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Remembering Michael Apted, Creator Of The 'Up' Documentary Series

The documentarian, who died Jan. 7, spent decades following the lives of a group of British citizens, updating their stories with a new episode every seven years. Originally broadcast in 2013.


Other segments from the episode on January 15, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 15, 2021: Obituary for Michael Apted; Obituary for William Link; Obituary for Neil Sheehan; Review of 'WandaVision.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Michael Apted, the film director best known for a series of documentaries depicting the lives of a group of British citizens roughly once every seven years from childhood through their 60s, died last week in Los Angeles. He was 79. Besides his work on the so-called "Up" series, Apted made a variety of feature films, including "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas In The Mist" and the James Bond movie "The World Is Not Enough."

Apted was a young researcher at Granada Television in England when he helped pick the 14 7-year-olds featured in the 1964 documentary called "Seven Up!" - a film which explored how the British class system shaped kids' lives. Seven years later, Apted decided to reinterview the children to see how things were going, and a lifelong project was born. The New York Times called it the most profound documentary series in the history of cinema. Terry spoke to Michael Apted in 2013, when the eighth documentary in the series had been released.


TERRY GROSS: Michael Apted, welcome and thank you for joining us. Let me go back to the very beginning. When "Seven Up!" was first made, you were the researcher for the series.


GROSS: You weren't yet the director, which you became. So one of the things you had to do was choose the children. How did you go about choosing them?

APTED: Well, it was pretty arbitrary and very quick. It was part of a weekly series of programs, World in Action. I would ring the schools up. The schools - I said, would you help us make this film? And they would say yes or no. Then I'd go to the school and say to the teachers teaching the 7-year-olds, bring me your brightest and your best. And I would look at them, talk to them and then pick a couple. And the next thing that happened was, you know, there they were in front of the camera.

So it was done in a very arbitrary way because we weren't interested in the personalities so much. We needed children who could - weren't fazed by us, who could speak to us. But we weren't looking for any particular characteristics. We were just interested in their backgrounds. The idea of the film was to examine the British class system in 1963-64 to see whether it was changing, seeing if it was reflecting the great cultural upheavals they were growing up in, the United Kingdom from The Beatles onwards.

So instead of getting professionals in to talk about it, the idea was that we would get some 7-year-old children from different backgrounds - from rich backgrounds, from poor backgrounds, from rural backgrounds like in the kitchen, from people who were removed from their parents - to get within about 14 children and have them talk about their lives, their ambitions, their dreams and whatever and see whether that told us anything.

And of course, it did because it was both very funny and also chilling, showing that, in fact, the class system was very active and that people in certain backgrounds had a real vision of their future and others really didn't know what day it was. And so, you know, it made that point, and the rest is history.

GROSS: So what was it like for you? What's it been like for you every seven years to drop in on these people's lives and, you know, ask them about the landmark events that have happened in the seven-year interim?

APTED: What can I say? I mean, it's the favorite thing I've ever done, the thing I'm most proud of. It's nerve-wracking because you always think you're going to blow it and you'll wreck the whole thing. It seems fragile. And I've learned a lot of lessons about it. I've made mistakes on it and had to correct those mistakes. And, you know, particularly I got into a situation, I think, early on when I became judgmental about people, that if they didn't agree with my standards of success, failure, happiness, whatever, then, you know, that I would feel they were the lesser for it.

And also, I tried to play God. I tried to predict what might happen to people and sort of set it all up for that. And I did that, and that was an embarrassing mistake. And I think what I've learned all the way through is the less I do, the better, the more I let them speak for themselves because what's so interesting about the films to me is that they're all different. They all have a different tone to them. The "56" took me completely by surprise. And my feeling is if I'd gone in just to update "49" when I did "56" and ask the same questions and see what the response would be, then I wouldn't have got such an interesting film out.

I, in a way, try and become like a blank slate and start all over again and have a conversation with them about their lives and what's going on and try not to lead them anywhere I think they should be led and let them do the leading

DAVIES: We're remembering filmmaker Michael Apted, who directed the "so called" "Up" series documenting the lives of a group of British citizens from childhood through their 60s. He died last week. Terry spoke with Apted in 2013. She also interviewed Nick Hitchon, one of those followed in the series. Hitchon is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. They began with a clip from the documentary, showing how he'd responded at the ages of 7, 14 and 28 to the question, do you have a girlfriend?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you have a girlfriend?

NICK HITCHON: I don't want to answer that. I don't want to answer those kind of questions.


HITCHON: I thought that one would come up because when I was doing the last one (ph), we said, what do you think about girls? And I said, I don't answer questions like that. Is that the reason you're asking it?


HITCHON: The best answer would be to say that I don't answer questions like that. But - you know, it was what I said when I was 7, and it's still the most sensible - but, I mean, what about them?


GROSS: Nick, I'm sure you've seen "56 Up" once or more times (laughter).

HITCHON: No, I haven't.

GROSS: Excuse me. You haven't?

HITCHON: No, I haven't.

GROSS: Really? That's a statement. Why not?

HITCHON: Oh, it's - I mean, I think this is a wonderful project, but it's a profoundly uncomfortable thing for me. I don't willingly watch myself.

GROSS: Because?

HITCHON: It feels so very, very uncomfortable.

GROSS: Is it uncomfortable because you just don't like watching and hearing yourself? Or is it uncomfortable because you don't want to see your life played out in front of the camera in seven-year increments?

HITCHON: Both of those things. I don't like the sound of my own voice. I think I look ridiculous (laughter). And if I say that I'm uncomfortable with this, it doesn't mean that I don't like the project, and it doesn't mean I'm mad at Michael. But I am deeply uncomfortable doing the interviews. And - but I don't - I pretend while I'm being interviewed that it's just a chat. I pretend to myself that nobody else is watching. And I don't want that particular bubble burst.

GROSS: (Laughter) Has your level of discomfort changed over the years?

HITCHON: It actually seems to have got more so. And it's very hard to explain. Before the "49 Up" taping happened, Michael came and visited for a couple of days, and we just talked about what we might discuss. And after he left, I was just depressed for two days, and I couldn't figure out why. And I can't altogether tell you why. But there's something really disturbing about the process for me. Some of it is just the issue that I'm really scared that I'm going to get on there and I'm going to hurt other people that I care about by something I say. So it's just profoundly worrying to me.

GROSS: Do you also feel a certain pressure that every seven years your life sort of had, like, an incremental change where, like, you climb the ladder of success or, you know, accomplish something wonderful in your personal life or, you know, found a new measure of happiness or - do you know what I mean? - so that you could demonstrate something to yourself and to those of us watching?

HITCHON: Actually, no. I mean, some of the people involved do feel that way. I never have. And you see, I've been insulated from that because I've always been portrayed as somebody who started out quite disadvantaged. So anything that I did was always, you know, oh, look how clever he was (laughter), you know? He came from a background where it was going to be hard for him to get up in the morning. So you know, I always looked good.

GROSS: Right, because you grew up on a farm. You went to a one-room schoolhouse. And now you're a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. So yeah, you've accomplished a lot. So how did you get into this in the first place, considering how uncomfortable you are with the whole project?

HITCHON: Well, I was - (laughter) hey, as far as I knew, they put a camera in front of me and asked me some questions. And I love to talk to people. So these people were talking to me. I chatted to them perfectly happily.

GROSS: What have the ground rules been for you? Like, if you say something and you're sorry you said it because you think it might offend your mother or, you know, offend somebody else in your life and be misinterpreted, or it's something you decided was just too personal, you were sorry you said it, do you have the right to say to the director, Michael Apted, I regret I said that. Can we delete it? Can we edit it out?

HITCHON: Oh, yes. Michael's always been very good about that sort of thing. So yeah, that's - the problem comes when he says, I want to talk about this because it's interesting. And so I say, OK. We'll talk about it. I mean, these are important things to talk about. You know, he's not being sneaky about it. But there are just things that are hard that he wants to talk about. And I agree, maybe these things need talking about. But they're still hard.

GROSS: Well, thank you for talking with us.

HITCHON: You're welcome.

GROSS: That was Nick Hitchon, one of the subjects of the documentary "56 Up." Let's get back to my conversation with the director of the "Up" series, Michael Apted.

So you heard what Nick Hitchon had to say about being in the series and how he really respects the series and really likes you. But it's just painful to be a part of it. And it's hard for him to watch it. And he usually doesn't watch it. Does it make you wince at all to hear that?

APTED: No, I don't think so. I mean, he's very willing to be in it. And he's very, very good. He has very incisive things to say, you know, about himself and about society and about his life. There are others who feel the same as he do, that don't watch it. But that doesn't particularly worry me. I mean, it would worry me if they didn't want to do it or I was dragging their ankles to the fire and all this sort of stuff. But, no, it doesn't worry me that he feels like that. He's a great contributor and has some of the most, you know, intelligent and interesting things to say about what we're talking about.

GROSS: What did surprise you about "56 Up"?

APTED: Well, that people seemed happy. I mean, I thought they would be getting depressed, worried about age, very worried about the economic climate, looking back on their lives, maybe, sometimes with regret. But, no. I mean, what was so interesting to me was that, you know, a lot of them had found real kind of comfort in their families and their extended families.

I was of the belief in my life that you can't have everything, you know, that I had pursued a career. I was ambitious. And I paid a price for it. I wasn't as good a father as I - or a husband as I should have been. And sometimes I thought, well, maybe that's my way and maybe that's the right way. But then I saw the payoff that people who'd put their energies into their families and their loyalties into their families at this age in their mid-50s. You know, they've got real pleasure and power from it.

DAVIES: Film director Michael Apted speaking with Terry Gross in 2013. Apted died last week at the age of 79. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the interview Terry recorded in 2013 with filmmaker Michael Apted, who directed a series of documentaries - roughly one every seven years - about a group of British citizens from childhood through their 60s. Apted died last week at the age of 79. Here's a clip from the latest "Up" film, "56 Up," with Neil Hughes, who talked about the possibility of having kids, starting with his response at age 7.


NEIL HUGHES: When I get married, I don't want to have any children because they are always doing naughty things and making the whole house untidy.

I always told myself that I would never have children.


HUGHES: Because - well, because children inherit something from their parents. And even if my wife were the most high-spirited and ordinary and normal of people, the child would still stand a very fair chance of being not totally full of happiness because what he or she will have inherited from me.

GROSS: I'm interested in hearing some of the ground rules that - so to speak - that you've set for the "Up" series. I know, for instance, like, you've paid the interviewees in the movie. Was it that way from the start? Or was that something that you instituted in subsequent films?

APTED: Yeah. I started paying them at 28, you know, when we became, as it were, more international. Once you came to America, the film - "28" was the first one to be shown in America - you know, then, there was sort of some money around in terms of, you know, royalties and things like that. And so we - you know, there was that money going around. We would give them their share of it.

But I also thought they should have a fee for being in it. It was very, very small. But it's increased over the years - not that the films make money, but, you know, I feel they should be paid for it. And so I juggle the budget around, you know, so I can pay them a bit more each time because I think what they do is courageous and not many people would do it. So why shouldn't they get some material advantages out of it?

GROSS: And when you ask a question and you know that that question is making the person you're interviewing uncomfortable and maybe pushing them to speak a little more privately than they'd care, how do you balance your desire to be protective of them, because they've become people who you care very much about, with your desire to get the best film possible, which probably means pushing them a little bit past their comfort zones?

APTED: Yeah. What you have to understand is there's a set of rules when you do longitudinal films. You know, you have to behave yourself as the director, as the interviewer, because you want them to come back. I mean, if they say they don't want to talk about something and I ask them the question and I embarrass them or unsettle them, and then I insist on using it, then they'll never come back. So I do have these moments. I have moments when, you know, I know there's a question I've got to ask them. I know there's a question that if I don't ask it, the audience will say, why didn't he ask that? And I know that question might be hurtful.

Now, to some of them, I wouldn't ask it because it would break them down. Others, I think, are more resilient. And I ask it. And sometimes, they get upset about it. And then we have the discussion about do I use it? Or do I not use it? And, you know, that happened in "56 Up" sort of fairly graphically. And we had this discussion. And, you know, we used it in the film. So it's that sort of process. But it differs from what you do, in a way, because you have me here once. And you can use whatever you want because you probably won't want me back again.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APTED: But with these people, I want them back

GROSS: Never (laughter).

APTED: You know, I'm not being childish. But I want them back. And so - you know, I do have to behave myself.

GROSS: So can you give us an example of something that you actually, you know, talked about whether to use or not use that was...

APTED: Yeah. I mean, it was with Tony, the jockey, you know, the - we just - we've had long discussions over the last three or four films about the changing racial profile of the East End of London, which he left. And he left because, you know, he regarded it as being invaded by Bangladeshis, you know, by people from, you know, particularly Asian communities. And the East End of London has changed dramatically. You know, and he has had things to say about that. Sometimes I wondered whether he was pushing it too far, what he was saying. And so in "56," I just came out with it and said, you know, you sound to me, Tony, as though you're being racist. And he answered that. And he was very indignant about it and upset about it. And I thought he answered it very well. And so I put it in the program.

And then, you know, he knew I'd put - he asked, had I put it in? And I said, yes. And he said, how is it? And I said, well, I think you should look at it. So he looked it. And he said, I don't know what to do. And I said, well, I think you answered it well. That's my opinion. So he - you know, he took some advice from family and whatever and decided to keep it in. But that was an example of the process that can go on between us because we all have a commitment to, as it were, staying on the same page.

GROSS: Do you expect the people in the "Up" series to keep you updated as to where they are so you can find them every seven years? And I'm thinking especially here of Neil, who is somebody who seems to have struggled most of his life with depression - and, like, really serious depression - and maybe other issues as well. And there was a period, an extended period, where he was homeless. And I don't know how you track down somebody like Neil when they're in that part of their life.

APTED: We did lose track of Neil a bit at 28. And so we did have to try and, you know, get through some piece of bureaucracy to find him. He's always been, you know, very willing to do it. And he's incredibly articulate, as you know if you've seen them. But he's been a worry. I mean, you know, what a rollercoaster he's had. And it hasn't ended badly. It's not - you know, in his 20s, we did think whether we would lose him, literally. But he was - you know, he recovered himself in his early 40s and 42, 49, 56. You know, there's - again, there's a sort of solid ground there. But, you know, you get the sense of a very fragile personality, but a very intelligent and articulate man.

GROSS: So do you have to grapple with feelings of responsibility for the people whose lives you're documenting during those periods of their lives when they're in trouble?

APTED: Well, I would. Yes. And I have done. Yes. I mean, you know, I've given up any notion of objectivity. I mean, you know, I care about them all. And if they need help and I can help or they need advice and I can give it, then, certainly, I do. Yes. I don't shut myself off and say, look; I'm a documentarian here. And I have to be objective, so please be quiet. And I'll see you in seven years. It can't exist like that.

GROSS: Are you saying there were times you actually, like, helped people out?

APTED: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: What kinds of things, if you don't mind my asking? And if you do, that's fine.

APTED: No, I don't mind. I mean, I've lent money to one or two of them if they've needed it. And they've always paid it back. But, you know, if they're in trouble with stuff, I've always been prepared to help. And, you know, on a brighter side, a cheerful side, I mean, if people come out to California, they come and stay with me. Bruce was here this summer with his wife and two kids. And Nick's been out with his son and stayed with me. And I love all that. And if I have a movie opening in London, I always, you know, hire a theater and invite them all and their neighbors and friends to show it. It's great for me to be able to do something for them without - you know, without me asking for stuff in return. I mean, I'm always the supplicant asking them to do things. And it's nice when I can do things for them when I'm not asking for anything, just to give them something and to have a good time.

GROSS: Michael Apted, thank you so much for talking with us, and congratulations on yet another in the series of "Up" movies.

APTED: Well, thanks. Nice to talk to you.

DAVIES: Film director Michael Apted spoke with Terry Gross in 2013. Apted died last week in Los Angeles. He was 79. After a break, we'll remember two others who recently passed away, screenwriter William Link, who co-created the TV series "Columbo" and "Murder She Wrote," and Vietnam War correspondent Neil Sheehan. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Screenwriter William Link, who co-created some classic TV shows, including "Columbo," "Murder, She Wrote" and "Mannix," died December 27 in Los Angeles. He was 87. For decades, Link's writing partner was Richard Levinson, who he met in junior high school. They also wrote groundbreaking TV movies about social issues. "The Execution Of Private Slovik" was the story of an Army deserter. "That Certain Summer" starred Hal Holbrook as a divorced man who comes out as a homosexual. Terry spoke with William Link in 1989. And they talked about some of his TV series, including "Columbo," which featured episodes that were between 78 and 90 minutes long. Here's a scene with Peter Falk as Columbo, engaged in one of his meandering interrogations of a suspect.


PETER FALK: (As Columbo) I've been chasing guys like you for 25 years. Caught every one, except you. I hate to lose.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So do I.

FALK: (As Columbo) You heard the one about the wealthy old lady? She hated her kids, but she loved her dog?


FALK: (As Columbo) The dog always wore a rhinestone collar. And when the old lady died, the kids couldn't find the money - disappeared. Eight years later, the dog died and was cremated. Nothing left except a mound of ashes and a $450,000 pile of diamonds. So that wasn't a rhinestone collar the dog had on. No, sir. No, that was a $450,000 diamond collar.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Fascinating.

FALK: (As Columbo) You see, sir, diamonds don't burn. But you already know that, sir. That's why you took Dorothea Page's necklace off our dead neck, opened her mouth and dropped it down her throat. So you could cremate the body the next day and take the diamonds out of the oven and put them in your pocket. Why am I telling you this? Because it makes me feel good.


TERRY GROSS: Tell us how you created the character of Columbo.

WILLIAM LINK: Columbo was originally born in 1960 in Hollywood. And one of the brand-new color shows on NBC called "The Chevrolet Mystery Show" was a summer replacement for Dinah Shore. And we wrote an hour suspense drama in which we introduced a cigar-chomping, rain-coated detective. It was originally played by Bert Freed on that show. It was a one-shot and was successful. Then we got the idea of doing it as a stage play. And then Dick and I were astonished because the character of Columbo in the play was really a secondary character. But he always got the greatest applause at the end, and people seemed to pick up on him. It was then that Universal approached us to doing it as a two-hour movie for television. That was in the very, very early halcyon days of the movie for television - actually, the very beginning. It was extremely successful. It was one of the top shows of the week. And then NBC said, well, let's do this as an hour show with Peter Falk. Luckily for us, Peter did not want to do an hour show, 22 one hour segments he found much too constricting. And also, we could never do "Columbo" as an hour show. It's impossible because you need a whole half an hour to set up the perfect crime that the brilliant murder indulges in. that's really the history of Columbo.

GROSS: Now, the actors you originally used were considerably older than Peter Falk was when he was cast as Columbo.

LINK: Yes, yes. Dick and I, proving how crazy we were - our first choice was Bing Crosby.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LINK: And we contacted his agent and contacted Bing. But he wanted to play golf.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LINK: He did not want to return when he was in his mansion in Hillsboro outside of San Francisco. And Peter Falk we had known socially for many years in New York when he was a struggling, young actor. He didn't struggle that long. And he did his first movie movie in which he was nominated for an Academy Award. And he somehow got hold of the script, as actors do in Hollywood, called us and said, I will kill to play this cop. And we said, well, you know, he's a little young, but he's got that rough-hewn, that New York-ish, that very down-to-earth demeanor. And he did it.

GROSS: Was that mumbly quality something you wrote into the script or something he just brought with him?

LINK: No, Peter brought that quality. Everything else was in the stageplay - the raincoat, the cigar. You see the murderer do the dirty deed. Enter the cop who appears to be somewhat of a schlub. Actually, you know, that outward shoddy facade hides this brilliant computer brain. All that was in the stage play. Peter brought the humanity to it and a lot of the humor.

GROSS: Let's talk about some of the made-for-TV movies that you've written. You were talking about "Columbo," which was one of the early TV movies. Do you remember when you first found out that there were going to be movies made for TV and what your reaction was?

LINK: Yes, we were under contract at Universal. This is in the late '60s. We were quite excited because up to that point, we were freelance writers. And we had been writing, you know, the one-hour segments. And two hours - you really have a chance to stretch out as a writer. You can build character better. You just have a lot more time.

GROSS: Now, you did one of the first docudramas, "The Execution Of Private Slovik," which was...

LINK: Yes. That was our favorite movie and still is.

GROSS: Was it?

LINK: Yeah.

GROSS: Tell briefly the storyline.

LINK: Eddie Slovik was the first American GI since the Civil War who was executed for desertion. And the story really explores his character and the military justice or lack of same in the armed forces during the Second World War.

GROSS: Now, since this was based on a real story?

LINK: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Were there legal complications that you had to deal with?

LINK: No. We bought the book by William Bradford Huie, "The Execution Of Private Slovik." We owned that because we bought the rights from Frank Sinatra. Sinatra wanted to film it as a motion picture years before, but he got into a lot of trouble because it was about an Army deserter. And the Hearst press really took after him, Hedda Hopper, etc. And he wanted Steve McQueen, who was a very young actor, to play Slovik. And then he made a mistake in those days of hiring a blacklisted writer, Albert Maltz, to write the screenplay. And that was the end. And he capitulated and took ads in The New York Times and various other newspapers saying that the American public had spoken. Actually, the Hearst press had spoken. And he decided not to do the picture. Every year, Dick Levinson and I called his attorney in Hollywood saying, can we buy the rights from Mr. Sinatra? And finally, one year we called and we found out, much to our chagrin, that he had sold the rights to a New York commercial filmmaker. And we made a deal with him, acquired the rights and made the picture with Martin Sheen.

GROSS: I remember the story from your book "Stay Tuned" that your big fear was that at the end of the execution of Private Slovik, after the execution, that the credits would be rolling and Ed McMahon's voice would come on...

LINK: Yes.

GROSS: ...Promoting the Johnny Carson show...


LINK: That's correct, yes.

GROSS: ...And the whole spell would be broken.

LINK: Well, we called the president of NBC, and he pulled some strings, and Ed McMahon was silent that evening.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LINK: Except what happened was, as that some of the engineers are sometimes prone to do, since we had no music score per se, no dramatic score in the picture, they turned up the wind at the end. We just had a low rural wind in the background as they carried out the coffin. It became a full-fledged gale, a hurricane. But there was nothing we could do.

GROSS: Tell me about casting. Have you ever had problems with getting someone who you really think is wrong for the role but who an executive wants to put in because it'll be good for tune in?

LINK: It's always a fight with the two-hour movies. The networks have very, very, I think, bizarre choices about who brings people in. Luckily, I cannot think of being forced to use an actor or actress in a role for one of our television movies that we really didn't want. Problem is, sometimes, you know, they'll want - like, oh, get us Dustin Hoffman. Well, Dustin Hoffman is not going to do a movie of the week. So sometimes what you do is you come back and you tell them, yes, we talked to the agent, and he's not available. Sometimes we even do nefarious things like never calling an agent and telling the network the person is not available. Now, that's a trade secret, and I really shouldn't say that on public radio.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LINK: But hopefully they're not listening.

DAVIES: Screenwriter William Link speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1989. Link died two days after Christmas. He was 87. Coming up, we remember legendary Vietnam War correspondent Neil Sheehan. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Neil Sheehan, the author and Vietnam War correspondent who acquired the secret history of the war, known as the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times, died last week due to complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 84.

Sheehan covered the war in the 1960s and later wrote what many regard as the definitive book about the war, "A Bright Shining Lie." It tells the story of the American experience in Vietnam through the life of John Paul Vann, a lieutenant colonel in the army who devoted decades to the war both as a military officer and a civilian, despite his grave doubts about the American cause and our Vietnamese allies. Sheehan spent 16 years on the book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Terry spoke with Neil Sheehan in 1988 when "A Bright Shining Lie" was published.


TERRY GROSS: You arrived in Vietnam as a reporter for UPI in 1962. You were one of about 12 full-time correspondents who were there. And you describe yourself and the other reporters who were there as wanting to see America win the war as badly as the lieutenant colonels in the military did.

NEIL SHEEHAN: That's correct because, you see, we all shared the same outlook in that generation. It was the outlook - what's now called the outlook of the Cold War, all of those beliefs that - first of all, let's remember that America was at the high noon of its power then. And we were also at the high noon of our outlook in - what was really, in retrospect, a naive outlook on ourselves and on the world. We believed that, first of all, anything we wanted to do was innately right and good and, secondly, that we would succeed in it - at it.

It was that outlook that had really been brought on by World War II, the success in World War II, and then the confrontation of the Cold War so that the young reporters shared with the advisors in the field - the senior ones generally tended to be lieutenant colonels, down to captains and lieutenants - that same outlook that they did. We thought our country ought to be in Vietnam, and we thought we should win this war, and we thought we would win it if we fought it the right way.

GROSS: You found that one of your best military sources as a reporter in Vietnam in the early 1960s was John Paul Vann, the subject of your new book. And especially after the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963, he was, you thought, exceptionally honest and didn't hold back how discouraging he found the defeat there to be. The American troops lost five helicopters. They were trampled. And he didn't conceal his anger or the extent of the debacle from the reporters.

SHEEHAN: That's right because by the time Ap Bac occurred, the frustration had been building in John. He had been sent there to get this - to help the South Vietnamese army win this war. And these people didn't want to fight. The leadership didn't want to fight. And they got in this battle with a Viet Cong battalion, and he drove them to try to overcome them, and they wouldn't. And he was furious because he'd been reporting this kind of thing to his superiors in Saigon, and they wouldn't listen to him. They wouldn't - and the South Vietnamese leadership wouldn't change its habits. And he finally just exploded with rage and then really began to talk to the reporters who, by that time, knew him well because we'd been out in many operations with him and his advisers in previous months.

GROSS: When Daniel Ellsberg offered to leak the Pentagon Papers to you, did you have any doubts about having them published? Did you fear that this would be perhaps an unpatriotic act and that it would damage America's credibility? Did you have any of those fears or doubts?

SHEEHAN: Oh, no, I didn't. And this is without getting into the whole business of news sources. That's another story I've never gotten into. But I never - I had no fears that this was going to - that these papers were going to endanger the security of the United States. There were no military secrets in those papers. They were filled with political and historical secrets, which would make a lot of people angry who had been - who had held senior positions in this country. But those papers belonged to the American public, and they were the record of the war. The public had a right to those papers. I mean, the American public had paid for those papers with their lives of their sons and with the treasury of this country. And I had no qualms whatsoever. I think that was true of others at The New York Times who were involved in the whole thing. We felt those papers belonged to the public and had to be published.

GROSS: What were the consequences you feel you had to face for publication of it? Any harassment or consequences to your journalistic career?

SHEEHAN: Well, Richard Nixon was quite unhappy over the whole thing and didn't want to prosecute the publisher of The New York Times, but they thought for a while they would prosecute a reporter. And they got a grand jury going and investigated me for quite a while, for six months or so, and sent FBI agents around to question my neighbors and subpoena my checking accounts. And it kept me - it ate up my life for six months. I spent every day talking to the lawyers. And then they finally gave up. It just sort of melted away.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to be a practicing journalist after you became the man who got access to the Pentagon Papers?

SHEEHAN: No. I had trouble in the period in which they were investigating me, and I was having my time taken up talking to the lawyers about what - the latest move the Nixon administration made. But I didn't have trouble with military sources, for instance, if that's what you mean, because I had maintained - I had always maintained my credibility as a journalist by keeping whatever I wrote in the news column separate from my own opinions and had been very rigorous about that. And I think people I knew understood that, and they continued to see me and accept and talk to me.

GROSS: This is perhaps an absurd question, but if you knew then what you knew now (laughter), if you had more information when you were covering the war, how would you have covered it differently? Do you think you would have been allowed to?

SHEEHAN: I wouldn't have been allowed to. You know, quite recently someone - well, he was the deputy ambassador in Saigon; it's called deputy chief of mission in State Department officialese - came up to me and said, oh, God, why didn't we know this in 1960 or '61 or '62 or '63? And I said, Bill, if we had, you would have been fired if you had - or you'd lost your job if you had tried to make people believe it. And I certainly would have been - would not have been able to write it as a journalist. You would have been fired as a subversive.

I was awfully glad when I was a young UPI reporter in Vietnam, writing things that contradicted what the generals were saying, that I had belonged to the Republican club at Harvard. You have to remember that that was an era in which, when you questioned authority, you were immediately suspect. And if we had really known the things about Vietnam we know now and had questioned the wisdom of the United States being there at all, I don't think you could have practiced journalism. We didn't know. And our ignorance was, to some extent, a professional protection.

GROSS: There were many surprises for you along the way, writing this book. If you could sum up for us - and I know this is an impossible thing to ask - what the greatest change has been for you in your understanding of the war.

SHEEHAN: I came away with it realizing that the war - that there was a great sense of inevitability about the war, that given the political and military leadership of this country in the post-World War II period, we were destined to fight that tragic war in Vietnam and a tragedy for ourselves and for the people of Indochina. When you look at the men involved, the men who made the decisions and their view of the world, you realize that they wouldn't have done anything else other than what they did because they rejected alternative courses when they were offered to them.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us. Thank you so much for your time.

SHEEHAN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Neil Sheehan speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for his book "A Bright Shining Lie." He died last week at the age of 84. Coming up, "WandaVision," a new miniseries about a suburban couple with amazing powers made in the style of classic TV shows like "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Bewitched." Our TV critic David Bianculli will explain. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. The pandemic has changed the way movies are unveiled and their rollout schedules. One of the franchises that's been affected is the Marvel Universe, now controlled by Disney. The first major cycle of Marvel superhero movies ended with "The Avengers: Endgame," and the next wave was supposed to begin with a new major movie premiere. Instead, because of production and distribution schedules affected by the pandemic, the next wave of Marvel begins today on television on the Disney+ streaming service.

It's a new miniseries built around two minor recurring characters from the Marvel movies, Elizabeth Olsen as a witch called Wanda and Paul Bettany as an Android named Vision. The series is called "WandaVision," and our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: If you're curious to learn what I think about "WandaVision," the newest entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Universe of comic book narratives, well, so am I. Disney+ presents the first two episodes of this nine-part series today, with plans to stream the others on a weekly basis each Friday. But only the first three episodes were made available for critics to preview, and after three episodes, there's still no clear sense of the show's tone or content or intention. But what I've seen really intrigues me. And the lack of answers at this point doesn't bother me because being thrown into an unfamiliar world and trying to figure things out as I go along? Well, that's exactly what the main characters in "WandaVision" are going through too.

What I can't explain, for starters, is that Wanda and Vision are two minor characters from the most recent "Avengers" movies. Wanda is a modern witch with psychic and magical powers and is played by Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of "Full House" stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Vision is a synthetic android played by Paul Bettany, the mysterious roommate of "A Beautiful Mind." Over the past few Marvel movies, these two characters used their limited screen time to fall in love, and one of them died. But when "WandaVision" begins, they're both alive. But when does it begin, and more important, where?

The very title, "WandaVision," not only is a mash up of the two main characters, but a clue to the show's puzzling premise. To this point, the best TV series based on Marvel characters and stories have been one-hour dramas, the very dark "Jessica Jones" on Netflix and the psychodelically strange "Legion" on FX, yet "WandaVision" is an abbreviated 30 minutes long and starts out shaped and presented as a situation comedy, complete with a laugh track. "WandaVision" is created by Jac Schaeffer, a writer on the movies "Captain Marvel" and "Black Widow," who places this Marvel superhero odd couple in a 1950s suburban home. The action is shot in black and white. Wanda wears an apron and pearls to do housework like Donna Reed. And the show even opens with a typical '50s TV-style theme song written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the award-winning composers of "The Book Of Mormon" and "Frozen."


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) She's a magical gal in a small town locale. He's a hubby who's part machine. How will this duo fit in and fulfill all? Oh, by sharing a love like you've never seen. "WandaVision."

BIANCULLI: "WandaVision" may be Wanda's vision or it may be an alternate reality or some sort of trap. It's like the movie "Pleasantville" or more than one episode of "The Twilight Zone," where characters find themselves in the nostalgic-but-potentially-sinister world of black-and-white TV. Vision has a job at a company analyzing something even he's not sure what. But when the boss and his wife show up for dinner, casual conversation quickly turns to lots of dead ends. If we viewers don't know why Wanda and Vision are in a typical TV home from the 1950s or how they got there, well, neither do they. Fred Melamed plays the boss, and Debra Jo Rupp from "That '70s Show" plays the boss's wife and asks the first probing question.


DEBRA JO RUPP: (As Mrs. Hart) So where did you two move from? What brought you here? How long have you been married? And why don't you have children yet?


PAUL BETTANY: (As Vision) I think what my wife means to say is that we moved from...

ELIZABETH OLSEN: (As Wanda Maximoff) Yes, we moved from...

BETTANY: (As Vision) And we were married...

OLSEN: (As Wanda Maximoff) Yes, yes, we were married in...

FRED MELAMED: (As Mr. Hart) Well, moved from where, married when?

RUPP: (As Mrs. Hart) No. Patience, Arthur (ph). They're setting up their story. Let them tell it.

OLSEN: (As Wanda Maximoff) We - our story...

MELAMED: (As Mr. Hart) Yes, what exactly is your story?

RUPP: (As Mrs. Hart) Oh, just leave the poor kids alone.

MELAMED: (As Mr. Hart) Well, really, I mean, I think it's a perfectly simple question. Honestly, why did you come here?

BIANCULLI: In the three episodes I've seen, the sitcom framing remains, but the couple begins advancing through TV time. By Episode 3, Wanda has ditched her Donna Reed look for a relaxed, long-haired '60s style, and "WandaVision" is in living color. Supporting players include Emma Caulfield from "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" as a neighborhood snob and Kathryn Hahn as a nosy neighbor. Advance word has it that a few characters from the Marvel universe will begin popping in, though why and how and in what capacity I have no clue.

All I know is that I'm blown away by the set design and the recreations of old-style TV and that Bettany and Olsen, as the leads of a sitcom, are quite charming, even though I'm guessing the tone of "WandaVision" will get much more dramatic very quickly. But I'm only guessing. "Wandavision" at this point is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma disguised as a TV show, and as a TV critic and historian, that's right up my alley.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television history at Rowan University in New Jersey and the editor of the website TV Worth Watching. He reviewed the new series "WandaVision" on Disney+ beginning today. On Monday's show, recently declassified documents reveal new details of the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King and the agency's efforts to discredit his work. We'll speak with Sam Pollard, one of the directors of the "Eyes On The Prize" series about the civil rights movement. His new documentary, MLK/FBI, is in theaters and available for streaming. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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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