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Rock Historian Ed Ward

Ward considers the work of the bluegrass music duo the Stanley Brothers.

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Other segments from the episode on January 5, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 5, 2001: Interview with Ray Redfield; Commentary on the Stanley Brothers; Interview with David Paymer.

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DATE January 5, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Author Kay Redfield Jamison discusses her bouts with
manic depression and the book she wrote on the subject
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

One in 10 children in the US suffers from some sort of mental illness. But
only 20 percent receive treatment, according to a new report from the US
Surgeon General's Office. The study identifies depression as one of the most
overlooked disorders and calls for an overhaul of children's mental health
programs. Manic depression is a disease which often surfaces in late
childhood. It distorts moods, can incite dreadful behavior, destroy the
basis of rational thought and erode the desire and will to live.

That's how Kay Redfield Jamison describes it in her 1995 book "An Unquiet
Mind," a memoir about her own bouts with the extreme mood swings of manic
depression. The book is now out in paperback. Jamison is also the author of
"Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide" and "Touched By Fire" about
writers, composers and artists living with manic depression. She's a
professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Terry spoke with Jamison after the publication of her memoir. Jamison
described her symptoms before she started taking medication.

(Excerpt from 1995 FRESH AIR interview)

Professor KAY REDFIELD JAMISON (Johns Hopkins University): When I was manic,
I did everything from spending inordinate amounts of money, like, 30, $40,000
on things that I had absolutely no use for; things ranging from snake bite
kits to extremely expensive watches to jewelry to things--you know, I think I
gave away money. I mean, just completely worthless sorts of--spending of
money to just going around and--you know, you just do this kind of
enthusiastic babbling and trying to convince people of these great ideas and
schemes and plans that you have. It's an extravagant state. It's a highly
energetic state. It's a contagious state. I mean, one of the things that, to
me, is--from a human point of view, the most interesting thing about manic
depressive illness is that it's so tied to moods. And moods are very, very
human sorts of things. And the level of energy just sort of bubbles out and
creates a kind of high-energy field around the individual who's manic. And up
to a point, this can be very seductive and very enticing to other people.
After a certain point, it becomes very irritating and obnoxious and
exhausting.

And in depression, I think the thing that--you're asking what was the most
extreme thing I did. Certainly, the most extreme thing and the thing that's
absolutely most, for myself, completely unthinkable was that I tried to kill
myself. I mean, I just can no more imagine wanting to die now, when I'm
normal. I mean, I'm terrified of death. I don't want to die. I love life.
I, you know, enjoy life. It's inconceivable to me that I would want to die.
And yet when I was depressed, it was inconceivable to me that I would want to
continue to live.

TERRY GROSS, host:

How did you reconcile? When you were going through these incredible mood
swings, how did you reconcile the highs and the lows and the person you were
when you were high with the person you were when you were depressed?

Prof. JAMISON: Oh, I think it's--when you're high and when you're low, you
don't try and reconcile much of anything. It's really when you're your
normal self that you look at the chaos around you that's become your life and
you wonder where on Earth did I go, you know. Where am I in all of this? I
think it's very hard if you--I mean, I was brought up in a very conservative
family and a very conservative lifestyle, which I cherished and I still do
cherish. And to look around me at some of the things that I'd done when I
was manic and just flamboyantly manic, you know, it's just very hard for
me to sort out who was who in there.

GROSS: You write that at first, your illness seemed to be an extension of
yourself, of your changeable moods and enthusiasms. When did you realize it
was more than that?

Prof. JAMISON: Well, I think I had sort of fleeting glimpses of judgment
inside. I think that--when I was brought up, I was brought up in an Air
Force family and, as I say, a very conservative family. There weren't really
words and labels. I mean, there wasn't, you know--people know the word
`depression' now and perhaps less so the words `manic depression,' but at the
time I was growing up, these words just weren't used. The concept wasn't
there. And I first got ill when I was in high school. I got profoundly
depressed. Initially, I got quite hypomanic. But, to me, it was that there
was something wrong, but I didn't think of it as an illness. And even though
I went on then to do graduate work in psychology and took courses--clinical
course work and so forth, I still, somehow, did not attach it to myself. And
I think this is a problem that an awful lot of people have. I mean, the
major problem with mood disorders is not that they're not treatable, because
they are. I mean, depression and manic depression are extremely treatable
diseases. The problem is that people don't recognize what they're going
through as illnesses. And, I mean, it's one of the reasons why I wrote the
book. I think that these illnesses are very hard to label as illnesses
because they seem tied up with one's personality and moods. And we don't
think of that as disease.

GROSS: Well, as you say in your memoir, manic depression is an illness that
is biological in origin, yet it feels psychological.

Prof. JAMISON: Yes, absolutely. And I think that that's, you know--it's a
very subtle point. And I think even years after studying mood disorders for
a living, as it were, and having it and having the illnesses in my family, I
still find it, at times, difficult to sort out what's just kind of a reaction
to life and what's a disease. I mean, I have much more of a sense now. As
you know, it's unequivocally clear to me that what I have is a very bad form
of a disease. But for a long time, you know, you can just sort of say,
`Well, maybe this is just me.'

GROSS: When you did start seeking help, you were prescribed lithium, but you
fought it for a long time. Why didn't you want to take lithium?

Prof. JAMISON: I fought it. I wish I hadn't, you know. I lost a lot of
years of my life and I regret it now. But I think it's something that I
probably had to do. I fought it because--I mean, at a somewhat simplistic
level and perhaps the easiest level to understand, but not the most real
level. The simplest level was I had very bad side effects. At the time I
first started taking lithium, lithium was prescribed at much higher levels
than it is now. I'm now on lithium and I have virtually no side effects.
But at that time, I was on high levels. And I found it difficult to read. I
had a very rare reaction to lithium in terms of a very bad blurring of vision
and an impairment in my concentration. I got nauseated.

But I think that wasn't the real reason. The real reason was I thought that,
you know, I shouldn't have to take medication. It was not clear to me in my
own mind that what I had was a disease because I would feel well again. And I
think it's something that you see not only in psychiatric illness but you see
it in, you know, diabetes and chronic heart disease; that once people start
feeling better again, it's very hard to stay on chronic medication. I just
fought. I fought like, you know, a crazed weasel. I really resisted the idea
that I was mentally ill; that I had something that I could just control with
will and intellect and personality; that I couldn't just exert sort of enough,
you know, energy over it to control it. It's a hard thing to accept.

GROSS: So you've been on medication for a long time. Do you miss anything
about the highs or the lows?

Prof. JAMISON: I don't...

GROSS: The highs I'd imagine you'd miss, and not the lows.

Prof. JAMISON: I don't miss the lows. I do not miss the lows, not for a
second.

GROSS: What about all the energy from the mania--the energy, the
self-confidence and enthusiasm?

Prof. JAMISON: Well, I think what I miss about the mania is that--well,
there are several things. One certainly is the high energy level. But I have
a pretty high energy level anyway, and I think I tend to exhaust people around
me as is. So I'm not sure that it's energy so much anymore. There's an easy
flow of ideas and there's a wonderful sense of just vitality and just this
infectious enthusiasm and, you know, joie de vivre and passion for life. And
that's very seductive. It's very hard to give up. There's an intensity, you
know, in the same way that I think that love brings a certain kind of
intensity into one's life. And war does in a very, very different sort of
way. You know, why is it that people remember war experiences even though
they're so awful? It's because, I think, there's a certain intensity and a
certain sense of shared experience, perhaps. So it's hard to give that up,
actually.

GROSS: You recently asked your psychiatrist for a copy of your medical
records.

Prof. JAMISON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What was the most valuable part and the most surprising part about
reading them?

Prof. JAMISON: I think it was a very interesting experience. It's not that
I forget how bad depression is, but I think in order to go on and in order to
survive and live, you have to deny the degree of despair that you experienced.
And what I had forgotten was the degree of misery of my depression. And just
reading these very cool, clinical notes about how suicidal I had been, how
awful I felt for week after week, month after month, was not just disturbing.
It was very frightening.

BOGAEV: Kay Redfield Jamison from a 1995 interview with Terry Gross. Her
memoir, "An Unquiet Mind," is just out in paperback. More after the break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, we're featuring a 1995 interview with Kay
Redfield Jamison, author of "An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Manic Depression."

(Excerpt from 1995 FRESH AIR interview)

GROSS: I'd like to ask you, if you wouldn't mind, a little bit about your
suicide attempt. Would that be OK?

Prof. JAMISON: Sure.

GROSS: How did life look to you at the time that you said it's not worth it
anymore?

Prof. JAMISON: Life, to me, seemed absolutely pointless. Every minute of
the day was an exercise in futility and pain. And there seemed to be no
reason to go on. It seemed to me that I was incapable of doing my work in
the way in which I wanted to do it. And I was incapable of being the kind of
friend that I was used to being. And I was incapable of being the kind of
family member that I thought I wanted to be. Every aspect of my life seemed
a failure. And I wasn't used to failure. I could not stand the pain. It's
just a very hard thing to describe. There simply was no point in living.

GROSS: What method did you decide to use to take your life?

Prof. JAMISON: I decided to kill myself with an overdose of lithium, because
that's what I had available to me. And I thought if I took a drug that would
keep me from vomiting it up, which I got a large amount of, I knew that the
drug would kill me. And I knew that the--I was on a sort of a quasi-suicide
watch from my doctors. And most of my friends were doctors, so that I knew
that I was not going to get access to very lethal medications and--that would
require a smaller number of pills, so I knew that lithium was the only thing
that I could really do.

GROSS: Well, you'd prepared well for the job. How were you saved?

Prof. JAMISON: I was saved by the fact that you can prepare for irrational
acts only so well. And I think that--I thought that I would just go off into
a coma. It's not one of those things that they teach you. You know, here I
was. I was really treating people with the illness and certainly had
experience with other people who had attempted suicide or who had committed
suicide; patients, friends, whatever, colleagues. And yet, somehow I thought
I would just sort of take my medication and fall into a coma. But, actually,
the fact of the mat--so I took my telephone and I put it many rooms away so I
wouldn't answer it. I knew that I couldn't take the phone off the hook
because if I took the phone off the hook and my family or my friends called,
they would immediately have somebody over there because they knew I was very
depressed. So I just removed the phone to another room.

And what happened is my brother was in Paris and he was calling to see how I
was doing. And I was really pretty comatose--quasi-comatose and I must have
crawled on my hands and knees to--when I heard the phone ringing and just--you
know, however it is that a very drugged brain works. And I picked up the
phone, and my voice was very slurred and my brother called the doctor.

GROSS: So after you were, you know, back in the world of the living again,
what did you change in your life?

Prof. JAMISON: Well, I certainly stayed on my medication. I don't suppose I
changed a whole lot. I had much more of a deep commitment in my professional
life to studying psychosis, to studying suicide and to studying why people
don't take their medications and to studying the psychological aspects of
manic depressive illness, as well as the medical side. I mean, I really came
out of all of it with an absolute determination to try and do something about
the illness to see how--to try and change how it was perceived by society
because of the terrible stigma that is attached to it, to try and make a
difference, I guess.

GROSS: Now in your memoir, you ask the question, `Are manic depressives an
endangered species?' You mean because of drugs that can treat the disorder?

Prof. JAMISON: Well, less because of drugs. And because the fact that the
illness is genetic means that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, we
will have genetic tests that--where you can tell if a fetus has manic
depressive illness or has the gene or genes for manic depressive illness.
Ultimately, society may be able to develop gene therapies that prevent the
development of the illness altogether. You may, in fact, be able to find out
which children are at high risk and medicate them--premedicate them before
they ever experience severe mood swings.

GROSS: Would we be losing anything if manic depression did become extinct?

Prof. JAMISON: Well, I think this is an issue that's a very real, ethical
issue. I think the--one side of it is that you will be able to diagnose
people earlier and more accurately and treat them and prevent them from having
to go through the pain and suffering that manic depressive illness brings
along with it and, also, develop far more specific treatments that have far
fewer, you know, side effects. And that's the good side.

The problematic, ethical side is actually something we're studying--that
looking at that question exactly, what are the ethical aspects of finding gene
therapies for an illness that almost certainly confers advantages to society
but not to the individual.

GROSS: You know, I am not manic depressive, but I do often feel like I'm
controlled by moods that seem to have more to do with my internal atmosphere
than with anything that's happening externally; that there's days when I feel,
like, `Hey, throw it at me. I can handle it,' and other days when just the
slightest thing will sink me into this profound depression. And I'm sure it
has something to do with whatever chemicals or hormones are coursing through
my body at the moment.

Prof. JAMISON: Have you ever charted it?

GROSS: No. Do you recommend that?

Prof. JAMISON: Yeah. I mean, if you just do something very simple like,
the same time every day, because there's a diurnal variation in moods, I
mean, you know, so you want to do it the same time every day. But if you,
like, at 9:00 every night just rate yourself, like, plus-three,
minus-three--whatever measure you want to use, whether it's energy,
enthusiasm, mood, anxiety, whatever. And just chart it out for about six
months, plus-three to minus-three.

GROSS: And what will I learn from that?

Prof. JAMISON: I bet you will find possibly a two-week pattern, possibly a
30-day pattern. But what you will see is probably a definite pattern.

GROSS: And so if you have figured out the pattern, what do you do with it?

Prof. JAMISON: Well, it depends on how strong it is. I mean, like, for
example, if you had--if you were a clear cyclothymic, which would be like a
mild manic depressive, but a very intense version of what you're describing,
and say you found out that you were, like, up three days and then down six or
seven days and then up three days and then down six or seven days, you could
tell a whole lot if you did it over the course of a year. One thing is you
could check to see if there are seasonal patterns. You could check to see if
there are premenstrual patterns. You could check to see if there's anything
in your outside life that's contributing to it.

But you also can, you know, plan a bit. The very fact of observing gives you
some control. You see the pattern and you can say, OK, you know, basically,
if you've got creative work to do, then you just kind of count on the up days.
And if you've got periods where you can begin to see what's the beginning of a
down period, then you can just do Mickey Mouse work or administrative work or
whatever, you know. It depends on what your work consists of. But you can
begin to regulate it at some point. Also, you can see, I mean, much more
importantly from a mood disorder point of view, whether it's getting worse or
not.

Because if it's getting worse over time or as you get older, then you want to
just--it's good to have a baseline of that because then you can say, `OK, if I
go get treated, is this treatment making me better? Is it making me worse?
Is it making me better in the short term but making me worse in the long
term?' You have some sort of baseline then.

GROSS: You know, the last time we talked after the publication of your book,
"Touched By Fire," about artists and writers who were manic depressives, there
was almost a little skirmish in the station of people who wanted the copy of
your book because so many people had relatives who had manic depression;
relatives who had been prescribed lithium but weren't taking it. And that was
causing serious problems for their friends and family. I'd like to ask you a
question related to that. For people who have someone who they're close to
who has been prescribed something for a mood disorder and they're not taking
it, do you have any recommendation of what might be helpful to do to get the
person to take it, especially if they go through these, you know, suicidal
periods?

Prof. JAMISON: Well, it's a very difficult thing to do. You often see that
kind of resistance very early on in the disease. And sometimes just showing
people--I mean, this is, I think, an advantage of going to a clinic that
specializes in mood disorders where people know a lot about the course of
manic depressive illness where they can show people the course of the illness
over time because that, actually, tends to be a fairly convincing sort of
thing. If you actually--because most people just sort of think, `Well, I can
always go back on the medication.' But the fact of the matter is that it
takes a toll if you don't go back on it, and it does get worse. And seeing
the natural course of the illness, physically, you know, on charts of how it
goes, you know, in a thousand patients or something sometimes can be helpful.

It's a situation where education goes a long way. You know, if people are in
the area of a university clinic, you know--teaching hospital that has a
specialty clinic, there should be sort of educational programs. Often the
support groups, you know, like the national--the advocacy groups like the
National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association, the National Alliance
for the Mentally Ill, have family support groups and patient support groups.
And, often, patients are much better able, for obvious reasons, to get other
patients to, you know--in the same way that alcoholics are much more able to
get people to realize that they're denying that they have a problem. There's
a lot of denial in manic depression and sometimes just--it's--you have to hear
it from other people.

And one of the reasons why--one of my colleagues said, `Well, Kay, did you
have to be so honest about your problems about taking lithium?' You know,
because I think he thought that it would be better if I just sort of said that
I took lithium and I walked off into the sunset and everything was glorious
and my life was just all new again. And I said, `But that's not true.' You
know, it wasn't true for me and it's not true for a lot of people. And one of
the reasons why I tried to write as honestly as I could is that--to say,
`Look, these are the consequences of not taking this medication,' you know. I
think most people are not aware of the consequences of not taking
medication--really, really aware.

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

Prof. JAMISON: Sure.

BOGAEV: Kay Redfield Jamison spoke with Terry Gross in 1995. Jamison is the
author of an essay on manic depression in the forthcoming book "States of
Minds," edited by Robert Conlan(ph).

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

BOGAEV: Coming up, a conversation with actor David Paymer. He was nominated
for an Academy Award for his role in "Mr. Saturday Night." His other films
include "Get Shorty" and "Quiz Show." He's currently starring in the new film
"State and Main."

And rock historian Ed Ward tells us about the 20-year history of the
bluegrass duo the Stanley Brothers.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Profile: History of bluegrass singers the Stanley Brothers
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

The soundtrack for the Coen brothers' new movie, "Oh, Brother, Where Art
Thou?," features music from the bluegrass duo Ralph and Carter Stanley. For
our rock historian Ed Ward, their work epitomizes what great bluegrass music
should be; instrumental virtuosity, clear harmony singing and highly
sentimental lyrics. Today he looks back on the 20-year history of the Stanley
Brothers.

(Soundbite of music by the Stanley Brothers)

Unidentified STANLEY BROTHER #1: (Singing) Train 45 leaving Union Station,
Cincinnati, Ohio. All aboard for all points South.

(Soundbite of music by the Stanley Brothers)

ED WARD: A couple of years ago, a small record company asked Bob Dylan if
he'd like to contribute to a Ralph Stanley album. Dylan later said it was the
greatest honor he'd ever been given. Why? Listen to this.

(Soundbite of music by the Stanley Brothers)

STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing in unison) In constant sorrow all my days.

Unidentified STANLEY BROTHER #1: (Singing) All around the land constant
sorrow, but I've seen trouble all my days. I ...(unintelligible) Kentucky,
the state where I was born and raised.

Unidentified STANLEY BROTHER #2: (Singing) The state where...

STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing in unison) ...he was born and raised.

WARD: Ralph Stanley and his brother, Carter, were born in 1927 and 1925,
respectively, in Dickenson County, Virginia, where their mother played banjo
and their father sang ballads. In church, instruments were forbidden, so the
preacher would line out the hymns, singing a line for the congregation to
repeat. All of these influences joined together for the boys, and in their
early teens they formed a band with Carter on guitar and Ralph on banjo.

World War II put an end to that band, but, by 1946, they had a regular job on
the radio in Bristol, part of which is in Virginia, part in Tennessee. Within
weeks of taking it, they were receiving between 500 and 1,000 letters a day.
And, before long, a tiny record label, Rich-R-Tone, approached them with a
contract.

(Soundbite of music by the Stanley Brothers)

Unidentified STANLEY BROTHER #1: (Singing) Oh, run. Oh, mighty, run. Run.
Oh, mighty, run. Denbrith(ph) gonna meet you like a bright, shining sun, a
bright, shining sun. Oh, Lord, a bright, shining sun. Denbrith was a big bay
horse, low-down shaggy mane, he run all 'round Memphis, and he beat the
Memphis train; beat the Memphis train, oh, Lord. He beat the Memphis train.

WARD: The records were poorly recorded and the band's style hadn't gelled
yet, plus Rich-R-Tone's distribution only covered a small region but they sold
as many records as they could press. In 1948, they signed with Columbia,
which already had Bill Monroe on its roster. Monroe warned the label that if
the Stanleys came, he'd leave. And he was as good as his word. Columbia,
however, wasn't fazed. They thought they'd gotten the best of the bargain,
and the Stanleys obliged them by innovating. Ralph began playing banjo in the
new three-finger style Earl Scruggs had made popular. And their vocal
arrangements were unlike anyone else's.

(Soundbite of music by the Stanley Brothers)

Unidentified STANLEY BROTHER #1: (Singing) In the deep, rolling hills of old
Virginy(ph), there's a place I love so well, where I spend many days of my
childhood in the cabin where we loved to dwell.

STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing in unison) Why does ...(unintelligible) sorrow?
The willows will hang their heads. I'll live my life in sorrow since Mother
and Daddy are dead.

WARD: And while other bluegrass bands were mostly playing traditional
material, Carter Stanley proved himself the kind of songwriter who can make a
new song sound old. He could also write songs which made people want to
dance.

(Soundbite of music by the Stanley Brothers)

Unidentified STANLEY BROTHER #1: (Singing) I saw you last night in my dreams,
love. I woke as the clock was striking 4. But I didn't think that I'd meet
you. And, now, as you walk through the door.

STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing in unison) Come sit here with me, little darlin',
and allow me to say, `I love you, sweet Carla, I love you. Hey, hey, hey,
hey.'

WARD: For some reason, the boys quit the music business in 1951 for about a
year, returned to make a few more records for Columbia, and then signed with
Mercury, an up-and-coming independent label. Many bluegrass fans, and the
brothers themselves, consider this five-year period to have produced their
finest work.

(Soundbite of music by the Stanley Brothers)

STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing in unison) Oh, a long time ago when I left my old
home, I thought, li'l darlin', leave you behind. 'Cause time lingers on and I
can't go on alone, my darlin', somehow, you're still on my mind.

WARD: But there was a problem. As bluegrass was getting better, it was
selling less. As the country population gradually urbanized, bluegrass found
itself competing against honky-tonk songs and a newcomer called rock 'n' roll.
By 1958, the boys were off Mercury and recording for a tiny regional label
again. But they were saved when King Records in Cincinnati picked them up.
At King they modernized their repertoire, if not their style.

(Soundbite of music by the Stanley Brothers)

Unidentified STANLEY BROTHER #2: (Singing) I'm walkin' from one bar to
another. I don't know where I'm goin' or where I've been. No one I meet
realizes. I'm cryin' when I know I can't win.

WARD: Actually, that's not totally accurate. In a notorious incident, Sid
Nathan, owner of King, had them record a version of a rock 'n' roll hit he'd
recently had.

(Soundbite of music by the Stanley Brothers)

STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing in unison) Hey, now. Hey, now. Hey, now. Hey,
now. It's finger pop-poppin' time. Finger poppin' poppin' time. I feel so
good, and that's a real good sign.

WARD: They weren't Hank Ballard and The Midnighters, and "Finger Poppin'
Time" disappeared without a trace. So, almost, did the Stanleys. They
recorded infrequently, took whatever jobs they could find and, in December,
1965, Carter Stanley died, ending one of the greatest partnerships American
music has ever seen.

Ralph Stanley continues to tour to this day, and his son, Ralph II, has also
started recording. If, as they do in Japan, America awarded living treasure
status to its artists, Ralph Stanley would be a prime candidate. As it is,
we're reduced to seeking out their hard-to-find records. It's a quest worth
taking.

BOGAEV: Ed Ward is a writer based in Berlin.

(Soundbite of music by the Stanley Brothers)

Unidentified STANLEY BROTHER #1: My latest sun is sinking fast. My race is
nearly run. My strongest trials now are past. My triumph has begun.

STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing in unison) Oh, come, angel band. Come and around
me stand. Oh, bear me away on your snow-white wings to my immortal home. Oh,
bear me away...

BOGAEV: Coming up, actor David Paymer. He stars in the new film "State and
Main." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Interview: Actor David Paymer talks about his movie roles in "Quiz
Show" and "Mr. Saturday Night," as well as his acting career
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

In David Mamet's new comedy, "State and Main," David Paymer plays Marty
Rossen, an aggressive movie producer who is on location in a small Vermont
town. Among the things he has to contend with is a high-maintenance actress
played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who, all of a sudden, has second thoughts
about doing a nude scene.

(Soundbite of "State and Main")

Mr. DAVID PAYMER (Marty Rossen): Let me tell you something. Wally(ph), he's
a pussycat. My thing is to see everybody does what they said they would. And
I've got to do that. Now what is this? You want $800,000 to do what you're
being paid to; you already signed you'd do? What is that?

Ms. SARAH JESSICA PARKER: I think I should talk to my agent, Marty. You and
I should--we should really not...

Mr. PAYMER: Who is her agent?

Unidentified Man: Mitch Cohen(ph).

Mr. PAYMER: Get him on the phone.

Ms. PARKER: He's on the island. He'll be back on Tuesday.

Mr. PAYMER: Get him on the phone. I want you to hear this.

Unidentified Man: It's ringing.

Ms. PARKER: I really think that business matters should be discussed between
you two.

Mr. PAYMER: Well, I'm gonna discuss them between you, babe, because it's
your idea. And you think you're going to sign to do a job, then hold us up in
the wild. Sweetheart, you are in error.

Unidentified Man: He's on the phone.

Mr. PAYMER: Thank you.

Mitch, this is Marty Rossen. I'm here in...

Unidentified Man: Wedford(ph), Vermont.

Mr. PAYMER: I'm somewhere in the--I'm on location. Eh? Well, I'm going to
solve it here or this bimbo you sent me is going to be doing a donkey act on
public access television. We hired her 'cause her 10 years at the actors
studio; the way she played "Medea." Her last two pictures laid there on the
screen like my first wife.

Ms. PARKER: You have no right to...

Mr. PAYMER: Cool it, babe. You started this.

Unidentified Man: What's the...

Mr. PAYMER: Where have you been? You tell me. You tell me now. I gotta
shoot on Wednesday. I will not pay your blood money. And, PS, pal, I put the
word out on the street and Betty Boop can look for work in Squigglevision.

BOGAEV: Marty Rossen isn't the first show-biz type Paymer has played. He
played a TV producer in the film "Quiz Show," which is now out on video.
"Quiz Show" is about one of the biggest scandals in TV history; the revelation
in 1958 that the game show "Twenty-one" was rigged. Contestants were
sometimes provided with the questions before air time. Here's a scene from
"Quiz Show" in which Paymer, as producer Dan Enright, tells contestant Herb
Stempel, played by John Turturro, that it's time for him to throw the game.

(Soundbite of "Quiz Show")

Mr. PAYMER (Dan Enright): You lose when I tell you to lose.

Mr. JOHN TURTURRO (Herb Stempel): Why now?

Mr. PAYMER: It's an arrangement. It's always been an arrangement.

Mr. TURTURRO: If you told me to lose before; if you told me to lose right
from the beginning, that I'd understand. That'd be the story of my life. But
why now? What did I do?

Mr. PAYMER: Look at the big picture. It's not like television is going to
go away, you know. I mean, think about the future.

Mr. TURTURRO: You mean like a panel show?

Mr. PAYMER: Yeah. Check! Now the last category is movies. We're going to
ask you what won the Academy Award for best picture in 1955. You don't know
it. You answer "On the Waterfront."

Mr. TURTURRO: Oh, no. Oh, no. Don't do that. Not "Marty." I saw "Marty"
three times. The best picture from two years ago and I don't know it?

Mr. PAYMER: Someone of your intellect, and it's such a simple question.
Don't you see the drama of that?

Mr. TURTURRO: Drama?

Mr. PAYMER: Herb, don't do this to yourself.

Mr. TURTURRO: Please let me lose on a physics question, not "Marty," Dan.
Don't do this to me. It's too humiliating.

Mr. PAYMER: For 70 grand, Herb, you can afford to be humiliated.

BOGAEV: Terry Gross spoke with David Paymer in 1995 when "Quiz Show" was
released. Although game show producer Dan Enright sounds like the villain of
the story, actor David Paymer told Terry he didn't play it that way.

(Soundbite of 1995 FRESH AIR interview)

Mr. PAYMER: You know, Dan Enright--what he was really concerned about was
ratings and putting on a dramatic show. And I even watched interviews with
him in his later years. And all he would talk about was drama. We wanted
drama. And he was really following a long tradition of rigging, or the
euphemism, I suppose, was `controlling' these quiz shows that dated back to
the '40s in radio. And, you know, Dan Enright was trying to create a dramatic
show. And, in a way, he thought that he was educating the country. And I
sort of took that tack, as an actor; that my character felt he was doing a
good thing for the country; that he was sort of opening up education and
knowledge and intellect for the schoolchildren of America. So I really--I
played him as a college dean...

TERRY GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PAYMER: ...not as the bad guy.

GROSS: Did you ever watch any of the game shows that Dan Enright produced?

Mr. PAYMER: Yeah. Robert Redford gave us these kinescopes of the original
shows of "Twenty-one," a lot of the shows that are depicted in the film. And
it's quite fascinating to watch these contestants, in retrospect. Some of
them were very good actors, actually. But then, again, some of them--when you
watch it now, it's almost laughable, and you wonder, you know, why didn't the
American public realize they were being duped because--Oh, they'd ask
questions, like, `What was the name of Paul Revere's horse?' And then these
contestants would be, like, `Uh, uh, let me think. Uh.' I mean, a question
like that, usually, either you know it or you don't. And they're taking all
this time and really being dramatic, like Enright told them to. And some of
it looks quite fake.

GROSS: Of course, so much on TV from that period looks fake to us now.

Mr. PAYMER: Well, that's true, I guess. And I suppose--well, it's a
testament to the power of the medium, of that very new medium at the time;
that when people saw it coming over the airwaves, they just believed it, you
know.

GROSS: Though, I have to say, you know, like, "Wheel of Fortune" isn't
exactly verite. You know, I mean, quiz shows have never looked exactly real.

Mr. PAYMER: Right. Right. But I guess it's really the line that Scorsese
says in the movie, when he says--Scorsese, playing one of the sponsors, says,
`Well, the quiz shows will be back. They're just going to have to ask easier
questions because the American people--really, they don't care about the
questions or the answers. They're just following the money.' And...

GROSS: Well...

Mr. PAYMER: "Jeopardy!" is sometimes difficult, though, isn't it?

GROSS: Yeah, right. It--well, it is.

Mr. PAYMER: At least if you play Double Jeopardy!.

GROSS: Now what did you do to get the look of the era?

Mr. PAYMER: Yeah, and what a look. Talk about unflattering.

GROSS: You didn't like those glasses?

Mr. PAYMER: Someone said to me after seeing me, `Gee, Dave, you have
absolutely no ego at all. It's so great.' I mean, you know, what does that
mean? Well, I know what it means. Well, you know, Dan Enright didn't have
the greatest hair style in the world. And, actually, Redford just
designed--wasn't designed. Suggested a hairpiece for me, which is really not
flattering at all because it's sort of that bacon strips, you know,
combed--you know, brought over from the side, and it looks terrible. And then
these dark glasses, sort of like the Steve Allen glasses of the '50s, but
really thick, which is what Enright wore back then, too. So I was looking at
a lot of pictures of Enright and, you know, it's not really my--it's not
really my choice of a way to look, but it's--I think it worked for the role.

GROSS: What was it like to work with Robert Redford as your director? Do you
think he has any insights by virtue of having worked as an actor for so many
years?

Mr. PAYMER: Oh, absolutely. You know, Redford is absolutely an actor's
director. And, by that, I mean, he knows how to speak with actors. He knows
how to talk with them. He knows how to communicate what it is he needs in a
scene. I'd like to say that Redford knows the actors' secret handshake. He
can just say a word or two and make you understand what he's talking about.

GROSS: Well, what's one of those words he said to you that helped?

Mr. PAYMER: Well, for me it was `economy.' I'm sort of a--I can be sort of
like a nervous guy, a little neurotic, a good deal of anxiety here, sometimes.
And when I started rehearsing Enright, I was sort of moving my hands a lot
while I was talking and trying to convince Van Doren, for instance, to go on
the show--the rigged show. And Redford said to me, `You know, there's an
authority thing, Dave. And it's just economy.' It's just not moving around
so much in your seat; not using the hands so much. And if you watch my
performance, it's--there's a stillness to it that is not--that is very
different from a lot of the other roles I've played.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PAYMER: And in that stillness comes authority. And it really worked for
me. I mean, it's amazing. It's hard to just sit still because you've got all
this nervous energy as an actor. But Redford showed me a way to kind of rein
that in. And it worked very well for the character.

GROSS: Actor David Paymer is my guest.

The character you played on "Mr. Saturday Night," it seems like the opposite
side of the coin from the character that you play in "Quiz Show." You look
similar, in terms of, like, the eyeglasses and everything in both roles. It's
the same period. But in "Mr. Saturday Night," you're always getting taken
advantage of. And in "Quiz Show," you're the one taking advantage of others.

Mr. PAYMER: Right. Isn't that beautiful?

GROSS: You know, what goes around, comes around.

Mr. PAYMER: Yeah. I love when that happens. That's one of the reasons that
I was so attracted to the role of Dan Enright because it was so different.
And I think after "Mr. Saturday Night," maybe people were thinking, `Gee,
that--you know, that David Paymer. He's such a mensch, you know. He's such a
nice guy, you know. And I have read for some, quote, "bad guys" in the past

two years. And I haven't got the parts. So I hope that people are seeing the
dark side of David Paymer, you know. Maybe this'll open up a new range for
me.

GROSS: Well, you've told us a little bit about how you carried yourself, that
whole economy of motion in a power role. In "Mr. Saturday Night," when
you're somebody who's being taken advantage of by your brother, how do you
carry yourself differently? How do you use your voice differently?

Mr. PAYMER: Well, a lot of "Mr. Saturday Night" was listening because, I
mean, I learned early on when Billy and I were doing some improvs and stuff in
rehearsal that it's pretty hard to top Billy when you're improv-ing, you know.
And I felt a little inadequate in trying to come up with jokes that were as
funny as Billy's. And I said that to Billy early on. And he said to me,
`That's perfect.' And I said, `Why?' He said, `That's how Stan feels, you
know.' He--Stan always wants to be as funny as Buddy and he wants to be in
front of the audience, but he doesn't quite have it. So I used that reality,
in terms of how I felt, not being a stand-up comic, trying to sort of, you
know, verbally spar with Billy. And also--I don't know. I just had a--there
was a lot of emotional stuff from my childhood and from my own relationship
with my brother that I used in "Mr. Saturday Night" as well.

GROSS: Well, you and your brother used to do a comedy act together.

Mr. PAYMER: Yes, we did. We did.

GROSS: What kind of act was it?

Mr. PAYMER: Not very good.

GROSS: What else was it like?

Mr. PAYMER: Well, it was actually when we first moved to LA. I'm very close
with my brother, Steve. He's a comedy writer. And we used to--he played Merv
Griffin and I would be Sylvester Stallone, and I would be Nicholson. And we'd
do all these impressions. And, you know, we soon found that it wasn't really
for us. I mean, being a comedian is kind of like being a salesman. And I
don't think I would be a very good salesman, you know, talking people into
buying things that they don't really want. I'm not very good at that. And
comedians, like, well, you know, `I've got these jokes. Do you want to buy
them? Do you like them? You don't like them. You're not buying them.' And
it felt like that a lot, so I sort of stuck with acting and my brother went
into writing. I've done some writing as well, but, more recently, it's been
mostly acting for me.

GROSS: Is your father in show business?

Mr. PAYMER: Well, he is, actually. He's a musician. And he also has a
doctor of musicology. He went back to school later in life and--but he's a
very talented pianist and a composer. And, you know, when my brother and I
were kids, my parents used to put on shows that they wrote and directed and
produced on Long Island--community shows. And I'm from Oceanside, Long
Island, and my folks wrote a show called "Oceanside, USA." And they did it to
raise money for the public library and stuff like that. And I can remember
when I was five or six years old sitting in the front row and seeing my dad,
like, conducting this little orchestra he put together and my mom on stage
acting. And so, gee, I guess it was in the blood, you know.

BOGAEV: Actor David Paymer. We'll continue our interview after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: We're featuring a 1995 interview with actor David Paymer. He stars
in the new movie from David Mamet, "State and Main."

(Soundbite of 1995 FRESH AIR interview)

GROSS: You started off in musicals, didn't you, as an actor? I know you were
in "Grease." I know that was one of your early big breaks.

Mr. PAYMER: Yeah. That was really my first break, the show "Grease." And I
did--you know, I did all the musical comedies back in high school. That was
the big thing. I suppose it still is in most high schools.

GROSS: So did you like "Grease"?

Mr. PAYMER: It was a great experience. It's--you know, it's a fun show.
And I was 21 years old.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PAYMER: And I was just out of college. And I walked into an open call
and I got the part. And I did the national touring company. And then they
sent me to Broadway within a year. And it was, like--it was a dream come
true. I mean, that--to this day, that's the most important job I ever got in
show business because I wasn't the type of person or actor who would have
stuck it out for, like, 10 years or 12 years waiting tables. I don't think I
have the constitution for that. And I was very lucky to have a measure of
success at such a young age.

GROSS: Well, you know, between "Grease," "Mr. Saturday Night," and "Quiz
Show," a lot of your roles have been in the 1950s.

Mr. PAYMER: I know. I know. It's weird. I mean, you know, I was reading
some of the notices on "Quiz Show." And one of them said, you know, `And
David Paymer, who has, you know, this quintessential 1950s face,' or
something.

GROSS: Now what does that mean?

Mr. PAYMER: I have no idea. You know, I don't know. I mean, I guess I'm
glad because it's work out.

GROSS: Have you gone back and looked at family photos from the '50s to see
what your family looked like back in the period that you've been playing?

Mr. PAYMER: Well, yeah, you know, especially my dad because he--you know,
just the hair and that whole look. It just--I don't know. I seems like
almost artificial now. But it's--you know, it's--that's the way people were.
Also, for Enright, there was sort of a--actually, I gained a little weight for
Enright because there was sort of a softness to these guys. You know, these
guys weren't working out. They were smoking and drinking, and I don't think
they took very good care of themselves. And you can look back at the '50s and
these guys who are relatively young really look kind of puffy. So I was going
for that at the time.

GROSS: I have, in my mind, cast you in two different roles in movie
biographies.

Mr. PAYMER: Oh, good.

GROSS: One is a bio pic of "George C. Scott: The Early Years."

Mr. PAYMER: Thank you.

GROSS: And the other is "George Mitchell: The Early Years." I don't know
what--it--now this is...

Mr. PAYMER: Can I play him when he's baseball commissioner?

GROSS: Right. But this is in your 1950s guise with those glasses.

Mr. PAYMER: Yeah, right.

GROSS: Right? I mean, not you as yourself. Actually, I've never seen you as
yourself where...

Mr. PAYMER: Oh, that's a problem.

GROSS: You are in New York and I'm in Philadelphia.

Mr. PAYMER: I know. I know.

GROSS: So I have no idea what you look like out of character.

Mr. PAYMER: I look much better than I do on--I'm telling you. I have no ego
whatsoever in my film roles. And I don't wear glasses. This is what's
killing me.

GROSS: Not at all? Not even contact lenses?

Mr. PAYMER: I mean, killing me. No, I don't wear glasses, and yet in many of
my screen roles I wear glasses. I don't know. I'm gonna have to stop doing
that.

GROSS: Well, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. I thank you a lot.

Mr. PAYMER: Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

BOGAEV: David Paymer stars in the new David Mamet film comedy "State and
Main."

(Credits)

BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

(Soundbite of music)
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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