charlie Chan.

So Chang and Eng get married. They want to get married. They wonder who's going to be willing to marry them. But they find two sisters. So one marries Chang, and one marries Eng. And, of course, everybody wants to know at the time, like, what is their relationship? Do they have sex? And the answer is like, yeah, they had 21 children. That's a lot of children.

HUANG: Exactly.

GROSS: So not to be prurient here, but like what were you able to learn about what their conjugal relations were like? Did all four of them engage in relations at the same time? Was there one set of partners at a time who had relations? Did they alternate? Like, you need - I think you probably need a plan in a situation like that.

HUANG: Well, they do.

GROSS: You need an agreement.

HUANG: No, actually they do. They have very clearly stated agreement. And here's how it goes. So when they're first married, they were still living in this big house in Traphill in Wilkesboro County. And I guess the wedding night - you know, it's the four of them. But very soon they bought, you know, another land - a piece of plateau land and built two houses. To learn this kind of, you know, skill, which is called alternate mastery. And this is just a technique used by some other Siamese twins as well - especially later on, for instance, with Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Hilton sisters. They basically propagated this notion or this skill which is that when - if Daisy, let's say, is dating or having sex with a man, Violet, the other twin, will basically do this kind of mental blank-out. She will either take a nap or read a book.

With Chang and Eng, however, their arrangement - not just the mental mastery but also through these very rigid arrangement - and they stuck to it actually all those years - which is that for three days they will live under, you know, one roof. Let's say in Chang's house with Chang's wife. And they will - the three of them sleep in one bed. Three days later, they will move on to Eng's house for another three days with Eng's wife. And depending whose roof it's under - if it's in Chang's house, then basically Eng will give up his will, as a human being in some ways, so Chang can decide whatever, you know, he wants to do and vice versa. Three days later, they will go back and do, you know - and Eng will be the master of the house. So in this way, there are no competing, you know, human wills under one roof.

GROSS: It must've been very hard for the person who wasn't the master for those few days because you have to just like turn yourself off.

HUANG: Correct. And that's how they live to cope with it, right? You know, that's how they survived and flourished for, you know, all those years really.

GROSS: Coming home from their last tour...

HUANG: Right.

GROSS: ...Chang had a stroke. He was paralyzed on one side. So Eng basically had to drag around Chang.

HUANG: Right.

GROSS: And then Chang dies, and Eng survives a few hours longer.

HUANG: Right.

GROSS: And reading your book, I just kept thinking what is a - what was it like for Eng when his conjoined twin first had a stroke and then died? Can you imagine being a conjoined twin, and the other half of you has died? And you know the end's coming for you. But in the meantime, you're alive. But you're conjoined twin is dead.

HUANG: Yeah, this is - I mean, this is kind of ontological shift...

GROSS: Yeah.

HUANG: ...In some ways. You know, there were so used to being together. And this is one of the lessons I think we take away from their story is that - what does it mean to be human? And I think that the Chang and Eng answer that being human always, you know, means being more than one. And so those few hours after Chang died or when Eng realized that his brother had died, those were absolutely, you know, I think horrifying hours for him. And he actually begged his, you know, wife and the kids to wrap his legs because he was feeling cold. Those few hours after Chang died was, you know, an unthinkable few hours for Eng.

And the doctors initially planned to separate them if Chang dies. But unfortunately, the doctor didn't get there in time. And the twins, throughout their lives, there are different periods when - for instance, before their marriage to the two sisters, they actually wanted to have a surgery. They consulted with the Philadelphia doctors. They wanted to separate from each other, so they can live, quote, unquote, "normal - a normal life." Strangely, it was their wives - actually future wives - who objected vehemently, saying that it's too dangerous for you guys to go through that procedure, that we will take you, accept you, you know, as you are.

GROSS: Is there a question you most wish you could have asked the twins?

HUANG: Oh, absolutely. The question I really want to ask them was that why did you guys never go home?

GROSS: Back to Siam.

HUANG: Because they love Siam - Siam, yeah. They - you know, they left at the age of 17, you know, had a teary farewell to their mother and their, you know, siblings. But they never went back. And for me, as an immigrant, you know, coming to this country, nostalgia is - you know, old country always, you know, tugs at your heart for every day or - if not every moment. And so I'm very curious to know why they never went back at least for a visit.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Yunte Huang. And his new book is called "Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins And Their Rendezvous With American History." We'll take a short break. Then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS AND BLACKOUT'S "UNTIL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Yunte Huang, author of the new book "Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins And Their Rendezvous With American History." And Yunte Huang emigrated from China to the United States in 1991, first as a student, and then he eventually became an American citizen.

Well, let's talk about your story. You grew up in a small town in China, in the...

HUANG: Right.

GROSS: ...Countryside.

HUANG: Yes, quite rural.

GROSS: So you started to learn English at age 11. You said you secretly listened to the "Voice Of America" broadcasts on an old transistor radio. And that's how you first started learning English. Why did you have to listen secretly?

HUANG: Well, I could have sent my parents to jail during those years. But the first year of...

GROSS: Wait, you could've sent them to jail because it was against...

HUANG: Because I was listening.

GROSS: ...The communist rules to listen to the "Voice Of America."

HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. It was dangerous. Listening to politically subversive, you know, programs, radio programs, easily could have sent your parents to jail. I wouldn't go to jail, but my parents would. So anyway, you know, I started learning English at school in middle school, and I learned a little. And then one day, I was playing with this kind of battered transistor radio that had belonged to my grandfather. And then my sister inherited it, and she had no use for it, so it was lying around. And one day, I was just playing with it, and at one point, I turned the dial, and then suddenly, you know, a kind of - a manly voice came out in the dark like, this is the "Voice Of America" broadcasting in special English - special English because it's spoken slower, you know, than normal speed to help us understand. And I was hooked.

But, of course, you know, only later on did I realize it's all, you know - it's State Department Cold War propaganda as well. But I would listen to a lot of others as well. I expanded my repertoire (laughter). So I was - I also listened to BBC. I listened to radio stations, you know, from - broadcasted from Taiwan. And there was a lot of propaganda in that as well trying to create some, you know, resentment against communism and everything. But mostly I learned a great deal of English from all these programs.

GROSS: So you went to Beijing University, and you were one of the student protesters in Tiananmen Square at the start of the students' pro-democracy protests in the late '80s.

HUANG: Right. We all were. We all were, really.

GROSS: And these protests ended with martial law and then with Chinese troops with guns and tanks massacring student protesters. But when the tanks and guns moved in, you weren't there because you had gotten a message from your family. Explain what happened.

HUANG: Well, my mother tricked me out of that (laughter). So the protests lasted for months, from April all the way to June. Toward the - the last day of May, I got a telegram from my family claiming that my mother was, you know, gravely ill. Come back home soon or immediately. So I packed up right away, just a small bag. I hop on the train. And in those years, there was no, you know, speed train in China. So it took me three days and nights to get home.

So I got home, my parents' house, at crack of dawn. And I saw my mother standing, you know, outside our house with a smile on her face. And I said, Mom, aren't you sick? She said, well, I was just worried because things are getting really bad in Beijing. And within a day or so, you know, there was the crackdown. And I was really mad at her for taking me out of that, you know, out of action. But on the other hand, I could have been killed, certainly.

GROSS: Did you have friends who were killed in Tiananmen Square?

HUANG: Sure, of course, yes.

GROSS: Did you feel guilty for surviving or grateful that you survived and weren't there?

HUANG: Well, that's why I was so mad at my mom (laughter). That was why, and that's why, you know, I feel, you know, all hope is - was lost and there was no way I will stay in the country after I graduate. And so I decided to leave. And I wanted to go to the United States to study or to do whatever just leave the country. So I went to the school library at Peking University. In the reference room, I pulled down from the shelf this blue-covered, you know, "Peterson's Guide To U.S. Colleges And Universities." And then Tuscaloosa, Ala., was the one school that accepted me with full scholarship. And that's how I came.

GROSS: So this was - what? - in the early '90s.

HUANG: Yes, I arrived in Tuscaloosa in the summer of 1991.

GROSS: Were there any other Asians in Tuscaloosa when you moved there?

HUANG: So when I arrived in Alabama in 1991 - and even in those years, I didn't really fit in to this kind of black and white, you know, bifurcation of a sudden, you know, society. And, of course, things even - got even more interesting for me when I opened a restaurant there and started working, you know, and delivering food around town and had more contact with the folks down there. And so today, I'm still, you know, thinking about those years I was struggling, you know, in Deep South.

But anyway, I have to tell you this story - that it was in those years when I was - I thought, you know, my life sort of hitting rock bottom in some ways, as a struggling Chinese restauranteur-student delivering boxes of, you know, steaming Chinese food all over town in Tuscaloosa, I listened to your program all the time whenever I could.

And every time I jumped into, you know, my car to deliver food, I would turn in local NPR. And you were usually on the - on air like 6 or 7 o'clock in the evening. And that was the busiest time for delivery. So I was listening to you all the time. And every time you say, you know, this is Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR, you were literally kind of breathing a breath of fresh air into my life at that time. So I'm deeply grateful, Terry.

GROSS: Well, I really appreciate that a lot. Thank you for saying that. Did it help listening to my guests speak to pick up more English - kind of like you did...

HUANG: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...In the Voice Of America?

HUANG: I was partly really learning English from it, and I was also watching "David Letterman" after, you know, we close shop. When I went home, I will turn on "David Letterman." I actually will keep a notebook in hand. I turn on the caption. And so I pick up, you know, the lexicon, the, you know - and phrases I find interesting...

GROSS: Like stupid pet tricks?

HUANG: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HUANG: Exactly. Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: You teach American literature now, right?

HUANG: Yes.

GROSS: And what's your favorite book to teach now?

HUANG: Right now, it's actually "Moby-Dick" because of Melville's experience of having crossed the horizon. As you know, his first book is called "Typee," right? He joined - you know, signed up on a whaler, but he jumped ship and lived among, you know, Polynesians for six weeks - although he exaggerated in his book by claiming, you know, he lived among them for six months. When he came back, he is a changed man. So Melville, to me, is an example of somebody who actually has crossed borders, you know, across the horizon. And they come back and turn out to be a very different person. And that experience, to me, is quite important.

GROSS: He's crossed borders, and he became one of the defining authors of American literature at the same time?

HUANG: Right, exactly. What he brought back from the Pacific I thought was a kind of, you know, very valuable lesson.

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

HUANG: Well, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Yunte Huang is the author of the new book "Inseparable." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Madeleine Albright talks about her new book "Fascism: A Warning." She writes, quote, "some may view this book and its title as alarmist - good. We should be awake to the assault on democratic values that has gathered strength in many countries abroad and that is dividing America at home," unquote. Albright served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. She was the first woman to hold that position. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BRETT GOLD NEW YORK JAZZ ORCHESTRA'S "LULLABY FOR LILY")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our program was directed today by Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BRETT GOLD NEW YORK JAZZ ORCHESTRA'S "LULLABY FOR LILY")

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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