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Remembering Sonny Bono.

Today, we remember Sonny Bono. He died yesterday afternoon in a skiing accident. He was 62. Bono was completing his second term in the U.S. Congress. He was the second most-requested speaker at House members events during the 1996 campaign season. Although he ended up in politics, many of his know him best for his work in music and show business. Terry Gross spoke with him in 1991, three years before he was elected to Congress. (Rebroadcast of 7/17 and 7/18 1991).

36:05

Other segments from the episode on January 6, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 6, 1998: Obituary for Sonny Bono; Interview with Nick Nolte.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 06, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 010601NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Sonny Bono Obit
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today, we're going to remember Sonny Bono. He died yesterday afternoon in a skiing accident. He was 62.

Bono was completing his second term in the U.S. Congress. He was the second most-requested speaker at House members events during the 1996 campaign season. Although he ended up in politics, many of his know him best for his work in music and show business.

He wanted to be a songwriter and got his start in the music business doing production and promotion at small R&B labels. Then he worked as an assistant to Phil Spector, perhaps the most important record producer in rock and roll history.

Sonny Bono had his first big success as a songwriter with "Needles and Pins," which he co-wrote with Jack Nicci (ph) and became a top-20 hit for the Searchers in 1964. But that was all behind-the-scenes work. It was when Sonny Bono teamed up with Cher that he became a star. He wrote much of their material, including "Baby Don't Go," "I Got You Babe," "Laugh at Me," and "The Beat Goes On."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "THE BEAT GOES ON")

SONNY BONO, SINGER AND POLITICIAN, AND CHER, SINGER, SINGING:
The beat goes on
The beat goes on
Drums keep pounding rhythm to the brain
La de da de dee
La de da de die

Charleston was once the rage, uh-huh
History has turned a page, uh-huh
The mini-skirt's the current thing, uh-huh
Teeny-bopper is our newborn king, uh-huh

And the beat goes on
The beat goes on

GROSS: When the Sonny and Cher act ran out of steam, Cher became a superstar and Sonny dropped out of show business. He opened up a restaurant in Palm Spring. He became mayor of the town in 1988, serving 'til 1992.

I spoke with him in 1991, three years before he was elected to Congress. He said that when he was getting started in music, his idol was Frankie Laine, so he wrote his first song with Frankie Laine in mind.

BONO: Frankie Laine was the hot number when I was a kid in school, and he was the kind of real stylist then. So, he had this sexy kind of drawl and so I patterned everything after Frankie Laine. And when I wanted to sing, I tried to imitate him.

And then I wanted to -- when I wanted to write, I wanted to write for Frankie Laine, and by the time I started writing songs, though, Frank -- Frankie Laine got cold, as we say in show business. So even -- even if you could get a song to him, it didn't mean too much in that day.

GROSS: So, you tried to get a song to him?

BONO: Yeah, I did -- I - and I, in fact, did get a song to him. I think what he did -- and he liked it very much. I think what he didn't -- the part I didn't know -- by then I was, gosh, 19 or 20 -- what I didn't know was that he was cold and he couldn't get a recording contract himself. But he owned a record -- little independent record company.

GROSS: And you got a job with that company and that led you to other record companies.

BONO: Well, I was just a writer there. That was Crystal Records. I was just a songwriter and they liked all the songs I wrote. So they would see me often and see what I had. And my two stops when I went to Hollywood would be -- I used to deliver meat -- and I'd stop at two record companies, mainly 'cause of my reception. I'd stop at Specialty Records and Crystal Records.

And Specialty Records, they liked my material as well. But Specialty was a very successful label. They had Little Richard, Don and Dewey (ph), well, then they had Sam Cooke as a Soulster (ph) then. He wasn't Sam Cooke. He was one of the Soulsters. But they were -- they had Lloyd Price, Percy Mayfield -- all these blues artists. So they were very successful as an independent label, incredibly successful.

GROSS: Well, when you got a job at Specialty Records, one of your songs -- one of your first songs was recorded by the group Don and Dewey, the rhythm and blues duo.

BONO: Yeah.

GROSS: And the song was "Cocoa Joe" (ph) and this is a song about the coolest monkey in town.

BONO: Yeah, right.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: What led you to write the song?

BONO: Well, when I -- when I was a box boy at a store, they came out with a Cocoa Joe and I thought "ah, what a great name -- Cocoa Joe." And so I write this real cute little calypso song, you know, 'cause calypso was happening, Belafonte was happening -- and that was when I was about 17. And then I get to Specialty and I sing it for Don and Dewey, and they are two raving, hard-core blues singers -- and "I don't want that."

And so this little "in the jungle there's a monkey that" -- that's the way that I sang it, and they go "in the jungle, the monkey, bamn" -- you know. And I never heard a song change personality so much in my life. Then later on, the Righteous Brothers recorded it. So actually that was probably the first or second song that I wrote.

GROSS: Well, let's give it a spin.

BONO: OK.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, DON AND DEWEY PERFORMING "COCOA JOE")

DON AND DEWEY, SINGERS, SINGING:
In the jungle there's a monkey named Cocoa Joe
The coolest little monkey that you'll ever know
He don't have a tail like the other monkeys do
Trimmed it in suede and he dyed it blue

Cocoa Joe
Let me tell you about Cocoa Joe
Cocoa Joe
The coolest little monkey in town

Cocoa, let me tell you, is no square ape
He wears Ivy Leaguers with a crazy drape
You should see his walk
It's the funniest thing
He changed the stroll to the monkey swing

Cocoa Joe
Let me tell you about Cocoa Joe
Cocoa Joe
The coolest little monkey in town

GROSS: Was it hard as a 22-year-old producer to work with -- with a kind of wild rhythm and blues group like you were?

BONO: No, it was -- it was fascinating and fun. I loved it. I loved black music because that was the -- they were much more liberal about what you wanted to sing or who you were or what your intention was, you know?

In that day, Decca and Capitol and Brunswick and RCA were the hot labels. And they just had an attitude about music, and it had to be the certain thing. So, it was like -- like the big companies now, you couldn't get in. So -- but you went to these black artist labels, you know, they were very flexible, very liberal, and allowed you to be.

And so they -- they overcame the music industry because of their attitude, but the black labels were that way, and I first started with -- with Johnny Otis (ph), who let me record on his label, which was Dig (ph) Records, you know. And then that was the first song I wrote, called "Ecstasy."

So being in that environment with Little Richard and Don and Dewey and Larry Williams -- I was in heaven, just absolute heaven.

GROSS: Now, I'll confess. I just found out this week that you wrote Needles and Pins, and I feel bad. I should have known that you wrote that and should have, like, given you credit for that, you know, in my mind.

LAUGHTER

BONO: Yeah, well you know, a lot of people -- of all the songs I've written, that song people go "I didn't know you wrote that?

GROSS: Yeah.

BONO: I thought Jackie DeShannon (ph) wrote that?"

GROSS: Well I always just think of the Searchers, you know. I don't even think of Jackie DeShannon.

BONO: Yeah, yeah. Nobody makes the association. So you're not alone.

GROSS: So did you work on the lyrics?

BONO: I worked on it both.

GROSS: You worked on both?

BONO: It was me and Jack Nicci, and I had hired Jack Nicci to write lead sheets for Specialty Records. And then we became very, very close and we were like family -- to his family and my family hung out together all the time.

So we'd talk about music and -- for days and hours and hours and days and months. That's all we talked about. And Jack could -- Jack could play a piano pretty well, you know, and he had this riff -- do, doo, dun, dun, duh, dun, dun -- and he just couldn't get it out of mind. He goes "I love this riff, I love this riff, I love this riff."

So one night, we had nothing to do, so it wasn't planned or preconceived, so we started fooling around. And then Needles and Pins-a came out, and pretty soon we had a whole song. So we just kind of assembled whatever -- whatever parts we could contribute, and nobody specifically went to lyrics or music.

GROSS: Well, the question I always wanted answered about Needles and Pins was whether you wrote Needles and Pins-a -- you know, now it begins-a.

BONO: Yeah.

GROSS: Where did that extra syllable come from?

BONO: The pins-a. I don't -- you're always looking for little hooks, what we call hooks when you write, you know. And it also comes from -- I kind of always tried to fancy myself as a blues singer, if I could sing. And so, the blues always kind of -- blues singers always kind of added these little extra syllables to words or phrased differently.

So it was a phrasing that I had, then Jackie DeShannon heard that phrasing and she -- she just jumped right on it.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1991 interview with Sonny Bono. He died yesterday in a skiing accident. We'll hear more of the interview after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back to our 1991 interview with Sonny Bono.

You worked with Phil Spector for a while.

BONO: Yeah.

GROSS: As a promo man, and then helping him with production. As a promo man, what was your style in getting air play on stations? I imagine it wasn't hard to get those records air play?

BONO: It was a piece of cake. I mean, all I had to do was take a record into the station. When I was a promotion man for Philip, he was as hot as he could be, and they couldn't wait to get the next Phil Spector record. So fortunately, I didn't have to do anything except get the record to the radio station.

GROSS: Everyone whose ever worked with Phil Spector has great Phil Spector stories. One that you tell that I especially like in your new book is about how Spector would always practice looking cool. Would you tell us a little bit about that?

BONO: Yeah. Philip -- Philip was the most unique creature I ever met in my life, especially at that time, because in the early '60s, all the things that were standardized were so embedded nobody thought in different form other than what was standard, you know. So when you were a singer, you'd dress standard. You had the little short suit with the string tie.

And the whole world then was pretty -- pretty conformed. So I get a job with Philip and I meet this little guy who's just a total nonconformist. His hair was long. He dressed in the most bizarre fashion. And he produced in the most bizarre fashion. Before -- I wanted to work with Philip because I wanted to see how this guy produced. Up until then, when I produced, I'd have one piano, one guitar, one -- two saxophones or whatever.

And here you go in the studio and there's three pianos lined up; four guitars lined up; three drummers lined up. And I go: "my God, what is going on here?" -- you know; three percussionists, and then a whole sax section. So that was one session. I never saw anything like it in my life.

So everything that Philip did was revolutionary. And when he recorded, he'd be wearing sunglasses and he was just -- he was just totally cool. And he was always aware that he was a performer. Philip really wanted to be the star. Anybody that sang, really was an off-shoot of Philip. So he was the star of his label, not the artist. You know, Darlene Love (ph) really didn't get that much recognition; even Ronnie. It was Philip who was -- who was the real star, you know. So, this guy lived that way.

The funniest -- the funniest time I ever had with him, trying to impress us, was we would -- we shopped at the market on Vine Street, which was a big market, at 12 o'clock. And he was a weird looking guy and people looked at him, and pretty soon I was weird looking too 'cause I wanted to be like Philip.

And so, he studied French lessons a little bit. So he said to me -- he gave me French words to answer back to him as -- he wanted us to pretend we were two French people in this market. And so he gave us French -- gave me French words to say back to him when he would say sentences. And so, he'd say a sentence, and I'd absolutely screw up the response 'cause I think the most difficult language in the world was French.

But here we are in the supermarket, two idiots dressed bizarre, speaking French, hoping people would notice us. And that was Phil's style.

GROSS: Among the many things you did was backup vocals for some of Spector's records. And you write that he used to call you his "funk." Why?

BONO: Well, I had -- I have kind of a froggy voice, or I have a -- I have a real nasally voice, and it cuts through everything. And so, it's a -- it's not a very -- it's not a very smooth sound, but he liked it 'cause it wasn't a smooth sound and he thought it was funky. And it did cut through on the background.

So I sang with the "Blossoms" and all the girls, and then later Cher joined me. And he liked that background sound and he liked my voice in there. So when I hear the records today, Mary -- I can still hear me and so can my wife Mary.

GROSS: After working on production and promotion in the record industry, what made you think about becoming a performer yourself?

BONO: I always wanted to perform. As long as I could remember, I wanted to be in some form of show business. It's the only thing that ever really interested me. So however I could figure out a way to perform, I would try singing, but I -- I really didn't have the pipes to be a singer. Then I tried writing, and I just stayed in it. And I was good enough to -- to sustain in the industry because I loved it so much that I could pull it off.

So I just -- as long as I could ever remember, I wanted to perform.

GROSS: When you met Cher, you became a couple and -- and you performed together. You started off performing as "Caesar and Cleo." What was the angle behind the names?

BONO: The angle then -- in the '60s, you know, they had "Dick and DeeDee" (ph), Chubby Checker. Part of being an artist then was to come up with a gimmicky name as well. So, nobody really had their real names. They always had these hook names -- what we call hook names. So that was right when "Cleopatra" came out with Liz Taylor, and my haircut was as close to -- the closest thing they could call a haircut like mine then was the "Caesar" cut.

And so -- and Cleopatra was out and I went: "all right, Caesar and Cleo -- that's gotta be a hitting formula. What a great name." So that bombed real fast.

GROSS: So when you became Sonny and Cher instead of Caesar and Cleo, how was Sonny and Cher different?

BONO: We were just a little more honest, and by then I think I had a little more awareness, after watching Phil, of how to approach a commercial market and how to -- how to write for it and how to produce for it. So I was -- I was much more on as a producer and arranger and songwriter.

So I wrote "Baby Don't Go" for Cher, with me doing the background. And it was a pretty commercial song. And I kind of felt it was right on. And when I wrote it, I left Phil and I borrowed 135 bucks and that's how much that record cost.

GROSS: Wasn't the idea initially for you to produce Cher, but she wouldn't -- she was too nervous to sing by herself so you ended up singing with her?

BONO: Yeah. I always wanted to. Cher wanted to sing so badly, and I always wanted Phil to record her when he was singing background. But they got along like a dog and a cat. And so, he would never record her except for "Ringo, I Love You" -- I don't know if you remember that, but that was a quick brainstorm that Philip had when the Beatles emerged on the scene.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: I don't remember it.

BONO: Yeah, and he called Cher "Bonnie Joe Mason." So, there is a record somewhere called "Ringo, I Love You" by Bonnie Joe Mason, and that's Cher -- that's Cher singing Phil's brainstorm.

And that didn't -- that bombed. Then I -- then I left and I wanted -- 'cause Phil just wouldn't record Cher, so I left and then I wrote Baby Don't Go. And she didn't like singing alone. She was really petrified of singing in those days. She was petrified of performing, and believe it or not, she still is.

And so she felt more comfortable if I was out there singing with her. So I just sang the choruses on Baby Don't Go. And it became a -- what we called a "soft hit." It hit in California and the West Coast, but it wasn't a national hit. But it was enough to get a career rolling for us.

GROSS: What's -- what's the record of the records that you and Cher made together that you still like most for the songwriting, the performance, or the production -- all of the above?

BONO: OK. Gosh, there were a few that I thought were really, really exceptional. I thought I Got You Babe was -- the moment that I produced it, I knew it was a hit. All the -- all the -- all this music balanced perfectly, the hook with the bassoon and oboe worked perfectly. So, it was a tricky production that worked well.

The most difficult production that I ever had was "Bang, Bang" -- not Bang, Bang -- "You Better Sit Down, Kids" -- 'cause that was -- I remember the -- all my musicians were the same guys and they'd come into see what we were gonna do. And when they heard Better Sit Down, Kids -- the way it was structured, going from four-four to seven-eight time, you know, they went: "what is he doing?"

And so it -- but again, as it rolled out, it rolled out beautifully. And then you see the "Gypsy Violin" with bang-bang. I liked all those -- all those productions. I liked all those hooks. They were a real stretch, but they laid in -- right in that commercial vein.

GROSS: You heard Sinatra's recording of Bang Bang.

BONO: Yeah, I did. I wish he would have put some tempo on it.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Sonny Bono -- he died yesterday in a skiing accident. We'll hear more of our 1991 interview in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our 1991 interview with Sonny Bono. He died yesterday in a skiing accident at the age of 62.

When we left off, we were talking about the Sonny and Cher era. Back then, people laughed at Sonny because of his outrageous clothes. While he was still with Cher, he had a solo hit called "Laugh At Me."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "LAUGH AT ME")

BONO SINGING: Why can't I
Be like any guy
Why do they try
To make me run?
Son of a gun, now

What do they care
About the clothes I wear
Why get their kicks
From making fun?
You know

So I don't care
They laugh at me
If that's unfair
I have to beg to be free
Then baby, laugh at me...

GROSS: Well, you had been used to marketing other performers, and here you were trying to, like, produce and market yourself. What image did you want as a couple? How much of who you were as performers was, like, conscious marketing?

BONO: Well, there was a tremendous hook with dressing the way we did. I mean, I took Phil's idea and went into a -- packaged it more in a commercial fashion. And so, we went even more obvious than Philip did. We found these bobcat vests. We would make -- have our bellbottoms made with just wild fabrics. And we were kind of unisex, both of us.

And it had this real, real strong look. And then our timing was perfect was because as I say up until then, everything was a standard. So when we -- we would go to a concert, people may not even have known who we were, but then when they saw us, they loved it. And it just caught on -- the whole package caught on.

GROSS: Sonny and Cher went through its high points and low points as a duo. What was the low point? And what was some of the most like horrible type of place to play?

BONO: The low point was kind of where you get ashamed -- or I got ashamed of myself anyway -- was, you know, achieving all this success as a musical act, and then letting it slip away to almost oblivion, you know. And so, it was a real low point for me. And I didn't know how to recover from it. And I didn't know what to do.

Music had taken a left turn and gone in a totally different direction. And I couldn't philosophically hook up with it. And so, I wasn't able to produce that kind of music. So I was kind of lost there. That was absolutely the low point for us.

GROSS: When was this?

BONO: That was about '68 -- 1968, '67. Actually, things -- things went on the wane after about '66, things started turning the other way. And I think I wanted to -- us to get into movies and things, and I don't know if I concentrated enough in music. I probably lost the interest that I had prior to the success.

And so I wasn't writing the songs the way I was writing when I was really hungry. And then -- then music itself changed so it was real hard to get back into the scene again. And eventually, we just -- we just couldn't get into it.

So our market was gone. It was absolutely gone. And we were very cold. And so, the only choice open to us then was to work nightclubs in hotels. There was still a nightclub circuit. It wasn't -- didn't pay very well. It would just keep you afloat, but at least you stayed in the business. And we did that. And now here we were, working -- from working to thousands of kids, working to a couple hundred people in a nightclub audience. And it was way more intimate; way more scary.

And Cher didn't like it at all because the -- of the intimacy. And so, she would avoid working directly with the audience. And sometimes both of us would, and then -- so we started that repartee, just to kind of keep our spirits up on stage. It was sort of a "ah, well, screw 'em" attitude, you know. Let's just -- let's just be us.

So we would tease each other. And it caught on. And so we continued with that, and as it caught on, it became more and more sophisticated and got incorporated into the act. And then a CBS executive, Fred Silverman, saw us at the Americana Hotel, and gave us a summer show. And that was -- and we were back on the scene again.

GROSS: Why did you have a hard time keeping in the music business after you and Cher split up?

BONO: Why did I have a hard time staying? I had a hard time staying in anything after Cher and I split up. I think part of what the show did was, although I don't believe it, and I will always defend this, it was kind of like, well, Cher is the talented one and Sonny is like the doofus. But that image I think went across to America.

And so when Sonny and Cher split up, Cher -- Cher had more attraction and attention in the industry, and they just dropped me -- period. So, nobody was in when the phone rang and I just couldn't get into the industry at all. And to compound it, I really didn't want to let go of Sonny and Cher. And talk about confused, I guess that was the most confused time 'cause I -- I didn't know anything else other than the industry. So I didn't know what to do and I kept pursuing it, and the more I pursued it, the less response I got.

And finally, the only thing that -- that you can do in that business when you were once somebody and then not somebody is you can work a lot of "Love Boats."

LAUGHTER

So I think I held the record on Love Boat...

LAUGHTER

... and I'll never forget one day I was doing "Fantasy Island" -- same producer, Aaron Spelling -- so I'd do Love Boats and Fantasy Islands. And I'm sitting in the trailer and I'm going: "what am I doing?" I said: "you're either on your way up or you're way down." So it was very, very depressive, you know. It wasn't as glamorous as I wanted it to be or as it's supposed to be, 'cause you're really on your way down.

And I think when I called Herve Pontoon (ph) in my scene -- I forget what his name was, but it wasn't "Pontoon."

LAUGHTER

God sent me a message: "get out of there."

GROSS: How did you end up getting into politics after music?

BONO: Politics -- well, the first thing that I had to do was I had to let go of Sonny and Cher, let go of the career, let go of all of that and just be OK with me again. And then eventually I did start at the bottom. I opened a restaurant and I was a busboy, a cook -- everything. And I -- I was the happiest I had been again because I was creating my own actions.

So -- no matter what it was. And when I let go of Sonny and Cher, my wife came into the picture and we were having a good time. And we moved down to Palm Springs. I'd had a home there for 17 years. And I wanted to get into business there, and I dealt with the city. And they seemed incredibly illogical to me about a lot of things. I needed a sign and I was remodeling a house. And they weren't nice about it.

And we would have these silly arguments about nothing. And I said: "don't you realize you're holding back the growth of this town?" And so then they red-tagged me because I was being a smart-mouth to 'em. So then I went and talked to the mayor, and I said: "look, Mayor, you need this kind of thing in your town." And he was very nice about it, but they still didn't respond.

So I said: "well, I'm gonna run for mayor then." And so I ran and I didn't really stay stuck on my own particular issues, but I did start to notice that the town was sliding backwards and that I felt it was moving in the wrong direction, and that it needed to be brought up into a contemporary period.

So I got dedicated to it, and I enjoyed it. And so, I landed on my feet in Palm Springs as a mayor.

GROSS: Sonny Bono -- he died yesterday in a skiing accident. He was 62. When he died, he was completing his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Our interview was recorded in 1991.

Coming up, actor Nick Nolte. This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Sonny Bono
High: Sonny Bono, the singer and entertainer turned-politician died yesterday in a skiing accident. We remember him with a 1991 interview in which he talks about his early years in the record business, his work with Phil Spector, and his meeting Cher. Bono wrote his autobiography "And The Beat Goes On.
Spec: Music Industry; Media; Television; Politics; Government; Sonny Bono; Deaths
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Sonny Bono Obit

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 06, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 010602NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Nick Nolte
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Nick Nolte is best known for such films as "48 Hours," "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," "Cape Fear," "The Prince of Tides," and "Lorenzo's Oil." Now, he's starring in the new movie "Afterglow" written and directed by Alan Rudolph.

It's somewhere between a romantic comedy and drama, about two couples whose marriages are on the rocks. Nolte plays Lucky, a contractor who keeps women happy by fixing their homes and taking them to bed. His wife, Phyllis, played by Julie Christie, is a former B-movie actress who passes the days watching her old movies.

It's through home renovation that Lucky meets Mary Ann (ph), played by Lara Flynn Boyle (ph). They begin a heated affair. Here they are in a bar at the start of their relationship.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "AFTERGLOW)

SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD IN BAR

LARA FLYNN BOYLE, ACTRESS, AS MARY ANN: How does your wife handle it so well? Has to be difficult. It has to hurt her.

NICK NOLTE, ACTOR, AS LUCKY: Well, Phyl and I ain't had sex in a long while. It was her choice, her decision. But I know why. Came from an argument we had a long time ago, and she -- some stuff got said that we couldn't take back. And this is how we pay for it.

BOYLE: My husband won't have sex with me either, or he can't. He hasn't said which. So there you go.

NOLTE: There you go.

GROSS: Nick Nolte, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me ask you to start by describing your character in the new movie Afterglow.

NOLTE: Well, oh my God -- describe the character. I never really know what these characters are 'til I see the film, and then I never realize that I did that. Lucky Man, Lucky Man -- that's the name of the character -- Lucky Man. He's a man -- a simple man. He's a man that basically isn't caught up in the mainstream of life, of pursuit of money and fame. He's just a simple man that wanted to be -- work with his hands.

And he married an actress -- a B -- a gal that was making B-film in Hollywood. And he had a wonderful marriage and they had a wonderful daughter. And so he's a -- he's a carpenter. And then after 15 years, he found out that his daughter was not his.

And then, it's --- then basically there's big problems in the relationship from there.

GROSS: The film critic David Tomasson (ph) has a little profile of you in his encyclopedia of film. I don't know if you've read it or not, but he says: "Nolte is a subject for rejoicing and great hope, for we face the rest of this century with at least one actor capable of playing large, mature, but deeply troubled men."

What do you think of that description?

LAUGHTER

NOLTE: I think that's just all right.

GROSS: What about the "large, mature, but deeply troubled men?" Do you think of that as the kind of role that you often play?

NOLTE: No, I don't. I just think that's the way the world is, so I assume the world is much like myself. I mean, if you look at the world, it's violent. It's -- and it always has been, for thousands of years. This seems to be the nature of mankind, violence is a biological imperative for some reason.

So I, in my work, am going after what I see in the world. And I'm trying to translate that because I have this terrible urge and need to do this, not for any other reason than to do this or otherwise I just don't think that -- I just don't respond healthily in the other way to society.

When I grew up in the '50s, I grew up in a rough time; for me, I consider it a rough time. It was a time when I, as a little child, looked up and saw large adults competing very heavily with one another in a kind of violent way.

It was a time of great secrecy, great conformity. If you didn't conform, you were in terrible trouble with the authorities; and very strict rules. And on top of that, we always had to climb under our desk because we were going to be obliterated any second into ashes.

So, you had one or two choices as a child in that kind of a world: either conform to it and get as invisible as possible, or rebel. And I just -- that's why -- you know, have been enraged all my life.

GROSS: Well, you said that, you know, you act because -- how did you put it?

NOLTE: It's a -- it's a psychological -- or biological imperative -- or certainly...

GROSS: Yeah.

NOLTE: ... a psychological one. I mean...

GROSS: But it's interesting, 'cause you didn't start doing it until fairly late in life for an actor. I think you weren't even on the stage 'til your early 20s.

NOLTE: That's right.

GROSS: Your first really big role came when you were about 35 on "Rich Man, Poor Man."

NOLTE: Right.

GROSS: What got you on the stage in the first place? You'd been better known for football. You had a football college scholarship.

NOLTE: Yes, but the football thing, if you really study the situation -- I became a football player when I did "North Dallas Forty." And that's the odd part of it. I'd played a football player in a movie, and then from then -- then on I became this great football player. I was a very minor athlete, in truth.

But where -- you know, I was quite frankly wandering around this country in the early '60s, late '50s; from Mexico to all around, hanging out in universities for short periods of times, searching. And psychologically very screwed up.

GROSS: Searching -- searching for what?

NOLTE: Well, searching for someplace to be comfortable...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

NOLTE: ... in a world that was just a very uncomfortable place, you know. Vietnam hadn't happened yet. Really, it was still under the '50s guise of everybody fit in conformity. I must say that my whole personality and psyche and everything became extremely peaceful during the '60s, because I was no longer one of the minority. I became the majority, as we revolted and rebelled against Vietnam and all of that kind of thing. And we stopped going into the classes and a lot of things changed.

But I saw a play that was specifically about situations -- it was "Death of a Salesman" -- and situations that I was going through. So I saw this and I said: "Jesus, you know, this is something that I can be involved in. I can read it. I can watch it. And you can also become part of it."

So I got up on stage and it was that horrible experience, that absolute horror, your worst nightmare, to be on stage. But at the same time, there was an underneath feeling that this was home. You were home.

GROSS: My guest is actor Nick Nolte. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Nick Nolte.

As a younger man, you were convicted of a felony, of selling counterfeit draft cards. What -- what were you selling them for? What -- was this so underaged drinkers could drink? I mean, what was the point of the counterfeit draft cards?

NOLTE: The point of the counterfeit draft cards was to undermine the American government, basically -- undermine the war effort. Started out just so that we could undermine the law against drinking alcohol, when everybody else got to. And then, it slowly progressed into undermining the American government.

It basically -- the crux of the matter and where it became the big difficulty was that it was a political act. That's what they classified it as.

GROSS: You were given a suspended sentence, but you were fined $75,000. Did you have to pay the fine?

NOLTE: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

GROSS: That was suspended too?

NOLTE: They put me on -- the sentence was $75,000 fine, 45 years in jail; seven counts...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

NOLTE: ... of counterfeit government documents; suspended that and gave me under Youth Correction Act, which means that after my probation period, it's supposedly to be wiped off my record. But the National Enquirer found out about it and tried to blackmail me on it. And I called Rona Barrett and said: "well, can I come in and confess on your show?" And she said: "sure." And I came in and confessed and then they stopped blackmailing me on it.

GROSS: What was the impact of the confession?

NOLTE: That goes for secrecy of government issue.

GROSS: Right.

NOLTE: You know.

GROSS: What was the impact of the confession?

NOLTE: The impact of the confession was that Rona had no idea what I was going to confess to, and I just threw it out there to the -- over the national television. And so, the Enquirer backed off. They had no story.

But Rona then asked me about drugs in America and how bad marijuana was. And I went on to defend that there was nothing wrong with a marijuana plant in itself. It's us that the problem lies. And she's -- was against the plant itself. And so I caught her off-guard and she wanted to re-shoot it and I refused to. So, she never liked me after that.

So then I kept appearing in her magazine with little quotes underneath: "and what is Nick on today?"

LAUGHTER

GROSS: What -- well, you did have drug and alcohol problems for a while. Did that have a bad impact on your ability to act?

NOLTE: No, I -- it never carried over into my work, at least not that I think of. But I'm sure it impacted everything. I mean, yeah, I indulged -- I drank the bottom out of the bottle. I drank down to the worm. And eventually, it didn't work for me anymore. As I said, I'm a very uncomfortable person in the world. And so, drugs and alcohol worked for me a while, to make me comfortable. Then after a while, it didn't work and it started to actually kill me.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nick Nolte. And he's starring in the new movie called Afterglow which is written and directed by Alan Rudolph. And you'll soon be able to see him starring in "Affliction" which is based on a Russell Banks novel and directed by Paul Schrader.

As we were talking about, you know, you started acting, you know, comparatively late. One of the things you're known for in the acting world, I understand, is doing whatever you need to do to get into character. The example that's always used is, like, for Beverly Hills -- for Down and Out in Beverly Hills. You actually lived in a skid row for a while; didn't bathe or brush your teeth for a while while you were playing a homeless guy.

Do you think that part of the reason why you take that kind of approach to get into a role is because you didn't, like, start training, you know, for a stage career when you were 17 or something like that? Did you feel like, like you had to had to really throw yourself into it once you started?

NOLTE: No. There again, you gotta draw a distinction between what acting is. You know, my idea of acting...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

NOLTE: ... which is my idea because it is my life, is that it's some kind of internal rhythm that I have to do. It's something I need to do. I need to go down on skid row and live like a man on the street, as well as I can, 'cause I need to understand that. I don't -- I'm not doing it to make a million dollars and I'm not doing it to get a lot of fame. I'm doing it because this provides me the opportunity to go down on the street.

And it's not so much to get into the role, but acting is behavior to me. It's not putting on a good show, you know. It's not "applaud me." It's -- it's something I need to do. It's part of -- it's my life, you know.

GROSS: So what did you do on skid row when you were researching the role?

NOLTE: Oh, I walked around and I sat down with a guy named Al, and he asked me if I had a cigarette and we were drinking wine. And I gave him a cigarette and he grabbed me and gave me a big hug, and he started bawling. And he said: "I'm sorry, Pete, I'm so God damned sorry. I'm just sorry. I'm sorry." And I said: "it's all right. It's all right." And I patted him on the back. Tremendous pain; tremendous -- the streets are not about homelessness. It's about hopelessness, you know?

GROSS: If you're playing a homeless person, you have the option of, you know, living on the street for a while. But say you're doing a role like Afterglow where you're playing a carpenter and contractor who is very popular with single women and unhappily married women because they can flirt with him and sometimes even make it with him. And his own marriage -- he loves his wife, but his marriage is -- they're kind of estranged in their own way.

It's a kind of complicated character study. It's a character study that's both a -- you know, a comedy and a drama. There's no, like, kind of skid row. There's no, like, extreme to go to as part of the research for a movie like that. Do you know what I mean? So what do you do to get into a character whose a guy? Whose a kind of real guy?

NOLTE: Well, I hung out with carpenters. I hung out with, you know, guys that did this kind of stuff. Just a little bit -- I mean, I wanted to get the physicality right.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

NOLTE: I wanted to be able to handle a hammer. I wanted to know how to do it.

GROSS: Wanted to look right under the sink.

LAUGHTER

NOLTE: Yeah, I wanted to build a wall. I wanted to know how to build a wall.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

NOLTE: The physicality of Lucky was a different thing. I had to build him out of what kind of physical activity he does, you know, you know. So I wanted to do that, and then, you know, you draw from what the stories told from your own life; you know, your relationships and things of that -- and since I know nobody, absolutely nobody in this world, that has a perfect relationship, I had a wealth of material to draw upon.

GROSS: Nick Nolte -- he stars in the new movie Afterglow. He also stars in Affliction, based on a Russell Banks novel. That movie will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival, which begins next week.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Nick Nolte
High: Actor Nick Nolte. He's starring in the new movie "Afterglow" by writer-director Alan Rudolph and produced by Robert Altman. Nolte played college football before becoming an actor. He got his breakthrough in the television miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man" in 1976. He's best known for the comedy and action films: "48 Hours" and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills." He was nominated for an Academy Award for his part in "The Prince of Tides."
Spec: Movie Industry; Nick Nolte; Afterglow
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Nick Nolte
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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