Skip to main content

Renoir's 'Boudo' Newly Preserved on DVD

Critic-at-Large John Powers looks at a new Criterion edition DVD of the 1932 Jean Renoir film Boudo Saved From Drowning.

05:08

Contributor

Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on September 21, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 21, 2005: Interview with Alan Alda; Review of the film "Boudu saved from drowning;" Review of Amy Rigby's "Little fugitive."

Transcript

DATE September 21, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Alan Alda talks about his memoir "Never Have Your Dog
Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

My guest Alan Alda has been acting, writing and directing for American film,
television and theater since the early '60s, and he's on something of a role
these days. His recent performance on Broadway in the play "Glengarry Glen
Ross" earned him a Tony nomination. He was nominated for an Oscar for his
portrayal of a ruthless politician in "The Aviator." And he's now a regular
on the TV series "West Wing," where he earned an Emmy nomination playing the
Republican presidential candidate.

Alda became famous in the 1970s, playing Captain Hawkeye Pierce for the TV
series "M*A*S*H," which ran 11 seasons and earned all of 25 Emmy nominations.
He was the only person to win the award of writing, directing and acting in
episodes of the same series. Alda's many films include "California Suite,"
"The Seduction of Joe Tynen," "The Four Seasons," which he also wrote and
directed, "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Flirting With Disaster."

Alan Alda grew up with parents who were traveling burlesque performers. His
father, Robert Alda, became a successful stage and film actor. His mother
suffered from mental illness. Alda writes about his life and work in a new
memoir. It's called "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've
Learned." I spoke with him yesterday and asked him to begin with a reading.
In this passage, he's describing his college days, when his mother was
troubled by his obsession with reading.

Mr. ALAN ALDA (Author, "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've
Learned"): (Reading) Ideas were an escape and a defense, and I holed up in my
room, reading for six or eight hours at a time. My mother had never seen
anyone do this before, and she became alarmed. She began looking into the
books, trying to figure out what mysterious forces were taking over her son's
mind.

There was one in particular that worried her, a book on sociology that was
popular at the time by David Rieseman called "The Lonely Crowd." She read a
chapter and became disturbed. She called the college to find out if they had
actually assigned this disgusting material. `What about this word that keeps
appearing in here,' she wanted to know, `peer groups?' Although she didn't say
it aloud, peer groups sounded to her like people peering at one another. To
the priest who answered the phone, the book and possibly all of sociology may
have smacked of Godless secularism. `We're concerned about that book, too,'
he told her. Neither one of them was fully aware of what the other meant.
Two utterly different forms of paranoia had met in the dark and agreed there
was something under the bed.

DAVIES: Alan Alda, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ALDA: Thank you.

DAVIES: Good to have you. You know, this book tells us a lot about your past
and your family life, and one of the things I love is the--your first
appearance in a newspaper is revealed, which is in...

Mr. ALDA: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...the Toronto Star, and this is a clip which has five pictures of an
adorable two-year-old Alan Alda with the headline, `Pipe smoker at age two,'
and it says, `For almost a year, Alphonso Robert Alda of Toronto has been
smoking a brier pipe, and he's only two years and three months old now. When
he became curious about his father's pipe, both his parents thought they'd let
him try it, hoping he'd become sick enough never to adopt the habit, but he's
been smoking ever since. A New York doctor told his mother moderate smoking
would not injure his health.'

Mr. ALDA: I love that. Moderate smoking will not injure a two-year-old's
health.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. ALDA: It's so great, isn't it?

DAVIES: So what was this all about?

Mr. ALDA: It was a totally fabricated event. I never touched a pipe. I
drank a little beer with the comedians in the burlesque show, but I didn't
smoke a pipe. And my father--and I remember this very clearly. It may be my
earliest memory. I remember that he wanted to get the burlesque company
mentioned in the newspaper when it came to town, when it came to Toronto, so
he decided it would make a good picture if he had me posing with a pipe. And
the newspaper went for it. They sent a photographer and a reporter. And I
remember posing for the picture in my little woolen suit. And I remember my
father coming in the next day, showing the newspaper around, proud of getting
them all in the paper with this story.

And they didn't--he was a very creative guy. He wrote sketches with his
partner in the burlesque company. And I could see--you know, at that point, I
could see that even though they had told me not to tell lies, this wasn't
telling a lie, this was just getting attention, and getting attention was the
main thing.

DAVIES: Well, a theme of the memoir that you've left us with is your desire
to really learn how to act. And you say that at a young age, you were
privileged to stand in the wings of vaudeville houses with your parents and
watch performances. It's a view that nobody else gets. And you said it was
your first acting school. What do you see in the wings that tells you what to
do, how it all works?

Mr. ALDA: You get to see the performance from an angle that the actors don't
intend it to be seen from. I mean, a really good example of this was when I
was in vau--my father was in vaudeville, and I was in the wings watching it,
and there was a magician, a famous magician. I think it was Blackstone. And
I watched him from the side, from the wings. And I saw him take apart a card
table or a bridge table, I think it was, and he showed the audience that
nothing was there that could contain any pigeons. But I could see that--from
the side, I could see that the table was thicker. The top of the table was
thicker than the audience could see that it was. And I could even see the
little heads of the pigeons that were hidden in it.

And that's what I was able to get watching actors performing. I could see
where they hid the pigeons. I could see the interplay between them. I could
see the sweat flying off their bodies, the spit coming out of their mouths.
You could see things that were really happening that were, on the one hand,
obstacles to them to get through it the way they had got through it last night
and, on the other hand, opportunities to get through it in a completely
different way.

When I stood watching "Guys and Dolls" in the wings, which I did Saturday
matinee and Saturday evening performance almost every week for two years, I
would watch my father acting with Sam Levine, and I felt that Sam Levine was a
genius. I had never seen anybody play a part in a different way every single
night. He would get laughs in different places, and yet he did it the way it
had been directed, but he found variety within the structure that they had
agreed on. And I just admired that so much. I wanted to be like that.

DAVIES: You were struggling to learn acting and get acting work at a time
when you were a young adult, at a time when your mother's mental illness was
really presenting itself. And you describe a moment when you first introduced
your future wife, Arlene, to your mother, and she had a paranoid episode in
which she was convinced Arlene was going to steal her recipe for Swedish
pancakes. And it got to the point where you described exploding in anger at
your mother. And you note in recalling this episode that you, as an actor,
had been trying to call on your emotions, and you found sort of ecstasy in the
way your anger just overcame you at that moment, you know, because it was so
important to you that her--Arlene's impression of your mom. Were you somebody
who had trouble reaching your emotions and your anger then?

Mr. ALDA: Yes, I did. And it troubled me when my mother accused Arlene, who
I was freshly in love with, like, we had just met, and I stayed in love with
her for 48 years, but I wanted those 48 years to start then. And my mother
was calling her a thief. She was going to publish her recipe for Swedish
pancakes and steal it from her. And I felt this anger flare up in me, and I
grabbed a candle off the table and smashed it on the table. And I was out of
control, and it was like an ecstasy overtaking me.

And it troubled me that I wanted to be able to call on emotions like that in a
play when the script called for it, but it was hard for me to get in touch
with those emotions. And now, conversely, here I was wanting to control my
emotions and get through it with words, and I couldn't. I exploded. I was
troubled that I couldn't hold back the emotion in that case, and troubled that
I couldn't call it up when I needed it.

DAVIES: Well, you know, I wanted to play a clip from "The Four Seasons,"
which, I think, is the first film that you both wrote and directed.

Mr. ALDA: Yes.

DAVIES: And his was 1981. And for the audience who may not have seen it in a
while, it's you and Carol Burnett play one of three couples who vacation
together, and it follows the problems they have. And the scene I wanted to
play here is a situation where the husband in one of these three couples has
left his wife for a younger woman, and your wife, played here by Carol
Burnett, is angry, because you've gotten so competitive with this guy with the
younger woman in a soccer game that you've actually injured your knee, and the
two of you are talking about it. So let's hear it. This is my guest Alan
Alda and Carol Burnett in "The Four Seasons."

(Soundbite of "The Four Seasons")

Ms. CAROL BURNETT: (As Kate Burroughs) I also resent you for hurting
yourself!

Mr. ALDA: (As Jack Burroughs) Oh, oh, oh! And that's not irrational, huh?

Ms. BURNETT: (As Kate Burroughs) Do you think I like to see you so jealous
of Nick that you feel you have to tackle him? Do you think that makes me feel
good?

Mr. ALDA: (As Jack Burroughs) I think we should get to the heart of this.

Ms. BURNETT: (As Kate Burroughs) The heart of this is that you wish you had
some blonde nymph adoring you like he does. So go on! Go find one! Christ!
How long are you going to hang onto these fantasies? The reality is you're
married to a middle-aged woman with a good sense of humor and dry skin, and if
you don't like it, then go find yourself a nymph. Just do me the courtesy of
telling me. In other words--and I mean this in the most loving
way--(censored) or get off the pot!

Mr. ALDA: (As Jack Burroughs) Katherine, I'm sorry to say this.

Ms. BURNETT: (As Kate Burroughs) What? Say it!

Mr. ALDA: (As Jack Burroughs) You're making me furious.

Ms. BURNETT: (As Kate Burroughs) You're furious now?

Mr. ALDA: (As Jack Burroughs) I'm enraged.

Ms. BURNETT: (As Kate Burroughs) How can you tell? I can't see the
difference. Maybe you could learn to stamp your foot as a signal. Look, try
this. Ahhhhhhhhhh!

Mr. ALDA: (As Jack Burroughs) You shut up. Do you know how that voice
carries?

Ms. BURNETT (As Kate Burroughs): When you're mad at me, I expect to see it.
I don't want to have to read about it two years from now in your damn diary.

DAVIES: That was Carol Burnett arguing with her husband in "The Four
Seasons," my guest Alan Alda.

You know, it's a lovely written--beautifully written scene, I think, and Carol
Burnett plays it so convincingly.

Mr. ALDA: She's wonderful in this. She made me laugh a couple of times. The
engineer and I are both chuckling together.

DAVIES: Well, you know, and the interesting thing about that scene is here
you are, playing a guy who's having trouble getting in touch with his anger.

Mr. ALDA: Yeah.

DAVIES: And this is a scene that, you know, you--this is a movie that you
describe writing in your book. And I guess what's interesting to me about it
is it seems to be a period in your career when--I don't know if this is quite
accurate, but people saw Alan Alda as playing himself. I mean, you were this,
you know, sensitive, caring guy who kind of tended to analyze things. Is that
fair?

Mr. ALDA: I don't think he was so sensitive in this. I think this is kind of
an unflattering portrait of somebody. And although it was based on some
attributes that I had at the time--and by the way, I didn't know I was basing
it on me. This is really funny. I wrote this part, and one day, I said to my
wife, `Gee, you know who this part is? You know who this character is? I
think I understand who he is. I think it's my father.' And she said, `You're
kidding, right?' And I said, `No.' She said, `You don't know? This is you.'
And I didn't know. I really didn't get it. Oh, it was my unconscious
working. But this is not a sensitive guy. This guy analyzes--overanalyzes
everything and loves to make speeches and loves to control the situation to a
tremendous extent. I don't know if that's me or not, but I don't think...

DAVIES: Right. He is, on the other...

Mr. ALDA: ...I didn't mean for it to be.

DAVIES: Right. He is, on the other hand, somebody who's very committed to
his relationship and kind of...

Mr. ALDA: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...believes in people working things out among them. This was done
when you were--in 1981, when you were very successful with the "M*A*S*H"
series. And it's interesting, you know, when I saw your memoir, I looked up a
1981 New York Times profile of you in The New York Times Magazine. And it's
interesting. That was many, many years ago, and one of the things that the
author observed was that you kind of objected to being regarded as nice.
Something bothered you about being seen that way in films. And it strikes me
that in a lot of roles since then, you've played some pretty not nice guys. I
mean, in "White Mile," you were this manipulative, ruthless executive. You
know, you played a ruthless politician on "The Aviator."

Mr. ALDA: Actually, I think I played--all my life, I've played characters
about half the time who were either very flawed or downright rotten. And
what--and because--you know, when you get famous, they attach a nickname to
you almost always. And early on, a Newsweek interview with me, one of the
first national interviews that I did after "M*A*S*H" hit, had in the headline,
`Nice guy finishes first.' And the writer of that article came up to me about
10 years later and said, `Sorry, I'm the one who did that to you.' He got that
nickname going of Mr. Nice Guy for me, and it stuck. And it stuck partly
because--not so much the characters I played, but when I came out and was
interviewed, I would talk sometimes about the Equal Rights Amendment or
something like that, and it would get me--it would sort of confirm the
stereotype that I was too decent for words or something, I don't know.

So I felt it did get in the way a little bit of me--of my being able to play a
wide range of people and have people just accept it as a performance. On the
other hand, you know what? It doesn't really matter. Lookit. Why--I wasted
my effort getting, you know, worked up about it to the extent that I might
have, because here I am, I'm 69. Look at the wonderful range of things I've
been able to do. The fact is, if you keep plugging away at it, the work comes
out.

DAVIES: My guest is Alan Alda. His new memoir is "Never Have Your Dog
Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're speaking with actor Alan Alda. He's now appearing as a
Republican presidential candidate on "West Wing." And he has a new memoir.
It's called "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned."

Well, the "M*A*S*H" series certainly played a huge role in your career and
image. And you, of course, played Dr. Benjamin Franklin Pierce, known as
Hawkeye, which was, I guess, really at the center of that show as it came to
be. You write in this book that there was something special about "M*A*S*H"
from the very start. Describe your initiation to that role.

Mr. ALDA: Well, my initiation to the part of Hawkeye was difficult, because I
didn't--I was standing, waiting for the first shot to be done, and I said to
myself, `I don't know how to play this guy. Who is this guy? In what way is
he like me? He doesn't seem to be like me at all. I don't know how I can be
him.' And it was getting closer and closer, and I realized, I'm--when they
called action, I had to open the door and walk out, and all I had to do was
cross the compound. But I thought, `If I don't get across this compound
without jumping into the character, I'm going to be me, and I'm not going to
be happy.' And a nurse was heading toward me, and just impulsively, as she
got beside me, I reach out and grabbed her around the waist. And she
responded, and she patted me on the cheek and kept going. And I thought, `Oh,
I'm Hawkeye. That wasn't so hard,' you know. And from then on, I felt much
more comfortable with it.

But something happened that first week that we were shooting the pilot of
"M*A*S*H" that was very important to us all and to me personally. And that
was that it was very cold in the mountains of Malibu. We were shooting in
December, and we all had to wear Hawaiian shirts. We were playing a hot
Korean summer. So to keep warm, we built a fire in one of those oil drums
that you saw all the time on "M*A*S*H," and we huddled around the oil drum and
not only warmed our hands, but hugged one another, threw or arms around one
another and kept warm that way. And that just brought us together. It made
us a group, and we stayed a group. We seldom went to our dressing rooms. We
sat together all day long in between shots. Sometimes it would take a half an
hour or an hour to light a scene, and we'd still stay there and kid one
another and get each other laughing. We'd also go over the lines, but it was
mainly getting one another laughing that I found so valuable.

And I do that every time I do a play now. I try to get people to sit with me
before the show and laugh. And sometimes we laughed right up until the second
before the curtain goes up. And that gives us a tremendous amount of energy,
but most of all, it puts our attention on one another. And we've already been
relating to one another, and now we just have to keep that going, using the
dialogue that's written in the play.

DAVIES: So even in a case like "Glengarry Glen Ross," where it's not a
comedy, you're not supposed to be laughing on the set, it--that creates that
kind of focus that you need on each other to...

Mr. ALDA: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah?

Mr. ALDA: First of all, in our production, there was a lot for the audience
to laugh at, even though it was kind of tragic at the end. But there was a
case where the precision of the actors was extremely important, because
everybody had to say his lines so carefully that the other person would be
able to interrupt you in the middle of a word, then you interrupt them in the
middle of a word, and it goes on and on like that. The rhythmic nature of
that dialogue is vital to maintain. But nevertheless, having a spirit of
playfulness gave us a chance within that formal structure to find variety and
playfulness and the unexpected, and that's what made it very exciting night
after night.

DAVIES: Well, you know, maybe this would be a good point to hear a cut from
"Glengarry Glen Ross," which you performed on Broadway. The one we have here,
you were playing Shelly Levine, who is a real estate salesman, who's
complaining to his office manager, played by Frederick Weller, that he hasn't
been able to close sales because of the lousy leads he's been getting from
perspective buyers. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of "Glengarry Glen Ross")

Mr. ALDA: (As Shelly Levine) Do I want charity? Do I want pity? I want sex.
I want leads don't come right out of a phone book. Give me a lead hotter
than that, I'll go in and close it. Give me a chance. That's all I want.
I'm going to get up on that (censored) and all I want is a chance. It's a
streak, an I'm going to turn it around. I need your help.

Mr. FREDERICK WELLER: (As John Williamson) I can't do it, Shelly.

Mr. ALDA: (As Shelly Levine) Why?

Mr. WELLER: (As Williamson) The leads are assigned randomly.

Mr. ALDA: (As Levine) (Censored) you assign them. What are you telling me?

Mr. WELLER: (As Williamson) Apart from the top men on the contest board.

Mr. ALDA: (As Levine) Then put me on the board.

Mr. WELLER: (As Williamson) You start closing again, you'll be on the board.

Mr. ALDA: (As Levine) I can't close these leads. John, no one can. It's a
joke. John, just give me a hot lead. Just give me two of the premium leads
as a test, all right, as a test. And I promise...

Mr. WELLER: (As Williamson) I can't do it, Shel.

Mr. ALDA: (As Levine) I'll give you 10 percent.

Mr. WELLER: (As Williamson) Of what?

Mr. ALDA: (As Levine) Of my end, what I close.

Mr. WELLER: (As Williamson) And what if you don't close?

Mr. ALDA: (As Levine) I will close.

Mr. WELLER: (As Williamson) What if you don't close?

Mr. ALDA: (As Levine) I will close!

DAVIES: Actor Alan Alda with Frederick Weller in the David Mamet play
"Glengarry Glen Ross," which earned Alda a Tony nomination. Alan Alda will be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Coming up, more with Alan Alda. John Powers looks at a new DVD
release of the 1932 film "Boudu Saved from Drowning." And Ken Tucker spins
Amy Rigby's new CD "Little Fugitive."

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.

My guest is actor Alan Alda. He's written a new memoir called "Never Have
Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned."

One of the roles you're now playing and it's brought you into a lot of
American homes is your portrayal on "West Wing" of the Republican senator,
Arnold Vinick, who is the Republican presidential nominee. And I wanted to
play a cut of that. And in this one, you, as Senator Vinick, are meeting with
President Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, to work out a deadlock
which has occurred in the Senate. The Republicans want a bill on the national
debt ceiling, while the Democrats want to raise the minimum wage. So let's
listen.

(Soundbite from "West Wing")

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) Mr. President, I'd hate to think that
your were consulted by Democrats on the Hill about doing something as
irresponsible as playing games with the debt ceiling.

Mr. MARTIN SHEEN: (As President Josiah Bartlett) Have a seat.

(Soundbite of someone sitting in a chair)

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) But I'd like to think they'd follow your
leadership if we could agree on a way out of this mess.

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Josiah Bartlett) You came to the right place.

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) Good. What did you have in mind?

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Josiah Bartlett) Democrats withdraw a Minimum Wage
Amendment from the Debt Ceiling Bill. You pass the bill. Then you give them
a vote on the minimum wage.

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) You'll lose a vote on the minimum wage.

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Josiah Bartlett) We might be able to shame enough
Republicans into doing the right thing in an election year.

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) How about you withdraw the Minimum Wage
Amendment, we pass the Debt Ceiling clean, and I round up enough Republican
votes to pass the minimum wage increase?

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Josiah Bartlett) You can get that done?

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) We have Republican senators in seven
states with higher minimum wages than the federal level. California it's
about 50 higher. We don't want jobs moving to lower-wage states. I can get
you the votes.

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Josiah Bartlett) What do you want from me?

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) I announce the deal.

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Josiah Bartlett) I know a few Democratic candidates
for president who wouldn't be happy watching you take credit for this.

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) Then let them pass the Debt Ceiling for
you and get you the minimum wage increase.

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Josiah Bartlett) Anything else?

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) Help me keep a secret.

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Josiah Bartlett) What's that?

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) That I just gave you more than you
asked for. Let me hang around for a while as if we were really slugging it
out in here.

Mr. SHEEN: (As President Josiah Bartlett) Can I get you anything?

Mr. ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) Where's the ice cream?

DAVIES: My guest, Alan Alda, playing Senator Arnold Vinick on "West Wing."

You know, it's interesting because in "Glengarry Glen Ross," the Broadway
play, you play kind of a guy who's sort of desperate, pathetic struggling
salesman. Here, you're a guy who wields power with such ease. Tell us about
getting into that role.

Mr. ALDA: I just shook hands with the part of myself that's powerful and at
ease with it. And so, it's actually fun to get to be different kinds of
people. I've always enjoyed playing somebody more powerful than myself and
more at ease in an emergency or more of a leader and that kind of thing. And
I found, even in my 20s, when I would play a part like that I somehow was able
to take on those attributes in my normal life. The bad parts of the
characters that I play haven't stuck with me. I haven't gone on to be a
homicidal maniac after playing one. But I did take on some of the stronger
qualities. I think somehow playing it ou--having the freedom to play it out
and feeling the pleasure of it has sometimes allowed me to do it in real life.

But it's not as if it wasn't there in the first place. That's the interesting
thing about this process, this profession. You look inside yourself and find
out very often--you find out what has been in there all along that seems so
different to you and so alien to you. But we're made up of many different
parts.

DAVIES: Does Arl--does your wife, Arlene, know when you've brought a piece of
a character home with you?

Mr. ALDA: Yeah, unfortunately, while I'm playing the part sometimes it shows
up in the--even the negative side of it shows up in daily life. While I was
doing "Glengarry Glen Ross" I was cursing a lot. You know, I'd go to hang up
a jacket in the closet and it would slip off the hanger, and you had--you
would have thought that I was being accosted in an alley and I was fighting
for my life and I'm cursing and screaming and ye--and she, `What? What?' I
said, `A hangar fell.' And she says, `Boy, I can't wait till this play is
over.' Because I just wouldn't--I was the guy all the time.

DAVIES: Well, I wonder if you're going to be acting like a commander and
chief at home? You know, I have to ask you, is Senator Vinick going to be the
next president?

Mr. ALDA: I don't think anybody knows. They're--at least, that's how they're
acting. They don't--they not only don't tell us, they don't act like they
know themselves.

DAVIES: Alan Alda. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're speaking with veteran actor, Alan Alda. He plays Senator
Arnold Vinick, the Republican presidential candidate on "West Wing," and he
also has a new memoir. It's called "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other
Things I've Learned."

I have to have you tell us the story that forms the basis for the title of
your book, "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed." This actually happened, right?

Mr. ALDA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, unfortunately. I was eight years old and I had
this wonderful dog, a black cocker spaniel, and I loved the dog. It had been
given to me to cheer me up when I was in bed with polio, when--which I had
when I was seven. So when I was--and I was all better when I was eight, and
we moved to a new house. And the second day in the new house the--we fed the
dog some leftover Chinese food and he must have choked on a bone or something.
But he had an awful painful death and he died on the front porch.

And I was really very upset. And my father thought, `Well, in order to help
him get over this death, let--we should bury the dog together.' So we went
out with shovels over our shoulder carrying the dog on a blanket between us.
And we walked and walked and got to a field, and started digging. Well, as we
dug, I cried. And I cried more with every shovelful until I was hysterical.
I couldn't control the sobs. So now my father really didn't know what to do.
So he looked down at me and he said, `Well, maybe we should have the dog
stuffed.' And I didn't know what he meant. I didn't know what that was. So
he said, `We'll take it to a taxidermist and they'll stuff the dog and then
you'll always have him.' And I thought that was a really good idea.

So he took him to the--and the taxidermist said, `Well, what did he look like?
What--how should I--what should I make his face look like? What kind of
expression did he have on his face?' He--I did--I re--I honestly didn't know
that dogs had expressions. I didn't know they had an emotional life, you
know. I said, `He's a nice dog. He wo--he looked nice.' So he did his work
and about six weeks later, the dog came back from the shop. He's sitting on a
blue-velvet board with this really hideous expression on his face. He was--he
looked like he was rabid and he looked like he was going to bite you, and he
had these glassy eyes that--I don't know how this--how they did this, but the
eyes looked like they were staring at you trying to figure out where to tear
your flesh apart.

And I began to understand that you can't--I mean, I understood in a flash that
this was not my dog, and it was not even a memory of my dog. It was a parody
of this animal I had loved. To me, it was a person. And I realized--as time
went on, I realized that certain changes you can't do anything about, probably
most change you can't do anything, and death is the biggest change. And I
looked for ways all through my life, and especially after I almost died in
Chile a couple of years ago, to see how I could take this big change of having
my life given back to me all over again--how could I take that change and
really get something out of it? Really, really notice it. And boy, I'm
really noticing it. I'm having the best time ever.

DAVIES: Well, I--you have to tell us. You got extremely ill while you were
shooting an episode for the "Scientific American" series in Chile.

Mr. ALDA: Yeah, yeah.

DAVIES: Tell us what happened there.

Mr. ALDA: Well, we--I was on top of a mountain in Chile in a--outside of a
very small town. It was like the fourth-largest city in Chile. And we were
8,000 feet up and I was interviewing astronomers in an observatory, and all of
a sudden, I got incredible abdominal pains. And at first I thought it was
chili peppers I had had the day before, and I thought it would go away. But
it--with every wave of peristalsis, I had a wave of pain that got increasingly
unbearable. So they stuffed me in an ambulance to take me down to the town
about an hour and a half down the mountain on bumpy roads. And first, they
couldn't get the ambulance started. It was like a scene from "M.A.S.H." in
the wi--they were knocking on the motor and I--they--and I'm screaming in the
back of the--I--you know, if you look at "M.A.S.H." you notice the people are
never moaning. I did enough moaning for 11 years of "M.A.S.H." if they ever
want to put it in.

So we get to the hospital and, luckily, there was an expert in abdominal
surgery there and he diagnosed it right away. And he said to me, `Here's what
we have to do. You have a blocked intestine.' And there was--it turned out
to be about a yard of my intestine that was dead. And he said, `It's gone bad
and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the good ends together.' And I
said, `Oh, you're going to do an end-to-end anastomosis.' And he said, `Yeah,
how do you know that?' And I said, `Oh, I did many of them on "M.A.S.H.' And
I ha--isn't this amazing? And he had watched "M.A.S.H." when he was in high
school.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. ALDA: I mean, here we were acting out a scene from this thing that to
both of us had been fictional up until then.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. ALDA: And now I was really living through it. And before I went under
the anesthetic, it occurred to me that I might not wake up. And I called the
producer of the science show over and I said, `I have some things I want you
to tell Arlene and my children and my grandchildren in case I don't wake up.'
And I was very businesslike. I wasn't--I was surprised to see that I wasn't
scared, because I'm usually--I'm cautious to the point of being a fraidy cat.

But I--and then I, not only did I wake up, I had my life back and I wondered
how long this amazing feeling of being glad to be alive would last. And
although, I'm a little less manic about than I was a week after it happened,
I'm still thrilled about being alive. I won't--and I'm noticing everything
that's happening far more than I ever did.

DAVIES: And this was how long ago? A year and a half ago?

Mr. ALDA: Two years ago this October 19th.

DAVIES: Well, you know, I have to ask you about, you know, this--you had this
recent brush with death. And I have to ask you about the one at the beginning
of your life. You were stricken by polio as a very young child and suffered
through some very painful treatments as a result of that. I'm wondering, did
that have an effect on--well, it must have had an effect. How do you think it
affected you?

Mr. ALDA: I imagine it did. I don't really know what effect it had. Those
treatments were extremely painful because it was the Sister Kenny treatment.
She was the nurse in Australia who figured out a way to deal with the
paralysis in the limbs. I'm told by scientists now that that may not, in
fact, have been an efficacious remedy. I hope it was, because it sure as hell
was painful. Every hour during the day my parents--and it was my parents who
did it. They couldn't afford a nurse to do this. They heated these squares
of blanket--of woolen blankets--in a double boiler, so that it was almost
scalding hot, but it was dry heat. And they wrapped them around all my
muscles, and it was so painful that this little kid--this seven-year-old
kid would be beating the bed with his fists and screaming. And while I was
screaming like that, I was also aware that it was killing my mother or my
father to have to cause me this pain, but that it was the only way they knew
to make me better. But I remember being aware of how much it hurt them, too.

But otherwise, I don't know what it meant. I think the aftermath of it was
more important to me. I didn't go to school. I had--I was tutored and I was
tutored for the year that I was bed-ridden and then, when I got better, it
seemed more convenient for my parents to keep me tutored. And I didn't go to
school with other kids until the seventh grade, and I really didn't know how
to get along with other kids. I was the center of attention. I thought I was
the funniest person alive, and I thought my job was to entertainment them.
Their reaction was that they thought their job was to beat me up and--which
would explain to me...

DAVIES: Which happens to entertainers.

Mr. ALDA: ...that I was not the center of attention. Right. I had to learn
either how to become a much better fighter or become a lot funnier. And I
went for funny.

DAVIES: And it worked. Well, Alan Alda, thanks so much for spending some
time with us.

Mr. ALDA: Thank you. I really appreciate your talking with me. Thank you.

DAVIES: Actor Alan Alda. His new memoir is called "Never Have Your Dog
Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: DVD edition of "Boudu Saved from Drowning"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

The most famous tramp in the histories of movies is, of course, Charlie
Chaplain. The second most famous might be the hero of Jean Renoir's 1932
film, "Boudu Saved from Drowning." It's just come out on DVD, and our
critic at large, John Powers, says the new release got him thinking about the
nature of work today.

JOHN POWERS reporting:

Philip Larkin began one of his most famous poems by asking, `Why should I let
the toad work squat on my life?' Needless to say, Larkin wasn't an American.
Here we take pride in having a work ethic. Where other developed countries
honor labor by giving workers proper vacations--42 days a year in Italy, 37 in
France, 25 in diligent Japan--American workers average a meager 13. And
we've come to think of this as normal. The idea that human beings, even
presidents, might reasonably expect a whole month off every year strikes many
American ears as weird, maybe even subversive. And the suggestion that much
work is organized tyranny, why, the very thought is beyond the pale.

That's one reason it's such a pleasure to see the beautiful new Criterion
edition of "Boudu Saved from Drowning," the 1932 classic by Jean Renoir, the
masterful French filmmaker best known in the US for "The Grand Illusion" and
"Rules of the Game." Here is a movie that's all about the clash between
work-a-day order and the human yearning for absolute freedom. The legendary
actor, Michel Simon, stars as Boudu, who's a clochar(ph), a tramp. When Boudu
impulsively tries to commit suicide by jumping into the Seine from a bridge in
Paris, he's rescued by Edouard Lestingois, a bookstore owner whose shop
overlooks the river. A liberal-minded bourgeois, Lestingois doesn't just save
Boudu from drowning. He tries to save him in a larger sense. Filled with the
Resoian(ph) faith in the goodness of man in a natural state, Lestingois
invites Boudu to live in his household along with his attractive, if sniffy,
wife and the young maid who serves as his mistress. But the unsocialized
Boudu doesn't take to civilization. He trashes the dinner table, spits in
books and, once physically cleaned up, forces his sexual attentions on Madame
Lestingois.

Renoir is a famously generous filmmaker. His best known line is `Everyone has
his reasons.' That generosity runs through this movie about a collision
between middle-class order and Boudu's almost animalistic chaos. Although
Renoir gently tweaks the complacencies and compromises of bourgeois culture,
his portrait of that world is far from hostile. He lets us see how
middle-class order is comfortable, but also decent. After all, the
middle-aged Lestingois leaps headlong into the river to rescue Boudu.

But Renoir also lets us see that bourgeois life is frustrating because it
forces us to be dishonest about our animal nature. Lestingois must sneak
around to have sex with his maid, while his wife, beneath her fine manners,
eagerly responds to Boudu's illicit advances. In contrast, Boudu embodies
freedom in its most anarchic. Normally, free spirits are romanticized
figures. You know, madmen who are wiser than their psychiatrists, sexy
hipsters who teach uptight churchgoers how to get it on, or literary figures
like Charles Bukowski who have the virtue of being famous. Not so here.
Plagued with a gleeful abandon by Michel Simon, Boudu is a boozy unregenerate
who is, frankly, a pain to have around. Even when Lestingois pays for a
haircut and a proper suit, Boudu still causes trouble. He's an irrepressible
life force carried along by life's flow, just like the river into which he
jumps.

If Boudu is all about freedom, so is the movie itself, especially its footage
of Paris in the early 1930s which seems to capture life in all its thrilling
immediacy. But until this DVD, prints of "Boudu Saved from Drowning" were
always disastrously bad. Gray as a 500th-generation Xerox and possessed of a
soundtrack so crackly that Boudu appeared to be talking through a mouthful of
Rice Krispies. This disc's fabulous transfer corrects all that and, for the
first time ever, I saw the movie as people would have seen it originally, or
almost.

The one huge difference is that "Boudu Saved from Drowning" was made almost 75
years ago in a very different world. Back then, before the seemingly
inescapable triumph of modern commercial culture, artists, intellectuals and
even workers were constantly arguing over the first principles of life. Do
we live to work or do we work to live? How do we balance our desire for
social order against our desire for personal freedom? Such questions remain
as essential as ever, but they seem almost naive in our workaholic,
21st-century America whose men and women are so busy putting their nose to the
grindstone that they don't have time to ask them, let alone fight for more
time off. What movie today would celebrate an amoral tramp like Boudu who
gets drunk, sleeps on the grass and happily shares his food with a goat?

DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and author of "Sore Winners"
now out in expanded paperback edition.

Coming up, a review of the new CD from Amy Rigby. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Amy Rigby's "Little Fugitive"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Amy Rigby's 1996 album, "Diary of a Mod Housewife," introduced her as a single
mom struggling to survive in rock 'n' roll. She has a new album called
"Little Fugitive." Rock critic Ken Tucker says it's one of her best.

(Soundbite from song, "Like Rasputin")

Ms. AMY RIGBY: In 1916 he took a bullet to the head. They all thought that
he was dead. But he surprised them. In 1981, I withstood a similar attack.
I got hit, but I came back. And it keeps happening.

Ms. RIGBY and Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I'm like Rasputin, I get
back up again, like Rasputin, I keep comin' back, comin' back, comin'
back to life.

Ms. RIGBY: The roads and ...(unintelligible).

KEN TUCKER reporting:

Amy Rigby thrives on striking disparities. This 40-something sings in an
exceedingly modest, yet expressive, small voice about big subjects: marriage,
adultery, divorce, motherhood and everyday survival. A true Bohemian at
heart, Rigby doesn't have any use for pop star boasting or posing as anything
she isn't. She offers herself instead as a mom working hard to maintain a
mid-level living in the music industry. More often than not, she musicalizes
all of this with a twinkle and unexpected metaphor, comparing her own
ferocious persistence with that of the mad monk, Rasputin, in the song that
opened this review, for example.

On this song, she navigates around her ambivalent feelings toward the woman
she refers to as `my new husband's ex-wife.'

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIGBY: (Singing) Jean is my new husband's ex-wife. It looks like she's
going to be a part of my life. 'Cause there's a couple of kids and 20-some
years they share, so I guess Jeanie isn't going anywhere. I even tried to
hate her like I thought I should, but since we met she's been nothin' but
good. And the trouble with Jean is she's all right. And the trouble with
Jean is she's so nice. Could somebody explain to me this modern life...

TUCKER: The intricacies of blended families and the unexpected friendships a
woman can strike up through the vagaries of circumstance, this is the stuff of
novels or short stories. Rigby can sneak up on you with narratives like this
and you find yourself singing along.

Indeed, ever since she started out more than 20 years ago inspired by the
do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock, an era she eludes to here in a sweet dream
song called "Dancing With Joey Ramone," Rigby has always veered toward
catchy pop melodies with occasional excursions into catchy country melodies.

(Soundbite of music)

TUCKER: On the new album, she swerves into psychedelia for one song just for
the retro fun of it and ends up with one of her more dark, gloomy songs; a
rare glimpse into her frame of mind when she's not putting the best face on
difficult situations.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIGBY: (Singing) Rain ...(unintelligible) the stain on the pumpkin and
take the blue skies away, rain. Fast, and pull the train off the tracks. Now
you can never realize ...(unintelligible). All the things she tells you make
you ill, it meant that you could make her all your own. No, no...

TUCKER: It's easy to explain why Amy Rigby isn't a bigger star. She may be
working the same pop territory as current hit acts, like the Click Five and
Fall Out Boys, but she's not a bunch of cute kids chirping secret-crush
yearnings. She could be the mother of some of these bands. In fact, Rigby's
16-year-old daughter does some backup vocalizing on this album. Combine that
with the fact that Rigby has never worked for a record label that knew how to
market her to an ideal demographic: grown-ups raised on The Beatles and
Blondie with money they'd be willing to spend on something more energetic than
Norah Jones. And you know why Rigby spent a few years down in Nashville
plugging songs to a market where sly puns and adulthood aren't impediments to
acceptance.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIGBY: (Singing) I'm tired of emotional progression. I'm tired of
repercussions. I'm sick of the O's and the X's and the sex and the battles
and the battle of the sexes. I don't want to talk about love no more. I
don't want to talk about love no more. Don't want to talk about love no more.
I don't want to talk about it. I've had enough of the soul mate switches.
I've had enough of the stomach lurches. I'm through with the me and the you
and the why and the who and the what, what, what equals. I don't want to talk
about love no more.

TUCKER: I'm glad Amy Rigby is back in New York where she took a batch of
carefully crafted songs and laid them down in a mere two days. Granted, the
schedule probably had as much to do with budget economics as with the thrill
of punk-style, toss-it-off-and-scram attitude. Amy Rigby is creating
anti-Chiclets set to music. She refuses to give you an easy, happy ending.
Bless her heart.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed "Little
Fugitive," by Amy Rigby.

(Soundbite from "Dancing With Joey Ramone")

Ms. RIGBY: (Singing) He walked into the party looking just like he had in the
past.

(Credits)

DAVIES: 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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:07

Has Tucker Carlson created the most racist show in the history of cable news?

The NY Times did an exhaustive survey of the Fox News hosts' broadcasts. Reporter Nicholas Confessore says Carlson's show is based on ideas that were once "caged in a dark corner of American life."

08:23

You can't 'Trust' this novel. And that's a very good thing

Hernan Diaz’s new novel, Trust, is about the power of money in the stock market, and its potential, as a character says, "to bend and align reality" to its own purposes.

42:05

British 'Office' co-creator Stephen Merchant isn't afraid to fuse comedy with tragedy

Merchant co-created the British Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. His new show, The Outlaws, is about people court-ordered to do community service for low-level crimes. He spoke with producer Sam Briger about what inspired the new series, his best writing advice, and how being very tall (6'7") has informed his personality.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue